A mural conflict: Tyrone split over what to do with controversial town hall illustration

Above, some citizens at Tyrone town hall stand in applause to Councilwoman Gloria Furr’s emotional speech prior to approving a motion to keep a controversial mural as it is, while others look on in disappointment. (Photo by Justin Fedich)

The voices of dissent never had a chance.

For every man and woman explaining that the mural at Tyrone town hall didn’t accurately depict history, there were several others who said the mural was a correct illustration of the town’s past. For every man and woman who maintained that they took offense to the mural’s Confederate flag, there were several others who claimed it was part of their heritage. For every man and woman who proposed to get rid of the controversial image, or change it or move it elsewhere, there were several others who wished to keep it as is with no changes.

Inside Tyrone’s town hall—every seat filled with a body and a strong opinion—30 citizens spoke during a mostly civil but passionate meeting.

Ultimately, the majority won out. The Tyrone Town Council voted 3-1 to approve a motion to keep the mural in town hall Thursday after a citizen’s panel that lasted more than an hour and a half and allowed plenty of opinions to be heard at the podium. Linda Howard, Gloria Furr and Ken Matthews voted in favor, and Councilman Ryan Housley voted against the motion. The council had recently covered the mural with a curtain, but left it uncovered on Thursday evening. Now, and seemingly for the foreseeable future, it will stay that way.

‘This is not about history’

The mural includes the depiction of, among others, white people and a Native American getting along, people in the background picking cotton and a Confederate soldier in the foreground holding a rifle and a Confederate flag. It was created in 1996 by Pam and Jim Hardin. Pam passed away two weeks before Thursday’s meeting. Jim said in an email Thursday night that “the mural was done with respect, love of community, approved by the Town leadership, and is historically accurate.”

When describing her reasoning for approving the motion, Councilwoman Howard said of the illustration, “It is true.” Concerned citizen John Harris, an African American, disagreed, saying, “It’s an inaccurate depiction.” If the mural depicted real history, Harris said, it would show the Trail of Tears and an African American hanging from a branch.

“I love Tyrone,” Howard said. “There’s not anything up there that I’m ashamed of. There’s nothing up there that I think is offensive.”

Sydney Baker: “I want to suggest that we paint a new mural. A mural that rightfully signifies where Tyrone is going and also where Tyrone has been.”

Lillian Wimbush-Smith, an African American, disagreed. She said not the mural itself, but the Confederate flag is “hateful, hurtful and insensitive,” especially in a place where Wimbush-Smith goes to vote and pay her taxes.

“The soldier represents people that enslaved my ancestors,” Wimbush-Smith said.

Howard, a white woman, said it didn’t matter whether the faces in the cotton field on the mural were black or white. She picked cotton when she was younger, and so did Councilwoman Furr, a white woman.

Furr shared a story about picking cotton and potatoes at a young age to help her family make ends meet.

“It’s just hard for me to realize that people want to destroy this mural,” Furr said.

Once Furr was done speaking, she was greeted with a resounding applause, the loudest of the night, and a standing ovation that brought her to tears. Those who weren’t standing included state Rep. Derrick Jackson, an African American, who sat in the front row with a look of disgust on his face.

During Jackson’s turn to address the council, he said he didn’t believe this was an issue that should be relegated to a citizen’s panel. While some argued the accuracy of the history, Jackson turned the conversation in another direction.

Greg Pearson: “This mural represents inclusiveness and represents diversity because I see people of all races on here.”

“Let me absolutely clear,” Jackson said. “This is not about history.”

Jackson brought up the fact that the mural was painted only 21 years ago, the same year Atlanta hosted the Olympics, which is the “most diverse and inclusive event in the world,” Jackson reminded the crowd.

Greg Pearson followed Jackson, and he expressed a different opinion of his interpretation of the mural.

“This mural represents inclusiveness and represents diversity because I see people of all races on here,” Pearson said.

Not everyone supporting Jackson’s plea to change the mural was African American. Tim Gooling, an older white man, suggested to change the mural, ending his speech with, “Let’s come together and make it inclusive.” His speech, though offering change, received a louder applause than most opposed to the majority viewpoint.

