Oliver Ussery waits to drop off mail and purchase stamps at the downtown Columbus post office Friday. In the background, on the wall, is the mural, “Out of the Soil,” by Beulah Bettersworth commissioned by the Section of Fine Arts in 1934. Photo by: Kelly Tippett
January 15, 2011 10:26:00 PM
It was 1939. Beulah Bettersworth of New York was in Columbus, taking in the scenery, for inspiration for her next work of art.
The artist had been commissioned by the federal government''s Section of Fine Arts to paint a mural to be installed at the downtown Columbus post office. Like its better known cousin, the Works Progress Administration, the Section of Fine Arts was part of the Depression-era effort to get the country back to work during the financial crisis of the 1930s.
After reviewing four submissions for the Columbus mural, the agency chose a scene with black field hands picking cotton. In the foreground, a white man is guiding a mule-powered plow. In the background are a church, cotton gin and lumber mill.
Many people have passed in and out of the post office for years without even noticing the mural. But it has the full attention of Ira Lanier, a native of Columbus who now lives in Colorado. Lanier has launched a one-man campaign to remove the historic mural, denouncing it as racist.
''Out of the Soil''
"Out of the Soil" was one of around 1,000 murals and paintings produced through the Section of Fine Arts, created in 1934, as the country struggled through the Great Depression. The agency commissioned work for post offices throughout the country.
The program was separate from the Works Progress Administration, established in 1935, which also commissioned artists and was much more far-reaching, creating more than 5,000 jobs for artists and producing more than 225,000 works of art, according to wpamurals.com.
Lanier has written to the postmaster general in Washington, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, The Dispatch, a consumer advocate in Washington, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Columbus City Councilman Gene Taylor in an effort to remove the work.
On a trip to Columbus last July, Lanier said his heart ached because of the painting''s "statement" of "bigotry and exploitation."
"In my wildest dreams, I can not envision that the sentiment and approval of blacks were considered, despite the overwhelming presence of blacks in the majority of these murals distributed throughout the South," the letter reads.
Other than a "generic" letter of acknowledgment from the U.S. Post Office in Washington, Lanier said he hasn''t gotten a response from his letters.
Lanier, who graduated from Hunt (then an all-black school) in 1958, proposes showing the piece at the public library or Mississippi University for Women during Black History Month or housing it at a black-history museum, rather than at the public post office where it invokes "painful memories" of "racial intolerance."
"In Columbus, I think there''s a wonderful story to be told of that era," Lanier said over the phone Friday. But the post office, he said, is not the place for the mural.
''That''s our heritage''
Of the handful of patrons polled at the post office Friday morning, most found the setting a historically accurate depiction of the rural Mississippi of the time. Some had passed through the post office without ever noticing the nearly 16-foot-wide mural.
Annie Jeffries, a lifelong Mississippi resident, looked at the painting for the first time on Friday.
"It''s very nice," she said. "It shows where we came from -- how we all had to struggle to be able to survive. I know about that because I grew up here. It''s my home. We did such as that; we picked cotton."
"That''s old-school Mississippi," said Shey Jenkins, looking up at the mural. "That''s our heritage."
"It''s what they do and still do around here -- grow cotton, as I understand," said Cliff Johnson.
Jenkins, who is white, said she "could see how it could offend some people," but said it''s "not necessarily" racist.
"I see black faces, and I see cotton. Picking cotton. To me, it is (racist)," said Doris Payton, who is black.
But Payton admits, because of experiences over the years, she looks at things differently.
"That''s what I look at when I see things like this -- to see what we (black people) are doing (in the pictures)," Payton said.
"When I look at it, it''s farming," said Johnson, who is white. "It''s something that''s a large part of this area - the agricultural industry."
In 1939, it was an even larger part of the area.
"People don''t realize, at one point, Mississippi was rural, rural, rural," said postal worker Henry Mixon, who has worked at the post office since 1985.
Mixon, who is white, sees the painting as an artist''s rendering of what she saw during her stay in Columbus.
"There''s a white guy plowing. Looks like to me, they''re all working together to get the crop in," he said.
When Mixon was growing up, his grandfather grew cotton in Vernon, Ala. "That was just part of it," he said. "They hired field hands when they needed help."
