As I was going through my archive, assembled over four decades, of murals I have photographed in the poorest and most segregated communities in America, I felt compelled to ask myself the question: What is the view of black history that emerges from these photographs?
I assembled my photographs into a history that begins with a black soldier in the Revolutionary War, continues with the Harlem Renaissance, Marcus Garvey, Daddy Grace, and Billie Holiday, moves on to the civil rights and African Liberation movements with figures of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, and Black Panther leaders, and ends with the election of Barack Obama as president.
Official murals painted on schools, hospitals, government offices, and community organizations often portray a cheerful and optimistic view of racial progress, but murals on the walls of convenience and liquor stores, barbershops, fast food restaurants, churches, and abandoned buildings offer a lively alternative to this bland vision.
Inner-city portraits of civil rights leaders were often based on photographs first published in newspapers and magazines. Many times these images jostled for space with commercial advertising. Sometimes artists and building owners sought permission from local drug dealers and gang members to ensure that a mural wouldn’t get defaced. These murals make residents feel proud of their history. They also help deter graffiti.
Documenting these inner-city murals can help map the rise and fall of leaders in the black community, showing, for example, the steady popularity of Martin Luther King Jr. Depictions of Black Panther leaders such as Eldridge Cleaver, H. Rap Brown, and Fred Hampton, as well as of Panther symbols, have almost all faded away. Walls crumble, colors fade, kids cover up previous murals with spray-painted names and tags. With each year that passes, less of the history painted on city walls survives.
Click here to view a slide show on amazing murals of black history from America’s inner cities.