Who are these people and why are they glaring at each other?

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.

War Memorial Building, Jackson (1939-40, E.L. Malvaney, principal architect)

 



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24 replies

  1. Don’t have much to add except idle observations. I think the “cows” are oxen and the Native American figure in the right panel is a woman. Chest is flat on the left one, but not on the right one.

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  2. Great post! I have no clue whats going on in the Tupelo relief sculptures, but I saw Joseph Barras’ name pop up recently in association with the Forrest County Ag High School. According to the MDAH HRI database, the 1929 High School and the 1935 Tupelo school are the two extant building of Overstreet’s that feature Barras relief sculptures. On the Forrest County work he labeled them so you didn’t have to guess what the image was suppose to be. ha-ha.

    Forrest County Agricultural HighSchool. Brooklyn Forrest County, Mississippi.
    “Agriculture”

    Forrest County Agricultural HighSchool. Brooklyn Forrest County, Mississippi.
    “Home Science”

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  3. more thoughts!
    i’d be willing to bet the white settlers on the right of each image are the same:
    in their earlier years they are facing off with frontiersmen(?) or maybe these men just represent “America” and the settlers are clearly living alongside the Native Am (in harmony i guess). Years later (they’ve grown old to show us time passing) they are watching their Native Am friends leave (oxen seem to be saying farewell) the prophet/prophetess figure is still a mystery but can certainly have something to do with that.

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  4. Go West, Young Man! That’s what all the panels are saying!

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  5. And how ’bout that flower in the lower left corner? Magnolia.

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  6. Didn’t Joseph Barras also do the reliefs at Bailey in Jackson?

    I could be wrong, but I believe that these are similar themes as those at Bailey. I think that the first panel represents the Treaty of Doak’s Stand where Andrew Jackson and Thomas Hinds met with three chiefs representing the Choctaw, Pushmataha, Mushulatubbee, and Apuckshunubbee.

    William Doak was a trader and is said to have had a native wife who was related to one of the chiefs. William Doak was also said to be a friend to the Native Americans which is why the meeting took place at his post. If the settler couple in the first panel are Doak and his native wife, they could also be the older couple in the second panel. The second panel could represent the consequences of the first, Indian removal.

    Perhaps the work at Bailey inspired the work at Church St. that followed so closely. After all, Doak’s Stand is a far more pertinent subject to north Miss. than it is to Jackson.

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    • The Chickasaw were the dominant tribe in that area. Not the Choctaw. I think it would make more sense that is is about the befriending and ultimate removal of the Chickasaw indians that lived on the rolling hills of Pontotoc, Lee and Itawamba counties.

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  7. Maybe 1936 is a clue. The woman kneeling is being submissive….not pointing, but praising. One is Indian (braids) and the other is not (curls). Could it be commemorating wars fought…victors and losers? From before we were a state (no flower) and then when we were a state (flower)….victors on the left and losers on the right. “It was once thought that the Chickasaw Village and Fort Site was the location of the
    Battle of Ackia and in 1936 it was declared the Ackia Battlefield National Monument.” http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/chickasaw.html

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    • I like the idea about the magnolia representing statehood, but it bothers my sense of chronology, beat into me by scores of timelines in school and textbooks, that the right panel would represent an earlier time (no flower) while the left would represent the later period of statehood. I’m not an artist, so who knows? Maybe they were installed backward?

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  8. I think Sharon Schamber-Jones and Carunzel are on the right track with their explications.

    Analyzing these panels would be easier if there were titles associated with them, but since I have some experience in art explications, I will give it a shot.

    The panel to the left of the stairs first. That panel symbolizes the creation of the State of Mississippi. Note that the magnolia flower, the symbol of the State, is with the white settlers, not the Native Americans. The placement of the white men in the panel is also symbolic. There is one individual figure in front, but behind there are no individuals, there are three identical men grouped tightly together. This shows the pattern of settlement for the state: an individual pioneer always followed later by a wave of settlement. The right side of the panel shows who the group to the left is displacing: Native Americans, white missionaries and traders, and soldiers. This implicit meaning for 1930s Mississippians to this panel is positive progress; after all, it is a homogenous group of white men confronting and pushing out an integrated group of miscegenating whites and Native Americans as well as the United States Army. I am honestly not completely sure of the meaning for the figure in the lower right corner, but notice that they are two different figures in each panel (the one in the right panel has a feather hanging down, the one on the left has long hair).

    I will explicate the other panel when I have more time.

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  9. It is true that Chickasaws would be the more appropriate native group for Tupelo. I was trying to liken these reliefs to the ones at Bailey and to the treaty. Doak’s Stand, as it turns out, is much farther south than I was aware.

    I forgot to mention it, but I was also trying to explore the figure in the corner of the second panel; the Doaks had a daughter who was sent to be educated in Kentucky. Her mother was native, but she was educated to be white. I don’t really think these panels tell the story of the Doak family, but it was an interesting parallel.

    A commenter at Facebook has an interesting take: https://www.facebook.com/Preservation-in-Mississippi-blog-118260971526721/

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  10. First panel 1492-1700s, there one the left are some Pilgrims, Pocahontas (beside her dad) pointing at John Rolfe, then Daniel Boone and some other folks (note mountains/hills and/or rivers in background, a Union Soldier from Civil War. Other panel, 1800s, migration to west and development of agriculture (note furrowed field in background), trade with Indians, etc. Kneeling figure in this panel does not appear native American. All in all shows the history of America.

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  11. They are glaring at each other because back in the old days, you had to remain perfectly still for a long time for the photograph to be taken! HA~

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  12. EL, the Tupelo folks want to know what year the photographs were taken.

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