Humanitarian monument unveiled in downtown Oakland
on September 7, 2011
Mary Forte was running a little late Tuesday afternoon to the unveiling of Remember Them: Champions of Humanity, a large bronze monument inspired by the September 11 attacks, which sits in a park on 19th Street near Telegraph Avenue in downtown Oakland, but said she made sure she was there with her one-year-old grandson anyway to be a part of history.
Forte grew up in Oakland in the 1950s, and said she was inspired by some of the 25 humanitarians from all over the world depicted on the monument, like Martin Luther King, Jr., poet Maya Angelou and Ruby Bridges, who at 6 years old became the first black student allowed at an all-white school in the south. During the ceremony, Forte followed her wandering toddler around the perimeter of the event, snapping photos and listening to speakers that included Bridges, actor Peter Coyote, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Congresswoman Barbara Lee.
“For Oakland, this is fantastic,” Forte said, as her grandson crawled around in her arms, holding a small American flag. “It’s just unbelievable we can have something so beautiful here.”
The 1,000-foot bronze monument cost $6.3 million to build; the funding came from a mix of private and public money. There’s also a missing piece, which organizers are raising money to complete, which will cost an additional $2.25 million.
The monument was designed by Oakland artist Mario Chiodo, who was inspired by the humanitarian effort after 9/11. Similar to Mount Rushmore, the monument features the carved faces and poses of the humanitarians emerging from a sheer bronze slab. “These people were our mountain climbers,” said Guy Johnson, Angelou’s son and the unveiling ceremony’s keynote speaker.
About 500 people gathered in the hot midday sun at the new Henry J. Kaiser Memorial Park near the Fox Theatre for the unveiling. The monument was covered by long red sheets, which were removed near the end of the ceremony, as members of the humanitarians’ families gathered on stage. A few hundred reserved seats were set up on a stage area near the monument, and standing crowd and classes of school children, some still in their burgundy uniforms and waving signs with photos of Civil Rights leaders like Bridges, greeted the family members as they took the stage to a standing ovation.
Bridges said the Civil Rights movement was led by regular people—the kind of people who often get overlooked by history books, but were now remembered on this monument. “We need to teach our children all about their stories,” Bridges said. “We must remember them.”
Eight humanitarians from Oakland are included on one side of the monument, including conservationist Joaquin Miller, activist Joyce Taylor and ship and hospital builder Henry J. Kaiser. (Kaiser Permanente was a major funder of the project, donating more than $1 million.) “These people may not be world-known,” Quan said, “but they’re the kind of people that make Oakland work, the kind of pioneers that changed the way we think.”
Angelou was scheduled to speak at the unveiling, but was ill and unable to attend. Congresswoman Lee, who took the stage with Chiodo at the end of the ceremony, said she remembered seeing the progress Chiodo was making on the monument a few years ago when she visited his West Oakland studio. “I knew then this work in progress would be awe-inspiring and historically significant in its completion,” Lee said.
Cheers went up from the crowd when Lee said she would be meeting with President Barack Obama this week and planned on telling him about the monument. “I can’t wait to tell him what a momentous event this has been,” she said.
After the ceremony, Chiodo walked around with a framed copy of a commemoration which Lee had read on the House floor under his arm, posing for pictures and talking to people. Bridges also couldn’t make it very far before admirers caught up to her. She smiled and posed for pictures with people as they gleefully snapped away. “Ooh, Ruby Bridges,” said one woman with long, dark braids as she took a picture of Bridges. “I can’t believe it.”
Forte was also floored to see some of her heroes, and make sure her grandson caught a glimpse, even though, she said, “he probably won’t remember it.” She said that as a life-long Oakland resident, she tires of hearing people put down her hometown and call it a violent place. The monument, she said, “puts a positive spin on Oakland.”
“We need to talk about all the positives in Oakland,” she said. “All the diversity, and how we’re trying to make this a safe community to live in.”
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