Donald J. Trump Jr. has dropped into a discussion about racial diversity and the future of two murals on display at the University of Rhode Island since the 1950s, ready to call it another case of a war memorial cancel-culture in higher education.
“Truly sick,” Trump said in a tweet on Thursday. “Don’t let the Left destroy America. God knows they’re trying hard to do just that.”
But the murals in question do not depict “the events of World War II” as reported by a Brietbart News item, which Trump Jr. promoted in a tweet that included his own comment.
The two murals depict life in the era of the GI Bill after the war.
As of Friday, the future of the murals, which have enlivened plaster walls in Memorial Union hall for decades, remained uncertain. Previously, the university had announced plans for a renovation and for new decor in the building, which is dedicated as a tribute to the fallen of World War II and the Korean War.
The World War II veteran who painted them onto the plaster, Arthur “Art” Sherman, 95, of Charlestown, and his wife, Jeanne, were dismayed by the suggestion that the murals depict events in World War II.
Events in the war “have nothing to do whatsoever with the murals,” said Jeanne Sherman.
“No,” said Art Sherman, who was wounded by shrapnel in the war. “Nothing whatsoever.”
“I don’t want to say it’s Fake News,” he said, “but my wife said it’s fake news and I agree with her.”
“I reject it entirely,” said the retired URI professor.
His wife, 88, who would like to see the murals preserved in some way if possible, laughed at Trump Jr.’s suggestion that the changes at the Memorial Union fit into a conspiracy to “destroy America.”
The painter’s wife had a message for him:
“I’m not far left, but I’m left,” said Jeanne Sherman. “We are not supporters of President Trump.”
The report by Breitbart and the tweet from Trump Jr. signaled the possibility that URI’s effort to renovate the Memorial Union and update the decor might draw a fusillade of criticism from one side of the political aisle at the national level.
Sherman said he was “stunned” to hear that a public discussion about the murals now included the son of President Donald Trump.
From the beginning, he has been concerned that his paintings might attract too much public attention at a time when other matters, such as a pandemic, are more important, he said.
His children were more concerned than he was when they learned that the future of the murals was in doubt.
Sherman painted the murals in Memorial Union over six months after he was asked to do the work in 1953.
The murals show a class reunion, URI commencement, a South County beach scene, students piled into a jalopy wearing letter sweaters, and a marching band.
The URI students in the original murals were white and overwhelmingly male, as they were at the time.
The G.I. Bill had been drafted by Rep. John Rankin, of Mississippi, an avowed racist.
More than a million African American G.I.s were unable to access the benefits they were promised due to barriers in a segregated America.
Sherman and members of his family updated the murals prior to a rededication of Memorial Union in 2004.
On Sept. 3, URI announced that the building’s decor would change as part of a renovation and to “more accurately depict today’s URI, its people and its mission.”
At that point, the paintings had been covered up with “URI photos that tie the wall space to the university.”
While URI was open to exploring the option of relocation, it had determined that it would be hard to move the painted walls without damaging the murals.
On Thursday night, in a news release, a spokeswoman, said the university is “moving toward contextualizing the mural” for use in “discussions about our University culture in the 1950s and how it differs from who we are now.”
URI, says the release, has made contact with Ronald Onorato, a professor who is chair of the university’s department of art and art history, to seek his expertise on “mural preservation.”
Breitbart’s online report about the murals did not include any photos of the murals themselves but it prominently displayed a U.S. Army photo of troops in World War II era gear aboard a landing craft.
URI’s release on Thursday says that “misleading and inaccurate reporting by some media outlets”had caused “a great deal of concern among members of our URI community.”
“In no way was the decision to alter the space in the Memorial Union connected to any disregard or insensitivity toward our veterans,” says the release.
On Twitter: @mrkrynlds