The courthouse contains a 1938 Section of Fine Arts mural by Stefan Hirsch entitled “Justice as Protector and Avenger.” During the 1930s, this mural sparked an intensely racialized controversy:
“The central female figure is a reference to the Renaissance Virtue Justice—familiar to us all because she is regularly deployed in courthouses around the world. But the WPA artist explained that his ‘figure of “Justice”‘ was ‘without any of the customary . . . symbolic representations (scale, sword, book . . .).’ He said that the only ‘allegory’ he had permitted himself was ‘to use the red, white and blue [of the United States flag] for her garments.’
What did others see? A local newspaper objected to this ‘barefooted mulatto woman wearing bright-hued clothing.’ The federal judge in whose courtroom the mural appeared termed it a ‘monstrosity’—a ‘profanation of the otherwise perfection’ of the courthouse.
The artist protested that observers, if truly impartial, could not conclude ‘that the figure’s face . . . appears to have negroid traits. I should not only be willing but anxious to obliterate this “blemish,” because I had certainly intended nothing of the sort.’ A federal government official from the Department of the Treasury responded, ‘I must confess that the palette of the head . . . and the vivid red lips . . . would [make it] easy to . . . conclu[de] that the figure is mulatto.’
A ‘compromise’ was proposed to ‘lighten Justice’s skin color.’ But others, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, objected. The denouement was to cover the mural with a tan velvet curtain…” (http://yalelawjournal.org)
The mural is no longer covered up.
Project originally submitted by Claire Stringer on February 7, 2014.
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