Boone County lawyers ask commission to move courthouse murals
COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)
A group of attorneys in Boone County want the county commission to consider removing murals from the courthouse.
The effort spearheaded by Rusty Antel and Gary Oxenhandler asks the county commission to take out murals placed on the landings of the courthouse steps. The lawyers say the depictions in some of them of people being whipped and hanged sends the wrong message to people either visiting the courthouse or defending themselves in a criminal case.
The county installed the murals painted by Sid Larson 25 years ago. One painting shows people whipping a person tied to a tree, and a group of people cutting someone down from a hanging. The murals also depict instances of slave labor, including two people carrying a plank of wood for the construction of the county courthouse. Another shows Bill Callahan, one of the county's first settlers and an "Indian hunter" according to county commission minutes from 1994, pointing a gun at a Native American in a tree.
Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill said the commission would hold a hearing on Sept. 28 to take public comment on the future of the murals.
Oxenhandler, a former presiding judge of the 13th Circuit Court, told ABC 17 News he had wondered about the appropriateness of the murals for years. He and Antel recently agreed to ask fellow attorneys this summer about their thoughts on the mural.
"I think it says, 'This is the kind of justice that we mete out in this place," Oxenhandler said. "And I think it tells young people that this is the kind of justice that could still happen here."
The county commission in 1994 unanimously approved the placement of the murals in the courthouse. Larson noted in minutes from the meeting that the lynching depicts James S. Rollins stopping a lynching, noting "[r]espected leaders build a community with respect for the law."
One lawyer said the murals should stay. Bill Powell wrote to the county commission, saying they should not let people politicize the artwork. He said people on both sides of the argument felt the murals either aligned with their political beliefs or found it politically incorrect.
"The power of this art, as in much of the public art that becomes controversial, is derived from its power to provoke," Powell said. "These murals in my view embody the First Amendment, the Constitution, the foundation of our entire system of justice. That they shock and make some people, including me, cringe is a reason to keep them there, not remove them."
Columbia defense attorney Robin Winn said her clients frequently tell her the murals make them uncomfortable. She said Boone County is no longer "the wild, wild West," and that images showing what punishment was like then aren't fit for the courthouse.
"This is a place where you're going to get a fair shot," Winn said. "This is not a place where a punishment is going to be a whipping or a hanging at the end. So I believe that the courthouse is not the appropriate forum anymore."
Advocates for moving the murals said a museum would be a more appropriate place for them.