Whitewashing All of Mankind
December 21, 2015 3:43 PM   Subscribe

"All of Mankind," a 1971 mural by Chicago artist William Walker ("What Langston Hughes has been to African American letters, William (Bill) Walker is to African-American images," declared Victor Sorell of Chicago State University, while mural historian Jim Prigoff described him as "the Diego Rivera of the United States") has finally, despite more than a decade of activism seeking to preserve and restore it, been painted over completely. It had been one of the last three surviving murals in Chicago by the prolific muralist, who died in 2011 at the age of 85.

Originally, "All of Mankind" consisted of two murals on the church now known as the Stranger's Home Missionary Baptist Church: a long-lost interior mural, and the recently-whitewashed exterior mural. ("... the church facade features one of Walker’s recurring motifs: four heads, representing different races, interlocked in a symbol of brotherhood and goodwill. Around the window is a list of civil rights-related martyrs and events, including Dr. King, Medgar Evers, the My Lai Massacre, and the shootings at Kent State.")

This 2005 article from the Chicago Reader by arts journalist Jeff Huebner describes how and why the interior mural was painted over, but also tells the story of how Walker was invited to create the murals by Dennis Kendrick, a Benedictine priest then recently assigned to what was then known as San Marcello, a small mission church surrounded by the Chicago housing project Cabrini-Green.

Of Cabrini-Green, Kendrick wrote, after the death of a young gang member named Larry as a result of a failed grocery store stick-up:
"For me the death was meaningless, absurd. The destructive forces shaping Larry's life-environment were absurd, inhuman. Twenty thousand human beings, mostly juvenile, poured into 20, 16, 10, 8 story high-rise buildings, stark steel and concrete, packed into six square city blocks, low-incomes, few resources, surrounded by the affluence of the Lake Shore and the Loop. Cabrini-Green, a small community created by the fears of the larger community and ignored by them except in time of trauma and tragedy. How would we be redeemed?"
Kendrick set to work: he set up a counseling center for heroin addicts on methadone in the church basement, helped found a street-work program to offer young men alternatives to violent street gang activity, opened a vocational training center in Cabrini-Green for youthful offenders on probation -- and invited William Walker to paint his murals on the church walls.

William Walker was already a well-known muralist at this point, and was considered one of the founders of the community mural movement. He had been one of the primary organizers of the 1967 collective work Wall of Respect. Featuring portraits of fifty notable African-Americans, the mural declared its intentions clearly: "The Wall was created to Honor our Black Heroes, and to Beautify our Community." Even though the work ("the mighty black wall") only lasted four years before it (and the building it was painted on) was destroyed in a fire, its influence was long-lasting and far-reaching (including national exposure via Ebony magazine). (The Wall has also been recreated digitally (in Flash and Quicktime, unfortunately) by Northwestern University's Block Museum of Art.)

"Wall of Respect" was produced under the auspices of the Organization of Black American Culture, which essentially disbanded after the completion of the project. In 1970, Walker went on to co-found (with John Pitman Weber) the Chicago Mural Group (later called the Chicago Public Art Group), which Weber later described as "consciously multicultural." (Jon Pounds, executive director of CPAG in 2005: “In the most segregated city in America, and working in communities that were segregated, [Walker] felt it was important that the movement be utopian and work across racial barriers.”)

"Murals for the People," a 1971 exhibition by the group at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, transformed the museum's basement galleries into a workshop for the four participating artists (William Walker, Eugene Eda, Mark Rogovin, and John Weber), with the public invited to observe the creation of their public art. (Walker's "Wall of Love" was a product of this exhibition.) The artists also produced a 16-page statement of purpose -- titled simply "The Artists' Statement" -- which became a founding manifesto for the community mural movement.

(A 1997 Chicago Reader profile of William Walker by Jeff Huebner provides a great deal of detail on these and many other aspects of his career, including a list of works -- both lost and then-extant. This fragment of an oral history interview with Walker from 1991 may be of interest, too.)

The murals themselves have always seemed under threat. Walker's mural "Peace and Understanding, Wall of Salvation" was completed in 1970; by 1975, Tribune critic Linda Winer was already concerned about its condition and upkeep. It still existed in 1989 ("The fading images, 4 1/2 stories tall, still have a haunting presence, though much of their power is gone.") By 1991 it would be gone -- replaced by whitewash and advertisements.

