On June 18, 1938, the Section of Painting and Sculpture invited Carson Davenport to paint a mural for the post office lobby in Greensboro, Georgia.1 Davenport had embarked on his artistic career in 1929 when he enrolled in art classes at Stratford College in his hometown of Danville, Virginia. In addition to his studies at Stratford, he also took courses at the Grand Central School of Art in Maine and the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C. In 1933, he was commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project to paint a series of watercolors depicting the Civil Works Administration’s projects in Danville, and, in 1938, he painted a mural for the Chatham, Virginia post office, followed by a second Section commission in Greensboro.2
As was typical of the Section, the artist was encouraged to visit Greensboro to best determine a subject that “embodies some idea appropriate to the building or to the particular locale of Greensboro.”3 Finding the right subject matter to satisfy the community of Greensboro was not easy, and eventually led to intervention by town leaders and Georgia congressman, Paul Brown. The congressman, as well as local banker and self-appointed historian T.B. Rice, were particularly dismayed the subject of Davenport’s mural was Cotton Picking in Georgia. They were adamant the subject should have been The Burning of Greensborough,illustrating a 1787 attack on the village by the Muscogee (Creek) Indians.
Davenport had originally submitted two designs to the Section, one depicting slaves picking cotton, the other the 1787 massacre. The Section did not have rules specifically banning the depiction of violent scenes in post office murals, and there are certainly instances where violence is represented in murals. However, after receiving Davenport’s sketches, Rowan wrote the artist specifically noting “We are not interested in promoting scenes of warfare, Indian or otherwise.”4 With this in mind, Davenport proceeded with his work on Cotton Picking in Georgia.
Issues regarding this mural emerged in January 1939, when T.B. Rice complained to Rowan that the massacre would have been a much more appropriate topic to the history of the town. In an attempt to appease the novice historian, Rowan wrote stating it was upon his advice Davenport had proceeded with the cotton picking scene, and he justified his decision writing, “This in my estimation, seemed in keeping with the American policy for the search for peace.”5 Despite Rowan’s misgivings about the violent scene, funds were made available for a second mural. Davenport responded to Rowan he was thankful for the extra work.6
In order to ensure the painting met Rice’s expectations, the artist met with him to discuss the “historical” details of the Muscogee’s raid on Greensboro at length. Among Rice’s requests for inclusion were representations of Samuel Dale and Robert M. Williamson who had purportedly captured, in 1793, some of the Indians responsible for the 1787 attack. As for the massacre itself, Rice was insistent Davenport include the burning of the court house and at least “two scalping scenes.”7
Rice inserted himself into the entire process, which resulted in a scene of Indigenous violence upon white victims, however, “justice” prevailed when the Indians were captured and turned over to the authorities. Accuracy in historical painting often takes a back seat to political agendas and selective memory. Although the attack on Greensboro was documented in a letter from Georgia Governor William Matthews to the President of Congress, the scene envisioned by Rice is influenced by his own interpretation of the events. In the 1787 letter, the governor stated the Muscogee had burned the court house, killed thirty-one citizens, wounded twenty, and took four prisoners. He was convinced “the State can never have a secure and lasting peace with that perfidious Nation until they have severely felt the effects of war.”8
The majority of the painting depicts the raid on Greensboro. As orange flames ascend from a burning building, two frontiersmen, dressed in buckskins and coon skin caps, aim their weapons at two advancing Muscogee Indians, while a third male Indian grasps a white woman by her hair, tomahawk raised above her. This scene, although relegated to the middle of the painting, is important. Because it graphically depicts the killing of a white woman, and calls to mind similar images in art history, including John Vanderlyn’s 1804 painting, The Death of Jane McCrae. In the center foreground of the painting, Davenport painted a woman clutching an infant while she reaches toward her husband who has been shot in the back with an arrow, his outstretched right hand lying over the stock of his rifle. It is an image meant to evoke empathy for the loss of white lives and the lasting effects of loss for this family and the town of Greensboro.
Just beyond this dramatic scene in the upper right, a white male stands next to a tree which divides the painting between the violent imagery of the massacre and the justice that, according to Rice, took place years afterward. Rice recounted this in some detail in a letter to Rowan citing some of the Muscogee who had participated in the attack were captured in 1793 by Samuel Dale and Robert M. Williamson, who then turned their captives over to Major Jonas Fauche.9 The Muscogee prisoners are depicted wearing only breechcloths, their hands bound behind their backs.
Although, the evidence against the captured Muscogee appears to be limited to finding tribal members in possession of items that had belonged to people of Greensboro at the time of the attack, this may not have been enough evidence to hold them as prisoners. However, Rice, while admitting what happened to the prisoners is unknown, offered his own theory of what happened to the Muscogee prisoners. In his opinion, Fauche ordered his men to abandon their posts around the jail, leaving “justice” in the hands of the citizens of Greensboro, who undoubtedly sought revenge on the Muscogee for their attack on the town and murder of their loved ones.10
While this story of revenge-seeking citizens cannot be verified, it does illustrate Rice, Davenport, and, ultimately, the Section approved a painting that appealed to people of Greensboro, making no attempt to consider the 1787 events from an Indigenous perspective. The collective memory of the town and the imagination of T.B. Rice held great influence on the final design for the mural. The lasting impression is that Indians were the instigators of the attack, but they would eventually face the consequences of their actions, whether that be at the hands of the authorities, or in Rice’s assumption, at the hands of the settlers.
By Denise Neil-Binion, Delaware/Cherokee Nation, PhD Candidate, Art History, University of Oklahoma
1) The spelling of Greensboro in the title of the painting was at the insistence of town leaders, as the spelling was Greensborough at the time the events depicted took place.
2) “Carson Davenport, ” Library of Virginia, www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Davenport_Carson_Sutherlin, accessed August 3, 2016
3) Edward Rowan to Carson Davenport, June 18, 1938.
4) Rowan to Davenport, August 12, 1938.
5) Rowan to T.B. Rice, Jan 19, 1939.
6) Davenport to Rowan, January 23, 1939.
7) Rice to Rowan, undated letter, stamped received by the Section March 18, 1939.
8) Governor George Matthews to His Excellency the President of Congress, November 1787. See also “Greensboro,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/counties-cities-neighborhoods/greensboro, accessed August 2, 2016.
9) Rice to Rowan, undated letter, stamped received by the Section March 18, 1939.