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Once controversial, now a point of pride: An Illinois mural faces destruction

An image from the Edwardsville, Illinois mural at the center of new controversy | Screenshot taken from video by the Belleville News-Democrat

EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — A mosaic mural in western Illinois that once caused controversy for its depiction of a freed black slave is at risk of being destroyed.

The Edwardsville mural in the old City Hall building originally featured a freed slave with ropes dangling from his wrists. It was changed about 30 years ago to feature a farmer with a hoe over his shoulder after public backlash: many felt the slave’s exaggerated smile trivialized the suffering of African American’s in the city.

The building’s last occupants have relocated and officials have approved a developer’s plan to buy and demolish the facility, the Belleville News-Democrat reported. Developer Randy Gori estimates that demolition will begin six months after closing the deal.

The City Council’s Administrative and Community Services Committee has been considering what to do with the mural for months. Relocating the piece would likely cost about $100,000, the committee said. The mural features 40,000 small ceramic tiles. It measures about 36 feet (11 meters) wide and 7 feet (2 meters) tall.

“The history of the mural is important to us,” committee Chairman Art Risavy said. “But what we’ve been struggling with is how to preserve it (without overspending tax dollars). It’s a much more complicated removal than it looks.”

Officials have considered displaying small sections of the mural around the city or creating a reproduction from a digital scan.

Some residents say they’d be disappointed with any decision that doesn’t fully preserve the 51-year-old mural.

“Surely there’s a way,” said Vera Parkin, a 58-year-old piano teacher who said she doesn’t remember a time when the mural wasn’t present. “I will grieve if that mural isn’t saved.”

Gori, the developer, said he’s sympathetic to the preservation efforts.

“I’m going to try and save it, if it makes sense and it doesn’t kill me financially,” he said. “But I don’t have any bids yet on what it would cost. It’s not my intention to cause it to be torn down.”

Gori plans to build a five-story, 70,000-square-foot building with retail and office space, as well as underground parking.