According to Jeff Heubner, writing in the Reader in 2001, the loss of "Peace and Understanding" spurred CPAG to identify a list of endangered murals and to begin working on conserving and restoring murals, despite the lack of "structural support from local cultural or municipal institutions." Two of Walker's murals have been restored as a result: "Childhood Is Without Prejudice," said to be his favorite (more: 1 2); and "History of the Packinghouse Worker" (more: 1 2). CPAG also recently oversaw the restoration of "Under City Stone" by Caryl Yasko, believed to be one of the earliest Chicago murals by a woman artist (more: 1 2 3 4).

"All of Mankind," however, would not be saved. In a public statement on Facebook, Jon Pounds of the CPAG described "bitterness and sadness" at the news that the mural had been painted over, apparently to "make the property acceptable for sale to an investor/speculator" in anticipation of the impending redevelopment of the long-vacant Cabrini-Green property.
posted by orthicon halo (19 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
I learned about this situation from a recent article by the Trib's Mary Schmich; it's behind a paywall, unfortunately, but I think it's worth excerpting:
Outside the Northside Stranger's Home Missionary Baptist Church, the whitewash crew was loading up its equipment. William Walker's historic mural, "All of Mankind," had already vanished beneath a coat of grayish white paint.

Standing in the fading afternoon, [Jon] Pounds [emeritus executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group] asked the workers if they knew what they'd just painted over. They didn't. He quietly explained.

The mural had been painted on the old brick church in 1972, in an era of social revolution, by an African-American artist named William Walker, a Chicagoan known as the father of the urban art movement. It was radical in its day, a depiction of men and women as peers, members of different religions as allies, people of different races as friends.

At the top, Walker had painted the names of people who died brutally but whose lives had become symbols of hope and justice.

Jesus, Dr. King, Anne Frank, Gandhi, Malcolm X.

As Pounds talked, the crew listened, and he sensed they were moved, but they were just hired hands and had to be on their way.

Afterward, he stood for a while under the gray December sky looking at the blank wall.

"There was a void on the surface of the church," he says, "and it felt like a void in my heart."
posted by orthicon halo at 3:46 PM on December 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

November and December have been such a depressing season this year in Chicago. I hope the new year brings us some relief.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:56 PM on December 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

It's hard to know whether to rage or sigh or what about this kind of thing. Murals have always felt to me like they are transitory, due to the nature of their display surfaces. But this one in particular feels somehow egregious when it comes to its disappearance. I wish things like this didn't happen.
posted by hippybear at 3:57 PM on December 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is just around the corner from Chicago's latest and most egregious SoDoSoPa, Newcity.
posted by phunniemee at 3:59 PM on December 21, 2015

How is this legal? I don't think it would be in California.
posted by cccorlew at 4:11 PM on December 21, 2015

Fabulous post about a sad and frustrating story. Thank you.
posted by spitbull at 4:14 PM on December 21, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is just around the corner from Chicago's latest and most egregious SoDoSoPa, Newcity.

Holy shit, that website is some platonic ideal of execrable yuppiedom.
posted by goodnight to the rock n roll era at 4:14 PM on December 21, 2015 [6 favorites]

For context this has occurred in the midst of Chicago's deliberate war of attrition on affordable housing where a city that can't balance a single account somehow manages to sit on almost a half billion dollars of affordable housing funds even with overpaying their pension contribution obligations.
posted by srboisvert at 4:28 PM on December 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

Well it's still under there somewhere. Maybe someday it will be unearthed again.
posted by dilaudid at 4:41 PM on December 21, 2015

I hope the person or persons responsible for this are determined and recorded. Not in hopes of retribution, just that this atrocity should be properly attributed for all time.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 4:52 PM on December 21, 2015

This is just around the corner from Chicago's latest and most egregious SoDoSoPa, Newcity.

Stare into the heart of the dynamic water feature and all will become clear to you....
posted by JHarris at 5:14 PM on December 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

As for the person asking about legality, Chicago has a complicated and corrupt history with regard to preservation of its buildings and public art or spaces. Although the first real modern push for preservation happened with the expansion of the city's authority to preserve sites in 1987, it just got mired in the penny ante bullshit that everything the alderman touch gets splashed with.

