Hidden Figures in a Mural Project

Last Spring, Megan Dardis, a painting major, then in her junior year at Cleveland Institute of Art, took advantage of the school’s Creativity Works program, which provides funds to help students engage in a community project. Dardis was determined to use the opportunity to try her hand at mural painting and approached Waterloo Arts for assistance. After discussing materials and other logistics, Dardis set off to sketch design ideas, and I set off to scout a wall.

Nestled in the middle of north Collinwood, not far from the old Grovewood Tavern, I came upon a one story (no lift needed– easy on the budget), no window (easy on the design), already painted brick (easy on the councilman) commercial garage.  This salmon-colored monstrosity, facing the newly rebuilt Salvation Army, was crying out for an arts intervention. I learned the building was owned by a group of firefighters called The Vanguards of Cleveland, but their old website and seldom used Facebook page left me little hope of reaching someone. I was wrong.

Ten minutes after sending an email into the virtual abyss, Rudolph Buffington, President of the Vanguards, cast back a resounding, “Yes, we would love a mural, especially one painted with the community.” The design Dardis was working on depicted the idea that we are all part of a community and our community is also reflected in each of us. Serendipitously, the mission of the Vanguards is to advocate for the Fire Department of the City of Cleveland to reflect the community it works in and to that end they have fought for fair employment practices for people of color.

Drawings of some of the original Vanguard members were worked into the design, as well as members of the Salvation Army and other residents in the neighborhood who would stop by to keep Dardis company while she painted. Sherwin Williams generously donated paint for the mural and middle school students in the Salvation Army summer camp came out twice a week throughout the summer to help Dardis paint.

In the meantime, I learned more about the impact the Vanguards had on Cleveland and beyond.  In 1980 the organization filed a class action discrimination suit against the city and in 1983, after eight years of loosing similar cases, Cleveland, led by Mayor George Voinovich, agreed to adopt a proposed consent decree, but the International Firefighters Association Local 93, intervened and that case made it’s way to the US Supreme Court. In 1986 a young lawyer, Edward Stege Jr., still practicing in Solon today, argued a winning case in favor of the Vanguards of Cleveland and affirmative action advocates around the country.


During the mural celebration, Dardis passed out framed prints of the mural to the young artists and their families and I introduced them to members of the Vanguards and told them the story of how those courageous gentlemen fought to change an unfair system. We talked about the perseverance it takes to face that challenge and the graciousness it takes to come back and work side-by-side with someone you just faced in the courtroom.  There are many quiet heroes in our communities who have worked, or are still working to change unjust systems, but too often we don’t hear their stories or the sacrifices they make. I am grateful that this mural led me to the Vanguards and their inspiring story. Sometimes it takes is a little art to help you see what is right in front of you.

December 1 & 2 – Winterloo Holiday Weekend!

January 5 – 26 Marcus Brathwaite

February 2 – March 25 6th Annual DayGlo Show



Waterloo Arts

15605 Waterloo Road

Cleveland, Ohio 44110