This article by John Gregg was published by the Valley News on July 8.
SOUTH ROYALTON — Vermont Law School plans to paint over a mural in its student center that highlights Vermont’s role in the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement after members of the law school community objected to its depictions of African Americans and said it made some people uncomfortable.
VLS President and Dean Thomas McHenry said in a schoolwide email last week that students and alumni had raised concerns about the mural in the Chase Community Center, which was painted by Vermont-based artist Sam Kerson in 1993 with the school’s blessing, even winning recognition from The Christian Science Monitor at the time.
“More than twenty-five years ago, the mural was offered to and accepted by the School with the intention of honoring African Americans and abolitionists involved in the Underground Railroad,” McHenry said in his email. “However, the depictions of the African-Americans on the mural are offensive to many in our community and, upon reflection and consultation, we have determined that the mural is not consistent with our School’s commitment to fairness, inclusion, diversity, and social justice. Accordingly, we have decided to paint over the mural.”
The brightly colored mural — “The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” — comprises two 8-by-24-foot panels, with four scenes in each panel, and “celebrates the efforts of black and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the United States to achieve freedom and justice,” Kerson’s website says.
The first panel includes half-naked Africans being forced into slavery and sold at auction, as well as resistance symbolized, in part, by “the resurgence of African culture via drums, masks and costumes.”
The second panel includes images of John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe, as well as a scene in South Royalton where a blonde Vermont woman tries to block the view of a bounty hunter bearing down on fugitives trying to escape slavery on the Underground Railroad.
VLS students Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski, who have raised concerns about the mural, said in an email Wednesday that while Kerson “sincerely attempted to create a piece of art” celebrating the drive for freedom and justice, “unfortunately, not all intentions align with interpretation, with this mural serving as a current example.”
They said they had concerns about the accuracy of the entire mural, writing, “One issue of many, is the fact that the depictions of Black people are completely inaccurate. Regardless of what story is being told overexaggerating Black features is not OK and should not be tolerated. White colonizers who are responsible for the horrors of slavery should not also be depicted as saviors in the same light.”
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Kerson said he had been contacted by Davis last week. “They wanted to enlist me with the group that wanted to take the mural down, which of course I didn’t want to do,” Kerson said in a phone interview from Quebec, where he now lives.
He said he had not been told of McHenry’s decision, and likened it to the “thuggery” of the destruction of a statue of Douglass last week in Rochester, N.Y.
“This is a monument to abolition in Vermont and a description of the people who struggled against slavery, and it is important to our culture,” he said of the mural.
“To paint it over is outlandish — it’s like burning books,” he said. “It’s so inflammatory, I can’t believe it’s actually happening.”
The 73-year-old Kerson, a former Middlesex, Vt., resident who has been a driving force of the Dragon Dance Theater, also painted a mural known as “Columbus at the Gates of Paradise” in a prominent state conference room in Waterbury, Vt. It drew some criticism — and a curtain that was sometimes deployed — because of its depiction of topless Indigenous women, but survived until it was taken down after the complex was heavily damaged by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
Davis and Urbanowski, the VLS students, noted that a law school diversity committee in 2013 held a meeting about the VLS mural and that complaints raised then included it creating “unsettling and negative feelings about African Americans and African American history” and that it depicted African Americans as savages. More recently, they said, current students felt that the portrayal of green-colored colonizers becoming white liberators “perpetuates white supremacy, superiority, and the white savior complex,” and that the “the over-exaggerated depiction of Africans, … is eerily similar to Sambos, and other anti-black coon caricatures.”
Kerson said he based the characters in the mural on photographs from Cameroonian composer and author Francis Bebey’s book African Music: A People’s Art, and that they are meant to appear as heroic figures. His defenders said Kerson can be thought-provoking, but well-intentioned.
David Ransom, a retired Congregational minister who created a Vermont chapter of Veterans for Peace, said Kerson’s work needs to be looked at in-depth.
“He does very challenging work, but people don’t always get it,” said Ransom, 87. “It’s like many artists — when you first look at them, they are not always understood.”
Davis and Urbanowski are hopeful that a Black muralist will be chosen to paint whatever replaces the mural in the prime space, which Kerson said is one of the best for a mural in the entire state.
And the email from McHenry, the VLS president and dean, also signaled that what ultimately adorns the space will involve community input.
“We look forward to a conversation with the members of the VLS community regarding how this wall space can be better used for a purpose that is more reflective of and consistent with our values,” McHenry wrote.