Saving A Piece of History in Cabrini Green

by Cenabeth Cross 

The William Walker Mural
One of the few remaining murals painted by William Walker is under threat. Walker, born in 1927, has three remaining works here in Chicago.

The endangered “All of Mankind” mural, located on the front of a church at 617 W. Evergreen Ave., is one of the few remaining murals painted by artist William Walker, who currently lives in a CHA senior building.
Photo by Cenabeth Cross

His “Wall of Respect,” which he painted at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue in 1967, is credited with sparking the community mural movement, but that one has already been completely destroyed.

Now, one of his remaining murals is in danger of being demolished. This endangered work located at 617 W. Evergreen Ave. is known as the “All of Mankind” mural.

Walker painted the mural on the front wall of a church near the Cabrini-Green development.

In the “History of Parishes of the Archdioceses of Chicago” (vol. II), it is written that the church was originally run by an Italian Protestant minister. In 1927, the building was converted to a Catholic mission church, San Marcello for the St. Phillip Benizi Parish, to serve the Italian population that was dominant in the area at the time. Today, the building is a Baptist church owned by the pastor and his family.

Beginning in 1962, when the first of the Chicago Housing Authority developments were built in the area surrounding the church, the population of the neighborhood began to change. After the 20 years it took to complete all of the Cabrini-Green developments, the community was comprised of mostly African Americans. At this time, Dennis Kendricks, the priest at San Marcello, invited Walker to paint his church inside and out. Kendricks wanted the artwork to represent “love and unity in the community.”

Today, Walker, a co-founder of the Chicago Public Art Group, is trying to save the mural and the church as well. Walker lives here in Chicago. He is the only living African American muralist in the Midwest. His first work, entitled “Peace and Salvation,” was painted in the Cabrini-Green area also. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and Margaret Burroughs spoke at the dedication in 1970. This mural was destroyed and used to make space for advertising.

In 1972, Walker began work on the mural on the San Marcello Church. Its full name is “All of Mankind: Unity of the Human Race (Why Were They Crucified?).” The theme of the work of art is “unity and disunity of the human race.” It depicts four interlocking heads of different races which symbolize brotherhood and goodwill. Surrounding the imagery are the names of the individuals who died fighting for African American civil rights, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, John the Baptist, Jesus, Gandhi, John and Robert Kennedy, Black Panthers leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and Emmett Till. Also represented are the victims of the My Lai massacre, the Kent State shootings and the Jews in Nazi Germany. The mural covers the entire front of the building and stands 60 feet high and spans 40 feet wide.

The people of the Cabrini-Green community and those in nearby neighborhoods helped in any way they could. They prime-painted and protected the wall until the work was completed. It was funded in most part by the people of the community. The National Endowment for the Arts also contributed. The entire amount of cash spent was $5,500: $1,500 to repair the wall and to fill the windows in with bricks, $2,500 for scaffolding costs and $500 for the paint. Additionally, the community was given $1,000 for their work on the project.

In a letter dated Oct. 22, 1972, priest Dennis Kendricks writes to John Weber, co-founder of the Chicago Public Art Group: “This is certainly Mr. Walker’s finest work of art. He worked on the wall every day for five months with constant community participation. The wall belongs to the community. They protect and celebrate his art. He expresses their hopes and loves.”

There have been many articles written about William Walker. On November 12, 1972, Midwest Magazine published an article, “Out of the Gallery and into the Streets,” written by Linda Friedman and Mary Ann Skweres. It begins by saying “Mural art is for the people: gallery art is for the uninvolved.” It explains how Walker goes into each neighborhood to talk to the people and find out what they want and what they will accept. “I do murals to bring consciousness to the people,” Walker was quoted as saying.

In 1997, the free weekly Chicago Reader published an article in which Jeff Huebi discussed “The Man behind the Wall.” Its subtitle reads “Thirty Years Ago Bill Walker Helped Start an Art Revolution. Why Are Some People Trying To Paint Him Out Of The Picture?” The article describes how Walker always hung out on the corner of Woodlawn Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard in the ‘60s.

