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Leaders say Durham mural is art protected by First Amendment

Union Leader Correspondent

December 05. 2016 9:43PM
A mural panel at the post office in Durham has caused some controversy. Some say the piece of art should be altered; others want it left alone. (Courtesy)

DURHAM — The leaders of Durham’s Historic District Commission say a post office mural depicting a Native American preparing to torch a settler’s home should remain untouched.

Andrea Bodo and Peter Stanhope expressed their concerns in an email sent to Town Administrator Todd Selig.

“We both feel that an important piece of historical art is being threatened. Content is protected by the First Amendment and we feel that removing the art would be censorship by the town,” Bodo and Stanhope said, after explaining that Oyster River settlement was raided by 250 Abenakis under the command of Claude-Sebastien de Villieu during a daybreak attack on July 18, 1694, as part of King William’s War.

It is believed 104 people were killed and 27 were taken captive and brought back to Canada as prisoners during the Oyster River Massacre.

Five Garrison-style homes and 15 dwellings were burned.

“This is a piece of significant artwork and depicts different events in the history of Durham,” Stanhope said Monday of the 16-panel mural in the town’s post office.

The mural was commissioned by the Women’s Club of Durham in 1959 for the federal building at the corner of Main Street and Madbury Road.

United States Postal Service spokesman Christine Dugas said the post office accepted such gifts in years past, but no longer does.

Rev. Larry Brickner-Wood of the Waysmeet Center at the University of New Hampshire recently said the mural panel has always made him feel uneasy. He objects to its depiction and title, “Cruel Adversity.”

Since then, Selig has sought residents’ opinions on the mural as part of the town’s electronic “Friday Updates” on the town website. He said he does not personally have concerns about the painting, and says denying history is “fashionable and politically correct, but that does not make it right.”

Selig suggested bringing together leaders from the post office, Durham Human Rights Commission, the Heritage Commission, the Durham Historic Association and the New Hampshire Commission on Native American Affairs to discuss the topic.

“Perhaps additional artwork could be considered as well for the post office that offers an alternative perspective and, together with the historical artwork, provides a fuller picture of the early American colonial and Native American experience in the land that eventually became Durham,” Selig wrote.

Resident Dennis Meadows said Monday he emailed Selig after reading the “Friday Updates.”

Meadows has lived in Durham for 27 years, and proposes the labels be changed on “Cruel Adversity” and a second panel named “Native Ingenuity,” which is meant to reflect Durham’s busy shipbuilding community.

“I find these pictures unobjectionable. They are more or less factual representations of our local history. Plus, they are unique and valuable art pieces.

“But the culture has changed since they were painted, and the two labels do convey some racial bias that is no longer acceptable. It would be relatively easy to change them,” Meadows said.

Brickner-Wood also objects to “Native Ingenuity” because of the title, saying settlers were not native and calling them that is the perpetuation of white privilege.

Bodo said Monday the federal building is in the historic district, but the commission does not have jurisdiction over what appears on the walls inside the building; nor would she support the censorship of art.

“If we start censoring pieces of historical art, we won’t have much art left,” Bodo said.

Since Brickner-Wood’s concerns became public, he said he has heard a variety of different opinions on the topic.

“Some agree. Some don’t agree. Some people don’t think it’s that important,” Brickner-Wood said Monday. “To me, that’s great. People are talking about it and I think that’s good because it hasn’t been discussed fully.”

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