Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Charlotte history, hiding behind a wall

Can you find the Jane Wilkes statue behind the brick wall along Morehead Street? (See below) Photo: Mary Newsom
One of the best statues I’ve ever seen sits atop Rome’s Gianicolo Hill. A series of Busts of Important Men lines an avenue, and there is the obligatory statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian hero of the Italian unification movement in the 19th century.

But a short walk away is another statue. It’s Anita Garibaldi. She is sidesaddle, atop a rearing horse, holding a small child in her left arm, close to her breast. With her right, she aims a pistol at the sky. What a woman!
Anita Garibaldi. Photo: "Blackcat" via Widkimedia Commons

Charlotte, in some ways being even more traditional than Rome, does not memorialize its women with statues. Heck, it barely memorialized anyone with statues – at least, not until the Trail of History project came along, since representational statuary today is about as fashionable among artists as bustles, spats and top hats. 

That’s a group of local donors and history buffs who are working to erect a series of statues of historic personages along the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. Their first was a monument to Capt. James Jack, who rode from Charlotte to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775 carrying (according to local legend) a copy of the May 20, 1775, Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. Meck Dec skeptics say he only carried the Mecklenburg Resolves, adopted May 31, 1775. Whatever.  There’s a guy on a charging horse, in a pool of water across Kings Drive from Central Piedmont Community College.

Now Trail of History monument No. 2 is up, and by golly, it’s a woman: Jane
Renwick Smedberg Wilkes. Read more about her here. She was a New Yorker who married her first cousin, John Wilkes, and moved to Charlotte in 1854. After the Civil War she was active in founding the first two civilian hospitals in Charlotte, including Good Samaritan, the now-demolished hospital for blacks during that segregated era.

Jane Wilkes. Photo: Tom Hanchett

The statue, designed by Wendy M. Ross of Bethesda, Md., depicts a woman with a slight smile (and not brandishing a pistol). It's the smile of someone who is possibly about to ask you to support a project for which she is raising funds, and whose smile is also a bit stern, as if to show that even if you do not give her any money, she will not rest until you – and others – make her project a success.

While it’s excellent that our monuments are honoring one woman among the seven people planned to have statues (see the list here), it’s a bit odd that this statue is hiding behind a very long brick wall along Morehead Street, where it crosses Little Sugar Creek. Why have a wall between the sidewalk and a public park area? That seems to me inappropriately suburbanistic for this part of the city.  Plus, it obscures the existence of the statue and the nice flowers planted around it. When you are walking on the Little Sugar Creek Greenway on the other side of the creek, you have no idea the monument to Jane Wilkes is even there.

I asked Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department greenway planner Gwen Cook for details on the design of the garden. She relates, via email: "At Robert Haywood Morrison Gardens [the formal name for the small garden in which the statue resides], the wall is an essential element of the garden. The noise from Morehead Street is terrible. You couldn’t hear yourself think, and if we hadn’t got that right, we’d have no garden. We had to add the wall to manage the ambience of the garden." She said the garden, but not the statue, are on maps along the greenway.

The only way I knew the statue was there was having read about it in the Charlotte Observer. As her great-great granddaughter, Margo Fonda of Charlotte, told the Observer, “Jane Wilkes was from a time when women didn’t vote, didn’t hold jobs and stayed in the background, but she did incredible things. And she was really humble about it, not even acknowledging it in her autobiography. The idea of a statue to her is really cool.”

*Once you get behind the brick wall, you discover Jane Wilkes' statue. Photo: Mary Newsom