The Vermont Law School Board of Trustees has given an artist 90 days to remove a controversial mural depicting slavery before the school itself will remove it. The mural was originally intended to honor African Americans and abolitionists involved in the Underground Railroad after some school community members said the depictions are offensive, the school BoT said.
The decision, announced Friday evening after the board met that day, varied slightly from an earlier statement this month from VLS President and Dean Thomas McHenry that it would “paint over” the mural by artist Sam Kerson. McHenry had previously noted that many in the VLS community now find the mural “offensive” because of its depictions of African Americans.
Painted and installed in the VLS Chase Community Center in 1993, “The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” “celebrates the efforts of African Americans and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the country to achieve freedom and justice,” Kerson’s website says.
But students at the law school in 2013 had told a diversity committee that the mural — which comprises two 8-by-24-foot panels, with four scenes in each panel and includes half-naked Africans being forced into slavery and sold at auction — was “unsettling” and depicted African Americans as savages.
Students and alumni have raised concerns about the mural in the student center, which was painted by then-Vermont-based artist Sam Kerson in 1993, VLS president Dean Thomas McHenry said in an email to the school community this week, according to the Valley News.
“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,” McHenry said in the email.
The colorful mural entitled “The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” depicts Africans being forced into slavery and sold at auction, images of John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and a blond Vermont woman trying to block the view of a bounty hunter looking for fugitives trying to escape slavery on the Underground Railroad.
VLS students Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski said in an email that they have concerns about the mural’s accuracy.
“One issue of many, is the fact that the depictions of Black people are completely inaccurate. Regardless of what story is being told over exaggerating 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,” they said.
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