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NPR News

Artwork from the Black Lives Matter memorial has a new home: the Library of Congress

Banners and signs are hung on a fence at Lafayette Square near the White House, during ongoing protests against police brutality and racism in June 2020. The Library of Congress has digitized some of the pieces of artwork, signs and photographs once displayed on the fence.
JOSE LUIS MAGANA
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AFP via Getty Images
Banners and signs are hung on a fence at Lafayette Square near the White House, during ongoing protests against police brutality and racism in June 2020. The Library of Congress has digitized some of the pieces of artwork, signs and photographs once displayed on the fence.

The fence that once stood between protesters and the White House at Lafayette Park during the summer of 2020 (also known as the Black Lives Matter memorial), displayed hundreds of signs, posters and artwork left by protesters following the murder of George Floyd.

While authorities took down the fence in early 2021, activists made it their mission to preserve every artifact — knowing that each sign represents a part of the nation's history.

Now, thanks to the help of activists and archivists, the pieces of artwork that once served as a memorial of the movement are being displayed in a new online exhibit on the Library of Congress' website.

According to the Library, more than 30 pieces of artwork are now available online.

"[The Library] wants people to see those signs, the messages and contextualize them with other parts of our collection that talk about similar issues," said Aliza Leventhal, head of technical services for the prints and photography division of the Library of Congress.

The collection was a team effort from activists and archivists

Leventhal, who spearheaded the Library's collection efforts of artwork and signs from the fence, worked alongside the fence's de facto curator Nadine Seiler and others to make the digital collection come to life.

Leventhal says she visited the fence daily for eight months, becoming intrigued with what she saw each time.

"Every day new signs were showing up, another person sharing their story and adding valuable layers to the ongoing conversation on the fence," she said.

As the artwork began to cover the fence until its dismantling in early 2021, Leventhal began to document the experience on her own — keeping track of the emotions and experiences brought on by the display.

"The signs ranged from crafted works of art either brought from home or created on the site, as well as scrap pieces of paper with hastily written messages," Leventhal said.

As the fence was dismantled, volunteers took down more than 800 pieces of artwork, signs and banners — preserving each one in hopes of their being archived.

Activists spent months watching over the fence and its artwork

Protesters came to Lafayette Park next to the White House after Floyd's murder in May 2020, as federal authorities quickly put up metal barricades to block off various entrances to the square around the park. The fencing went up on June 4, 2020, and came down on Jan. 30, 2021.

Seiler and activist Karen Irwin from New York had spent long hours at the fence on what is now called Black Lives Matter Plaza as the two worked to preserve the hundreds of pieces created by protesters.

Nadine Seiler poses with a piece of artwork that was once displayed on the Black Lives Matter fence near the White House. The Library of Congress has created an online exhibit of the artwork that was once displayed on the fence.
Jonathan Franklin / NPR
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NPR
Nadine Seiler poses with a piece of artwork that was once displayed on the Black Lives Matter fence near the White House. The Library of Congress has created an online exhibit of the artwork that was once displayed on the fence.

"Whether it was going to rain, snow or ice, we lived at the fence," Seiler said. "There was somebody on that fence or within a few feet of the fence, wherever the police pushed us."

As Seiler and others guarded the fence, its artwork became a symbol for the movement, a place where people stopped and took pictures — honoring what the fence and its signs stood for.

But the drive to save the artwork was inspired on Oct. 26 when demonstrators saw counter protesters tearing down signs from the fence.

"Because people would come by and vandalize this stuff, part of me felt disrespected," Seiler says. "I made sure the stuff wasn't going to get torn down."

Some signs have been distributed across the nation

When volunteers removed the 800-plus signs, Seiler made it her mission to preserve as many signs as she could.

The signs are being housed in a storage unit in Washington, D.C., as they await to be scanned by archivists at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library, a joint project with the D.C. Public Library.

A small collection of signs were exhibited in Tulsa, Okla., last year as part of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre and a number of them were also collected by Howard University.

Following the story published by NPR last October, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tenn., and the George Floyd and Anti-Racist Street Art Archive database also expressed interest in receiving pieces of artwork for exhibits and archival purposes.

Once all 800-plus items have been scanned, Seiler says the gifting process for the artwork will officially begin.

Ideally, she says organizers with the D.C. chapter of Black Lives Matter would like for the pieces to stay in the hands of Black organizations. But, Seiler said that wherever the pieces might land, she hopes people would recognize their worth and the messages behind them.

"I don't know what it's going to take, but whoever takes some has to agree to care for them," Seiler said.


NPR has compiled a list of stories, performances and other content that chronicles the Black American experience for Black History Month. See the whole collection here.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.