An ambitious public art project 10 years in the making is launching big in Charlotte this year, with four of 21 proposed bronze statues to be erected along Little Sugar Creek Greenway near uptown.
The first – depicting 19th-century hospital founder Jane Renwick Smedberg Wilkes – will be unveiled May 13. Other statues will be finished in the summer and fall, with three more on track to be unveiled in 2015.
Called the Trail of History, the project will feature life-size effigies of famous and lesser-known historical figures from Mecklenburg County’s past.
Among them will be the first statue in Charlotte acknowledging the contributions of an African-American to the city’s history. That sculpture will be of Thaddeus Lincoln Tate, whose investments made way for a growth spurt in black-owned Charlotte businesses in the 1920s. He also co-founded Grace AME Zion Church.
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County Park and Recreation Director Jim Garges said the statues will enhance the popularity of what is already the most visited amenity in the uptown area. The Little Sugar Creek Greenway trail eventually will run 20 miles from uptown to the state line. It is one-third finished and the goal is to complete it by 2018.
“This is a very big deal,” said Garges, who has worked nearly 40 years with parks in five cities. “We have nothing else like this in Charlotte and I’d say nothing like it in the country: A restored greenway in the middle of the city that brings together ecology, recreation and history.”
The string of statues – which is being backed by a consortium of community leaders and donors – will stretch a little more than a mile along the creek from Seventh Street at Central Piedmont Community College south to Morehead Street.
A price tag for the Trail of History has not been released, but the series of statues could easily cost in excess of $4.7 million (about $225,000 per statue). The money will be mostly private, donated by history-minded individuals or entities that have a connection to the figures being depicted.
In addition to Wilkes, statues going up this year include merchant and civic leader William Henry Belk, early settler Thomas “Kanawha” Spratt and Catawba tribal Chief King Hagler. The sculptures of Spratt and Hagler, who were friends, will be displayed together.
They will join an existing statue of Revolutionary War figure Capt. James Jack, erected in 2010 at the intersection of Kings Drive and Fourth Street with the expectation of being the first of up to 30 statues. Planners have since settled on 21, based on the amount of space along the creek that is suitable for statues and the necessary landscaping and outdoor lighting .
Tony Zeiss, president of Central Piedmont Community College, and Charlotte attorney Chase Saunders are credited with the idea for the Trail of History.
Saunders had a vision in 2003 for the statue of Capt. James Jack, a Charlotte horseman who is said to have ridden to Philadelphia in 1775 carrying a just-signed copy of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress. Some historians believe it influenced the 1776 Declaration of Independence.
Zeiss agreed to help – if it became one in a series. He said there could still be more than 21 figures, if the project’s board decides to have some multiple-figure statues, such as the one with Thomas Spratt and King Hagler.
“It’s been so long between the first statue in 2010 and now that I’m sure some people feel it all fell apart, but this takes a lot of time,” said Zeiss, who was also chair of the Little Sugar Creek Action Committee that worked on the greenway master plan.
“First, you have to raise the money and once you’ve done that, it’s another 2 1/2 years to select a sculptor and get the image you want. Then, it takes a year to build it.”
Zeiss’ interest in the project is in part because of the proximity of Little Sugar Creek Greenway to Central Piedmont’s main campus. But mostly, he and Saunders are committed history buffs.
Their vision, Zeiss said, is to commemorate a diverse group of people who played notable roles in local history from the earliest days of European settlement through the 20th century. This means not just politicians and soldiers, but also educators, artists, merchants, bankers and ministers.
And if their contributions to history are largely forgotten, Zeiss sees that as all the more reason to erect a statue to them.
“This town does have a reputation for not caring about history and that’s what some of us are working very hard to change,” Zeiss said.
By “us,” he means a diverse group of partners including the Arts & Science Council, the May 20th Society, the Mecklenburg Historical Association, Partners for Parks, the Rotary Club, Magnolia Marketing and the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department.
Coincidentally, Saunders said his original idea for a statue of Capt. James Jack was concocted largely because he felt the city needed an iconic image in uptown, like Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell.
“If you watched TV in the early 2000s, you’d see an image of Charlotte’s skyline and the second shot would be a NASCAR track or a stadium – nothing that spoke to the essence of the community,” said Saunders, a retired Superior Court judge.
“With Capt. Jack, we had an opportunity to embody that spirit for newcomers, with the city’s skyline as a backdrop. A piece that could appear on TV and in publications.”
Not long after the statue was unveiled, Saunders said he was flipping through a US Airways travel magazine while on a plane and came upon a photo of the statue with Charlotte’s skyline in the background.
“I felt like we succeeded. The wonderful thing is that nothing like this happens unless a lot of people feel like it ought to happen,” he said.
The $525,000 used to create the Capt. James Jack statue and install a nearby reflecting pond was raised by the May 20th Society because the Trail of History committee was not an official nonprofit at the time.
It has that status now, with a full board of trustees and a series of committees, one of which uses local historians to choose which people from Mecklenburg County’s past should be immortalized. To be on the list, figures must have helped develop the county in a significant way and they must have been dead at least five years.
Spaces are being left open on the trail for statues of more recent public figures, and suggestions have already been made to include former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl and former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt. Both are still very much alive.
Zeiss said that not even he knows all the names the committee has suggested for statues.
Major donors for the statues erected this year will be announced closer to the time the statues are unveiled, he said. However, Wells Fargo has already come forward as a champion for the statue of Thaddeus Lincoln Tate, which will be erected next year.
All 21 statues will be turned over to the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department, which will maintain them using endowment money provided by the project’s donors.
The Trail of History will break racial barriers by having statues of both a Native American (King Hagler) and an African-American (Thaddeus Lincoln Tate).
Bishop George Battle of the AME Zion Church said Charlotte is overdue for a historical monument to one of its African-American citizens, and he’s flattered a co-founder of his church will be the first. The city does have a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. in Marshall Park, he said, but King was not a Charlottean.
There’s also a sports memorial at Bank of America Stadium of African-American football player Sam Mills, who played two seasons for the Carolina Panthers before he died of cancer.
“What I’m most excited about is the process is not political,” Battle said. “It’s about the history, local history. A diverse group of people have made a difference here – made us what we are – and this (project) is making sure people know we were all involved.”