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Sculpture honors Daisy Jane Cooper Johnson's 1961 integration efforts

The sculpture is designed by local artists and has symbolic metal plates representing her footsteps on the day she integrated Richmond schools.
Sculpture honors Daisy Jane Cooper Johnson's 1961 integration efforts
Posted at 6:29 PM, Feb 14, 2024

In a powerful tribute to the legacy of Daisy Jane Cooper Johnson — the first African American student to integrate public schools in Richmond — a striking sculpture named "Strides" has been unveiled at the intersection of Libbie and Patterson Avenues in Richmond, Va. 

The 12-foot-tall artwork, commissioned by Bon Secours and Thalhimer Realty Partners, debuted during Black History Month, commemorating a pivotal moment in Richmond's educational history.

"We were accused of being traders and causing potential harm to the neighborhood or to the residents in the neighborhood. People were afraid of losing their jobs," said Cooper Johnson. She talks about the tumultuous time in her life.

The sculpture is designed by local artists Matt Lively and Tim Harper of Lively/Harper Environmental Sculpture. It captures the essence of Jane Cooper Johnson's journey as she made history in 1961, becoming the first African American student to integrate public schools. 

Cooper Johnson, formerly known as Daisy Jane Cooper, reflected on the symbolic metal plates at the base of the sculpture, representing the steps she took on that historic day.

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"These metal plates here represent steps. As I walked up the West Hampton steps on the first day, hopefully, people can empathize with how I felt. Alone. Uncomfortable. But as I walked through and came out, it's positive. It's a positive result," said Cooper Johnson.

Sculptor Paul DiPasquale brought the experience to life using two 12 by 6-foot forms. The negative space between the pillars creates a plus sign, representing the integration of schools. Quotes from Jane Cooper Johnson are etched into the piece to provide visitors insight into her experience.

"My mother was resolute and wanting the best for me. Because of her courage, I was able to withstand the challenges ahead," said Cooper Johnson.

In 1958, Elizabeth Cooper took legal action to secure an equal education for her daughter. The struggle lasted for three years, culminating in a U.S. District Court order that allowed then 12-year-old Daisy Jane to attend Westhampton Junior High School.

The sculpture invites visitors to reflect on the historical significance of Jane Cooper Johnson's courageous steps and the broader story of racial integration in Richmond. 

"Strides" is a symbol for not only the weight of Jane Cooper Johnson’s journey, but also a reminder of the progress made in the pursuit of equality and justice. As Richmond's newest landmark, the sculpture stands tall as a symbol of progress, unity, and the courage to face adversity, inviting visitors to connect with the city's rich history and the trailblazing spirit of individuals like Daisy Jane Cooper Johnson.

"I would hope that [visitors] would be inspired again to have empathy and compassion. That generates and fosters unity among the community."

This story was originally published by Bree Sison at Scripps News Richmond

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