Lawyers push for removal of Missouri courthouse murals

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Two lawyers are demanding the removal of two courthouse murals in Columbia that show a white man pointing a gun at a Native American man, shirtless Black men chained by their ankles, and white men being hanged and whipped.

Gary Oxenhandler and Rusty Antel say the artwork in the Boone County Courthouse, which was painted by Sidney Larson in 1994, has been “personally and professionally upsetting,” The Columbia Missourian reported Tuesday.

County commissioners are seeking public input on the lawyers' request, which comes as communities around the country reconsider historical statues and murals in the context of present day values.

“We’re looking at the issue of whether or not they should be removed, and if so, what should be done with them? And what would be replaced? Or what would be replaced in their absence?” said Presiding Boone County Commissioner Dan Atwill.

Antel said he and Oxenhandler received about 70 responses from other lawyers in the county who support removing the murals. He said the murals depict extrajudicial punishment that is not allowed today and can intimidate people who visit the courthouse and may already be afraid of the court system.

“For people who are there in criminal cases, who typically are people of color and have public defenders, (when) there’s just a whole mistrust of the entire system, this just makes it worse — it just amplifies it. We’ve heard a lot from the public defenders, that, indeed, their clients are really bothered by it,” said Antel.

The murals depict multiple scenes from Columbia’s history, including when Southern guerrillas burned property and terrorized and murdered Union loyalists in 1864, according to an accompanying plaque. Another scene shows a white man being punished for stealing a cow.

Three shirtless Black men also are shown chained by their ankles as they carry a plank. The plaque adjacent to the mural reads, “Freed slave John B. Lange became a successful entrepreneur. A plank road to Providence is constructed.”

Not everyone wants the murals removed. Boone County Bar Association member Bill Powell sent a letter urging that the paintings remain.

“If people in the courthouse fail in their job to produce justice, things can go terribly, terribly wrong. That’s what I believe Sid Larson was portraying, by choosing to include the images that are being objected to,” Powell said.