Home Historical art Pullman plans to remove Thomas Jefferson portrait from library after complaints

Pullman plans to remove Thomas Jefferson portrait from library after complaints


The Pullman Library Board is considering a request to remove a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, from the Pullman Neill Library.

Considered one of America’s Founding Fathers, Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence and is known to be a strong advocate for democracy. But his own opinions were very contradictory. He publicly called slavery a “hideous stain” and “moral and political depravity”, but he owned about 600 enslaved Africans during his lifetime.

As president, he signed legislation banning the transatlantic slave trade in the United States, but he fathered at least six children with an enslaved woman on his plantation, Sally Hemmings.

Since racial and social unrest erupted in 2020, many activists have worked to see all the conflicting truths about the figures America routinely elevates as the country’s heroes.

In Spokane, activists led a local charge to right historic wrongs. In August, native leaders such as Margo Hill of the Spokane Tribe came together for land recognition as Whistalks Way replaced George Wright Drive at Spokane Falls Community College. Wright, an army colonel general in the 1850s, carried out acts of genocide against several native tribes in the Pacific Northwest. In late August, the U.S. campus of Mukogawa, part of Mukogawa Women’s University in Nishinomiya, Japan, also removed Wright’s name from entrance signs to their campus.

Joanna Bailey, director of the Neill Public Library since 2011, explained that Jefferson’s portrait is among submissions the library’s art committee began in 1980.

“The criteria by which the acquisitions were made, was that the work was by professional artists, who made a living in art or art that was judged appropriately by the committee. They had to use the Palouse community in their subject matter. They did a lot of work with WSU and the faculty of fine arts,” Bailey said.

The art committee received Jefferson’s portrait from GTE Telephone in 1980, and it was painted by the late portrait painter Dan Piel, a faculty member of Washington State University’s fine arts program in the time. Last December, public records show four local residents emailed Bailey asking to remove or move the painting, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported. This spurred a special meeting for January 4th.

Public comments have come from both sides of the argument, with some stating that requests to remove Jefferson’s portrait are unhelpful, others supporting removal as a step in the right direction.

Pamela Awana Lee attended this January 4 meeting, speaking her mind not only as a woman of Scandinavian and Chinese descent, but also as an art teacher. Lee worked for 32 years in the Fine Arts and Honor College program at Washington State University and has spoken of the qualities of painting itself. According to Bailey, Piel’s portrait of Jefferson measures approximately “6 feet by 4 feet”, and this wall space was a “big defining and logistical decision”.

Four patrons have requested that this painting of Thomas Jefferson by Dan Piel be moved or removed from where it is displayed at the Neill Public Library in Pullman due to Jefferson's views on slavery.  The library board will meet Feb. 9 to review policies that affect the library's art collection.  (Geoff Crimmins/For Spokesman-Review)

Four patrons have requested that this painting of Thomas Jefferson by Dan Piel be moved or removed from where it is displayed at the Neill Public Library in Pullman due to Jefferson’s views on slavery. The library board will meet Feb. 9 to review policies that affect the library’s art collection. (Geoff Crimmins/For Spokesman-Review)

“There are these rays that seem to enter and

{img style=”position: absolute; top: 0px; left: 0px; width: 99px; height: 127px; » src=””../content/tncms/assets/v3/editorial/a/de/ade8ea50- 7ade-11ec-a15c-3b23b5a810df/61eaebc81300d.image.jpg” /} focuses on Jefferson’s face, and it created a visual message like he’s the Egyptian sun god or something,” Lee said. “The visual message I get is that this man is a revered and adored person. What interests me is that every person who walks into this library is how people of color could send the message that this is not their place. And I want our library to be our whole place.

In her public statement, she highlighted the implications of Jefferson’s portrait as the first and last thing customers will see, and said it seemed “exclusive”.

