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Historic WPA mural featuring only white children removed from Oak Park school

"Child and Sports–Winter," a WPA mural removed from a cafeteria at Percy Julian Middle School. | Barbara Bernstein/New Deal Art Registry

"Child and Sports–Winter," a WPA mural removed from a cafeteria at Percy Julian Middle School. | Barbara Bernstein/New Deal Art Registry

A Depression-era mural depicting white children playing outside in the winter was removed from Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park because school officials said it failed to represent the school’s diversity.

While some said the mural was upsetting to students of color who felt it excluded them from the school, a local historian likened the removal to a “modern-day book burning.”

Julian Principal Todd Fitzgerald announced the weekend removal in an email sent to school staff Monday.

“I have had students approach me pointing out that this picture does not represent our student body or the diversity of Oak Park,” Fitzgerald wrote. “We will be working with the Social Justice Club and our parent Diversity Committee to create a mural/canvas that better represents Julian Middle School.”

Cynthia Brito Millan, a coordinator for the middle school’s Social Justice Club, said the push to remove the mural began in February at a district school board meeting. Students expressed frustration about an atmosphere of exclusion for students of color — who make up 45 percent of the student body — and cited the mural as an example.

“This mural made students feel invisible because it doesn’t reflect the current student body,” Brito Millan said. “How can a student learn in a healthy environment when they don’t feel they are being seen?”

Brito Millan said removing the mural wasn’t an easy process and involved several meetings with a conservationist. She hopes  students will be able to collaborate with a local artist on a future mural featuring more diversity.

The mural — named “Child and Sports–Winter” — has been in the building since 2002. It was previously in Lowell Elementary, which is no longer open. Ethel Spears originally painted the piece in 1937 with funding from the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency formed in 1935 to create jobs for the unemployed and improve the country’s infrastructure.

The WPA funded out-of-work artists through the Federal Art Project to create art in public spaces like schools from 1935 to 1943. The mural is one of eight in Oak Park, and includes a sister mural, “Child and Sports–Summer,” located at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School on the west side of the suburb. Whites are also the only people depicted in that mural.

Other WPA-funded murals have sparked outrage in another school in Oak Park and other cities in the past, including some that depicted stereotypical images of blacks or Native Americans.

"Child and Sports–Winter," a WPA mural removed from a cafeteria at Percy Julian Middle School. | Barbara Bernstein/New Deal Art Registry

“Child and Sports–Winter” was located on an upper wall in the cafeteria. | Barbara Bernstein/New Deal Art Registry

‘You can’t erase history’

David Sokol, a retired professor of American art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, called the removal of the mural a “modern-day book burning.”

“There is nothing offensive with the mural; it just shows all white kids playing,” said Sokol, an author and Oak Park resident. “Just because it doesn’t have any black kids, doesn’t make it offensive. It doesn’t display any stereotypes at all. That’s how Oak Park looked back then. You can’t erase history.”

Barbara Bernstein, a founder of the New Deal Art Registry, said the removal of the mural is a missed opportunity for students to learn about the history around them.

“I think it does a real disservice to remove a piece of historical work,” said Bernstein. “Not everything in your environment is going to be a perfect reflection of you.”

Sokol, instead, would’ve rather the school kept the mural on display and used it as a learning experience for the students or counterbalance it by making another mural showing the modern Oak Park.

The front of the school features a mosaic tribute to the school’s namesake, Percy Julian, an African American scientist and inventor who lived in Oak Park. There is also a large painting in the school showing a black child and white child growing up; at one point they are shown holding hands.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.

"Child and Sports–Winter," a WPA mural removed from a cafeteria at Percy Julian Middle School. | Barbara Bernstein/New Deal Art Registry

“Child and Sports–Winter,” a WPA mural removed from a cafeteria at Percy Julian Middle School. | Barbara Bernstein/New Deal Art Registry