Nov. 7 presentations to commemorate return of WPA-era murals to Birmingham

AUBURN – In October 1939, as the specter of the Great Depression receded and Europe mobilized for war, a series of murals depicting Alabama’s agricultural development was unveiled at the 1939 Alabama State Fair.

For the first time in more than 70 years, these murals, which comprised the centerpiece of the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture, will return to Birmingham Nov. 7 as part of an exhibit sponsored by the Birmingham Historical Society, the Birmingham Public Library and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

The return of these murals will be inaugurated with an opening event Nov. 7, featuring a talk on Birmingham’s New Deal Murals by Marjorie White, director of the Birmingham Historical Society, and remarks on Extension’s role by Gaines Smith, Alabama Extension director.

The lectures, which will begin at 2 p.m. at the Birmingham Public Library, will be followed by a reception at 3 p.m.

Dressed in period attire, Alabama Extension agents Joann Wissinger and Angela Treadaway will also discuss food preservation as it would have been practiced during the Depression era. Charles Mitchell, an Extension agronomy and soils specialist and expert in Alabama agricultural history, will also appear in period dress to share old photos and answer questions about farming and farm life during this period.

Note cards depicting the murals, Extension food preservation books and a book by the Birmingham Historical Society illustrating the area’s Depression-era life will also be on sale.

The Alabama Historical Panorama was a series of murals commissioned by the Alabama Extension Service, now the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, and partly funded by the Works Progress Administration for the 1939 Alabama State Fair, held Oct. 2-7 in Birmingham.

The murals are considered prime examples of WPA-related art associated with the Depression era.

Illustrating key periods of Alabama’s agricultural development starting with Native Americans, these murals are among the most valued artifacts associated with Alabama Extension’s almost century-old association with agriculture.

The artist who was commissioned to complete the murals, John Augustus Walker, was a well-known Mobile artist who had previously completed WPA-related assignments. He is remembered not only for his paintings and murals, which are still found in private collections and on public buildings across Alabama and the Gulf Coast, but also for his work designing Mardi Gras floats, costumes and stage exhibits.

Walker was originally committed to paint 29 murals. Due to time constraints, however, he was able to complete only 10.

The murals were designed as much for their educational as their aesthetic appeal. Laying out the purpose for the paintings, then-Alabama Extension Director P.O. Davis noted that “agriculture in Alabama, and in this nation, is in a period of change – a change toward improvement and progress.

“It [the panorama] will reveal also that Alabama agriculture is not only changing and improving but that it is geared to go forward in a big way and in terms of efficiency and economy,” he wrote.

Davis viewed the murals as another form of educational communication that had distinguished previous efforts – a means for “guiding farmers as to what to do and how to do it.”

In an era when mass communications was still in comparative infancy, state fairs were considered a prime venue for this type of educational outreach.

For more information, contact Marjorie White of the Birmingham Historical Society, (205) 835-5621.

(Contributed by Jim Langcuster.)

Contacts: Jim Langcuster (334) 844-5686 (langcjc@auburn.edu), or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)