JeffCo Commissioners Hire Artist for New Courthouse Mural, Won’t Remove Historic Murals From Lobby

Draft drawing of new murals to be installed in the Jefferson County Courthouse.

Aug. 29, 2017 – The Jefferson County Commission on Tuesday approved hiring artist Ronald McDowell to produce a mural depicting modern-day Jefferson County.

The mural would complement, but not replace, two old murals in the lobby of the courthouse that have been controversial over the years. One of those murals includes images of slaves harvesting cotton and sugar cane.

Commissioner Sandra Little Brown presented the resolution at the commission’s committee meeting on Tuesday. She said the project predates the national furor over Confederate monuments.

“I didn’t think that the atmosphere of the whole country would be at such a time as this where we actually hire the artist,” Brown said. “We’ve been working on this tirelessly and much prayer has been put into it. It’s such a very sensitive issue, but diplomatically we worked together. I think God has just shown us what we can do, not making hasty decisions but working together as a whole.”

Commission President Jimmie Stephens acknowledged there are problems nationwide concerning the nation’s historic monuments. He commended commissioners for working together to come up with a compromise solution.

“You talk to each other and not at each other,” he said. “It is extremely important to communicate, cooperate and coordinate for the good of everyone in this county. This commission has done that and we will continue to do that.

“What we saw was an opportunity, an opportunity to work together and to continue history,” Stephens continued. “That’s what this is. This will be a reflection of Jefferson County as it now exists and what our visions are for the county in the future.”

Commissioners saw a partial rendering of McDowell’s effort. That drawing included a pair of blind justices, one African American and the other Caucasian. The finished rendering will come before the commission in about 30 days.

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

Tuesday’s resolution authorized the commission president to execute an agreement with McDowell that is not to exceed $50,000.

Brown said later that designing and constructing the electronic mural is expected to cost $250,000.

Depression-Era Murals

The murals, titled “Old South” and “New South,” each are 17½ feet tall by 8 feet wide Art Deco-style painted murals on either side of the west foyer of the courthouse, according to Bhamwiki.

The murals were painted in 1931 by Chicago-based artist John W. Norton, who was commissioned by the architects Holabird & Root.

The “Old South” mural, on the south side of the lobby, is dominated by the monumental figure of a woman in a modest antebellum dress framed by fluted columns. Around her feet is a scene of African-American slaves harvesting cotton and sugar cane near some humble cabins in the foreground. Behind them are two gentlemen on horseback, a riverboat, a warehouse and a Greek Revival style mansion.

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

The “New South” mural, on the north wall, features a similar composition, with the dominant figure that of a man in a suit and hat holding open a rolled drawing. There is a black miner, a group of white ironworkers, and another white worker loading baled cotton in the foreground. Behind them are seen a locomotive crossing a bridge, a power plant, a blast furnace and a city skyline.

Said Brown: “We can’t forget our history. That’s why we’re adding to the history here in our lobby in Jefferson County. We can’t tear down history. We’re making history every day. We’re bringing an updated history. History is being updated.”


Budget Talk

Commissioners also discussed approving the county budget, which includes a general fund budget of $175,276,164. Stephens said the budget is “structurally balanced,” reflecting additional revenue the county received through its sales tax reallocation.

“I’m very, very pleased that we are able to see that money transition to services for the citizens of Jefferson County,” he said. “It’s the first time we’ve been able to do that since we took office. It’s a big deal.”

The total budget, including the general fund and enterprise fund, is $719,772,983.

The commission president cautioned his fellow commissioners that a legal challenge of the county’s 1-cent sales tax could place financial demands on the county. He said later that the money was allocated in the budget in an effort to account for that.

“If something happens down the line and that additional revenue is in jeopardy, we will not have to lay off personnel,” Stephens said. “That’s the last thing that we would want to do as a county. But we feel confident that we’ve made it through all but the final process through litigation. We’re waiting on the Supreme Court of the United States. We’re very confident we will prevail.”

County manager Tony Petelos said efforts were made to keep operation costs as level as possible. He said $22 million was allocated for capital projects, many of which had been avoided because the county couldn’t pay for them. That deferred maintenance includes roofs, boilers and equipment.

“We’re putting more and more money into capital projects so we can catch up,” he said. “We’re going to have to do this for two or three years.”