Of the twenty-eight works of art placed in Mississippi’s federal buildings under the New Deal federal art programs, only three were created by Mississippi artists–a fact not uncontested by Mississippians (Patti Carr Black, 1998, Art in Mississippi, 1720-1980). Byron Burford, Jr.’s mural was installed in the Houston post office in 1941. Burford was born in Jackson, July 12, 1920 and grew up in Greenville. He died in 2011 at the age of 90 (Dennis Hevisi, New York Times, 2011). Of his work, Hevisi said,
He focused on poignant moments: Southern blacks toiling in the fields…
Like most of the post office murals completed during this program, the canvas was cut to accommodate the postmaster’s door. The New Deal produced four programs to put artists to work “for the good of the nation”:
- the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP)
- the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture (The Section)
- the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) and
- the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP) (John W. Storey & Mary L. Kelley, 2008, Twentieth Century Texas: A Social and Cultural History).
The art programs were moved to the Works Progress Administration in 1939 (Black, 1998). Black explained the process:
…the WPA artists competed for individual commissions by submitting preliminary color sketches for specific spaces. The sketches were judged by a jury of prominent townspeople in the communities for which the art was intended. The agency supported the jury’s choices if the designs were deemed to fit the standards required. In general, the agency wanted to please the local communities.
A noted exception was the aforementioned displeasure of the Jackson community when their recommendation for Ocean Springs artist Walter Anderson’s design was rejected. The federal committee over-ruled the Jackson committee and all of their subsequent protests, and all five of Anderson’s revisions in design. Instead, the federal committee selected Simka Simkhovitch, who painted the controversial mural that was selected for the federal courthouse. Of Simkhovitch’s proposal, Martha Severens said
…apparently under the impression of harmonious race relations…the heroic figure of an African American dominates the center of his proposal… (2009, The Southern Collection: A New Look at American Art History)
Severens speculated that had his original proposal been accepted, the mural would still be viewable instead of draped behind a curtain since the protests of the 1960s.
The Houston post office was constructed in 1940 by Davis, Charles, Inc., and designed by the Office of the Supervising Architect of the Treasury, Louis A. Simon, in the colonial Revival style (MDAH, Historic Resources Inventory). Under Simon’s tenure, seven post offices were built for Mississippi, including the ones at Pontotoc and New Albany.
Between 1798 and 1813, all of the lands lying within the present boundaries of Alabama and Mississippi became part of the Mississippi Territory (Mississippi Territory, 1998, In the New Encyclopedia of the American West). By 1800, the territory was occupied by nearly 5,000 whites, 3,500 black slaves, 200 free blacks, and more than 30,000 Native Americans (D. H. Usner, Jr., 1985, American Indians of the Cotton Frontier: Changing Economic Relations with Citizens and Slaves in the Mississippi Territory, The Journal of American History, 72(2). 297-317). This would have included the area near Houston, on the Trace, in 1803.
Apparently, the mural depicts a trading post established to trade with Choctaw in an objective to create Native American debt and obtain the land to settle the debt (Usner). The mural appears to depict the crushing of sugar cane to extract the juice for making sugar. A third worker is shown carrying buckets of sugar juice into the shed where it was boiled to extract sugar. Ellicot’s Journal, 1797 reported that sugar cane was successfully grown in the southern part of the state from Point Coupie to the Gulf (Mississippigeneology.com, History of Agriculture in Mississippi). In History of the Mississippi Territory, James Hall (1801) reported on a successful experiment to grow sugar cane “15 miles above the boundary” (Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society, Vol IX, 1906). Maps of the Mississippi Territory compared with present day Houston seem to indicate the area would be too far north to fall into the two categories described above, however, I am unable to find confirmation either way.
So, how about it, all you historians and artists out there? Could Burford’s depiction of sugar cane pressing be a realistic representation of the area near Houston on the Trace in 1803?