Controversy Rages Over Allegedly Racist Alabama Courthouse Murals

Should Jefferson County remove its John Warner Norton murals?

John Warner Norton, The Old South, which some are calling to be removed from the Jefferson County Courthouse in Alabama. Photo: Frank Couch.
John Warner Norton, The Old South, which some are calling to be removed from the Jefferson County Courthouse in Alabama. Photo: Frank Couch.

Should an Alabama courthouse remove The Old South, a controversial Depression-era mural depicting slaves at work in the cotton fields?

The NAACP has called for the removal of the allegedly racist artwork, while others favor adding a plaque describing the historical context for The Old South and its companion piece, showing the rise of modern industry. The 1931 murals are the creation of Chicago artist John Warner Norton, who also painted murals in various American cities.

The Jefferson County Historical Commission has formed a committee to study the issue. It will be chaired by Commissioner Sandra Little Brown, who told local CBS affiliate WVTM 13 that “Art is art, but the art downstairs is totally incomplete because it speaks of slavery. Where is the progression?”

“I think right now they are inappropriate,” Gail Andrews, director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, told WVTM 13. “There’s no interpretation. They need either further explanation or additional content.”

John Warner Norton's companion mural to The Old South, which some are calling to be removed from the Jefferson County Courthouse in Alabama. Photo: Frank Couch.

John Warner Norton’s companion mural to The Old South, which some are calling to be removed from the Jefferson County Courthouse in Alabama.
Photo: Frank Couch via AL.com.

“It is our opinion that the symbols embrace inhumanity, bigotry, and division,” local NAACP Hezekiah Jackson told the Jefferson County Commission in September, according to local CBS affiliate WIAT.

Birmingham native Anne Garland Mahler, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, has started a change.org petition calling for the murals’ removal, noting that the artworks “romanticize a hierarchy of labor in which black people are positioned at the lowest level.” The petition currently has 171 supporters. Mahler is at work on a book titled The Color of Resistance: Race and Solidarity from the Tricontinental to the Global South.

Linda Nelson, of the Jefferson County Historical Commission, says the murals should remain, noting that Norton was a nationally renowned artist and that the Jefferson County paintings were his final commission. “We can’t go around erasing the artifacts of history,” she told WIAT. “It would be a great loss.”

There has been similar backlash in recent months against displays of the Confederate flag and statues of Confederate leaders following the mass shooting at a black church in Charleston by white supremacist Dylann Roof. In July, a 2001 mural in a Florida courthouse depicting members of the KKK also made headlines after calls for its removal.

Replacing the Norton murals would cost $100,000, officials told WRBC. The committee has four months to come up with a recommendation.

Swastika-like symbols which some are calling to be removed from the Jefferson County Courthouse in Alabama. Photo: Frank Couch.

Swastika-like symbols which some are calling to be removed from the Jefferson County Courthouse in Alabama.
Photo: Frank Couch.

The courthouse is also considering removing carved marble designs resembling swastikas from the building’s entrance. Those designs appeared before the Nazi party adopted the pattern, previously an Indian peace sign. The courthouse swastikas actually point in the opposite direction of the famous Nazi insignia, but “some people perceive that as a vestige of Nazism,” commissioner David Carrington told AL.com.

“It’s something that we would welcome if people felt it was appropriate to remove,” Daniel Odrezin, the assistant executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation told WIAT, adding, “It’s certainly not something that we, as the Jewish Federation, are calling for.” He noted that the Federation does not believe that the symbols indicate “that Jefferson County believes in any of the antisemitic sentiments that today are regularly, and understandably, associated with the swastika.”


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