A Bloodless Victory‘s cover has received many compliments, and Johns Hopkins University Press deserves a lot of the credit. However, Ethel Magafan, the artist that painted the mural the cover is based on, merits the lion’s share of the praise. Unfortunately, the original painting is in danger of being lost, and might already be damaged thanks to the vagaries of municipal government. In light of this problem, I thought I would take a moment to tell you a little bit about Ethel Magafan, why you should care about D.C.’s old Recorder of Deeds office, and how you can help preserve some important artwork.
Ethel Magafan was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1916. She and her twin sister Jenne grew up in Colorado, and they started their art careers at the Broadmoor Art Academy. The two sisters earned a number of contracts painting U.S. government buildings throughout the W.P.A. era, and traveled across the country doing this work. The Magafans’ made a conscious effort to show America’s marginalized populations in “a noble light” and tried as much as possible to place those groups in the forefront of their pieces.1 Because their work was federally funded, they were able to bring a diversified version of public art and history to places that traditionally downplayed the rolls of African Americans and women.
In 1941, Ethel applied for an opportunity to paint one of the murals that would be included within the District of Columbia’s Recorder of Deeds building at 515 D St. NW. The Recorder was a municipal office, but the federal status of Washington meant that W.P.A. money could be used in the project. Throughout 1943, Ethel lived in the nation’s capital and worked on her mural, The Battle of New Orleans.
In composing The Battle of New Orleans, Magafan chose not to make Andrew Jackson the center of attention. Instead, she highlighted the role that African American enslaved labor played in securing the American victory. In 1940’s D.C., a city famous for redlining, Magafan’s artistic decision was a deliberate snub of the nose at whites that not only wanted to exclude African Americans from their neighborhoods, but also their history. Indeed, most of the murals in the Recorder of Deeds building implicitly or explicitly showcased African Americans’ contribution to the United States.
The choices of the artists to stand up for a diversified version of American history makes the current status of the murals all the more shocking. While the staff and documents of the Recorder of Deeds office moved to a new facility in 2010, the murals did not go with them. Indeed, so rapid was the exit that neighbors have told me about computer terminals visibly left on in the upper windows, numerous break-ins by the homeless seeking shelter, and only occasional visits by the D.C. Department of Power and Water to check on decaying utilities inside the structure. Nonetheless, through the dirt and grime on the windows, you can just barely make out the painting of Benjamin Banneker surveying the District of Columbia’s borders.
I am in the process of contacting the D.C. Historical Society and the D.C. Preservation League about the possibility of moving the canvas murals to a more secure location. If you have any information about how we save these murals, please contact me.