A Chicago-area middle school has removed a 1930s mural that depicts only white people after parents and students complained it didn't "reflect or represent" the "diversity" of the student body, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The 1937 mural by Ethel Spears was created through the Works Progress Administration, according to the
New Deal Art Registry. The paper said "Child and Sports — Winter" had been displayed in the Julian Middle School in Oak Park since the school's 2002 construction.
What did the school's principal have to say?
Principal Todd Fitzgerald sent a letter to families saying the mural was removed from the school's commons Saturday, the Tribune reported.
"I have recently had a number of conversations with students and parents about the mural," Fitzgerald wrote, according to the paper. "The students and parents who approached the administration felt that the mural did not reflect or represent the diversity of our student body, school or community. As a district, we are working diligently to achieve equity and promote a greater sense of inclusion and belonging in all of our schools. With these goals and the concerns of our families in mind, we decided to pursue the removal of the mural."
Image source: Barbara Bernstein/New Deal Art Registry, used by permission
Since the WPA mural is owned by the federal government, officials said the school had to take steps to meet legal requirements for its removal and preservation, the Tribune noted.
What did the New Deal Art Registry have to say?
Barbara Bernstein of the New Deal Art Registry told the paper she agrees the mural doesn't match Oak Park's present-day demographics but still views it as a possible learning tool.
"I think middle school children can understand that you have to look at art from the past with a little indulgence," Bernstein added to the Tribune. "The details are old-fashioned, the clothes are funny, it's mostly all boys who are skating, and there are few people of color in Oak Park at that time. That doesn't make it worthless. Instead of removing these murals, let's add new ones that bring the picture of life in Oak Park up to date."
She added to the paper that the WPA put artists back to work during the Great Depression: "The Chicago area has many of these murals in post offices, libraries and schools. They are treasures from the past. They remind us of a time when things were tough, but people were optimistic. We should respect and cherish them."
'It removes our history'
David Sokol — professor emeritus of American Art, Modern Art, and Museology at the University of Illinois at Chicago — told the Tribune he's concerned about the precedent set by removing the artwork.
"This was simply a fact of what the community looked like in 1937," Sokol noted to the paper. "It doesn't show anyone in a bad light. I think it's tragic. It removes our history. Taking it out of the education system is censorship and eradication. Kids could put on plays, build it into literature, theater, or a new art project. They could develop their own writings to say how they feel about it. There's opportunities for education or having a new mural to contrast it."
Fitzgerald told the Tribune that school officials will be talking to students about the mural, its historical context, the reasons for its removal, and the next steps for replacing it.
More from the paper:
Fitzgerald said the school's Social Justice Club has approached administrators about possibly replacing the piece with something created by the students with the help of art teachers and community members. School officials said those conversations will take place in the coming weeks.
"We do not currently have a set plan or timeline in place," Fitzgerald added to the paper, "but intend to keep the community engaged in and updated about the process as we move forward."