It was Edwardsville’s version of a Confederate statue controversy.
The year was 1987. Black residents had spent two decades walking past a large mosaic mural on Edwardsville City Hall that depicted a freed slave with an exaggerated smile, straw hat and ropes dangling from his wrists. They found it offensive and wanted officials to change it.
Some white residents sided with their black neighbors, launching a year of intense argument, public hearings, letters to the editor and a civil lawsuit. The mural ultimately was altered to turn the slave into a farmer with a garden hoe.
“It made national news,” said Tim Earley, 61, then a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and a white resident who supported the change. “It was in The New York Times, USA Today ... It even made the London Times.”
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Thirty years later, the mural — considered by some a symbol of how a community can debate, compromise and end a racial dispute peacefully — is at risk of being destroyed.
Edwardsville police and firefighters, the last city employees to occupy the building, moved into a new public safety complex down the street last year. Officials have approved a developer’s plans to buy the old City Hall and demolish it.
But no one seems to know what to do about the mural, which is 36 feet wide and 7 feet tall, made of 40,000 small, ceramic tiles. Its fate has been on the agenda of the City Council’s Administrative and Community Services Committee for months.
“The history of the mural is important to us,” committee Chairman Art Risavy said. “But what we’ve been struggling with is how to preserve it (without overspending tax dollars). It’s a much more complicated removal than it looks.”
Relocation price more than expected
The committee estimates it would cost $100,000 to disassemble the mural and reassemble it at another location. Members also have considered breaking it up and displaying small sections around the community or making a reproduction from a digital scan.
But anything short of preserving the entire 51-year-old mural would disappoint residents such as Vera Parkin, 58, a piano teacher who can barely remember a time when it wasn’t part of Edwardsville’s downtown.
“Surely there’s a way,” she said. “Maybe you would need an artist to put it back together, but couldn’t a Boy Scout troop or some other group take it down and number the tiles? ... I will grieve if that mural isn’t saved.”
The problem is, the clock is ticking.
In November, Edwardsville City Council authorized Mayor Hal Patton to sell the old City Hall to Gori Properties for $1,040,000. The closing is expected soon. Developer Randy Gori, a local attorney, estimates that demolition will begin six months later.
His plans call for construction of a five-story, 70,000-square-foot brick building with underground parking, first-floor retail and four upper levels of office space.
On Thursday, Gori expressed empathy for those who see the mural as a valuable piece of Edwardsville history.
“I’m going to try and save it — if it makes sense and it doesn’t kill me financially,” he said. “But I don’t have any bids yet on what it would cost. It’s not my intention to cause it to be torn down.”
Schoolchildren donated to the cause
The old Edwardsville City Hall opened on North Main Street in 1966. The late Edward A. Kane, a prominent local architect who designed the building, volunteered his time to install the mural.
Its images were based on local history. Illinois Territory Gov. Ninian Edwards, the city’s namesake, stands in front of a log cabin that housed Madison County’s seat of justice in 1812. There are pioneers going to church and school, immigrants heading west in covered wagons and a Kickapoo Indian holding a peace pipe to represent a treaty signing.
Some 1,844 schoolchildren, including Parkin, raised $263 to buy mural supplies. Those who contributed 10 cents or more got their names engraved on a cornerstone.
“After it was completed, we all walked up from Columbus School to look at it,” Parkin said. “We were very proud of ourselves. We felt some sort of ownership. ... I love that this wonderful work of art was paid for by schoolchildren. It was so simple and innocent.”
The public controversy started in early 1987, when members of the city’s Human Relations Commission asked for the mural to be revised, arguing that it perpetuated a negative black stereotype. The local NAACP agreed.
In one Edwardsville Intelligencer story, white commission member Virginia “Ginger” McCall described the freed slave’s giant smile as “silly,” given the suffering that blacks faced in the 1800s.
Another vocal proponent of change was black commission member Herman Shaw, now 84, a retired educator and president of Lincoln School Alumni Foundation. He attended Lincoln School for black children before desegregation in the 1950s.
“The African American figure (in the mural) was not like the rest of them, going to church, going to school and being part of the community,” he said. “He was a black Sambo-like person. He didn’t have any features. He was just standing there with ropes on his arms. It was kind of disgraceful.”
Mayor Rogers fought the change
Supporters of altering the mural were strongly countered by opponents, including Edwardsville’s mayor, Raymond Rogers, who is deceased. He faulted aldermen for “caving in” to public pressure.
Also upset was architect Kane, who pointed out that the black figure represented a historical event — Illinois Gov. Edward Coles freeing his slaves in 1819 — and that someone’s work of art shouldn’t be changed due to society’s ebbs and flows.
“I’m opposed to it the same way Margaret Mitchell would be if someone were to change a paragraph of ‘Gone with the Wind,’ ” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time. “I’m not saying the mural is the greatest work of art in the world. I’m not saying it stands up to the mosaic work at the St. Louis Cathedral. But it’s the best we could do at the time with what we had.”
Earley, the Historic Preservation Commission member, found the artist-rights argument unpersuasive after learning that the mural design had been developed by committee and underwent several revisions; and after recognizing it had offended black residents for 20 years.
Kane sued to stop the alteration but was unsuccessful.
On Oct. 17, 1988, the city hired a tile-setter to remove and replace 75 ceramic squares on the mural, turning the freed slave into a farmer with more defined facial features and a garden hoe slung over his shoulder. It was a quiet affair with no dedication ceremony or other fanfare.
Shaw admits that hard feelings persisted among some people involved in the mural battle, but in other cases, relationships grew as a result of the dialogue.
“If it had just been African American voices, I’m not sure the mural would have been changed,” he said. “We had lots of support from the white community. They said (to other whites), ‘It’s not relevant that it doesn’t offend you. It offends them.’ ”
Public support goes only so far
The Administrative and Community Services Committee conducted a survey on the city’s website and Facebook page several months ago, asking people if they support saving the mural. Participants largely responded “yes” but balked at spending too much tax money, according to Chairman Risavy.
Edwardsville officials asked the Madison County Historical Society if it could help with the mural dilemma. President Gary Denue noted that the organization was too occupied with raising money for its own museum renovation, but urged the city to “make every effort” to preserve it.
“It is an important work of historical art in the city, designed by a local architect, and the focus of an important social issue in the city after its installation,” he wrote.
Denue suggested a GoFundMe or Kickstarter campaign. Risavy’s committee looked at past community fundraising efforts for public projects and concluded that such a campaign could generate some revenue — but not enough.
The mural has been a hot topic on a Facebook page called “I grew up in Edwardsville, and I remember...” Opinions vary on how much is too much to protect it from the wrecking ball.
Shaw would be happy with a mural reproduction and historical interpretation. But Earley and Parkin hope to see the real thing displayed somewhere.
Parkin argues that Edwardsville is a city rich in history but one with few visible representations of that history, as many old buildings have disappeared over the years.
“(The mural change) was a big issue in the community,” Earley said. “It mattered to a lot of people. When the problem was solved, it demonstrated progress on thorny racial issues that still bedevil us today. The memory should be honored, not demolished.”