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The Murals

The Artists

The Controversy

The WPA in Harlem

The Controversy

Although all the sketches created by the seven artists commissioned for the Harlem Hospital mural work were approved by the Federal Art Project, four of the sketches met with the objections of the Harlem Hospital superintendent Lawrence T. Dermody and the commissioner of hospitals S. S. Goldwater. The project supervisor wrote in a letter to Charles Alston dated February 13, 1936, that the "basic reason for the rejection is that the Harlem Hospital as a city institution should not be singled out because of its location in the city . . . , i.e. that the subject matter deals with various phases of Negro endeavor and community life." In response to the rejection of the murals by the hospital superintendent, the Harlem Artists Guild issued a statement in conjunction with the Artists Union and copies were sent to President Roosevelt, Mayor LaGuardia, members of Roosevelt's cabinet, all the New York City papers, and African American publications across the country. The statement summarizes Mr. Dermody's rejection of the four designs in the following way:

  1. Too much Negro subject matter.
  2. Negroes may not form the greater part of the Community twenty-five years hence.
  3. The Negroes in the community would object to Negro subject matter in murals.
  4. His hospital is not a Negro Hospital therefore why should it be singled out for treatment with Negro subject matter?

Louis T. Wright, the first African American physician appointed to the hospital's staff, financed publicity about the controversy, which successfully aroused community support for the artists. Commissioner Goldwater eventually reversed his decision after receiving a commission opinion that "there was no offense to Negroes in these paintings." Ironically, the publicity sparked by the controversy served to bring more attention to the murals than they may have had otherwise

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