Why Chicago’s Depression-Era School Murals Sparked Debates About Art And Politics For 80 Years

WPA Murals Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
WPA Murals Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Why Chicago’s Depression-Era School Murals Sparked Debates About Art And Politics For 80 Years

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Earlier this year, Lake View resident Pamela Monaco read about a debate dividing the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. Three schools there were in the process of removing government-funded Depression-era murals after some students at those schools raised concerns that the art didn’t reflect the diversity of their student body.

As a supporter of preserving historic art, this concerned Pamela. So she turned to Curious City with a question:

How many government-funded Depression-era murals are left in the Chicago area, and how many have been destroyed or removed over the years?

According to the book Art for the People by Heather Becker, nearly 500 murals were created in Chicago during the Great Depression as part of federal jobs creation programs, chief among them the Works Progress Administration, or WPA.

However, according to Art for the People, almost half of those murals — or at least 220 — are no longer on display. Many have been destroyed, lost, painted over, or sold, while others — as is the case in Oak Park — have been deliberately removed due to pushback from local residents.

Some of these objections happened soon after the paint dried, while others occurred years later, as views of sensitive subjects like race and ethnicity have evolved. Below are the stories behind just a few area murals that have sparked controversy over the years. Taken together, they illustrate shifting definitions of the value and purpose of public art.

Farm Industry Mural
Winnetka Historical Society
Name: “Farms, Machinery, Industry, and Children”

Artist: Raymond Breinin

Where: The library of Skokie School, Winnetka, Ill.

Year Completed: 1934

Year Removed: 1934

Raymond Breninin said that the work of Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera inspired him to create this piece. It depicted a range of types of American labor, including agricultural and factory scenes. In one corner, three people — one black, one white, and one Asian — stand in an embrace.

But soon after the mural was created, the Winnetka school board deemed the mural “Communistic in character.” At a board meeting, they objected not only to the embrace between people of mixed races, but also the dingy, unhappy-looking working conditions.

“The workers are dejected; the atmosphere is sinister and threatening; it is unsuitable for the children of the Junior High School,” one school board official was quoted saying.

The mural was soon covered up by bookshelves and cabinets, and an attempt to restore the mural in 2003 was only partially successful.

Women's Contribution to American Progress
Barbara Bernstein / New Deal Art Registry
Name: “Women’s Contribution to American Progress”

Artist: Edward Millman

Where: Lucy Flower High School in Garfield Park

Year completed: 1940

Year removed: 1941

Year restored: 1998

On a wall of a Chicago school named in honor of Chicago school reformer Lucy Flower, WPA artist Edward Millman chose to pay tribute to Flower and several other influential women from American history. The multi-paneled mural originally included Flowers’ contemporary Jane Addams, as well as Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The mural also shows some of the struggles these women went through, including two panels that depict enslaved black women picking cotton.

As art restorer Becker writes in her book Art for the People, “poor lighting” was the reason the board gave for painting over it. However, it was understood at the time that many members of the board deemed the images of slavery “misery-laden” and thus inappropriate for a school.

In 1998, Becker and her organization, the Conservation Center, removed the paint and restored the murals as part of the first phase of a project to save WPA murals in dozens of Chicago public schools.

American Characters
Barbara Bernstein / New Deal Art Registry
Name: “World Map and People” and “American Characters”

Artist: Mildred Waltrip

Where: Hatch Elementary School in Oak Park

Year Completed: 1938

Year removed: 1995

Artist Mildred Waltrip intended to depict and honor indigenous groups from all over the world with her “World Map and People,” created for Hatch Elementary School in Oak Park. At Hatch, she also painted “American Characters,” a series of panels depicting workers of various kinds—farmers, miners, and construction workers—throughout American history.

However, many of the images she portrayed have become understood in more modern times as racist stereotypes. For example, in “World Map and People,” her portrayal of Africans shows them carrying spears, wearing loincloths and sporting prominent red lips.

According to gallery owner Robert Henry Adams, this kind of stylized caricature of Africans was quite common in the 1930s, from both white and African American artists. “Even [prominent black artist] Archibald Motley’s paintings contained a certain element of caricature,” he told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1995.

But also in 1995, parents at Hatch complained about the racist portrayal of Africans in “World Map and People,” along with “American Characters,” which, in some of its panels, depicted black people as slaves. School administrators agreed with their concerns and removed both murals by the end of that year.

Child and Sports - Winter
Barbara Bernstein / New Deal Art Registry
Name: “Child and Sports - Winter”

Artist: Ethel Spears

Where: Removed from Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park, now in storage

Year completed: 1937

Year removed: 2019

This mural was the first of the three that were removed from Oak Park schools in 2019. Originally painted for the no-longer-extant Lowell School and moved to Percy Julian’s cafeteria in the early 2000s, “Child and Sports - Winter” depicts children skating on a frozen pond and riding a horse-drawn sleigh.

