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Vermont Law School board to determine mural’s fate on Friday

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/20/2020 9:37:48 PM
Modified: 7/21/2020 9:53:02 PM

SOUTH ROYALTON — The Board of Trustees at Vermont Law School has scheduled a special meeting on Friday to decide whether to accept VLS Dean Thomas McHenry’s recommendation that a 1993 mural in the student center that critics say has offensive depictions of African-Americans should be painted over.

The mural by artist Sam Kerson in VLS’s Chase Community Center was intended to pay tribute to Vermont’s role in abolition and the Underground Railroad, but some students this summer raised concerns that 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.”

In a statement released on Monday, VLS board Chairman Glenn Berger said the trustees were reviewing McHenry’s recommendation and would discuss it on Friday.

“Vermont Law School has a long-standing commitment to racial equality and social justice. Racism has no place in our country, in our state or in our law school,” Berger, a former attorney with the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee and the Washington office of the Skadden Arps law firm, said in the statement.

“The board is sympathetic to the feelings and acknowledges the perspective of the VLS community members who are offended by this mural.”

McHenry earlier this month said the mural should be painted over, writing in a schoolwide email that “the depictions of the African-Americans on the mural are offensive to many in our community and, upon reflection and consultation, we have determined that the mural is not consistent with our School’s commitment to fairness, inclusion, diversity, and social justice.”

He met last week with Kerson, who later told the Valley News he was hopeful that the mural might be kept in place but that a theatrical curtain might be installed in front of the mural. Kerson, who now lives in Quebec and turns 74 later this month, likened the possible destruction of the mural to “burning books.”

A New York-based attorney not involved in the dispute and who has a home in Vermont also said that VLS could run afoul of a federal law known as the Visual Artists Rights Act, which is intended to prevent the unauthorized destruction of works of “recognized stature,” if the South Royalton-based school painted over the artwork without Kerson’’s permission.

John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com or 603-727-3217.

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