Along one of Columbia's busiest streets, thousands of people pass a billboard-sized work of art each day, but they may not know its history or community significance.
Formally called "Capital City Times," but more commonly known as "the black mural," it has adorned two walls of a North Main Street railroad trestle since 1995.
Either from the street or from adjoining Earlewood Park, it is easy to pick out familiar elements on the mural such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the State House and children at play. But a closer look reveals the images as they were interpreted by the students who produced it.
According to Judy Battiste, who coordinated the project with 24 Alcorn Middle School students, the mural was originally supposed to take up one wall of the trestle. However, by the time it was completed it was so large that it had spread to both of the walls that face the street Ñ half of it facing northbound traffic and half facing motorists traveling south.
"One side shows the kids' feelings about themselves growing up in Columbia, South Carolina. The other side is more of a tribute to African-American role models," Battiste said.
The wall that depicts growing up shows the face of a smiling black child next to that of an angry black child.
"Many people have asked why we painted an angry child, but I tell them it represents the mixed emotions children experience. There are also images of children playing, such as the child on the swing," Battiste said.
The emphasis of the other wall is to pay tribute to famous black Americans. Along with King, this wall honors South Carolina natives Ronald E. McNair, an astronaut who died in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, and Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden, a former astronaut and now commanding general of the 3d Marine Aircraft Wing.
The children's feelings are also projected onto that wall through the way some things are depicted. For example, the State House, which serves as the mural's backdrop, was painted without the Confederate flag above its dome. But the flag was very much present atop the State House in 1995.
That wall also paints a picture of racial harmony: stick-figure children, black next to white and each holding hands, that form a line across the entire wall.
Bettiste was chairwoman of the arts committee for the local chapter of The Links Inc., a national women's service organization, when she became interested in a State Museum exhibition of the work of famous African-American artist Romare Bearden, whose foundation helped support the project. From that came the idea for the mural.
"I thought it would be a good way to expose local students to African-American art," Battiste said.
The project began eight years ago as a collage of the children's feelings about school, family and community. Battiste said the students patterned their collage after Bearden's style and technique, which often involved rural themes based on his memories of the South. With inspiration from Bearden and help from local artists Vanessa Ashford-Bussy and Ralph Waldrop, the students succeeded in transferring their collage to the mural, after CSX Transportation, which owns the trestle, gave its permission.
Ashford-Bussy helped the students arrange the collage, which Battiste said took about a week. The work on the mural was led by Waldrop, who has painted numerous murals in Columbia. Perhaps best known of his works was the mural of University of South Carolina running back and Heisman trophy winner George Rogers, which once was on the side of a Blossom Street building on the campus.
The students met with Waldrop once a week to bring their vision to life as a mural. Almost a year from the day they started, it was complete.
The mural contributes to the community by making art accessible to more people, Battiste said.
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