By Cathy Gant Hill
Greensboro News & Record, Greensboro, NC
Friday, November 2, 2001
GREENSBORO - In sculptor James Barnhill's hands, heroes really do stand 10 feet tall.
The measurement is not myth as Barnhill puts final touches on a | sculpture memorial to N.C. A&T's most pivotal civil rights achievement, launching the sit-in movement.
Barnhill has sculpted statues of the four A&T freshmen whose temerity integrated lunch counters and restaurants across the South. And in his hands, the heroes tower over the average man.
They have to.
"Life-sized figures would be dwarfed by being outside," Barnhill says, "so they have to be bigger than life."
In his hands, the statues of the four — the late David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil and Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair Jr.) — measure between 8 and 10 feet.
In Barnhill's hands, the famous freshmen have been immortalized in 6,000 pounds of clay.
They have been mounted on coasters, draped in burlap, molded in plaster, shipped in pieces and cast in bronze.
The final step for Barnhill's hands will be to let the four men go, let them stand at a place on A&T's campus where students, faculty, staff and visitors can admire the artist's technique, but most of all where people can admire the history made by these legendary boys-to-men.
On Feb. 1, 1960, Richmond, Blair, McNeil and McCain took a purposeful walk down East Market Street, from A&T's campus to the Woolworth's lunch counter on Elm Street. They bought a few toiletries to establish themselves as customers, then sat down at the whites-only lunch counter and quietly, mannerly asked to be served. Their actions began a movement that spread across the South, eventually culminating in integrated lunch counters and restaurants.
When all that history was unfolding, James Barnhill was just 4, a little white boy in Fairfax, Va., who didn't even know the word segregation, let alone understand its meaning.
Jim Crow died. Barnhill grew up and moved here. He learned about the sit-in movement and knew, vaguely, of its origins.
It wasn't until he began research to prepare for the sculpture that what had seemed "long ago and far away" loomed before him like a ton of clay.
"I'm like 'wow,' right here in little Greensboro, society was changed forever," Barnhill says. "This is basically a monument to that positive event."
The project evolved as A&T Chancellor Jim Renick looked for a way to honor the history of the freshmen. He wasn't sure how it should happen, but he talked to people about it. Someone mentioned Barnhill's work, which is in parks, malls, gardens and public areas nationwide.
The sculptor had recently completed a statute of Booker T. Washington, commissioned by a Greensboro woman who admired the civil rights pioneer's contributions to society.
Impressed, Renick called Barnhill's studio in May and talked generally about a memorial of some sort.
"I saw a portfolio of his work and was blown away," Renick says, "But at that point we just talked conceptually: how much it meant, what it meant."
Barnhill told his friends Robert Core and Eric Phillips about the assignment during a weekly meeting where, Barn-hill says, "we talk and pray and talk and pray." They were so encouraging that they inspired another movement: Barnhill's.
"Their enthusiasm charged me," Barnhill says. "In talking about it, it just sort of energized me. So I went home and did this."
He points to the maquette, the prototype for the larger piece, that he showed the chancellor.
Until that night, no one — not Renick, not even Barnhill — knew what the memorial would look like. But a photographic image of the four freshmen walking from the Woolworth's store on Feb. 1 had always stayed in Barnhill's mind. He had seen it with every trip he took to the Dowdy Building, where it hung on the wall of campus photographer Charles Watkins' office.
"When you think about the sit-ins," Barnhill says, "you think about guys at a counter. It's not a sculpturally moving thing."
The image that worked was of the four men walking, men who had just taken a stand, their faces determined, their eyes in the distance, their postures resolute.
As they walked shoulder to shoulder, the civil rights quartet made a striking image with their different sizes and common intent.
Richmond on the left, is thin and dapper, with a straight-ahead gaze. McCain is hulking yet dignified in an ROTC uniform. Khazan, small and baby-faced, looks more junior-high than college age. McNeil, average in height and build, like Richmond looks straight ahead.
Barnhill has absorbed the scene, finding symbolism in the details, in the hands, the steps, the gazes, the very dress of the foursome.
"You've got the contrast of their different heights, but the unity of their coats," Barnhill says, referring to the open coats of Richmond, Khazan and McNeil.
"Look at their hands. They're hand to hand."
The backs of Richmond and McCain's hands touch. The packages that McCain and Khazan have purchased are visible. McNeil's left hand is clenched.
And then there is McCain in his ROTC uniform, military cap, necktie and dark coat.
"This guy's in ROTC, serving his country, and he can't go sit down and have lunch," Barnhill says. "It's perfect. The symbolism was so incredible, I didn't have to think it up."
On Feb. 1, 2002, if the works are completed, the statues will be unveiled publicly at a place on campus that Renick and his staff are still trying to determine. The statue project is budgeted at $200,000, and money is being raised through private donations.
The very power of the statues, Renick says, will continue to energize a campus already charged by the university's recent partnership with the International Civil Rights Museum, which will be in the former Woolworth's Building.
The imagery of the four freshmen, whether captured in bronze, emulsion or legend, is so vivid that Renick frequently uses it when he seeks to inspire A&T students.
"One person, two people, three people, four people can make a difference," Renick says. "Here's an example of four people making a gargantuan difference."
The example has inspired the artist, too. "It might have taken 18-year-olds to do something like this," Barnhill says.