The Rev. Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr. confers with artists Larry Lugar and Andrea Lugar on Tuesday (Jan. 5) afternoon as plans move forward to salute Ida B. Wells-Barnett on Beale Street. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

Situated on the southwest corner of Fourth and Beale Streets is a planter and raised grassy platform.

It opens the walkway into Robert R. Church Park. Nothing is there.

But that will all change in July, if Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr. has his way. The Memphis Memorial Committee to honor Ida B. Wells has named July 16 as the day a bronze statue of Wells should be unveiled.

Gray met with artists Larry and Andrea Lugar Tuesday (Jan. 5) afternoon. The married couple presently is working on various artistic and technical details of the sculpture, as well as accompanying pieces. 

They listened to Gray’s vision and visited the proposed monument’s site.

“What we’ll do is we’ll have her (Wells) facing west,” said Gray, the committee’s chair. “When Thomas Moss lived here in Memphis, he said ‘Go west. There is no justice here.’ Ida B. Wells didn’t go west, but she went north. Her statue will look to the west.”

Moss, owner of The People’s Grocery, and two of his employees were lynched by a white mob in Wells’ time. 

The death of Moss, a close friend of Wells, sparked an indignant outcry from Wells against lynching. Her speeches and defiant editorials put her life in jeopardy. She finally yielded to the pleas of her friends to leave Memphis.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett in a photograph by Mary Garrity from c. 1893.

“We’re finally bringing her back to Memphis,” said Gray. “Ida Wells never returned after moving to Chicago. She loved Memphis. And for so long, we have owed a great debt of love to Ms. Wells for speaking out for her people, even at the peril of her own lynching. Now, we are telling her, ‘Thank you.’”

Gray originally thought a four-foot pedestal for the statue would be fitting. After talking with the artists, a two-foot pedestal for Wells’ life-size rendering would be more artistically sound.

“My thought is you want people to be intrigued and to know more about her,” said Andrea Lugar. “And the further you put things up, it becomes a symbol. They don’t really know, except this was somebody great.

“I’d like for the sculpture to cause people to go, ‘Who is she, isn’t she interesting, how can I learn more about her,’ even be able to touch it, stand beside it, and get a picture taken beside it, if they want to.”

The Lugars also were commissioned to sculpt a bronze likeness of Wells on the campus of Lane College, where a young Wells attended. 

Gray expressed concern that the statue be able to withstand any defacing or attacks by detractors.

“Like 90 percent of the time, public statues are not maintained,” said Larry Lugar. “But if we come in here, wax it a couple times a year — and anybody can do that — it will do just fine. Johnson’s paste wax will do. Spray paint will simply wipe out.”

Dr. L. LaSimba M. Gray Jr. with Dr. David Acey as they review plans for the statue of Ida B. Wells-Barnett on Beale Street. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

Africa in April founder Dr. David Acey, who also serves on the committee, expressed excitement about the statue being in Church Park, where he holds his annual festival.

Four shelters close to the projected statue site will be turned into four major movements of her life. The most compelling display will be the lynching piece that Wells fought so passionately against.

“Larry, there is a sculpture of a bending tree that you did,” said Gray. “I think that’s the tree we can use for the ‘Strange Fruit’ display. From Holly Springs, to her 10 years in Memphis and beyond, we want to tell about her life and spark discussions about her work.”

Strange Fruit is a colloquialism for lynching, made famous by a song first recorded by singer, Billie Holliday in 1939. Nina Simone re-recorded the doleful tune, introducing it to a new audience in 1965.

“During the festival, people use these shelters, and the homeless sleep here,” said Acey. But we can work around that. There is so much history here. So much of our legacy is right here. This is the perfect site to honor Ida B. Wells. This is going to be beautiful.”

Projected costs of the statue are mounting and adjacent displays total $150,000. Contributions and gifts to the project are still being accepted. 

(For additional information, or to donate, call the New Sardis Baptist Church office at 901-754-3979.)