President of the Black Student Union senior Jocelyn Elmore, and Secretary of Diversity senior Felicia Attor, successfully petitioned and secured the relocation of the controversial painting, “A View of Chestertown from White House Farm.”
The painting, created in the 1790s, depicts a plantation with enslaved people in the foreground and the College in the background.
Because of its “incredibly haunting and humbling image,” Co-Director of the Starr Center for the American Experience Dr. Patrick Nugent said. “The painting, properly and continuously contextualized, represents one of the most powerful teaching opportunities we have on campus.”
While, as stated by Associate Professor of English and American Studies Dr. Alisha Knight, the painting is valued for its historical nature, its depiction of enslaved people with no context causes confusion in the message portrayed by its public display.
“What messages are we communicating, not only to students of color but donors, to employees of color, or even to everyone — whether you identify as being of color or not. What are we saying when that is one of the few images of African Americans on campus,” Dr. Knight said.
On Oct. 3, Elmore and Attor met with President Kurt Landgraf to discuss concerns surrounding the painting, which is currently hanging in the lobby area of Bunting Hall. Provost and Dean of the College Dr. Patrice DiQuinzio, Starr Center Deputy Director Pat Nugent, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Sarah Feyerherm, and Associate Director of Student Financial Aid and advisor to the BSU Erneatka Webster also attended the meeting.
The portrait will be relocated to the Customs House in order to give proper historical context. “The placement is important because we should still preserve our history and we want it in an area with other historic paintings or archives materials,” Webster said.
According to Webster, she does not want the history of Washington College, nor that of other historical paintings, hidden, because what happened during those times is important.
“The removal is important because it shows how much our President values the student’s opinion and understood the impact it made on campus,” Webster said.
The painting’s move to the Starr Center will become part of a video documentary, as suggested at the meeting by Elmore.
“Sometimes key information can be lost in email chains, and I think this subject is one that needed to be seen visually to help explain what happened and why things happen,” Elmore said. “The documentary would show the process of removing the painting and an explanation of the president’s decision to do so.”
Elmore hopes professors show the documentary after their classes so the entire student body will see it.
Landgraf believes the documentary can serve as a starting point for discussion about WC’s historic relationship to slavery and issues of race on campus.
The relocation will occur as soon as possible. However, the age of the “A View of Chestertown” painting will make its removal and reinstallation more complex than just taking it off the wall, according to Landgraf.
However, once it is moved to the Customs House, the painting will be properly contextualized.
When giving images contextualization, Dr. Knight said it is important to “acknowledge and address, rather than to deny and be in denial about what is shown in the image.”
According to Knight, it is important to acknowledge the facts of what is being depicted; include as many perspectives as possible on how diverse groups view the painting; and contextualize what the College values about the painting as well as what it recognizes as being problematic.
The presentation of images like that depicted in “A View of Chestertown” contribute to the sense of not-belonging often experienced by students of color at predominantly white institutions, according to Elmore.
The painting has no business hanging in Bunting, representing WC and its values, according to Landgraf. However, that does not mean it should not serve as a teaching tool about the reality of history.
Because of its ability to do as Dr. Knight said, “acknowledge and address” the reality of slavery, its placement in the Customs House with proper contextualization will allow students to discuss the painting and its impact.
“We must talk about our feelings, respect each other’s feelings and give everyone a fighting chance to be heard. Communication is what will continue to unite the whole student body and community,” Webster said.
According to Elmore, American history is often taught from the viewpoint of the oppressors rather than the oppressed.
“Slavery is therefore deemphasized and not addressed in a manner that teaches you about the slaves and their experiences,” Elmore said. “I believe that it is important to think of enslaved people and their experiences as well as the slave owners when recontextualizing images that depict slaves.”
For a long time, according to Dr. Knight, depictions of African Americans, especially in print, presented them in positions of servitude, creating “stagnant, not dynamic characterizations of people of color.”
That is the image also presented in “A View of Chestertown,” which adds to the often-held feelings of isolation of students of color.
To combat this lack of integration and better depict the College’s “values of wanting to promote inclusive excellence,” according to Dr. Knight, there should be a more conscious effort to promote images of scholars and intellectuals of color, moving beyond tokenism in images of students.
While WC has a long way towards greater tolerance, inclusion, and diversity, according to Landgraf, the relocation of “A View of Chestertown” is one step towards that future.
Part of how the College can become more inclusive is through student initiative, like that shown in Elmore and Attor.
“My responsibility as a student at WC who signed the honor code is to stand up for what I believe in and do it with courage, integrity, and respect for others,” Elmore said. “I believe that this experience was a prime example of how WC’s honor code not only applies to the classroom, but it also applies to all aspects of the college experience.”