As officials across the South wrestle with what to do about public monuments that reflect a racist heritage, an Alabama county may cover up two courthouse murals that some call offensive.
The Jefferson County Commission on Thursday endorsed a recommendation from a special committee to put retractable shades over murals in the Birmingham courthouse that depict black people picking cotton and doing other manual labor against a backdrop of white people in more prominent positions.
The commission didn’t take a formal vote, however. It’s not yet clear when that will happen.
Committee members and county commissioners said what began as a divisive and emotionally charged discussion evolved into an educational experience that taught everyone involved more about the region’s past, each other and the value of compromise. Members said installing educational panels alongside the murals could help pass that benefit along to the public.
“Not everyone can have it their way, no matter how strongly they feel,” said Carl Marbury the former president of Alabama A&M University who served on the committee. “In America we’ve always been able to talk it out, flesh it out and we do agree that the status quo of those murals will not do. But we do not want them destroyed or removed, because they teach us something about history.”
The murals “Old South” and “New South” by Chicago artist John Warner Norton were installed in the 1930s.
“Both of the murals represent unfair systems, but they didn’t see it that way in that time,” said Linda Nelson, executive secretary of the Jefferson County Historical Commission, who served on the mural committee.
Those who called for removing the large rectangular murals that loom over the courthouse lobby have said they romanticize slavery and other forms of inequality.
“We’ve come a long way and we don’t need to portray the past as it is,” said county commissioner Sandra Little Brown.
Brown, the Rev. Hezekiah Jackson, president of the Metro Birmingham branch of the NAACP, and others have said the artwork sends the wrong message to people who come to the courthouse seeking justice.
“It was a culture and a society and a political system and a judicial system that was completely dominated by white people and the murals reflect that Jim Crow society quite clearly,” said Robert Corley, a historian and educator who served as a consultant for the committee.
While the county has changed since the 1930’s, Corley said the underlying dynamics portrayed in the murals haven’t disappeared.
“The ethos of that previous culture, that previous society still prevail, still echo throughout the present,” he said.
The discussion of the murals comes amid renewed scrutiny of Confederate flags and other Old South symbols after nine black churchgoers were killed in Charleston, South Carolina last year. A white man who had been photographed with the Rebel flag has been charged with the slayings.
South Carolina officials removed a Confederate flag from their Statehouse lawn after the massacre, and Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley ordered Confederate flags removed from his state’s Capitol grounds. An African-American attorney in Mississippi is suing to eliminate the Confederate flag as a state symbol. Officials in Louisville, Kentucky, recently agreed to move a 70-foot tall Confederate monument the University of Louisville campus.
Amid those developments, Birmingham Museum of Art director Gail Andrews asked, “What do we save? What do we keep? What do we try to understand better about the forming of our nation and our county?”
“These are not murals that we take pride in today,” she said. “I appreciate that, but they are our history and we need to understand them.”
In 2011, Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black removed murals that had hung in his departmental headquarters since the 1950s, depicting slavery among other things.
“I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture,” Black said at the time.
The Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia later put them on display, but it added commentary and context, taking a critical look at the artwork and its place in history.
The committee’s recommendation to cover the Birmingham artwork wasn’t unanimous. Members compromised on installing shades and panels.
“The understanding of the context, the acknowledgment of the brutality of the implications of the murals themselves really helped all of us understand things a whole lot better,” Nelson said. “I don’t think any of the white people in the room escaped the feeling of chagrin and mortification behind the idea of the murals themselves.”