Artist Kerry James Marshall has been chosen to create new stained-glass windows for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Marshall, who has never before worked in the medium, will be replacing previous windows, which depicted Confederate iconography and were removed in 2017 following a spate of white-supremacist violence.
“This project is not just a job—I don’t need the work—or only a piece of art. It’s kind of a calling, and a real honor to be asked,” said Marshall, a MacArthur “Genius” grant recipient who is known for painting scenes of Black life.
Poet and essayist Elizabeth Alexander, who has served as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation since 2018, will compose a poem to be inscribed in stone tablets next to Marshall’s windows. (Alexander wrote “Praise Song for the Day” and delivered the poem at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009.)
The completion of both the windows and poem are expected in 2023, when they will be permanently installed at the D.C. site.
“For nearly 70 years, these windows and their Confederate imagery told an incomplete story,” Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of the National Cathedral, said in a statement. “They did nothing to address the reality and painful legacy of America’s original sin of slavery and racism. They represented a false narrative of what America once was and left out the painful truth of our history.”
The old windows, which depicted generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, “became barriers for people to feel fully welcome here,” Hollerith told the “Contextualization was no longer possible.”
The United Daughters of the Confederacy originally donated the Jackson and Lee windows to the Cathedral in 1953, but the call to remove them did not come until 2015 in the aftermath of the deadly shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, when avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine Black members of the Bible study. In response, the D.C. Cathedral assembled a task force and submitted a report recommending that action be taken to remove the windows. When, in 2017, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville ended in a deadly crash with counter-protesters, the windows were deconsecrated and removed.
The Lee and Jackson windows are still on public view, but now at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall. The windows are featured as part of the year-long exhibition “Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and its Legacies.”
“I am incredibly honored to be a part of the National Cathedral’s effort to ensure that those who worship within its sanctuary know that it is truly a space for all people, said Elizabeth Alexander, who grew up visiting the Cathedral, in a statement, “and that the stories relayed through its sacred walls, windows and other iconography represent the truth of our nation.”