Three of the largest objects in the Memphis Pink Palace Museum’s collection are Burton Callicott’s Hernando De Soto murals in the mansion lobby. Callicott painted these murals in 1934 as part of the New Deal’s Public Works of Art Project. In 1936, he competed for one other Works Progress Administration mural to be placed in the federal courthouse in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He titled his entry Mid-South Allegory.
In this painting, Callicott shows his views on social values and racial equality. The middle black figure picks the cotton that the central white figure processes into cottonseed oil. The two men in the upper portion are both engaged in bringing the crop to market. Artist Ray Kass argues in Burton Callicott: A Retrospective that the painting gives equal emphasis to the contributions of white and black Southerners in the development of the region’s main crop. Additionally, the symbolic figures at the bottom of the painting are meant to represent the martyrs of the historic South, a rebel soldier and a slave.
Regarding a similar piece from the same period, Callicott remembered that he “wanted to express the socialist sentiments I felt at the time, and to give credit for the social goods of agriculture to labor, which Tennessee owed so much to the contribution of blacks…” The selection committee rejected the painting and choose one titled Vicksburg—Its Character and Industries by Henriette Amiard Oberteuffer as the winner. Unlike Callicott’s painting, Oberteuffer’s work shows clear racial segregation. Since Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a bastion of Jim Crow segregation, it is reasonable to suspect that Callicott’s social commentary was too extreme for the selection committee. He was, however, chosen to install Oberteuffer’s mural.
Baird and Allison Callicott donated the painting to the Pink Palace in 2004, and it is part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Information for this post came from Burton Callicott: A Retrospective by Ray Kass, pg. 15-8.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico works in the Exhibit Department at the Memphis Pink Palace Museum. She has a graduate degree in history from The University of Memphis, and her favorite artifacts are the Cold War civil defense supplies.