The Underground Railroad, Vermont and the Fugitive Slave

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Artist: Sam Kerson

Year: 2020

Date of Action: August 2021

Region: North America

Location: South Royalton, Vermont

Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion


Confronting Bodies: Vermont Law School

Description of Artwork: At the Chase Community Center since 1993, Sam Kerson’s mural depicts enslaved people and the history of the Underground Railroad in Vermont. According to the artist’s website, Kerson intended for the mural to “celebrate the efforts of black and white Americans in Vermont and throughout the United States to achieve freedom and justice.” However, since 2013, the mural spurred discussions about its inaccurate depiction of Black people.

The Incident: Beginning in 2013, students expressed concern about the narrative portrayed in Kerson’s mural. On July 6, 2020, VLS Dean Thomas McHenry announced that the school would paint over Kerson’s mural. The Vermont Law School students hope that the removal of Kerson’s mural will allow for a Black artist to paint a new mural which accurately depicts Black people and narratives. Kerson told the Valley News that he equated the mural’s removal to “burning books.”

Results of Incident: Kerson objected to the university's plan to remove the mural he painted in 1993. He filed a lawsuit on December 2, 2020, in the U.S. District Court in Burlington demanding that the mural be preserved or that he receives financial reparations should the university remove the mural. In the lawsuit, Kerson argued that the mural is protected under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.