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.