The Pitt County Arts Council at Emerge Gallery and Art Center and North Carolina Civil was ready to move forward with the “Black Lives Do Matter” street mural, but the Greenville City Council members voted on Nov. 9 to change the mural to read “Unite Against Racism.”
During the council meeting’s public comment period, a variety of community members discussed the “Black Lives Do Matter” street mural, advocated for Black lives in the community, state and region and for the mural to be completed.
On Oct. 19, during a City Council meeting, the mural was changed from “Black Lives Matter!” to “Black Lives Do Matter.” Jermaine McNair, the executive director of North Carolina Civil, a non-profit community development organization in Greenville, said he has helped the artists with this mural painting despite the adjustments that have been made.
“We did agree to add ‘do’ in here (“Black Lives Do Matter”) because we want this project to happen and that allowed us to add more artists to the project,” McNair said in reference to the Oct.19 meeting before the name change.
Ann Harrington, a Greenville, North Carolina resident, said one of the functions of art is to promote and educate, and this mural does both of those things. The saying “Black Lives Matter” bothers some people, according to Harrington. Black lives and other people of color depicted in America’s history do not matter as much as white lives, Harrington said.
The founders of America wrote that the country’s foundation is based on liberty and justice for all, Harrington said, and America as a whole has not lived up to those words.
“We can embrace the artist’s vision of a mural in the heart of the city that unequivocally states that Black lives do matter. It is but a start, but a good start. Please turn that dark cloud into a shining rainbow by approving the First Street mural project,” Harrington said.
The council members discussed this topic as well as other murals that were proposed to the council. Rick Smiley, a council member, who also oversees District 4, said the First Street mural is a dramatic and controversial topic that raises passions between all individuals. He said some people are uneased by this mural, but Black individuals and people of color have not been treated well on multiple occasions not only all over the country, but also specifically in the community of Greenville. Smiley said he thinks the mural is an appropriate thing for the city to permit.
Mayor Pro Tempore Rose Glover, who oversees District 2, said the City of Greenville is moving slowly and not progressing as it should be, as Black individuals in the community are still being harmed.
William Litchfield, a council member that oversees District 5, said he believes in the Black Lives Matter movement as he knows and sees the inequities in the Black community in terms of education, healthcare, the justice system and many other things.
“I also believe our city is very diverse. We see all races, all nationalities and genders. I also believe that racism does exist across our nation and I think it is important we (city council members), as leaders, should speak out against racism,” Litchfield said. “We had a lot of speakers during our public comment period talk about racism and the need to unite our community.”
Litchfield said for over 14 years and after 48 city projects there have been no pieces of art completed by Black individuals, which is a failure. It is important to the city council to showcase these Black artists in the community, according to Litchfield.
There are 18 artists that are set to complete the First Street mural and it is important these artists are able to express themselves, Litchfield said. He said city council members’ job is to listen to and try to unify the community.
“I feel like as a city, a city council and a community, we can all agree that we should unite against racism,” Litchfield said.
Litchfield amended the motion of having a discussion with the artists and to work with them to replace “Black Lives Do Matter” with “Unite Against Racism.” In order to unify, the wording of the mural needs to change, according to Litchfield. “Unite Against Racism” is 18 letters so each artist will have a part to play in the mural.
Monica Daniels, a District 1 City Council member, said the council should not have a right to tell those Black individuals what it will take for them to heal. She isn’t sure why the council should change the mural as it is the artist’s idea and expression, Daniels said. Smiley and Glover do not agree with the word changing.
“They have been working on this for so long, and now they are having to hear something else,” Glover said.
Mayor P.J. Connelly said he has future plans for Black artist’s work to be shown throughout the community. These plans were not discussed during this meeting. He said there is a lot of work to do in the community in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The council voted on the proposed amended motion to replace “Black Lives Do Matter” with “Unite Against Racism.” Four members voted yes and three members voted against the change.
Senior fine arts major Aliyah Bonnette said she contacted Emerge over the summer when she saw they were involved in the project to get information on how she could participate in the mural.
Before the name change, Bonnette explained it is important for Greenville to have the “Black Lives Do Matter” street mural because of the large Black population in Greenville. She said she wants people to know the mural will create history in Greenville.
“We have a huge Black population and it’s really important that they know that the city supports them, especially with everything that has been happening and even more so, we have a big Black student population as well at ECU, and ECU is a very big part of Greenville, so it's also important that students know that the city is there and supports them,” Bonnette said.
A date has not been set yet to when the project will begin according to Bonnette. She said she feels that the name change will water down the mural’s effect and distances itself from the Black Lives Matter organization.
Bonnette said she feels that the start of the mural will be pushed back again and the words of the mural may be changed again.
“It seems to be a way to try to make everyone happy. This mural is to show support of Black people not getting murdered by police. Trying to make everyone happy shouldn’t be the focus,” Bonette said in an email statement.
Paula Jordan-Mayo, local artist and East Carolina University alumna, said she was offered the opportunity to be a part of the street mural by Emerge. She said she participated in Emerge’s “Black Voices Matter” window exhibit and other projects. She said she is disappointed with the name change and feels that the artists have compromised enough with the first name change.
Jordan-Mayo said she feels that the city council does not understand the purpose of keeping the original phrase of the mural. She said she knows that talking about racism is a difficult conversation to have but it is a necessary conversation that needs to be confronted.
“I really do want the community as a whole to be better and more supportive of their neighbors that do not look like them especially in the Black community or for the Black community because there is some hidden or subtle gentrification happening in this country whether people want to talk about it or not; not only in the country but in the state and then our country as well,” Jordan-Mayo said.
The Oct. 29 meeting held by North Carolina Civil executive director Jermaine McNair, “Black Lives Do Matter: Artists Highlight” Facebook event introduced the community to the artists involved in the project, according to Jordan-Mayo.
The meeting was open to the public where plans for the project were discussed. She said during the meeting everyone spoke on how important the project was to them and felt that it was a waste of time to have everything sketched out and everyone was assigned a letter.
“They (city council) said they didn’t want to control what the artists do, yet you are controlling the phrasing. You are basically controlling the artists’ vision,” Jordan-Mayo said.