Billie Holiday monument sculptor, James Earl Reid, 78, artist, advocate, fearless fighter

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James Earl Reid, the sculptor of Baltimore’s celebrated Billie Holiday monument, died of congestive heart failure on July 18, at age 78. (Courtesy photo)

By Jean Thompson
Special to the AFRO

James Earl Reid, the sculptor of Baltimore’s celebrated Billie Holiday monument, died of congestive heart failure on July 18, at age 78. 

Reid will be remembered as a champion for Black artists’ freedom to express their vision of the American experience. In his meticulous attention to artistic detail, in his demands for respect for artists’ rights, and in his mentoring, Reid could be “uncompromising,” said family and friends. 

“He was all about knocking down barriers and obstacles. He was fearless in his endeavors, fearless in what he took on,” said Robin V. Reid, his daughter. She called this a time of “rediscovery of who her father is” and preserving his rich legacy.

Reid pursued a legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court to protect his copyright of a commissioned sculpture, “Third World America: A Contemporary Nativity.” The sculpture depicted a Black homeless family, inspired by a child Reid saw living under the Jones Falls Expressway. Reid and the Community for Creative Non-Violence, a Washington, D.C., charity for which he sculpted the piece, had filed competing copyright applications in 1985. Four years later, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the court’s decision in Reid’s favor, affirming the rights of artists who work as independent contractors. 

Reid is best known in Baltimore for the Billie Holiday statue. The bronze figure of the legendary jazz songbird, featured in city tourism videos, attracts visitors from around the world. Her signature gardenias adorn her hair. Behind her, a crow pecks at a gardenia, which for Reid represented the Jim Crow segregation endured by Black people. 

“Not enough recognition has been shown for the cultural asset that James Earl Reid is,” said Louis Fields, the Black history preservationist and tour operator.  Reid sometimes met Fields’ tour groups at the statue. “The way he designed [the monument] speaks to Billie Holiday’s humanity, her activism, her talents, and her unfortunate experiences near the end of life. James uses his art to teach what Blacks went through and what we are still going through.”

The towering monument is testament to Reid’s perseverance. Reid stood his ground against alterations to his design made by the city. His original vision called for the 8-foot-6-inch, 1,200-pound Holiday figure to stand on a six-foot granite pedestal with bronze plaques. These plaques included a depiction of a lynching, the subject of Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit.” As project costs exceeded budget and concerns were raised about the imagery, Baltimore installed the $113,000 sculpture on a simple, two-tier cement base without Reid’s planned pedestal. Reid stayed home from the 1985 dedication and protested what he called censorship. 

After 24 years of lobbying, Reid prevailed. Baltimore’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP), steward of the city’s outdoor monuments, helped acquire funding in 2007 and 2008 to finish Reid’s design, said Kathleen Kotarba, then CHAP’s executive director. Atop its granite base at last, the monument was rededicated July 17, 2009.

“Jim was an artist’s artist!” Kotarba said recently. “Making art was the meaning of his life.” 

Another notable sculpture by Reid is a portrait bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at the Washington National Cathedral. “The [statue] by James Reid commemorates what is probably the most famous sermon ever delivered at the National Cathedral by Dr. King on March 31, 1968,” said Kevin Eckstrom, the Cathedral’s chief communications officer. “His artistry is a permanent reminder, for all generations, of Dr. King’s challenge to America in what would be his last Sunday sermon. Whenever visitors encounter that sculpture, they are reminded that Dr. King’s message lives on and continues to challenge and inspire us all these years later.”

Reid was born at Stump Hope Farm in Princeton, N.C., on Sept. 9, 1942. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1966 at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). He obtained a master’s degree in sculpture from the University of Maryland College Park, where he became an assistant professor and taught for 11 years. He also taught at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Morgan State University, Spelman College, Goucher College and Atlanta University. His works are held by the Evansville (Ind.) Museum of Art, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Towson University, and University of Maryland and private collectors.

“He was my painting and sculpture teacher in high school,” said the Baltimore artist Ernest Shaw, a 2021 Baker Award winner in visual arts. “I didn’t find out until later that he was also my cousin. He knew it, but he didn’t tell me at that time.” After Reid attended the Million Man March with Shaw’s father in 1995, they revealed the family ties. Shaw, who also became a teacher, appreciates the principles he saw in Reid’s professionalism.  

“He had an uncompromising understanding of excellence,” said Shaw. “He accepted nothing less from his students, and that is the most important lesson you could teach. For artists, and for Black male artists, he understood that the market would try to pressure you to acquiesce, collectors would pressure you to acquiesce,” to compromise on artistic vision. He was a scholar and a master at his craft: He could draw, paint and sculpt. He did not bend on how artists should be treated by collectors, or museums or historians.”

In March 2021, Reid visited the Billie Holiday statue with C. Ryan Patterson, public art project manager at the Maryland State Arts Council. Patterson introduced the artist to MICA curatorial practice students.  

“It meant so much to the students to learn directly from him,” Patterson said. 

He recalled Reid’s commitment to creative autonomy.  “He would say, ‘I’m out here burning, breathing life into stuff, and they’re giving me a hard time.’”

“You know, he still wanted to improve on the Holiday pedestal,” Patterson said. “We were talking about the monument base once, and he told me, “It’s an eighth of an inch too deep.”

The family plans a private service and a public memorial in the Upton neighborhood in the fall.

Jean Thompson is vice president of The Joshua Johnson Council (JJC), a Baltimore Museum of Art affiliate group, whose members are devoted to Black Diaspora art and artists.

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