That’s how long senior Johnny Gabriel Prioleau III hopes the newest art at Eastern Mennonite University will last.
Prioleau, along with fellow members of EMU’s Black Student Alliance, and honored guests Harrisonburg Mayor Deanna Reed, Harrisonburg Interim Police Chief Gabriel Camacho and EMU President Susan Schultz Huxman, unveiled and dedicated an anti-racism mural on Monday evening in front of University Commons. The ceremony was hosted by Celeste R. Thomas, director of multicultural student services and senior adviser to the president for diversity and inclusion.
The massive street art, stretching 114 feet long, features the words “Black Lives Matter” in bold yellow against a black background. The design echoes similar artwork that has appeared on city streets in New York, Seattle, Oakland, and Tulsa.
“One of the main goals,” said BSA co-president Jakiran Richardson, “is that the mural serve as a reminder that there’s still work to be done to make ‘Black Lives Matter’ a true statement.” He stated that BSA had two other goals with the artwork: “to dispel misconceptions behind the movement” and “to represent a promise that EMU will do their part toward the struggle of our people.”
Huxman thanked BSA and its members “for leading the ways creatively and courageously on so many diverse initiatives at EMU.”
“What a beautiful day to rededicate ourselves to peace and justice, the values that are at the core of our community of learners,” she said, quoting the Bible verse of Micah 6:8. “What a beautiful day to stand in support and solidarity of EMU’s BSA and Black Lives Matter, a movement that began seven years ago for non-violent civil disobedience in protest of racially motivated violence against black people…As we reflect on the message of this mural, may we be instructed to live more faithfully as a beloved community embracing the grand diversity of God’s people.”
With the police chief by her side, Reed, also a member of EMU’s Board of Trustees, expressed pride at being a part of the event and said she wasn’t surprised when she first heard that EMU students were at work on the mural. “We are so proud of our BSA students who had the courage to work on this,” she said. “We know that EMU students are leaders and we know that you are our moral compass for the city…you lead the way…I want you to know that you are standing on our ancestor’s shoulders, that by you doing this, it is speaking for them, so always know that and honor that.”
The brief ceremony, limited in size by the city’s ordinance and physically distanced throughout the parking lot under university health protocols, included a processional of BSA members and supporters of BSA who assisted in the painting of the mural.
They moved to the side of the veiled artwork as Thomas read selected names of Black Americans killed unjustly. As the last notes of a famous protest anthem sounded, BSA members drew tarps back to reveal the artwork.
The mural has been in the works since the summer, but the actual creation began on Thursday and stretched through the weekend, with contributions from BSA’s 40 members, the art and theater departments and affiliated students, and even attracting “people just coming by, seeing what we were doing, and lending a hand if they wanted to,” said co-president Merry Yirga. “It was really special.”
Yirga said the location of the mural, in a fire lane in front of University Commons, was significant. The building is a focal point, Yirga said, whether for visitors coming to campus for the first time or for students.
“You are not going to miss this,” she said. “This does make a statement … This location says that not only does EMU stand with us but they’re going to make sure people see it.”
Yirga called the mural “a huge step for EMU.”
“It’s making this huge statement but years down the line, so many things will change. More Black students will come to EMU…I think it’s difficult for a predominantly white institution like EMU to make it feel like home to Black students and I think that’s what this does,” she said.
EMU still has work to do, both BSA co-presidents said. The mural project came as a reaction to the loss of the Royal Treatment Barbershop, a lounge and hair salon on campus managed by BSA.
This summer, Dean of Students Shannon Dycus shared with BSA members that the Barbershop’s small size only allowed for a one-person occupancy, based on physical distancing requirements.
The students were upset at the prospect of losing “our space, a popular place and a fan favorite, not just for black students,” Yirga said, but ultimately agreed to offer the space as an on-campus COVID-19 testing site.
This decision sparked further discussion about the lack of space, said Dycus. “We talked about other ways students could show up around campus, celebrating their identity and voice.”
“We wanted to use the opportunity to make some changes and implement a more inclusive culture here at EMU,” Yirga said. “And that brings us to where we are today.”