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Newport, Ky., Mural Honoring Slave Owner And City Founder Sparks Intense Debate

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

From Richmond to San Francisco, historical monuments have been taken down, painted over as a new generation grapples with America's complicated past. One northern Kentucky town is currently putting up a mural of the city's founder. He was also a slave owner. As Cheri Lawson of member station WEKU reports, many residents are just now learning about him and wrestling with what to do.

CHERI LAWSON, BYLINE: On a recent afternoon along the Ohio River in northern Kentucky, artist Gina Erardi works with a group of volunteers in Newport. They're painting bold colors of blue, green and teal to a mural depicting the city's founder, General James Taylor, and his wife, Keturah.

GINA ERARDI: The whole mural without getting a drop anywhere else.

LAWSON: The public art is celebrating the city's 225th anniversary and will eventually showcase parts of its history with a series of murals. Twenty-three-year-old Erardi is the lead artist and mural designer. She says Taylor was a wealthy young man who was able to create a vision for the city. She says he invested in schools, roads, dams and a significant military barracks pictured in the design. Erardi says he also was a slave owner.

ERARDI: I was worried about it, but I knew that this person was an important part of the story of Newport. And the goal of this project in a whole is not just to put up a memorial of this person, but to honor the entire city's history. So it seemed like it made sense.

LAWSON: This mural is about 37 feet long and 20 feet tall with a large image of the Taylors. It's designed so it appears they're looking into the future.

It is a fact that Taylor owned slaves, says Newport Assistant City Manager Larisa Sims. But she says that's not what the city is commemorating.

LARISA SIMS: General Taylor and his wife - we're memorializing them for their contributions to the founding of Newport. And in the year that's Newport's 225th anniversary, we feel like that's appropriate.

LAWSON: That makes sense to genealogist Julie Smith-Morrow. The 70-year-old lives a few blocks from the floodwall where the murals are being painted.

JULIE SMITH-MORROW: I think that it is wonderful that he's being represented as a leader in the founding of this community. I don't think that we should try to pretend to rewrite history.

LAWSON: The floodwall is located in an area of high visibility. Jerome Bowles is president of the northern Kentucky branch of the NAACP. He says Newport is marketing itself as a welcoming city. He doesn't think putting up a mural of General James Taylor sends the right message.

JEROME BOWLES: You have to be very, very careful with images like this that can potentially cause conflict with the message you're trying to send to the world, you know, because that can be very painful to a lot of individuals - not only African Americans, but the majority community as well.

LAWSON: Activist Chris Brown says paying homage to Taylor in a mural is not OK because he owned human beings.

CHRIS BROWN: And now you're going to paint a mural so that all of the people of color can drive past and look at the man who once owned their great, great, great, greats. It is offensive. It is ridiculous. And it needs to not happen.

LAWSON: History is complicated, says Katie Bramell. She's with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati. She says it's hard to include context in public art like a mural.

KATIE BRAMELL: What's interesting about this piece is it's new. Most of these conversations have been around things that were put up a hundred to 50 to 60 years ago. But I think that we just need to, again, pause and think and try to do better because I think the time has come to where we have to.

LAWSON: For now, the plan is to have the mural honoring General Taylor ready for the city's 225th anniversary in December.

For NPR News, I'm Cheri Lawson in Newport, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.