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Mural panel at Durham Post Office depicting Native American questioned

Union Leader Correspondent

November 28. 2016 9:12PM
This mural panel can be seen from Main Street in Durham, and is located in the lobby of the local post office. (KIMBERLEY HAAS/CORRESPONDENT)

DURHAM — The executive director of a ministry program at University of New Hampshire hopes the United States Postal Service will consider removing a panel in a mural at the Durham Post Office that depicts a Native American preparing to torch a settler’s home.

The Rev. Larry Brickner-Wood of the Waysmeet Center said he has been living in Durham for 25 years, and has always felt uneasy about the mural inside the lobby of the post office at Main Street and Madbury Road.

“When our kids were small, we would talk with them about it, and how it’s not a reflection of modern history,” Brickner-Wood said.

According to a decades-old brochure about the 16-panel mural, it was commissioned by the Women’s Club of Durham in 1959 and painted by artist Bernard Chapman. The goal was to reflect the history of Durham.

The panel in question is titled “Cruel Adversity.”

The brochure states there were several raids on the homes of settlers, the most severe in 1694, when five Garrison-style homes and 15 dwellings were burned. It is believed 100 people were killed or carried off.

A historical marker on Route 4 describes the “Oyster River Massacre” in Durham and says the attack took place July 18, 1694. About 250 indigenous people were led by a French soldier in “the most devastating French and Indian raid in New Hampshire during King William’s War.”

Brickner-Wood said a good starting point may be a community conversation about the mural.

“I’m open to a variety of solutions that engage people, particularly non-white voices,” Brickner-Wood said. “Is this what we want to represent in our post office? It is a federal building owned by the people.”

Town Administrator Todd Selig agreed the matter should be discussed openly in Durham, but warned that removing one of the panels while leaving the others could lead officials down a slippery slope involving freedom of speech.

“Some of those images, for example, do depict a church, so is the question then, should religion be portrayed in a civic painting? There are images of women in fluffy, frilly dresses and is that a concern for women, perhaps, today?” Selig said.

“Rather than trying to remake a perspective on history from a certain time frame in this community, we can do a better job in explaining how those panels came to be, celebrating them and finding ways to provide the most complete understanding of what really happened,” he said.

Selig said the town receives complaints about the mural on a regular basis. The local postmaster receives the brunt of the criticism; workers have even been called racist.

According to United States Postal Service spokesman Christine Dugas, the USPS has also heard concerns about the

mural, and has been in touch with the New Hampshire Commission on Native American Affairs to work on interpretive text to accompany the mural “to provide a better understanding of our shared history and offer viewers opportunities for further learning.”

Brickner-Wood said he also takes issue with a second panel in the mural titled “Native Ingenuity.” It depicts a gundalow, a square-ended flat boat popular in the Piscataqua region in colonial times.

“Native Ingenuity” was meant to reflect Durham’s busy shipbuilding community, according to the Women’s Club of Durham brochure.

“Obviously, the settlers weren’t native and calling them that is the perpetuation of white privilege,” Brickner-Wood said.

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