Maggie and Melvin—Generations of Advocacy
Sitting down for a documentary interview on Friday, June 16, 2017, it was hard to get a man like Melvin Jones Jr. to speak about adversity. Rightfully so. He was bubbling with joy in anticipation of seeing a project he had fought so tirelessly for finally come to fruition. His puzzle was missing only one piece and on the next day, he could call it complete. That puzzle was a statue to Maggie L. Walker, a businesswoman and a civil rights icon who broke countless barriers for women and for people of color, both in Virginia and nationally, post-Civil War. The process of creating that statue would finally hit its stride, with Jones as the catalyst, almost a decade before we sat down to talk.
A humble man in his early sixties, Jones—dressed in a Maggie L. Walker hat and t-shirt—felt familial to me and reminded me so much of those I miss so dearly back in my small North Carolina hometown. Never taking too much credit for accomplishments and always speaking with a smile, he wore his passion on his sleeve for all to see and had an arsenal of Maggie L. Walker wisdom that could supersede any textbook. His energy was contagious and he carried a binder full of documents he had collected. What I assumed would be a nuts and bolts interview about process turned into a conversation around history, legacy, and the diligence of a man who would go from a concerned citizen with an idea to public art proponent over the course of a decade.
“I was always taught in school, when I was in Maggie L. Walker [High School], if you’re going to do something, stick with it. That’s always been my motto.”
Jones, a Richmond native and graduate of Maggie L. Walker High School in 1971, first organized his efforts around getting Walker on a stamp in 2009, but when that process stalled he turned his attention to a monument. “I wrote letters to every city council member, which was nine city council members, and the Mayor. After that we had a public hearing.” Jones recalled. He would create petition sheets to collect thousands of signatures from residents. “We have a festival every year called the 2nd Street Festival in October. Every October since 2008 or 2009, I had people signing the petition for the Maggie Walker statue.”
Even after the hard work of securing city council buy-in for the project, Jones wouldn’t stop and wait for the rest of the pieces to fall into place. He’d ask to have appropriate funds set aside, as well as ensure that land use and zoning challenges were resolved. He saw every stage of the process through even as more and more people became involved. The project spanned multiple mayors of Richmond, all of whom gave Jones support. Still, no piece of the process was too small. “I was up there when they were first digging to put the drainage in,” he laughed.
As we talked in anticipation of the following day’s unveiling ceremony, the significance of the monument, being the first of a Black woman in the city of Richmond, was not lost on him. In fact, it was a guiding force. “This meant a lot to a lot of Black women that I know that were on the alumni association who passed away and knew I was doing this project. That’s why I had to work hard at it and keep going at it. People knew it was going to be done, but when?” he reflected.
It dawned on me not long after that his story was more than a community milestone; it was an advocacy success—years of boots-on-the-ground work, talking with those who held decision-making power to push the project forward. As we try to manage fighting big fights for the arts in our nation’s capital each year at Arts Advocacy Day, we can’t forget about those who are so ingrained in the communities we serve who are also helping to the move the needle towards progress. Folks just like Melvin.
“It’s not about me. It’s about everybody. It’s about, now, the whole nation. It’s not only about Richmond.”
After the completion of our interview, our video team would attend the unveiling the following morning—filming the joyful reactions of those who came from all over the city to bask in the statue’s beauty. Our filming continued late into the afternoon after the large crowd of more than 600 attendees was long gone. A steady stream of residents would walk by and stop to gaze at the newest addition to Jackson Ward. People drove by, rolled their windows down, and took photos from the distance. The hot sun that followed us all day began to subside as we finished filming. Seemingly out of nowhere, Melvin popped up to greet us, this time with Maggie L. Walker t-shirts for us. How did he know where we would be? I really don’t know. It later became clear to me, though, that he’d likely keep watch over that space and over Maggie, and hopefully soak in some much-deserved success.
Every time I wear the t-shirt, I feel thankful for people like Maggie L. Walker, who in our nation’s history shifted the paradigm for communities of color, and for advocates like Melvin Jones Jr. who remind us to constantly remember where we came from as we continue the fight forward.
We will be screening “A Monument to Maggie” at Arts Advocacy Day, followed by a panel discussion with Patricia Walsh, Americans for the Arts’ Public Art Programs Manager; Daniela Pérez Frias, Americans for the Arts’ Video Producer and Media Coordinator; and artist Toby Mendez, who sculpted the Maggie L. Walker monument. Learn more and register here.