Village residents who attended the regular village board of trustees meeting on Jan. 3, 2023, would have expected to see the familiar 1944 mural covering the rear wall of the courtroom.
Instead, behind Mayor Waylyn Hobbs and the village board of trustees was a featureless expanse. The mural was apparently gone.
An email query to the mayor’s office on Jan. 5 elicited the response that, “The Village is installing a Fios Broadcasting channel and since the lighting wasn’t the best quality they had to cover the mural so that the lighting can work for the channel. The mural is still there, it’s just covered with a thin wall.”
The email did not state whether the mural had been damaged.
Painted in 1944 by Long Island artist Robert Gaston Herbert, the mural commemorates the 1643 agreement signed between Long Island Native Americans and two English Presbyterians from the Stamford outpost of the New Haven Colony in Connecticut.
The agreement gave the English settlers rights to occupy a 64,000-acre span of central and southern Long Island. This tract became the Town of Hempstead. The signing took place within the bounds of today’s Village of Hempstead.
Robert Fordham and John Carman were the Englishmen who negotiated and signed the agreement. They represented a group of British Protestants led by Rev. Richard Denton, for whom Denton Green is named.
Tackapousha of the Marsapeague was a major sachem, or leader, among the Long Island Native American peoples. Fluent in Dutch and English, he advocated on behalf of the Long Island native groups from the 1640s to the 1690s.
Robert Gaston Herbert was commissioned to paint the mural as part of the 300th anniversary celebrations by Hempstead Village and Hempstead Town.
The mural was dedicated on Sunday, April 16, 1944. Then-Mayor Herbert Mirschel emceed. Among the officials attending were Town of Hempstead Supervisor James N. Gehrig and Christ’s First Presbyterian Church pastor Frank M. Kerr.
The land agreement was central to the formation of the Town of Hempstead, the Village of Hempstead, Nassau County, and wider Long Island, so Herbert’s mural has been a crucial Long Island symbol for 80 years. Descendants of John Carman and Robert Fordham still come to Hempstead to see it.
In July 2019, Roger Hands, a historian from Carman’s home village of Hemel-Hempstead in England, commented that his favorite aspect of the mural was its depiction of the native Long Islanders as equals of the Englishmen.
At the regular village board meeting on Jan. 18 of this year, when asked directly why the mural was covered, Mayor Hobbs replied, “It’s for aesthetics.” He said that a blank wall was needed behind the village officials when meetings were broadcast.
Hobbs said the mural had not been destroyed when the wall was erected in front of it, but he gave no definite answer about whether it might have been damaged, or about the mural’s future.
Reactions of local historians to covering the mural focused on its historic significance.
Town of Hempstead historian Tom Saltzman noted that the mural appears prominently both in a 1973 brochure for Hempstead Village and in a 1993 tracing of Hempstead history by former Town historian Myron Luke.
“Is the wall covering an act of trying to dismiss history?” mused Saltzman in an email exchange with the Beacon.
Natalie Naylor, professor emeritus of history at Hofstra University, was, until recently, president of the Nassau County Historical Society. She remarked via email that she was surprised the village had not found a technological means of creating a virtual blank space whenever needed, rather than risking damage to the mural.
Naylor pointed out, “Many television news programs use images of the city behind their anchors/speakers. … I’d guess the best one can do for now is to keep in everyone’s mind that there is a mural there.”
Regina G. Feeney, trustee and archivist with the Freeport Historical Society, wrote a statement representative of the organization’s trustees and members:
“The Robert Gaston Herbert painting in Hempstead Village Hall is one of the few visible reminders that Europeans were not the first people to occupy Long Island. The mural is notable because Chief Tackapousha and his delegation are depicted as peers of European settlers John Carman and Robert Fordham, rather than presented in a state of subservience.
“The mural provides us with the opportunity to celebrate Native American culture and inspire residents to learn more about Long Island’s Indigenous roots. As an alternative to covering up this important piece of art and history, I would recommend relocating the mural to a location that would maintain its visibility for the community.”