In 2000, muralist Gary Mullen created a mural that depicts how abolitionist Fredrick Douglass learned to read. It is located in the city of Baltimore, where the abolitionist spent the formative years of his life as a slave, and where he taught himself to read. Titled Young Frederick Douglass’ Quest to Read, the mural was created bring pride to the residents of the Latrobe Homes area of north Baltimore. After reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the story stayed with Mullen, and when asked by the Brentwood Village Initiative to propose a mural design, the story of Douglass’ life in Baltimore was the perfect subject. The panel scenes depict Douglass’ master, Hugh Auld, scolding his wife, Sophia, for assisting Douglass to read—an illegal act at the time; Douglass trading Sophia Auld’s bread to hungry white children in exchange for reading lessons; Douglass challenging children to write as well as he does; and 12 year-old Douglass discovering the meaning of abolition. Mullen created the mural to emphasise the importance of education to the African American community in Baltimore, and local residents have received it enthusiastically, “It’s not everyday you get a mural like this in your community,” committee organiser, Patrick Lee said.
In 2001, Brooklyn-based muralist Leola Bermanzohn created a mural in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn titled Women Warriors. Bermanzohn works as a muralist for the Groundswell organisation, launched in 1996 with the mission of bringing together artists, youth and community organisations to create murals that beautify local neighbourhoods and give expression to underrepresented ideas and perspectives. Women Warriors was created in collaboration with Sister Outsider – an organisation run by and for women of colour that aimed to help women enter the professional world of work and operate in the political realm. The mural was at the organisation’s headquarters and depicted antislavery leaders Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth as well as Nefertiti, Rosa Parks and Assata Shakur, alongside a poem written by Audre Lorde. It had been destroyed by 2015.
In 2005, an anonymous artist painted a mural in Los Angeles that depicted many heroes of African American history. The faces of antislavery leaders Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, alongside Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, lined the street. By 2015, the building had fallen into disrepair and the mural had been destroyed.
In 2005, Artmakers Inc. created a large-scale political mural titled When Women Pursue Justice. During the genesis of the mural, it seemed like an overly ambitious project with little funding, and a heavy reliance on the generosity of its collaborators. Located in Brooklyn, at the busy intersection between Nostrand and Greene Avenue, the mural is populated with women who worked towards justice and social change over the last 150 years. The most visually noticeable figure on the mural is the thirty-five-foot image of Shirley Chisholm astride a golden horse and dressed in armour of African mud and kente cloth. Surrounding Chisholm are 90 women who risked their lives and liberty to achieve voting rights, civil rights, racial justice, health and reproductive rights, and environmental justice and protection – including the abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, as well as Angela Davis, Wilma Mankiller, Margaret Sanger, and Dorothy Day.
Although sharing an address with the famous Wall of Respect, the Wall of Truth was different. Whilst the Wall of Respect exalted black role models, leaders and liberators, the Wall of Truth wove negative scenes of poverty, brutality and racism into the fabric of the urban environment. Rather than promoting racial pride, it highlighted racial disparities. “The intent on the opposite side [of the road] was that things had gone more militant,” muralist Eugene Wade explained: “more blackness was needed in terms of representing the Black Power symbol and the whole thrust of what was happening in the black community.” Wade notes that “people were getting angry and fed up, so what we were trying to do was implement the attitude and the mood."The Wall of Truth was a significantly larger mural than its Chicago neighbour, the Wall of Respect. It spanned the length of an apartment building, and wrapped around onto an adjoining wall. It contained nine separate narrative panels and was one of the first instances that a radical black past was visualised in the streets through the antislavery leaders Frederick Douglass and Nathaniel Turner, as well as Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Du Bois, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, Marcus Garvey, Huey P. Newton, Fred Hampton, and Malcolm X.
In 1968, after the success of Chicago’s Wall of Respect in 1967, muralist Leroy White painted Wall of Respect/Up You Mighty Race in St. Louis, Missouri. The mural was self-sponsored. After seeing Chicago’s Wall of Respect in Ebony, muralists in St. Louis were inspired to create public art in the Carr Square area of the city. The mural was completed by a coalition of individuals from civil rights groups, including CORE, ACTION, and the Zulu 1200s. It displayed a pantheon of black heroes, including the antislavery leaders Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Marcus Garvey. The mural quickly became a hub of black activism—bringing together artists, performers and political figures in a series of concerts and rallies at the site. But it was vandalised during the 1970s, and its building was razed in the 1980s.
