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Norwich mural will depict civil and human rights efforts over the centuries

Norwich — A plain gray concrete wall facing Chelsea Harbor Drive near Norwich Harbor soon will become a storyline with images of civil rights and human rights leaders in Norwich and across the globe.

The City Council on Monday authorized use of the city-owned Market Street parking garage for Norwich’s Sister Mural. The Norwich branch of the NAACP has partnered with Public Art for Racial Justice Education, or PARJE, to fund and create the mural. Norwich groups raised $7,500, matched equally by a grant from Sustainable CT, Norwich NAACP President Shiela Hayes said.

New London, East Lyme, Old Lyme and Old Saybrook also have Sister Murals in the works.

The New London Sister Mural will be painted on a wall in Fulton Park, off Water Street and Crystal Avenue. The project is part of a larger effort to beautify a space used for gatherings, performances, skateboarders and educational programs. PARJE is leading the project with the support of the New London NAACP and The New London Arts Council.

The Norwich wall — 142 feet long, 14 feet tall at the left end and tapering to just 3 feet tall at the right edge — will bear images of people from Norwich and beyond who played key roles in civil and human rights from the time of the American Revolutionary War through the 20th century.

The wall will feature Cato Mead, the first African American to enlist on the American side in the Revolutionary War; Samuel Ashbow, the first Native American to die on the American side in the Revolution; David Ruggles of Norwich, a noted abolitionist who helped enslaved people to freedom; Frederick Douglass, a famous abolitionist; James Lindsay Smith, an escaped enslaved man who settled in Norwich as a successful businessman; Aaron Dwight Stevens, an abolitionist from Norwich who joined John Brown's failed raid on Harper's Ferry, Va., and was hanged; the Civil War Connecticut 29th Colored Regiment; Hiram “Harry” Bingham IV of Salem, who helped about 2,500 Jews flee France during World War II; Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer, raised in Norwich, an international human rights activist in Argentina from 1958 to 1984; Virginia Christian, the first elected African American and woman to the Norwich City Council in 1965, and Jaswant Singh Khalra, Sikh human rights activist from 1952 to 1995.

The mural will be dotted with logos of Norwich police and fire departments and Norwich Public Utilities, American flags and the scales of justice.

Hayes said more than 20 individuals and organizations came up with the theme and images for the mural. Students from East Lyme and Norwich Free Academy, the Slater Memorial Museum at NFA, the Norwich NAACP and its Youth Council, Norwich Rotary and Rotary Community Corps, Global City Norwich and local and state elected officials participated.

“It’s been a rewarding process to have many people from the community involved in various phases of this,” Hayes said, “between the people who worked on helping to develop the theme and then identifying who would be included on the mural, 60 days of fundraising. ... We brought art, history and education all together. It’s a first for me to be involved in that kind of concept.”

The mural is in the final design phase, Hayes said. Once the design is completed, the rendering will be posted on the Public Art for Racial Justice Education website, racialjusticeart.org.

Now with final approval by the City Council, the project will move forward quickly. NPU will power-wash the wall, and the two artists hired by PARJE — Samson Tonton of Norwich and Emida Roller of Putnam — will paint the primer and base blue color.

Then, the images will be drawn onto Polytab — a lightweight material like parachute cloth — and painted by local artists and volunteers during indoor painting sessions in December. Hayes assured the City Council the completed panels can be installed in winter.

The dedication ceremony is planned for Martin Luther King Day weekend, Jan. 15-17, 2022.

“Anything that we can do to bring arts and culture and history and something attractive to the downtown area,” Alderwoman Ella Myles said, “I think it’s a fantastic idea and I’m really excited to see it progress.”

Alderman Derell Wilson liked that the mural will include famous and more obscure people viewers can research. All images will be labeled.

“Many of our young people are going to learn about them,” Wilson said, “and seeing some of these faces will help enhance their understanding of what they have contributed to Norwich, what they have contributed to civil rights and human rights as a whole.”

Day Staff Writer Greg Smith contributed to this report.

c.bessette@theday.com

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