''Lots of blacks offended''
Bettersworth, originally from St. Louis, Mo., wrote on April 12, 1940, that her mural was hung "amid universal applause."
"It was really thrilling to see and hear the response of an audience so appreciative!" she wrote.
The letter was scrawled on Gilmer Inn stationery to Edward Rowan, then assistant chief of the Section of Fine Arts, an office of the Public Buildings Administration, Federal Works Agency.
The post office has that letter and documents from the era on file, including an unnamed note about the mural, possibly written by the local postmaster at the time the artwork was delivered. "Lots of blacks offended," the note mentions.
The unnamed reviewer also points out the mural isn''t perfect. The mule in the painting, for example, has a cow''s tail, and the plowman''s harness isn''t exactly right. Still, the note says the work was "pretty good for a Yankee woman who never saw the South end of a northbound mule."
Another criticism is there are too many field hands picking cotton in one place. "They would have been spread out throughout the field," Mixon noted Friday.
"If you look, most of the ones picking cotton are ladies, and that woulda been historically accurate, too," Mixon offered. "The men did what they called harder work -- carrying cotton bails and whatnot," Mixon said, noting he had picked cotton in his younger days.
"I wouldn''t call that easy work," he said.
In the last 20 years, Plexiglas has been put over the painting, on which Bettersworth did not put varnish.
"Almost all post offices had these murals, but they got tore down, burned down," Mixon said.
Just prior starting work on "Out of the Soil," Bettersworth completed a mural for the Indianola post office titled "White Gold in the Delta," which also depicted workers in a cotton field. The paintings were done in oil on canvas and affixed to the walls.
The Indianola painting has since been destroyed.
Despite Lanier''s objections to the piece, and mixed reactions to the mural by post office customers on Friday, all agreed the historic mural depicts a time that is long past, but shouldn''t be forgotten.
"I don''t (see it as racist) because we all had to do it in order to survive -- not just the blacks. I see nothing racist about it," said Jeffries, who is black. "People leave (the South) and want to change certain things, but you can''t forget that part because it''s a part of your life. That''s your beginning."
columbus69 commented at 1/16/2011 12:01:00 AM:
Maybe we should scrub all textbooks of most all history since according to these people's logic those textbooks as well as the actual historical facts are now racist. I think I'll write a letter to the Governor and demand the Ag Museum in Jackson be closed since there is a replica of a cotton gin, and said cotton gin is obviously racist.
dcornellius commented at 1/16/2011 6:46:00 AM:
I don't see how this mural is racist. Looks to me like a visual interpretation of sharecropping. It is just the artist's depiction of what she saw while visiting Columbus. I will admit that Mississippi has a dark past when it comes to race relations which can't be ignored. According to Wikipedia: [Although the sharecropping system was primarily a post-Civil War development, it did exist in antebellum Mississippi, especially in the northeastern part of the state, an area with few slaves or plantations and most probably also existed in Tennessee. Sharecropping, along with tenant farming, was a dominant form in the cotton South from the 1870s to the 1950s, among both blacks and whites, but it has largely disappeared.] Maybe we should take the time to look back and try to understand history before we paint every picture racist, literally and figuratively.
jacktown commented at 1/16/2011 8:12:00 AM:
I notice how people are commenting about the mural . but probally don't know anything about sharecropping well i do my mother and her parents sharecropped and it wasn't like what this story makes it out to be. they live on a plantion and work hard to pay off the debt that the owner said they owe but could never pay it off. even when they knew they bale enough of cotton to pay off their debt.the owner still said my grandparents owed him. it was just another form of slavery. it was obvious the owner wasn't going let them ever get out debt. so my grandparents took his children left.
zenreaper commented at 1/16/2011 8:12:00 AM:
Interestingly enough, the idea that black persons, in a "farm" setting, must be slaves, is, in itself, racist. They could just as easily been the farm owners daughters, hired hands, etc.
jacktown commented at 1/16/2011 8:35:00 AM:
zenreaper have your people ever sharecropp? I was talking about my parents and reference to the mural.