We recent;ylost Bertrand Golderg's Prentice Hospital, despite a unanimous vote of the Commission on Chicago Landmarks that Prentice met the criteria for a Chicago Landmark, the Commission ultimately sided with Northwestern University (who owns the hospital campus) and cleared the way for demolition. Another of Goldberg's unique buildings (Marina City) is still not legally protected.

As bad as we are at building preservation, we're worse at neighborhood and cultural preservation (See the destruction of the Maxwell Street marketplace).

I get it--the city has a lot of problems and needs to focus on the cops, our schools, the CTA, improving life on the ground for all of us--but we're so short-sighted about what makes the city amazing.
posted by crush-onastick at 5:52 PM on December 21, 2015 [7 favorites]

Holy shit, that website is some platonic ideal of execrable yuppiedom.

That’s not the insult it once was.
posted by bongo_x at 6:08 PM on December 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

To continue my derail, there are only 21 "post-Fire" buildings left in the Loop, most having no official protection. And these are the places of power, memorializing majority culture, in Chicago.

What happened when they tore down Cabrini and annexed that neighborhood for Lincoln Park'Gold Coast was something else. Landmarks.Org has a wealth of information on the attempt to create a "preservation solution" for the Chicago Housing Authority's Lathrop Homes and here's the Chicago Reader on the topic. When the city started tearing down the projects, it was doing the right thing but it was covering up its sins. There is a fair amount of cultural anthropology (There Are No Children Here, for one) but there's not much internalizing that this is the city we made for a very long time. There's very little recognition that culture was created there by people who deserved better--the culture discussed in the OP's link. I'm just so sorry that this happened.

Chicago has the National Public Housing Museum (it opened a few years ago in the last standing Jane Addams Homes building--the first CHA project, a WPA project) (not to be confused with Hull House--my great grandfather was a child of Hull House), which I suppose will save some of it. But by virtue of it being the "Public Housing" Museum, it will always be othering in a significant way.

I've been sitting on this comment a while now--as I think I'm sort of all over the map with what I'm saying and what I'm trying to say. I just love this place so much and what it to be the very best it can be but I don't see that happening.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:40 PM on December 21, 2015 [7 favorites]

Orthicon Halo/crush-onastick - thanks so much for this post/informative links ... I used to tutor/mentor @ Cabrini Connections & this mural was enjoyed & hit me in many emotional ways whenever I drove by it ... Pretty gutted by yet another way this city is swinging towards being totally plastic & out of touch with its residents.
posted by mctsonic at 8:52 PM on December 21, 2015

> I hope the person or persons responsible for this are determined and recorded

... and credit them as the creators of the mural "All of Mankind (White Folks' Version)"
posted by scruss at 9:28 PM on December 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

"How is this legal? I don't think it would be in California."

I have forwarded it to the state official in charge of making those determinations, who is currently peacefully asleep next to me. If its changling hands without any public money involved, the state may not have jurisdiction, if Chicago's own ordinance doesn't protect it. But there's been a rash of destroyed murals in Illinois lately so preservation people are spoiling for a fight. If they investigate I won't be able to tell you, buy at least it'll come to the right people's attention at the state level.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:59 AM on December 22, 2015 [6 favorites]

I have forwarded it to the state official in charge of making those determinations, who is currently peacefully asleep next to me.

For a minute definitely assumed this was your cat.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 7:28 AM on December 22, 2015 [6 favorites]

The Chicago Reader's Deanna Isaacs had a story about this today, with some details I haven't seen elsewhere:
This fall, on the market at $999,900, the building found a buyer. A representative for the church board, who didn't want her name used, confirmed that a contract has been signed and the sale is pending. Preservationists were given five days to find the money to either move the mural—which Pounds says is not a viable option—or to counter the offer and buy the building.

"There just wasn't enough time to put that together," Pounds says. "But we did not think the mural would be painted over. We thought we'd be able to deal with the buyer."

Not enough time? Here's what the church spokesperson had to say about that: "We had five and a half years to repair those murals and nothing happened. We got no support. The money wasn't there. And our demographics have moved out. So we had no choice. The only logical decision was to paint [over] the murals."

And then she got to the crux of the matter: "No one was going to buy the church with the murals on it."

So maybe, in the city's hottest development area (as the real estate listing described it), the repairs were never the issue.
Meanwhile, DNAinfo had a human-interest story about an eighth-grader who did an award-winning history project on the mural last year.
posted by orthicon halo at 7:58 PM on December 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

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