Some Judges Want Paintings of "Shirtless Black Men Hauling...Bales of Cotton" Removed from Courthouse

Categories: Courts

docking.jpg
Offensive racist imagery, or benign painting well-suited for a courthouse or mid-range motel? You be the judge.
Six historical paintings at Houston's federal courthouse have raised some hackles with two federal judges, who believe the paintings dredge up offensive imagery of slavery.

The paintings, depicting the Houston Ship Channel in the late 1870s, were completed between 1938 and 1941, and were displayed in the courthouse entryway from the 1970s until they were removed for restoration in 2006. In 2010, they were once again displayed, this time in the jury assembly room.

But U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore took umbrage at the art, especially a 1941 painting by Alexandre Hogue called "The Diana Docking," showing laborers and spectators along Buffalo Bayou. In an e-mail to her fellow judges, she pointed out the presence of a white fellow with a gun, a black fellow with a bundle of logs and no shirt, and a Native American fellow who is made out of wood.

Gilmore wrote that she received comments from employees who felt "this picture as well as others in the series are offensive to persons who would rather not be reminded about that period in history or their part as either overseers or 'workers.'"

Moreover:

I brought a boy scout troop here over the holidays to earn their citizenship badge and while I was very proud to show them the historical time line with information about our court, it was rather awkward to have to walk them past the old, antiquated murals with pictures of shirtless black men hauling wood and bales of cotton. It said nothing about our court except that maybe we are too insensitive or oblivious to let some of these images die. We finally managed to get these dreadful images out of the lobby. Now can we please retire them for good.

(Unfortunately, she didn't mention the most perplexing part in our eyes; that old woman with the picnic basket, in the lower left-hand corner. What's her deal? She is clearly not a child, yet she appears to be roughly three feet tall. Was 19th-century Houston teeming with Keebler elves?)

Her fellow judge, Keith Ellison, replied in an e-mail that "I share all of Vanessa's concerns. I have received many complaints about the murals which are, in addition to what Vanessa said, bad art."

But Ellison was also curious about "how such tasteless images came to be where they are. Were they the subject of a memorandum that I missed? Did the court vote on it? Did the Port of Houston put them there?"

Actually, as explained by the aforementioned Chron story, the paintings are owned by the General Services Administration, which seemed quite proud of their work in restoring the paintings at the time.

Both Hogue (1898-1994), and artist Jerry Bywaters (1906-1989), who painted some of the other works on display, are renowned artists whose collections have been displayed in galleries throughout the country. Hogue's work was recently featured in the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. The curator, Houston-based Susie Kalil, wrote a book about Hogue, and explained in a 2011 museum press release that "It is impossible to think of the art of the Southwest during the past century without including Alexandre Hogue in the picture."

A hardcore conservationist, Hogue was raised in north Texas, and gained notoriety for painting Dust Bowl and nature scenes while living in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma. He taught summer classes at the Texas State College for Women and was the head of Hockaday Junior College's art department, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Judge Lynn N. Hughes responded to his colleagues with brief bios of the artists, as well as Chron articles about the restoration. In his cover letter, he wrote that the label for "The Diana Docking" indicates that the scene is meant to depict the Ship Channel in 1876, "11 years after the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution."

Hughes also wrote that the white guy with the gun is wearing "the proverbial tin star of a lawman, suggesting his occupation."

Hair Balls sought comment from Gilmore, Ellison and Hughes. While we're waiting to hear from the latter two, the woman who answered the phone in Gilmore's office chuckled when we said we had a question about the paintings, and asked us who told us about it. We facetiously replied -- or started to, anyway -- that a little bird told us. (That means "confidential source"; i.e., someone who thinks they might get disciplined or fired for sharing with the public that -- gasp! -- some judges notice, and talk about, the artwork hanging in their building.)

The woman promptly hung up on us. We called back, got a recording and left another message seeking Gilmore's comment.

A source (who may or may not be of avian extraction) told us that Gilmore subsequently issued an e-mail chastising her colleagues, apparently suggesting they, or someone in their charge, leaked this Watergate-proportioned story. She advised that she intended to voice her concerns in The Houston Defender. (Our source said her e-mail referred to the Press as a "wag" paper. We wondered if she may have actually used "rag," because we're much more used to be called a "rag" than a "wag." The jury's still out on that one -- HEY-OH!).