“When I get up and check out the library materials, I’m standing right next to this painting,” Lee said. “And as most have recognized, although Jefferson was the third president, he is a symbol of one of the founding fathers who did not abandon his slaves. He treated them as chattels and, yes , he wrote about his apprehension of owning slaves, but he never changed that. And I find that to be a very bad experience as a woman of color in the state of Washington on the east side or not. anywhere. This is the wrong symbol.

Carey Edwards moved to Pullman in 1999 and is now the father of three children who were students in the Pullman Public School District. He doesn’t personally take offense to the portrait and doesn’t think it should be taken down.

“The library should be the last place where everything is censored,” Edwards said. “It’s the library, and that’s where you go for all the credible information. I think the people who want to remove Jefferson’s painting from the collection are censoring the library collection. I don’t think that’s fair.

However, Edwards recommended using controversy as a way to educate.

“Jefferson was a founding father, he was a great man, but he certainly had personal flaws. Who doesn’t? Because he was a prominent person, his flaws were more significant,” Edwards said. as an example questions us more.This certainly can and should be a learning point for people unfamiliar with Thomas Jefferson…being a library, this should be an educational type situation.

Although some call for complete removal of the portrait, according to the library’s art acquisition policies, obtained artwork cannot be removed, only rotated in and out of display. The conversation will shift to the board and its ability to change policy.

“The art we have needs to be on permanent display unless there isn’t a lot of space in the library to do so. The only option is to rotate the pieces in and out like a spinning display…we don’t have enough space to continuously display all 70 pieces at once,” Bailey said. “The other point being that if it’s not displayed you also have to rotate it to display it. You can’t just rotate it and it never comes back. So the board needs to spend time reviewing so are his policies.”

At the January 4 meeting, the Pullman Library board did not make a decision on the removal, opting to deliberate at its next meeting on February 9.

Veta Schlimgen, a professor of American history at Gonzaga University, finds conversations about the Founding Fathers and other complex architects of American history an important and difficult step for current American citizens to come to terms with the past. . She calls the way Americans idolize historical figures the “mythology of United States history.”

“Complexity and history, rather than Jeffersonian mythology, means we have to be careful that when Jefferson spoke of equality, he was talking about white male owners like himself, and some of the property they claim to have been people,” Schlimgen said. “So we have to weigh that with Jefferson’s other contributions to the founding of the United States. And that humanizes him. There are few heroes who are perfect people. We have to allow Jefferson, I think, to be human by talking about his story, not just his mythology.

On a larger scale, Schlimgen described the Jefferson portrait controversy as one piece of the puzzle. Similar to the removal of George Wright’s name from local Spokane entities or discussions of critical race theory, Jefferson’s portrayal

is a common thread into a larger conversation about how Americans can discuss the wrongs of American history, something Schlimgen calls “impossible” if censorship and sentiments aren’t discussed. She believes the nation’s concerns about the re-evaluation of history began in 2019 with the release of Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project.

“The argument made by the 1619 Project (is) that slavery is fundamental to the United States, that we cannot talk about the history of the United States from 1776, we have to go back to 1619,” said Schlimgen said. “That was followed by efforts by, I would say, mostly white Americans, but also Americans of different color, to try to better understand the past and understand how they might be helping to perpetuate inequality. So (the Jefferson portrait controversy) is a manifestation of censorship that we can only have a comfortable story of United States history, and anything that makes us feel uncomfortable is too controversial and can’t talk about it. So I think it’s really not the right method. It’s not history, it’s more of a mythology about the American past that is very patriotic and unique.

The next meeting is scheduled for February 9 at 3 p.m. in a hybrid virtual and in-person format. Public comments will again be collected and an update on the Library Board will also be given.

“When we have our meeting on February 9, we will have a public comment and we will go into the policy further,” Bailey said. “We devote so much attention and time to policy, because policy should govern the actions of your staff. But, just to emphasize, we really listen. This is the appropriate action in this phase of the process. To listen to our community, to hear their voices.