It’s a rare City Council meeting where City Councilmember Sharon Hightower doesn’t get in an argument, often heated, and the town hall meeting Wednesday, Oct. 2 at the Greensboro Regional Realtors Association building was not one of those rare meetings.
Phillip Marsh, a Greensboro artist who has been responsible for many of the public murals around town, expressed concern about “discrepancies” in one of his latest projects – a mural honoring the sit-in movement that now graces a wall at Windsor Recreation Center on Gate City Boulevard. The wall mural is on the back of the building and faces Gorrell Street.
The mural is a photorealistic painting of one of the more famous photos of the sit-ins in Greensboro that began on Feb. 1, 1960, with the “A&T Four” sitting at the lunch counter at the Woolworth store on South Elm Street, now the site of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. The photo that is the basis for this mural was taken at the Woolworth lunch counter on Feb. 2, 1960, and shows Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, William Smith and Clarence Henderson seated at the lunch counter.
The mural is not of the A&T Four and Marsh said it was never intended to be.
Marsh said that he had worked extremely hard on the project, which was originally approved in 2016 and painted by Nils Westergard of Richmond, Virginia, a world renowned artist who Marsh recruited.
Marsh began by saying he usually didn’t speak in public because he liked to have his art speak for itself. However, he said the misleading information about the mural showed “a lack of respect for me and I won’t have anyone disrespecting me or any of my creative team.”
He didn’t mention Hightower by name but said, “There never should be a city councilmember asking a cousin for information when they have all the city resources available.”
He said, “This was something that could be resolved by having a simple conversation with me.”
Hightower responded, “I asked one simple question– Is this correct?”
Marsh said, “But then you took it to the next level.”
The controversy, which played out on social media, was that the mural was a “mistake” and was supposed to depict the A&T Four at the lunch counter. But on Feb. 1, 1960, the news photographer didn’t arrive in time to get the A&T Four sitting at the lunch counter, but did get a photo of them walking down the street. That’s the most famous photo of the sit-in movement and the basis for a sculpture on the North Carolina A&T State University campus.
Marsh blamed the controversy on Hightower and noted that Greensboro Beautiful had a similar problem with Hightower with a project at Gateway Gardens.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan tried to put a stop to what was becoming a very heated exchange, but did so by trying to stop Marsh from responding to Hightower.
Marsh said, “We never said that it was the original A&T Four.”
Marsh said that because of his contacts he was able to recruit artists from around the world, but if they were going to be publicly criticized for doing what they were hired to do, that was going to be more difficult.
Vaughan noted that the original press release that went out about the mural was misleading.
The News & Record also got it wrong in its original story, which has since been corrected.
The mural was a participatory budgeting project approved by the people in City Council District 2 in 2015.