COLUMBIA — William “Gene” Robertson dreams of providing a source of inspiration and affirmation for African-Americans in the heart of Columbia’s First Ward.
Robertson, a professor emeritus and former chairman of community development at MU, is in the early stages of planning for a statue that would feature historical figures Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.
Robertson calls his plan “an idea in germination.”
But he has big aspirations for the seed he’s planted.
He said the purpose of the memorial is “to celebrate the presence of African-Americans in the past and to inspire those who are here now and those who will be here in the future.”
The idea for the statue first came to Robertson in response to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on Stadium Boulevard.
“I always felt that that memorial was misplaced because it didn’t allow for African-American students to get over there,” Robertson said. “It wasn’t accessible.”
He plans to have the new statue at Douglass Park, at the corner of Worley Street and Providence Road.
The inaccessibility of the Stadium Boulevard site, coupled with a desire to notate the African-American presence in the central city, prompted Robertson to take action and develop the idea. He said he is concerned that urban renewal may eventually displace African-Americans from the area.
“Many of the places that were formally known as African-American are being transformed,” Robertson said, adding that the memorial he envisions “will be a testament to them being there.”
Robertson said he chose Douglass because Douglass Park is the desired location, and chose King because he is both contemporary and universally inspirational. Robertson called the two figures “a good combination” for the statement the statue will make on behalf of Columbia’s African-American community.
Robertson said he originally sought local African-American artists but was without luck. He does not yet have a rendering for the statue. He’s now looking for anyone who could “take the idea and play with it.”
A design would help move the idea forward.
“People will be more inclined to support it with a visual representation,” Robertson said. “At this point, I’m looking for someone to do that aspect.”
Robertson has pledged $1,000 toward the project and has already received a $1,000 donation from Douglas Simmons, 64.
Robertson said he hopes to gain more support and that he believes it is something that could start at the grass-roots level by residents.
Simmons said his support for the statue stems from his belief in the cultural significance of the area.
“I think this is something that will instill pride,” Simmons said. “It will make people think this is a viable community and make sure it stays that way.”
Simmons said he hopes talk among community members will generate support for the project. He also said that a preliminary outline of the statue idea in the latest issue of Robertson’s newsletter, “The Trumpet,” will encourage greater involvement.
Without an artist or a drawing, Robertson does not yet have a total estimated cost or a time frame. His plans include marketing the concept, then organizing a group of patrons to oversee the effort. He then plans to invite prominent artists to interpret the concept and to partner with a professional fundraising organization to address the project’s financial needs.
Planning is in such an early stage that he does not yet have permission from the city to erect the statue, but he said he sees no reason why the city would object.
“I see it as a totally positive endeavor,” he said.
Donations can be sent to the Frederick Douglass/Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Fund c/o Boone County Bank. Questions regarding donations can be e-mailed to Robertson at firstname.lastname@example.org.