ALBANY, N.Y. The state Education Department is covering up a historic mural, saying it is being sensitive to its employees, but at least one state lawmaker says the move amounts to censorship.
The department covered the 29 ½-foot-by-18-foot mural, which dates to the 1870s, after about 20 of its approximately 3,000 workers complained that it unfairly portrays blacks.
The mural includes numerous images from American history, such as immigrants landing on American soil and Civil War battles coming to an end. It also contains images of the dead rising from their graves to celebrate America and a godlike statue of George Washington encircled by angels. In a corner of the mural, a scantily clad black man is shown being lifted up by a white man, apparently in liberation.
While the employees say the figure presents blacks as inferior to whites, Assemblyman John McEneny says it represents how most of America felt in the years following the Civil War and not today's attitudes.
"You're talking about an absolutely magnificent epic mural, which reflects the feelings of the time, particularly of Northerners in 1876," said McEneny, a Democrat from Albany.
The mural, which is alternately known as the "Grand Centennial Painting," "The United States," "The Genius of America" and "The United States of America," hangs at the rear of the stage in Chancellors Hall of the state Education Building.
The hall is used mainly for education staff meetings and a few public events. The public can view the mural if they ask in advance, says Education Department spokesman Alan Ray.
Most employees who complained about the mural over the past two years were black and were required to attend the staff meetings, according to Ray. The decision to cover the mural with drapes was made less than a year ago, he said.
The flap over the mural was first reported April 23 by the New York Post.
McEneny, who is also an Albany and New York state historian, says the figures are allegorical and should not be viewed as a degrading representation of present-day blacks.
"I think the artist was impressed with the degradation of slavery, which is unquestionably the worst horror in American history, and he wanted to show that this was a person who was truly degraded in society," he said.
"The man is obviously in a very emotional state and if he's saying anything, it's, 'Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we're free at last.' It's a representation of the extraordinary freedom given to this man."
Ray declined to comment on McEneny's interpretation of the section of the mural some have found offensive.
"We've reached a very reasonable, balanced position in which it's available for viewing by anyone who wants to see it," Ray said.
When outside meetings are held in the hall, the mural is uncovered if attendees ask, Ray says.
The mural, painted by French artist Adolph deYvon, was rumored to have cost New York City merchant A.T. Stewart $100,000 when he commissioned it in 1870, according to the Education Department. Stewart wanted to hang the mural in his home, but when he saw the huge panel, he realized he couldn't get it into the building, much less hang it there.
Stewart purchased the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs in 1872 and four years later placed the mural in the grand ballroom, where it remained until the building was razed in 1952. The construction company responsible for the demolition donated it to the Education Department.
Because of its historical significance, McEneny says even the uncovering of the mural at request is not enough.
"There are a number of areas throughout Albany that are underappreciated and need to be explained to the public, rather than made less available," he said.