Ronald McDowell was excited – and nervous – as a crowd gathered to see his latest handiwork – a mural that brings an up-to-date picture of Jefferson County to the courthouse lobby where two other murals have been displayed for more than 80 years.
“I’m just hoping and praying that the public will appreciate what I’ve done and that I’ve done something that represents them,” said McDowell, the artist commissioned by the county to create the work.
Dozens of people crammed into the westside lobby of the Jefferson County Courthouse. They craned their necks toward the ceiling as county commissioners tugged on ropes to drop a burgundy and brown drape and reveal the new mural.
The unveiled mural was met with applause and cheers. It complements the Old South and New South murals done by John Warner Norton when the courthouse was constructed in 1932.
Those murals “reflect a different time and a different place in our history,” said Commissioner Joe Knight. “They were created in the Jim Crow Era where the reasoning was such that it is no longer prevalent or acceptable in our society today.”
One of those murals, the “Old South” mural, is dominated by a woman in antebellum dress with slaves harvesting cotton and sugar cane at her feet. The other, the “New South” mural, is anchored by a man dressed in a suit and hat with industrial workers at his feet.
“It is my understanding that some outside groups had targeted Birmingham to orchestrate a massive protest effort in order to force the removal of the murals,” Knight said, noting that word of the planned protests was relayed to Commissioner Sandra Little Brown. “She stopped it in its tracks.”
Instead, Knight said, Brown worked with her fellow commissioners to find a resolution. Ultimately, a 17-member committee was formed, which determined the best recourse was to have a new mural done.
The new mural – like the others – is 17½ feet tall. It includes a pair of blind justices, one Caucasian and one African American. It also shows a man shaking hands with a woman and a pair of judges – again Caucasian and African American, each with a gavel in his hand.
A fourth space in the courthouse lobby will be used for an electronic videoboard that will allow current and future county leaders to continue to update the message of what and who the county is.
“This county is not owned by just white people (and) it’s not owned by just black people,” Brown said. “Whites, blacks, Hispanics – we’re all a part of Jefferson County.
McDowell, an art professor at Tuskegee University, was paid $189,000 to produce the mural. His prior work includes the statue of “Miss Nina” Miglionico, a former Birmingham City Council member, in Linn Park.
The artist said the mural, titled “Forward – Justice is Blind,” considers where Birmingham and Jefferson County are today.
“The racial divide is getting thinner and thinner,” he said. “We are starting to come together and work together. The mural really depicts what’s going on in Birmingham, the diversity, the unity, people working together on different things.”
This story has been changed to correct the amount the artist was paid.