How’s this for an odd sight? A General Assembly committee controlled by Democrats — not just Democrats but the top Democrats — voted down a proposal to erect a statue to the most famous African American from Virginia.
Framed even more harshly, you could say the House Rules Committee voted to preserve the Old House Chamber — one possible site for the proposed Booker T. Washington statue — as an all-white preserve dominated by figures from the Confederacy.
Now, all that’s true but missing a lot of clarifying context. When the House Rules Committee voted down a bill by state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County to add a statue of Washington, committee members said they were doing so not because they were opposed to the statue, but because they felt there needed to be a larger discussion about who to honor and how. They pointed out that they also had voted down a proposal by a Democratic legislator to add a bust of the late civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill to the collection of statuary.
“It is appropriate to honor [Washington], I just don’t know if this is the process we should be selecting at this time,” said Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond. “We should be a lot more in-depth, intentional or deliberative.”
Those seem legitimate questions: Rather than approve statues one-by-one (which is how all the others at the state Capitol were done), perhaps there should be a more formal process. Still, this feels like an unsatisfying resolution.
Hill is already depicted at the state Capitol as part of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial — one side shows Barbara Johns leading students in the famous student walkout from R.R. Moton High School in Prince Edward County in 1951. On another side are full-sized statues of the two lawyers who took their case to the Supreme Court, where it became part of Brown v. Board of Education — Hill and his partner Spottswood Robinson. So you could argue that a bust of Hill would be duplicative.
However, is there any process that would conclude that Washington isn’t worthy of being honored? It’s hard to imagine one. Washington — who was born in Franklin County and educated at what is now Hampton University — was the most prominent African American of his day. There may be good aesthetic and practical questions about where any representations of him should go, but it’s hard to imagine any objections to the fundamental question of whether he should be honored at the state Capitol. (Suetterlein’s resolution to create a Washington statue passed the state Senate 40-0 before suddenly getting stopped in the House Rules Committee). You could easily argue that Virginia ought to proceed with honoring Washington and still set up a process for deciding who else should be deemed worthy of inclusion.
Perhaps that’s the real reason the unexpected death of Suetterlein’s statue resolution feels so perplexing: The Democrats who killed it, citing the lack of a formal process, made no effort to set up such a process. They could have easily done so. They didn’t. They could have amended Suetterlein’s resolution to create any kind of process they deemed appropriate. They didn’t. A cynical assessment would say that Democrats killed Suetterlein’s measure simply because it was proposed by a Republican. Now, this is hardly the most important thing to happen in the recent General Assembly session. Still, with all the attention given to whether certain statues should come down, it’s curious that there wasn’t much interest in what statues should go up. Not surprisingly, the statues and busts at the State Capitol — some outside, others inside — are dominated by figures from the state’s Revolutionary War and Civil War history. Until the recent addition of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, there were no African Americans honored in the capitol’s statuary. It was also the first statue to depict a woman until the Virginia’s Women’s Monument came along last year. However, are we to believe that these two monuments are the only ones we need to fully honor Virginians of our past? The glaring absence of a Booker T. Washington statue — who, by the way, is honored in stone at the state capitol in West Virginia, where he grew up after leaving Franklin County — suggests otherwise.
So who else are we missing? Rather than make a list of people, let’s look at categories. The current collection is long on politicians and generals of course. The addition of the Virginia Women’s Monument adds diversity not only by gender (and race) but also by field of accomplishment. However, here are some of the categories that are still lightly represented:
The arts: Adèle Clark, featured in the Virginia Women’s Monument, is officially described as “an accomplished artist” but she’s best known for her work as a suffragist. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley is also listed as an author, but she was better known as a seamstress, first as the personal dressmaker for Mary Todd Lincoln and later for teaching sewing at Wilberforce University in Ohio. Her book — “Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House” — sold few copies. The only statue to someone who was primarily engaged in the arts is the one of Edgar Allen Poe. Who are we missing? We said we weren’t going to list names but merely by way of example, we can think of several musicians worthy of recognition: Ralph Stanley, born in Dickenson County, popularized an entire genre of music. Patsy Cline, born in Winchester, remains a country music icon. Ella Fitzgerald, born in Newport News, was as big as big can be.
The sciences: The medical field has two representatives: Hospital administrator Sally Tompkins and Hunter McGuire, who was president of the American Medical and American Surgical Associations and founded what is now the Medical College of Virginia. Scientists tend not to be celebrities, but at least one Virginian became one late in life. Katherine Johnson, depicted in the book and movie “Hidden Figures” for her work as a NASA mathematician, did all her work in Virginia. Who else is worthy?
Inventors: Cyrus McCormick is there for the mechanical harvesting reaper, but surely there are others, right?
Explorers: We have a bust for Matthew Fontaine Maury, the famous “pathfinder of the seas,” but that’s it. No Meriwether Lewis or William Clark. We have at least 10 astronauts from Virginia. One of them — David Brown of Arlington — died on the Columbia in 2003.
So we ask again: Why don’t we have a process to figure out who else should be honored?