A proposal by Leesburg resident Carmen Felder to place a mural of American abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the façade of the Loudoun Museum has stirred some passions in the community, and looks to be the focus of continued debate.
Felder, co-founder of the 89 Ways to Give Foundation, said a major goal of the foundation for 2021 was to pay homage to Black history, among other projects it hoped to bring to life. With Juneteenth being celebrated as a state holiday for the first time this year, and the town’s place in history as a route along the Underground Railroad, Felder thought a mural referencing this important piece of the county’s history would be timely. Felder was able to secure financial support for a public art mural of Harriet Tubman in Leesburg from Tito’s Vodka, which this year committed $1 million to support causes nationwide related to social equity and the fight against racism. Artist Shawn Perkins, who has work featured in Washington, DC and around the country, was selected by Felder for the mural project.
Formerly known as Carolina Road, Leesburg’s King Street was an Underground Railroad route that led to the Potomac River crossing. The town was the site of several Underground Railroad sites, including the Loudoun County Courthouse, according to a staff report. Though Tubman is unquestionably the most well recognized abolitionist associated with the Underground Railroad, she has no known ties to Leesburg, and it has not been historically recorded that she ever passed through the county seat. Still, Felder said she felt Tubman was an ideal choice for a public art mural.
“Rather than trying to decide among so many local heroes, we chose Harriet Tubman since she has such universal recognition and represents the fight for emancipation,” she said.
Felder said the decision to select Loudoun Museum, a town-owned property that the museum leases, as the ideal spot for a mural of Tubman came after she and others, including Mayor Kelly Burk and Councilman Ara Bagdasarian, took a walking tour of the downtown area.
“It seemed to be the best place and the history surrounding it made it seem to fit like a puzzle piece,” Felder said.
The museum building itself has its own place in Black history. Though not on the Underground Railroad route, the building was once the site of the Do Drop Inn, a popular social spot for the Black community. Its most well known owners were Sherman and Mary Berry, who assumed management in 1933, according to a staff report.
In pursuing the project, Felder reached out to several community groups, including the NAACP, the Black History Committee of the Thomas Balch Library, Visit Loudoun, and the Commission on Public Art. All were generally supportive of the project, though some suggested the mural instead depict local Black figures associated with the freedom movement. The Black History Committee in particular suggested featuring Rev. Leonard Grimes, a recognized Freedom Seeker and conductor on the Underground Railroad who was a Leesburg native. A letter from the committee pointed out that Grimes’ contributions played a role in the Loudoun County Courthouse being designated a site by the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, yet there has never been a physical recognition of that honor.
“A mural of Grimes would coincide with the County’s efforts to create memorials that better reflect the history and events related to the Courthouse,” a letter provided in a Board of Architectural Review staff report read.
After receiving COPA support, commission co-chair Elizabeth Ransom presented the project before the BAR earlier this week. Though the BAR does not issue Certificates of Appropriateness for public art murals in the Old & Historic District, the town’s public art guidelines stipulate that the BAR provide a recommendation before the project is considered, and potentially approved, by the Town Council.
BAR review on such a project is supposed to be limited to project location; height, scale, and massing; and physical impact on historic materials. However, the content of the mural were also discussed during the board’s May 17 meeting, and brought forward in Preservation Planner Lauren Murphy’s staff report. In her report, she expressed concerns that placing a mural of Tubman on the museum building would be misleading.
“Given the recognizable role of Harriet Tubman in American history, the Preservation Planner is concerned that her image on this building will create a false sense of history not just for the structure but for Leesburg in general and that this mural may lead passersby to assume that the building was affiliated with Harriet Tubman and her noble work, or indeed associated with the Underground Railroad at all,” the report stated. “The building dates to sometime between 1850 and 1878. While Harriet Tubman was engaged during this time in facilitating the escape of enslaved Americans, she is believed to have conducted her last sojourn south around 1860, the approximate date of construction of this structure.”
Ransom, in defending the project, said the large-scale size of Tubman, with her hand extended and glow-in-the-dark paint proposed to be used for the lantern light, was intended to draw visitors’ attention to the building and encourage them to stop for a photo of the mural, or to learn more about the town’s history.
“It’s like she is reaching out her hand to invite you into the museum and maybe Leesburg’s past,” she said.
The Loudoun Museum’s Board of Trustees also expressed its misgivings about the project. Board Chair Sharon Virts said in addressing the BAR that the Board of Trustees was unanimous in its decision to not support the mural project. She cited concerns about the impact of the paint materials on the historic building, a concern also cited by both Murphy and other BAR members, and the inclusion of Tubman herself in the project.
“It gives a false sense of what’s inside the building. [Visitors] are going to be looking for an exhibit on Harriet Tubman and there is no exhibit on Harriet Tubman. They’re going to be looking for an exhibit on the Underground Railroad and there is none. If we’re going to do a mural at all it should be relevant to Loudoun. It’s a false, in my mind, presentation of what Leesburg’s history really is,” Virts said.
She also noted that the museum’s director, who has a background in antebellum history, was not consulted about the project.
“We’ve had no voice in this,” Virts said.
BAR member Paul Reimers cited the museum board’s disapproval of the project in his comments, comparing it to “having an ad for cigarettes on the side of a hospital,” though he clarified that he was not commenting on the subject of the mural itself.
BAR Chair Teresa Minchew said she thought the proposed mural was beautiful, but said she was concerned that the scale of the mural would overtake a historic building.
“Many of us, our major concern was, is this building appropriate to decorate with art. It is already…a historic artifact,” she said. “It is a precious part of our history. It is not a big building. It is, in my opinion, not the right place for a mural to take up half the wall. It has nothing to do with the content, it has nothing to do with the subject. It is a very small, historic building that would be forever changed by having any kind of art on that wall.”
In commenting on the scale of the mural, Minchew said it would not be the welcoming feature for those sitting in the garden that perhaps was intended.
“It would be frightening to sit there in that garden and have that scale. The scale is for passersby who are a good distance away,” she said.
While the BAR was not supportive of the project, Burk said in a subsequent interview that she hoped a compromise could be found that would move the mural project forward. She is planning a meeting next week with representatives from the Black History Committee, the museum, COPA, Felder, and others.
“The goal for the meeting is to get everybody together to talk about the project and see what we can agree on,” she said, “and perhaps a compromise can come out of that agreement that can make it agreeable to most of us.”