Ga. office to remove paintings of slaves
ATLANTA — Murals of slaves harvesting sugar cane on a Georgia plantation and picking and ginning cotton are coming off the walls of a state building on the order of a new agriculture commissioner.
The murals are part of a collection of eight works painted by George Beattie in 1956 depicting an idealized version of Georgia farming, from the corn being grown by prehistoric American Indians to a 20th-century veterinary lab. In the Deep South, the history in between includes the use of slave labor.
“I don’t like those pictures,’’ said Republican Gary Black, the newly elected commissioner. “There are a lot of other people who don’t like them.’’
Slavery was indisputably part of 19th-century farming in Georgia. By 1840, more than 280,000 slaves were living in the state. Just before the Civil War, slaves made up about 40 percent of the state’s population.
Beattie’s murals tell part of the story. In one painting, two well-dressed white gentlemen in top hats and dress coats leisurely inspect processed cotton. They’re framed on either side by black slaves doing the backbreaking work of cotton farming.
On the left, a slave hunches over to pick cotton bolls. Two other slaves are using the Whitney gin — invented near Savannah — to separate cotton fiber from seeds as a white overseer weighs cotton bags behind them.
“I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture,’’ Black said.
There are no signs of the whippings, beatings, shackles, or brutality used to subjugate the slaves, who appear healthy, muscular, even robust.
Few have openly protested the murals, maybe because the Agriculture Department is not heavily visited. Black’s election marks a generational shift. He will succeed Democrat Tommy Irvin, who was appointed to the post by a segregationist governor in 1969 and won reelection ever since.
A full century after the Civil War, Southerners still argue over how to handle potent symbols of slavery and segregation in public places. The same year Beattie finished the murals, state lawmakers put the Confederate battle flag back into Georgia’s state flag to protest integration. In 2001, Governor Roy Barnes replaced it, and some say it cost him reelection.