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Face The Wall 

A 60-year-old mural raises an age-old moral dilemma

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For nearly 60 years a set of Works Progress Administration murals decorated the walls of Hatch School in Oak Park. Then one day last spring Darryl Lee, the father of a seven-year-old student, caught sight of them and was outraged by what he saw. After Lee complained that the murals contained offensive racial stereotypes they were covered. But on a frosty night in February they're temporarily on display again.

Inside the gym a wall of TV minicams on tripods and their ponytailed technicians stand between the school board and the audience of about 100. "It looks like there might be more press than people," snorts a gray-haired woman to her neighbor.

This being Oak Park, there are two options for proceeding with public discussion: a lot of screaming or what's called "the Process." The former is more entertaining and is no doubt the scenario for which the TV producers have hoped, but it leads to lasting bad feelings. The Process--which ensures that every single viewpoint, no matter how marginal, is heard--tends to defuse harsher emotions, in part because it uses up all the available oxygen. Tonight psychobabble notices about the "consensus process" on the walls establish the road to be taken.

So far in this debate screaming has been avoided, and school board president Eric Gershenson wants to keep it that way. Facilitators are introduced: a black woman and a white man, both school district employees. Tom O'Loughlin, a tall, tired-looking man with baggy eyes and a white mustache, is a 24-year district employee who's had training in conflict resolution, and this is his show. "Listen with respect," he intones. "Listen not only when you like or agree with what I say, but also when you don't agree. I'm going to repeat that." And he does.

Mildred Waltrip was hired as a part of a WPA project in 1936 to paint a pair of large murals in a hallway at Hatch. She suffered from polio and wore leg braces, and needed special scaffolding to complete her paintings. She intended the works to be educational and managed to jam quite a bit of material into a relatively small space. But they're not great art.

Each mural is divided into two subject areas and features a large map of the United States. One mural shows the nation's farms and industries as they existed 60 years ago; there are hogs, factories, cowboys, and black women, their hair done up in kerchiefs, in cotton fields. On the opposite wall the map displays moments in our country's history: Ponce de Leon in Florida, Pocahontas saving John Smith, Paul Revere sounding the alarm.

The focal point of the debate is also on this wall: the "People of the World" section. Waltrip, who was considered quite the liberal for showing a variety of human types in then-white-bread Oak Park, painted representatives of each of the major races as they were understood in 1936. The images are simple, even crude, and bear a remarkable resemblance to the childlike figures on a nearby banner celebrating Black History Month. They have minimal features and big smiles. The black figures, which have prominent red lips and fuzzy hair, hold spears and shields or rakes; several of the brown and red figures also hold spears.

Two or three figures stand next to each of the following definitions: "The White or Caucasian Race--Native to Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor and India. Immigrated to all other continents....The Yellow or Mongolian Race--Native to Asia....The Black or Negro Race--Native to Africa, Andaman Islands and Philippines....The Brown or Malay Race--Native to the Malay Peninsula, Islands of the Pacific and Madagascar....The Red or Indian Race--Native to North, Central, and South America."

Darryl Lee, who started the debate, seems to be a thoughtful man. "I'm just a very concerned African American parent," he says. "The images on the mural were in my opinion racist, stereotyped images of Africans, African Americans, and Native Americans. There's the classic black Sambo and the classic Aunt Jemima stereotype. These grotesque caricatures are your basic everyday racism. I feel black children are bombarded by enough negative images, and, as a taxpayer, I don't feel my son should see them in school.

References to Sambo as a paradigm of the black stereotype are numerous over the course of this debate. But British author Helen Bannerman, who lived in India at the turn of the century and wrote and illustrated stories for the amusement of her two daughters, set "The Story of Little Black Sambo" in East India. It deals with the adventures of a dark-skinned, lower-caste Indian boy, a Caucasian, who outwits a group of tigers, and it has nothing to do with Africa.

The Process continues when a panel of six people--three white, three black; three men, three women--steps up to the front. They represent, according to O'Loughlin, "as many viewpoints as we were able to locate in our time frame."

First is David Sokol, chairman of the history of architecture and art department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "I submit that the path to censorship hell is paved with good intentions. First remove these murals for the sake of the children, then ban library books that include stereotypes of people of color, Jews, Asians--and there is no telling where it will end."

Next is Patricia Lee, Darryl's wife, who speaks with deep feeling and at great length of "racist, stereotypical, offensive images," of big lips, of Sambo, and of self-esteem. District 97 superintendent John Fagan follows her, comparing art to textbooks, as something to be thrown out when it becomes outdated. Bobbie Raymond, founder of the integrationist Oak Park Housing Center, offers an art-history lesson and pleads for the murals to remain. Robin Simmons, a black former Hatch student, speaks of childhood hurts. She calls the images in the murals ugly and asks that they be taken down.

Finally Benjamin Williams, the black principal of Percy Julian Junior High School in Oak Park, speaks fervently in favor of keeping the murals where they are and using them to teach a lesson, to the surprise of most people in the room. He says he can't accept that black features are considered ugly and he says he doesn't understand the complaints about the figures' lips: "I understand white women are paying a lot of money to get their lips injected." Then he adds, "Art is the powerful disturber of the conscience. It serves as a worthy foe of complacency....The murals should stay at Hatch to remind us that we have a great responsibility here in Oak Park, and that is, to live our ideals."

A few audience members also offer remarks. Mistakes of the past at other schools are noted; once removed or destroyed the murals cannot be replaced. Several people mention that this could be a "teachable moment."