dcornellius commented at 1/16/2011 9:15:00 AM:
jacktown, I didn't say that sharecropping was good or bad. That's just the way it was. I have no idea what is was like because I was born in the 80s but Im pretty sure my relatives do and it wasn't easy. I couldn't imagine the struggles but I appreciate the contributions made. Whites and blacks sharecropped. Is it racist if both races had a debt placed on them that could never be repaid? Seems to me like it was just another example of a crooked landowner. It's a "visual representation" of the times. Lowndes County isn't exactly a metropolis. Im sure anybody who went back in time would see plenty of farmers and farmhands in the area because agriculture was a major source of income.
observer2 commented at 1/16/2011 12:28:00 PM:
I bet this Ira Lanier person doesn't even know what "racist" or "racism" means. Hey Ira, why don't you give us your definition of "racist" and "racism". Or , are you just trying to make trouble for no real reason. What do you do for a living? You need something else to do to keep you more occupied. We can get along much better without your offensive comments so why not stay out West. Surely you can find something to cause trouble about in CO.
kj commented at 1/16/2011 1:11:00 PM:
Meh. There's plenty of real racism to worry about. It's not a lost point that so many of these works have disappeared, though. It might be a reasonably prudent act to preserve it in a museum. We could update the resulting blank wall with a mural of the soccer/bridge/riverwalk/economic engine park.
itoosingamerica commented at 1/16/2011 1:13:00 PM:
There is not a problem with history. But since all of the people in America are not included in the history of America this bring forth a problem. Personally, I do not see anything racial about the painting. It is something wrong that the heart of the people have a desire to see what is depicted still in place.
raider commented at 1/16/2011 1:35:00 PM:
It is interesting how quickly people dismiss the complaints about this painting. People are passing it off as just a reflection of the times. Yet, in the files along with other notes is the comment "Lots of blacks offended". I wonder why were blacks offended if was just a depiction of life in mississippi at the time. I find it quite telling that during a time when blacks could be killed for speaking up, the postmaster could still tell that "lots" of blacks people were offended by this mural. I find it hard to comprehend how 70 years later, people can just dismiss the way black people felt at the time. Whether the mural was meant to be racist at the time, it is obvious the way it made black people feel at the time. And, it obviously continues to offend. The only difference is that blacks now have a voice and aren't afraid of the KKK when they speak up.
gaheritage commented at 1/16/2011 2:12:00 PM:
my grandfather fought so that the country could be free. get over racism, it's a personal thing, i see many of the comments where black people are just like whites, who by the way slaved on farms also, the black people whom are not offended by this mural just appreciate living RIGHT NOW in a free country. Enjoy the freedom people, it won't last long!!!!!!!!!!!!, and get over the excuse making.
sherrynms commented at 1/16/2011 3:26:00 PM:
I too think Lanier needs to find a much needed issue to take up. He doesn't even live in Columbus anymore, yet he wants to get something stirring among the residents, black or white. Why does everything have to be a racial issue? If one really wants to talk about slaves and slavery, the black man was NOT the first slave in our country, the Native AMericans were. It wasn't until the blackman fro AFRICA brought his own people over here to sell that the blackman became slaves. Read up on your history Lanier before you start a riff that doesn't need to be.
dcornellius commented at 1/16/2011 5:50:00 PM:
I can understand why Mississippi is last in the nation in positive categories and first in negative ones. The state is just stuck in the past while the world is passing it by. I pray God brings Mississippi out of the Dark Ages.
sophie424 commented at 1/17/2011 1:05:00 AM:
THIS A MURAL OF THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY. WE ARE ALL PRODUCTS OF OUR HERITIAGE AND THE HISTORY OF OUR FAMILIES. WE ALL SHOULD BE PROUD OF WHERE WE CAME FROM.
dukemeiser commented at 1/17/2011 8:13:00 AM:
Why would anyone, especially a black man, want to have it removed? Does he WANT us to forget about slavery? Images such as this serve as a constant reminder to every generation that we once judged people by the color of their skin. He is essentially trying to erase history.
kj commented at 1/17/2011 11:51:00 AM:
God is the reason MS is still in the dark ages. God never denounced slavery. As for pride, I'm not sure that there's any pride to be taken in where we came from. There's pride to be earned from the journey between "from" and "here," but where we're from is a circumstance over which we have no control and therefore nothing from which pride can be rightly derived.
