A deteriorating 1942 mural entitled “Incidents in the History of Catonsville” that includes a portrayal of Black slaves pulling barrels of tobacco alongside white men on horses has been covered over in plastic in the town’s post office after state and federal representatives called for its replacement.
The three-panel mural, painted on the walls of the post office by New Deal-era artist Avery Johnson, is one of at least 16 pieces of artwork in 12 states that an “artwork workgroup” of high-level U.S. Postal Service officials, including attorneys and the Postal Service’s federal preservation officer, have ordered to be covered, according to New York travel blogger Evan Kalish, who has chronicled doings at more than 10,000 post offices across 50 states on his blog Postlandia.
It’s unclear as of yet what will become of the paintings.
Freda Sauter, USPS spokeswoman for the Baltimore District, said in a statement that officials are discussing how to “safeguard” the future of the artwork. “We are evaluating each of the pieces and we will work to ensure that appropriate action is taken on select murals, if deemed necessary,” she said.
The obscured murals, many around 80 years old, depict either images of slavery or Native Americans — many of which apparently were the subject of complaints from constituents who say the depictions are offensive, according to August emails between postal officials and jurisdiction representatives, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Kalish and shared with Baltimore Sun Media.
The Postal Service said in an August statement that although its policy is to “preserve and protect” historic artwork in its collection, it is also “mindful that certain murals generate strong feelings for some of our employees and customers.”
In Catonsville, Congressman Kweisi Mfume, elected in June to fill the seat of the late Rep. Elijah Cummings, said he initiated the conversation with U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy after hearing from some constituents who found the mural to be derogatory or complained of its deteriorating condition.
Although the mural was unceremoniously covered up sometime during the late summer, the Baltimore County Arts Guild said some of its panels may be missing.
Residents who contacted Mfume “believe it’s offensive in some respects,” Mfume said. “More importantly, they don’t understand why it’s been left to deteriorate like that.”
The former president of the NAACP, who is running against Republican nominee Kim Klacik to retain Cummings' seat in November, demurred when asked if he thought the depictions were offensive. .
“I think it clearly ought to be replaced,” he said.
The U.S. Postal Service’s actions came during a summer of national outrage sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man, and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman in Kentucky, following the actions of police officers that have thrust conversations about systemic racism into the national spotlight.
The heightened scrutiny also has led to a broader debate about depictions of Black lives in new and old media, especially when it comes to what many say memorializes racist figures. Towson University, for instance, has convened a committee to rename two residence halls named for prominent slave-owning Marylanders. In Baltimore, protesters tore down the Christopher Columbus statue near Little Italy and dumped it into the Inner Harbor.
“Given the current climate and, in general, that’s [the mural] really not probably an appropriate picture to have,” said Del. Eric Ebersole, a Democrat whose legislative district includes Catonsville and whose office wrote a letter to Mfume requesting the mural be removed or modified. The letter was signed by state lawmakers representing the southwestern county town before they learned the congressman was already taking action.
Johnson, the artist, was paid $1,500 by the Section of Fine Arts of the Public Buildings Administration for the 74-foot piece, according to records in the National Archives at College Park, during a time when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration was providing federal dollars for tens of thousands of art displays in public buildings across the country.
Johnson was supervisor of the Treasury Relief Art Project programs in Key West, Florida and the Virgin Islands. Besides Maryland, he painted post office murals in Arkansas, Illinois and New Jersey.
A 1942 article in the Evening Sun says the mural mainly set out to depict the romance of Polly and Richard Caton, for whom the town is named.
It describes the piece as showing a surveying party staking out one of the original land grants around 1692; an early settler examining his tobacco crop near his log-cabin home; and hogsheads of tobacco being rolled along the road toward Elkridge Landing, a significant port before the Revolutionary War for trading goods with European merchants, said Michelle Wright, an associate professor of history and Africana studies at the Community College of Baltimore County.
Lincoln F. Johnson, an art historian and Baltimore Sun critic, called the post office piece insipid in a 1972 article, but lauded the artist for using three walls of the post office’s lobby “so that the painting becomes a part of the building.”
