Courtesy of the Smithsonian
Society Freed Through Justice, during the 1930s. The mural is located in the fifth floor lobby of the Justice Department building.
Artist George Biddle works on a panel of his mural,
The Justice Department headquarters building has more than 50 murals on its walls.
Painted during the Great Depression, they aimed to show how law and justice could improve lives.
As Justice Department tour guide Winifred Hart once put it, "We drip symbolism in this building. This building is a sermon, a hymn to justice."
That hymn includes verses that are progressive, controversial and even radical. As expected, the building has flags, eagles and scales of justice. But there is also real art on the walls, showing America at its worst, and the redemptive power of law and justice.
In the 1930s, for example, the Justice Department installed a mural that showed black and white students being educated together. The painting showed a dream that democracy had not yet realized — the nation's capital was still a segregated city.
Virginia Mecklenburg is a senior curator from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
"The whole scheme of all the murals was really a grand epic view of the role of law in American society," she says.
The Justice Department headquarters was built when America was struggling through the Great Depression. The country's most prestigious artists of the day competed to win commissions for paintings that would show how law and justice could make life better for everyone.
"These were going to be the shining stars that launched this program that they were hoping would put murals in post offices and federal buildings all over the country," Mecklenburg says. "It was a real initiative to take art to the American people."