However, all the children depicted in the mural are white. In spring of 2019, students from Percy Julian’s Social Justice Club argued that the school didn’t reflect the diversity of the student body. It made students of color feel excluded.

As Taylor, a Social Justice Club member put it: “You have to kind of put yourself in a new kid’s perspective. So say that, like … it’s your first day and you walk in, and you just see that painting … You’re not going to feel like you belong.”

Members of the Social Justice Club argued that the mural belongs in a museum, not their cafeteria. Percy Julian administrators quickly agreed to remove the mural. But after the decision was made and attracted media attention, club members faced backlash from fellow students and even teachers, many of whom felt taking down the mural was an erasure of history.

The mural is currently stored in a climate-controlled storage room in the Oak Park Elementary School District 97 office. Meanwhile, Julian Middle School administrators have promised to replace “Child and Sports - Winter” with a new mural. The Social Justice Club is pushing for a seat at the table in deciding what goes on the wall next.

Child and Sports - Summer mural
Barbara Bernstein / New Deal Art Registry
Name: “Child and Sports - Summer”

Artist: Ethel Spears

Where: Removed from Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park, now in storage

Year completed: 1937

Year removed: 2019

“Child and Sports - Summer” depicts a park in summertime, with children playing and adults strolling and sitting on benches. Like “Child and Sports - Winter,” all the people in the mural are white.

Both murals were painted by the same artist, Ethel Spears, and were originally intended to be displayed side-by-side at the no-longer-extant Lowell School in Oak Park. In the early 2000s, the murals were separated, and “Child and Sports - Summer” was placed in nearby Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School.

Shortly after the Social Justice Club at Julian Middle School complained that “Child and Sports - Winter” was making students of color at their school feel excluded, some students from Gwendolyn Brooks made the case to their administrators about the racial exclusivity of this companion piece. The Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School administrators followed the example of their counterparts at Julian and removed the mural in the summer of 2019.

Both “Child and Sports” murals are now in the same climate-controlled storage room in the Oak Park Elementary School District 97 office, ironically reunited.

Community Life in Oak Park Mural
Oak Park District 97
Name: “Community Life of Oak Park in the 19th Century”

Artist: Emmanuel Jacobson and Ralf Henricksen

Where: Horace Mann Elementary in Oak Park

Year completed: 1936

Year removed: Summer 2019

This mural shows scenes of everyday life in the 19th century — people walking outside in the cold, others huddling around a wood stove to keep warm. Like the murals from Percy Julian and Gwendolyn Brooks middle schools, the mural reflects the racial segregation of its time. In one scene, white settlers warm up in a cabin while a Native American woman shivers outside. Soon after Julian and Brooks school administrators decided to remove their murals, the Horace Mann school administration did the same.

“I personally support removal of any piece of art that does not fit with District 97’s mission,”

school board member Katherine Murray-Liebl told the Chicago Tribune.

The Horace Mann mural was more difficult to remove than the other two, since it was still in its original location, painted directly onto the wall. So, in order to keep costs down, the school board and school administration decided to cover it up with wood paneling, rather than move it or paint over it.

More about our questioner

Questioner Bio Pamela Monaco
Questioner Pamela Monaco stands outside of Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park. (WBEZ/Katherine Nagasawa)

Pamela Monaco is dean of instruction at Wright College, and has a background teaching English and theater. As a Lakeview East resident, she was inspired to ask this question from a visit to the Lakeview Post Office, where she saw an impressive Depression-era mural depicting Chicago’s history. It intrigued her that, during the Great Depression, the federal government had subsidized jobs for artists.

“Today, when it saddens me that NEA and NEH [the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities] are constantly having to fight for appropriations…we can look back and see a time when money was scarce, and yet we felt that this was really important,” she said.

Pamela cares deeply about preserving historic art, so she disagreed with the schools’ decisions to take down their WPA murals. In her view, they could be used as a teaching tool.

“Especially in schools, this is an opportunity to educate, to think about … how has the school changed [and] how has the community changed?” she says.

We took Pamela to Percy Julian Middle School to hear directly from members of the Social Justice Club, the student group that had argued for the removal of that school’s mural. The students told her about the lack of racial equity in their school, including the discrepancy in discipline between white students and students of color. In their view, having an all-white mural in the school cafeteria was a symbol of how their school was failing students like them.

After the discussion, Pamela said she’d learned a lot.

“Thank you for providing an education,” she told the students. “I realize I sit here as an old white lady of privilege, and I’m not always aware [of] how things come across.”

Though she’s still not totally convinced that the murals in Oak Park should have been removed, Pamela said she was happy to see the students having serious discussions about art and what it meant to them.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the source of the image provided for the mural “Farms, Machinery, Industry, and Children.” The image was provided by the Winnetka Historical Society.

Char Daston is a Curious City contributor. He has also produced for the Morning Shift and Worldview on WBEZ. Follow him @char_cago.