Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

NY Times: In Vermont, A Law School And Artist Fight Over Murals of Slavery

Vermont Mural

Following up on my previous post, 2nd Circuit To Decide Whether Vermont Law School Can Cover Underground Railroad Murals Against Artist's Wishes:  New York Times, In Vermont, a School and Artist Fight Over Murals of Slavery:

Created to depict the brutality of enslavement, the works are seen by some as offensive. The school wants them permanently covered. The artist says they are historically important.

For years, when students at Vermont Law and Graduate School came to Shirley Jefferson with objections to the murals in the student center, and their depictions of Black people that struck some as racist caricatures, the longtime Black administrator urged those protesting to move on.

Ms. Jefferson, 69, is no stranger to racism, nor to protest. Born in segregated Selma, Ala., in 1953, she helped integrate her high school, marched for civil rights and graduated from Vermont Law in 1986, later returning to work in admissions and alumni affairs. Still, hoping to avoid division, she advised the students to focus on their studies.

“I told them, ‘You all did not come here to fight over a mural, you came to get educated,’” Ms. Jefferson recalled one recent afternoon, her Southern accent still evident after more than two decades in northern New England.

Then came the summer of 2020, and for Ms. Jefferson and many others, a renewed commitment to confront embedded racism and insensitivity, even where it might be unintended. “When George Floyd was killed, all of a sudden I said to myself, ‘That mural has got to go,’” she said. “I called the dean, and he said OK.’’

That might have been that, if not for one complication: The artist who painted the murals 30 years ago as a condemnation of slavery, Sam Kerson — who is white — fought back against the plan to erase his work.

When his attempt to reclaim the murals failed — the paintings could not be removed from the walls without destroying them — Mr. Kerson sued to stop the school from permanently covering them, pointing to an obscure federal law that protects artists from certain types of “modification” of their art. After a two-year journey through the courts, the case landed last month before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, where the two sides presented arguments on Jan 27.

“It’s a major work, it’s my life, and it’s important that it be there,” Mr. Kerson, 76, said in an interview. “It’s historically important in what it says about Black people rising up to resist, and it’s important as a record of what we said in 1993.”

The two murals, each 24 feet long, depict the brutality of slavery, with scenes including a slave market, a slave owner wielding a whip and an attacking dog. They also show white Vermonters protesting slavery and helping people escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Bold and colorful, in a style more expressive than realistic, the works were inspired by Mexican muralists like José Clemente Orozco, whose murals at nearby Dartmouth College also once sparked calls for their removal.

For now, the law school has covered the paintings with white panels, suspended just above their surface so as not to damage them, pending the outcome of the court appeal.

(Hat Tip: Mike Talbert)

Prior TaxProf Blog coverage:

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