Black history paintings decorating Fairfield walls the latest in Butler County expression

Artist John Wiehe created portraits of civil rights leaders that are displayed on the wall in Fairfield High School cafeteria. The series of paintings called "Connecting Past with Present: The Never-Ending Struggle for Civil Rights" shows 16 people ranging in time from enslavement to the Black Lives Matter movement. NICK GRAHAM  / STAFF
Artist John Wiehe created portraits of civil rights leaders that are displayed on the wall in Fairfield High School cafeteria. The series of paintings called "Connecting Past with Present: The Never-Ending Struggle for Civil Rights" shows 16 people ranging in time from enslavement to the Black Lives Matter movement. NICK GRAHAM  / STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

John Wiehe waited decades before becoming a painter of portraits.

And when the white grandfather of five Fairfield High School graduates started to take a brush in hand, among his most recent projects were a series of portraits of famous African-Americans.

For the school’s Black History Month celebrations, Wiehe loaned his series of 16 portraits to the high school display on a wall of a much-traveled hallway near the cafeteria.

The display is just one of many in Butler County schools and communities commemorating Black history and its importance to America’s past and future.

From a historical plaque honoring the Civil Rights’ Freedom Riders on Miami University’s Oxford campus to a series of virtual presentations for students, local racial pride murals to an exhibit at the Butler County Historical Society, the month-long celebration for many locally is especially poignant this year due to 2020′s racial unrest in the nation.

For Wiehe, his painting project was inspired by the death of George Floyd, who died while in police custody in Minneapolis last spring.

ExploreQUESTION: Has the significance of Black History Month changed since George Floyd was killed

“As I watched events unfold across the nation in the spring and summer of 2020, I was compelled to learn more,” according to the words posted next the paintings by the 73-year-old. “It was humbling to realize that after all this time, I knew so little about the terrorism inflicted on black people after slavery had ended.

“Digging deeper, I learned about certain men and women who, through their careers and personal lives, advanced the cause of equal rights in our country. Many are true national heroes who lived in constant danger, endured beatings, frequent arrests, and risked, or even gave their lives for the cause,” he said in a statement at the recent unveiling of his school exhibit.

His work made an impact on Fairfield High School junior Kennedy Baker.

“I was shocked when I first saw them,” said Baker, describing the portraits, which range from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr. to Barack Obama.

These, she thought, are “pillars of justice.”

“Their actions really influence history and when you see leaders like that in your school it really leaves a great impression,” said Baker.

Kathy Creighton, executive director of the Butler County Historical Society, said despite the coronavirus a special Black History Month exhibit is available for public viewing at the society’s Hamilton 327 North 2nd St. location.

Paintings and stories of famous Black residents of the area are on display and viewing is free.

Miami University has a series of virtual meetings available to both students and the public featuring a wide-range of Black History topics and modern-day issues on their website.

Rikki Bell, a teacher at Lakota West High School, wanted to do something to honor this year’s Black History Month by going beyond a display on a wall.

So instead she – and students she leads in the school’s IDEA (Inclusion Diversity Equity and Action) group – decided to use the walls in every classroom of the school.

The group developed a computer power point presentation that highlights a famous Black historical figure each school day during the month. Those displays are then projected on all classroom smart boards each morning during the daily school announcements.

“Black history is important because it is American history,” said Bell. “The kids and the faculty really seem to love it.”

Continuing coverage

Throughout Black History Month, the Journal-News will be covering Butler County’s past, present and future in the Black community. Today continues that coverage with stories of expression and education about that history in Butler County.

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