Personally, we don't see anything offensive in these paintings. But then again, we also don't see why it would be a huge deal to move, or take down, the paintings if they really offended Gilmore and others so much. What we don't understand is why any judge would feel the need to hide his or feelings about a freaking painting. Would anyone really lose respect for a judge who said that a painting was tacky/offensive/idiotic? As a matter of fact, we kind of dig Ellison criticizing the work of a dude whose paintings are in the Smithsonian and the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris, because many snooty types (and outright poseurs) will jump on any such bandwagon.

In fact, we think it's a sign of character to stand up and voice your opinion about a perceived injustice, even though you may be in the minority, and there may be bigger forces against you. For example, some people might wonder what the hell a sitting federal judge was doing giving a private tour to a membership organization that doesn't let homosexuals and atheists into leadership positions. Some people might recoil at the notion of a bunch of adults telling children it's okay to discriminate on the basis of religion or sexual orientation, decrying it as patently un-American and downright hateful.

We wonder what would happen if Gilmore would've received an e-mail like that. We're guessing she'd probably just hit "delete."

UPDATE: Judge Ellison got back to us Thursday morning and reiterated the comments in his e-mail, including the fact that he's received complaints from both courthouse employees and the public. He told us: "There's a good bit of art that is in the Smithsonian and even more important museums that I think would be inappropriate for a jury assembly room. Obviously, we have a history that is replete with many very unfortunate images, and whether that's the right image to put up in a jury assembly room -- where people are actually forced to come -- unlike a museum, where they may choose to come, I think we need to be especially sensitive about the message we send with artwork. And for that reason, I think it was an unfortunate choice."


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49 comments
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Tomball mom
Tomball mom

Look up  website about Texas Post office Murals...these pieces (as well as many others in Texas)  are an important part of U.S. as well as Texas History; part of the WPA system to employ artists as well as other people.   Yes, they are "period" pieces, but educate people about them, don't call for them to be taken down.  How short sighted people are....just showing their overall ignorance for the big picture of the human experience.  

nearnort
nearnort

Instead of removing art with a message that has become obsolete, they should commission new art that has a more contemporary message. The new art can be added to an adjacent wall or space and give the message that "this is what people used to think, but this is how we think now".  It would all add to the historical context.  Because in fact, that is what Houston was like, that is how the ruling class of Houston thought of  their city, and we should instead celbrate how far we have come to include all Houstonians in our shared aspirations.

Tomball mom
Tomball mom

again, educate yourself as to what these murals were for, and then educate the viewers.

Hairballs
Hairballs

Hey Craig,How does it feel to work for a paper that supports sex trafficking?  That's the scum of the Earth supporting something like that.  You should be ashamed to work there.  Of course ya'lls stories are always scummy anyhow so I guess it makes sense.  You wouldn't know morals if it slapped you in the face and this story is just another example of it.  You should really think about your writing career.

Craig Malisow
Craig Malisow

Holy ad hominem, Batman! Nothing screams "morals" like anonymously accusing a complete stranger of being a scumbag. If you're ever interested in having a real discussion, please e-mail me at craig.malisow@houstonpress.com, or call at 713.280.2481. Thank you.

Zev Karn
Zev Karn

People are so sensitive to the stupidest things.  Oh no, there is a shirtless black guy working at the ship channel and a white guy with a gun.  Get over yourself.  This mural is just a depiction of everyday life from that era.  Not to mention the white guy with a gun is clearly a sheriff.  Did the Judge even look at the picture or was just immediately offended by her own racial predudice.  The most offensive thing in the painting is the ship spewing burning coal into the atmosphere.  Heaven forbid that the Judge actually talk to the boyscout troop about unpleasant historical events.  Lets just ignore anything we don't like about the past.  Just give history lessons that go from the signing of the Declaration of Independance stright to the post WWII industral boom. 

Yearnd
Yearnd

these murals are on display in many post offices and other federal buildings.  I think most of them were produced by a FDR era wpa program.  They are great folk art and a reminder of depression era recovery.  Those who are looking to be offended will always find something to bitch about.  Taking the images out of context is not a valid way to view this art

Honcho
Honcho

Has anyone brought up the cigar store Indian (Native American)? In some ways, that may actually be more offensive – if indeed anything about this piece should be considered offensive.

Tim
Tim

People are so sensitive these days. This sounds like a bunch of BS. 

keystonelonestar
keystonelonestar

A judge that denies history can't be a very good judge.

Kylejack
Kylejack

As mentioned previously, the picture is not historically accurate. So it's not history, but some warped version of it, and there's no real pressing need to show jurors altered history. It serves no instructive purpose.