One thing images like this can engender is a tyranny of low expectations. When we base our expectations of people based on their ancestry rather than their potential we impose an additional, meaningful (if subtle) cost on their success. This cost is born not just by them but by society as a whole.
shwilliams commented at 1/17/2011 12:46:00 PM:
You would think by now we could view history as history and nothing more but not the case. History is just that the past! People should see history and appreciate the changes that were brought about by events throughout history. Native Americans, African Americans and even white people have experienced strife and hoped for change at some point in history. Seems everyone is offended by this or that not taking into consideration the purpose. The artist I am sure in no way was promoting slavery or racism. We can not erase all of history but use it as a mirror of the past and see how it changed the present. Instead of complaining about a historical piece of artwork, we ALL as a nation need to pay attention to the civil liberties we enjoy in jeopardy with the changing laws within our government. Conflict among different races divide us as a nation. We all want freedom, peace and a safe nation to raise our families. These are the issues we need to pay attention to.
[email protected] commented at 1/17/2011 1:49:00 PM:
If you have a group that may feel insulted, and it's in a post office and not an art gallery, just take it down. Period.
observer2 commented at 1/17/2011 3:27:00 PM:
raider: It's pretty plain you don't know our history. The KKK was formed by liberal DEMOCRATS to regain power of the gov again. If you were a black person at the end of the Civil War you were a Republican. No doube this will surprise you there were more Black Republicans elected back then than white Republicans. So in order for the dems to regain power they formed the KKK to wack black and white Republicans, yes, white ones too. This is a total shock to most folks and I'm proud to say No Republican ever joined the KKK. It was the dems all the way. The last of the dem KKK members died just a few months ago, Senator Bird of West Virginia. Bill Clinton said at his funeral that Bird was just an old country boy who only did it to get elected. Bill was right. It was his party who started the KKK in order to gain votes for elections by killing Republicans , approxmatly 1500 whites and 3500 blacks, or warning them - either vote for the dems or be killed.
nabors1978 commented at 1/17/2011 3:37:00 PM:
This picture is history frozen in a painting. History good or bad needs to be remembered. It needs to be known in its original raw form and not distorted. Those that do not know history are destined to repeat it.
nabors1978 commented at 1/17/2011 4:04:00 PM:
Beware this issue is a hotbed for Mr LaNier and his family. His family does have connections and can get this painting removed. His wife is Carlotta Walls LaNier and she is part of the Little Rock Nine. She has written a book about her experience in Little Rock and does many speaking engagements. She has won awards with and has ties to the NAACP & ALCU. That was all found out by doing a quick 10 minute search on Google.
artvandelay commented at 1/17/2011 4:43:00 PM:
people are soooo sensitive.
nabors1978 commented at 1/17/2011 5:41:00 PM:
Sorry I meant ACLU
raider commented at 1/17/2011 8:38:00 PM:
observer2: I noticed you conveniently forgot to point out the Republican southern strategy. I guess we can all be experts on history when we make it what we want it to be. However, this has nothing to do with parties except to say that there have been racist in control of both parties for the most part. Let's be honest...hate sells and that's why the republican party has done well over the last few years. If fact, I am pretty sure that Lincoln would be kicked out of the current republican party. I am also pretty sure that the current members of the KKK are all republicans.
But back to the mural and whether it should be removed. Yes, it should be removed from the post office. It should be moved to a museum if we want to view it as a part of history. The note that says "lots of blacks offended" is a part of history and the feelings of those people should have been respected back then and now. However, in 1939 "lots of blacks were offended" and whites didn't care and I can tell by the comments here that whites still feel the same way.
melody commented at 1/17/2011 9:34:00 PM:
raider has been smoking loco weed or something. No way are repubs allowed in the for dems only KKK. You have to be a liberal to even apply for membership. raider is a very prejudice person by putting race on comments posted by bloggers. How can you tell what race the bloggers are when it's not stated by the blogger? Was raider going in and out of the post office in 39? What's Lincoln got to do with it ? Most blacks today think Lincoln was a democrat anyhow.
