Chicago artist William “Bill” Walker was one of the most-renowned muralists in a city with more African American street murals from the 1970s and 1980s than any other.
Walker “was the primary figure behind Chicago’s famed ‘Wall of Respect’ . . . who created numerous murals that depicted African American historical figures, protested social injustice and promoted love, respect, racial unity and community change,” according to Chicago writer Jeff W. Huebner, author of the new book “Walls of Prophecy and Protest: William Walker and the Roots of a Revolutionary Public Art Movement” (Northwestern University Press, $34.95).
In this edited excerpt, Huebner writes about the ultimately failed effort to save a work viewed as Walker’s masterpiece:
On the balmy afternoon of Sept. 15, 2015, about 100 people gathered outside the Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Church in the middle of what was once the Cabrini-Green public housing development on the Near North Side.
The church used to be dwarfed by surrounding high-rises, but, by 2011, they’d all been torn down as the city moved to replace these “warehouses of the poor” with mixed-income neighborhoods. Now, the church was surrounded by vacant lots and park land.
The people were attending a rally to raise awareness of efforts to preserve the 1901 church and restore the fading mural on its brick façade, painted in 1972 by artist William “Bill” Walker, regarded as the father of the community mural movement, owing to his leadership in the epochal 1967 “Wall of Respect” mural, and one of the nation’s most influential contemporary and African American muralists. The artist himself was present only in spirit: He died in 2011 at 84.
People drove or walked past this stretch of Clybourn Avenue daily, scarcely aware of the mural’s significance as one of the nation’s oldest surviving community murals, among the early masterworks of the mural movement and perhaps the oldest outdoor mural featuring civil rights movement-related content. It was also one of the few remaining outdoor murals (of dozens) Walker painted in Chicago that could still be visited in city neighborhoods.
“All of Mankind: Why Were They Crucified?” was one of a number of murals Walker created in the interior and on the exterior of the building between 1971 and 1974, when it was the San Marcello Mission, a Catholic church serving a small number of the project’s residents. In 1974, for $10, the Archdiocese of Chicago transferred ownership to a family-run Baptist congregation, which continued to use it.
The privately owned lot near Clybourn Avenue and Larrabee Street upon which the church sat had become valuable since the Chicago Housing Authority initiated its “Plan for Transformation” in 2000. The city demolished its high-rise public housing and began replacing it with mixed-income communities. (The last Cabrini high-rise was razed in March 2011.)
Cabrini’s land was coveted because it was near the Gold Coast and the Magnificent Mile. The Thomas family, which owned Strangers Home MBC, offered the property for sale in 2007, reportedly for a price in the millions. It was on and off the market for years, as the asking price kept going down. The church, built for an Episcopalian congregation in 1901 when the area was largely Italian, was among the last living relics of the old neighborhood.
The mural was valuable, too — the San Marcello Mission was once known as Chicago’s “little Sistine Chapel.” Many considered the entire “All of Mankind: Unity of the Human Race” cycle of interior and exterior murals to be Walker’s masterpiece, as valuable as any sculpture in the Loop. “Here,” wrote Ausbra Ford, artist, African art scholar and professor emeritus of art at Chicago State University, “Bill Walker becomes one with the great black muralists of the thirties and forties like Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff and Charles Alston.”
In 2004, the congregation whitewashed the interior murals, an epic vision of African American family love and community togetherness that Walker created as an alternative to the poverty, crime, violence and other social ills outside, claiming lead paint contamination.
Members left intact the mural on the 40-foot-high exterior, in which Walker inscribed 25 civil and human rights-related martyrs and events, from Jesus to “Jews in Nazi Germany” to Emmett Till to Fred Hampton to “Dr. King” to the “My Lai Massacre” to policemen killed by snipers, along with symbols representing interracial and interfaith unity. It had faded over the decades.
The rally was organized by the Save All of Mankind Coalition, composed of members from the Chicago Public Art Group — co-founded by Walker in 1971 as the Chicago Mural Group — the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Near North Unity Program, as well as others. With the church and mural threatened by redevelopment, the group had been working to find a buyer — perhaps a community organization — that would preserve the church while funds could be raised to restore the murals.
“When you think about what the mural represents and this idea of ‘All of Mankind,’ it’s a concept and a notion that perhaps has more relevance today than it did in the 1970s,” Ra Joy, then executive director of Arts Alliance Illinois, told the crowd. “When you think about the politics of division, to me, this mural represents our unending journey to shape a more perfect union. It represents embracing the ‘We’ in ‘We the people.’ It represents the sustaining story of us. Saving this great treasure is not about living in the past. It’s about conveying to future generations the great cultural legacy of Chicago.”
If Walker were painting today, I’m sure we’d see the same themes. We’d see the house divided, the two nations, black and white, separate and unequal. Yes, we’d see the confrontation, the oppression, the violence, the rage and despair — we’d see the truth. But we’d also see the house continually under construction, the community and democracy building always in progress. We’d see the calls for interracial understanding, for healing, unity, love. We’d see the hope for change and peace, and we’d see neighbors working together in their communities every day to make it a reality.
As Walker said: “I’m saying that there’s got to be a war on ignorance, there’s got to be a war on greed, there’s got to be a war on the part of people of good will on the kinds of things that are crippling mankind. There’s got to be a war against the thing that is going to destroy us all. I think it’s unfortunate when those of us who have minds and can say something and speak up will not say it because of our 20-year mortgage and the fact that our salary is pretty much spent for the next 20 years … I’m saying that people are going to have to come together and give of themselves. There’s going to have to be more public art.”
Speaking truth to power — whether gang leaders or politicians or parents — had always been Walker’s message. He and other community muralists may not have fomented massive social and national change or political revolution; he may not have ended, or diminished, wars, racism, man’s inhumanity to man, inequality.
But his work stirred hearts, stoked minds, spurred dialogue and sparked action. His public art had a lasting cultural impact on the city and the nation and a personal impact on untold numbers of artists and other citizens, demonstrating that people had the power and that the people — including newer generations of community muralists and street artists and activists — can still have the power to use culture as an indispensable weapon in, as King said, “the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”
The Save All of Mankind Coalition could not save “All of Mankind.” In early November 2015 we received word Stranger’s Home Missionary Baptist Church was under contract. The prospective buyer, a real estate investor, had given us an ultimatum: We could have the entire mural facade dismantled brick by block (to be reassembled elsewhere later) for $300,000, or we could have just the central, cinder-blocked interfaith brotherhood scene removed for $15,000. Either option would have destroyed the context and integrity of the mural. The destroyed interior mural, hidden behind latex paint, could have been uncovered, expensively. We refused.
On Dec. 9, 2015, days before the scheduled closing, which was later postponed, the exterior mural was whitewashed (actually painted gray).