I didn’t know the name of the painting, but I had seen it before. A little black girl in a white dress is surrounded by adults in suits with “US Marshall” armbands, the vantage point is the girl’s, and an ugly word is scrawled on the wall behind her. It’s an obvious Norman Rockwell if you’re familiar with his iconic work for the Saturday Evening Post and other publications, but oh how it deviates from those patriotic scenes of Americana.
The picture depicts a real life event, in which a 6 year old girl is walking to integrate the all-white school in New Orleans. Historic photos of the time reveal that Rockwell’s interpretation was pretty accurate in its depiction of a tiny girl being surrounded by big adults. But the painting adds more crispness to the situation, even than a photograph could.
This was Rockwell’s first assignment for Look magazine which received letters both for and against the depiction. Rockwell was sympathetic to the cause, and once lamented being asked to remove black people from his art for the Saturday Evening Post unless those black people were in service jobs. Finally he gets the chance to champion a cause about which he cared, and that dedication to truth produced one of his finest works.
Desegregation has an ugly history in public education, and Oklahoma City was not immune from the pains associated therein. Putnam City’s rapid growth in the 1970s and 1980s is most certainly a reaction of families to bussing. But today’s Putnam City exists less like the Rockwell painting, and more like the dream of Dr. King. We are all the better because of it.