Historic Depression-Era Mural Removed from Chicago School for Depicting Only White Children

"Child and Sports–Winter," a WPA mural removed from a cafeteria at Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park, Illinois. (Barbara Bernstein, www.NewDealArtRegistry.org)
Barbara Bernstein, www.NewDealArtRegistry.org

A historic Depression-era mural has been removed from a Chicago school because it featured a painting of white children.

The painting, “Child and Sports–Winter,” was removed from the cafeteria at Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park, Illinois, because the winter scene of children playing in the snow wasn’t “inclusive” enough as all the children in the painting were white, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

The painting was produced in 1937 during the Great Depression by artist Ethel Spears who was a featured artist in President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Administrators at the school, named after Percy Julian, an African American scientist and inventor, insisted that the painting of white children upset the school’s majority black student population.

But David Sokol, a retired professor of American art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an Oak Park resident, said the destruction of the mural was akin to a “modern-day book burning.”

“There is nothing offensive with the mural; it just shows all white kids playing,” Sokol told the paper. “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, the founder of the New Deal Art Registry, criticized the removal of the historic painting.

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

In a statement to Breitbart News, Bernstein added, “I think that middle-school children can understand that you have to look at art from the past with a little indulgence — the details are old-fashioned, the clothes look 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 said.

In an email to staff on Monday announcing the decision to remove the mural, the school’s principal, Todd 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.”

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to include the additional statement from Bernstein.

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