By Lorentz Hansen, Copy Editor
On July 6, Vermont Law School Dean Thomas McHenry notified the VLS community that the mural on the second floor of Chase Community Center, “Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave,” would be replaced. This announcement came after a push, led by rising 3L students Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski, demanding the mural be replaced.
Davis and Urbanowski distributed a letter via email to several current students and alumni on June 30, stating their position on the mural and asking those in agreement to sign. Seventy-three current students and 39 alumni cosigned the letter, which was then sent to Dean McHenry and other members of the VLS Administration, according to Christopher Smith (Class of ’17). Smith noted that 70 additional alumni expressed support for the letter after it had been sent. One alum even wrote directly to the artist, according to Smith, asking him to reexamine the work from a contemporary lens and to support its replacement.
Sam Kerson and several of his assistants painted the mural in 1993 with funding from the Piffin Foundation. The mural portrays eight separate scenes across two 8’x24’ panels. According to Kerson, the mural “celebrates the efforts of black and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the United States to achieve freedom and justice,” according to Kerson’s website.
In their letter, Davis and Urbanowski expressed their appreciation for “the time and money that the Piffin Foundation and artist Sam Kerson put into their efforts to illustrate a sensitive and important time in American and Vermont history.” They did “not dispute that Sam Kerson sincerely attempted to create a piece of art that would ‘celebrate the efforts of Black and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the United States to achieve freedom and justice.” “Unfortunately,” they wrote, “not all intentions align with interpretation, with this mural serving as a current example.”
As a result, Davis, Urbanowski, and many in the VLS community demanded the mural be removed and replaced to hold the school accountable for making VLS “an inclusive place for Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) students.”
Davis and Urbanowski referenced the recent global protests against police brutality and racial discrimination in their letter, noting how the protests “call on us to hold institutions and organizations accountable for their past actions while ensuring equitable inclusion of BIPOC individuals.” Given the recent international support and momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement, they said, “now is the time for us to hold our institution accountable”
The mural has affected several students’ connection with the space and with the school, they wrote. According to the letter, several BIPOC students found the mural “inaccurate and dispiriting,” to the point that they did not interact with that area of the VLS campus. “Non-Black students and faculty may never truly understand what it is like to have an image trigger intergenerational trauma and prevent you from feeling safe in a space that you have come to love,” wrote Davis and Urbanowski.
“I have questioned the role of the mural since the first time I saw it,” wrote Davis in an email. “I was shocked, because Vermont Law School prides itself on being focused on inclusion and open-minded learning, yet they had a mural depicting slavery in this insensitive and demoralizing way.”
This conversation around removing the mural is not new. In March 2013, the school’s Diversity Committee held a special meeting to discuss the Chase Mural. This meeting served as a way for the VLS administration to gather students’ comments or concerns about the mural. The responses, according to Davis, were “overwhelmingly negative.”
Among the reactions, Davis noted one student’s confusion as to what the mural stood for. Other students expressed concern about the white colonizers being depicted as green in the mural, which the students said, “disassociates the white bodies from the actual atrocities that occurred.” After emancipation, the mural depicts the colonizers as white rather than green, which some students said “perpetuates white supremacy, superiority, and the white savior complex,” particularly in combination with “the over exaggerated depiction of Africans, which is eerily similar to Sambos and other anti-black coon caricature.”
Davis and Urbanowski noted that the mural, if replaced, will always remain part of VLS’s past, but that it should not occupy such a prominent space when it is causing pain and discomfort to many Black VLS community members. They requested the school donate funds for replacing the mural with, “an updated and more inclusive and accurate depiction of African American History, African American advocacy, and African American History celebration in America and Vermont.”
“Once the mural is gone, students of the future will not have to be uncomfortable anywhere on campus,” they wrote. “It is time for the school administration to listen to students from the past, present, and future by removing and replacing the mural.”
Dean McHenry responded to the letter in an email to the VLS community. He wrote that the recent protests against police brutality and racial discrimination, “require all of us to consider whether any of our operations or facilities discriminate or perpetuate harmful racial, gender, or sexual orientation stereotypes.”
“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,” he continued. The mural has been “offensive to many in our community,” he noted, and therefore “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, he wrote, “we have decided to paint over the mural.”
Dean McHenry thanked the students and alumni who raised the issue with the Administration. “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,” he concluded.
According to an interview with the VT Digger, Davis contacted Kerson to ask for his support in taking down the mural. Kerson compared replacing the mural to the “thuggery” behind the destruction of a Frederick Douglass statue in Rochester, NY, which was discovered on July 5. Kerson said that painting over the mural was “outlandish,” akin to “burning books,” and that he “can’t believe it’s actually happening.”
Kerson painted another mural in a conference room of the state Human Service Agency in Waterbury, VT, that also caused some controversy. The mural, “Columbus at the Gates of Paradise,” depicts Christopher Columbus’ arrival to the Americas. Several employees complained about the mural, according to a 1992 article on the piece, which depicts several nude Native American women. A curtain was sometimes drawn over the mural at the request of employees—a solution Kerson suggested for the Chase mural—and the mural was eventually removed in 2011 after the building was damaged by Tropical Storm Irene.
Following Dean McHenry’s email, Davis and Urbanowski issued a statement in which they expressed appreciation for the school’s decision to paint over the mural, and they provided additional details about their demands. “We want to commission a new public art mural created by a Black muralist, which accurately reflects and depicts historical moments in Black History, Black advocacy, and Black History celebration in America and Vermont.”
In addition to a new mural, they asked that a reading corner be placed in the Chase Lounge, with Black literature and works that encourage investigation of white supremacy and the effects of bias on BIPOC communities.
After several news outlets covered this effort, Davis expressed via email his continuing concerns about misrepresentation, which extend beyond the mural. “April and I crafted the original letter sent to Dean McHenry and responses to media requests using specific language to describe the mural: insensitive, demoralizing, inaccurate, dispiriting,” he wrote. Many articles covering the issue, however, have stated in their headlines that the mural was “deemed racist.” “While there may or may not be students and others who feel that way, that was not how April and I articulated the issues,” he wrote.
This misrepresentation is common in Vermont media’s coverage of stories involving BIPOC community members, and, “is toxic and another form of systemic and institutional prejudicial practices,” Davis said.
As for the mural, no details have been released yet as to its removal and/or replacement. According to Valley News, the School’s Board of Trustees is holding a special meeting today to decide “whether to accept VLS Dean Thomas McHenry’s recommendation.” At this time, no information has been released about the Board’s process or their decision.
Update:* On Friday, July 24, the Board of Trustees unanimously “affirm[ed] the administration’s decision to cause the mural to be removed,” according to an email from Dean McHenry. The Board is “fully supportive of the decision previously made by the administration,” he wrote. The administration is working to implement the decision now that the Board has approved, and “will work with the artist to effect a timely removal of the mural.”
* Last updated Saturday, July 25, 4:35pm