Primary Source: Could it be curtains for ‘offensive’ mural at Vermont Law School?

  • John P. Gregg. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • A black bear wanders near Massachusetts Hall, a block from the Dartmouth Green, in Hanover, N.H., on Thursday, July 9. Photo by Michael Hinsley

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2020 9:11:19 PM
Modified: 7/15/2020 9:11:11 PM

Could it be curtains for the mural at Vermont Law School that was meant to honor the state’s role in the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement but that the school now says contains “offensive” images of African Americans?

As the Valley News reported last week, VLS Dean and President Thomas McHenry sent an email to the school community saying the mural by artist Sam Kerson would be painted over.

But Kerson said he talked by phone on Tuesday with McHenry and the VLS dean brought up the idea of putting the mural behind a curtain.

“We did agree that putting theatrical curtains around the mural so it can be closed and opened might be a good idea,” the 73-year-old Kerson, who now lives in Quebec, said via email.

Kerson painted the two 8-by-24-foot panels, with four scenes in each panel, in 1993 as an effort to celebrate efforts by both Black and white Americans to “achieve freedom and justice.” But some students have long complained that the images of half-naked Africans being forced into slavery and sold at auction are discomforting, and VLS students Jameson Davis and April Urbanowski also recently said the mural “perpetuates white supremacy, superiority, and the white savior complex,” and that the “the over-exaggerated depiction of Africans ... is eerily similar to Sambos, and other anti-black coon caricatures.”

McHenry, in his email last week, said “the depictions of the African-Americans on the mural are offensive to many in our community” and that the school had decided to “paint over the mural.”

School officials on Wednesday refused to answer questions about the conversation with Kerson — who had likened the possible destruction of his mural to “burning books” — nor whether a curtain is now under consideration, and declined to make McHenry available for an interview.

Instead, VLS provided a statement in McHenry’s name saying, “We have made our recommendation regarding the mural to the Board of Trustees. They will review the request made by the community and the recommendation, and then make a decision on what will be done and when in regards to the mural.”

Kerson said it would also be possible to take out the panels, rather than destroying the mural, but such a removal would “require expertise.”

Meanwhile, one Manhattan-based lawyer with experience in the field said VLS could run afoul of a 1990 federal law were it to destroy Kerson’s work without the artist’s permission.

Steven Hyman, who also has a home in Andover, Vt., and was previously the president of the board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the mural may be protected by the Visual Artists Rights Act, which is intended to prevent the unauthorized destruction of works of “recognized stature.”

“I am troubled that with an artist of this caliber, that a law school would simply paint over (his work) because people may have found the message objectionable,” Hyman said. “An artist has this moral right to have his art respected even if he no longer owns it, unless he’s otherwise” signed such rights away.

Kerson late on Wednesday said he had not signed away such rights and was “somewhat aware of VARA.”

“But, for the moment, our board is more interested in reaching an agreement with the VLS. The dean seemed like an art lover,” Kerson wrote.

Lieutenant governor campaigning

There’s been lots of activity on the campaign trail for candidates seeking to become Vermont’s next lieutenant governor. The five Republican candidates squared off in a debate Tuesday night sponsored by Vermont PBS and Vermont Public Radio.

Three of them — Dana Colson, of Sharon; Meg Hansen, of Manchester; and Dwayne Tucker, of Barre Town, all said they supported President Donald Trump. Jim Hogue, of Calais, said he didn’t support Trump in 2016 but had been “very impressed” by how Trump survived the “Russia hoax” investigation, VtDigger reported.

Pomfret Republican Scott Milne said he would write in the name of former GOP Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas for president, rather than voting for Trump.

Among Democrats, Newbury native Molly Gray held a “back to school” news conference with Upper Valley educators on Monday in Randolph and called for an “emergency needs assessment for students and teachers without access to the internet.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, the Progressive/Democrat from Chittenden County who is also running for lieutenant governor, campaigned along the Interstate 91 corridor on Wednesday, including a stop to meet with firefighters in Hartford.

State Sen. Debbie Ingram, of Williston, and Brenda Siegel, of Newfane, are also seeking the Democratic lieutenant governor nomination.

Bearish on Dartmouth

■The Dartmouth Alumni Magazine wrote a short piece on 2013 Dartmouth graduate Blake Neff this month, titled “The Right Stuff,” only to see him resign as a writer for Fox News’ Tucker Carlson after it was revealed that Neff had posted racist and misogynistic comments on an online forum. The alumni magazine briefly took the story off its website before reposting it with an update that said, in part, “The editors of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine condemn Neff’s reprehensible actions, which in no way reflect the views of the magazine.”

■A young black bear hung out in a tree outside Parkhurst Hall, home to the Dartmouth president’s office, for about two hours on Thursday, the college said on its website this week. The bear eventually came down, crossed a parking lot, and walked into woods near the Dartmouth Cemetery. They don’t have this kind of excitement down in Princeton, do they?

John P. Gregg can be reached at

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