By Eva Potter
Sept. 15 was a dark day in Birmingham, Ala., when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed by white supremacists, killing four young, African-American girls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley — and injuring 22 others.
Known as the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, the event served as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement and spurred support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
That was 1963 and now, 50 years later, they have been honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest Congressional civilian honor, to posthumously commemorate this turning point in American history.
This medal is awarded to people “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field long after the achievement.” Each award is specifically designed by the United States Mint and is individual to the person honored.
What does this have to do with Ellicottville? Local artist Barbara Fox, whose studio and gallery are located at 42 Mill Street in Ellicottville, designed the obverse (heads side) of this very special medal.
As a United States Mint Artistic Infusion Program (AIP) Master Designer, who has received approval for many previous coin designs, Fox was contacted last June and asked to work on a design for this medal.
According to Fox, medals and coins usually have a one- to two-year lead time, creating real sense of urgency. (Fox also designed Montana’s Glacier National Park quarter and First Spouse, American Eagle and Girls Scouts coins for the U.S. Mint.)
“I was happy to accept the assignment and was given three weeks to design the obverse. There were two other artists working on an obverse design, and a few artists working on a reverse design as well,” she said. “We had three weeks to get our finished drawings to the Mint in order for them to present to the committees involved in selection of the designs.”
Before she starts designing, Fox tends to do a lot of research and the first steps in designing this medal included a “lengthy phone conference with people involved in the Civil Rights movement, the Coin Advisory Committee, and Mint employees involved in producing the medal.”
Fox felt strongly about using the images of the four little girls, because their deaths played an important part in the Civil Rights movement.
“People all over the world realized what a powerful struggle was taking place in the United States,” said Fox.
Although the artists were given quite a bit of freedom in their design, but they did face some challenges. They could not use the girls’ images on the medal because of copyright issues, so Fox decided to use a silhouette image.
She explained, “It had the emotional quality I wanted and was representative of the four girls.”
The medal was “sculpted by United States Mint Sculptor-Engraver Jim Licaretz and features the silhouette of four young girls … The victims’ names, ‘Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley,’ are inscribed around the border of the design. The quote ‘Pivotal in the Struggle for Equality’ and additional inscriptions ‘September 15’ and ‘1963’ are incused across the silhouettes.”
Fox was invited to the presentation ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10.
“This was the first Congressional Medal I have designed and I was excited to go,” said Fox. “One gold medal was made and given to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The medal is solid gold and is about 3 inches in diameter.”
Fox said the ceremony was held in the Capitol and was attended by many family members of the four girls, the mayor and several council members of Birmingham, Ala., and other people involved in the Civil Rights movement. Spike Lee, who had had directed and produced a documentary film about the bombing, also attended. Several members of Congress including Representative Terri Sewell, who was instrumental in having the medal awarded, gave speeches.
You can purchase bronze replicas of the medal at www.usmint.gov.