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Concrete Wall




Weathering Steel, Stainless Steel

Installed in 2024, Strides was commissioned by Bon Secours Health System to recognize Westhampton School’s place in the story of racial integration. The goal of artists Matt Lively and Tim Harper was to evoke “experienced feelings surrounding the history that allow for conversations and understanding” regarding the events that occurred here. In 1961, 12-year-old Daisy Jane Cooper became the first African American student at Westhampton Junior High School, following a three-year legal case and a U.S. District Court order to desegregate.  READ MORE

Jane Cooper Johnson standing in front of the "Strides" sculpture unveiled January 30, 2024. Photo: Courtesy of Bon Secours

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Williams: A new Westhampton sculpture honors Jane Cooper Johnson, a Richmond civil rights pioneer

Jan. 31, 2024

By Michael Paul Williams

Richmond's newest monument at the corner of Libbie and Patterson avenues was sculpted to convey the sense of foreboding the Black schoolgirl felt as she entered all-white Westhampton Elementary School on Sept. 5, 1961.

An artist's conception of steps on the plaza at Libbie and Patterson avenues feed visitors into two 12-foot-by-6-foot hunks of steel, 4 feet apart. The weight of the sculpture reflects the discomfort 12-year-old Daisy Jane Cooper might have felt as she climbed the stairs into a hostile environment.

Matt Lively, who created the work with Tim Harper, said the artists sought to fashion a space "that feels like it's falling in on you." Harper wanted people to walk through the space and think: "What if I was that kid?"

But stand at a distance from the sculpture, "Strides," and you see something else: The space between those massive hunks of steel forms the shape of a plus sign. Integration — coming together — is the plus that overcomes the negative. Or as a sign in the plaza reads: "In 1961, Daisy Jane Cooper walked up these steps and changed the world."

That schoolgirl is now Jane Cooper Johnson, the guest of honor at Tuesday's unveiling. Upon reflection, she has come to understand the sculpture, which was commissioned by Bon Secours and Thalhimer Realty Partners at a cost of about $120,000.

"It was the struggle, initially," she said Tuesday of her experience. "But the plus sign gives a positive outcome. The result was positive. And that way, the community at large can bond and pull together. 

"It brings also room for dialogue, and that's what's very important. So that we can understand each other and also empathize and have the compassion. And then that in itself creates a unified community." 

About 100 people were unified in their delight at the latest recognition for Johnson, 75, a retired executive assistant for the Virginia Department of Education — an unintentionally ironic career choice, she said.

"At the moment she climbed those steps to the entrance, she left childhood innocence behind and was transformed into a civil rights pioneer like her mother, Elizabeth Cooper, who won the legal battle necessary for her daughter to be able to attend her neighborhood school," said James Plotkin, her friend and former classmate.

Plotkin's assessment of Johnson's heroism is shared by the commonwealth of Virginia. In 2005, the Virginia General Assembly commended Johnson and her mother as civil rights pioneers.

Elizabeth B. Cooper was the plaintiff in a 1958 lawsuit, filed by civil rights lawyer Oliver W. Hill Sr., requesting that her daughter be transferred from the all-black George Washington Carver Elementary School to the nearby all-white Westhampton Elementary School, which ran from first through eighth grade. The family lived in the historic Westwood community, bordered by Willow Lawn Drive and Patterson Avenue — a mere four-and-a-half blocks from Westhampton school. 

The State Pupil Placement Board denied the request, leading to a three year legal battle before her federal court victory resulted in Daisy Jane Cooper enrolling in the eighth grade at Westhampton in September 1961. The following year, she moved on to Thomas Jefferson High School, integrating her second Richmond public school.

Her mother, Bettie Elizabeth Boyers Cooper, died in 2022. The street the family lived on in Westwood now bears her name in honor. And Plotkin led the drive to honor Jane Cooper Johnson at Thomas Jefferson following their 50th anniversary class reunion. In February 2018, a plaque was placed in the hallway of the high school.

On one side of the "Strides" sculpture are quotes from Jane Cooper Johnson and a "hidden figure" for visitors to find — a rendering of a young school girl representing Daisy Jane.

The school property is now the site of a mixed
 use development that includes office space, restaurants and other retail, and residences in an affluent neighborhood in Richmond's West End. The 1917 school building, once slated for possible demolition, has been preserved. 

Johnson said she was "a little numb from excitement" and "very, very appreciative." 

"Everyone wants to be appreciated, and those were hard times. And so, I'm just deeply grateful to be appreciated, and for someone to appreciate the story — not just about me, but the story and what it represents."

Drew Burrichter, vice president of mission for Bon Secours Richmond, noted that nearby Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital became the first hospital in Richmond to integrate, not long after Daisy Jane Cooper integrated Westhampton School. 

"So from that time to now, a time when we're removing statues from our public spaces, we are proud to be a part of this powerful addition to public art in Richmond, a witness to the potential of the human spirit," he said.

Harper and Lively created "Strides" in consultation with Richmond artist Paul DiPasquale as Richmond continues to fill its public art spaces with historical context. Like this sculpture, our work — in Richmond and well beyond — is to take the weight of our history and fashion something positive out of a negative.

"Her story is now enshrined within the portal of this dynamic sculpture," Plotkin said. "As we read her own words on its inside walls, we might see ourselves on her journey, walking in her footsteps alone, day after day, as she ascended the steps and entered classes where the negative energy, the humiliation and hostility she faced, must have been at times overwhelming. 

"Hopefully, people will emerge from their experience here as Jane emerged from Westhampton: With a positive outlook and high hopes for a brighter future."

Michael Paul Williams
804) 649-6815

WWBT-12 News

WTVR-6 News


Courtesy of  family and friends and

Paul Nevadomski - 8News

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Pictures & video from the Facebook pages of Matt Lively Art.

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