Can Historic Murals Be Divisive?

There is an ongoing issue with racial division coming to the forefront lately. I usually don’t take on such political topics and it is not my intent to do so here but simply report and as usual show some connectivity to how art really is everywhere and relates in our lives.

There is controversy a-brewing at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, Alabama over the historic murals that were painted by Chicago artist John W. Norton. He painted the large-scale, eight-foot murals to depict the story of the Old South and the New South in the 1930’s when the courthouse was being built.

Old and New South Murals via BhamWiki on Art Is Everywhere

Old and New South Murals via BhamWiki

Jefferson County Courthouse Mural 1_Art Is Everywhere

Old South section via AL.com

Jefferson County Courthouse Mural 2 _AIE

New South via AL.com

Jefferson County Courthouse Mural 3_AIE

Old South full mural via AL.com

Jefferson County Courthouse Mural 4_AIE

New South full mural via AL.com

They have existed without complaint until recently when Anne Garland Mahler, a Birmingham native who teaches now at the University of Arizona, started an online petition on change.org to have them removed because she cites them as being racist.  She indicates, “These murals have been described by scholars as white supremacist images and even the Chicago firm, Holabird & Root, that originally designed the courthouse and commissioned the paintings, has stated their support for the removal of the murals.“…”Since these murals are works of art and were painted by a famous muralist, we are not necessarily advocating for their destruction.”…”Most importantly, these images do not belong in the courthouse.”

There is precedent here with a twist when the now famous Maine Labor History Mural by artist Judy Taylor painted in 2008 was removed by then Governor LePage in 2012. It caused so much controversy that a lawsuit ensued by artists to keep it in place. Here was what resulted after a long battle, reported in Yankee Magazine:

The solution to many problems in this life is simply for enough time to pass for the problem to disappear on its own. What seems to have happened in the case of the Maine Labor History Mural is that, with litigation at an end, new Maine State Museum director Bernard Fishman, former director of the Rhode Island Historical Society, approached new Maine Labor Commissioner Jeanne Pacquette about exhibiting the mural in the museum lobby. Artist Judy Taylor was consulted on the move and consented. Gov. LePage apparently had no objections. And the U.S. DOL, which paid for the mural and had been demanding its money back if the mural were not exhibited, agreed that it would be okay for the mural to hang, at least temporarily, in a non-labor department facility…. And, with its new-found fame, the mural will now be seen by thousands more people than would ever have seen it in the tiny, airless DOL waiting room.

Maine-Labor-History-Mural_via Yankee Magazine on Art Is Everywhere

Maine Labor History Mural’s current home_ via Yankee Magazine

I would also say that controversy can be resolved with respectful dialogue — communication “with” rather than “at” one another.

It remains to be seen what will happen with the Courthouse Murals because removal can cause extensive damage and the cost can be exorbitant at an estimated $100,000, when that money and effort could be possibly better spent on the citizens and their community.

 County Commissioner President Pro Tem, Sandra Little Brown, writes an impassioned plea for their removal and makes some valid points for everyday living with the murals and what they represent. I’ve even tried to envision myself having to view them daily and recalling painful past struggles — if that is the only thing you see. However, they provide a beautifully rendered, stylistic depiction that is indicative of the Industrial Movement post Art Deco, despite the subject representing America’s honest history. They also show progress and historically represent the mindset of the 1930’s, not present day era, as they were painted then, not now. Diego Rivera also painted the American Worker in the 30’s during the industry labor movement. Detroit fought hard and won to keep these murals intact as their many other museum acquisitions had to be sold during the city’s declared bankruptcy. However, these are one of the main tourist attractions to the museum and have since become even more so visited.

Diego Rivera Murals at Institute of Arts in Detroit_via Huffington Post on Art Is EverywhereEqually persuasive is Wayne Flynt’s argument that,”Addressing systemic issues involves confronting policies, but dealing with historic symbols is more complicated and divisive.”  He is Auburn University’s professor emeritus of history. His closing phrase is poignant, “What, as a historian, I find wrong about that is this no longer allows us to have a conversation about the way we were,” Flynt said. “And the way we were is the problem.

Perhaps this is a solution, as stated on AL.com:

Linda Nelson of the Jefferson County Historical Commission has suggested installing educational materials near the pieces and a third mural documenting Southern progress. Jackson told the commission he’s open to that idea.

Nelson and Flynt say they understand the emotions that the artwork stirs, but they would rather preserve reminders of the region’s past than wipe it away.

Until a resolution can be found, at least there is comfort in enjoying the beautiful building and some of its many details.

Jefferson County Courthouse Mural 7_AIE

You can almost see Atticus here.

Jefferson County Courthouse Mural 6_AIE Jefferson County Courthouse Mural 5_AIEI’m from the South, a New Orleans gal, and I currently live in a Southern town of Alexandria, VA, right outside the most political town of Washington, DC. We are grappling with our own “Confederate” symbols that became controversial in the sad wake of the senseless Charleston church murders. Although some landmarks, streets and Confederate flags are being removed or replaced, this beloved statue, where the Confederate Soldier, entitle Appomattox stands in the middle of a busy street with his back to the North, is totally symbolic of the Civil War when the North and South were at such odds and pays tribute to VA’s dead in the wake of such a horrific war. It would take more than just a city order to remove as it is on the historic registry of landmarks and is owned by the state, so it is staying.

Appomattox via DCMemorials.com on Art Is Everywhere

Appomattox via DCMemorials.com

There are countless other murals and artwork that resonate with people because they precisely depict a figure who or an image that represents a time and place in America’s history that should not be forgotten.

As I write this piece and with these controversial racial times, I am reminded of one of my favorite books, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. I learned from reading it how Russia used the everyday tactic of simple changes to erase history, like changing street names, renaming and removing landmarks. The next generation never knows its past and does not reflect on it. Therein mistakes are often repeated. It has a striking similarity.

Recently in Seattle, James Crespinel, the original artist of his tribute mural to Martin Luther King below was touching it up and so many people stopped to complain because they were worried he might be damaging it. Once he explained his purpose, the passersby were welcoming of his careful and loving preservation.

MLK mural via TheStranger on Art Is Everywhere

MLK mural via TheStranger

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