Ted Stickles
Ted Stickles

Is art required to serve instructive purpose?

Pharvdb1
Pharvdb1

Mindless judges!  With that logic, imagine what the ravages of this PC-thinking would have done to most of the cathedrales, palaces and chateaux in Europe!

Wyatt
Wyatt

Listen, no one's saying destroy the painting. Jesus. Put it in a museum or private collection. Or a cathedral, or palace, or chateau. It is inappropriate for a courthouse, however.

Richard Doll
Richard Doll

The funny thing is, if you really look at the painting, no-one in the painting is paying any attention to the laborer without a shirt (oh right - the Black Guy!).  The man and young lady appear to be looking out into the Bayou, and no-one else is even looking in his direction.  The lawman is certainly not, and there's absolutely no reason to infer his presence has anything to do with the laborers presence.  Best as I can tell, the biggest offence here is a man has taken off his shirt while doing physical labor in the sweaty swampland that is Houston.  Since it's past emancipation, I'm going to have to assume he's either working for a wage or carrying his own possessions.  Scandal!

Fejsplace
Fejsplace

 It's certainly not a bale of cotton

Gaspar_Ramsey
Gaspar_Ramsey

So why don't we replace them with some pictures of vanilla ice cream cones and red and white candy canes, all surrounded and set off by Fourth of July bunting and a milk-white field. This is just the thing to appeal to the Republican vanilla-flavored mindset of America--nothing there to "offend" anyone by reminding them of America's and Texas' not-always-fair-to-minorities-like-we-pretend-we-are-today past. And then, when these boosters of the bland have their way, jury duty can continue as the most mind-numbing and asinine system ever perverted by lawyers.

Fejsplace
Fejsplace

 Once again, I'm completely confused.Aren't the vanilla-flavored Republican types the ones that are yearning for the good ole days and the left-wing liberal types the hand-wringers that are against anyone saying or doing something that might offend  someone especially if they are a minority type??

Fejsplace
Fejsplace

I can't believe how wrong all of you can be.  The black guy is just a worker doing his job.If you really look at the painting, the well dressed white guy is going for his gun to shoot what is obviously a mexican trying to steal a trunk that was left unattended sitting on the dock!

AR
AR

--Hughes also wrote that the white guy with the gun is wearing "the proverbial tin star of a lawman, suggesting his occupation."--

And that's great because? So called "lawmen" used to be even worse in the 19th century. The Texas Rangers conducted massacres of non-whites and ethnic cleansing in Texas. The penal system was/is used in the South to make up for the loss of slavery.

Rgrhourgr
Rgrhourgr

Who is to say it is even a slave.  As far as I can tell its just some guy working hard on the bayou.  It could be worse and depict numerous homeless people laying about the court house steps, how's that for reality.

Wyatt
Wyatt

 A shirtless black guy bend over while a well-dressed white guy watches him work, with a gun. Yeah, ok.

Although I like your idea about the homeless people. What about photographs? Has anyone ever tried taking black and white pictures of homeless people?

sickbassturd
sickbassturd

Wyatt your wanking is affecting your vision if you'll look closer, you'll see the man with gun also has a badge on too. Now release your grip on that little fella ...

Wyatt
Wyatt

1870s could be considered early modern...

Anyway, yeah, I'm not saying burn the painting or anything, I just don't think it's appropriate for a courthouse.

sickbassturd
sickbassturd

I must agree the images belong in a museum. My museum would be the best choice, it would be a nice contrast to some of the modern pieces.

sickbassturd
sickbassturd

Wow, you have spent some serious time on the docks haven't you.I bet you were very popular down in the ships hold with all those sweaty black menzez. I thought you were just being a dumbass. I stand corrected.

Wyatt
Wyatt

OK, now my wanking is definitely affecting my vision.

Craig Malisow
Craig Malisow

I can't help it, sickbassturd, I really like when you talk about sweaty black dock-workers taking off their shirts. Can you please post another comment, only this time will you go into more detail? Can you describe the beads of sweat slowly trickling down his rippling muscles, and how he might pause for a brief respite to dip his strong, calloused hands into the cool, clear water of the bayou to splash his head, then slowly shake off the excess moisture, spraying rivulets of sweat-sweetened dew into the air around him before once again lifting up his wood and getting back to his labors? Please? I can't wait.

Wyatt
Wyatt

I'm not big on white guilt. But it is incredibly obvious to me that the black guy represents a racial underclass compared to the clean, white foreman/overseer (depending on where you fall on the slave/laborer question).

