Murals from an elementary school in Providence were removed before school resumed this fall after facing 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 colored children picking up trash and cleaning up while other images showed white children. playing on a beach, The Journal of Providence reports.
David Salvatore, a city councilor, said residents of the newspaper complained about the postings and held community meetings about the matter.
Salvatore said removing and preserving the murals would have cost tens and thousands of dollars. Thus, after consulting the Ministry of Public Property and the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Tourism, the murals were repainted, according to Newspaper. The authorities are now considering the murals that will occupy these places.
State Representative Anastasia Williams, however, said the paintings were symbolic of tackling the very issues for which some criticized them.
“Although the rationale for removing the mural was that there had been complaints that it was race-insensitive and offensive, I and many other people of color have never seen this mural under that angle, “Williams told the newspaper. “Instead, we saw it as a loving expression from young children expressing their belief that desegregation was not bad policy and that children of all races enjoyed being in their school together to learn and grow.”
Caleb Horton, the archivist for the City of Providence, said his service could not find the murals mentioned in the archives, nor any information on when or why they were ordered.
The school, formerly known as Nelson Street School, was once considered an all-white school. It is not known when the murals were painted.
“I think there was certainly concern about an all-white school displaying the art of children of color in a way that might have seemed offensive to some in our community,” Salvatore told the Newspaper.
Nowadays, however, the neighborhood is more diverse.
“The community has changed,” said Ray Rickman, a former state official who currently sits on Providence’s special committee for the review of commemorative works. Newspaper. “When I sat in the General Assembly with [former Rep.] Patrick Kennedy was a white neighborhood, a white population and school. And now that has changed racially. And a whole bunch of people saw these images as negative.
Jim Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, highlighted how the images in the murals evoked the history of racist depictions, including a painting of a girl with big red lips, which Vincent said was reminiscent of Little Black Sambo, the 19th century children’s book convicted of perpetuating a racist caricature.
“At that time, it was an image of black people that we had to accept, images that today we find degrading and insulting,” said Vincent. “But at that point, it was normalized, and we didn’t think we could do anything about it, and we didn’t really talk about it too much, I don’t think so.”
Vincent said the murals appear to have been created by “a group of well-meaning people who did something at the time that was not meant to be offensive.”
“Due to the racial background of this country at the time, it was probably more acceptable than it should have been,” he added.
Rickman, who noted that the murals also featured offensive depictions of Asian children, also expressed a view similar to that of the Newspaper.
“It happens all the time that people make images of other people who are not the same as themselves that other people don’t like,” Rickman said. “Also, remember that 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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