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Local Arts

How do you bring a Charlotte civil rights hero to life? A sculptor listens ...

Five years after Julius Chambers died, large photographs of the renowned Charlotte civil rights attorney hang in an artist’s studio in Louisville, Ky.

How do you capture a man and his legacy?

Sculptor Ed Hamilton stares at the photographs, searching for an answer.

Click to resize
A collage of sculptor Ed Hamilton’s early ideas for the Julius Chambers statue he is creating. Courtesy of Ed Hamilton

Hamilton has been commissioned to create a sculpture of Chambers for the Trail of History project emerging along Charlotte’s Little Sugar Creek Greenway.

Like a sleuth searching for clues, Hamilton is hoping to find “the spark” that will convey who Chambers was and what he stood for.

Hamilton studies Chambers’s face, its lines and contours, the slight lift of his lips into a smile, the intense focus of his eyes. Though the two men never met, each was a pioneer, rising to national prominence in his respective field. Hamilton was gratified to learn they also share a bond, both members of Alpha Phi Alpha, an African American fraternity that has long supported the struggle for civil rights.

“Both have been trail blazers in different ways,” said David Taylor, president of the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, who serves on the Trail of History board and is managing the project. “You’ve got the best of both worlds — Ed through the arts and Mr. Chambers through civil rights.”

Sculptor Ed Hamilton ponders where his statue of Julius Chambers might reside. Elizabeth Leland

It is fitting, Taylor, said that it is Hamilton who will create the sculpture.

On one chilly morning in December, Hamilton brought his research to Charlotte, touring the greenway from Seventh Street at Central Piedmont Community College south toward Morehead Street, a 1.2-mile urban stretch where eventually 21 sculptures will memorialize men and women instrumental in Charlotte-Mecklenburg history.

Ed Hamilton listens to Tony Zeiss as the two scout locations for the upcoming Julius Chambers statue on the Trail of History. Elizabeth Leland

Escorted by county employees, a landscape architect and representatives of the nonprofit Trail of History, Hamilton stood out in the crowd, a dapper dresser with a grey beret, a scarf flung around his neck and an elegant dress coat buttoned up to keep away the chill. He carried a small digital camera to photograph possible sites to “figure out how the piece fits into the space.”

A closer look at Ed Hamilton’s “Spirit of Freedom.” Ed Hamilton

Among Hamilton’s previous memorials, two of the best-known are the “Spirit of Freedom” in Washington, D.C., honoring African American soldiers who fought in the Civil War, and the Amistad Memorial in New Haven, Conn., commemorating the 1839 revolt by 53 kidnapped West Africans.

Each piece required extensive research.

While in Charlotte, Hamilton also talked with a brother, daughter and former law partner of Chambers to gain a more intimate understanding of the man behind the legend.

“I wish I had met him,” Hamilton said, a touch of regret in his voice. “He was very much a people person. He loved to tell stories but he was smart as a whip. When he got hold of something, he wouldn’t let go.”

Hamilton, who is 71, has devoted much of his professional life to commemorating African American heroes, including a memorial in Louisville of York, an enslaved explorer who took part in the Lewis and Clark Expedition of the early 1800s, and “The Unfinished March” in Newport News, Va., depicting the Rev. Martin Luther King.

“York” (2003) in Louisville honors a man enslaved by William Clark – of the Lewis and Clark Expedition – who is believed to have been key to the expedition’s success. Ed Hamilton

He begins each piece with a sketch and then creates a small model which, in the case of the Chambers sculpture, he will present for approval and revisions before beginning work on the actual sculpture.

“You try to capture a feeling, a certain moment, and the challenge with just one person is, ‘How do you do that?’ “ Hamilton said. Because Chambers lived until 2013, Hamilton said he has been fortunate to talk with people who knew him well and can share details of his life and personality.

According to the story Chambers told, he became an attorney because of an incident during his childhood in Mount Gilead. A white customer refused to pay for car repairs at his father’s garage. His father sought legal help from the white lawyers in the town, but none would help him. There were no African American lawyers.

When Chambers graduated from the law school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1962, he was first in his class of 100 students and was editor-in-chief of The North Carolina Law Review. Still, because of his race, he was barred from attending a year-end banquet at an all-white country club.

Tenacious is a word often associated with Chambers. While working on a case, he could be intense and demanding. Attorney Geraldine Sumter, who was one of his law partners, recalled that she started work at his firm on Dec. 31, 1982, and Chambers asked her to return the next day at 10 a.m. — New Year’s Day — to continue working.

