Concerns Linger Over Proposed Black History Mural in Leesburg

Although it’s a discussion that has been ongoing for more than a year, and the look of the mural itself has seen some significant changes, there are still concerns persisting over a Black history mural proposed for the eastern wall of the Loudoun Museum building in Leesburg. 

Carmen Felder, president of the 89 Ways to Give Foundation, appeared before the Town Council on Monday night with an update on her project, which would be funded entirely by 89 Ways to Give, its founder, former NFL receiver Santana Moss, and the O’Shaughnessy Hurst Memorial Foundation. Felder spent much of 2021 engaging with community groups, including the NAACP, the Thomas Balch Library Black History Committee, Visit Loudoun, the town’s Board of Architectural Review and Commission on Public Art and the museum board of directors, on the mural project.

It’s the content of the mural itself that continues to elicit opinions from community members, not the least of which includes the museum’s board of directors. The original mural pictured Harriet Tubman, the famed American abolitionist and perhaps most prominent conductor on the Underground Railroad, extending her hand while holding a lantern. Those who objected to the mural last year mostly pointed to Tubman’s status as a native of Maryland, with no known ties to Loudoun County and no historical evidence that she ever been passed through the county. Several groups pressed Felder to consider instead including noted Black historical figures from Loudoun County, like Bazil Newman and Leonard Grimes, both known for their assistance in helping to transport enslaved people further north to freedom. 

The newest iteration of the mural does include both Grimes and Newman and his brother, although the prominent image of Tubman remains. The image portrays Tubman with her hand raised to help those seeking freedom. In between, the mural show slaves who had already crossed over the Potomac River with the assistance of the Newman brothers, and then Grimes is also portrayed with his hand out to assist others trying to reach the Potomac. Felder explained that Newman and his brother, pictured in one of their ferry boats, have their backs turned to the viewers because there are no known pictures of them for the artist, Shawn Perkins, to work from.  

“There’s no real display of Black history in Leesburg and I think we need to have the representation,” Felder said in advocating to move the mural project forward. 

Felder acknowleged that some of the stakeholder meetings have been contentious, pointing in particular to a Commission on Public Art meeting that occurred earlier this year.  She said COPA had been supportive of the initial mural that just portrayed Tubman, but did not support the new version that included the local freedom fighters, but were vague on the reasoning. 

“It was more of a statement of this depicts the history that we don’t want to show as African Americans, meaning they want to show only happy things and not show what really happened,” Felder said. “We all know through struggle you can’t forget where you came from.” 

She added that the funding partners are supportive of doing future Black history murals that could show the Black community developing and “being more accepted.”

But perhaps the biggest disappointment for Felder was, after the Loudoun Museum board members had initially raised objections to the mural’s placement on its town-leased building last year, it had appeared at a certain point they were on board, before changing course. Felder even credited Sharon Virts, the museum’s board president, with coming up with the latest draft of the mural. 

“At some point, I think we were all on board and then Loudoun Museum backed out; they said they had a different idea,” Felder said. “We were very surprised because we had worked together until that point.” 

Virts told the council that a group of anonymous donors had come to the museum board offering to fund a virtual exhibit wall on the same museum wall proposed for the mural. Using state-of-the-art visualization projection technology consistent with local preservation measures, the wall would be an interactive exhibit displaying featuring museum artifacts.  

She said a stagnant mural displaying Tubman could mislead potential visitors. 

“Our directors feel we are going to be constantly asked by visitors where are the Harriet Tubman artifacts and we don’t have them. If we do decide to paint a mural on the building it needs to be reflective of Loudoun’s history,” Virts said. “We only have 1,100 square feet in the museum; if that wall is available it could be exhibit space that we would like to use.” 

Virts said the images shown in the projection would rotate every six months, following endorsement from COPA and the BAR. Separately, the museum is planning an immersive indoor exhibit evoking the sounds and smells of the Do Drop Inn, a popular social spot for the Black community that was formerly housed in the museum building.  

Although the council did not take a position Monday on the mural versus projection show, Councilwoman Kari Nacy suggested that a compromise could be including the mural image within the projection, if that were to move forward. 

At Councilman Ara Bagdasarian’s suggestion, the council appeared poised to move forward with forming a committee including two members of the council, two representatives from the Loudoun Museum, and two representatives from 89 Ways to Give on the mural project. The committee formation was expected to be formally voted on at the council’s Tuesday meeting.  

17 thoughts on “Concerns Linger Over Proposed Black History Mural in Leesburg

  • 2022-04-26 at 2:16 pm

    If truth be told, I like the alternate proposal of a projection show. There’s so much that could be spotlighted on a rotating basis. Plus, you don’t have to worry about protecting a projection show. Murals can be defaced so easily. So I would urge Leesburg officials to vigorously pursue the projection-show option. Happy Crime Victims’ Rights Week Loudoun!

  • 2022-04-26 at 3:04 pm

    If the video projection board raises money I’m in favor. I think a good compromise would be to include the mural on the board. However, if the are simply talking about cost it seems both would be free to the museum and the tax payers. The issue would be who is responsible for the cost of the up-keep of either.

  • 2022-04-26 at 5:29 pm

    Please don’t put murals on historic buildings. Find another visible location. Also let’s honor our own hometown heroes.

