From Cotton Fields to LED Panels: JeffCo Plans to Pair Electronic Art With Depression-Era Murals to Tell the County’s Story

The “Old South” mural in the lobby of the Jefferson County Courthouse

Walking into the Jefferson County courthouse from Linn Park, you’re flanked by murals depicting the county’s history.

On the right is the “Old South” mural, dominated by a woman in antebellum dress with slaves harvesting cotton and sugar cane at her feet. On the left is the “New South” mural, anchored by a man dressed in a suit and hat with industrial workers at his feet.

The 17½-foot-tall murals may have shown an overview of the county’s progression when they were painted in 1931. But that was 86 years ago.

Now the murals periodically draw protests by people who say the artwork enshrines a racist era and does not bear a resemblance to the Jefferson County of today.

County commissioners have been debating that issue, but they don’t plan to remove the murals. Instead, they are commissioning another artwork to be installed on the east wall, which faces the doors entering the lobby from Linn Park.

“We’re going to talk to the artist and work to (do) something to where it kind of flows,” Commissioner Joe Knight said Thursday. “It’ll be a progression from the Old South to the New South to the morphosis of Jefferson County to the present day.”

The planned artwork won’t be murals in the traditional sense, either, but three-dimensional electronic LED panels.

Historical monuments have been the focus of attention nationally, particularly since protests over a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly last month.

But Jefferson County commissioners said they were talking about the murals even before the recent round of protests.

Jefferson County has commissioned LED electronic panels telling the county’s story to be installed on a wall in the courthouse lobby.

Knight and Commissioner Sandra Little Brown worked closely with a 15-member committee to settle on a unifying theme for the panels.

“We reviewed concerns and we made recommendations,” said Hezekiah Jackson, president of Metro Birmingham NAACP and a member of that committee. “We concluded in the spirit of neighborliness to not seek to remove the existing murals, yet to add two more which will speak to where we have come to as the new and improved Jefferson County.”

Commissioners have hired artist Ronald McDowell to design the artwork. He will be paid up to $50,000 for the design. Brown said during a meeting last week that the remainder of the project, which includes construction, should cost no more than $200,000.

McDowell last week showed the commission a partial rendering that included a pair of blind justices, one African American and the other Caucasian. Knight said the final piece will not be that brightly colored rendering, which he said would not go with the architecture of the building.

“There will be a 3D component of the blind justices, joining together as one,” Knight said. “These will be built into the outside of the box and you’ll have the electronics behind here. It will be the same thing on the other side, maybe an art deco piece. Then you’ll have an informational, historical perspective of the courthouse or the county seat, and then an informational board.”

Artist Ronald McDowell.

The final version of McDowell’s art, which the commission expects to approve in about 30 days, will be in the boxed panel on the left. The one on the right is going to be more of a historical perspective of the courthouses and the county seat and a panel that will provide information to the public.

McDowell told the commission in a meeting Thursday that he hopes the art he was commissioned to create for the courthouse lobby helps “to heal whatever wounds there might be that divides some Jeffersonians.”

He said he wants his art to show diversity in Jefferson County.

“I’d like to show the community coming together,” he said. “America is built on ‘one nation under God.’ I believe in Jefferson County it is, too.”