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Kerry James Marshall to create ‘racial-justice themed’ windows for Washington National Cathedral

<i>Andrew Harnik/AP</i><br/>The Washington National Cathedral announces that its commissioned renowned artist Kerry James Marshall to create
Andrew Harnik/AP
The Washington National Cathedral announces that its commissioned renowned artist Kerry James Marshall to create "racial-justice themed windows" that will replace windows the church removed in 2017 that memorialized Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.

By Veronica Stracqualursi, CNN

The Washington National Cathedral announced Thursday it has commissioned renowned Black artist Kerry James Marshall to create “racial-justice themed windows” that will replace two stained-glass windows the church removed in 2017 that memorialized Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

The church has also tapped celebrated poet Elizabeth Alexander, who was the inaugural poet for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, to write a poem that will be inscribed on stone tablets alongside Marshall’s new windows. The tablets with Alexander’s poem will overlay the previous ones that revered the lives of Confederate soldiers.

Both projects are expected to be completed by 2023 and permanently installed in the cathedral that year.

In its announcement Thursday, the National Cathedral said Marshall’s new windows would mirror the church committee’s desire to “capture both darkness and light, both the pain of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow, as well as the quiet and exemplary dignity of the African American struggle for justice and equality and the indelible and progressive impact it has had on American society.”

Marshall, a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius Grant” and one of Time’s most influential people famous for his portraits of Black subjects, said Thursday that conceptualizing the project would take time because the windows will address complicated issues.

“I’m not going to be able to shed any light on what the project is going to be because the challenge that the committee set for the replacement windows is a monumental task,” the Chicago-based artist said at a news conference Thursday at the cathedral, his first time stepping foot in the church to get a sense of the space.

It will be the acclaimed painter’s first time working with stained glass.

Marshall said his challenge is to create something that draws people to the art and can elevate their conceptions of what it means to be an American as well as “what it means to engage with the complex narratives of history that we all have some relationship to.”

The themes “set a great challenge for me as an artist and as a Black American man,” Marshall said in a news release, adding that his goal is to “make truly meaningful additions to an already rich and magnificent institution.”

The windows of Lee and Jackson were installed in 1953 at the request of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to “foster reconciliation” between the North and the South.

For decades, the windows were two of the many stained glass bays on main level of the cathedral, which had been imagined by George Washington as a “great church for national purposes” and is used for national prayer services and the funerals of top Washington officials.

The call to remove the windows of Lee and Jackson came in 2015 from the cathedral’s then-dean after the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 2016, the cathedral’s leaders voted to remove the Confederate battle flags from the windows, replacing them with plain glass panes.

The windows were removed in 2017 following the White nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Very Rev. Randolph Hollerith, the current dean of the cathedral, said Thursday that the windows told an “incomplete story and one-sided version of history.”

“They were a barrier to our mission, and an impediment to worship in this place, and they had no place being in sacred space,” he said.

The Robert E. Lee window is currently on loan to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture for a year-long exhibit on the legacy of Jim Crow.

The two windows will be conserved and stored at the Cathedral.

The projects are being funded by private foundations including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Hearthland Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

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CNN’s William J. Cadigan contributed to this report.

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