marie commented at 1/17/2011 10:32:00 PM:
I think it's a beautiful picture of USA history. I would be proud of my ancestors. I don't see black or white, I see people working hard on the land God gave us. To this day, farming should be one of our most supported and honored occupations. There is no need to feel any negativity. Try to feel pride and an appreciation. I KNOW they did.
raider commented at 1/17/2011 11:10:00 PM:
Marie: I appreciate your comments and I believe for the most part, people are proud of the history of thier ancestors. However, I am pretty sure there are many things that have happened in history that people are not proud of. For example, I don't think the descendants of the guards at Nazi death camps would be happy to see pictures of thier grandfathers, in full uniform, posted on the walls of the post office. I don't think that Jews would be happy to see murals portraying thier ancestors lined up to die at the hands of Hitler. But, we could all make an argument that it's just history and everyone should view it as such and shouldn't be offended. But we should remember that everyone is different and people see things differently. When we have a situation in which one group claims to be offended or injured, we should try to take a look at things from thier perspective. I still find it absolutely stunning that the people on this board still chooses to disregard the feelings of the black community from 1939, when the mural was commissioned, "lots of blacks were offended." But, I guess it's really not that stunning. The feelings of blacks were disregarded before 1939. Thier feelings have been disregarded since 1939 and it will be the same in 2139.
raider commented at 1/17/2011 11:20:00 PM:
melody: Think of the message and what the KKK stands for. Then think of the message of republicans and democrats and see which party is most aligned with the KKK. Whose birthday is the republican party and the KKK more inclined to celebrate? MLK or Robert E. Lee?
jaymike76 commented at 1/18/2011 2:09:00 AM:
Normally I'm for getting rid of anything racist but that mural doesn't seem racist to me. If you notice the plantation owner is out there in the field right along with the workers. That tells me that it's a joint effort to keep the plantation going. It's not like most images of the south where the owner is on a horse with a gun or a whip while the slaves(workers) are tending the crops. I actually don't mind it. I remember walking into the bank when i was little and seeing that and paying no attention to it. I am a born and raised Columbus, MS native that happens to be African American and i don't have any problems with that painting.
kj commented at 1/18/2011 8:31:00 AM:
"I don't think that Jews would be happy to see murals portraying thier ancestors lined up to die at the hands of Hitler."
Actually, it depends on the context of such a display. The Holocaust Museum, for example, would be an appropriate context for such. In that context context, it's not something to be celebrated, but something meant to be a sobering reminder of man's inhumanity towards his fellows. Absent that context, hanging singly in a post office in a small town, one could picture Jews being very uncomfortable and unsure if it might be there to commend the act instead of damn it.
observer2 commented at 1/18/2011 9:23:00 AM:
raider: How about reading this again because you still don't know what the kkk was all about.
It's pretty plain you don't know a whole lot about our history. The KKK was formed by liberal DEMOCRATS to regain power of the gov again. If you were a black person at the end of the Civil War you were a Republican. No doubt this will surprise you-- there were more Black Republicans elected to office back then than white Republicans. So in order for the dems to regain power they formed the KKK to wack black and white Republicans, yes, white ones too. This is a total shock to most folks and I'm proud to say No Republican ever joined the KKK. It was the dems all the way. The last of the dem KKK members died just a few months ago, Senator Bird of West Virginia. Bill Clinton said at his funeral that Bird was just an old country boy who only did it to get elected. Bill was right. It was his party who started the KKK in order to gain votes for elections by killing Republicans , approxmatly 1500 whites and 3500 blacks, or warning them - either vote for the dems or be killed.
It's obvious you're not a history buff, you need to do some research on Mr. Lee before making a donkey of yourself again. He had nothing to do with the kkk and when you read about his life you'll discover what a great man he was and you'll feel unworthy to even shine his shoes.
kj commented at 1/18/2011 10:26:00 AM:
"I'm proud to say No Republican ever joined the KKK."
