Village Hall mural waits quietly behind its wall

Fate of old public murals a common problem


Fans of the historic mural in the Hempstead Village Hall courtroom may be comforted to know that the mural is still quietly hidden behind the thin blank wall that the current administration erected in front of it during the winter holidays.

The mural’s placement on the main wall of the courtroom makes it problematic for the planned launching of village cable TV broadcasting, according to Mayor Waylyn Hobbs, Jr.

Hobbs said that the village had received a grant for setting up cable broadcasting.

For a local municipality to broadcast public events on cable TV is not uncommon. Two examples in Nassau County are the Incorporated Village of Freeport and the Town of North Hempstead, which both broadcast programs and board meetings on Channel 18.

In Hempstead Village, the focal point of village events is the dais where the mayor and board of trustees sit during public meetings.

The full-wall mural behind the dais has added color and historical meaning to village events ever since Robert Gaston Herbert, a prominent Long Island illustrator, mounted it on the wall during the early 1940s. The mural commemorates the 1643 land agreement between English settlers coming to Long Island and the indigenous groups who had developed their own civilization there.

But, according to technicians for Verizon Fios, the firm that is installing the technology for the cable TV set-up, a blank background is necessary for broadcasting.

Mayor Hobbs has asserted in village board meetings that the mural has been covered to make way for the broadcast project, not in response to objections to its content.

Problems with public mural content has resulted in the covering of other public murals in recent years.

Two objections that have arisen regarding the Village Hall mural are: (1) the mural shows white people deceiving native Long Island inhabitants by offering some pots and clothing in exchange for valuable land, and (2) a swastika was painted in the lower right corner of the mural.

The first objection shows ignorance of the 1643 arrangements. The few items (metal pots, clothing) depicted in the mural are symbolic of a much larger inventory that included cattle, tools, clothing, guns, and ammunition. The leaders who led the native groups, Tackapousha and Wantagh, insisted these articles be given in sufficient quantity to divide equally among the groups in exchange for the land that became the Town of Hempstead.

The second objection needs some explanation. A 1950s photo of Boy Scouts in the courtroom does indeed show that the top left corner of the explanatory box in the lower right of the mural contained a small, vertical swastika.

However, it was not a Nazi swastika, which is tilted and drawn with thick black lines in a white circle on a red flag.

In fact, Nazism stole and degraded a common symbol of goodness. According to the website of the United States Holocaust Museum, “The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, which means ‘good fortune’ or ‘well-being.’ The motif (a hooked cross) appears to have first been used in Eurasia, as early as 7000 years ago, perhaps representing the movement of the sun through the sky. To this day, it is a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Odinism. It is a common sight on temples or houses in India or Indonesia. Swastikas also have an ancient history in Europe, appearing on artifacts from pre-Christian European cultures.”

The anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing, among others, explored the appearance of swastika-like symbols in Native American art, especially in Midwestern and Western archeological excavations. The symbols represented things like healing, or the four winds.

There is no evidence that Robert Gaston Herbert, a Sea Cliff resident, was a closet Nazi. It is much more likely that he knew of the Native American uses of the swastika when he added it to his mural.

Nonetheless, since World War II, the swastika became identified with Nazism. So, perhaps during the late 1960s, the swastika on Herbert’s painting was modified to make it into a little four-unit grid.

Getting the mural back into public view remains a point of controversy. Public murals can be victims of change, like the huge map of Long Island on the wall of the Hicksville Sears store. That store had to close. Fortunately, its mural could be taken down and moved to the Hicksville Athletic Center.

In Hempstead, the fate of the courtroom mural can hopefully be managed so the needs of the present can be reconciled with staying connected to our past.