Statues Make Good Neighbors

Alex Haley is coming to Annapolis. Not in flesh and blood. The author of Roots, the 1976 journey of discovery that sent our rootless nation questing for its many pasts, left this life in 1992. He and three young companions are statues cast in bronze. On December 9, they'll join the throngs on City Dock.

Forged by Denver sculptor Ed Dwight, Haley will sit on the wall at the head of Annapolis Harbor in "an environment" designed by interpretive architect Gary Schwerzler of Eastport. Clustered at his feet, three children listen to the resonant story of how he traced his roots to Kunta Kinte. To Annapolis. To the heart of America's central conflict.

They're all coming just in the nick of time. With one notable exception, the last 75 years of the 20th century have been a very bad time for public sculpture in Maryland's capital city. So bad that the 11th-hour arrival of the Haley group brings as many statues to Annapolis as have been erected in the whole previous three-quarters century.

The exception, of course, is the Thurgood Marshall group that's made its home on Lawyers Mall since 1996. In a grouping to which the Haley group makes reference, the young and very modern Marshall stands alone on a granite pedestal looking out on three watching children, who, with Marshall, ended school segregation at the University of Maryland and in the nation.

Before the Marshall group, no public statue had come to Annapolis since 1925. Though the first quarter of the 20th century contributed four, otherwise, our century has been barren. Compared to it, the last half of the 19th century buzzed with sculptural activity. From 1848 to 1886, Annapolis got seven monuments.

That's the picture we saw when we made a time line of the statues listed in the pamphlet, "A Self-Guided Walking Tour of the Memorials of Annapolis."

We may have missed a few, but it doesn't change the picture. In ignoring public sculpture for much of a century, Annapolis has been diminishing its stature as a capital city.

We've lived in other capital cities where statues were honored citizens. In Washington, D.C., you can hardly go a block without confronting some stone or bronze personage. Some seem ho-hum, especially those old heroes on horseback, but others - like Abraham Lincoln in his Memorial or in Lincoln Park or in the National Cathedral - elevate the spirit. Still others - like man rising from the earth at Haines Point - tickle the wit.

There's another thing about a flourishing community of public statues. They do one another good. Annapolis' statues suffer from having so few companions. Like old people with no progeny, they present a dying race. Combine them with new generations, and the whole family gains vitality.

So we're delighted that Alex Haley is moving to town. We like what we've seen of him. Like Thurgood Marshall, he's in step with our time - a hero in plain clothes. And like Marshall, he and his kids of many races will speak to the central issue of our times: How we people of different colors can live with our shared past and better our common future.

Sure, Haley and Marshall will look dated 25 or 50 or 100 years hence. But they've got a built-in advantage that may help them endure. Those children locked in their gaze, rapt in their words, will be forever young. Generation after generation will be able to slip into one role or other - wise elder or attentive youth - to engage a past that will be theirs and is ours.

| Issue 44 |

Volume VII Number 44
November 4-10, 1999
New Bay Times

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