Jefferson County Commission members said Thursday that they’ll work together to address concerns surrounding two murals in the county courthouse building that members of a local NAACP branch have said are offensive and should be removed.
Two large murals in the building’s lobby feature black people doing manual labor against the backdrop of white people in more prominent positions. The murals by Chicago artist John Warner Norton represent the old and new South when its economy was based on agriculture and industrialization.
One mural features black people picking cotton beneath white men riding by on horses. The dominant image in the background is a white woman gazing toward the edge of the frame. The second mural features white and black workers doing manual labor beneath trains and smokestacks. A suited white man unfolding a large roll of paper is the dominant image in the background of that piece. Black people are at the base of both murals.
The pieces were completed in the early 1930s and are meant to honor workers’ contributions during each era, said Linda Nelson of the Jefferson County Historical Commission.
“Everybody recognizes the historical discomfort that they represent, but where do you stop with this sort of thing?” Nelson asked. She opposes removing the pieces and thinks renewed focus on Southern symbolism after the shooting of nine black people at a South Carolina church may be fueling the renewed push to take the murals down. “It’s just not a good thing to do to those murals and it’s just not a good precedent,” she said.
The murals are displayed in the building’s entrance next to Linn Park, which is named after a Birmingham leader who served in the Confederate Navy. The city’s parks and recreation board also called to remove a monument to Confederate soldiers from the park as Confederate battle flags were removed from public property throughout the South after the Charleston church shooting.
Metro Birmingham NAACP branch President Hezekiah Jackson said similar to the confederate battle flag, the murals represent dark historical periods and don’t belong in the county courthouse building.
“It symbolizes a time when bigotry was the order of the day and a lot of good people said nothing and did nothing even though they felt something,” he said. “We want to be known as a county that has moved beyond that point.”
Nelson suggested commissioning an artist to add a third piece chronicling the region’s progress since the civil rights movement and adding informational placards to explain the context of the murals.
Metro Birmingham native and University of Arizona faculty member Anne Garland Mahler told commissioners she started a national online petition to remove the murals from the building.
“Not only because they romanticize a racial hierarchy in which black people are shown working at the feet of white people, but also because of their location in a courthouse – a place that should communicate to anyone that enters its doors a message of justice and equality before the law,” she said. “They communicate the basic message of Jim Crow that although the industry has changed, racial inequality will remain the same.”
Commission President Pro Tem Sandra Little Brown and Commissioner George Bowman said they support calls to remove the murals. Bowman suggested donating them to a Confederate museum.
“I cannot expend taxpayer dollars removing those,” said Commissioner Jimmie Stephens, noting that the county recently came out of a more than $4 billion bankruptcy and commissioners have other pressing priorities. Stephens said he is interested in discussing the future of the murals with the Birmingham Museum of Art and others.
Commissioner David Carrington suggested using money from the BP oil spill settlement to deal with the murals. Carrington mentioned multiple images in the courthouse give a negative impression of Jefferson County, including symbols that resemble swastikas that are carved into the building’s foundation and portraits of former commissioners who have been convicted of corruption being displayed in the hallway outside commission chambers.
Brown said one of her concerns over the murals is what the images convey to people who are headed to court. She said the commission will discuss concerns over the murals and present ideas on what to do with them at an upcoming meeting.