Howard Dodson: One of the fascinating things about the placing of the murals at the Harlem Hospital is that it became a major political issue. The arts and the literary and other movements of the 1920s and of the Harlem Renaissance always had a political dimension to them because they were about affirming black identity and black racial consciousness, etcetera, etcetera. In the case of the Harlem Hospital murals, WPA had approved them for installation, but the people who were supervisors raised a big brouhaha about the appropriateness of these works going in the hospital.
Jacqueline Frances: Certainly the inclusion of African American figures at the Harlem Hospital seems to upset them. They recognize that that itself is a sort of political activism to show African American medical professionals, nurses and doctors, at work in a largely segregated hospital in terms of its staff, and certainly the largely segregated system of hospitals in New York City.
Georgette Seabrooke Powell: The criticism did not come from the contents, it came from the – the fact that the folks were black.
Jacqueline Frances: They also seem to be upset by the presentation of historical subject matter such as slavery in the South. Vertis Hayes's mural Pursuit of Happiness shows slave shacks, which some Harlem Hospital mural opponents, feel that that is damaging or negative representation of American history. There clearly is a desire by these administrators to sort of not only wipe away representations of an African American enslavement in the previous century, but even any sort of reference to it at all.
Howard Dodson: One of the critics said essentially that 20 or 25 years from now black people will not be in Harlem and why should you have black art in this hospital?
Jacqueline Frances: One of the advocates for the African American artists' ideas and their sketches, Holger Cahill, said, "Well, if that is the case, maybe we should have black artists decorating hospitals in white communities, if you think that is the logic that would make sense for this project."
Howard Dodson: This was something that actually made news, and so the public was aware of the fact that in this particular case this was going on. And actually there were major protests
Georgette Seabrooke Powell: Oh yes. Down – down on 14th Street, the Artists Union, they took to the streets to picket, and it really was something. And articles were written in the paper and so forth.
Jacqueline Frances: So this was a long, drawn-out controversy played out in the New York Times, involving the Harlem Artists Guild, which was a collective of predominantly African American artists, as well as their allies in the predominantly white Artists Union, picketing, protesting, demanding artists' creativity be respected and also of course that the project live up to its aims.