Harriet Tubman mural proposed for the facade of the Loudoun museum
A proposal by Leesburg resident Carmen Felder to place a mural by American abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the facade of the Loudoun Museum has sparked some passions in the community and appears to be the center of ongoing debate.
Felder, co-founder of the 89 Ways to Give Foundation, said one of the foundation’s main goals for 2021 was to pay tribute to black history, among other projects she hoped to bring to life. With Juneteenth celebrated as a state holiday for the first time this year and the town’s place in history as a route along the Underground Railroad, Felder thought that a mural referencing this important part of the history of the county would be timely. Felder was able to secure financial support for a public art mural by Harriet Tubman in Leesburg from Tito’s Vodka, which this year pledged $ 1 million to support national causes related to social equity and the fight against racism. Artist Shawn Perkins, who has presented works in Washington, DC and across the country, was selected by Felder for the mural project.
Formerly known as Carolina Road, King Street in Leesburg was an underground railroad track that led to the Potomac River crossing. The town was the site of several Underground Railroad sites, including the Loudoun County Courthouse, according to a staff report. While Tubman is arguably the most recognized abolitionist associated with the Underground Railroad, she has no known connection to Leesburg, and it has not been historically recorded that she ever passed through the county seat. Still, Felder said she thinks Tubman is an ideal choice for a public art mural.
“Rather than trying to decide among so many local heroes, we chose Harriet Tubman because she has such universal recognition and represents the struggle for emancipation,” she said.
Felder said the decision to select the Loudoun Museum, a city property that the museum rents, as the perfect location for a Tubman mural, came after she and others, including Mayor Kelly Burk and City Councilor Ara Bagdasarian, took a walking tour of the city center. area.
“It seemed like the best place and the story around it made it feel like a piece of a puzzle,” Felder said.
The museum building itself has its own place in black history. Although not on the Underground Railroad route, the building was once the site of the Do Drop Inn, a popular social spot for the black community. Its best-known owners were Sherman and Mary Berry, who took over the management in 1933, according to a staff report.
In the pursuit of the project, Felder contacted several community groups, including the NAACP, the Thomas Balch Library Black History Committee, Visit Loudoun, and the Commission on Public Art. All were generally in favor of the project, although some suggested that the mural instead depicts local black figures associated with the freedom movement. The Black History Committee in particular suggested featuring the Reverend Leonard Grimes, a noted freedom seeker and Underground Railroad conductor who was originally from Leesburg. A letter from the committee pointed out that Grimes’ contributions played a role in the designation of the Loudoun County Courthouse as a site by the National Park Service for Freedom’s National Underground Railroad Network, but there has never had physical recognition of this honor.
“A Grimes mural would coincide with the county’s efforts to create memorials that better reflect the history and events related to the courthouse,” reads a letter provided in a report from Board of Architectural Review staff .
After receiving support from COPA, commission co-chair Elizabeth Ransom presented the project to BAR earlier this week. Although the BAR does not issue certificates of appropriation for public art murals in the Old & Historic District, the city’s public art guidelines state that the BAR provides a recommendation before the project is reviewed and potentially approved by city council.
The review of the RAB on such a project is supposed to be limited to the location of the project; height, scale and volume; and physical impact on historic materials. However, the contents of the mural were also discussed at the May 17 board meeting and featured in the staff report of preservation planner Lauren Murphy. In her report, she expressed concern that placing a Tubman mural on the museum building would be misleading.
“Given Harriet Tubman’s recognizable role in American history, the preservation planner is concerned that his image on this building creates a false sense of history not only for the structure but for Leesburg in general and that this mural could lead passers-by to assume that the building was affiliated with Harriet Tubman and her noble work, or even associated with the Underground Railroad, ”the report says. “The building dates between 1850 and 1878. While Harriet Tubman was engaged during this period to facilitate the flight of Americans reduced to slavery, it would have made its last stay south around 1860, the approximate date of construction of this structure.
Ransom, defending the project, said Tubman’s large-scale pruning, with his outstretched hand and a glow-in-the-dark paint proposed to be used for the lantern light, was intended to draw visitors’ attention to the building and encourage them to stop by for a photo of the mural or to learn more about the history of the city.
“It’s like she’s reaching out to invite you into the museum and maybe into Leesburg’s past,” she said.
The board of directors of the Loudoun museum has also expressed its doubts about the project. Board chair Sharon Virts said addressing BAR that the board was unanimous in their decision not to support the mural project. She raised concerns about the impact of the paint materials on the historic building, a concern also cited by Murphy and other BAR members, and the inclusion of Tubman herself in the project.
“It gives the wrong idea of what’s inside the building. [Visitors] are going to seek exposure on Harriet Tubman and there is no exposure on Harriet Tubman. They’re going to look for an exhibit on the Underground Railroad and there isn’t one. If we want to do a mural, it should be relevant for Loudoun. It’s a misrepresentation, in my mind, of what Leesburg’s story really is, ”Virts said.
She also noted that the museum director, who has a background in pre-war history, was not consulted on the project.
“We didn’t have a say,” Virts said.
BAR member Paul Reimers cited the museum board’s disapproval of the project in his comments, comparing it to “having an advertisement for cigarettes on the side of a hospital”, although he did clarified that he was not commenting on the subject of the mural itself.
BAR President Teresa Minchew said she thought the proposed mural was beautiful, but feared the scale of the painting might go beyond a historic building.
“For many of us, our main concern was that this building was suitable for decorating with art. It’s already… a historical artefact. It is a precious part of our history. It is not a large building. This is, in my opinion, not the right place for a mural to occupy half of the wall. It has nothing to do with the content, it has nothing to do with the subject. It’s a very small historic building that would be forever changed by having any kind of art on this wall, ”she said.
Commenting on the scale of the mural, Minchew said it might not be the welcoming function for those sitting in the garden.
“It would be scary to sit there in that garden and have that ladder. The ladder is for passers-by who are a good distance away, ”she said.
Although BAR did not support the project, Burk said in a subsequent interview that she hoped a compromise could be found to move the mural project forward. She is planning a meeting next week with representatives from the Black History Committee, the museum, COPA, Felder and others.
“The purpose of the meeting is to get everyone together to talk about the project and see what we can agree on,” she said, “and maybe a compromise can come out of this deal that can. make it enjoyable for most of us. ”