Paying Homage to Desegregation's Pioneers

Monument Honoring 18 Unveiled Outside Capitol

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 22, 2008; Page B02

RICHMOND, July 21 -- In 1989, Virginia became the first state to elect a black governor. Last year, the General Assembly passed a resolution apologizing for the state's role in the slave trade.

And on Monday, Virginia took another step toward acknowledging its complicated past as a state that openly fought desegregation.

State leaders unveiled a monument outside the Capitol that commemorates the late Barbara Johns and others who were at the forefront of the movement to end school segregation in the 1950s. Johns was a 16-year-old Prince Edward County student at the time.

"Let me ask you this question: How do you like the new Virginia?" Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) asked to thunderous applause minutes before the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial was revealed. "Because this is the new Virginia."

Thousands of people, including NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, actor Blair Underwood and poet Nikki Giovanni, withstood the 90-plus-degree heat to hear speeches that honored the past, celebrated the future and continued Virginia's healing process. Some cheered when the gray drape was pulled away from the monument. Others wiped tears.

"Today's unveiling and dedication of this inspiring memorial is another milestone in our commonwealth's long and winding path to a more free and just society," House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said. "It is my hope that [the] Virginia Civil Rights Memorial will always remind us that bigotry and prejudice have no place in American life."

Until Monday, Capitol Square in downtown Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, had included statues only of white men, most from the Colonial and Civil War eras.

Lisa Collis, wife of former governor Mark R. Warner (D), came up with the idea for a monument while her husband was in office after their young daughter Eliza asked why only white men were commemorated on the grounds. One of Warner's predecessors, L. Douglas Wilder, was the nation's first elected black governor and is now mayor of Richmond.

The monument, more than three years in the making, was funded with $2.5 million in private donations. Its nationally known sculptor, Stanley Bleifeld, attended the ceremony and autographed copies of the event program.

The four-sided bronze-granite monument depicts 18 people, including Johns -- who led a 1951 student walkout from the all-black R.R. Moton High School in Farmville -- her classmates, their parents, community leaders and civil rights lawyers.

Their subsequent lawsuit was combined with four other cases in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case, which produced the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that led to the end of legal school segregation.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company