Sunday, May 13, 2018

Petition Started to Remove 'Offensive' Merchandise Mart Mural of African-American Women Picking Cotton
A mural depicting scenes of cotton pickers in the lobby at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago

Wednesday, May 9, 2018. (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)

Elvia Malagon
Chicago Tribune

For months, Timothy Kincaide has walked daily through the lobby of the Merchandise Mart, but it wasn’t until a co-worker told him to look up that he noticed a mural of what appears to be African-American women picking cotton.

“I see oppression, I see pain, you know, I see my people bent over bleeding at the fingers picking up cotton,” Kincaide, who is African-American, said of the mural. He’s not sure whether the mural is illustrating slavery — someone told him the boats hint that it was 10 to 15 years after emancipation — but Kincaide said the images are demeaning just the same.

That’s why he started an online petition this week that calls for the Merchandise Mart to remove or cover the mural of the women. The petition reads, in part: "Concerns have grown about a mural that displays black post slavery ancestors picking cotton on a Mississippi plantation. We feel that this mural is very offensive, and does not represent a part of history that we are proud of."

As of Wednesday, the petition had more than 40 signatures. Merchandise Mart management issued a statement Wednesday saying it “just became aware of a petition regarding the mural," but there’s no indication any changes may be made as a result.

The petition is the latest thread in an ongoing national debate over, among other things, statues and other public art in America’s complicated history with race. In Chicago, a recent memorial service for Confederate soldiers at Oak Woods Cemetery drew a counter service by activists who highlighted prominent African-Americans buried there. Activists have called for a monument in Chicago to honor Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an African-American journalist who was known for her reporting about lynchings. And Chicago students are calling for a local park to be renamed for former slave and groundbreaking orator Frederick Douglass.

At the Merchandise Mart, the artwork featuring the women is among of 17 murals titled, “Merchandise Around the World,” which have decorated the lobby since the building opened in 1930. The murals were created by artist Jules Guerin and meant to represent a panorama of commerce around the world, according to the book “A Guide to Chicago’s Murals.”

It’s unclear whether Guerin meant to depict the women in the mural as slaves. A biography of Guerin’s work provided by the Merchandise Mart only notes that some of the murals — including the one featuring the women — serve as snapshots of the cotton industry.

“Center panel showing riverboats bringing cotton to transport in ocean steamers to foreign ports,” the biography states. “Two small size panels showing culture and picking cotton with railroad trains and ships in background. Two small panels at the other end represent ocean liners distributing commodities over the world.”

The murals have generally gone unnoticed. In 2014, the murals underwent a meticulous cleaning that hadn’t been done since 1991.

Kincaide, 32, who has worked in the building since September, had not paid much attention to the artwork as he walked through the lobby on his way to work or to grab lunch. It wasn’t until February when one of his co-workers told him about the mural that he started to pay attention.

“Tim, they have slaves up there picking cotton in the lobby,” he remembers his co-worker telling him. “I’m like, ‘What?’ Let me go check it out.”

He knows some people will look at the mural and see the image as a representation of history, but he worries it will reinforce racist ideas that African-Americans are inferior.

“Looking at those images — we want to get that out of our mindset so we can elevate and move toward prosperity,” Kincaide said.

Twitter @ElviaMalagon

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