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Westwood student wins recognition for forgotten civil rights mural

“An Incident in Contemporary American Life” was painted by Maryland artist Mitchell Jamieson in 1942, depicting African-American singer Marian Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.
“An Incident in Contemporary American Life” was painted by Maryland artist Mitchell Jamieson in 1942, depicting African-American singer Marian Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress

A Massachusetts teenager pushed for recognition for a little-known mural in a federal building in Washington that depicts a milestone of the civil rights movement. His unusual campaign paid off Thursday with a celebration at the Interior Department attended by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Desmond Herzfelder, 17, of Westwood, believed the mural, “An Incident in Contemporary American Life,” painted by Maryland artist Mitchell Jamieson in 1942, wasn’t getting its due.

The mural, which measures about 12 by 7 feet and is in the basement of the Interior Department, depicts African-American singer Marian Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. A diverse crowd mingles in the foreground; in the background, Anderson performs on the memorial’s steps.

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Herzfelder, a junior at Noble and Greenough School whose interests include art and music, became fascinated by the mural when he wrote a history paper on it last year. He later spun the paper into an op-ed in The Washington Post, calling for the artwork to be honored.

“This was really a daring project, really rare and unique for the time,” Herzfelder said. “When I looked through archives, I just thought this is something that needs to be celebrated.”

Herzfelder continued his campaign by writing letters to Zinke, Karen Pence, the wife of Vice President Mike Pence, Oprah Winfrey, and several members of Congress, urging them to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the mural’s official unveiling in 1943.

On the day of Anderson’s concert, a crowd of 75,000 people spilled onto the National Mall, after the Daughters of the American Revolution, a lineage-based historical preservation group, had refused to let Anderson perform at Constitution Hall because of her race.

The DAR later dropped its discriminatory rule. The mural was displayed in the Interior Department on Jan. 6, 1943. The following day, Anderson performed at Constitution Hall.

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“A lot of the other murals depict the past, but this one was literally recording history as it happened,” said Tracy Baetz, curator for the Department of the Interior Museum. “And I think that’s kind of unusual. It was responding to something very contemporary at that time.”

Herzfelder said the mural “commemorates a coming-of-age moment of the modern civil rights movement. It’s really a call to action for people today to continue to strive for equality.”

The painting looked “forward to a time when integrated audiences would be the norm,” Herzfelder wrote in his op-ed.

Jillian Patricia Pirtle, chief operating officer of the National Marian Anderson Museum in Philadelphia, said the mural was “a hidden gem that needs to be exposed to the nation for all of its beauty, all of its color and light, and its eminent story that goes along with it. ”

“I just hope that this will shine a light on Marian’s legacy, on the museum . . . and also on the great work of art,” she said.

On Thursday, the first day of this year’s Black History Month, Herzfelder was on hand as Zinke led a ceremony in Washington, naming the mural as the first element within the new US Civil Rights Network, a program intended to preserve and protect the memory of the civil rights movement.

“The civil rights movement is one of the most moving chapters of the American story — the​ people and events that shaped this period of history continue to inspire Americans to this day,” Zinke said in a prepared statement.

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Elise Takahama can be reached at elise.takahama@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @elisetakahama.