Mural of Muse of Art on Portsmouth Floodwall
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Portsmouth Murals. But if the Portsmouth murals can be said to have an Achilles’ heel, then it’s the way they don’t depict unpleasant truths about the city, past and present.
A little known incident is a good place to begin a discussion of the “cover up.” Among the very last of the fifty-two panels on the main flood wall are panels #49 and #51, the Muses of History and Art. Muses are figures from what we call Greek mythology or what more accurately should be called Greek religion, for who is to say which religions are mythological? The Greeks believed that the Muses, or goddesses, were spirits who inspired artists to create. The Greeks and Romans did not hesitate to depict the muses sculpturally as topless, or bare breasted, and that is the way they have often been depicted in sculpture and painting in the Christian era.
Bare-breasted is the way Robert Dafford intended to paint the muses in murals #49 and #51. “However,” according to a footnote at the very end of A Thirst for Land (2004), “the Portsmouth Murals trustees thought that this might cause a bit of controversy and asked that the paintings be ‘covered up.’” Dafford apparently complied with the trustees’ wishes and covered up the muses. Muses may have inspired Dafford to paint the murals, but the Trustees of Portsmouth Murals, Inc., who were paying him, largely with public money, called the tune. At all costs, even the cost of the truth, controversy must be avoided. The last thing the Trustees of Portsmouth Murals, Inc., and the Chamber of Commerce wanted depicted in the murals is the naked truth.
It is not just breasts that got covered up or omitted in the Portsmouth murals. The mistreatment of blacks is among the great crimes of American history. One shameful example from Portsmouth’s past was the so-called Black Friday. In “Relics of Barbarism,” which is Chapter VII of his History of Scioto County (1903), Nelson Evans wrote about Black Friday: “On January 21 [sic], 1830, all the colored people of Portsmouth were forcibly deported from the town. They were not only warned out, but they were driven out. They were forced to leave their homes and belongings.” A Thirst for the Land repeats Evans’ account of Black Friday, and the historian C.G. Woodson mentioned Portsmouth’s Black Friday in The Education of the Negro (1919), providing the correct date of Black Friday—January 1, 1830. (The date of the proclamation and of the expulsion were probably not the same.) Of the fifty-two panels on the main flood wall, couldn’t one have depicted this tragic event in the city’s history? The point is not to have a Murals of Shame. There is much to be proud of in Portsmouth’s past, but to exclude an episode as important as Black Friday distorts history. Doesn’t the bible say the truth can make us free? Whether it’s Portsmouth’s racism, unemployment, poverty, drugs, prostitution, or political corruption, covering up or ignoring the truth helps perpetuate rather than remedy the wrongs.
Until such time as Robert Dafford paints a Black Friday mural, Theodor Kaufmann’s painting of fugitive slaves (below), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, could serve as a substitute for the yet-to-be-painted, probably never-to-be-painted, missing memorial mural, “Black Friday: Expulsion from Portsmouth.”
Missing Memorial Mural