This week, we profile the seventh of the 32 post office in Mississippi which were built, and decorated with “art for the people” under the auspices of the New Deal Administration. Magnolia boasts three murals (“… one of a handful in the country with more than one mural” according to Debra Purnell, 2004, “Windows on the Past” in the UM Quest) completed through the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts relief work program. The largest mural occupies the wall over the postmaster’s door, the common location for most post office murals. Artist John H. Fyfe completed and installed the three murals in 1939, at a cost of $1, 120.000 (Susan M. Enzweiler, 1993, National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the Magnolia Post Office). “July 4th Celebration” depicts a “holiday feast in the early 19th century” according to Enzweiler. Other sources (for example, wpamurals.com and newdealartregistry.org label the painting as “July 4th Celebration at Sheriff Bacot’s.”
The local committee was so impressed with Fyfe’s work that they commissioned two additional murals, which resulted in “Cotton Harvest” depicting field laborers loading cotton, and “Magnolia, 1880” depicting a cotton broker inspecting cotton on the downtown Magnolia street.
All three murals were restored in 1992 by Stewart-Treviranus Associates of McLean, Virginia. Fyfe also painted a mural for the Camden, Tennessee Post Office.
The WPA projects have not been without their criticisms of how race was depicted, although Fyfe at least represents an historical period with what would have likely been an accurate depiction. (See, for example, the illustration of the laborers in the cotton industry in the story Cotton and the Civil War.) Cory Pillen (2008, WPA Posters and the Mapping of a New Deal Democracy, The Journal of American Culture, 31,1) provided an excellent analysis of the Federal Art Project (FAP) program to create the “See America” tourism posters. Pillen’s work addresses many of the criticisms that are applicable to many of the New Deal murals, even though she is referencing the “See America” posters.
By downplaying the reality of Native and African Americans in national life, the “See America” series perpetuated prejudices that were deeply embedded in American culture and maintained by the Roosevelt administration…many of its programs institutionalized racial discrimination. The WPA, for instance, forced rural workers, many of whom were African Americans, off relief and into farm work during the cotton-picking season, and act that appeased the southern congressmen representing plantation owners and perpetuated a culture of discrimination that the “See America” series suggests was alive and well throughout the depression.
Enzweiler described the post office building details:
…doorway flanked by wooden Doric pilasters supporting an architrave with dentils…recessed panel with a brick voissoir surround…cast stone eagle one foot tall…
The building, constructed by Pittman Brothers Construction Company from New Orleans (MDAH/HRI database) retains its original wooden entry vestibule, as well as other original features. It sits off the downtown strip about a block, facing a residential street. Wave to the friendly couple on the front porch just opposite the building when you go visit!
**All images used with permission of the U.S. Postal Service