Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Prescott Mural Stirs Racial Tension

Artists R.E. Wall and Maggie Dewar stand in front of the Miller Valley Elementary School mural.
Artists R.E. Wall and Maggie Dewar stand in front of the Miller Valley Elementary School mural.

By Laurel Morales

Prescott, AZ – An elementary school mural has stirred up racial tensions in Prescott. The controversy came to a head when artists were ordered to lighten the face of a Hispanic boy depicted in the painting. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales has the story.

The Miller Valley Elementary School mural depicts four children - two white, one Hispanic and one black - modeled after actual students. It covers two whole walls of the school located at the busiest intersection in Prescott. The entire school was involved in choosing the design.

The controversy all started when city council member Steve Blair aired his views during his radio talk show.

BLAIR: Why do you have to keep dragging up diversity? It's like the gay pride parade in San Francisco. I don't care who you are or what you are but you don't need to try to shove it down everybody's throat.

He continued to bring up his distaste for the mural saying it defaced a public building and didn't represent the community he knew. The school population is one-third Hispanic.

Blair's comments incited listeners to call in the radio show.

"What I wanted to talk about was that outrageous mural at Miller Valley Elementary School. I was totally offended. It looks like a bunch of freaking illegals jumping over a fence I called down to the Prescott Unified School District Board office talking to the secretary there. I asked her about the theme of the mural and she said the theme was to promote diversity and to promote minorities. Why do we need to do that? That's what I said."

Mural project leader RE Wall says that's about the time when people started driving by yelling racist slurs.

WALL: This happened once or twice a day pretty consistently for two months. Some of the kids were visibly upset about that.

The elementary school students helped paint the mural. The artists had almost finished painting Mario, the Hispanic child depicted, when the school principal and teachers told them to lighten his face. They said it appeared that a shadow was cast over him.

WALL: This was in the context of so many months of pressure to change the kid's face. That of all the things they want to change there was a fixation on the face. At one point one of the teachers stated it was too ethnic.

But Wall and his group of artists affectionately called the "Mural Mice" procrastinated.

WALL: We didn't feel too good about it. We wanted to stay accurate to the photograph. We started to work on it lightening the forehead and got a bad feeling and stepped off the scaffolding. And two days later the firestorm of media buzzed up.

Upset parents and community members held a rally at the school in support of the mural and the children depicted in it. School Superintendent Kevin Kapp realized they were wrong and stepped forward.

KAPP: That decision was not a good decision. When the principal and I talked about it we said we need to apologize for that decision. That was a very poor decision. We did.

So the artists changed it back.

In the meantime some are calling for Councilman Steve Blair to step down. The Fox News radio station where he had his show took him off the air. Blair supporters are calling for the mural to be destroyed or painted over.

Mural artist Maggie Dewar says people don't realize their words can lead to violent actions.

DEWAR: This mural came about at a time when this issue was starting to bubble over. It's partly because of other political situations in the state. But I think Prescott was really ripe for this dialogue.

Dewar says she hopes the mural will stay for many years to come and dialogue will continue.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Prescott.