It is unclear what will become of the paintings. The Catonsville mural is shrouded now in plastic sheeting.
Freda Sauter, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service’s Baltimore district, said in a statement that officials are discussing how to “safeguard” the future of the art.
“We are evaluating each of the pieces, and we will work to ensure that appropriate action is taken on select murals, if deemed necessary,” she said.
The obscured murals, many around 80 years old, depict either images of slavery or Native Americans and were the subject of complaints from constituents who called the depictions offensive, according to August emails between postal officials and jurisdiction representatives, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Kalish and shared with the Baltimore Sun.
The Postal Service said in an August statement that although its policy is to “preserve and protect” historic artwork in its collection, it is also “mindful that certain murals generate strong feelings for some of our employees and customers.”
In Catonsville, Congressman Kweisi Mfume, elected in June to fill the seat of the late representative Elijah E. Cummings, said he initiated the conversation with U.S. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy after hearing from some constituents who found the mural derogatory or complained of its deteriorating condition.
The former president of the NAACP, who is running against Republican nominee Kim Klacik to retain Cummings’s seat in November, demurred when asked whether he thought the depictions were offensive.
“I think it clearly ought to be replaced,” he said.
The mural was covered up during the late summer as outrage over the treatment of Black men and women by police and the ensuing protests thrust conversations about systemic racism into the national spotlight.
“Given the current climate and, in general, that’s really not probably an appropriate picture to have,” said Del. Eric D. Ebersole, a Democrat whose legislative district includes Catonsville.
Ebersole’s office wrote a letter, signed by other lawmakers, to Mfume requesting the mural be removed or modified.
Johnson, the artist, was paid $1,500 by the Section of Fine Arts of the Public Buildings Administration for the 74-foot piece, according to records in the National Archives at College Park. It was commissioned when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration was providing federal dollars for tens of thousands of art displays in public buildings across the country.
A 1942 Evening Sun article reports the mural set out to depict the romance of Polly and Richard Caton, the town’s namesake.
It describes the piece as showing a surveying party staking out one of the original land grants around 1692; an early settler examining his tobacco crop near his log-cabin home; and hogsheads of tobacco being rolled along the road toward Elkridge Landing, a significant port before the Revolutionary War for trading goods with European merchants, said Michelle Wright, an associate professor of history and Africana studies at the Community College of Baltimore County.
The Evening Sun article does not mention images of enslaved people or the Native American in the woods in the background, noted Democratic Del. Terri Hill.
Slavery existed in Maryland from its beginnings in the 1600s until the state abolished it at the end of 1864, two months before Congress passed the 13th Amendment ending slavery nationwide, Wright said. Tobacco and wheat were commonly grown on Catonsville plantations, she said.
During the Civil War, “Catonsville was a fairly strong Confederate stronghold,” Wright said.
It is this history that some say is being erased by art censorship.
“You have to learn from your history,” Catonsville resident Scott Meacham said. “You learn from mistakes and good things that happen.”
But others say slavery cannot be the only or the most prominent story about Black lives.
“My issue wasn’t that there were African Americans depicted as slaves in Catonsville,” Hill said.
But “lacking context and a historic depiction of Black people outside the institution of slavery, the mural suggests that the only significant contribution” made by Black Marylanders was while they were enslaved, she said.
Reinforcing that myth through media such as public art has long-term “psychological and institutional” damage for Black Americans, Hill said.
Some have called for the Baltimore County Arts Guild to become involved in conceiving a new mural. The dialogue about offensive artwork is worth having, said Mary Catherine Cochran, the guild’s executive director. She said the guild is not involved in efforts to change the existing painting but added art should reflect the community it is in.
In their letter to Mfume, southwestern county representatives said they wanted to “work with the Catonsville community” and explore state financing so that “improved public art can be brought to the Post Office that accurately reflects Catonsville’s as well as America’s values.”
“When there is one side of the story being told, I think you lose something,” said Democratic state Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III.
Wright said she’s not in favor of destroying the artwork even if it’s offensive, but context is needed.
“They belong in a museum, with the proper context, with a history behind what its purpose is, what it’s meant to be.”
— Baltimore Sun
Allan Haynes of Baltimore Sun Media contributed to this report.