Courtesy of Deborah Hoard

A mural of Dorothy Cotton decorates 415 North Tioga St.

June 16, 2024

Ithaca Unveils Two Murals Celebrating Civil Rights History, Community Healing

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“Think of yourself as someone who can change a situation!”

Attributed to Civil Rights activist and Ithacan Dorothy Cotton, this quote is painted across a mural commemorating her unveiled on Sunday, June 9 at 415 North Tioga St. The unveiling was followed by another mural reveal — centric on community healing — on the Commons in Downtown Ithaca later that afternoon. Kicking off Juneteenth week, these projects both seek to amplify Black voices and stories within Ithaca. 

The Dorothy Cotton mural unveiling featured Rochester mural artist Shawn Dunwoody and included a performance from Ithaca singer SingTrece and brief remarks from PhotoSynthesis Productions President Deborah Hoard, Ithaca Murals Director Caleb Thomas, Dorothy Cotton Institute Program Director Laura Branca and New York State Sen. Lea Webb (D). 

Presented later in the evening, the community healing mural is part of the Community Justice Center’s Community Healing work — a focus of the Reimagining Public Safety Collaborative passed by the City of Ithaca and Tompkins County in 2021. The Reimagining Public Safety Collaborative was released to serve as a guide for reimagining public safety in Ithaca and Tompkins County, including healing from racial trauma. This may include communal works of self-expression, such as public art.

For this mural, local artists Annemarie Zwack and Terrance Van brought the visions of participants in Southside’s Black Girl Alchemy program to life. According to their website, this program includes a series of projects and events that foster a culture of “sisterhood and innovation, foster Black Girl leadership and empowerment in Ithaca, NY.” 

In the brainstorming process, Black Girl Alchemists were asked to envision what community healing and justice look like to them. Zwack and Van thus designed the mural accordingly. 

“This mural project and the Reimagining Public Safety work is born from tragedy and injustice across our country,” Dr. Nia Nunn, president of the Southside Board of Directors and co-founder of the Black Girl Alchemy Program wrote in a press release. “This work of Black Girl Alchemists offers a model for how we heal ourselves while offering a vision for a healthier and more just community.”

The Dorothy Cotton mural builds on these ideas by providing historical context to Ithaca’s history with Civil Rights. Created by PhotoSynthesis Productions and Ithaca Murals, this piece was inspired by the documentary “Move When the Spirit Says Move: The Legacy of Dorothy Foreman Cotton” — which PhotoSynthesis Productions produced.

A former Ithaca resident and Civil Rights activist, Dorothy Cotton was the only woman on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s executive staff and the education director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Citizen Education Program. Here, she traveled the Southeast and recruited people to participate in literacy education, voter registration and fundamentals of citizenship training. This mural pays homage to her legacy and national impact.

While PhotoSynthesis Productions is a documentary and media production company, Ithaca Murals is an organization dedicated to “transforming gray walls into beautiful, meaningful works of art that tell the stories of the diverse people who live here.”

The collaboration of PhotoSynthesis Productions and Ithaca Murals allowed for a smooth transition of the story from the documentary style recently told in “Move When the Spirit Says Move” to two-dimensional art.  

While both murals speak to the experiences and history of Black Ithacans, they do more than just reflect on what’s been done. 

“Activism informs art, and art affects activism. They go hand in hand,” Dunwoody said. “When you take that brush to the wall or to the canvas, or you’re molding that clay, you’re creating some sort of movement. You’re looking for some sort of change.”

Dorothy France-Miller is a reporter from The Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at The Ithaca Times. This piece was originally published in The Ithaca Times.