The mural at Percy Julian Middle School was not a Confederate general on horseback. It was not the stereotypical mural, “People of the World,” with its Native American and African insults and which was  rightly removed from an Oak Park public school a generation ago. It was a pretty artistically terrible WPA mural of white children ice skating in a long ago, pretty much fairytale moment. 

Originally installed at the long gone Lowell School, it somehow resurfaced in the cafeteria of Percy Julian Middle School at Ridgeland and Washington a number of years ago. Now, in a vaguely worded letter to parents, Todd Fitzgerald, the school’s principal, announced that, based on input from unnamed parents and students, the mural has been removed. District 97 school officials have not yet commented beyond saying that the mural has been transported to a climate-controlled storage area. 

The offense is allegedly that the mural did not reflect the school’s current diversity. The mural in question hardly reflected reality in 1937 or 2019. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t great art. But it had some history from the fascinating WPA Depression era. And if someone had said, “I’ve got a great idea for a big painting and now I need just the right wall” maybe we’d have nominated that space in the middle school cafeteria and shuttled “Child and Sports – Winter” onto a spare wall in the back hallway. Heck, it’s not even a good name for a painting. 

Here’s our worry. If Oak Park is going to move forward into a new era of racial equity, we’re not going to get there by erasing what happened in the past, especially something this innocuous. We need to have more “courageous conversations” but not necessarily about a snapshot that could have come out of an early Judy Garland musical. 

If parents and students raised this as an issue, then let’s use it as a teachable moment and not shuttle the mural off to a storage room, climate-controlled or not. 

If we’re going to face up to all our shortcomings on race, we’re going to need a more tough-minded and transparent approach than painting over paintings that deserve to be painted over.

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