  • 2022-04-26 at 10:12 pm

    There were displays of Black history, that folks could actually learn from. But these were removed from in front ofthe courthouse. Roads and streets were renamed. So reminders of Black history have been removed so really bad art can cover a wall?

    • 2022-04-27 at 12:10 pm

      The roads were “renamed” to their original names.

  • 2022-04-27 at 7:54 am

    Why do we have to slap garish paint splashes all over historic downtown buildings? Just because Warrenton and Staunton do it? It is out of character for the historic part of the town and really just shows how little creative thought exists within the handful of Karens tasked with forcing us to like the same tacky street art that they like.
    Plant some trees. Landscape around it. Put up some kiosks with historical information. If you’re offended by a blank wall, or just see it as a canvas for some “upscale” graffiti, then perhaps you should ask your neighbors with more taste what should be done instead of finding someone to subsidize the vandalizing of historic properties.

    • 2022-04-27 at 4:25 pm

      Homeowners in the historic district are so restricted as to what they may change on the exterior of their homes YET the town allows within the historic district painting non historic looking murals on walls and structures! Makes absolutely no sense. Once again, common sense is lacking. I guess, the “rules” keeping with the historic authenticity in Historic Downtown Leesburg does not apply when it comes to unattractive graffiti murals. It’s all extremely disappointing to say the least. Many guests who have visited have said the murals ruin the historic look of Leesburg. So unfortunate. My goodness, who thought this was a good idea? Stop the destruction now before it continues to get out of hand. I would think the homeowners and business owners in the Historic District must be very disappointed with those within the town government who signed off on the decision of defacing the buildings and walls in what was once beautiful Historic Downtown Leesburg, VA. Time for serious change before it’s too late and Historic Downtown Leesburg no longer looks and feels historic! Change within the ranks is needed now!!!

  • 2022-04-27 at 7:58 am

    To rant further, the Harriet Tubman portion of the proposal is utter b.s. She never set foot in Loudoun Co., has no historical ties here, and it obscures the much more valid history of local heroes, apparently just to garner more social justice points. I find this sort of cultural ignorance (literally) writ large to be a sad commentary on the motivations behind these “projects”. “Let’s make ourselves look good to others who are just as ignorant about local history as we are.” Ironic it’s planned for the side of the one place that should know better.

  • 2022-04-27 at 9:40 am

    It’s a good idea, poorly executed. The mural needs to be relevant, and the currently proposed mural isn’t. Back to the drawing board–literally.

    • 2022-04-27 at 10:37 am

      I think as in so many things lately, we are trying too hard. Historical bldgs don’t need artwork on them for any cause or reason. There can be brochures and there are many ways to educate that don’t have us bending over backwards for constant reparations. Moving forward more positively in schools and communities would be more beneficial. I am hoping that the signs regarding lynchings have been scrubbed. I found that totally appalling.

  • 2022-04-27 at 12:14 pm

    I find the argument that “people will think there are Harriet Tubman artifacts inside” is a bit disingenuous. Otherwise I do think that the wall should be reflective of our own local heroes, though one could argue that Harriet is included here as an easily recognizable symbol of freedom and not as a historically accurate portrayal of events.

  • 2022-04-27 at 12:16 pm

    The museum argues that it needs the space to display… artifacts that it has inside of the museum. That doesn’t sound like a “space” concern.

  • 2022-04-27 at 2:17 pm

    So loudoun is going to waste taxpayer money to paint on a historical building in a historical town that includes a historical figure who has no roots or ties to the state, county, or town? LOL. I mean, how much longer can people put up with these ultra liberal antics? Why paint anything? Keep the beauty of the historical building and its architecture as is! This is just another way for social justice warriors, who are white progressives, to pat themselves on their back and say we solved racism in the county! Do something meaningful! But if we are stuck with defacing a beautiful building, then put up people who actually did something while in Loudoun!

  • 2022-04-28 at 2:15 am

    I agree that 1. The historic Loudoun Museum should not be used as a canvas to paint a mural on the wall, as this historic building should remain in it’s historic state 2. Using projected “stories” on the wall would be a good idea, but would the images be visible on a sunny day or just at night? 3. Bazil Newman and Leonard Grimes and his brother or other prominent Black residents from Loudoun’s history should be showcased in whatever medium is selected instead of Harriett Tubman since she never set foot in Loudoun. 4. A handful of kiosks scattered around town for the “high foot travel areas” to people could stop and read the information would
    be a good idea – along King Street, courthouse grounds, at the outlet mall just to name a few foot traffic areas. As a former kindergarten teacher, I’d take the class on a field trip to the museum during Black History month (hopefully, the museum would have an exhibit about Black History in Loudoun, and then the class could walk to kiosks in the downtown areas near the museum; or assign students an extra credit project to visit the kiosks with their parents and write or make a small poster illustrating what they learned from the kiosks.

  • 2022-04-28 at 7:38 am

    I would love to see high quality murals on the sides of the data centers without any forced emphasis on partisanship/signaling etc. Are we now going to censor visual art as well as written or spoken opinion? Why aren’t our high school art teachers promoting students being able to produce resume building work on the sides of data centers????? 🙂

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