How 17 Outsize Portraits Rattled a Small Southern Town
By Audra D. S. BurchJan. 19, 2020, 3:00 a.m. ET
Newnan, Ga., decided to use art to help the community celebrate diversity and embrace change. Not everyone was ready for what they saw.
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NEWNAN, Ga. — It was the Saturday afternoon that this small Southern city had been dreading. A group of neo-Nazis promised to hold a rally in downtown Newnan to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday and rail against illegal immigrationand the removal of Confederate monuments.
Newnan had prided itself on its quiet charm. It offered small-town living just 40 miles southwest of Atlanta and had earned the nickname “City of Homes” for its antebellum architecture. Now, on a spring day in April 2018, a neo-Nazi group had assembled in a park near the courthouse, the leader having said the group preferred to hold rallies in predominantly white towns.
But it turned out that only a few dozen white nationalists attended the rally, and the Newnan they had imagined no longer existed. Its population had more than doubled in less than 20 years, drawing an increasingly diverse collection of newcomers. Newnan was changing and many in the community wanted to embrace that change more openly. A year after the white nationalist rally, the town made an effort to do so by putting up 17 large-scale banner portraits, images of the ordinary people who make up Newnan.
They hang from the perches of brick buildings around downtown. There’s Helen Berry, an African-American woman who for years worked at a sewing factory. Wiley Driver, a white worker who folded and packed blankets at a local mill before his death in 2017. Jineet Blanco, a waitress who arrived in Newnan carrying her Mexican traditions and dreams. And then there were the Shah sisters.
A portrait of Aatika and Zahraw Shah wearing hijabs was displayed on the side of an empty building in downtown Newnan. The sisters were born in Georgia and had lived in Newnan since 2012, after they moved from Athens, Ga. They attended a local high school in the county. Their father, an engineer, moved to the United States from Pakistan, as did their mother.
The reaction to their portrait was fast and intense. James Shelnutt was driving through downtown when he saw it. “I feel like Islam is a threat to the American way of life,” he said. “There should be no positive portrayals of it.” Mr. Shelnutt turned to Facebook, encouraging residents to complain. The thread quickly devolved into anti-Muslim attacks and name-calling. Some posters referred to Sept. 11 and argued that believers of Islam were violent.
One woman said there were not enough Muslims in Newnan for the Shahs to be included in the art installation in the first place.
The portraits were meant to be inclusive, upend stubborn preconceptions and unravel the cocoons people had created within the community. And they did — but they also exposed how immigration and demographic change have recast the racial dynamics that once defined America, adding new layers of anxiety on the old tensions that persist across the country and in small towns like Newnan.
Old Newnan vs. New Newnan
“I do not know if Newnan had looked at itself this closely before now,” said Robert Hancock, a lawyer and real estate consultant who, as president of Newnan’s Artist in Residence program, helped commission the installation.
Newnan was a hospital town that treated soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. The town found its prosperity, in part, in the cotton industry, and at one point, Newnan was one of the wealthiest towns per capita in the United States.
When Mr. Hancock moved to town in 1986 there were about 12,000 people. The population today is pushing 40,000, with the biggest growth spurt occurring between 2000 and 2010. In that decade alone, the population doubled.
White people still make up more than half the population, but the newcomers are largely from other backgrounds. The share of Hispanics has more than doubled, while the Asian population, although still small, grew more than fivefold between 2000 and 2017. In that same period, the black population dropped from about 42 percent of the population to 28 percent.
The sheer size of the town’s growth has led some to bristle. “People are wrestling with the numbers, asking themselves, ‘Is this going to make us more like the big city we don’t like?’ and ‘How can we keep this small-town feeling?’” said Cynthia Jenkins, the first African-American woman elected to the City Council, in 2003. “If there are less people in the grocery store I recognize, then are we getting too big?”
“Seeing Newnan,” as the art installation is called, was created by the photographer Mary Beth Meehan. Mr. Hancock and Chad Davidson, director of the University of West Georgia’s School of the Arts, were in Providence, R.I., for an art conference in 2015 when they saw one of Ms. Meehan’s installations.
William Widmer for The New York Times
Clifton Fisher and Monique Bentley
Rev. Jimmy Patterson
Rev. Rufus Smith Sr.
Mr. Hancock was drawn to the beauty of the portraits, but he was also thinking about his almost exclusively white world in Newnan. “My children told me, ‘Dad, you are so open, but your circle is not inclusive,’” he said. “When I thought about it, they were right.” So he reached out to Ms. Meehan and told her about Newnan.
He told her about the town’s race and class tensions, about the old Newnan versus the new Newnan, how residents who grew up here have watched the population explode. And yet, “I just felt like we were living apart,” Mr. Hancock said. “We were in these little bubbles. I thought this project could pierce the bubbles.”
