Capitol Art Controversies in Other States…We Start with Alabama

We have written earlier about some of the offensive depictions of Native Americans in Minnesota State Capitol art and the art’s general lack of images of other people of color. We started to wonder about art controversies in other state capitols and what if any insights we could get from them. We are doing some quick Internet searches to see what we can find. Going alphabetically, we begin with Alabama.

Not surprisingly, Alabama has had controversial art and symbols at its capitol; let’s start with the Confederate flag. According to  Wikipedia:

In 1961 Governor John Patterson flew the Confederate battle flag over the capitol in celebration of the centennial of the Civil War. It later continued to be flown as a symbol of defiance to the federal government’s desegregation policies. Several African American legislators and members of the state chapter of the NAACP were arrested in 1988 after attempting to remove the flag. The flag remained until 1993 when a state judge ruled that an 1895 state statute allows only the national and state flags to fly over the capitol building.

While the flag no longer flies over the capitol, the 88-foot high “Confederate Memorial Monument” still rests on the Capitol grounds, a tribute to Alabama’s 122,000+ Confederate veterans. “Critics have repeatedly called for the monument’s removal, stating that it promotes white supremacy. These removal attempts have met with considerable resistance from preservationists and others,” Wikipedia says. (Side note: Alabama not only celebrates Confederate Memorial Day on April 27, it is a paid state holiday. They still hold ceremonies at the monument. See this news story.)

Lastly, the Alabama Capitol Dome features a series of eight paintings done in the late 1920s, images that reflect the Jim Crow South. One of the paintings is called: “Wealth and Leisure Produce the Golden Period of Antebellum Life in Alabama, 1840-1860.” (The link takes you to the painting.) This is stating the obvious, but the painting is quite clear about who gets wealth and leisure and who does not. One commentator provides the following description of the painting:

A broad sweeping portico looms behind the gay couple riding horses on a summer’s afternoon. The man wears a brown coat and tall black top hat. The woman dresses in the finery of the turn-of-the-century. A hunting dog stands at attention as the horses stride across the plantation’s spacious lawn. Back on the porch, a black “mammy” figure watches over a young girl.

Another painting, titled: “Prosperity Follows the Development of Resources Agriculture, Commerce and Industry, 1874-1930,” shows no white people at all, just young, poor black dock workers happily doing the hard, physical labor of moving cotton bales. An odd picture of prosperity.

scan from 4x5 file transparency on Epson 10000XL
One portion of a painting in the Minnesota Governor’s Reception Room.

One provocative question is this: What is different and what is similar in how the capitol art in Alabama depicts African Americans and how the capitol art in Minnesota depicts Native Americans? For example, the picture of the African American dockworkers echoes part of a painting in the Minnesota Governor’s Reception Room showing Father Hennepin “discovering” the Falls of St. Anthony. On the right side of that painting (shown here) is a Native woman, half naked, hunched over, carrying a heavy pack. She is the only person in the painting doing any work. Comparing it to Alabama’s “prosperity” painting, they both emphasize the role of blacks/Native Americans as subservient workers. In the case of the Minnesota painting, the art indicate Native people’s lack of civilization. The Alabama Capitol painting reflects the African American workers as perfectly happy with their role in society.


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