Murals of slaves harvesting sugar cane on a Georgia plantation and picking and ginning cotton are coming off the walls of a state building on the order of a new agriculture commissioner.
The murals are part of a collection of eight works painted by George Beattie in 1956 depicting an idealized version of Georgia farming, from the corn grown by prehistoric American Indians to a 20th-century veterinary lab. In the Deep South, the history in between includes the forced use of slave labor.
“I don’t like those pictures,” said Republican Gary Black, the newly elected agriculture commissioner. “There are a lot of other people who don’t like them.”
Slavery was indisputably part of 19th-century farming in Georgia. By 1840, more than 280,000 slaves were living in the state, many as field hands. Just before the Civil War, slaves made up about 40 percent of the state’s population.
Beattie’s murals tell part of the story. In one painting, two well-dressed white gentlemen in top hats and dress coats leisurely inspect processed cotton. They’re framed on either side by black slaves doing the backbreaking work of cotton farming.
On the left, a slave hunches over to pick cotton bolls by hand. Two other slaves are using the infamous Whitney gin – invented near Savannah – to separate cotton fiber from seeds as a white overseer weighs cotton bags behind them.
“I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture,” Black said.
There are no signs of the whippings, beatings, shackles or brutality used to subjugate the slaves, who appear healthy, muscular, even robust.
Black said less controversial murals, a scene at a state farmers market, for example, may find a new home in a conference room or elsewhere in the building.
Few openly have protested the murals, maybe because the agriculture department is not heavily visited. Black’s election marks a generational shift. He will succeed Democrat Tommy Irvin, who was appointed to the post by a segregationist governor in 1969 and won re-election ever since.
Black’s plans after the inauguration next month include painting rooms, cleaning offices, patching walls – and taking down those murals.
A full century after the Civil War, Southerners still argue over how to handle potent symbols of slavery and segregation in public places. It’s nothing new. The same year Beattie finished the murals, state lawmakers put the Confederate battle flag back into Georgia’s state flag to protest integration. Only in 2001 did Gov. Roy Barnes replace it, and some say it cost him the election the following year.
Those conflicts spill into art. In 2007, a black lawmaker lashed out at white colleagues for refusing to support putting a portrait of Coretta Scott King in the Statehouse beside that of her husband, slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The sponsor suggested her white colleagues were bigoted. The opposing lawmakers argued that portraits in the capitol should be reserved for Georgia legislators.
In 1995, two years before he died, Beattie defended his murals in a department-sponsored article that mentioned the art had spurred debate and concern among visitors and employees.
“As a human being, I am vehemently opposed to slavery, as anyone should be,” Beattie said, “but it was a significant epoch in our history; it would have been inaccurate not to include this period.”
His paintings showing slavery could be interpreted as an indictment. They hang in a lower lobby opposite a painting of colonial founder James Oglethorpe, a utopian who dreamed of making Georgia a classless society free of slavery.
One of Beattie’s friends, the sculptor George Beasley, said Black should commission new artwork if he has a new vision, not remove the originals.
Beasley, a professor emeritus at Georgia State University, admits that Beattie stretched reality to build his scenes. His friend was an optimist with an artistic tendency to gloss over life’s roughness.
“It kind of reflects George Beattie’s personality,” Beasley said. “He always looked on the bright side of life. … He liked to portray the history and the beauty of things. I would have rather had seen the scene maybe not so sunny, and muddy, and maybe the slaves under more duress, as they would have been.”
The Associated Press