Sensitivity over race in a state with a history of lynchings collided with artistic expression this week at Kennesaw State University, and the concerns about race apparently won out.
KSU officials ordered the removal of a piece of artwork from an exhibit at the university’s new Zuckerman Museum of Art, set to open Saturday. The artwork included some text from a 19th century letter by Georgia novelist Corra Harris justifying a lynching.
A statement released by KSU Friday called the museum’s opening a milestone for the university. According to the statement, the rejected artwork, artist Ruth Stanford’s “A Walk in the Valley,” was not suitable for the opening.
“We therefore made the decision to display the exhibit at a more appropriate time later,” the statement concluded.
When asked to elaborate, a university spokeswoman responded, “It is the administration’s position that the exhibit addresses historical issues that — while extremely valid and important to discuss — are not aligned with the intended celebratory atmosphere of the museum’s opening.”
Stanford said the piece did use some text from Harris’ lynching letter, but did not contain its most offensive passages.
“I just don’t feel there was anything so inflammatory that it would make it inappropriate for the opening,” Stanford said. “Art is intended to prompt discussion. It’s one of the best vehicles for talking about things that might be difficult.”
But it’s clear some subjects are still painfully sensitive, even at an institution of higher learning.
Harris, who died in 1935, wrote hundreds of essays, columns and book reviews and authored 19 books. Her most famous work, the 1910 novel “A Circuit Rider’s Wife,” was a largely autobiographical work recounting the life of the spouse of an itinerant Methodist preacher. It later inspired the 1951 movie “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain.”
Harris was a complex figure. She promoted traditional roles for women but also supported women’s suffrage. She admired the black educator and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois but also accepted the grossest racial stereotypes.
Those stereotypes were on lurid display in an 1899 letter to the editor in which she seemed to justify the recent lynching of a black man named Sam Hose near Newnan. Though she referred to “the burning of the criminal by an inhuman mob,” she also sought to relate facts “which do not mitigate the atrocious conduct of the Newnan mob, but which do explain its savage fury.”
The letter goes on to describe African-Americans in the most offensive terms. One example: “Out of this cesspool of vice rises that hideous monster, a possible menace to every home in the South. He has the savage nature and murderous instincts of the wild beast, plus the cunning and lust of a fiend.”
Harris lived on a 56-acre Bartow County farm that was donated to KSU in 2008. KSU’s decision to accept the farm was controversial, given Harris’ notoriety. This week’s controversy over Stanford’s mixed-media artwork underscores how sensitive the issue remains.
KSU sought works from 15 artists for the exhibit “See Through Walls,” which celebrates the opening of the Zuckerman Museum of Art. According to the museum’s website, the exhibition features artists “whose work responds to the spatial considerations and explores the function and inner workings of real and conceptual constructions.”
KSU commissioned Stanford specifically to produce a work related to the Harris property and agreed to pay her $2,000.
Stanford’s contract states that the work was to be displayed from the date of its installation through April 26, but is “subject to earlier removal at the sole discretion and expense of the museum.”
Stanford said she was told that KSU President Daniel Papp toured the exhibit Thursday morning and became angry when he saw the work. She said he ordered it removed.
KSU’s statement said that “concerns were raised” about the subject matter of Stanford’s work during a preview tour Thursday. Asked if Papp ordered the removal, the university spokeswoman said, “This is an official decision of the university’s administration.”
Stanford said her artwork is not about lynching and includes only a heavily edited version of Harris’ letter to the editor. The text is layered over a map of Bartow County that includes the farm. Fragments of the same map are layered back over the text.
“It was really more about the history of that place and how it became forever linked” to Harris and the controversy around her, Stanford said.
The artist said she’s disappointed the work won’t be included in the current exhibition.
“I would rather people get to see the piece and make their own judgments,” she said. “I knew this was a big debate. I knew there would probably be some people who were not happy it was coming up again.”