Controversial Painting Opens Up Deep Wounds of Slavery at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart
By: Mary L. Datcher
Every morning 32-year-old Timothy Kincaide commutes to downtown Chicago like thousands of individuals making that trek to work, hustling to build a better life. For the past nine months, he’s enjoyed his job working as a sales rep for a company whose housed at one of the city’s most historic landmark buildings.
A Chicago architectural wonder, the Merchandise Mart stretches along the Chicago River with its massive structure hugging three main streets—Orleans, Kinzie, and Wells.
Today, The Mart continues its tradition of tenant-occupied offices including tech incubator 1871 and Luxe Home retail showrooms. Over the years, they’ve added new additions without altering the building’s original interior and exterior—its timeless preservation is what attracts visitors from around the world maintaining 99 percent tenant occupancy.
But, Kincaide’s routine entrance into building changed when a couple of colleagues asked him if he noticed the mural in the lobby of The Mart. Like so many visitors and workers entering the vast atrium, his eyes rarely traveled towards the ceiling where unique artwork adorns the walls wrapped around the walls of the main entrance.
The mural painted by Jules Vallée Guérin in 1931 commissioned by the architectural firm, Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. It highlights trade imports and exports from 17 countries including the U.S. which glorifies the apparel industry including its most lucrative commodity—cotton. Included in the painting shows Black women [slaves] picking cotton in the Mississippi cotton fields. Besides, it depicts the busy shipping ports of workers hauling bales of product to ships and other parts of the world where traded imports were including silk from China.
Kincaide said seeing the images of Black slaves in such a casual way in an iconic building without any accountability was discomforting as an African American man.
“When you walk in, your head is low, and you’re trying to figure out where to go. The discomfort came when it was first brought it to my attention, and then after that, I could never stop looking at it when I walked in,” he said.
“The discussion had been going on for a couple of years, but no one took steps to do anything about it. I wanted to find out what it was all about. I want to find out why it’s up there. I want to do a little bit of research. I want to see what we have to do to get a better understanding and the fact that it’s offensive and we need to get it covered up or taken down,” Kincaide said.
“Why are my black queens being displayed picking cotton? Who knows what they had to go through? We know they were snatched up, raped and beaten and sent back to the fields–according to our history. I have deep roots in slavery, from my father being from Mississippi and me being raised in one of the biggest African American cities in the country. I know where I’m from.”
He said it was essential to take necessary steps to bring attention to the atrocities represented in this mural.
Built 1931 by Marshall Field & Co., the Merchandise Mart was the world’s largest building with close to four million square feet of commercial space. It was the commercial hub for commercial showrooms, manufacturing companies and retail for the department store giant until declining sales during the Great Depression forced the company to sell the property to Joseph Kennedy in 1945. The Kennedy family owned and operated the property along with The Apparel Center, north of the Mart at Wolf Point. In 1998 it was sold to current owner, Vornado Realty Trust for $625 million.
Over the last century, much has changed as the world economy has shifted to company apparel business to overseas markets. As home interior and technology companies grace the spaces inside the monumental building—much of its original décor is in place.
Kincaide’s group approached a third party to contact the property management on their behalf and was dismayed when they returned with refusal from Vornado Realty Trust. Kincaide said they informed, property management of the Mart refused to remove it because “no one had said anything or complained about it.”
Upset and determined, he pushed forward to take matters into his own hands by starting an online petition. So far, it’s shy of 150 supporters whose signed the online campaign to have the mural-covered or taken down.
Kincaide explains. “The meaning of it doesn’t bother me. The images need to be taken down; something needs to replace that to represent what it means. I don’t want to take the meaning away because it would take away the entire mural.”
“My concern is other images of the U.S. clothing market because it was a huge market. What other images could you (The Mart) put up there beside the women picking cotton on a Mississippi plantation? The distribution part of the painting doesn’t bother me, it doesn’t show the pain—it doesn’t show them bend over picking cotton. It shows people pushing the product, coming in and out of the port. It’s not as hurtful but the fact it’s shown on two sides of the mural is more damaging.”
Born in downstate Brooklyn, Illinois right outside of East St. Louis, his family moved to Chicago—living for some time in East Rogers Park and eventually settling on the Near Westside—Kincaide can identify with the city’s racial tension. Whereas some would consider his protest to removing the mural as a way to silence history and maybe even art—he and his colleagues beg to differ. He says it goes beyond race.
“One of my colleagues is Jewish, and it’s all about equality. He genuinely cares, and he’s outraged about it. To the point where he wants to be a part of this movement and to see some change. When it comes to other colleagues in this building, the people I asked to take a look at this and how do you feel? I have Hispanic, Asian friends and Caucasian friends whose helped me with the research and had seen and felt the same as us,” said Kincaide.
The building is no stranger to removing art elements that resonated during a specific period when the original sculptures of 56 American Indian chiefs placed around the top of the tower’s crown were destroyed. In the 1800’s, location was a trading post for Native Americans and the city’s earlier settlers. In 1961, these sculptures were removed and destroyed—replaced by a particular design of Merchandise Mart initials. But, the controversial mural still graces the building’s lobby.
As Southern cities, Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans remove statues of Confederate military figures–some critics disagree with this type of action citing a part of removing this country’s history regardless of the ugliness. It should be a reminder to all of whose sacrificed and contributed to America. Kincaide disagrees.
He says, “I feel like it’s time for the ways of the world to change. We as a people have been held back too long especially in Chicago. I lived through gentrification, buried eight of my friends; I’ve seen blood on the streets and how our people have used for the gains of individuals in social classes. It’s getting to the point where those images are not something to be proud of the pain we went through—we’re trying to get out of that mentality. It’s something we do not want to be reminded of in our workplace—we have museums for this.”
In the next few weeks, he and his colleagues will be meeting with African American community leaders to discuss their stance and the next steps in finding common ground with the property management.