Saying it doesn't make it so. Political demographics have made several large shifts across multiple categories. Trying to claim the racial high ground because Lincoln was a Republican and the KKK was founded by Democrats ignores the battle Republicans fought against civil rights gains in the middle of the last century and the current wave of anti-immigrant racism blowing through the Republican and Tea parties. But hey, don't take my word for it; just ask David Duke (who has been a member of the KKK while a Democrat, Republican, and a Tea Baggist).
melody commented at 1/18/2011 1:03:00 PM:
Saying it doesn't make it so even if it's the super lib kj saying it. kj has his wires crossed again. Fact- The Republicans passed the civil rights laws not long after the civil war ended which put everyone on the same level, all had equal rights. But with help from their kkk the dems regained power and repelled what the Repubs had passed. It remained that way until President Ike tried to pass the civil rights laws again but the dems voted it down. Then JFK brought it up again but was killed by a liberal democrat before it could be done. So LBJ had to let it be voted on even tho he was one of the dems who help shoot it down under Ike. Then , even tho the dems had the majority it would not have passed had it not been for the Republicans voting for it. So actually the Republicans passed the civil rights laws twice , the middle of the last century and the one before that. Just for raider's remedial--it was a liberal democrat who shot President Lincoln. Would raider be more inclined to celebrate Lincolns birthday or LBJ's or MLK??
gogetum commented at 1/18/2011 2:26:00 PM:
Just leave the painting where it is and stop all this non sense. For all we know the guy behind the mule could have been just a hired hand who knew how to plow. I've never seen a woman plow but I've seen them picking veggies. There's nothing offensive about this painting to normal educated people. Some people just like to cause trouble and this ira dude is one of them. And kj, you failed to mention that it's ILLEGAL immigration that people of all persuasions have a problem with. Not just for conservatives but liberals too. If kj lived on the border and had to dodge live bullets from dope heads running stuff in and out, maybe kj could understand it better? And from what I can gather from raiders comments-he is way more racist than the painting. It's obvious raider is black and hates white people. Is raider saying that the black guy (Steele) in charge of the Republican party, would not let Lincoln in the party? How goofy.
kj commented at 1/18/2011 2:45:00 PM:
Thank you for remembering to include a personal attack with all your comments, Melody. It's gratifying to see you continue to exceed even the lowest of my expectations.
However, you're wrong on your history. Eisenhower did insist that the federal court ruling for integration be implemented, but did not introduce legislation. JFK and LBJ both were instrumental in standing up to southern Democrats in order to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We can call their passing bipartisan, if you like. But their actions have had a dramatic impact on the political party identification of southern racists, an impact that can still be seen.
raider commented at 1/18/2011 5:21:00 PM:
I guess I am getting a solid lesson in revisionist history today. Although I am having a hard time trying to figure out what policies liberal democrats and the KKK have collaborated on. I am quite sure Melody can make it up and tell me. We can make history anything we want it to be.
Gogetum: the only reason Michael Steele was elected as the party leader was because Obama was elected president. He was a token chosen so that republicans could say that they had a black man in the party. Simply put, he was the republicans "affirmative action" hire in their attempt to disguise their racism. Nothing more, nothing less. And yes, if Lincoln was around today, the republicans and tea party would throw him out of the party. I quite sure you are aware of the move by many conservative (right wing) southern school boards to down play Lincoln's role in American history.
frank commented at 1/19/2011 5:58:00 PM:
A lot of squawking over a painting ain't it? At the rate they are going, in a few years the whole postal service will go away. Then we can turn the whole building into a museum. Just leave 'er hanging there and you won't have to move it back and forth...
gogetum commented at 1/20/2011 10:13:00 AM:
You might have something there, frank. I just love getting the libs like kj and raider off the subject and it's pretty easy. They like to just make stuff up to mislead readers but they can't fool all the people all the time. Probably only 20 to 30 people will read their comments anyways. I know the dispatch likes to transfer the libs comments to their "Honey I'm schrinking the dispatch paper". Never any of the rebuttals to their rhetoric-that's one reason I will cancel my subscription. Just because they say it doesn't make it so. The hope and kj characters are probably invited to all the dispatch parties.
I think the painting should go to the office on Blue Cut but it'll probably just stay in town.
dcarnellious commented that we are in the dark ages--I wonder if that refers to the fact that Columbus has a black mayor , 4 of 6 councelman are black and the majority of city employees are black and everyone of them have much more serious heartaches than losing sleep over a painting that no one except for Ira thinks is racist. This Ira dude must be desperate for heartaches if he lets that old painting gets to him. I think he's just looking to see his name in lights!
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