Updated: Jun 10, 2020
WARNING: The first image included depicts graphic violence and may be upsetting to some. Scroll down for the unedited version.
This is a photo of a clay mock up for a stone bas relief or shallow carving by Lenore Thomas Straus. One half of the scene depicts a lynching: a man has been hung by a group of people in hoods. One figure holds the rope. Another in the foreground brandishes a shotgun. The other half of the scene depicts a judge and jury with their backs turned.
Lenore Thomas Straus was a young female sculptor commissioned to create art for the front of an elementary school in Greenbelt, Maryland, an experimental New Deal-era community built in 1937. The panel was one of six she created in 1936 to depict phrases from the Preamble to the Constitution. It was to illustrate the phrase, Establish Justice. Thomas Straus was an out-of-work artist when she received the commission to create art for Greenbelt, one of three green towns built in the late 1930s by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration (RA). Greenbelt, like the other two Green Towns, Greendale, Wisconsin and Greenhills, Ohio, was built to put people to work, to provide adequate housing for families of low to moderate income,and to be an experiment in town planning and cooperative living. The communities were carefully planned prior to construction on land the government had purchased for the purpose. Each included housing, recreational facilities, carefully integrated green space, walkways that were separated from roads, a small commercial area, school buildings, and public art. The communities, however, were restricted to whites only.
Thomas Straus chose the Preamble to the United States Constitution as the theme for Greenbelt’s Center School and Community Building because as she said in an interview, she didn't believe that children knew enough about American history. She created clay mock ups and submitted them to her supervisors at the Special Skills Division within the RA for approval. In the same interview referenced above, she said that she was determined that her work have social significance. She said that the mock up for the Establish Justice panel was the only one of her designs which was rejected.
The fact that she wanted to put this particular scene on the front of a school building in the midst of deeply segregated Prince George's County is a testament to her courage and the strength of her convictions. Thomas Straus' mock up for Establish Justice was a sharp statement against the violence and lack of justice she witnessed against Black Americans. She modeled some of the people in her sculptures on laborers at the Greenbelt site and took personal snapshots of black men working in her midst. She clearly saw them. Though we can’t know for sure now, it's not hard to imagine that she spoke with them as well. The scene she created to illustrate Establish Justice is a powerful image and one that ultimately was not approved. But what’s so striking, and devastatingly sad, is how little things have changed in the 84 years since it was created.
Lenore Thomas Straus is a model for those of us who truly want to establish justice. She used the tools available to her in the moment: a commission, limestone, a chisel, a drill, and her artistic vision. She used her platform in an attempt to call attention to just one example of the horror with which black people lived, and are still living. Those of us who are white people, who have the obligation to fight against injustice, should all strive to be as courageous. The Museum currently has a an exhibit about Lenore Thomas Straus on display in the Greenbelt Community Center. The Center is temporarily closed as Greenbelt follows local and state guidance, but check back for more information. Also, check out our brochure about the artist!