Plans for a project in downtown Mount Airy to honor key figures in city history, by erecting statues of them, included local music icons, a legendary retailer and others — but no African-Americans.
However, that omission — which one elected leader said he is “embarrassed” by — has been corrected with an amended plan to have a yet-to-be determined member of the black community included among statues placed along the “Whittling Wall.”
The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners gave its unanimous nod to that after a request by Dr. Evelyn Thompson, a local African-American leader, during a meeting Thursday night.
Thompson asked the board to add a likeness of a member of that community to other life-size sculptures along the Whittling Wall, a spot at the corner of North Main and West Oak Street. The name refers to the wall’s tradition as a spot where men gathered to whittle and swap stories while their wives shopped at nearby stores.
Before Thursday night, the list of subjects for the statues — to be installed later this year after completion by a Reidsville sculptor — included Grammy-winning country and pop singer Donna Fargo, a Mount Airy native; Ralph Epperson, the founder of local radio station WPAQ, which has a format of traditional mountain music;
Also, old-time fiddler Tommy Jarrell; Fred Cockerham, an old-time banjo player and fiddler; Flip Rees, a longtime downtown retailer; and likenesses of an anonymous textile mill worker and a whittler, respectively representing a key segment of the local economy and the tradition behind the Whittling Wall itself. These were settled on after much discussion.
Thompson indicated at the commissioners meeting that the idea of including an African-American didn’t emerge by anyone until late in the planning stages.
“This was after the original decision-making for the project,” Thompson said.
She added that having an African-American figure on the wall would be a major boost to a minority group which has been a noteworthy part of Mount Airy’s growth.
“It would make a big difference,” she said of members of that community. “This would be a big step in saying ‘you are part of the city.”’
Without such inclusion, they instead would think “it’s not our town,” Thompson said.
The statues will be brick sculptures, reflecting a medium dating to ancient Babylon hailed as a durable art form that blends in with other settings.
Willing to pay
The Whittling Wall project is being funded by a $94,340 grant awarded to Mount Airy last year by the N.C. Department of Commerce to provide a downtown enhancement. In addition to the cost of the statues, which has been put at $7,000 to $8,000 each, a $31,500 contract was awarded to a local construction company to rehabilitate the wall site, including re-facing and sidewalk replacement.
Miscellaneous other expenses ballooned the total cost to $104,922, exceeding the grant sum by more than $10,000, which an anonymous donor came forward to supply around the first of this year.
“We’re not asking the board for any money,” Thompson told the commissioners regarding the request to add an eighth statue to the Whittling Wall. She said donors have been identified and it is believed the needed capital can be raised without city government expense.
One uncertainty surrounds the individual to be honored with the extra sculpture. “Who will that person be?” Thompson said. “We don’t know that.”
However, Commissioner Jon Cawley floated the idea Thursday night of the municipality picking up the tab for the African-American statue, partly to compensate for it being overlooked. “I’m embarrassed,” Cawley said.
It was acknowledged that this might pose some type of complication, given that state grant funding — and not local revenues — is paying for the other statues.
“If we were going to pay for one, that’s the one we should pay for,” Cawley countered regarding the African-American-themed sculpture.
He said that for purposes of equality, the idea of having one segment provide the cost of a statue to join others that did not require such fundraising sets a bad precedent.
“I appreciate their willingness to do that,” he said of local black citizens supplying the money, “but I think it ought to be covered — and as quickly as possible after they’re able to give us the person. I just think it’s a precedent we don’t want to set, even though it’s a wonderful gesture.”
However, Commissioner Shirley Brinkley brought up the point that having the city government pay for the extra statue effectively would rob local African-Americans of a chance to participate financially, which they desire. Thompson echoed that sentiment, saying members of a local African-American genealogy group are among those wanting to contribute.
“I think the African-American community is just looking to have a spot on the wall,” Mayor David Rowe said at that point.
“I’m all for this,” Commissioner Brinkley said of the project addition, adding that she also wants to make sure the sculpture depicting an African-American will be placed in a prominent spot along the Whittling Wall — not “at the back.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.