Georgia Capitol Art: An Effort to Reconcile with the North, But Continuing to Honor Its Confederate Past

We continue with our art tour of other state capitols to see what lessons Minnesota might learn as we reassess our own controversial capitol art.

Continuing in alphabetical order, today we take a look at Georgia. We start with the Georgia State Creed, which includes the statement: “I feel a sense of pride in the history and heroic deeds accomplished by my forebears …” It’s a sentiment likely shared by many states, yet such a statement seems to foreclose a dialogue looking at the more difficult, less prideful, and even shameful parts of a state’s history. This is the issue that Minnesota is wrestling with as it reviews some of its historic capitol artwork, such as one mural showing the forced conversion of Native Americans.

Part of Georgia’s troubling history includes the expulsion of the Cherokee peoples from their ancestral home, which led to the Trail of Tears. According to a review of more than 200 pieces of Georgia capitol art cataloged online, only one painting was found  acknowledging any Native American presence in the area, and that one featured an early peacemaker. It is a portrait of Tomochichi and Tooanahowi, a Yamacraw Indian chief and his nephew. The website gives no historical context. According to Wikipedia:

He [Tomochichi] gave his land to James Oglethorpe to build the city of Savannah. He remains a prominent character of early Georgia history. As the principal mediator between the native population and the new English settlers during the first years of settlement, he contributed much to the establishment of peaceful relations between the two groups and to the ultimate success of Georgia.

Georgia Capitol Grounds
Expelled Because of Color

There are a few examples of Georgia acknowledging the oppression of African Americans in the state. There is a striking statue on the capitol grounds called: “Expelled Because of Color.” According to the Self Guided Tour of the Capitol Grounds:

It commemorates the first African Americans elected to Georgia’s General Assembly in 1868 and then illegally removed a few weeks into their terms. The statue captures the struggles of African Americans from slave ship to emancipation to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

(An article in the Atlanta INTown newspaper provides more history on the election of 1868.)

Inside the Capitol, there is a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The state’s Self-Guided Tour of the Capitol reads:

He [King] grew up less than two miles away from the Capitol on Auburn Avenue and went to school at Morehouse College, which is also very close to the Capitol. We are not sure if Dr. King ever entered the Capitol. During most of his life African-Americans could not freely enter the Capitol. He spent his adult life fighting against this kind of discrimination and by the time of his death in 1968, 10 African Americans were serving in Georgia’s General Assembly.

At the same time, the Georgia capitol grounds includes statues commemorating John Brown Gordon and Thomas Watson. Gordon, according to Wikipedia, was one of Robert E. Lee’s most trusted generals during the Civil War. After the war, he strongly opposed Reconstruction and was thought to be the titular head of the Georgia Ku Klux Klan. Watson, according Georgia’s self-guided tour, was “a leader of the populist movement in Georgia, became a model for many Georgia politicians on how to exploit the county-unit system and white only primary to win elections.”

The current Georgia State Capitol was completed in 1889, after the Civil War. According to the Self-Guided Tour,  it was built “as a place of reconciliation with the north. … Keeping alive a dual heritage–both federal and confederate–became a part of the Capitol’s history.” As one example, there are two rows of portraits ringing the rotunda. The upper row shows national leaders, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the lower row features Georgia’s Confederate heroes.

Similar to some other states, Georgia created a Capitol Museum for historic items. Georgia also showcases student artwork from around the state. The Museum’s website includes some stunning videos, including Lester Maddox v. The Civil Rights Act, Cafeteria Sit In, and A Segregated Capitol.

Lastly, the Georgia Art Education Association and the Secretary of State cosponsor the Capitol Art Exhibit. The website said: “It is the premier event of Youth Art Month and the largest student exhibit in the state. The purpose of the exhibit is to share with our legislators and the public the exceptional, creative ability of Georgia’s students.” Healing Minnesota Stories supports the idea of having student art in the Minnesota Capitol, one way to add images of the state’s future to the collection of art reflecting the state’s past.

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