O'Loughlin announces that it's time to break into small groups, each one anchored by a school board member. The next stage of the Process--talking things to death in hopes of finding a consensus--is about to commence. Along with about half the remaining audience, I quietly leave the gym.

Out in the hallway a crowd gathers in front of the murals. A squat, white-haired cameraman stomps up and demands, "Where are they?" Someone indicates they're right in front of him. "That? You're kidding! They're making all this fuss about that?" He shakes his head in disgust, and his partner laughs. They shoot some footage.

An old white man belligerently declares that the murals and their defenders are racist. "I wouldn't want a kid to see this," he says.

Another man questions the priorities of the schools. "My first-grade kid knows all about Martin Luther King, but he didn't know who George Washington was. Is that right? These murals give a little idea about history."

A white man who says he's married to a Hispanic woman and has Hispanic-looking children says he doesn't have a problem with the way any of the figures are portrayed and would like his kids to see the murals.

A tall, dark-haired white man bounds around like a big excited puppy. He doesn't see the problem with the murals but wants to understand the viewpoint of those who do. Bouncing up and down and repeatedly stabbing the faces of the little black figures with his thumb, he asks the old man, an intense young black man, and a glowering fellow with a heavy Spanish accent, "Do you find this offensive? Do you? Do you?"

The young black man thinks the murals should be ripped down immediately. He's deeply offended by everything about them: the little figures in "People of the World," the portrayal of history, even the agricultural-products map. "Where are the black cowboys?" he asks, his voice rising. "Where is George Washington Carver?"

When I leave, the tall white man and the young black man are still going at it. "I can't believe they're having this debate," says the black man. "They should just rip them down." "I can't believe they're having this debate either," says the white man. "They should just leave them up."

Inside the gym the Process continues until 10:30. And it continues the next week for three more hours, though nearly an hour is given over to an "Indian greeting ceremony." The people I talk to say that most of those who attended favored keeping the murals but ended up deferring to the antimural minority to reach a consensus. The rakes that many figures of all colors in the murals hold were denounced. Feelings and self-esteem and their grave importance were discussed at great length.

Another Wednesday evening, another meeting. This one is held in the auditorium of Emerson Junior High School. The district's PR woman, Gail Crantz, has had a splendid inspiration and confined the entertainment news media and their tripods to the side of the room, making the members of the school board visible to the multitude.

Tonight's crowd is made up largely of middle-aged blacks and college kids from UIC, all industriously scribbling notes on legal pads for a class. First comes the public comment period. A woman gives Holocaust-related materials to the district, making a rather tenuous connection to the mural controversy. A woman with long, gray-streaked hair complains, "The Process was not adhered to, which I personally found very upsetting." A black woman who says she's a teacher invokes Sambo and says she's upset that only one of Pleasant Company's five historically based dolls is black. School board president Eric Gershenson gets solid applause when he tells the TV folks to "respect the dignity of the people speaking" and stop scurrying around sticking microphones in their faces.

District superintendent John Fagan urges the board to consider not artistic merit but "instructional merit." He compares the schools to symphony orchestras, which don't play the same music every year, and declares that the consensus is that the murals--not just the Waltrip works, but two others in another hall that have been deemed insufficiently multicultural --should come down.

Each member of the board makes a statement, and it quickly becomes obvious that the murals are doomed. Stephen Huth--who calls the debate "much to-do about nothing"--agrees that it's not nice to injure feelings. Kathy Lamar declares with a straight face, "It's not censorship when you remove something hurtful." Dennis Trybus talks around the issue. Mary Daly Lewis, looking bored, just wants the murals down: "Hatch School is not a museum." Thomas Moher seems to have talked himself out of any doubts he once had. Richard P. White says brightly that he thinks it's interesting that this issue has aroused more controversy than raising property taxes. And Gershenson cites the murals' "bad anthropology," "bad social science," and lack of inclusiveness as reasons to pull them down.

At 9:30 PM Tom O'Loughlin pulls up an easel with a big pad of paper to record the "parameters" for handling the murals.

Eventually the board decides unanimously that the murals must come down. Moher's surviving scruples mean that they won't be thrown out, but there's no realistic alternate site and no money for their restoration.

The parameters the Process produced are on display:

"The murals will be preserved for historical purposes and out of respect for the artists.

"The experience with the WPA murals will be recorded and included as a part of the history of Oak Park.

"The four murals at Hatch School will be removed from their present location under the following conditions:

"The murals will be relocated as close to their original location as determined acceptable.

"The murals will remain in Oak Park.

"The administration will:

"Research and quantify restoration costs; explore all possible private resources to meet these costs; obtain Board approval before expenditure of public funds for restoration.

"Develop a plan for appropriate instruction in connection with the murals.

"Develop steps for removal, and relocation--if appropriate, in an Oak Park school.

"Establish wide accessibility--by choice.

"Incorporate participation of the Hatch community in the development of action plans.

"Arrange for the disposition of the murals to be a teachable moment."

After the meeting Gershenson defends the vote. "Hatch School is not a public gallery. It's not a public museum. It's an educational institution. Our primary obligation is to consider what best enhances the learning experience. We don't claim to have resolved any deep issues through what we've done."

"Tyranny of the left is no better than tyranny of the right," UIC professor David Sokol fumes shortly after the vote. "Multiculturalism should be an additive rather than a subtractive process. You don't substitute or remove something that a part of the multicultural matrix finds objectionable. You add to it. And that way you use it to enrich the community."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Cynthia Howe.

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