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Boone County Commission votes to remove controversial courthouse murals

  

The Boone County Commission voted to remove a set of controversial murals from the county courthouse Thursday, a decision Rep. David Tyson Smith said was the first step toward addressing larger issues. 

The murals, which depict slave labor, whippings, a hanging, and a man pointing a gun at a Native American person, will be moved from their place near the courthouse steps to a “secure location.” Smith, who was sworn in to represent Boone County in the statehouse earlier this year, said the move opened the door to discussions on other changes. 

“This victory is an important first step in building a bridge to the future for the citizens of Boone County,” Smith told The Missouri Times. “We must not lose sight of more substantive issues such as excessive bail by the courts, excessive racial profiling, and an underfunded public defender system.”

The commission approved the motion 2-0, with Presiding Commissioner Dan Atwill abstaining from the vote.

Atwill said the motion failed to acknowledge the intentions of the artist, Sidney Larson, or the commissioners that approved the murals in 1994. Atwill made a motion that would have placed the murals on county property until another location could be found, but his fellow commissioners opposed the idea.  

“We have developed a fighting posture on all things in this country and lost the ability to compromise,” Atwill said. “The issue of the murals is a litmus test of where we are as a community and where we fall in this unfortunate but important set of circumstances.”

The other commissioners refused to take up Atwill’s version, arguing it wasn’t the county’s place to charge taxpayer dollars to store artwork and pointing to the difficulty of finding a new venue for the work.

More than 30 witnesses gathered before the commission last week to testify on the murals, including Smith, who urged the commission to take action on the images last month.

Many of last week’s speakers had practiced law in the courthouse over the past two decades. The push to remove the murals was spearheaded by attorney Rusty Antel and former Presiding Judge Gary Oxenhandler, who argued images that made people uneasy “had no place” in the courthouse. 

Fellow attorney Bill Powell, immediate past president of the Boone County Historical Society, said the images were a reminder of the justice system’s purpose.

“I see no politics in the murals, I see no advocacy, and I certainly see no celebration or endorsement of abhorrent things about our history,” Powell said. “I certainly don’t want our justice system or those who shape it and administer it to forget or fail to know the lessons of history, and I see great value to a somewhat in-your-face confrontation with those lessons whenever we are in the community’s hall of justice trying to produce justice.”

Under Missouri statute, county commissions have authority over county property. The commission has yet to set a timeline for the removal of the murals.