In 1936, UNM President James Zimmerman received funding from the Works Progress Administration for several buildings on campus, including a new library. Zimmerman hired John Gaw Meem to design the library in a Spanish pueblo style. Meem’s design included four recessed bays in the great hall for a set of large-scale murals, and Meem recommended that Kenneth Adams, also a friend to Zimmerman, be commissioned for the work. The library was constructed from 1936-1938, but funding was not available for the murals. In 1938, Zimmerman received a Carnegie grant to hire Adams to work on the murals for the library and teach part-time in UNM”s Department of Fine Arts. The murals were completed in 1939. --Paraphrased From Bellmore, A., & Bordeianu, S. (2013)
Prior to the building of the library, there was racial tension on campus. In the mid-1930s “UNM sororities and fraternities systematically excluded or denied membership of Hispanic/Mexican American/Nuevomexicano students.” In 1933 Richard Martin Page, an Assistant Professor of Psychology,
“constructed a survey he modeled after L.L. Thurstone's, a pioneer in measuring racial prejudice, to measure English-speaking peoples attitudes of Spanish-speaking peoples. In his discussions with President Zimmerman about the survey, he was told to get opinions of Hispanics in the community before using it. Page contacted George I. Sanchez of the New Mexico Department of Education, Division of Information and Statistics to get his "approval of a plan to study attitudes of more mature individuals in a quiet way." Sanchez suggested sending the survey to the high school students of the state. Shortly before Page's survey was to be administered, a copy of it was made public and a statewide controversy arose.” From archival finding aid
Due to the controversy, the Board of Regents formed a committee to investigate the incident in 1933, and Page resigned from UNM following the hearings. As President, Zimmerman received much criticism for overlooking and supporting Page’s project, and for supporting campus fraternities and sororities that were excluding Hispanic students, and he continued to deal with the fall out from these incidents for several years.
Zimmerman may have attempted to mitigate this fallout by commissioning a mural showing harmony between cultures in New Mexico:
“In his proposal for the Carnegie grant, UNM President Robert F. Zimmerman states that the murals would represent each of the three major cultures in New Mexico and their contributions to civilizations, with the fourth mural depicting the union of the three cultures in the Southwest.” --From Three Peoples murals handout
“Adam’s Zimmerman Library murals are related to other New Deal-funded murals found across the country and state. They echo the democratic sentiment of the period, with their emphasis on working people coming together for the greater social good.” (Bellmore, 83)
Even so, “for New Mexico and the rest of the country, the 1930s and 1940s were decades of socioeconomic upheaval and distress, which heightened racial and ethnic antagonisms.” Further, the murals were “seldom mentioned in campus or local newspapers for the first thirty years after their installation in the 1940s… . Thus it is not known how Hispanic and Native American students of that era viewed the artwork” (Sisneros, 21, 22).