When young people visit the U.S. Capitol, they mostly see statues of white men, according to Maryland-based artist Steven Weitzman.
In January, Weitzman was selected to create a bronze statue of Virginia civil rights activist Barbara Rose Johns. Upon completion, the statue will be placed in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
Each state contributes two statues to the National Statuary Hall. The Johns statue will join a sculpture of George Washington as the second part of Virginia’s contribution to the collection. Weitzman’s work is replacing a sculpture of Robert E. Lee that was removed in 2020.
“The Capitol is the proper place for this statue,” Weitzman said. “When young people visit in the future, they’ll see a child who looks similar to them and see that this person changed things profoundly. How could you not look up to that?”
Johns led an extraordinary act of nonviolent civil disobedience that helped ignite the American civil rights movement, he said. “As was the case for numerous Black youths of the Jim Crow era, this brave young woman has not been celebrated in the great halls of America until now,” he said.
The Johns statue will depict the civil rights activist at age 16, when she led a student strike for equal education at Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville in 1951.
Johns joins 11 other women who have been honored with statues in the collection. But there is only one other state-commissioned statue of an African American person featured in National Statuary Hall; a likeness of Mary McLeod Bethune was added to the collection in 2022.
Weitzman was selected for the work in January by the Commission for Historical Statues in the U.S. Capitol.
State Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, who chaired the commission, said in a news release at the time that Weitzman was the group’s unanimous choice.
“His obvious passion for this project and his articulation of Barbara John’s legacy evoked an emotional response from the commission. After his moving presentation, the decision to offer this commission to Weitzman was quickly and easily reached,” Lucas said.
Weitzman’s art portfolio prominently features sculptures of African Americans, indigenous people and other people of color. His studio work highlights working class Americans, volunteers and multiracial collaborations in a variety of mediums including cast stone, glass, bronze and concrete.
Two other prominent Weitzman sculptures already stand in Washington. The first, a statue of Frederick Douglass, is in the U.S. Capitol’s Emancipation Hall. The second, a statue of former Washington Mayor Marion Barry Jr., stands along Pennsylvania Avenue.
When selecting projects, Weitzman said he asks himself two things: What story will the art tell, and how will it tell it?
“A piece of art communicates more if it looks like it is in motion,” he said. The impression of movement helps Weitzman convey a powerful story. The artist captures his subjects in what he calls a finite moment, frozen in time.
As with his other sculptures, Weitzman plans to capture a sense of movement in the Johns statue. She will appear as if she is moving forward slightly, caught in her initial moment of activism — the moment that sparked the Moton students’ strike.
Creating the Johns statue consists of numerous steps, which will be completed by Weitzman and his team of eight employees. The process will culminate in pouring molten bronze into a prepared form, cleaning the finished sculpture and then polishing it to the desired patina.
The statue will take about nine months to complete, though it is difficult to pinpoint an exact completion date due to supply chain concerns, according to the artist.
Weitzman said he is in the early stages of this process. He will consult with Johns’ remaining family members in the coming weeks to ensure that he creates an accurate representation of her likeness. This will be difficult, Weitzman says, because there are only two to three remaining pictures of Johns as a child.
“Someone didn’t like what she had done and burned [her family’s] house down. They lost everything,” Weitzman explained.
“I’ll draw a portrait of [Johns] first,” Weitzman said. “Her family will guide what I do.” As the artist, Weitzman sees himself as merely a tool, drawing Johns as her family remembers her. “[Her family] will talk me through the process.”
From the side of the sculpture, viewers will notice forms of books written by African American authors from before and during the civil rights era. “[Johns and her fellow students] may or may not have been allowed to read those books, but their placement just under the stage shows that books can be found if you are looking for them,” he said.
Johns will also hold a book in her uplifted hand.
Once the final design has been approved by the commission, it will be submitted to the Architect of the Capitol and the Joint Committee on Libraries for approval.
Virginia further honored Johns’ contributions by installing a new portrait and art exhibit in the attorney general’s office in Richmond. The exhibit, which was unveiled last month, also recognizes Johns’ fellow Moton High School students, who joined her in the strike more than 70 years ago.
Johns’ actions and the resulting court case became one of five cases tried under Brown v. Board of Education, which declared segregation unconstitutional in 1954. When faced with an order to integrate schools in 1959, officials in Farmville and the surrounding Prince Edward County instead chose to close its public schools entirely. Farmville schools would not reopen and become integrated until 1964.
Weitzman emphasized that Johns was one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement. “Martin Luther King Jr. was in [graduate school] at that time,” Weitzman said. “Imagine [Johns] leading the strike without having an example of what she was about to do. Historically, she didn’t have many predecessors.”
Johns died in 1991, at age 56.