As the Jim Crow Flies

Court art attracts heat but no media light

Two weeks ago, a couple of lawyers, a client and state District Judge Caroline Baker retired to her empty jury room to try to work out a mediated settlement to a civil lawsuit. One of the attorneys, African-American Ronald Ray, happened to focus on several framed prints hanging on the wall. When he noticed that they all portrayed groups of black people in idyllic antebellum settings, Ray was shocked -- he realized he was looking at what is known in art history circles as Jim Crow art.

"You ask jurors to leave all their prejudices at the courthouse door and have a clear mind," says the attorney, who often represents clients on civil rights issues. "When they see that art on the wall, whatever discriminatory thoughts they may have creep back in and become a clear distraction."

The unsigned prints were titled Mississippi Afternoon and Working on the Levee. As is typical of the genre, the subjects were blacks with caricatured physical features in happy, carefree poses.

That style flourished before the Civil War in pro-slavery circles and came back into vogue in the 1880s, after the reconstruction era. White Southerners ended the political emancipation of African-Americans resulting from the North's victory, and laws were enacted throughout the region to enforce segregation and strip blacks of voting rights.

"Prosperous collectors created a demand for depictions that fulfilled their own ideas of blacks as grotesque buffoons, servile menials, comic entertainers, or threatening subhumans," explained curator Guy McElroy in a Washington Postreview of a exhibition of racist art at the Corcoran Gallery.

By the late 1950s, the civil rights movement and federal court rulings were knocking down racist statutes, and Jim Crow art was on its way out, along with segregated public accommodations. So how did some examples of the art wind up hanging in a jury deliberation room in Houston in 2003? The answer is anything but black and white.

After attorney Ray spotted the prints, he alerted his friend Randall Kallinen, a criminal lawyer who is also the chairman of the legislative panel of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Ray and Kallinen talked their way back into the jury room to view the prints, and Kallinen snapped some shots with his digital camera.

"Everybody I talked to said it certainly looked pretty damn racist to them," says Kallinen. He called Channel 13 and reporter Ted Oberg visited the courtroom, viewed the pictures and decided against a story. The following day, Kallinen called more reporters, and before long there was a crowd of journalists clamoring at Baker's 151st District Court for an explanation. By then the paintings had vanished, without news coverage.

According to Kallinen, the judge initially told reporters the artwork had been placed in the jury room by her bailiff, Deputy Harry Wright, who had originally seen them in a church. Wright is also African-American.

The following day, the explanation had changed slightly. According to a statement by Wright, he had been given the prints by a court reporter for state District Judge Levi Benton when Benton changed courtrooms. Both the court reporter, Lavearn Ivey, and Judge Benton are African-American.

"With the permission of Judge Baker, I brought this artwork to help beautify the court," said the deputy, "and provide a more pleasing atmosphere for the citizens who come and do their work there."

The deputy dismisses any suggestion the works have racist content.

"In my 53 years, I've seen discrimination and racism, and this simply isn't it. This artwork is my personal property. It is art I enjoy and derive pleasure from."

Judge Baker's political consultant, Allen Blakemore, was called in to help the judge craft a public statement. He says that in questioning the bailiff, the connection to Benton's court popped out.

"It was a gift from a black to another black, and it was in Benton's court before," says an exasperated Blakemore. He believes his Anglo client is the target of a trumped-up media hustle by an ultraliberal ACLU lawyer. He points out that Kallinen represented the ACLU in demanding that a Bible be removed from a granite memorial in front of the Harris County Civil Courts Building because it violated church-state separation.

Court reporter Ivey says she has a large art collection of similarly themed work at home and had displayed several pieces in her office. When she was packing up to move, there was no room in her new office, so she gave the paintings to Wright, she says.

The only problem with that account is that Benton moved to his new court in early 2002, but Wright says the paintings have been hanging in Baker's court for five years, a discrepancy of some three years.

Ivey calls the brouhaha over the prints "ridiculous." She's never heard the term "Jim Crow art" and barely remembers what the paintings depict.

"If I thought they were insulting I'd have never brought them from Atlanta. I picked cotton [as a child], and what little I remember, I think [the pictures] had cotton [in] them. I guess it just reminded me of a day I don't want to go back to, but I just didn't see anything offensive. I know I have things probably more offensive hanging in my house."

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