Murals about liberation
Photo: Paul Rogers, Stowe, Vt.
Designed and created by Sam Kerson in 1993 -
located in the Chase center of the Vermont Law School, South-Royalton, USA
There are four large images on each of the two murals, eight images total.
Three of them have to do with slavery; Capturing people in Africa. Selling humans in the US.
And working humans like animals, forced labor.
Then we move to the Liberation panel. The whole panel is about liberation.
On the slavery panel only three of the four images were about Slavery, the fourth is about insurrection.
Photo: Paul Rogers, Stowe, Vermont
In the first panel the Africans fight back but are obviously overwhelmed. The figures are large. And the panel is colourful, or should I say bright. Or both!
The Slave Market panel shows selling a human being in a market. But everyone in the image accepts the situation. No resistance but various perversions are evident suggesting that the practice has a degenerate effect. Also sugar cane and tobacco are mentioned. Both products that require slaves.
The third idea, the laborers, are simply large men, one older one younger working with a plow that is actually the type of plow that the Spanish brought during the conquest and was still in use. Pulled by men. Barefoot, almost naked. Under an intense sun. These subjects that I am calling up in these first images are vast, ten million enslaved people arrived in North America, at least that many were lost along the way. The suffering can hardly be calculated. My one image can only suggest the violence and pain that was inflicted on those people. The market image is also totally insufficient. The consequences of these markets is still felt in the USA. One could paint this subject for years. If I accomplished anything in that image of the Slave Market it was to say; this happened. It happened in the USA. I know it happened and so do you.
About the forced labor panel? Even the kids from the local grammar school said to me, 'this is not cruelty, we all work like this, this is just labor.' That is when I put in the brand marks and the chains and the comment from an oral history book about slavery saying, ‘I was a slave and I will tell this to the whole world, 'Slavery is the worst curse ever visited on the people of the United States.' John Rudd. Just a moments reflection of the current and existing prison slavery system in the state of Louisiana will demonstrated my failure to show the suffering caused by slavery to laborers.
I recognized the impossibility of representing slavery before I started. I knew that representing the history of slavery in a few feet of paint was impossible. But maybe I could suggest the possibility of escape from Slavery and remember abolition and depict some aspects of it. I knew
how to represent the power of the black man or woman who set out to liberate himself and the marvel of a Harriet Tubman who gave her life to liberating slaves.
Before even getting to the end of the first panel dedicated to slavery I had shifted gears and brought African Culture to the enslaved, which they were forbidden. The image shows that
The slaves had the power to overcome their oppressors. Further one sees in this panel that the white slave owner, or foreman is overcome and bound by the people he has oppressed. This is a big and important idea and it no longer is about oppression or enslavement. The consequences of this obvious power of the oppressed is still visible in the US; oversized police forces and outright expressions of Racism by such as, the US national leaders. Slavers are afraid of Black power, Black Panther power or Black Lives Matter power.
Photo: Paul Rogers, Stowe, Vermont
Then we move to the Liberation panel. The whole panel is about liberation. On the slavery panel only three of the four images were about Slavery, the fourth was about insurrection!
Frederic Douglas, John Brown and Harriet Beecher Stowe. On this side there is a sort of multiplying effect, each of these people have a full life history of struggle against oppression and for freedom; freedom for the enslaved and freedom from slavery for everyone else, because slavery is a blight on our consciousness and our democracy and our humanity. Also the shared ideas and memories of these pictures are for everyone who knows of and is aware of the massive amount of Slavery that exists in the world today.
In the next image we see a figure reminiscent of Harriet Tubman leading a small group of black people into Vermont. They are acting on their own initiative to free themselves, again you see that multiplier effect, as Harriet Tubman must have; liberate one, liberate another; ‘I liberate one, you liberate one’. Which is something that we can all practice even today and which is practiced widely in the world as we see millions of people fleeing from oppression and economic slavery and violence, hunger, and ecological disasters. Today Harriet Tubman continues to lead people to lands where they can live their lives free of slavery.
In the next painting we see what part Vermont had in this movement of humanity that occurred in the US before the civil war. This is the image about the Fugitive slave act and Vermont's resistance to it. One has to know a little about it but it is all in the public domain. Certainly the students at the law school know. The little town in the background is from an old photo of South Royalton. The farm woman shelters the fugitives from the bounty hunter. People are doing that today. Breil Sur Roya, France is an example we are familiar with. Where agricultural societies of conscience take it upon themselves to protect their fellow humans and they do it. And they are righteous about it.
The fourth image on this panel about Abolition is Montpelier where a family of locals aids a family of refugees to continue their trip to the north by sheltering them and aiding them with food and clothing and transport. The great white horse is shared with the refugees. These people might be Quakers as there were Quakers in Montpelier and we know they did this kind of human service out of conscience.
What I mean to say is; The Underground Railroad Vermont and the Fugitive Slave murals are about Liberation. The series of images place a few markers in the grim and vast history of Slavery to give us perspective but the work concentrates on liberation, self-liberation, breaking one’s own bonds as the characters in the murals did. Liberation through community, and with the help of those who are conscious of human rights, and human dignity. I want to show that all these acts of liberation affect us all.
There is an scene in the last image of a cat chasing a mouse. And the back ground is the Vermont State House where the habeas corpus law that protected fugitives from bounty hunters was legislated. With that image, the cat and mouse, the mural says, we needn’t live by tooth and claw, as a state we can use our collective power to protect one another and Vermont has acted to protect fugitives in the past.