A few years ago, I did a little post, one of my favorites, about the four faces on the columns of the War Memorial Building, and I titled it, “Who are these people and why are they staring at me?” I thought about that post when I saw some photos on the MDAH Historic Resources Database of the bas relief figures flanking the entryway at Tupelo’s Church Street Elementary School. The concrete Moderne school, designed by Overstreet and Town after the devastating 1936 Tornado, is listed on the National Register as an early example of the firm’s move from “conservative-modern” to “ultra-modern” design.
However, the school’s National Register nomination, written in 1991, is, shall we say, vague on these puzzling bas reliefs (I’m not judging; I would have done the same thing if I had to try to describe them). This is the sum total of description of them:
The steps leading to this [entrance] bay are flanked by buttresses displaying carvings of animal and human figures. These carvings may have been designed and/or executed by sculptor Joe Barris of the Jackson Stone Precast Company who was responsible for the carvings on at least one other Overstreet and Town school during this period (Sachs 1986: 215).
Hmm, let’s see if we can figure this out. In the left panel, I see some men who look Amish glarish at some women who look Amish–all with arms defensively crossed–two sorrowful Native Americans, and what may be an Army officer standing in the back observing this unhappy scene. The standing Indian man is doing something with his arms? A magnolia in the left bottom corner is the lone recognizable image to me, although it seems randomly placed.
In the right panel, we have two big ol’ cows gazing into the eyes of a Native American man and woman, while a man with a squarish full beard discusses something (maybe selling the cows?) with an older man with an even longer but not as square beard and his wife.
In both panels, a man who appears to be a Native American is on his knees in the right lower corner with head bowed as he points a straight arm and finger to the left. His clothing and hair is detailed in the left panel but flat in the right. He strikes me as a prophet of doom. Also, no magnolia in the right panel. Rolling hills provide a backdrop to both scenes.
I’m not an art historian or an art critic, so who out there can enlighten us about what in the world is going on in these two sculptural groups? Does it have something to do with the Treaty of Pontotoc (1832), in which the Chickasaws ceded their territory east of the Mississippi, thus opening up the area around Tupelo for American settlement?
And by the way, no one has yet provided a definitive answer about those four War Memorial faces, so if you have an idea, head over there and throw it in the pot.