Univ. of Tenn. Uncovers Controversial Mural Hidden For Three Decades
A 28-foot painting of Tennessee’s musical heritage was briefly unveiled at the University of Tennessee after being covered for more than three decades because of its depiction of Blacks.
“It’s surreal. I can’t believe it’s actually happening,” said Eric Harkness, a student on the campus Issues Committee that pushed for the unveiling, at the unveiling. “It’s remarkable to see the fruits of our labor.”
The 1955 painting, titled “Singing Mural” by New York artist Marion Greenwood, remained on public view in the ballroom of the student center for 24 hours, though plans are to move it to a campus gallery this summer for conservation and further exhibition.
The huge canvas portrays West Tennessee’s delta blues, Middle Tennessee’s country music and East Tennessee’s religious mountain music in life-size figures. It’s the west end of the painting that stirred controversy and led to it being covered by wood paneling in 1972.
Completed seven years before the university desegregated, the mural presents the plantation beginnings of the blues with what could be considered happy slave stereotypes.
“I think the feeling by African-Americans was that the university was not a particularly congenial place for them, and this was a visible symbol of that,” says retired UT historian Dr. Bruce Wheeler.
In 1970, two months after Greenwood died, amid campus tensions surrounding the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, vandals defaced the work with paint and solvent. Whether aimed at racial injustice or defying an authority that represented the war, the vandals’ motives were unknown. They were never caught.
“It was assumed by the general public that those who defaced the painting were African-Americans, but I’m convinced they were not,” Wheeler says, noting the troubling west end of the painting was untouched.
The painting was repaired and remained on display with a guard for two more years until that was deemed too expensive. Officials said the painting “was generating more heat than light” and decided to cover it up “until such time it can be accepted as a historical painting.”
“What’s so special about this moment is that we have the chance to talk about the issues behind the painting, and we can have discussions about where the university has been and where we would like to take it in the future,” Harkness says.
— Associated Press
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