Half a century after Marion Greenwood painted the 30-foot-long mural that adorns the west wall of the University Center’s Ballroom, The University of Tennessee hosted a panel discussion before a lively audience of approximately 250 people to debate the controversial image of an African-American man in overalls who sits in front of a cotton field.
The controversy was whether or not this man and the other African-Americans appear happy or stereotypical, and whether the mural promotes racist ideology. Such accusations led to the mural being vandalized, guarded and finally hidden from view for more than 30 years.
The panel discussed race relations and art censorship during a program entitled “The Secret Behind the Wall: The Greenwood Mural.” The discussion occurred after the mural, flanked by explanatory posters, had been revealed to the public for two days.
Another important document in this debate is the small comment book that stood on a black podium near the painting. It is nearly a quarter full of observers’ ideas, opinions and thoughts on the mural.
These observations varied greatly, from confusion over what in the mural could be construed as offensive to reactions similar to those of panelist P. Eric Abercrumbie, director of the Office of Ethnic Programs and Services and the African-American Culture and Research Center at the University of Cincinnati.
“My feeling right away at seeing this: It made me sick to my stomach,” he said. “I went immediately to a headache and immediately to almost thinking that I’m going to need some counseling before this thing is over.
“So I heard the word healing today and seeing this did not provide me with healing,” Abercrumbie said. “To me it is racism . . . to me it is no more than a continuation, if you leave it [uncovered], of a perpetuation of white supremacy. It doesn’t need to be here.”