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Barbara Rose Johns statue design unveiled

Tentative design of Barbara Rose Johns statue: Standing next to a lectern, arm raised and book in hand mid-protest.
This tentative mockup of the forthcoming Barbara Rose Johns statue has many artistic details to be worked out. (Photo: Scott Elmquist/VPM News)

A Maryland artist will create the statue of Virginia civil rights activist Barbara Rose Johns that will reside in the U.S. Capitol. At 16, Johns called for a strike at her Farmville high school to  protest segregated education. Her and fellow students’ lawsuit against the school later became part of the Brown v. Board of Education case.

Three of Johns’s siblings were on hand Wednesday to meet Maryland sculptor Steven Weitzman, see his initial design and ensure their sister’s likeness is correctly captured.

The initial design shows Barbara Rose Johns coming around a lectern on a school stage with a book raised high over her head. It represents a 1951 speech she gave to classmates calling for a  schoolwide strike protesting the substandard education Black students received in segregated schools. Underneath the floorboards, Johns is standing on stacks of books by Black authors of the time.

Robert Johns was born almost a month after his sister Barbara spoke to an auditorium full of students and called out the inequities of segregated education. But growing up, he remembers his sister and her likeness.

He said even though prior tributes to his sister — including one statue in Richmond's Capitol Square — were well done, they weren’t as accurate as his family would’ve liked.

“When the statue was unveiled [at the Virginia State Capitol], what we saw was a statue of a likeness of Barbara,” said Johns. “At the time, it was a little puzzling to us because I didn't realize it was a likeness. The sculpture took a few creative liberties with her nose, I don't know why. But they made it wider than Barbara’s nose.”

Johns also referenced a portrait of his sister that he said looked more like the model posing than his sister.

“What my family would like to see is that we have approval, we participate in the final approval process for this statue, because we really want it to look like Barbara," he said.

Weitzman was unanimously selected by the Commission for Historical Statues in the United States Capitol, an eight-member panel that includes state Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), Del. Jeion Ward (D-Hampton) and University of Richmond history professor Ed Ayers.

“It's a mix of emotions. I feel energized, I feel excited,” said Lucas. “I feel tearful because it's been such a long time coming.”

Weitzman’s prior work includes a bronze sculpture of abolitionist Frederick Douglass that was permanently installed in the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall.

He said he absolutely wants to work with the Johns family.

“You will be making sure that she will look exactly like what you remember her looking like,” Weitzman said.

Commission officials, the Johns family and the Weitzman said many artistic details need to be finalized, including what book title — if any — will be depicted on the volume in Johns’ raised hand; the width of the lectern; and Johns’ facial structure.

Weitzman said the statue, which will be on a granite base, will reach up to about 11 feet when completed.

Once that happens, Weitzman said it should only take about nine months before the statue can be placed in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall Collection next to another Virginian — President George Washington. But that won’t happen until sometime in 2024.

The bronze sculpture will go into the space formerly inhabited by a statue of Robert E. Lee, which was removed in 2020.

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.