GRAND BOULEVARD — The restoration of a Bronzeville mural honoring packinghouse workers will be marked with a May Day celebration and blues concert Thursday.
“The History of the Packinghouse Worker” is one of the last surviving murals by artist William Walker, who painted it in 1974 in dedication to the dignity of the United Packinghouse Workers of America. The 17-by-66-foot mural has graced the south wall of the Charles A. Hayes Community Center, 4859 S. Wabash Ave., for decades and was recently restored.
The restored mural will be revealed during a celebration Thursday at the center. It’ll begin 4 p.m. with a live performance from Grammy-winning blues artist Dom Flemons.
Blues artist Toronzo Cannon, who grew up in the neighborhood, is also scheduled to perform.
The story of the stockyards is told through the mural, with two-thirds of the artwork depicting the labor strikes of the ’30s and ’40s as a multiethnic group of workers stand on a large chessboard. The mural was commissioned by the Illinois Labor History Society and was last restored 24 years ago by artist Bernard Williams, when the union hall was converted into a community center.
The union is largely credited with fighting for the rights of workers of color, garnering praise from Martin Luther King Jr., who hailed the labor organizers as “pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement.”
But labor organizers struggled to create the union due to corporate animus, said Larry Spivack, Illinois Labor History Society president.
“White ethnic rivalries were being played off each other. An immigrant group would come in, and companies would create barriers and segregate them based on their ethnicity,” Spivack said. “By this point, you have the Great Migration, and many of the new workers are African American. They’re put on the cutting floor, which is the most dangerous job at the packinghouse.”
The corporations enlisted the aid of the city’s Black clergy and other elites to spread anti-union sentiment, and they were successful until the Great Depression. The ’30s saw the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which created a “consciousness of organizing on a multiracial basis,” making the third attempt at unionization successful, Spivack said.
Stockyard closures caused membership to dwindle, and the union eventually merged into what is now the United Food and Commercial Workers. The mural was created to honor the union’s legacy.
Over time, the elements caused the mural’s paint to crack and peel, threatening its integrity. The recent $40,000 restoration effort was led by Williams and Damon Lamar Reed, the artist behind “Still Searching,” an exhibit honoring Chicago’s missing Black women and girls.
Thursday’s unveiling serves not only as an acknowledgement of the relationship between Black Chicago and the labor movement, but as a powerful meditation on the present state of the country’s workforce, Spivack said.
‘It’s one of most complex works, and one of the most powerful labor murals in the country,” said Chantal Healey, executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group. “It’s the story of America.”
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