Either way, the basic idea depicted is a historical fact, and certainly shouldn't be avoided in art. However, it's how the scene is depicted and where it's displayed - and this is where a little extra critical thinking helps - that makes this painting a bit questionable. It seems to glorify the situation (regardless of what the dead artist intended), and being a courthouse and all, better to err on the quiet side of controversy.

sickbassturd
sickbassturd

Let me dumb this down for you comments on here are trying to make this a slavery thing.How do you know it's not just a black guy with out a shirt on? Bet you've never been a dock hand or a boat hand in Houston in the heat and humidity, trust me you'd take your shirt off too (well maybe not you). This is all a really moot point since the artist is long since passed away as to what he was symbolizing has gone with him.

Craig Malisow
Craig Malisow

OK, OK, solid, well-reasoned argument bursting with logic and critical thinking skills....but, just for the sake of argument, try this: stop, take a deep breath, and explain how the presence or absence of a badge on the white guy has anything to do with whether the black guy is a slave.

Nightmare on Bagby
Nightmare on Bagby

I shudder to think what these "art critics" would say about the Thomas Hart Benton murals in the Missouri State Capitol. Historically accurate and great art... including slaves without shirts.

Craig Malisow
Craig Malisow

I don't think the guy in the "Docking" painting is a slave, but if Judge Ellison and others are hearing complaints from people who receive a summons and are forced to report for potential jury duty, then I don't think you can just brush their concerns aside. (Also, I don't think a painting's historical accuracy is relevant if the history it's depicting is particularly nasty).

But what I really don't understand is why everyone is ignoring this Keebler elf issue. That's the real controversy here.

roadgeek
roadgeek

But I don't understand.  That's precisely what working slaves looked like.  It's history.  Texas had slaves, lots of them, and Houston benefited greatly by their labor.  Like it.  Dislike it.  Makes no difference.  It's fact. 

Vanessa Gilmore is another black who is frightened of her own cultural history and too easily offended by something she had nothing to do with.  She needs to get over herself. 

After all, 150 years ago she would have been a slave or the descendant of a slave in Houston; today she occupies a power of both influence and power in that same city.  I'd say pride is called for, not shame or fear.

But what do I know.

Wyatt
Wyatt

"depicting the Houston Ship Channel in the late 1870s"

What about slaves? Those aren't even slaves. Sure look like them, though, don't they?

Kylejack
Kylejack

 Actually, they probably are intended to be slaves. He seems to have put in some anachronisms and innacuracies.

"His second piece, “The Diana Docking,” took a a few artistic liberties, showing on the opposite bank of Buffalo Bayou a Houston hotel that briefly served as the capitol of the Republic of Texas and a log cabin meant to depict one of Sam Houston’s law offices."

Wyatt
Wyatt

That makes it even worse, like the artist is pining for the good ol' days before the 13th amendment.

Ignoring or whitewashing history is stupid. But sometimes it's all in the execution. This painting looks to me like a glorification of racial exploitation.

Kylejack
Kylejack

What purpose does a painting of our racist history serve in a jury assembly room? Is it to remind us of the racial disparities in the Drug War, and the justice system as a whole?

sickbassturd
sickbassturd

What a jerk off judge(s), I would love to have those pieces.

Wyatt
Wyatt

 I don't think a courthouse is a good place for a painting that glorifies a racial caste system.

Ted Stickles
Ted Stickles

But how is it glorifying anything? Do you mean to say that painting a subject glorifies it by definition?

sickbassturd
sickbassturd

Ok Wyatt do you not think you can go down to the port today and not find black guys with out shirts on moving freight. Hello they're doing a job.

Gaspar_Ramsey
Gaspar_Ramsey

 Me too. That's before I gave up hard work forever.

sickbassturd
sickbassturd

Ah a pearl of wisdom. Only problem is I did work the docks when I was a much younger man with men of every race creed color and nationality

Craig Malisow
Craig Malisow

Wyatt -- he's got you. Clearly, this is a man who has spent a lot of time down at the Port looking for shirtless black guys. There's no winning this one, hombre. 

reppin2
reppin2

They should probably be in a museum somewhere, but I do not get it that some people think that removing photographs will make history go away, or make us forget about it.  I guess we should close all the holocaust museums, take the photos down of the camps and remove the pics from history books.  Then it will also just go away.  As for the boyscouts, the awkward moment could have been a chance for a good history lesson.

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