The Rev. Jessie “Ma” Houston, a Chicago minister and activist, spent decades working to improve the lives of people held in jail or prison.
It’s 40 years since her death, but her memory is kept alive through a mural across the street from the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, of which she was a founding member.
The 1994 piece titled “Feed Your Child the Truth” by Bernard Williams can be seen at the center of a Kenwood park named for Houston at 5001 S. Cottage Grove Ave.
It features a large, golden portrait of Houston surrounded by images celebrating African American history and culture. A portrait of a family at the center of the mural is flanked by two large African masks, people marching — with a nod to Rainbow PUSH — blues guitarist Johnny Shines and someone behind bars.
The mural’s title plays off the idea of sharing your culture with your children, Williams says, about “learning who you are and where you come from.”
“I think the work tries to encourage the love of culture and the love of the arts that come out of deep cultural roots, so it really is a celebration,” says Williams, 56.
The mural was done in partnership with Chicago Public Art Group, for which Williams is a board member.
Jon Pounds, the art group’s former executive director, calls Williams an “extraordinary artist.” He says the wall that now bears the mural was a magnet for graffiti and a source of tension in the neighborhood before Williams transformed it.
“I think that this mural really does represent the best of Chicago’s mural history as well as the best of Chicago Public Art Group’s history because it takes a site which was largely ignored or turned away from and has created an image which is compelling and desirable to look at,” Pounds says.
At the time of the mural’s creation, Williams was a few years out of graduate school at Northwestern University. He says his studies of master painters and traditional depictions of portraits and the human body helped inform “Feed Your Child the Truth.” But working with outdoor murals gave him a “liberating” understanding of space and of the concepts of “fragmentation and collage,” he says.
Williams’ restoration of the late Chicago muralist Calvin Jones’ work also was a major influence. With an emphasis on big, bright colors and patterns, and a mix of figuration and abstraction, Jones’ style was “percolating underneath the design” of “Feed Your Child the Truth,” Williams says.
He did “Feed Your Child the Truth” with the help of other artists and students involved in a summer program.
Williams says he visited Rainbow PUSH — then known as Operation PUSH, at 930 E. 50th St. — during the process of creating the mural. He says that “generated a certain amount of enthusiasm for the work. I think it gave me a lot of motivation to make something special, to really give this piece all of my energy.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder of Rainbow PUSH, says Houston helped inspire him to start his own prison ministry.
The Rev. Helen Sinclair, Houston’s daughter, says her mother’s ministry began in 1945 with her first visit to the Cook County Jail. Houston’s involvement with the civil rights movement and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. eventually led to her role in Operation PUSH early on, according to Sinclair.
In 1971, Houston expanded her ministry to include prisons, where she at first met some resistance, Sinclair says. As an ordained minister and member of St. Paul CME Church, 4644 S. Dearborn St., Houston rallied groups to hold church services and voter registration drives and to provide other aid to those in jail or prison.
Houston was the first woman to minister to prisoners on death row and worked with a number of Illinois governors on a correctional advisory panel.
She was known for wearing a big hat covered with buttons — as seen in the mural.
Williams says he thinks the mural, now 26 years old, has continued “to speak to people and to really make its way into some aspect of the local culture.”