Recently I toured Durham to view a few of the city’s murals. They’re located throughout the city, graphically displayed on the sides of buildings made of aged brick, concrete, and other construction materials.
Murals can be pictorial in nature, but many tell a story. Sometimes they’re meant to be political. Often a mural is designed to be a signature piece, something characteristic of the community from which its inhabitants can derive a sense of pride.
Murals can divide communities. They can also bring them together.
Durham has several murals of Pauli Murray, a lawyer, activist, and, eventually, the first ordained African-American Episcopal priest. She in truth considered herself multi-racial, and was active throughout her compelling life singing the praises of community, togetherness and equal rights for all. Her face adorns the sides of several structures, including the TROSA frame and furniture store on Foster Street, along with this inscription:
True Community is based upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.
In the Lakewood section of Durham, on the side of the Azeteca Grill restaurant, the vibrant hues flail out like a kite in the breeze. The milky-white eyes, with their slash of blue and red-orange in each pupil of the figure in the middle, evoke the color of a frothy Aegean Sea. It’s a calendar, really, and not Greek, but Aztecan, boasting competing opposites of nature and the sacred.
And then there is the Durham Civil Rights History Mural Project: the 2,400 square foot wall is the back of the Durham Convention Center and is next to the Durham Arts Council. Each day it takes shape – a giant life-like painting of Durham’s past. The figures, mostly African-American, their faces resolute in their resolve to fight oppression and inequality, stand tall against injustice.
On a warm, sunny afternoon, I stopped by to take a full look. The figures come alive up close. It’s almost like they’re real, employing you to see the wrongness in separating people and judging because of the color of skin. But I saw hope in their eyes, too – an almost beleaguered hope, but hope nonetheless.
Brenda Miller Holmes, the director of the project, was on top of some scaffolding. Her hands were paint stained, and she looked hot, but I could see the pride in what she was doing, how meaningful she was finding her work. The point of the mural was to honor “the foot soldiers and ancestors that paved the way for civil rights,” she said. She talked about all of the lost names and faces that played a secret role, going as far back as the ’30s and ’40s and on up to the ’70s. These faces are real, she said. “These are the faces of Durham’s history.”
“Was there a particular person you think we should know about?” I asked.
“All of them,” Brenda said.
Demarcus Boone, a young black man, was on the scaffolding with Brenda. He was busy painting the figure of a white man. That man was C. P. Ellis, the once exalted Klu Klux Klan leader in Durham.
“How does it feel to paint this man?” I asked Demarcus.
“I feel proud of both of them,” he said.
He was referring to the African-American woman next to C. P. Ellis, Ann Atwater.
“I feel proud of both of them because I was beginning to think people couldn’t change. I was losing hope, until I learned about C. P. and Ann. It wasn’t an easy task,” he said, referring to C. P.’s unlikely union with Ann on civil rights. “They were on the opposite ends of race, but they came together.”
Maja is at the far right corner of the mural; she is on her hands and knees. She is wearing shorts and her knees are taking the brunt of her work.
“What Brenda forgot to say,” she said, “is that this mural is helping to establish a sense of place. For all of us. This city belongs to the community.”
Maja said back in Albany, Georgia, in ’63, ’64; she was arrested and put in jail one time for eight days, and another time for 20 days, all for protesting for civil rights.
Speaking about the mural, she said it represents that, “We all exist. See us – the poor, the African-Americans, the homeless, the veterans – we claim this downtown.”
You can reach Robert Wallace at email@example.com