The Wall of Respect was the first exterior African American mural in the United States. Painted by OBAC (Organisation of Black American Culture), it underwent three main phases, as shown throughout the photographs here. Its creation was an inclusive process, asking local residents to decide which black heroes should be included in the mural. This was an integral step in the mural-making process because “any muralist who’s doing anything of a thoughtful nature should always have an input from the community,” artist Bill Walker observed. “You can’t do things that make people think they’re not a part of things.” Compiling a newsletter and consulting local militant street gangs, OBAC wrote a list of historic and contemporaneous figures to be memorialised on the wall, before waiting for their approval. “The militant [members of the community] were the ones that defined who would go on the wall and who would not,” artist Eugene Eda Wade remembers in a 2017 oral history interview. The choices were figures from the past and present who “charted their own course” through life and “did not compromise their humanity,” including the antislavery leader Nathaniel Turner, as well as James Brown, James Baldwin, Thelonious Monk, Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Claudia McNeil, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Elijah Muhammad, Gwendolyn Brooks and Muhammad Ali. By celebrating radical black heroes of the past and present, the mural became a site of black cultural heritage and an unofficial landmark on Chicago’s southside. It also catalysed a national mural movement, with more than 300 murals painted in Chicago alone over the next few decades. In 1971, the mural was destroyed in a fire.
Borrowing its name from the 1967 “Wall of Respect” of Chiacgo, muralists Ashanti Johnson, Nathan Hoskins and Verna Parks installed their own public artwork in Atlanta. The abolitionist Frederick Douglass is alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and W.E.B. Du Bois, with the North Star between them. Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali are also present. The mural was destroyed in 2007.
In 1970, Eugene Eda Wade painted the Wall of Meditation on the exterior façade of the Olivet Community Center. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. anchor the middle of the mural, and are surrounded by Egyptian figures on the left, and enslaved figures breaking free from their chains on the right.
In 1967, Detroit experienced one of the most brutal race rebellions in its history. In the early hours of June 23rd, the police raided an after hours club. Expecting to find a few people inside, they instead found 82 individuals. Everyone was arrested and escorted from the building, and as this happened, a crowd of 200 people gathered. As the night slowly crept into the next morning, violence and looting emerged on Twelfth Street, and the Detroit rebellion was underway. The rebellion carried on for five days. Mayor Jerome Cavanagh initially sought to quash the uprising with police units, but failed to gain support for this tactic as many African Americans in the city deemed the police the problem. In 1968, a year after Detroit’s violent rebellion, a local community organizer named Frank Ditto contacted muralists Bill Walker and Eugene Eda Wade, asking them to create a mural in his local community. Wanting to create a mural that could project an expression of black unity during a time of racial pain, Walker and Wade set about creating the Wall of Dignity. Painted on the façade of an abandoned ice-skating rink, the mural was broken down into three main sections. The top half of the mural depicted diasporic scenes of ancient life in Africa, whilst the middle section functioned as a collection of portraits of prominent African American men and women who sacrificed their lives by fighting for black liberation throughout history. The faces of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune and Stokely Carmichael line the wall. The bottom section of the mural, enveloping the words ‘The Wall of Dignity’, depicts scenes of enslavement. Silhouetted figures of manacled men and women stretching their chains taut as they stretch for freedom are countered by figures raising their unshackled hands to the sky in moment of liberty. Towards the left-hand side of the mural, a poem titled ‘Slave Ship’ reads:
I am a prince, speak with respect I shall not be chained to your Bloody deck To live in this filth and stench? Ooooaaee a poor soul have died on his bench This meaning does burst the drums of my ears Long hours from my home seem like years A prince to ear the food of jackals!! My arms, my leg bleed from your shackles You must look to my woman What had been done to one so sweet, so mild? AAAHHH! Within here was my child. Strange tongued-golden haired man I will not journey to your land. Leave me…leave me be… Cast my carcass into the sea The sea.. Black..Black like me.
In 1970, John Pitman Weber of the Chicago Public Art Group created a mural on the wall of the Christopher Settlement House on the north side of Chicago. The mural faces a children’s playground in a predominantly white working-class area of the city and according to Weber, the neighbourhood’s anxiety regarding racial tensions in the community only emerged during the creation of the mural and related discussions with local residents. Working together, Weber and the local residents agreed that the racial concerns needed to be surfaced, and the mural would serve this purpose. It depicts narrative scenes across the wall, including daggers and guns held by both black and white individuals, black hands in handcuffs under the phrase “free all political prisoners,” (something that the Black Panther Party was pushing for in the 1960s and 1970s), and a black hand shaking a white hand under the faces of Frederick Douglass and the radical white abolitionist John Brown, who are both identified on the mural as Freedom Fighters. The mural had been destroyed by the late 20th century.
