Suzassippi’s Mississippi: Houston Post Office Mural

"Post near Houston, Natchez Trace, 1803" used with permission from the United States Postal Service.

“Post near Houston, Natchez Trace, 1803″ used with permission from the United States Postal Service.

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…

Image used with permission from the United States Postal Service.

Image used with permission from the United States Postal Service.

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.

Houston post office building

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.

cornerstone

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?



Categories: Historic Preservation, Houston, Mississippi Towns, New Deal, Post Offices

13 replies

  1. What a great post! So many things to look at and info to digest. Conflicting emotions overcame me when you mentioned Walter Anderson. Oh how wonderful it would be if he had painted some of these murals, but then, I can’t imagine walking into one of these post offices and seeing his stylized colorful swirls. The murals that were approved seem befitting for the architecture style. I have to give the feds credit for building pretty buildings back then.

    • The “Regionalists” were more often chosen for southern murals, with their more life-like depictions. Also the Feds apparently did not think abstract or anything too out of the norm was appropriate for art for the American people.

  2. thanks for showing us more mississippi murals!

  3. Does a database exist for these Federal murals?

  4. Jonathan Reeves, of the Chickasaw County Historical & Genealogical Society, has been in contact with the son of this artist. We were hoping the artist could be here for a day of recognition of him and his artwork in our Houston Post Office. However, his health was not good at the time and he passed away before we could follow through on that.

  5. My name is Jonathan Reeves and I had the pleasure of interviewing Byron Burford before his death. He recalls the mural, he painted it during his undergraduate work under Grant Wood who had all his students enter the art contest. I spoke to him in length on the mural and his inspiration for it. He told me that he interviewed local residents, including the post mistress. He was told of the historic trace and the post along it, he was told of the pioneers primary crop of sorgum for molasses. Growing up in Greenville, he told me, his grandfather had a plantation and o n it was a sorgum press, that is what he depicts in the mural. He painted the mural from memory. He asked me about the hills in the background. Having lived in Iowa so long, Byron had forgotten his Mississippi geography and thought Houston was in his Delta homeland, instead of the rolling hills of northeast Mississippi. The title suggest a post from 1801, of which only one existed near Houston at that time and that was the Chicasaw (not Choctaw) agency. Byron was remorse to hear this from me, he possessing Indian ancestry. He stated that he would have include native Americans in his mural had he known. I asked him the significance of the black worker, the only figure painted in detail. Byron informed me that it most likely was a black gentleman that worked on his grandfathers plantation, a gentleman that inspired the creative soul of Burford. Byron stated that local boys and himself would tag along behind this man, for stories, song, and fantasy. I posses a picture of Byron standing below his finished mural in 1940. This mural falls into Burford’s Mississippi Protest Period. The mural is one of the rare pieces in this series as there is few surviving pieces and Burford soon transitioned into his more prominent themes, most noticeably circuses.

    • Thank you so much for this addition and clarification to the story. I have to say that I was perplexed by the mural, and that no amount of searching seemed to satisfy my questions. Each time I thought I had an answer, and would go back to study the mural, I would see something that I had not seen before, which would just raise another question. Not being from Mississippi, I don’t have any common knowledge on which to rely. Each piece of research about the area, or the times, would open a door and close another one.

      • I would be happy to answer any questions you might have. I have become quite familiar with Burford’s work, the local history and this Mural. I also have detailed knowledge of the lost mural of Okolona painted by Harold Egan. I even have a black and white photo taken before the postmaster painted over it.

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