The Leesburg Town Council on Tuesday night approved a new Black history mural to be painted on the wall of the Loudoun Museum building on the town hall campus.
The council also voted to remove three members of the Commission on Public Art who stirred controversy by walking out of a meeting to prevent the panel from formally endorsing the artwork.
The mural was proposed last spring by Carmen Felder, president of the 89 Ways to Give Foundation, to highlight the Underground Railroad as area residents helped fleeing enslaved people find safety across the Potomac River.
The initial version of the proposal drew criticism for prominently featuring Harriet Tubman, although she was not active in Loudoun. A revised design depicts two local residents—Bazil Newman, a prominent Black landowner and ferry operator, and Black abolitionist Leonard Grimes. There also was debate about whether the museum building was a suitable place for the mural and whether a projection, rather than a painting, of the image would be better suited for that property.
During a review of the latest design at the June 6 COPA, three members who raised concerns about the artistic integrity and the historical accuracy of the image walked out of the meeting, leaving the panel without a quorum required to transact business.
Council members supporting the mural said the artwork highlights an important part of history that isn’t being told in the community.
Councilman Zach Cummings said it was “abhorrent” that the Underground Railroad has not been recognized locally and “insulting” that no marker has been installed at the county courthouse, which has been designated as an Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site by the National Park Service.
As for the vote to remove the three members of the commission, council members said dissenting ideas are welcome, but it was wrong to be disrespectful to the applicant and their colleagues.
“It was in bad form. It was insulting and it is something I cannot condone,” Vice Mayor Marty Martinez said.
Addressing the council before the mural vote, COPA members Minu Beijan and James Garofalo detailed their critical concerns about the mural based on their experiences as artists.
Member Kareem McCullough, who had raised concerns about the historical accuracy of the image, said he was the one who suggested the walkout and asked that he alone be punished. That appeal won over only Councilwoman Suzanne Fox, who voted against removing Beijan and Garofalo.
Several council members said they regretted taking the action, but could not support a “toxic” environment on the advisory panel.
“The Commission on Public Art should be one of the most joyful commissions we have in town,” Councilman Neil Steinberg said.
Councilman Ara Bagdasarian was absent for the meeting.