Art creates dialogue: new mural at Palatine Park strikes a conversation

Published: Jul. 1, 2020 at 7:53 PM EDT
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MARION COUNTY, W.Va (WDTV) - A mural that was finished on Monday in Palatine Park, started some controversy among community members in Fairmont. The painting of Harriet Wilson Whitely, also known as ‘Aunt Hat,’ is the part of the mural that is being called into question.

"We're in the midst of taking down relics of the confederacy era and slavery is one of those that is part of that era," Marion County resident and activist, Romelia Hodges said. "While this has become a very sensationalized story, it also has trauma to the African American community," she said. "So while there are luminaries on that wall, Aunt Hat is not a luminary to African American women. She is a woman who paved the way for us."

Looking back at Aunt Hat's life, she was born a slave in Marion County, according to the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History. Hodges said there needs to be more to mark what African American women look like in the area. She listed people like Rose Agnes Rolls Cousins, the first African American woman to become a solo pilot in the Civilian Pilot Training Program or 'the Fab Five' who were responsible for the Meals on Wheels program and much more.

She has since started a petition to have Aunt Hat removed from the mural, but said there is another alternative.

"We can take her down or we can use this as a teachable moment and show the progression of African American women, because we are more than slaves," she said. "That is a period in our history."

Hodges also noted that Blacks in the county are aware of Aunt Hat, but believes those outside of minority groups will not understand the history behind Harriet's life.

"She is a pillar of my community because she paved the way for me to be the African American woman activist that I am today," she said. "I would have to ask my Caucasian counterparts what does she mean to you, because she had no legacy of being a Harriet Tubman who freed the slaves, or Ida B. Wells, or all of the important figures we have throughout history who have been able or inable to to take their lives and do something much stronger with it."

As for Joel Dugan, chair of the Department of Architecture Art and Design at Fairmont State University and the leader for constructing the mural, he said he see’s Aunt Hat as more than what she was titled.

"The tag line of her history of where she is referenced as the last is an easy thing to grab a hold of, but she was also the first, and so we tried to look at her as a symbol of why West Virginia became West Virginia," he said. "We wanted to show the unity in the community."

For Hodges, this is not what she would consider unity.

"I don't want my daughter to ride the school bus or to ride by that riverfront everyday and see that slave on the wall and think that's the representation of an African American woman, because we are so much more than that," she said.

"We have a rich, deep, progressive history."

Dugan has spoken with Hodges and others in the community and despite their different views, he hopes this begins a larger conversation in the area.

"I hope that the future is filled with collaboration and the commitment to empowering change," he said.

"We're leading with compassion and we in no way want to make anyone feel like they are eliminated from a conversation or scrutinized or judged in any manner," Dugan said. "We did this out of empathy and compassion for everyone."

Dugan plans to make a new mural annually to showcase other important people throughout Marion County’s history.

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