Controversial Elgin mural should be removed, many at forum say

  • The "American Nocturne" mural that once was displayed in downtown Elgin is now inside the Hemmens Cultural Decision. A final decision about its permanent location will be made after the city holds a second public meeting Monday.

      The "American Nocturne" mural that once was displayed in downtown Elgin is now inside the Hemmens Cultural Decision. A final decision about its permanent location will be made after the city holds a second public meeting Monday. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 6/8/2016 5:40 AM

The majority of residents, mostly black, who spoke at a meeting Tuesday night about a controversial mural in Elgin had a clear message for the city -- they feel disrespected by it and don't want it displayed.

The "American Nocturne" mural by local artist David Powers depicts the crowd at a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana, but not the lynching itself. Painted in 2007, it was displayed downtown until last month, when two passers-by noticed the mural's similarity to an original photo of the lynching.

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The mural can only divide people, said Winfried Cordell Cooper, who was among more than 100 people at the meeting hosted by the human relations commission. "I don't want this painting near me. I just want it gone."

City officials said they were unaware of the mural's origins, and Powers later explained his goal was to shine a spotlight on those who commit evil.

But several people objected to the lack of explanatory signage.

"That picture was not a starting point for a conversation. It had no frame of reference," Tyrell Ivy said.

Blacks should chose how their history is represented through art, Ivy added. "We have the power to define what we want to portray ourselves."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
More than 100 people came to Tuesday's Elgin Human Relations Committee public meeting at the Heritage Ballroom in the Centre of Elgin to talk about the "American Nocturne" mural and racism in the city.
  More than 100 people came to Tuesday's Elgin Human Relations Committee public meeting at the Heritage Ballroom in the Centre of Elgin to talk about the "American Nocturne" mural and racism in the city. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

The city has moved the mural indoors to the Hemmens Cultural Center, and a final decision about its permanent location will be made after the city holds a second public meeting Monday.

If the mural had depicted history painful to the Jewish or Hispanic communities, it would have been disposed of quickly, one woman said.

"They disrespect the black community and think it's OK," she said.

Clare Ollayos said she asked herself how she would have reacted if the crowd depicted in the mural had been watching a woman being raped or a child being killed. But she also said that it's OK for public art to be controversial.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I would hate to think that we got to the point that any of our public art was so sanitized that it would not invite discussion."

Andrea Johnson-Williams disagreed, saying she is offended that her tax dollars helped pay for the mural. "I feel deceived and disrespected by the city of Elgin," she said.

Adrian Bibzak echoed that sentiment. "This here was a slap in the face to many people in the community, both black, white, Hispanic and Asian. It's just a disgrace."

Pastor Bob Whitt, who moderated the discussion, and human relations commission chairman Bill Williamson said they don't approve of the mural.

Panelist Traci Ellis she's in favor of keeping it on display as a reminder of the horrors in America's history.

"America has an ugly habit of sweeping our stuff under the rug. They want to forget. They want to ignore. And they want us to forget too," she said. " If we try to remove every symbol of the ugly past … in favor of Americas exceptionalism, they will forget."

The painting has opened up the conversation, said Freddrick Wimms. "Don't be upset at this painting because it exists," Wimms said. "It might be more important to have that painting up to have conversation with our kids -- so they don't repeat the mistakes."

The mural did prompt her to learn more about the 1930 lynching, Fran Cella said.

"I don't think there is anybody in this room who doesn't think there were 1,000 mistakes made in the way it got handled (by the city) in the beginning."

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