The Jefferson County Mural Committee will hold their inaugural meeting Wednesday, Nov. 18, to discuss recommendations for the fate of the historic murals in the lobby of the Jefferson County Courthouse.
Jefferson County Commissioner Sandra Little Brown, who is a member of the committee, believes the murals—one of which depicts slaves picking cotton in a field, the other men working in a furnace—does not tell the whole story of Birmingham.
As racial tensions throughout the country peaked with riots in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere, Brown said she was contacted by the Birmingham chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) about the murals.
“I admitted to them that I thought they were offensive too,” Brown said from her office on the second floor of the courthouse. “But I also am a lover of art. The murals as they are now don’t tell our whole story.”
Brown said that that she began meeting with the NAACP every week to try and work out a solution. “I wanted to let them know that we are concerned about this too,” Brown said.
The 17-member Jefferson County Mural Committee was formed as a result. Every county commissioner was able to make appointments to the committee. Brown said the reason there are so many members is because Jefferson County is a densely populated county and they wanted plenty of voices to be heard during the recommendation process.
Originally painted in 1931 by Chicago-based artist John W. Norton, a renowned muralist in his own right, the depictions give historical context from the transformation of the “Old South” to that of the “New South.” By all accounts, the current criticism has been directed largely at the slave depictions in the “Old South.”
In Norton’s biography at the Art Institute of Chicago, a brief description of the “Old South” mural reads:
“A young woman in period dress towers like a symbolic matriarch above a columned plantation home, river and steamboat; a tree-lined levee; and rows of sugar cane and cotton worked by African Slaves. Here is the myth of Southern genteel culture, typified not only by the towering matriarch, but by a young lady and gentlemen riding through the southern fields.”
When the murals were first painted there was sharp criticism of the slave depictions; some even saying the slaves were too “wild” looking. In letters obtained by Weld, administrators with the Jefferson County Commission wrote to Norton asking him to make the slave renderings more realistic.
Herbert S. Salmon, the secretary for the Jefferson County Commission at the time, penned a letter dated Feb. 8, 1932 to Norton, saying, “There has been an almost unanimous criticism of the three negro cotton pickers. The center negro figure is very good, but the two figures on the right and left which are presumably female negro cotton pickers have been subject to considerable criticism.
“They seem too wild looking for the more or less lazy negro of the cotton patch…The figures are much too vigorous and their facial expressions are more like the jungle than the south,” Salmon wrote.
In 2015, the criticism is different. An online petition started by Anne Garland Mahler demands the “Jim Crow” murals be taken down at once.
“These murals were painted in 1931-32 in the midst of Jim Crow, and they both romanticize a hierarchy of labor in which black people are positioned at the lowest level,” the petition reads. So far there have been 182 signatures.
For Brown, it’s time for a rebranding in Birmingham. The depictions of the “New South” have become antiquated, Brown said.
“When people walk into the courthouse, which is a symbol and institute of justice for all, and look up and see that, do you think they feel like they will receive full treatment? The story just stops there,” Brown said.
However, Brown does not want to whitewash history. There are two walls adjacent to the murals that she believes will be a perfect place to finish the story. “I’ve had letters from African American citizens asking not to destroy the history, because that what it is. It’s part of us. Think of all that has happened since then. I want to do what’s right for all the people,” Brown said.
After the November 18 meeting, the committee will have 120 days to submit their recommendations for the fate of the murals.
The following is a full list of the committee members:
- Sandra Little Brown, Jefferson County Commissioner
- Joe Knight, Jefferson County Commissioner
- Ahmad Ward, head of education and exhibitions at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
- Dr. Carl Marbury, former president of Alabama A&M
- Evan Williams, Birmingham Land Planning Department
- Eyrika Parker, radio host WJLD
- Gail Andrews, director at the Birmingham Museum of Art
- Graham Boettcher, curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art
- Gwen Webb, Foot Soldiers International
- Hezekiah Jackson, president of Metro Birmingham NAACP
- Jeff Freeman, Wells Fargo, Trussville
- Kate Nielson, former executive director of the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham
- Linda Nelson, Jefferson County Historical Society
- Mark Kelly, publisher of Weld for Birmingham
- Odessa Woolfolk, board member Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
- Pastor Steve Green, More Than Conquerors Faith Church
- Randall Woodfin, Birmingham Board of Education.