Nearly 150 people attended the Sept. 7 meeting of the Tyrone Town Council where the now-controversial mural positioned behind the dais was the topic of discussion by the council and more than 30 people speaking in public comments. The council on a 3-1 vote decided to keep the mural uncovered and displayed as it is for the time being.
Above, discussing the Tyrone mural behind them are (L-R) council members Gloria Furr and Ken Matthews, Mayor Eric Dial and council members Ryan Housley and Linda Howard. Photo/Ben Nelms.
Speakers on both sides of the issue had their say, with some clearly wanting the mural to remain and others wanting it removed. Still others offered alternative suggestions, such as relocating it to another area in the town.
The mural was recently covered by a large curtain after state Rep. Derrick Jackson (D-Tyrone) and others at the Aug. 17 Town Council meeting said that the mural does not reflect the Tyrone of today. The mural was uncovered for the most recent meeting given that it was the topic on the minds of most in attendance.
A motion to keep the mural “as it is for the time being,” was followed by a 3-1 vote, with council members Linda Howard, Gloria Furr and Ken Matthews voting in favor and council member Ryan Housley opposed. Mayor Eric Dial votes only as a tie-breaker. Housley is in his second term after being reelected in 2015.
Howard, who made the motion, said prior to the vote that she is not offended by the mural, adding that “things like this are appropriate for a museum. If this (building) becomes a museum, I’m fine with that.”
Also prior to the vote, Furr said the idea behind the mural was to depict not the Tyrone of 1996 when the mural was painted, but the history of the town.
“It’s hard for me to realize people want to destroy this mural. No one complained about this until a few weeks ago,” Furr said, her eyes tearing up as she shared her own history, one of a sharecropper’s daughter who worked in the fields pulling potatoes and picking cotton at age nine. And while the comments of many of the speakers were followed by applause, the conclusion of Furr’s comments was the only one of the evening to be followed by a standing ovation.
Matthews, also prior to the vote, said the mural is a piece of art and should stay in the council chambers.
Housley prior to the vote suggested a committee be formed and a dialogue among the community created to determine a roadmap for going forward with the fate of the mural.
Though he had no vote, Dial at the end of the meeting said he preferred to have the mural preserved and relocated to another area.
“I worship with a diverse congregation, my children go to a diverse school and one of the reasons we live in Tyrone is because of its diversity. As a result, I make an effort to understand the challenges that others face. Though some who protest the flag do so inappropriately for political gain, I trust that many are genuinely offended by it – possibly not so much because of its historical significance, but because of how some have hijacked it and abuse it today,” Dial said.
“For that reason, it is my belief that is best that we preserve this mural and relocate it to a place where we can learn from its accurate portrayal of Tyrone’s history rather than making it a focal point of our government in its current location,” Dial said.
In all, there were more than 30 who spoke during public comments. Those comments accounted for nearly every conceivable perspective contained within the mural controversy.
Carl Schouw spoke of need not to forget history, adding his idea on a resolution and saying, “Paint another mural and leave this one up there.”
Several others in their comments suggested something similar. Suggesting Tyrone’s history be left in place, Linda Bruneau thought a committee could be formed to determine the contents of an additional mural.
Taking a different perspective, Lillian Wimbush-Smith opposed the symbolism of the Confederate flag on the mural, saying it was hurtful to her.
“It divides us. You shouldn’t treat others in a hurtful manner,” she said.
Another speaker, Shannon Alexander, noted that the Confederate soldier on the mural is an American soldier. She said American soldiers have been put in situations they are not always proud of.
“I’m tired of being ashamed of my heritage which is Southern,” Alexander said. “Enjoying history and heritage doesn’t make you a bigot. Why should heritage be destroyed because someone is offended?”
Also in the audience was Rep. Derrick Jackson, who noted his attendance at the previous council meeting, asking if the mural could reflect the “Tyrone of today.”
“Let me be absolutely clear. This is not about history. And discussion about purging, erasing or re-writing history is absolutely absurd and pointless because a time machine does not exist. But for those who believe this is about history, let’s make the historical depictions tell the whole story,” Jackson said. “Lastly, with regards to a citizen’s panel to decide the fate of this mural is perplexing, because you all don’t have a specific citizen’s panel that discusses every aspect of the town’s operations or how you all are investing the citizens’ tax dollars.”
Adding his comments to the occasion was Fayette County NAACP President Terrence Williamson.
“On behalf of the Fayette County NAACP I want to share our collective appreciation of your decision to promptly address concerns raised over the mural behind the dais. Temporarily covering the mural as you deliberate the best way to meet community concerns was unexpected, but welcome. Some may wish to portray this as an opportunity for divisiveness or an effort to destroy history, but it is most assuredly not. To the contrary, the request for reviewing the appropriateness of the mural in today’s environment was sincere, particularly as the community seeks to grow in harmony.
“Informed by public feedback and due consideration of what is best for community harmony, regardless of the ultimate decision, your quick response show compassion for concerns raised and a willingness to look through the eyes of others. This action in and of itself speaks volumes and is very much appreciated. (And addressing Mayor Dial) Your letter to the editor in The Citizen also reflects well on the town of Tyrone and Fayette County.”
Perhaps as relevant as any of the comments were those from Steven Chontos.
“People of all colors and ethnicities are helping each other after (Hurricane Harvey),” he said.
The mural depicting the history of Tyrone has stood for nearly 21 years behind the dais in the Town Council chambers. Aside for potential individual comments in the past, it is only recently that the presence of the mural has risen to status of becoming a public controversy.