In August 1967, Walker began painting “The Wall of Respect.” This mural was said to have sparked a “people’s art movement” that spread to other cities. Those who were once considered vandals by destroying public property with graffiti were now being considered “socially relevant” artists.

On June 12th and 14th in 1991, Victor Sorrell interviewed Walker at Chicago State University (the school where I received my bachelor’s degree in art that same year). The theme of their talk was “An Art of Persuasion, Resistance and Affirmation.” During the talk, Sorrell described Walker as “An articulate witness to his own place and time. He is committed to demystifying the aura surrounding the artist and the artistic process. People-to-people communication and street-side public art are hallmarks of this contemporary ‘prophet with pigment.’”

Sorrell stated that the mural reflected the great gains we have made in our national movement for civil and human rights. He compared Walker to the Mexican muralists Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros and African American artists like Charles Alston, Aaron Douglas and Charles White.

On Easter Sunday, I went to see the mural for myself. In Cabrini-Green, most of the old housing development buildings are gone. On one side of North Clybourn Avenue are brand new buildings. On the other are four square blocks of vacant land where developers are clearing the ground for more new houses. At 700 N. Clybourn, sitting just behind the Mark T. Skinner Elementary School, you see the San Marcello Church surrounded by vast empty space. I kept walking until I was standing in front of the mural. There is a sign above the mural that reads “Northside Strangers Home M.B. Church: Rev. Demsey Thomas, pastor, founder, and Christmas Trotter.” Just below it reads, “We have come this far by faith.” Although the mural’s colors have almost completely faded, it is still a sight to behold. My heart sank from the thought of the mural disappearing from sight.

Walker said himself in an interview with the Chicago Tribune on October 15, 2005, “These murals have inspired people in the city for a long time. But as neighborhoods change, those messages are not always understood…. What’s sad is that the poor condition of these murals makes it difficult for people to even try to understand them.”

A coalition to save the “All of Mankind” mural has been formed in Chicago. The group advocates the preservation and restoration of the mural. Coalition members include Lee Bey, architecture critic and writer, who was quoted as saying, “What better place than a re-gentrifying neighborhood to restore a mural that embraces co-operation, equality and the value of all humanity.”

I interviewed Jon Pounds, the executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group and Save the “All of Mankind” Mural Coalition member. He said, “I think it would be a tremendous loss to the city and the spirit of the citizens of Chicago if this mural is lost. We know the meaning. It’s valid today. We have not solved the issue of race. This mural was painted 36 years ago and calls on us human beings to think about and to live the message.” Pounds added that the coalition is searching for people who remember the time when the mural was painted, were involved in the process, or have any pictures of the process.

Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. (27) has given the coalition’s goals his support. When asked how he was helping to save the church building and mural, the alderman told me, “Legally, all I can do is if a different development needed my help. I have spoken to the people who want it but I’m not sure they can (keep the mural). The challenge is there is no parking space. They need more land for parking.”

Burnett went on to explain that he is worried about the family who owns the church. They are planning to sell to get on with their lives. He informed me that the pastor is trying to get another church. The current church is too small and there is no parking space. I also learned that the large amount of empty space around the church is in fact a park. Burnett said that it would be good if the park district took over to increase the use for the children.

I have a thought: If the church were sandblasted, the mural touched up, the interior remodeled, and some tar and gravel put down on the side for parking, the people would come from everywhere to see this marvelous piece of art. It would be a pleasant place to worship God. Not like the churches we go to now, where we get lost inside. No one even knows you’re there. I think we have a responsibility as a people to restore it for ourselves. This mural unites us to live together. It’s a wonderful piece. It gives a person a good feeling inside. Check it out.

Editor’s Note: Another of Walker’s murals, “History of the Packinghouse Worker,” has been restored and is on the side of the Charles Hayes Center, 4859 S. Wabash Ave, which is RJ’s headquarters.

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One Response to “Saving A Piece of History in Cabrini Green”

  1. Ann Lengyel Says:

    I would love to speak with someone about this article. I am hoping to do a photography project with regard to this church.

    Thank you,
    Ann Lengyel

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