Additional reporting by Paige Lloyd and Teran Powell
Pop into the LGBTQ Resource Center the next time you’re in the Alumni Memorial Union and you’ll see her. The larger-than-life smile and heavy jeweled necklace are hard to miss. You can’t help but smile back at the portrait.
Marsha P. Johnson was a transgender woman known for her charismatic and infectious personality who worked to support LGBTQ youth. Activist Fannie Lou Hamer was an essential part of the civil rights movement in Mississippi known for her determination. She didn’t smile in photographs, and her portrait doesn’t break that tradition.
“The two women are very different,” says Krystal Clayton, program assistant for the Center of Intercultural Engagement. “We wanted to show that.”
Each had their individual story that fueled their careers as activists, but they’re both inspiring women of color who have made a difference, making them ideal candidates for the mural. Clayton knew she wanted to feature women of color on the mural because portraits of white leaders and wealthy donors are easy to find, but very little on-campus artwork celebrates the work and strength of black women.
A lively debate ensued as members of the Center, the Mu Beta Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and Marquette Student Government began the selection process. A long list of names was drawn up and slowly whittled down. In the end only Johnson and Hamer remained. Their pivotal roles as civil rights figures cemented their place as finalists.
The women represent a message of inclusivity, much like the center itself. All students can gather there, from those who identify as LGBTQ, to their friends and allies. This is why Jeanette Martín, artistic director of the mural and a community muralist, designed the artwork to be a paint–by-numbers process so students and faculty could get involved.
Members of Mu Beta got the word out about the project at an open house. Community members including Provost Dan Myers helped trace and paint the mural last January. They teamed up with Black Student Council, the Gender Sexuality Alliance, and other fraternities and sororities. Everyone chipped in with a brush stroke.
Clayton sums up the mural’s message in one word: Education.
“A lot of people don’t know who these people are and I hope that the student body comes into the center because it isn’t just for those who identify with LGBTQ,” Clayton says. “I hope they get to see who these people are, research their history, and learn more about the great things they have done.”
Now LGBTQ students have two strong figures in their community to inspire them. What’s more, Johnson is the first transgender woman depicted in a piece of artwork on campus. That’s a major step forward for the Jesuit university.
It won’t end with Johnson and Hamer either. There’s plenty of empty wall space for future murals.
“We hope that this can become a regular thing for organizations to come in and paint someone that they can connect with, unsung heroes in different parts of history,” Clayton said.
Who’s next? We’ll have to wait and see.
Johnson’s infectious smile and the determined strength behind Hamer’s eyes tell different stories but they convey the same message about equality. Their faces serve as a reminder to reflect on the lives of these courageous women and their contributions to civil rights have shaped our society today.