Rarely Seen D.C. Mural: Waylande Gregory’s “Democracy in Action”

Democracy in Action's showing the left portion of the mural

Democracy in Action’s showing the left portion of the mural

Recently, I had an opportunity to see the ceramic mural Democracy in Action created by WPA artist Waylande Gregory (1905-1971). It is located in the west court of the Daly Building at 300 Indiana Avenue, NW. The building houses several District agencies, including the MPD headquarters and the Superior Court Judges Office. The west court of the building is locked and not open to the public without making prior arrangements.  With this in mind, I took some photos during my visit for those interested in public art.

From what I’ve been able to read, Democracy in Action is Gregory’s largest WPA relief mural and dates to 1941. It depicts D.C.’s Police and Fire Departments. The finished work measures approximately 81 feet long and eight feet high. As you can imagine, it is difficult to photograph.

Section of the mural just left of center.

Section of the mural just left of center.

According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art Inventories Catalog:

[The] mural is composed of 500 ceramic tiles depicting the functions of the District of Columbia Police Department, Fire Department, and of the Department of Motor Vehicles. The five scenes of the frieze portray, left to right, traffic officials directing vehicles at a busy downtown intersection, traffic officials helping pedestrians along a sidewalk while a crowd of demonstrators carry placards in the background, firemen fighting a fire with water hoses while a child is carried to safety wrapped in a blanket, police apprehending criminals on foot, and the police motorcycle squad stopping to return a lost dog to a concerned boy.

The mural has had controversy associated with it from its creation. The panel depicting two policemen in a violent confrontation with two African American males offended the Police Department, which is headquartered in the building. At its unveiling, the police department protested and the mayor asked for the murals removal and destruction. Eleanor Roosevelt and Paul Manship, representing the US Fine Arts Commission, intervened and save it. The panel remained but the entrance door to the courtyard to view the frieze was kept locked.

Section of the mural just right of center.

Section of the mural just right of center.

According to art historian Thomas C. Folk, “The message represented by the police depicted in the mural seems somewhat confusing; and, might be taken as representing police brutality. But, this theme does look forward to the Civil Rights Movement. Gregory thrived on publicity and probably knew of the Social Realist painter, Philip Evergood’s controversial painting, “American Tragedy,” 1937, which depicts a struggle between picketers and policemen at a steel mill in Gary, Indiana.”

The right section of the mural containing the controversial panel.

The right section of the mural containing the controversial panel.

Explore posts in the same categories: Art, DCFD, MPD

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4 Comments on “Rarely Seen D.C. Mural: Waylande Gregory’s “Democracy in Action””

  1. Kim Roberts Says:

    Thanks for posting…it’s great to see this amazing mural. Fascinating. I wish it was open to the general public!

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  4. Franz Jantzen Says:

    I was completely amazed that this exists and I’ve never heard of it; thanks for your summary of its history! I can’t find an email or author for this post, so I want to tell you that I copied your pictures and pasted them together to create an approximation of what it approximately looks like at full length. If you would like to see as well I would be glad to share it with you – just send me an email. Thanks again!


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