Pin It

Home » Rhode Island » Wakefield, RI New Deal Art

Wakefield, RI New Deal Art

The mural was commissioned for the Wakefield, RI post office by the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture and hung in the post office from its completion in 1939 until 1999. Newly conserved, the mural is now on display at the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society where it was moved in 2003 after the Wakefield post office closed.

This mural is unusual because it depicts a plantation in the North with slaves working under the pointed finger of a mounted planter. Does Baker’s depiction of these men condone slavery? Is it a subtle critique meant to invoke shame or guilt in the viewer? Does the obvious strength and determination of the slaves offer a kind of pride in their work? We raise these and other important questions about the role of race, history, muralism and art in Rhode Island’s past in order to stimulate open dialog about the visual representation of history.

To facilitate this dialog the site includes multiple voices and views in an effort to consider the varied needs of different visitors to the site. These range from the voices of students contributing essays on various aspects of the mural and its context, to Baker’s own views on the mural, to the “official”; voice that announces the subject on a descriptive plaque designed to hang next to the mural in the post office. In addition to the essays, there is an introduction to the mural by Dr. Christopher Bickford, the Executive Director of the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society. We also include the school curriculum guide prepared for teachers under the auspices of Smith’s Castle.

New Deal/WPA Art in Wakefield, Rhode Island

Wakefield, RI Post Office
“The Economic Activities of the Narragansett Planters”
Ernest Hamlin Baker (1940) – oil on canvas
(funded by a Treasury Department Section commission)

Image courtesy of the USPS

Ernest Hamlin Baker’s controversial mural, “The Economic Activities of the Narragansett Planters,” was installed in the Wakefield, RI post office until the building’s closing in 1999. In June 2003, this mural was restored and reinstalled in the Pettaquanscutt Historial Society located in the Old Washington Jail, 2636 Kingstown Road, Kingston, RI.

South County Independent article – “Plantation mural returns to South County,” June 5, 2003.