In 2006, muralist Joseph Tiberino, along with his sons Gabe and Raphael, painted Wall of Black Heroes for the African American Museum of Philadelphia. When creating the mural, the idea was to provide a portable piece of work that would later be housed in the streets. Measuring 4ft by 12ft, the mural was created on such a scale so as to provide the audience with the sense that the figures of history were life-size. The mural takes the audience on a historical journey, starting with a self-emancipating shackled slave, then moving to the abolitionists Frederick Douglass andHarriet Tubman, then Angela Davis and Malcolm X, Spike Lee, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong and Martin Luther King Jr. The mural is now on the side of the Municipal Services Building next to City Hall.
In 2012, Mexican muralist Luis Zarate created the mural Underground Railroad on Bay Street in Sodus Point, Wayne County in upstate New York. Sponsored by the Neighborhood Association of Sodus Point, the mural depicts the involvement of Sodus Point in the Underground Railroad of the 1850s. Captain George Garlock, who captained the ship Free Trader out of Sodus Point and picked up runaway slaves on his way to Canada, is depicted in the centre of the mural on the boat between the black antislavery leaders Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. On July 14, 2012, a dedication ceremony revealed a plaque was mounted below the mural that reads: “This mural depicts a scene of the Underground Railroad. From stories passed down there were several safe houses in this area that were used to harbor 'Freedom Seekers.' These included the old Cohn Farm and the old Sodus Fruit Farm and what is now Maxwell Creek B & B and Silver Waters B & B. Sometimes a schooner, out of the old Sodus Point ore dock, would pick up slaves on its way to Canada."
This mural was created in 2008 by an unknown artist. Painted on a storefront on Ralph Avenue in Brooklyn, it depicted Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Nelson Mandela. As of 2014, it no longer existed.
In 2010 the Brooklyn-based muralist Jonathan Matas created a mural on Green Street in Ithaca under the Aurora Street Bridge. The 30 x 600 foot mural was approved by the Public Arts Commission and depicts Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. “I think it’s a great introduction to our city,” Ithaca Planning and Development Director JoAnn Cornish said. But this was not the general consensus around the mural. The name, 'Comrade Tubman' given to Harriet Tubman on the mural has been a point of controversy for the local community. Tompkins County historian and author Carol Kammen observed: “The word comrade is historically inappropriate and anachronistic."
In Plano, Texas, artists Lynne Chinn and Shug Jones created a mosaic mural titled Tracks of Our Past and Future. Made in 2006, the mural is 75 feet long and celebrates the African American community of Plano, Texas. At the centre of the mural is the antislavery leader Frederick Douglass.
This mural was created in 2012 by Munir D. Mohammad for the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, one of the oldest African heritage organisations in the country. Titled The Shoulders of Heroes We Lean On, the mural depicts giants of black history, including the antislavery leader Frederick Douglass, as well as the silhouettes of athletes, musicians and scholars.
This mural, part of a wider series called La Lucha Continua/The Struggle Continues, is split into two halves. The bottom half shows anonymous arms merchants in suits, and the top portrait shows portraits of local residents alongside the leaders Nelson Mandela, Daniel Ortega, Robert F. Williams and the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, among others.
In 1992, Selma Brown, Susan Cervantes and Ronnie Goodman painted images of the antislavery leaderes Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, as well as Mary McLeod Bethune, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Thurgood Marshall, at Ingleside Presbyterian Church and Community Center in San Francisco, California. The mural, titled The Great Cloud of Witnesses, was started by Revered G. when he pasted a single newspaper clipping of his hero, Muhammad Ali to the wall of the church gymnasium in 1980. Over the decades, the collage expanded to cover the entire gym, fellowship hall, stairways, hallways, bathrooms, basement and meeting rooms. The mural is multi-faceted and contains newspapers, magazine clippings, photographs, flyers, posters, prints, poetry and painted murals.
In 1933, Aaron Douglas created a mural titled The Founding of Chicago. The mural depicts the role of slaves and free African Americans in the creation of American cities across the country. Standing in the centre of the mural, the Haitian founder of Chicago, Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable, surveys the urban environment he helped to construct. Behind du Sable, a shackled woman raises her child to view the towering metropolis. Today the mural is housed at the Spencer Museum of Art, at the University of Kansas.