Just Middle School in Mitchellville dedicates statue of namesake

By Liz Skalski
The Gazette
Thursday, September 2, 2010; PG18

Kathryn Just dabbed tears from her eyes Aug. 20 as a statue honoring her grandfather -- biologist and educator Ernest Everett Just -- was unveiled at the Mitchellville middle school that bears his name.

"This is important for the children," said Kathryn Just, 62, of Northwest Washington. "For some, it will open a discussion of why it is there. There are many lessons that can come from that statue outside."

The seven-foot-tall bronze statue of Just holding an open book is mounted on a nearly four-foot-tall brick platform near the school's main entrance. The statue, which was dedicated at Ernest Everett Just Middle School one week after the anniversary of its namesake's birth, had been in the making more than six years.

The statue cost about $90,000 and was paid for by state funds, said Wesley Jarmon, president of the Ernest Everett Just Foundation, a Largo-based nonprofit organization that works to promote Just's legacy and interest students in science, technology, engineering and math.

Just, an African American biologist who was influential in the field of cell biology, died in 1941 at age 58. He is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland. He also founded the historically black Omega Psi Phi Fraternity in 1911 at Howard University in the District. Nearly 30 fraternity members attended the ceremony.

The Ernest Everett Just Foundation, which was founded in 2002, petitioned the Prince George's County Board of Education to name the school after Just and petitioned the state to fund the statue.

About six years ago, the foundation approached state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Dist. 25) of District Heights for assistance in obtaining state funding for the statue, said Currie, who led the effort to secure $150,000 in state money for the statue. The remaining $60,000 went back to the state.

"I got the statue here so we could bring busloads of kids here to tell his story," Currie said.

Sculptor Antonio Tobias Mendez, 46, of Frederick, said foundation officials contacted him more than six years ago about possibly creating a statue of Just. In 2006 Mendez made a computer rendering, which was also done partly by hand, of the piece.

From November until June, Mendez worked on a clay sculpture of Just, which was then cast in bronze.

"It's a very unique project, in that, regardless of the subject, I can't think of another public school that has a monument in front of it for their namesake," Mendez said. "I think it's important that anyone who visits the school learn about Ernest Just."

The statue depicts Just holding a book because Just also was an educator, Mendez said. He taught English and biology from 1910 to 1941 at Howard University.

The statue, which weighs about 800 pounds, sits on the brick pedestal to reflect the architecture of the school and to be in proportion with its surroundings, Mendez said.

Keynote speaker Titus Reaves, an assistant professor of regenerative medicine and cell biology at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, S.C., spoke about Just's life to the more than 100 people who attended the unveiling ceremony. Just was born in Charleston.

Just "was a really great man who was before his time," Reaves said.

The Medical University of South Carolina hosts an annual Ernest Everett Just symposium to encourage black students to pursue a career in science.

The middle school's principal, Carlton Carter, said that he anticipated students would find the statue inspiring, adding that he would like the school to partner with the university to better understand Just and pursue student scholarships.

"The statue will be a constant reminder of his legacy," Carter said. "It's a living, visual stimulation and a reminder to the students that nothing is impossible. I'm extremely pleased to have it for the kids. It's all about sight."

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