Plantation mural returns to South County

"The Economic Activities of the Narragansett Planters," by artist Ernest Hamlin Baker, hung at the old Wakefield Post Office from 1939 to 1999. Now restored to its former glory, the mural will return to South County Saturday with a free, public rededication beginning at 11 a.m. at the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society's Old Washington County Jail in Kingston.

KINGSTON - From the cave sketches of primitive man to the hieroglyphics in Egyptian tombs, the frescos of the Italian Renaissance to graffiti-splattered buildings in modern cities, walls have carried the stories of our culture.

Now a mural depicting a poignant scene from South County's past will return to the area after an absence of four years.

Ernest Hamlin Baker's "The Economic Activities of the Narragansett Planters" was displayed for 60 years in the old Wakefield Post Office before it closed in 1999. On Saturday the mural will be rededicated in its new home at the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society (the Old Washington County Jail).

Christopher Bickford, executive director of the Society, calls the mural "an exceptional work of art by an artist who is not that well-known." Baker, he said, "poured his heart into it and produced what to the end of his life he considered his best work."

Originally commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department as one of a number of public works of art intended to reflect the community in which it would be placed, Baker's mural depicts the slave-dependent economy that characterized South County - uniquely in New England - in the early and mid-18th century.

"The inspiration for it grew out of the spirit of the 1930s, with the Depression-era emphasis on labor and economics," Bickford said in a press release. "In that sense, historically it reflects both the 18th century and the period in which it was created."

The boldly designed mural shows slaves performing tasks that symbolize the South County economy of the time. They include breeding livestock, growing corn, making cheese, and shipping and smuggling.

Baker depicted the slaves as strong, proud and competent, celebrating their contribution while simultaneously illustrating the cruelty and injustice of the system under which they labored. In the midst of the activity, a dominant image shows a mounted, fashionably dressed white plantation owner lording over the workers.

At the time he finished it, Baker called the mural "by all odds, the best thing I've ever done."

At 11 a.m. Saturday, a program with speakers will be offered, among them Congressman James Langevin and Black Heritage Society Executive Director Joaquina Bela Teixeira. Other speakers will include Bickford and Perry Viles, president of the Society, as well as Donald Marshall, Southeast New England manager for the U.S. Postal Service, and Tina Norwood, curator of the Fine Arts Collection for the Postal Service.

A symbolic ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place at approximately 11:30 a.m. The historical society will remain open to the public free of charge with the mural on view until 4 p.m.

The mural "is also a remarkable icon of local history both in the subject of the painting and because people remember seeing it in the post office every day here for more than 60 years," Bickford said. "You could say it opens up multiple windows - it offers all these different tangents. People react to different aspects of it."

The Society received funding from Gates Insurance, The R.I. Foundation and a number of individuals to produce a booklet, "Picturing History: Wakefield's Post Office Mural of 1939," written by Bickford. It tells the story of the mural in detail and will be available for sale on the day of the rededication. Proceeds from the booklet sales will help the Society pay the costs for insuring and installing the mural in its new home. In addition, a fund-raising effort is under way and donations to the mural fund are welcome.

The Society is located at 2636 Kingstown Road in the Old Washington County Jail across from the University of Rhode Island's main campus. The stone building, built in 1858 and 1861, once housed the jailer's family as well as male and female prisoners in county custody. Today it is home to permanent exhibitions on local history, including a period schoolroom and dress shop, as well as changing exhibits of general interest.

The current special exhibition is a display on the history of tabletop and board games. It runs through August.

Regular hours are Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m. (although with the mural in place, expanded summer hours are under consideration).

Call 783-1328 for more information.

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