Vermont Law School plans to paint over mural deemed racist

SOUTH ROYALTON, Vt. (AP) — Vermont Law School plans to paint over a mural that was originally intended to honor African Americans and abolitionists involved in the Underground Railroad after some school community members said the depictions are offensive, the school said.

Students and alumni have raised concerns about the mural in the student center, which was painted by then-Vermont-based artist Sam Kerson in 1993, VLS president Dean Thomas McHenry said in a email to the school community this week, according to the Valley News.

“The depictions of the African-Americans on the mural are offensive to many in our community and, upon reflection and consultation, we have determined that the mural is not consistent with our School’s commitment to fairness, inclusion, diversity, and social justice,” McHenry said in the email.

The colorful mural entitled “The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave” depicts Africans being forced into slavery and sold at auction, images of John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and a blond Vermont woman trying to block the view of a bounty hunter looking for fugitives trying to escape slavery on the Underground Railroad.

VLS students Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski said in an email that they have concerns about the mural’s accuracy.

“One issue of many, is the fact that the depictions of Black people are completely inaccurate. Regardless of what story is being told overexaggerating Black features is not OK and should not be tolerated. White colonizers who are responsible for the horrors of slavery should not also be depicted as saviors in the same light,” they said.

Kerson, 73, who now lives in Quebec, told the Valley News that he had not been told of the decision to paint over the mural and was contacted by Davis last week.

“They wanted to enlist me with the group that wanted to take the mural down, which of course I didn’t want to do,” he said. He said the mural “is a monument to abolition in Vermont and a description of the people who struggled against slavery, and it is important to our culture.”

“To paint it over is outlandish — it’s like burning books,” he said.

Kerson also painted the “Columbus at the Gates of Paradise” mural in a conference room in the state office complex in Waterbury that drew some criticism. A curtain was sometimes used to cover depiction of topless Indigenous women. The mural was taken down after the complex was heavily damaged by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.