Turning Controversy into Consensus

Olin Dows, 1937

Olin Dows, 1937
Dows painted the post office murals in Rhinebeck and Hyde Park, New York. He served as an administrator for the first New Deal relief program for artists, the Public Works Art Project (PWAP), and later headed the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP). Courtesy, Wilderstein Preservation.

The New Deal’s efforts to create jobs extended to thousands of artists on relief. Between 1934 and 1943, several government-sponsored programs dedicated to art and culture sponsored the creation of artworks in public buildings. The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, later renamed the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, commissioned more than 1,400 murals in post offices nationwide.

In addition to putting artists to work, the post office murals were seen as a way to boost general morale during hardships of the Great Depression. Many of the murals feature historical depictions of the places in which they reside. Some have sparked controversy for their depictions of race and gender.

The murals at the Rhinebeck, New York, Post Office are the work of (Stephen) Olin Dows (1904-1981), a native of the Hudson River Valley and family friend of FDR.  Dows studied at Harvard and the Yale School of Fine Arts and, significantly, spent the summer of 1929 in Mexico where he met such luminaries as Diego Rivera. 

Dows’ twelve murals at the Rhinebeck Post Office depict over 400 years of the region’s history, from the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609 through the post office’s dedication in 1939.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural
Enslaved men had been described as “stevedores” in a 1940 brochure about the murals. Courtesy, therivernewsroom.com.

Slavery was common in New York until it was abolished in 1827. Dows’ murals include several images of Blacks that likely were slaves. One mural portrays two men carrying cargo to a waiting sloop. Another shows a man working at a brick kiln. A third shows a youth harvesting corn.

Some Rhinebeck residents questioned whether depictions of enslaved people should remain part of a public mural. Dows’ depictions of Native Americans also came under criticism. When the Regional Office of the Postal Service, citing public concerns, announced last year that it planned to remove or cover the murals, Rhinebeck residents saw an opportunity to open a discussion about racial justice and Black history.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural
Depictions of Blacks and Native Americans sparked a community dialogue. Courtesy, therivernewsroom.com.

The goal of the community conversation, which was held online owing to the pandemic, was to listen and understand, and not change minds. The participants included local officials and community representatives who adopted guidelines they called, “I say, I see…”  The discussions resulted in an alternative to removing the murals by improving their role as educational artifacts. 

Dows intended the Rhinebeck murals to be educational as well as a celebration of local history. In 1940 he authored a companion brochure explaining the murals panel by panel. When the murals came under threat, Dows’ original brochure became the inspiration for a new brochure that would address the murals’ controversial content.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural by Olin Dows, 1940.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural by Olin Dows, 1940.
Controversies can arise when New Deal-era murals include imagery considered offensive today. Courtesy, DCHS.

A consensus emerged around the need to provide historical context for the murals. The revised brochure, “Invisible People, Untold Stories” focuses on seven of the murals’ scenes. Under “The Mural Depicts,” text explains that General and Janet Montgomery, shown planting seedlings, settled in Rhinebeck in 1774.  Opposite, under “Source Materials Reveal,” we also learn that 421 of Rhinebeck’s 491 persons of color were enslaved.  In another example, “The Mural Depicts” we see Black “stevedores” at work. Under “Source Materials Reveal” we learn that one enslaved stevedore named Tom was 24 years old in 1799 and stood 5 feet 10 inches tall.  

”Invisible People, Untold Stories”
A community conversation resulted in a booklet that provides historical context for the Rhinebeck murals. Photo by Bill Jeffway.

The brochures are used in local schools, but the booklet is essentially an online tool. A digital kiosk, offering a self-guided educational tool that can be viewed from any touchscreen, is in development. Outreach to tribal representatives has just begun to evaluate the potential for more learning opportunities.

View the booklet, “Invisible People, Untold Stories”

Learn more about endangered New Deal artworks and ways communities and institutions can respond.

Bill Jeffway is Executive Director of the Dutchess County Historical Society. He serves on the research committee of Celebrating the African Spirit, and is the founder of HistorySpeaks, a consultancy that documents the past in relevant and colorful ways. [email protected]