Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Museum restoring statue of county's first black juror

JOHN C. ENSSLIN Updated: December 10, 2010 at 12:00 am

One thing Matt Mayberry liked about going to work at the Pioneers Museum in recent years was watching people interact with the statue of William Seymour.

The bronze statue depicted a neatly-dressed Seymour, El Paso County’s first black juror, standing next to a metal bench with his fedora on the bench. Sculpted by New Mexico artist Christina Huerta, the statue had been a fixture at the museum’s front lawn since February 2002.

Nearly everyday, people would sit next to him on their lunch break or put an arm around his shoulder or frequently have their picture taken with Seymour, a former slave who homesteaded in Kansas after the Civil War and later moved to a large tract of land near Black Forest.

“It’s beloved,” Mayberry, the museum’s executive director, said recently about the statue.

But the statue wasn’t feeling the love early on the morning of July 15, when a suspected drunken driver allegedly drove through a red light at 1:30 a.m., jumped a curb in the 200 block of South Tejon and rammed the artwork.

Courthouse regulars were upset the next day to see Seymour and the bench draped in yellow crime scene tape. The impact of the crash did not cause any serious aesthetic damage to the statue itself, but it did knock Seymour off his moorings and left the bench a mess of bent metal.

“I was glad nobody was sitting on the bench when it happened,” Huerta said from her Santa Fe studio. “It was an honorable statue and for that to be hit is a real shame. Hopefully it will be restored to its original beauty.”

Since the accident, all that remains is a bronze plaque set in the ground where the statue once stood.

The plaque notes that Seymour, who lived from 1843 to 1920, was representative of black American pioneers, the “invisible people of the Pikes Peak region” whose contributions to the area had been “largely unrecognized.” He served on the jury in the first trial in 1903 when the courthouse, now the Pioneer’s Museum, opened.

Colorado Springs police arrested John Ben Allen, 23, on charges of driving under the influence, failure to stop at a red light and reckless driving. Allen’s next court date is Jan. 13.

By then, Mayberry and employees in the city’s parks department hope to have the statue repaired. Almost from the day of the crash, museum officials decided they would do what was needed to restore the artwork.

For now though, the statue is stored in a nondescript downtown warehouse where the museum keeps the parts of its collection not currently on display. On a recent visit, the sculpture of Seymour was on its back between a pile of lumber and a large gray horse once used as a display in a saddle and tack store. The twisted wreckage of the bench, with the fedora still bolted to the slats, was piled in a heap nearby.

The restoration effort has gone through several phases. At first, Mayberry contacted Huerta to see if she could locate a duplicate of the metal bench. She could not.

Next, parks officials tried to find a replacement bench. But the original is an unusual size, smaller than the benches the city normally uses. It has to be precisely that height in order for Seymour’s left hand to rest on the top slats of the bench.

Huerta said she used a model of a bench that would have been historically accurate to Seymour’s lifetime. But thus far that authenticity has been difficult to duplicate.

For awhile, one parks worker volunteered to try to fabricate a similar bench, but that effort also proved to be impractical, Mayberry said.

So now, after scouring various bench supply catalogs, Mayberry believes the museum will be able to obtain one that is a close enough match. He hopes to have the order placed within a few weeks.

He’s also hoping to find a way to recover the cost of the repair job, which he estimates will run at least $2,000.

It won’t be coming from taxpayers, he said.

The museum is responsible for all the city-owned pieces of outdoor sculpture. There are about 90 pieces in the collection, ranging from the Seymour sculpture to the statue of William Palmer at Nevada and Platte avenues.

All of these works of art were privately funded and no city funds are available or used to maintain them, Mayberry said. Since 2001, whenever a piece of outdoor sculpture is added, the city requires an endowment equal to 10 percent of the purchase price to be set aside for maintenance.

The city does not have maintenance funds for items acquired prior to 2001 and there’s a “significant” backlog of work that needs to be done on those items, Mayberry said. And statutes do get vandalized, “more often then I’d wished,” he said.

“We would gladly speak to anyone that would like to help us fund sculpture maintenance issues,” he said.

The Seymour statute, however, will be back although no firm date has been set for the restoration, he said. It’s the only piece of city-owned sculpture that celebrates a person of color, he noted.

“William Seymour is an important piece of sculpture in our community,” he said.

It’s also an important piece to the Seymour family. Huerta recalled how several generations of his family attended the dedication of the statue.

“They were old and young people who had come from all over the country,” she said. “That made it really special.”

For more on William Seymour, visit “The Sidebar” blog at gazette.com.

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