But with a sealed-off corridor here and a wall or two there, that history — in the form of a sweeping panorama by one of the state’s most important artists of the 20th century — can be all but erased. And with pretty much no one catching wind of it, including the late artist’s family, much less the hometowners whose heritage the mural depicts.
In 1968, just inside the College Street lobby of Macon’s main post office, artist George Beattie put the finishing touches on a painting he’d begun four summers earlier. The flowing composition of ancient and modern scenes, seven in all, grace the walls of the building’s entry hall.
Scenes show the area’s first native people, its early colonizers and, later, from the 1800 and 1900s, some of the city’s most prominent figures.
Other images harken to slavery, lynching and the Confederacy. In the background of one section, a line of Ku Klux Klansmen can been seen marching into the moonlit distance.
Before his death in 1997 at age 78, the Fulbright-award-winning classicist Beattie saw his work appear in exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of Art.
But over the past decade, his Macon creation has become an entombed piece of public art.
Unsettling as parts of it may be, the painting never had the chance to become controversial. There was little, if any, mention of the mural’s sealing off, its unceremonious disappearance.
Curiously enough, the art has suffered a fate not unlike that of the past it portrays. It is gone from view, but beneath the surface, it is very much still with us.
The U.S. Postal Service said in an emailed statement that because of post-9/11 “security measures,” the walls the mural graces are in an area that is now inside the building’s off-limits “security perimeter.”
The service, which commissioned Beattie’s mural in the mid-’60s, says the partitions shielding his painting were erected in 2004 to “prevent public access to employee areas which also eliminated access to the murals.”
However, when a Telegraph reporter talked to a post office spokesman by phone, the spokesman cited “insensitivities” in some of the art.
“We’re no longer making (the mural) available to the public — or anyone,” Texas-based spokesman Stephen A. Seewoester said.
John Friess, another regional post office spokesman, said the lack of public access to the mural for much of the past decade “isn’t news” now.
“I’m actually surprised you guys are gonna print the pictures up on your paper,” he said.
A veteran postal worker at the College Street office who asked that his name not be printed said the mural “evidently offended someone.”
He said, “It took three years to make it, and we spent four weeks covering it up. ... That was part of history.”
Local historian Jim Barfield was given permission to view the obstructed mural this past October.
According to a story he heard secondhand, a visiting regional postal official, a dozen or so years ago, “got incensed” by the mural’s depiction of a slave picking cotton.
The paintings, Barfield said, “were meant to be seen by the general public. ... Now they’re concealed. It’s a shame.”
A picture of one of the panels, taken by Macon photographer Walter G. Elliott, graces the cover of Barfield’s book, “Historic Macon, An Illustrated History.”
Barfield says there was once talk of moving the art to Terminal Station, but it was apparently too expensive to dislodge the paintings.
George Beattie, an Ohio native, was stationed at Macon’s Camp Wheeler during World War II. While in town, he met his wife-to-be, Virginia Lane, the daughter of a prominent local attorney. (Her brother, McKibben Lane, also a lawyer, has an elementary school named after him.)
Beattie later taught at the High Museum of Art and at Georgia Tech’s architecture school.
On weekends, he drove down from Atlanta and painted the Macon mural atop Belgian linen on the then-recently opened post office’s plaster walls.
“It’s not like a picture to frame and hang,” Beattie said at the time. “It’s a living part of the architecture of the building.”
After the mural’s debut, in an extensive interview in The Telegraph and News, Beattie, pronounced “bee-tee,” said he spent a year researching local history.
He also discussed the mural scene by scene.
He called the Creek Indians he painted “a phenomenal people.”
His mural also shows explorer Hernando de Soto and offers a glimpse of early Fort Hawkins. In another scene, a slave is picking cotton in front of what appears to be a lynching rope hanging from a tree in the background. One end of the rope, in a noose, dangles loosely around the neck of a female slave who is standing and holding a child.
“I hope the faces and the attitudes of these Negroes,” Beattie said, “will remind (people) of what happened.”
The newspaper interview doesn’t go into a less-prominent scene in the top corner of one panel that shows the line of Klansmen parading into the night opposite what look to be Civil War tombstones.
Other panels feature Macon churches and the original Wesleyan College, which, before it burned, stood where the post office now sits. Beattie also included pictures of the school’s noted leaders and alums. He also shows Mercer University, Sidney Lanier playing a flute and, in the most modern-day frame, a pair of Air Force jets, a nod to Robins Air Force Base.
“I was not particularly interested in going beyond the history of the existence of old Wesleyan, Beattie said, “because this building is dedicated really in memory of the early building, an imitation of that.”
Some of his other works have attracted public criticism.
Beattie’s paintings of plantation slaves that were on display in a main entrance at the Georgia Department of Agriculture since the 1950s were moved to the Georgia Museum of Art in 2011 after Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said, “I think we can depict a better picture of agriculture.”
Paul Manoguerra, chief curator at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, said he isn’t very familiar with issues over Beattie’s post office mural in Macon. (He has heard it was the artist’s depictions of American Indians that raised concern here.)
“The problem with public art that’s now historical is that viewers of it often don’t have context anymore,” Manoguerra said. “Without that context in a public space, interpretation becomes much more wide open. ... We lose the artist’s intent.”
George Beattie III didn’t know his father’s mural here was shrouded by walls until a reporter called him.
“It’s almost a case of political correctness. No, it’s not almost, it is a case of political correctness,” Beattie III said.
He had heard rumblings in the late 1980s and in the ‘90s of some displeasure with certain aspects of the work. But as far as he knows, it never became a public issue.
Before his father died, Beattie III helped him draft a letter to the post office in support of the mural.
“He was distressed over it,” the younger Beattie said. “He was sad about it.”
Beattie III, 66, says the Postal Service wanted to find a “better home” for the murals but that the cost of removing them, possibly carving them from the walls, was “the big stumbling block.”
“So the de facto solution,” he said, “was to close them off.”
One day four or five years ago, Beattie III, who was born in Macon and now lives in Atlanta, went by the post office.
He explained who he was and someone “very cordial” let him into the employee-only area to view his father’s work. The walls that would later hide it hadn’t been built yet.
“My father was doing things in those murals that were very subtle, extremely subtle,” Beattie III said, adding that anyone who concluded his father was somehow endorsing slavery was mistaken.
“His whole idea was to say, ‘Well, I’ve got to show history. How can I show it in such a way that will illuminate the consciousness of what was really going on?’” Beattie III said. “If people look at it and are simply offended by the reality of what history was, these are small minds.”
He also realizes how difficult a canvas a public building can be for an artist — and for the people in charge of that building when the art triggers debate.
“The people running the institution want the quickest, easiest solution,” Beattie III said. “Their solution was, ‘Oh, let’s just make this go away. Build a wall around it.’”
Whatever becomes of the mural, the artist himself may have the last laugh.
Even if George Beattie never intended to.
One scene he painted shows George Foster Pierce, Wesleyan’s first president, and Sidney Lanier. Beside them is a man sitting on a stump, propped against a tree, yellow jasmine at his feet.
The man on the stump is Macon author and civic leader Harry Stillwell Edwards.
Edwards oversaw construction of the federal courthouse on Mulberry Street. In 1919, he wrote “Eneas Africanus.”
He also had a hand in the city landing the Army’s Camp Wheeler, which led a young George Beattie to Macon in 1943.
Now, though, Edwards — at least his likeness, along with the rest of the mural — is locked away, enveloped as it were in a larger-than-life P.O. box from which there may be no escape.
Perhaps it is only fitting.
Edwards was also a U.S. postmaster.