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Imagine walking into a courthouse for jury duty and finding yourself surrounded by scenes depicting your enslaved ancestors. That’s what many black people in Jefferson County, Alabama, have been experiencing for the past eight decades when they’ve visited their courthouse to find it decorated with two murals, painted in 1931 and 1932, of slaves picking cotton and shoveling coal.
According to local news station WVTM, the city is now considering taking down the murals after members of several organizations — including the NAACP, the International Organization of Foot Soldiers, the Urban League and Team Seven — demanded their removal. The protesters have also been circulating a petition online. Reverend Anthony Johnson of the NAACP told the station, “What these murals represent is oppression and in a hall of justice it is misplaced.”
Jefferson County is one of many southern counties, cities, and towns that have been recently criticized for their public display of artworks, memorials, monuments, and flags related to the Confederacy. It seems that any urban memento of the antebellum past has become intolerable in the wake of Dylann Roof’s black church massacre in South Carolina last June. Yet some believe the case in Jefferson County isn’t so clear-cut — at least not as much as the removal of a Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse.
Historian Wayne Flynt told Alabama.com that while he understands why many find the murals offensive, he sees them as representing a historic episode that can’t be whitewashed. “I just think [the removal petition] is a distraction in the larger sense of what needs to be done,” he said. “What, as a historian, I find wrong about [the removal] is this no longer allows us to have a conversation about the way we were. And the way we were is the problem.”
The group Save Our South — which says its goal is “to provide education, preserve history, and unite everyone of all colors and backgrounds,” but which curiously uses the Confederate flag in its logo — said the same thing, according to the Alabama Political Reporter. “[We believe] it is detrimental to the preservation of history for future generations, if any monument, mural, memorial, or historical site is removed or desecrated,” it wrote in a statement. “This includes Confederate, United States, Civil Rights, any war, and religious monuments.”
They have a point. Slavery happened in Jefferson County. Blacks picked cotton and performed other back-breaking work while white masters presided over them, as muralist John W Norton depicted.
But the problem, some protesters say, is that the murals actually romanticize the era. Norton painted them during the Jim Crow years. Nostalgia for the Confederacy was rife and inspired plenty of cultural works, including Gone With the Wind.
Looking at Norton’s paintings, it’s admittedly hard to detect much sympathy or concern for his black subjects. The murals consists of two handsome, full length-portraits of a white woman and man. Beneath their feet are scenes of life in the town — one shows slaves working in the field, the other depicts a factory where a black man performs the least desirable job of shoveling coal. The murals suggest that blacks were the bedrock of the area’s economic growth, yet they’re the least important figures in the painting. Were these works brilliant social commentary, or merely emblematic of institutional racism?
Anne Garland Mahler, the Jefferson County native who started the petition, believes it doesn’t actually matter. “[The issue is] a courthouse where people expect to receive equality and fair treatment and the first thing you see when you walk through the door are two paintings [that] communicate the exact opposite,” she told WIAT.
That’s impossible to argue with. As a white woman, I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d feel good walking into a courthouse and seeing scenes of women bending over stoves or posing with vacuum cleaners. They would seem entirely out of place, unless maybe the point was to actually confront the past in a thoughtful, redemptive way. And white female oppression in the United States pales in comparison to what blacks endured in the 19th century. So what’s to be done?
County commissioner Sandra Little Brown, who helped organize the petition to remove the murals, has stated she believes the murals should be taken down and sent to a museum where they can be critically engaged with. “Since these murals are works of art and were painted by a famous muralist, we are not necessarily advocating for their destruction,” the petition explains. “Several of Norton’s other murals throughout the country have been removed and relocated for purposes of remodeling, and we believe this is something that is feasible to do.”
Linda Nelson of the Jefferson County Historical Commission has suggested a less invasive solution. She thinks the county should keep the murals where they are, but add context through educational plaques. She would also like to see a third mural installed that would show how things have changed. Hezekiah Jackson, President of Metro Birmingham NAACP, has said he’s open to that possibility.
Hopefully Jefferson County — and others like it facing similar problems — will find a wise and sensitive solution. On Tuesday, the Jefferson County Commission appointed Brown to lead a committee that will figure it out over the next four months. It includes commissioners, community members, and art experts at the Birmingham Museum of Art. Senior Curator Graham Boettcher told AL.com the museum has met with the commission to help it find an answer “that both respects and addresses the concerns of the community, while realizing the artistic value and educational opportunities the murals present.”