Black Connecticut Residents Say City Hall Mural is ‘Racist,’ Demand Removal of Painting

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Steamboat Days on the Mississippi by Norwalk Justin Gruelle.
Steamboat Days on the Mississippi by Norwalk Justin Gruelle.

Community members gathered in Norwalk City Hall in Connecticut Thursday to decry its use of a “racist” mural. Many said the artwork creates an unwelcoming and uncomfortable environment for African-Americans residents of the city.

“I want to feel welcome in my home,” Tristan Fields said. “When I walk into my house there’s pictures of my kids, my wife, I have a couple of degrees on the wall, things that I am proud of, moments that I am proud of,” local news publication NancyonNorwalk reported.

“Steamboat Days on the Mississippi,” a Justin Gruelle painting commissioned in 1937, features enslaved Blacks laboring and dancing alongside well-dressed whites. It was inspired by a scene in Mark Twain’s 1883 novel, “Life on the Mississippi.”

“It’s not something that makes me feel welcome,” Fields continued, “and I want to call Norwalk my home. So please take this down so that I feel welcome here, so that this can feel like home and I feel like I have a place to stay and I welcome to raise my family.”

Norwalk added the mural to City Hall in the 1980s during an initiative to restore and showcase projects from local artists for the Works Progress Administration.

The Human Relations Commission scheduled the public hearing back in March after receiving complaints from several disgruntled citizens.

According to NancyonNorwalk, Angela Harrison was one of those citizens and said she took her issues to the previous mayor five years ago.

“I am even shocked that we even have to come and have a discussion about this,” Harrison said.

She called the hearing itself “a slap in the face,” warning voters to pay close attention to the city’s handling of the situation.

“All the voters should take heed to what you see, how Norwalk represents themselves, because there’s underlying subliminal messaging in that, that they would even stand for this and even have to have a meeting to discuss what is very obvious,” Harrison said.

“It’s not only obvious to African people – who you have not paid reparations to –  but also the Indian tribe,” she said.

Jason Maples said he rushed to the meeting after watching the event play out on the news.

“To me, what it tells me, is that the powers that be feel that Black people can do nothing but [be] subservient to the white slave masters that be,” he said.

“I feel like it’s insulting and disrespectful that the powers that be in the city of Norwalk and this city hall can walk around and don’t see or feel that this would be offensive.”

Supporters of the mural argued that its removal would be akin to censorship.

“The issue here isn’t simply whether one painting should be removed from the context of other painting around it in City Hall,” Jeffrey Price said. “For me it is about whether we are brave enough to allow our troubled past to enlighten our future. Historically when governments become zealous in censorship banishment and removal of art, things have not gone well. Our world becomes smaller when we cannot see the frayed edges of our paths toward freedom.”

Ralph Bloom, who said he chaired the committee to restore the Depression-era paintings, questioned whether the men in the paintings were actually enslaved.

“Does anyone know whether the Black men in the painting are slaves pre-emancipation or free Blacks being paid for dockside labor? Interpretation belongs to the viewer,” Bloom said.

Amina Chowdhury, 15, said the children in the painting appeared as “tiny, impish, wild monkeys” and thought the painting should unite people. “This painting does the exact opposite,” she said.

“Don’t let this painting take away one of the best factors about Norwalk, its acceptance of diversity,” Daija Brunson, also 15, said.

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