The “African American Trailblazers” mural was finished in early September, but it was nearly 15 years in the making
By Hannah McClellan | Photography by Miriam McSpadden
For nearly three months and over hundreds of hours, artist Kiara Sanders worked to paint a nearly 20-foot mural honoring local Black trailblazers.
The mural is located where Carrboro and Chapel Hill meet, at 111 S. Merritt Mill Rd., which has been home to two Black-owned businesses: Walt’s Grill and Ms. Molly’s Gift Shop. The building was built by one of the leaders she painted, Walter Riggsbee – a fact she found out from the people who worked in the building, who would check on her, bring her food and talk to her about local history.
“I actually learned about the people I was painting through these conversations, because a lot of these people literally were raised by or taught by or had relationships with them. It just made them feel that much more real,” Kiara says. “To me, it was just amazing to think this man built this building, with his hands laying the bricks, and then I get to come in many years later and paint his image on the building that he built.”
Though the mural was finished in early September after about three months of painting, it was nearly 15 years in the making.
The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Area Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority devised the idea for the mural, largely due to the lack of public art representing Chapel Hill’s African American community, says Dianne Peerman Pledger, the chairperson of the sorority’s education committee.
In addition to the CHCAA chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, the Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture, the Town of Carrboro, the Orange County Arts Commission, the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership and the North Carolina Arts Council all helped plan and sponsor the mural.
For Dianne, the project was a personal one since her father, William D. Peerman, who coached football, basketball and baseball at Lincoln High School in the 1950s and 1960s, is one of the dozen featured. “I’m honored and elated that his legacy continues in the image of him on that building. He was a prominent educator, he was a mentor, he was a father figure to many. He was a very special man,” Dianne says. “It just gratifies my heart, and my sister’s heart, knowing that he is recognized in this way as a trailblazer in our community.”
Originally, the mural was going to include many more Black civic leaders, but the list was narrowed down to 12 so each figure could fit prominently on the wall.
For Kiara, seeing her hard work result in such a vibrant and educational mural was exciting. She submitted a design to paint the mural last winter and found out in March she’d been selected, partially due to her “stylized and realistic” way of painting people.
Before starting to paint in July, Kiara learned how to operate a lift, and she had to figure out how to enlarge her design on the wall. In the end, she made a “doodle grid,” which required weeks of drawing “all sorts of nonsensical numbers and letters” on the wall, taking a picture of the wall and then imposing her design on the picture to see physical markers of where people and shapes should be painted.
As she worked, Kiara primarily listened to crime podcasts, stopping occasionally to talk with passersby who wondered what the project was and if she was really painting the whole mural by herself.
“Toward the end of the mural, when I knew that I didn’t have anything else left to do, I got this sort of bittersweet feeling – I don’t like endings,” Kiara says. “But then, the art takes on a life of its own, and I’ve already sort of faded into the background.”
Dianne says the community response to the mural has been “heartwarming and fantastic.”
“It’s almost spiritual. People are just glad to see people they know, people they grew up with. It is extremely important because having that mural there makes everybody feel a part of the community. ‘I’m not left out, because I see people who look like me.’
“It helps blend the fabric of the community,” Dianne says. “And there’s other things that could be done in the community to make us feel that way, too.”