The Virginia General Assembly’s Martin Luther King Memorial Commission is in the final stages of selecting the eight African-American historical figures who will be featured on a Monument Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
On August 17, the commission held the fourth of its five state-wide public hearings at Norfolk State University to get comments about a list of 30 historic figures, from which the final eight will be chosen.
A working group, composed of lawmakers, educators, historians, community leaders, and led by the Commission’s Chair, will select the final eight names in September.
The names, images and stories of the those chosen as real-life figures will adorn the base of a 12-foot monument to be located on Brown Island in Richmond.
It is expected to be in place by the fall of 2019 when Virginia will mark the 400th anniversary of four seminal events at Jamestown, including the arrival of the first Africans at Hampton, Virginia.
Virginia State Senator Jennifer McClellan of Richmond, who is the Chairman of the MLK Commission, said 95 nominations were received from September of 2016 until March of 2017.
To get the list down to 30, McClellan said the commission excluded nominees who were already recognized with a monument, such as businesswoman Maggie L. Walker and civil rights attorney Oliver W. Hill.
The finalists were placed in two categories: pre-Emancipation period and the period from 1866 to 1970.
“Then we really tried to have a good mix of men and women, geographic diversity and professional diversity,” McClellan said.
During the public hearing, only four people made statements. One was asking for inclusion of a new nominee, and three were in support of figures among the 30 nominees.
A plea for the inclusion of P.B. Young, Sr., the founding publisher of the New Journal and Guide newspaper, was introduced by its Chief Reporter, Leonard E. Colvin.
The chairman apologized for the oversight of the commission staff in informing the newspaper of the call for nominations that opened in September 2016 and closed in March 2017.
Most of the individuals from the Hampton Roads or Tidewater area who were listed were nominated by commission staff members or the Library of Virginia.
The statement supporting Young’s inclusion read: “He used his publication and his dedication to the uplifting of African-Americans to champion racial equality, the right to adequate education, jobs and municipal services. He was an advisor to the President and other political leaders.
“His advocacy for housing, starting in the late 1930s, eventually led to demolitions of shanties where Black people lived in downtown Norfolk and the creation of one of the first public housing communities in the nation, Young Terrace. That public community and the school which serves it, are named in his honor.”
“Until his death in 1962, every program, project or plan for progress for Black people had his visionary fingerprints on it locally or nationally.
“But his legacy is emboldened by the ‘New’ Journal and Guide, still operating 117 years after he founded it. It is the oldest Black weekly in the state, and the senior Black-owned firm in the city of Norfolk.”
Arthur C. Carter, of the North Hampton County on the Eastern Shore, spoke in support of his grandfather, Peter Jacob Carter, who is listed among the 30 semi-final nominees.
Carter is just one generation from his famous grandfather, who escaped from a slave plantation in Northampton County in 1863 and joined the Union Army’s 10 Regiment of Colored Troops where he fought valiantly at the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg in 1864.
After the war he was elected to the House of Delegates from 1871 to 1879, but was gerrymandered out of office when Jim Crow was imposed.
He was one of the most powerful Black men in Virginia when, after attending a political convention in Norfolk, he died after a ferry ride back home, his grandson said, of poisoning.
Speaking in support of another nominee on the final 30 was Joann Lucas, the daughter of Rev. Dr. Curtis W. Harris of Hopewell. Harris founded the Virginia SCLC and served as its president for a number of years. He also was the first Black Mayor of Hopewell.
Local SCLC Vice-President Andrew Shannon added that Harris, a confidante of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., also was his bodyguard, fearful of attacks against the civil rights leader.
NSU Professor Dr. Cassandra Newby Alexander voiced her support for Norfolk activist Evelyn Butts, another on the list. Butts was active in voting rights and lent her name to the suit which killed the poll tax.
Dr. Newby Alexander also mentioned Dorothy Height, who is on the list. Height was the long-time fourth Executive Director of the National Council of Negro Women.
Senator McClellan said after the final eight historic figures are chosen, the commission will seek ways to include people who did not make the final cut. This could include encryptions on the base of the monument of those names not chosen.
McClellan said the commission will be observing the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King next year.
She said the commission will be staging events during the course of next year at locales where Dr. King visited during his work with the SCLC.
She said that the Commission will be networking with people who worked with the civil rights leader to help in planning for events at the respective locales such as Hampton Roads.
The list of the 95 historic figures can be found at http://mlkcommission.dls.virginia.gov/meetings/2017/Quick%20Reference.pdf
The current list of the finalists is at: http://mlkcommission.dls.virginia.gov/lincoln/monument.html
By Leonard E. Colvin