Children of Steel

0913-Arts-2As published in Birmingham magazine.

A Birmingham-born sculptor memorializes children killed in and on the day of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

In September of 1963, Birmingham-born sculptor Elizabeth MacQueen was 14 years old, the same age as three of the four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Growing up in Mountain Brook, only a few miles from downtown, MacQueen lived a world apart from the violent demonstrations. At the time, she remembers, “I was told never to go over the mountain.”

The great granddaughter of one of the many captains of the steel industry and a gifted ballet dancer, MacQueen’s artistic inclination left her feeling like an outsider in her own community while dancing and teaching at Steeple Arts as a teenager. During her second semester of high school, she traveled with Town and Gown Theater throughout the country to act and to dance. She graduated with her class of 1967 by making up the semester in the remaining three weeks of the school year.

After completing her undergraduate and graduate degrees in California at UCLA, she settled in an international sculpting community in Pietrasanta, Italy, to hone her skills. As she says, “I was born, bred and fled from Birmingham.” Her email signature reads, “Southerner by birth. World Citizen by choice.”

Over the years, she’s returned home many times to visit family and friends, but never stayed. Last year while visiting, her friend Hank Black, a former reporter for the Tuscaloosa News, informed her about an advertisement in Weld for a design competition to select a sculptor for The Four Spirits Memorial, named after Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel bearing the same title, to commemorate the four girls who died at the hands of white supremacists as they prepared for Sunday morning church service. She knew immediately this project was for her. “It resonated with me.”

The spark which brought the collaboration of The Four Spirits Memorial to fruition was ignited in the spring of 2011, the year Carolyn McKinstry published her memoir, “While The World Watched,” co-written with Denise George. McKinstry survived the bombing that morning when, leaving her friends to primp in the ladies room, she headed upstairs to the sanctuary where she passed a ringing phone. She answered and heard the anonymous warning,“You have three minutes.”

Reading McKinstry’s memoir awakened attorney Chervis Isom (editor’s note: Lanier Isom’s father-in-law) to the absence of a memorial in Birmingham to honor Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair and their families. When he came across McKinstry’s lines, “Several decades have passed. We are still waiting,” he immediately called her. Their conversation led to a coalition composed of McKinstry, Isom, Martha Bozeman, Melodie Echols, Mark Kelly, Doug Jones, Kimberly McNair Brock, Yvonne Lowry Kennedy, Drew Langloh and Rick Journey. Sarah Collins Rudolph (Addie Mae’s younger sister, who was seriously injured in the blast), Bill
Baxley and Sena Jeter Naslund are honorary board members. This determined group started fundraising and commissioned MacQueen to create four bronze, over-life-size statues in honor of the four girls. They have yet to meet their $250,000 goal and continue to raise funds through the Community Foundation.

In mid-July, MacQueen was exhausted from working nonstop seven days a week for the past nine weeks with her crew of 12 at the Mussi Artworks Foundry in Berkeley, Calif. She’d also been up most of the night researching which quote to inscribe in the book Cynthia holds in her lap while listening to “The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall, a poem about the bombing set to music her sister Margaret had sent her. While talking about the song, MacQueen broke down in tears.

Most of the sculptures from MacQueen’s 43- year career celebrate the beauty of the human form and spirit. Now she’s charged with commemorating a moment most people would rather forget, a moment that has defined Birmingham in a way which makes many defensive and angry.

The sculptures show Cynthia, Addie Mae and Denise sitting on a bench. Addie Mae kneels on the bench tying the bow on the back of Denise’s Sunday dress while Denise reaches into the air toward a flock of six doves. The birds symbolize the souls of the four girls and the two young boys who also died that day: Virgil Ware, a 13-year-old shot and killed riding his bicycle; and Johnny Robinson, a 16-year-old shot and killed by police when he refused to halt after they caught him throwing rocks at cars. The sculpture of Carol beckons the girls as if to say, “Hurry up.” An interactive piece, the sculpture allows room for viewers to sit on the bench beside the girls.

MacQueen believes everyone and everything is interconnected. “The Four Spirits Memorial isn’t just for Birmingham,” she says. “In every part of the world, injustice happens every day. We mustn’t be complacent or apathetic.”

WP Facebook Auto Publish Powered By :