The Evening Sun article does not mention images of slaves or the Native American that seems to be lurking near the woods in the background, noted Democratic Del. Terri Hill. The Piscataway tribe inhabited the land before European settlers colonized the area and formed a community called Johnnycake around 1720, according to records digitized from the Catonsville History Room at the Baltimore County Public Library.
Slavery in the state existed “from the very beginning,” Wright said, from the 1600s until Maryland abolished slavery at the end of 1864, two months before Congress ratified the 13th amendment abolishing slavery nationwide.
Tobacco and wheat were commonly grown on Catonsville plantations, a boon to the local economy, Wright said. The town had few prominent slave-owning families, with the wealthiest among them being the family of William Watkins Glenn, who owned the Hilton Estate, where the CCBC Catonsville campus is now located.
But the town was mostly a summer getaway for affluent city residents. During the rest of the year, slaves would tend to their summer homes, Wright said.
During the Civil War, “Catonsville was a fairly strong Confederate stronghold,” said Wright, who is currently on sabbatical writing a book documenting the history of enslaved peoples in the broader Catonsville area.
Glenn even hosted Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the Hilton Estate, and ran a newspaper from the perspective of a “Confederate sympathizer," Wright said. When Glenn escaped Fort McHenry, where he had been imprisoned for treason for speaking out against President Abraham Lincoln, Catonsville residents helped him flee authorities.
It’s this history that some say is being erased by art censorship.
“You have to learn from your history," said Scott Meacham, a Catonsville resident. “You learn from mistakes and good things that happen.”
But others, like Hill, say slavery cannot be the only or the most prominent story told about Black lives.
“My issue wasn’t that there were African Americans depicted as slaves in Catonsville,” Hill said. But by "lacking context and a historic depiction of Black people outside the institution of slavery, the mural suggests that the only significant contribution” made by Black Marylanders was while they were enslaved, she said.
Reinforcing that myth through media such as public art has long-term “psychological and institutional” damage for Black Americans, Hill said.
“This is saying the story of Catonsville, like the story of America, is one of white male supremacy over the natural world," she said.
Still, “You can’t erase history,” Catonsville resident Kevin Wolfe said. “The good, the bad, the ugly: It is what it is, it is what happened. You’ve got to keep it so you don’t repeat that.”
The dialogue about offensive artwork is worth having, Baltimore County Arts Guild Executive Director Mary Catherine Cochran told a reporter after some residents on social media called for the arts guild to become involved in conceiving a new mural.
Cochran said the arts guild is not involved in efforts to change the existing painting, but added that art should reflect the community it’s in.
In their letter to Mfume, southwestern county representatives said they wanted to “work with the Catonsville community” and explore state financing so that “improved public art can be brought to the Post Office that accurately reflects Catonsville’s as well as America’s values.”
“When there is one side of the story being told, I think you lose something,” said Democratic state Sen. Charles Sydnor III.
Catonsville has been the location of a rich history of Black experiences, Wright said. There’s Benjamin Banneker, the astronomer, mathematics prodigy and inventor who constructed the first mechanical clock made in America and who lived in Oella. The Benjamin Banneker Museum memorializes him locally.
The former Catonsville High School on Bloomsbury Avenue became the subject of a lawsuit filed by Thurgood Marshall in 1936 on behalf of Margaret Williams, a Black student from Cowdensville (and ancestor of House Speaker Adrienne Jones) who was denied education at the white school, a case historians call a milestone in the fight for civil rights. Marshall, who later became a Supreme Court justice, did not win the case.
There are lesser-known parts of Catonsville’s history that are also compelling: The town was somewhat unique in that free Black communities lived alongside slaves, Wright said. Remus Adams was a notable Catonsville freeman, training other free Black men at his blacksmith shop on Frederick Road before it was razed in 1909 to build an elementary school.
Still, Wright said, “I’m not one for destroying artwork, even if that artwork is offensive.”
But context is needed, she said.
“I feel like they belong in a museum, with the proper context, with a history behind what its purpose is, what it’s meant to be.”
Allana Haynes of Baltimore Sun Media contributed to this article.