MARIETTA — The staff at William Root House Museum and Garden know a lot about the lives of the city’s earliest residents: what they wore, what they ate, how they lived. Their names.
But they don’t know much about the city’s enslaved people who, 1,200-strong on the eve of the Civil War, are estimated to have made up 45% of Marietta’s population at the time, according to Trevor Beemon, executive director of Cobb Landmarks, the nonprofit that owns and operates the Root House.
“A lot of times, people ask us why, and I can tell you why,” Beemon told a crowd gathered under the shade of a chinaberry tree beside the Root House Saturday morning. Enslaved peoples’ names were purposefully omitted from records by their enslavers, who put quite a bit of effort into “hiding their stories and covering them up.”
“These people had identities beyond just their bondage,” Beemon continued, “(and) they deserve the dignity of being remembered. Today, we’re gathered here to dedicate a sculpture, and we’re going to declare, ‘We remember you. And we don’t know your names, but we’re remembering you and we honor you here today.’”
When Beemon and others pulled the veil off the sculpture, Howard Hochman thought: “What?”
It was an optical illusion.
“When you get to the side (of it) you go, ‘Oh my goodness,’” he said.
Viewed head-on, the sculpture is almost invisible, like strips of paper viewed in profile. But step a couple feet to the left or right and you see it: a woman standing upright in period garb, “not, like, waiting on someone, but proud of who she is and what she has provided despite the circumstances,” said Misha Harp, a Root House volunteer and the woman who served as the sculpture’s model.
The unveiling was part of a larger Juneteenth celebration hosted by the Root House Saturday, one that included guided tours of the house, period cooking demonstrations, genealogical research and more. Juneteenth is the celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, which did not end with President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation but with Union occupation of Confederate areas, according to a pamphlet distributed by the Root House Saturday.
“It wasn’t until U.S. Major General Gordon Granger read General Order #3 at Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865, that the last enslaved people in America were finally set free,” the pamphlet read.
Hochman wasn’t the only one on whom the sculpture had the desired effect.
“When he unveiled it, I thought, ’Is that it?’ I thought, ‘My gosh, I’m not impressed at all,’” Grace Sanders, of Buckhead, recalled with a chuckle. “(But) you have to get the side view and learn what it represents … it’s a beautiful representation.”
The sculpture was made by Kennesaw State University students Preston Holladay and Emmy Keenan under the supervision of Page Burch, director of the university’s master craftsman program. It was funded by Bob and Beth St. Jean, Cobb Landmarks members.
The sculpture was made by 3D-scanning Harp, who had to stand still for 30 minutes as she was scanned. Made of thin pieces of weathering steel, the sculpture features a rusted finish that will age into a deep brown over time, Burch said.
The rust is intentional, something made possible by the special property of weathering steel, specially formulated so that “rust seals it — it's not the cancerous rust like it is on mild steel,” Burch said.
Harp said modeling for the sculpture was an opportunity she did not want to pass on. When studying the antebellum South, “you don’t see the permanent commemoration or memorialization of a group of people.”
Veta Tucker, one of the event’s attendees, leads tours at the Smith Plantation in Roswell, another historic property.
Tucker said she had come to celebrate Juneteenth, “when my ancestors were able to celebrate their freedom.”
“I think that’s an important moment in our communal life, and it should be celebrated,” she said, “and it should be celebrated in places like this, where people were enslaved, so we don’t forget where we came from.”