Ms. Meehan arrived in Newnan in 2016 as part of the Artist in Residence program. She had done similar portraiture projects in her hometown, Brockton, Mass., and most recently in Silicon Valley. In Newnan, she was met with both open arms and some suspicion — she was a white liberal from the North who had not spent much time in the South.
“The thinking was, Is this person going to portray us as a bunch of racist rednecks?” Mr. Hancock said. He even remembers wondering out loud more than once if he had done the right thing by hosting the project. Would it celebrate Newnan’s growth and diversity, or reinforce its differences?
‘People Needed to Open Their Eyes’
Ms. Meehan was in Newnan for the big moments and the small. A fall high school homecoming. The reunion of a class from 1954 who attended an all-black high school. Sunday morning services at a church attended by descendants of early settlers. The 2016 election night that ushered in President Trump.
She spent more than two years visiting Newnan, witnessing the kind of moments that offer hints about a community’s identity. Newnan was the right place for the project. “Newnan was ready to begin this conversation, and the evidence is that despite the tensions and difficulties, the people ultimately didn’t shut me down,” she said. “They kept inviting me back.”
Ms. Meehan had already started editing several of the photos in the series when she made one of her last trips to Newnan in October 2018. Zahraw and Aatika were among the subjects she photographed during that trip, and when she showed their portrait to Mr. Hancock a day later, he paused.
He thought about Newnan’s conservative culture — Mr. Trump carried the county by about 70 percent. “I knew instinctively that the picture was going to be controversial,” he said. But Mr. Hancock decided that he did not want to pander to irrational fears and that the sisters would be among the portraits to make the final cut. “People needed to open their eyes and see what a beautiful, diverse place we live in,” he said.
The Shahs had lived with stares and insensitive questions about their religion and traditional hijabs since they began wearing them in the sixth grade. But much of Newnan had welcomed them, they said. “I can’t tell you how many times a person would say that we are literally the first Muslims they have ever met,” said Zahraw, 20. “We did a lot of teaching.”
A few Newnan residents protested the sisters’ banner in Mr. Shelnutt’s Facebook post, questioning whether they were actual Newnan residents or if they were even American.
Mary Beth Meehan
Zahraw and Aatika Shah
“I knew instinctively that the picture was going to be controversial,” Robert Hancock, one of the community leaders who commissioned the installation, said.
“But people needed to open their eyes and see what a beautiful, diverse place we live in.”
The post drew nearly 1,000 responses, most of them defending the sisters and accusing Mr. Shelnutt and others of being out-of-touch racists who were resistant to change and religious freedom. Mr. Shelnutt, who grew up in Newnan and owns a small construction company, denied being racist. “I do not feel like the two women in the photo are radical or dangerous,” he said. “I just do not think Newnan should be pushed to embrace Islam.”
The backlash made the sisters realize that much of Newnan didn’t know Newnan. They said it felt especially painful to be singled out. “We have been here seven years,” said Aatika Shah, 22, “and now because they have never seen us and then saw our picture, they somehow think we don’t belong.”
Ms. Meehan had hoped her portraits would force people to see one another, perhaps for the first time. But she also knew there were risks if the portraits did not match a viewer’s perception of Newnan. She spent hundreds of hours talking to residents, and so often the conversations veered toward race.
When Ms. Meehan met the Rev. Jimmy Patterson, whose portrait drapes a building just off the court square, he told her about his own epiphany related to race. As the pastor of First Baptist Church of Newnan, he was one of several ministers who led a unity service to protest the neo-Nazi rally in 2018.
He used that occasion to apologize for a dark chapter in his family’s history: One of his ancestors had owned enslaved people in a nearby county, and in researching his genealogy, Mr. Patterson, who is white, found a will bequeathing them to family members. He kept the will secret for 13 years, telling his family about it only days before going public. Mr. Patterson believed the time had come for him to reconcile with the past.
One by one, he began to read the names in the will, humans considered property, lumped in the same category as cattle and furniture. Some people in the church gasped. Some began to cry as Mr. Patterson talked about the sin of racism, passed down almost like an heirloom, and all the years it had taken him to unlearn his own prejudices. And then he asked for forgiveness.
Ms. Meehan’s portraits, which will come down in June, have already had a lasting effect on the town. They have prompted deep conversations between people who had never met. “The truth is, these conversations are hard and uncomfortable and awkward but we need to lean into it,” said the Rev. David Jones II, the pastor of Newnan Presbyterian Church, who plans to use the art installation to organize a retreat about race, gender and identity this year. “We need to talk about who lives in our community and if they are different, why does that make us uncomfortable?”
Alain Delaquérière contributed research from New York.