BALTIMORE– Coppin State University, the small public urban institution in Maryland, took another step this week toward linking its historical legacy with evolving events by unveiling a bronze bust of former President Barack Obama in honor of his efforts to acknowledge and recognize people most in need of help.
The bust, unveiled Monday in the university’s library, complements one a few feet away that honors Fanny Jackson Coppin, the former Washington, D.C. slave for whom the former normal school was named in 1926 after its founding in 1900 as a public high school for Blacks.
After gaining her freedom, Coppin graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and eventually became recognized as a pioneer in teacher education. Historical records say that Fanny Jackson Coppin founded the Philadelphia Institute, forerunner of Cheyney State University.
James Camphor, Dr. Maria Thompson, and Larry “Poncho” Brown. Photo by Anderson Ward.
A standing crowd of more than 125 people weathered rain and chilly temperatures for the early-morning event at which Coppin President Dr. Maria Thompson led other university system officials and alumni in saluting Obama.
“It is only fitting to honor the first African-American president, Barack Obama, on Presidents’ Day,” said Thompson, ticking off brief highlights of his eight years as the nation’s chief executive. Nods of agreement filled the room.
Before Thompson spoke, informal conversations among attendees added more insight into the significance of the Obama bust at the school.
“He is the modern symbol of coming together,” said Coppin State alumna and reference librarian Latrice Curtis. She said busts of Coppin and Obama – a former slave and a former president – complement one another at an educational institution in the middle of a neighborhood known more for the television drama series “The Wire” and the civil unrest in 2015 following the real-life death of Freddie Gray.
“That’s deep,” Curtis said of the emotional message sent by putting symbols of the two icons side by side on campus. “It can be a significant inspiration.”
With the unveiling this week of the Obama bust, Coppin continues its tradition of naming facilities and other sites on campus in honor of Blacks who made history. Its science building is named for science achiever Percy Julian. Its auditorium is named for noted writer James Weldon Johnson, co-writer of the Black national anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” And Coppin recently established the Frances Louise Murphy II Research Center, named in honor of the late publisher of the Baltimore Afro-American news chain.
Coppin becomes the second historically Black college and university in the nation to acquire one of the 250 limited edition sculptures created for the “Visions of Our 44th President” exhibition sponsored by the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
The ‘Visions’ exhibit, which began in 2012 at the Wright Museum headquarters in Detroit, drew the attention of nonprofit art fundraising veteran Peter Kaplan. Kaplan, based in New Mexico, took the Wright project to the next level. Through his Our World LLC Company, he worked with the Wright Museum to expand “Visions’ with a project to ask 44 artists to interpret the resin cast bust of an original lost wax sculpture by emerging sculptor Matthew Gonzales. The Obama bust unveiled at Coppin was based on the bronze sculpture envisioned by Gonzales.
“This project was not approached as a political project but as a historical project,” said Larry “Poncho” Brown, a Baltimore artist who was one of the 44 original artists working in partnership with colleague Charles Bibbs. While his rendering was not the final one cast for the limited sale, Brown said he was happy to have played a part in getting Coppin considered for it.
Coppin alum James Camphor and his wife, Peaches, put up the largest chunk of the funds to purchase the bust from Our World. It was supplemented by support from the Coppin State alumni association and several noted friends of the institution.
The other bronze sculpture was acquired by the University Museum at Texas Southern University.