Video and featured image courtesy of Rick Journey.
The sculptor fashioning a memorial to the four girls killed in Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing expects the bronze monument to be in place in time for the 50th anniversary of the tragedy.
Birmingham-born Elizabeth MacQueen let out a long “Hooray” via email late last week after she and one of her assistants, Ecuadorian sculptor Galo Paz, finished the final touches on a clay model of one of the slain girls, Addie Mae Collins. The monument will consist primarily of life-size statues of Collins and the three other girls – Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley – on or around a bench.
If all goes as planned, by the anniversary of the bombing, September 15, it will stand on a corner stretch of sidewalk alongside Kelly Ingram Park, across from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and diagonally across from the Sixteenth Street church.
“The real creativity is finished,” MacQueen said from Berkeley, California, where she and her team have been working on the memorial for much of this year. In a matter of weeks, all of the components for the piece should be cast in bronze and welded together.
“By the first of August, Carole and Cynthia will be in bronze with a rich patina,” MacQueen said. “Denise will be completely welded together in bronze by the beginning of the second week in August, leaving Addie Mae to be poured in bronze of 2200 Fahrenheit on [August 14]. She will be ready to attach to the bench at the end of August, making her the last of the four girls completing the memorial.”
MacQueen said the finished memorial will be housed in a specially built crate to be carried by truck bound for Birmingham around September 1.
What MacQueen describes as “this very overdue memorial” is the brainchild of a nonprofit committee, Four Spirits Inc., that formed last year to get a monument to the girls in Kelly Ingram Park. The park, just west of downtown, was the scene of mass demonstrations and marches during Birmingham’s pivotal Civil Rights year of 1963, as well as responses from authorities that included the use of police dogs and blasts of water from fire hoses. Sculptures throughout the park commemorate those events, but there is no standing memorial to the four girls, who died in a Ku Klux Klan bomb blast as they were getting ready for a Sunday service on September 15, 1963.
MacQueen, who has pursued her craft outside of Birmingham and, at times, outside the U.S., was in her hometown late last year on a visit when a friend showed her an ad in Weld seeking proposals from sculptors on the Four Spirits project. The submission deadline was near, but MacQueen put a proposal together and was the only female among the six artists who sent in their ideas. Hers was accepted in December, and she subsequently has been working at Mussi Artworks Foundry in Berkeley and and another Mussi facility in nearby Richmond.
Meanwhile, fundraising has continued for the project, for which the price tag is about $250,000. The fiscal agent handling contributions is the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. In an email last week, Marguerite Johnson, the foundation’s senior vice president of grants and initiatives, said Four Spirits “has raised just over $142,000, with an additional, unpaid pledge of $11,000.” She also expressed excitement at the progress MacQueen and her team were making with the monument.
“With every photo and video she sends, I am amazed by all of the hard, physical work involved with creating this statue!” Johnson said.
The project has taken a lot of time, material, and emotion. Six-day work weeks have not been uncommon since MacQueen and her team began work on the monument.
“Great, great team,” she said. “Everyone helping, working courageously and continuously for [the] due date.”
The material the team has worked with the most has been more than 700 pounds of clay. At times, MacQueen has moistened that clay with her own tears, as she has shaped and reshaped it to better form the faces or figures of the girls who seem to have taken up a permanent residence in her head.
“Am I emotionally involved? Of course I am,” MacQueen said in a press release from Four Spirits. “I just tried to capture what I felt about each figure. They were all four very different, but good friends.”
When it is finished, the sculpture will show the four girls in active postures on or around the bench. One of them, Denise McNair, will be jumping to touch six doves that are heading skyward, while Addie Mae Collins will be fixing the bow at the back of Denise’s dress. Cynthia Wesley will be reading her favorite book, possibly the Bible, while Carole Robertson will be walking away but looking back toward her friends and gesturing, as if to say it’s time for the church service.
The six doves not only represent the lives of the four girls but also two other lives lost on the day of the bombing in separate, tragic incidents – those of Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson. Ware, 13, was shot by a white teen as he was riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle. Robinson, 16, was shot in the back by a police officer. Published, but sometimes disputed accounts, state he and other youths had been throwing rocks at a car displaying a Confederate flag.
The Four Spirits project takes its name from the title of Birmingham native Sena Jeter Naslund’s 2003 novel about the events of 1963. The president of the Four Spirits committee is Carolyn McKinstry, who was friends with the four girls and was present at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on the morning of the bombing. She also had been in the ranks of youths earlier that year who had marched in protest of the city’s segregation ordinances. McKinstry had mentioned the absence of a Kelly Ingram monument to the girls in her 2011 memoir, While the World Watched, and that passage had caught the attention of Birmingham attorney Chervis Isom, who met with McKinstry to discuss creating a monument. Isom, Four Spirits’ vice president, and McKinstry have been cheerleaders to MacQueen and her team when physical pain and fatigue seemed to be wearing on them.
“Thank you for your passion in all of this,” McKinstry said in an email to MacQueen earlier this month.
Major donations to the project have come from the City of Birmingham, the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, United Way of Central Alabama, Energen Corporation and Vulcan Materials Company Foundation, each $25,000; and the Marvin Engel Foundation and Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C., each $5,000.
Those wishing to donate to the Four Spirits project can do so online through the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham. You also can mail donations to the foundation at 2100 First Avenue North, Suite 700, Birmingham AL 35203-4223. Be sure to put “Four Spirits” on the check’s memo line.