Sydney Baker, who was the third in a long line of speakers, said, “A mural should represent a Tyrone that is historically correct and should show diversity as our history, as our history has shown diversity. Diversity is not just black and white. Diversity entails teachers, parents, local business owners, those in the medical field, people who have changed this town for the better.”

Travis Knowles, a teacher, said, “We can remember our past, but the errors of our past, we don’t have to glorify.”

Finally, the last citizen to speak, Michael Thompson, a youth pastor, said, “No mural should be responsible for reminding people of who they are.”

‘I’m not a bigot, and I’m not a racist’

Before Linda Bruneau said a word into the microphone, she was already holding back her emotions. As she talked through her tears, she spoke of the history of her family fighting in wars, including her husband, a Vietnam War veteran. On Thursday at the town hall gathering, she fought for what she believed in.

“As with our collective American history, Tyrone’s history should not be covered up,” Bruneau said.

Bruneau wasn’t the only one to mention military background when defending her stance. Many of the night’s speakers mentioned not only how long they’d lived in Tyrone, but also how many years they served in the military.

Eric Woods, an African American who said he’d served for 28 years in the military, commented, “Every time I see that, I see racism, bigotry, and oppression.”

Some on the other side of the issue felt it necessary to defend themselves for supporting artwork that others found insensitive. Multiple speakers, including Shannon Alexander, mentioned their Southern heritage. They acknowledged that part of Tyrone’s past is an ugly past, but that it doesn’t solve anything to forget it existed.

“I’m not a bigot, and I’m not a racist just because I enjoy my heritage,” Alexander said.

Nina Gomes, an immigrant, said she saw nothing wrong with the mural because, “It’s showing us where we were. It’s not where we are now.”

Others said the Confederate flag wasn’t something that had stood out to them when they were in town hall in the past. Sam Hyde said he had to look real close to even see the Confederate flag, and Judy Suiter said she didn’t notice the mural at all before the controversy began.

Others, like James West and Steven Chontos blamed “fake news” and the media.

“The hate groups and media running from town to town creating a false sense of oppression and hate don’t represent this country,” Chontos said. “They don’t represent this town, and they aren’t trying to better it.”

‘Have you ever been to Africa’

Throughout the night, Tyrone mayor Eric Dial attempted to keep the peace by limiting the time each speaker was allotted to three minutes and preventing verbal interactions between the council, the speakers, and the audience.

When Wimbush-Smith brought up that someone had told her she should go back to Africa, however, a white woman standing in the back of the room responded.

“It’s me, and I didn’t say that,” the woman hollered. “I said have you ever been to Africa.”

Dial waited until all speakers and council had a chance to share their opinions before he stated his. With a Confederate soldier’s image standing over his left shoulder, Dial proposed to preserve the mural, but to relocate it to where it is not the focal point of the local government.

“I trust that many are genuinely offended by it,” Dial said.

Despite the offense citizens take to the mural, it is all historically accurate, Jim maintains through his email, on behalf of his recently departed Pam.

Furr speaks with youth pastor Michael Thompson, who argued against the mural, after Thursday night’s meeting. (Photo by Justin Fedich)

“The Confederate officer holding the sword the way he is was with the flag down meant to depict the surrender in 1865, and the two older gentlemen shaking hands depicted the reunion of Civil War veterans from both sides that came together in Tyrone,” Jim wrote. “The Indian shaking hands with the farmer was meant to show the relationship that started way back before Tyrone was Tyrone.”

Tyrone, a town of more than 7,000, has grown in population, and, with new businesses coming to the town, will likely continue to grow. Everyone at the town hall meeting appeared to have a common goal of uniting towards a brighter future so that outsiders who visit or move can feel welcome and proud to stay and live in Tyrone. They just disagree on how history should play a part in it.

Outside the town hall after the meeting in the dark night sky, groups circled up to reaffirm their beliefs and individuals with dissenting views met to talk through the issue. One man, who had not stood up to speak at the town hall, strolled alone beside the old church, singing “If they don’t like the town, they can just move.”

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About

Justin Fedich is a reporter for the Fayette County News. He has been a reporter for various papers around the Southeast, including the Athens Banner-Herald and the Selma Times-Journal. Justin is a graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in digital and broadcast journalism and a sports media certificate.


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