“Love this head shot of Julius Chambers,” writes sculptor Ed Hamilton of this family photo, courtesy of daughter Judy Chambers, given to him for his research. Courtesy of Judy Chambers

In Charlotte, Chambers is best known for the Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education legal case in which the U.S. Supreme Court authorized busing to achieve integration in public schools.

But he won other precedent-setting cases in education, voting rights and employment — including Griggs v. Duke Power Co. in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that the power company’s hiring policies gave job preferences to white employees.

Chambers argued the Swann and Briggs cases before the Supreme Court just two months apart in late 1970.

Not long afterwards, in February 1971, arsonists set fire to the Chambers Stein Ferguson & Lanning office in Charlotte, which was North Carolina’s first integrated law firm. Arsonists previously had firebombed Chambers’s home and his car.

Still, Chambers remained steadfast in his pursuit of equal justice.

“As people get to know Mr. Chambers, I hope they really get a true feel about the level of work that he did, the impact of that work and that he put himself and family at risk to do that,” Taylor said, noting that in conjunction with the statue there will be detailed information online.

“He put his fingerprints on litigation that was so important to our country and to the citizens of our community, locally and nationally. He gave people of limited voice hope.”

Despite his national standing, Chambers was soft-spoken and humble.

“He could put anybody at ease,” Sumter recalled. “I don’t care where it was, at gas stations, at restaurants, Chambers sees somebody and he speaks: ‘Hello. How do you do? What’s your name? Where you from? Who’re your people?’ ”

If he were alive today, Sumter said, Chambers would acknowledge his role in the civil rights movement but he would also talk about the role of other local, state and national leaders “on whose shoulders he stood” — including Thurgood Marshall, who selected Chambers to be one of the first two interns at the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. (Marshall went on to become the first African American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court; the other intern was Marian Wright Edelman, who founded the Children’s Defense Fund.)

“Chambers came in with a legal strategy that allowed a collective effort to go forward,” Sumter said about his work in Charlotte. “All of their efforts merged, I think, when Chambers started out with his boldness: Suing the school board.”

(All this could go in a box instead of in the story.) Chambers left Charlotte in 1984 to become director of the Legal Defense Fund in New York City. In 1993, he took the job of chancellor at N.C. Central University, where he had received his undergraduate degree.

He later became the founding director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights and resumed his law practice in Charlotte. He died in 2013.

As Hamilton walked the Greenway, he looked for a location that would give a statue of Chambers the visibility he believes it deserves. He picked a spot near the large water fountain, visible from both the greenway and nearby Kings Drive, with part of Uptown Charlotte in the background.

“Now I’m going to start playing around within context of that space, putting a figure in,” Hamilton said. “I’m not sure how he’s going to be. Is he going to be pointing? Will his arms be down? Will he be holding a book?”

When the statue is installed, likely a year or more from now, it will be the ninth of 21 projects planned for the Trail of History.

The first statue was unveiled in 2010, a larger-than-life rendition of Captain James Jack, a Revolutionary War officer who rode to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia with a draft of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. The most recent statue, unveiled in December, honors Thompson Orphanage. The eighth statue is expected to be unveiled in late spring and will feature Philip Lance Van Every, a former Charlotte mayor and CEO of Lance, Inc., the snack food company.

“We take these statues very, very seriously,” said Tony Zeiss, former president of Central Piedmont Community College, who was instrumental in the creation of the Trail of History and served as Hamilton’s guide along the Greenway.

“Charlotte has a wonderful sense of history and we wanted art that people can see and enjoy, especially because we get so many new people coming in here all the time and they have no idea that our history is so amazing.”

Tony Zeiss showed sculptor Ed Hamilton around the Trail of History and the two scouted possible locations for the Julius Chambers statue. Elizabeth Leland

The county provides the space but the cost of the memorials comes from private donations — in the case of the Chambers statue, $250,000, which has already been raised. An endowment pays for maintenance so the county doesn’t incur any expenses.

Back in Louisville, Hamilton is continuing his research. He is watching videos of Chambers to discover his mannerisms and hear his voice. He’s also reading Richard A. Rosen’s and Joseph Mosnier’s biography, “Julius Chambers: A Life in the Legal Struggle for Civil Rights.” And he continues to study the man in the photographs hanging in his studio.

“This is the nature of the beast. You figure it out,” Hamilton said. “But the thing about it is this: If you’re only interested in making money, you’re just making a statue. Then you won’t delve into who this man is, why this man was and how he fit into community. I need that context. That puts me really into him and that will dictate how I will present him.”

Ed Hamilton’s statue of Julius Chambers will be fashioned from much more than bronze.


This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte. Sign up here for the free e-newsletter “Inside Charlotte Arts.”

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