Some surviving family members of the four young men from Tuscaloosa who were killed in the worst sports-related air tragedy in U.S. history want a statue being built in their memory moved to a more prominent location.

As the Thread first reported earlier this month, the city of Tuscaloosa has commissioned a $330,000 sculpture to honor Joe Hood, Larry Sanders, Robert Van Horn and Freddie Wilson, four football players from Druid High School who moved on to Marshall University in West Virginia.

The four Tuscaloosa natives were with most of the rest of the Marshall football team when their plane crashed just short of their destination on November 14th, 1970, killing all aboard.

As the city moves forward with the construction of the new $12 million Benjamin Barnes YMCA, municipal staff proposed honoring the Marshall Four with a sculpture by Caleb O'Connor, whose work is already on display in two places on the Tuscaloosa Riverwalk - the Minvera statue at Manderson Landing and the Deontay Wilder statue outside the Visit Tuscaloosa headquarters.

(Noah Lueker | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Noah Lueker | Tuscaloosa Thread)
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The council voted to move forward on the memorial Tuesday, but on Wednesday, some relatives of the Marshall Four told the Thread they aren't happy with the monument being placed at the new YMCA, which is being built next to the McDonald Hughes Center on Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard - about a mile further away from 15th Street than the existing Y.

Emma Hardy, the sister of Robert Van Moore, said her brothers and the other crash victims deserve to be closer to the heart of the West End, where people who don't understand Tuscaloosa's connection to the Marshall Crash can learn more and be inspired.

"I feel like there's not enough traffic that way by the Y site and this is like pushing them back, back in history, back down the field because that's way out there," Hardy said. "If we bring it closer in, we'll get more people to see that statue, look at it, and bring back history again for the people that don't know, the children and younger generations."

It's worth noting that the Benjamin Barnes Y being built and the McDonald Hughes Center are hardly dumps, they are modern facilities anchoring a growing region of west Tuscaloosa. Still, the family members who called the Thread this week said they remember when Martin Luther King Boulevard was still Moody Swamp Road and said there are better sites to honor their late loved ones.

Jerry Carter, the former President of the Tuscaloosa chapter of the NAACP, explained that there is a fenced-in field beside Central Elementary School where the Druid High football team once practiced.

"People would park cars and sit on the hoods of vehicles everywhere just to watch them practice because they were such a good football team," said Carter, who was 10 years old when the Marshall U plane crashed. "They went undefeated in 1969 and that high school was the glue that held the community together."

Gloria Mays, sister of Freddie Wilson, said that corner would be a better fit to honor the Tuscaloosa natives killed in that tragic crash.

"I would love for these statues to be on the corner of 15th Street and Martin Luther King," Gloria Wilson said. "That field is where my brother sweated and played and wrestled around every week."

Daphne Wilson, Freddie Wilson's niece, said she wanted to express her concerns about the proposed monument because her father, Freddie's brother, is deceased but she believes he would have also advocated having it relocated.

The family members also said they're not happy with photos of the first clay models of the statues, which they said fail to capture any of the players' defining features

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread & Canva)
(City of Tuscaloosa)

Tuscaloosa City Councilwoman Raevan Howard represents the area of west Tuscaloosa where the statues are planned, and she provided the Thread with a statement about the memorial. She said without the Elevate Tuscaloosa requirement to install public art at the YMCA, it's hard to say when the city might have the capital to honor these four men at 15th and MLK or anywhere else.

Howard said she and other city officials have met with Mays, Wilson and Hardy and have also spoken with other family members of the Marshall Four including some who support the location at the Y. Although there have been some disagreements about details, Howard said everyone has agreed on the merit of moving forward with a memorial.

"In these conversations, it has been agreed that it is time for us to properly honor these individuals," Howard said. "The construction of the new Benjamin Barnes YMCA requires 1% of the $10 million budget to be allocated to public art and additional funding has been secured to cover the total cost which is budgeted at $332,650.00."

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)

"When the idea was presented to me to have the statute honoring "We Are Marshall" placed outside of the BB YMCA we were excited and agreed that the YMCA was the best location for several reasons," Howard continued. "Hundreds of children will visit the YMCA on a weekly basis and the statue will serve as an inspiration for our children that role models can come from their City and not just from social media or TV. All the team members participated in sports activities at the YMCA. This location will allow easy and safe access to the statue because there will be two public institutions side-by-side. It will have daily maintenance and oversight from the YMCA team plus regular care and attention from the City."

"And lastly, if we do not choose to commemorate these extraordinary athletes through this budget at the BB YMCA there will not be funding to honor these individuals to this magnitude in the foreseeable future," she concluded. "Losing this opportunity would be a dishonor to the athletes, their families and their community."

Daphne Wilson said they heard that argument earlier this week and they aren't buying it.

"It's not about the grant, it's not about the money, it's about a heritage we have to honor because those are our little ones," she said. "This happened in 1970. Our families have waited 54 years, so if we have to continue to wait, that's OK."

The city council has already approved the $330,000 memorial at the YMCA and reversing course now would require additional action from the elected officials, but the surviving family members said they plan to make their case for a change of plans this Tuesday at the next city council meeting.

For updates on the matter as they develop, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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