Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) launched an effort Friday to erect a civil rights memorial on the grounds of the State Capitol, a project pushed by his wife, Lisa Collis, for more than three years.
The goal, Collis said after her husband signed Executive Order 96, is to create a statue honoring the leaders of Virginia's civil rights movement. The statue would be placed among other monuments on the green space around the Capitol in time for the state's 400th anniversary in 2007.
"Walking around the statues with my then-7-year-old, I realized an important part of Virginia history isn't represented on the Capitol grounds," Collis said.
The executive order Warner signed creates a Civil Rights Memorial Commission to direct the project, in accordance with a legislative resolution passed in February.
The resolution noted that the segregationist doctrine of "separate but equal" dominated Virginia for a half-century but that many landmark efforts to secure racial equality originated in the state.
As its first order of business, the commission agreed to ask three national sculptors to submit preliminary sketches for a memorial by the end of September. Members were told a sculptor might be able to finish a memorial in time to coincide with the reopening of a renovated Capitol building in 2007.
No specific design has been picked, but commission members said they want to see figures who represent the struggle for civil rights and the opposition to segregation. The memorial could cost as much as $1 million, all of which will come from private funding, Warner said.
"When the Capitol is reopened and Virginia rolls out the red carpet to the world, it would be nice for people visiting . . . to see that very important part of Virginia history," Warner said.
Warner and other commission members said they hope to avoid the controversies that have surrounded the construction of other statues in Richmond, former capital of the Confederacy.
Significant opposition arose to the construction of a statue honoring tennis legend and Richmond native Arthur Ashe on Monument Avenue, which is lined with the statues of Confederate heroes. Opponents said the statue did not belong on the historic boulevard, while proponents decried what they called a racist double standard, because Ashe was black.
And in 2003, some Richmond residents objected to putting a statue of Abraham Lincoln in a federal park because they view Lincoln as the destroyer of the city during the Civil War siege.
Collis said she has received no hint of opposition to her idea for Capitol Square.
"Maybe I'm being naive, but I would hope that part of our history is long over," she said.
The bipartisan commission includes House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). Howell, who got caught in Interstate 95 traffic and missed the meeting, said later that he fully supports the idea.
"It's an important moment in Virginia history, and I don't have anything against memorializing it," he said.
But Howell said he believes the memorial needs to fit in with the other statues on the Capitol grounds.
The largest monument is an 1858 statue of George Washington on horseback; others depict former Virginia governor and U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd Sr.; William "Extra Billy" Smith, governor of Virginia and Confederate brigadier general; and Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson.
"My only concern is I want something that will go with the Capitol grounds," Howell said. "I wouldn't want to see one of these modern things."