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A Providence school’s murals were removed because of racist imagery

"It was probably more acceptable than it should have been."

Murals at a Providence elementary school were removed before classes resumed this fall after they faced backlash from some as racist depictions of children of color.

The four paintings at Robert F. Kennedy Elementary School largely showed children with different skin tones separated, and one depicted children of color collecting trash and cleaning up while other images showed white children playing on a beach, The Providence Journal reports.

David Salvatore, a city councilman, told the newspaper residents complained to him about the displays and he held community meetings on the topic.

Salvatore said removing and preserving the murals would have cost tens and thousands of dollars, so, after consulting the Department of Public Property and the Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism, the murals were painted over, according to the Journal. Officials are now considering what murals will take those places.

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State Rep. Anastasia Williams, however, said the paintings were symbolic of fighting against the very issues some criticized them for.

“While the justification for the mural’s removal was that there had been complaints that it was racially insensitive and offensive, I, and many other individuals of color, never saw this mural in that light,” Williams told the newspaper. “Instead, we saw it as a loving expression of young children voicing their beliefs that desegregation was not a bad policy and that children of all races loved being at their school together to learn and grow.”

Caleb Horton, the Providence city archivist, said his department has not found the murals mentioned in the archives, nor any information on when or why they were commissioned.

The school, previously known as Nelson Street School, was once considered an all-white school. It’s not clear when the murals were painted.

“I think there was certainly concern about an all-white school displaying art of children of color in a way that could have seemed offensive to some in our community,” Salvatore told the Journal.

These days, though, the neighborhood is more diverse.

“The community has changed,” Ray Rickman, a former state representative who currently serves on the Providence Special Committee for the Review of Commemorative Works, told the Journal. “When I served in the General Assembly with [former Rep.] Patrick Kennedy, that was a white neighborhood, and white population and school. And now it has changed racially. And a whole bunch of people saw those images as negative.”

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Jim Vincent, president of the NAACP’s Providence branch, highlighted how the murals’ imagery evoked the history of racist depictions, including one painting that depicted a girl with large red lips, which, for Vincent, brought to mind Little Black Sambo, the 19th century children’s book condemned for perpetuating a racist caricature.

“At that time, that was an image of Black people that we had to accept, images that we today find demeaning and insulting,” Vincent said. “But at that time it was normalized, and we didn’t think we could do anything about it, and we didn’t really talk too much about it, I don’t think.”

Vincent said though the murals look to have been created by “a bunch of well-intentioned people that did something at the time that wasn’t meant to be offensive.”

“Because of racial context of this country at that time, it was probably more acceptable than it should have been,” he added.

Rickman, who noted the murals had offensive depictions of Asian children, too, expressed a similar view to the Journal.

“This happens all the time that people make images of other people who are not the same as them that the other people don’t like,” Rickman said. “Also, remember the other people had nothing to say about it when this was done. They didn’t live there, they didn’t see it.”

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