University of Tennessee Mural

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Date: 1972

Region: North America

Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion

Medium: Public Art, Painting

Artist: Marion Greenwood (1909 - 1970)

Confronting Bodies: Student activities director, University of Tennessee

Dates of Action: 1972

Location: University Center ballroom, Knocville, Tennessee, USA


Description of Artwork: The mural was commissioned in 1954 to be placed in the brand new University Center Ballroom. The artist, Marion Greenwood, was one of the most famous artists in the U.S. at the time, having won several national awards and painted other large murals throughout the country. She was Guest Professor of Fine Arts at the University in 1954 & 1955.

The mural traverses Tennessee’s musical heritage, illustrating the distinctive music of the state’s three grand divisions. To the left Greenwood paints the delta blues of Memphis; in the center she portrays the Grand Ole Opry; and to the right she expresses the religious music of the mountains. UT faculty and students served as models for the painting.

The Incident: The mural became controversial in the late 1960s when many minority students were offended by the portrayal of an African-American donning a straw hat and picking cotton in the left-center of the painting (see photo above). Many people thought he looked happy.

Then, on the evening of May 17 or the early morning of May 18, 1970, the painting was vandalized with paints and solvents, though not the portion depicting the slave.

After the mural was repaired, and following a series of race riots on campus and new threats against the mural, the University Center governing board decided to protect the mural from further harm and declared that the mural should be covered “until such time it can be accepted as a historical painting.” That was in May of 1972.

Results of Incident: In 2006 the mural was revealed again. There were proposals to move it to a museum.

Source: NCAC, Knoxville News Sentinel, The Daily Beacon