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Arts & Culture

The Discovery Of Selma

A powerful Civil Rights Era painting called Selma now has a permanent home at the Mint Museum. It was painted fifty years ago by an Alabama artist, but was just found in 2013. WFAE’s Sarah Delia has the story on the painting’s discovery and its journey to Charlotte. 

When you stand in front of the painting Selma, by Barbara Pennington, you have to look up and down and side to side to get the full effect.

“It’s six by nine feet,” says Vicki Moreland. She’s the niece of Pennington who painted Selma in 1965.

Moreland and her husband discovered the canvas about two years ago in her aunt’s studio in Alabama, shortly after Pennington’s death. Moreland had hundreds of pieces to go through after inheriting the bulk of her aunt’s work. Some of the work was unfinished and that’s what they thought Selma might be.

“We found it in a corner of her studio rolled up with some other canvases that we were planning to donate. Possibly throw away some of them,” she says. 

Luckily, they decided to take a closer look.

“My husband just happened to unroll a corner and then unrolled a little more and we found it. It was overwhelming to say the least and very surprising.”

Looking up at Selma, there’s a sense of being watched. There’s a throng of onlookers in the background and an American flag in the corner.

To the left, a large ominous KKK member towers over three African American figures as a masked police officer raises his baton to beat them. To the right, a crowd of people exit a church, presumably going to the March from Selma to Montgomery.

“For me the painting is more about the people on the right side of the canvas. They were on the right side of the protest. The marchers that eventually got the Voting Rights Act passed. I hope that’s what people see when they look at it: what we can overcome. We have overcome a lot; we still have room to go,” she says.

Moreland says her aunt was working and living in New York in 1965. Selma, she believes, was a response to the sadness she felt toward the violence and brutality in her home state of Alabama. She even thinks her aunt may have put herself in the painting to show support for the marchers.

“She did some self-portraits back in the 60’s and she had this way of doing her hair and I believe that is her,” she says pointing to the canvas.  “She’s standing a little to the right of the center above the church. I firmly believe that’s her.”

Moreland was close to her aunt. She describes Pennington as serious, yet funny. Pennington enjoyed her solitude but also her family. She was very passionate about the Civil Rights Movement.

So when it came time to decide what to do with Selma, Moreland wasn’t sure where it should go.

“I think for Selma the big question for me was, ‘do I to let it go back to Alabama, is that where it needs to be?’”

She worried that by sending the painting to Alabama, it’d be swallowed by the many pieces of civil rights artwork already there.

So Moreland brought it back home to Charlotte and it soon was on loan to the Mint Museum. In December she sold Selma to the Mint. Neither side would disclose the cost of the painting.

She says part of this process of sorting and finding new homes for Pennington’s work has been about learning to let go.

“I had to let it go, but I let it in a place that was close to me.  After seeing some people respond to the work, I knew that this was where it belonged.”

While Moreland continues to find the right places for her aunt’s other work, she takes comfort knowing she can visit Selma whenever she wants to. She says she knew the moment she saw the painting that it needed to be placed in a public venue for everyone to see—and now it has a permanent one.