Media dispute over mural overlooks charity's many good works

June 25, 2000|By Gregory Kane

DONNA JONES Stanley, executive director of Associated Black Charities, stood on a Park Avenue parking lot, silently reading the editorial page of the Newark, N.J., Star-Ledger.

"I'm not a `gun banner,' " she protested, lightly laughing off the accusation on the page. The author of a letter to the Star-Ledger accused her of being just that. Weeks earlier, the group's board of directors had rejected a mural proposed for an outside wall of the organization's headquarters. The painting depicted Harriet Tubman, who made repeated trips to Maryland's Eastern Shore to lead slaves to freedom, with a musket in her right hand. A controversy ensued immediately, with some charging that the board had knuckled under to the anti-gun nuts.

That depiction is inaccurate, Stanley said late last week.

"People objected to different pieces of the mural," she said, adding that it wasn't the musket that put off board members as much as the lack of choice.

"We had no choice of who was depicted, what was depicted or how it was depicted," Stanley said. About three or four months ago, someone at Baltimore Clayworks told an Associated Black Charities staffer that Clayworks had received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to paint a mural of Tubman.

"We've wanted a mural on the wall since 1994," Stanley said. Here was a chance for Associated Black Charities to get a mural without having to spend any of its much-needed dollars. But objections arose when ABC's board and staffers first saw artist Mike Alewitz's rendition of the mural about a month ago.

Stanley insists it wasn't Tubman toting a musket that led to the ABC board of directors voting not to accept - she refused to use the word "reject" - the mural. The issue was choice and empowerment.

"The goals of Associated Black Charities are to strengthen, empower and uplift the black community," Stanley said. "You can't empower someone else unless you exercise your own choice."

As if to put the issue in perspective, Stanley showed a reporter the wall in question. It stands two stories tall and stretches the length of the organization's building, from Cathedral Street to Park Avenue. The block between Park and Cathedral that runs along Chase Street is not the standard length of a city block. It might be a quarter of a block at most.

But it's still a big wall. Big wall. BIG.

"It would be a very big gun pictured on these walls," Stanley said. "It would be so big, it would obscure Harriet Tubman and her greatness. Is that what we really want to do? The mural is really about Harriet Tubman and her strength and her greatness. That's really what we want to shine through."

But, Stanley was reminded, wasn't part of that strength and greatness Tubman's willingness to carry a gun and use it if necessary? Those familiar with Tubman's history know the story of how she was leading slaves north when one man lost his nerve and wanted to turn back. Tubman insisted he dredge up some guts from somewhere, because that particular voyage wasn't a round trip. She pointed a pistol at him to help him make up his mind.

"It's not that I don't know that that happened," Stanley insisted. "But that's not the totality of Harriet Tubman." Stanley and the board want a "mural that best depicts what this organization and Baltimore City are all about."

ABC, Stanley wants folks to know, is an organization that helped Bea Gaddy, the 2nd District city councilwoman who also helps the needy, get her start when no one else would.

It was ABC that provided a $25,000 grant that jump-started the Umoja Kids project. Some church groups came to the charity and asked for help in developing a project to get youngsters thinking about entrepreneurship. The youths started a greeting-card company that is now so successful it no longer needs ABC grants.

St. Frances Academy, a parochial school in a black inner-city neighborhood, has a "Boys to Men" program that is ABC-funded. The charity also funded a mobile imaging vehicle that brings X-rays, CAT scans and similar services to poor black women who might not otherwise have access to them.

"It's our mission to make sure the black community gets the services that are needed," Stanley said. "We die in such disproportionately large numbers from illnesses that are so preventable."

The story about ABC's board of directors rejecting - er, uh, "not accepting" - Alewitz's proposed mural went nationwide. Stanley discussed the controversy for a half-hour on a radio station in Biloxi, Miss. What the charity does when it's not embroiled in controversy, however, receives little mention. Stanley reminds Baltimoreans that ABC is an organization that has helped thousands and will continue to do so - no matter what is painted on its wall.

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