Over the last several years, Bernard Williams has helped to restore four significant outdoor murals from the 1970s. But the 37-year-old Roseland native is also an artist and muralist in his own right. He shows his paintings–largely drawn from African-American history–at Jan Cicero Gallery in Chicago and G.R. N’Namdi Gallery in Detroit, and he’s exhibited at museums and art centers in Indiana, Texas, Colorado, Alabama, and Mississippi. In 1992, after earning an MFA from Northwestern, Williams joined the Chicago Public Art Group. Since then, he’s led over a dozen community mural projects, mostly on the south side.
In 1995, Williams and three assistants painted Tribute to Pullman Porters on the east side of the railway viaduct at 103rd and Cottage Grove. The mural paid homage to the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the nation’s first black labor union, as well as to its founder and longtime leader, A. Philip Randolph. “It was a real breakthrough for me,” says Williams, citing the challenge of painting 14-foot-high heads. “That was the standout aspect.” The artwork has been featured in a few recent books, including Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride: African American Murals by James Prigoff and Robin Dunitz. “That places it, in my mind, as a cultural treasure,” says Williams.
But on August 17, Tribute to Pullman Porters was completely painted over by city workers. “It was in a serious state of deterioration,” says Ray Padvoiskis, a spokesman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation. “Constituents approached the alderman and wanted it removed.”
Eric Tabb, chief of staff for Ninth Ward alderman Anthony Beale, contends that the mural had been vandalized and damaged by water. “The alderman wouldn’t have asked for it to be painted over if it wasn’t in bad shape,” says Tabb. “He did it because it needed to be done.”
Others dispute that claim. Lyn Hughes is director of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum and the head of the Historic North Pullman Organization, which commissioned the artwork. She saw the mural in fine condition days before it was destroyed. “I think it’s a damn shame,” she says. “To do that is just disgusting.” Chicago Public Art Group director Jon Pounds says the mural “showed no signs of damage” when he last saw it a month ago.
When Williams was painting the mural, Hughes persuaded him to include full-length portraits of herself, state senator Emil Jones, and former Ninth Ward alderman Robert Shaw. Shaw’s son Herbert ran against Beale in the 1999 city elections. Did “lingering bad blood,” as one resident put it, have anything to do with the whitewash?
“If it was because of political rivalry,” replies Tabb, “the alderman would’ve done it two years ago.”
Even if the mural had been damaged by water or graffiti, says Pounds, all the alderman had to do was call–the artwork could’ve been repaired with minimal effort. Now Tabb’s invited CPAG reps to meet with Beale and talk about “redoing” the mural. But Pounds says if the community wants it redone, the city should cough up the cash–an estimated $20,000. Tabb says he can discuss that with the alderman. Pounds is exploring legal options. Williams is stunned. “There’s obviously major flaws in how the city or whoever views these paintings,” he says. “There’s a real gap in understanding what’s valuable and what’s not. They don’t have a concept of what they’re covering.”
Though the mural was painted on city property, it wasn’t a city-owned artwork, which places it outside the purview of the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Public Art Program. Nevertheless, program director Mike Lash is sympathetic and hopes to get to the bottom of the whiteout. “It was a great mural,” he says. “It’s a loss to the community. Hopefully we can get a groundswell up and do a new piece.”
At a press conference at 103rd and Cottage Grove, scheduled for 11 AM this Friday, September 7, artists will make brief statements decrying the loss of Tribute to Pullman Porters as well as other street murals in recent years, and they’ll call for the creation of protective measures. “What this city needs to do is draft a mural protection ordinance,” Pounds says. “They need to create a policy that will respect significant murals so they can never be vulnerable to someone’s whims. Some murals should be gone–their life is over. But the city should take steps to decide what’s part of our cultural patrimony and ensure that murals can’t be destroyed without a neighborhood review process.” –J.H.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.