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.