Donna Williams Lewis, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 28, 2009
Walk into the state Department of Agriculture building on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and descend a few steps into a small lobby.
A guard beckons from a stand to the right, where visitors are asked to sign their names. Those who look up from the book take in a scene that has left some speechless, confused or some, even angry.
On the wall just behind the guard is a 4-by-7-foot mural depicting slaves picking and ginning cotton as an overseer weighs their bags.
Turns out the slavery mural is one of eight original paintings on two floors that were commissioned to create a visual timeline of agriculture in Georgia.
Ronda Racha Penrice, a Grant Park history buff who recently saw the murals and picked up one of the handouts, said that even after looking over the printed information, she found the murals “disturbing.”
The display should be updated, Penrice said, because it makes contributions of black people to the development of agriculture appear to be limited to what they did as slaves.
“I think we have to understand that in the time when they were created, there would absolutely be no problem with them. But I don’t know that they’re appropriate for 2009,” Penrice said.
The “problem” is not a new problem. Historic murals depicting stereotypical scenes of slavery or savage Indians have been debated elsewhere for years. The Department of Agriculture murals have escaped such public scrutiny, maybe because few people see them. Just about 200 people work in the Agriculture building, which averages about 12 to 15 visitors a day, according to officials.
There are four murals in the lobby, including the one at the reception desk. Two represent Native American and Colonial times; two depict slavery.
The murals were commissioned for the building that was completed in 1956, the year Georgia’s state flag was changed to incorporate the controversial Confederate flag. They were painted by the late George Beattie, a noted local artist who was executive director of the Georgia Council for the Arts from 1967 to 1975.
The new handout describing them includes a quote from Beattie, who acknowledged in a 1995 article that his slavery murals were troubling to some.
Bruce Wade, an associate professor of sociology at Spelman College, showed his class a photo of one of the slavery murals. He said they felt it simply reinforces an image of blacks’ subservience to white people.
But Brenda James Griffin, who retired in 2005 as the Agriculture Department’s assistant commissioner of public affairs, said she finds the paintings inspiring. She said she looks at them and sees people who did what they had to do to survive and thinks about how far their descendants have come.
“We have had some people who have found them to be offensive,” said Griffin, who worked in Agriculture for 30 years. “I say I as a black woman see it as a part of history. . . . We can’t just roll out history when it’s convenient.”