At the southeast corner of 43rd Street and Langley Avenue, the ghosts are still trying to speak. It’s an unremarkable corner in a rebounding niche of Bronzeville, occupied by a blandly newish subsidized town-house apartment building. But in the late 1960s this corner was the site of the nation’s most renowned African-American mural.
Over the years, I’ve heard stories about people coming to the corner to visit, thinking that there’s a plaque or a marker there. There’s not. But there used to be. And it didn’t just pay tribute to the wall. It was also one of the city’s first memorials to Martin Luther King Jr.
I n 1979, the Chicago Council on Fine Arts (CCFA), a forerunner agency to the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, commissioned artist Eugene Wade, known as Eda, to create a sculptural mural on African-American history and culture on a plaza near 43rd and Langley, just west of the recently built Dr. Martin Luther King Community Service Center. Richard Hunt had already created two sculptures for the site, and a fountain had been planned for the plaza, according to reports, but the artist, author, activist, and DuSable Museum of African American History founder Margaret Burroughs insisted that a public artwork be installed commemorating both King and the Black Arts movement landmark Wall of Respect, widely regarded as the nation’s first community mural. The wall, which depicted 50 black heroes, had been created in 1967 by a group of 15 artists from the Organization of Black American Culture; they’d painted panels and placed photographs on the side of a liquor and grocery store that once stood on the same corner.
Eda had worked on a later version of the wall, which went through several versions by different groups of artists before it was damaged in a suspected arson fire in 1971. The building was demolished soon afterward, along with others in neighboring blocks, as part of an urban renewal program.
There were other reasons Burroughs wanted to honor King at the site, according to Eda. The human services building was named for him, but the civil rights leader hadn’t been pictured on the Wall of Respect. Residents, activists, and the artists had deemed King’s philosophy of nonviolent resistance not militant enough, preferring figures like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.
Eda, then 40, was a pioneering 1960s street muralist in Chicago and Detroit before earning his graduate degree from Howard University. He was employed by the CCFA’s Artist-in-Residence Program when a panel (which included Burroughs, who died in 2010) interviewed and selected him to create a mural on a hulking, four-winged, six-foot-high concrete structure that had been brought to the plaza for the purpose of being used as an artwork. “I was asked specifically, would I be willing to work on the old Wall of Respect site on this concrete thing,” recalls Eda, who retired as an art professor from Kennedy-King College in 2005 and moved back home to Louisiana; he now teaches at Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I saw it as the very last phase of the Wall of Respect.”
Eda researched materials; he wanted to use durable paint to create images for the sculptural piece, he said, “from slavery to civil rights.” Later in 1979, he’d been invited to attend a mural-painting class at the School of the Art Institute in which coteachers Georg Stahl, an interior architect with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Harold Haydon, professor emeritus of art at the University of Chicago and a former WPA artist, were experimenting with permanent techniques. (Haydon, perhaps better known at the time as the Sun-Times art critic, died in 1994.)
Stahl recalls that Eda “became particularly interested in the possibilities of porcelain enamel.” Also known as vitreous enamel and pioneered as a public art medium by the French architect Le Corbusier in the 1950s, it’s more properly a powdered glass-based coating rather than a paint; it’s virtually permanent, weather- and fireproof, and maintenance free, which makes it a popular industrial material. It’s also expensive: Eda’s initial commission of $5,000 climbed to $28,000, mostly for materials and fabrication. But the city approved the project.
T he city invested quite a bit of money,” Eda says now. “They had to pay for the porcelain enamel, they had to pay for the firing, they had to buy the [panels], they had to pay for putting it up, they had to pay me.”
Eda said he’d applied to the Artist-in-Residence Program several times before he was finally accepted. The program “set out . . . to explore the ground where art and public service meet,” according to a CCFA-published catalog, Artists-in-Residence, Chicago: 1977-1981, by Robert A. Gottlieb, and assigned artists to work with city agencies.
Even after the city accepted his proposal for a mural made of porcelain enamel, Eda didn’t start designing until about 1981 because of other artist-in-residence jobs and funding delays. Stahl built a small model in class, and made detailed installation drawings for the CCFA. (Eda later did a larger, nine-inch-high model.)
Eda worked with the Department of Human Services on the project for more than a year. The 40-odd five-by-three-foot metal panels, which would be affixed to the concrete wings, were fabricated at a suburban foundry and then shipped to Porcelain Enamel Finishers on West 30th Street. (The facility has since been demolished.) Eda painted in a vacant factory space next door, and then, with help from PEF workers, fired each of the panels in the furnace at 1600 degrees for a few minutes. “I had complete freedom in terms of the subject matter,” he says. “I had no dictates. Nobody looked over my shoulder.”
Mitchell Cooper, former owner of PEF, which shut down in 2003, told me the city had contracted with a Chicago sign company—he couldn’t recall which one—to install the metal panels on the concrete wings.
The artwork panels formed four sections. The first showed scenes of slavery, freedom struggles, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. The next two showed black leaders from various fields, some of whom had appeared on the original wall: musicians and scientists, inventors and businessmen, medical pioneers and cultural figures. The final section, titled “Spokesmen,” highlighted King and other civil rights icons, including Rosa Parks and Marcus Garvey; one scene linked capitalism, racism, and wage slavery.
Eda remembers a bizarre incident that happened in the plaza while the panels were being installed; it was also reported in a 1982 Reader story by Debbie Nathan. The first few panels scheduled to be installed on the concrete included images of the Ku Klux Klan. They were left out on the plaza overnight. A black man, thinking a racist had placed them there, smashed the panels with a crowbar, damaging the enamel. A group of men, thinking he was a bigot, assaulted the vandal; all were arrested and booked. The city paid for four new panels, and hired a security guard.
The finished work, formally titled “Wall of Respect”: King Memorial Mural, was unveiled October 28, 1982 in a dedication ceremony attended by city and cultural officials. The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. High School Band and a jazz trio played. A statement in the brochure handed out at the event read, “Our challenge is to see to it that the dreams and works of those depicted in this monument continue through our joint efforts and commitment to make our community a haven for people of dignity, peace and freedom.”
But that challenge was not met. By 2002, the King Memorial Mural had disappeared. It was replaced by an affordable housing development. “No one informed me at all,” Eda tells me. “I found out maybe a year or two later. I think somebody either told me or I figured I would go down there to look at it. And boom!—it wasn’t there. They had the [apartment] complex. I was surprised.” While he didn’t pursue the matter at the time—”I just continued on doing other things,” he says—it started to haunt him in the years leading up to the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Wall of Respect.
Daniel Schulman, the program director of visual art for the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, had been unaware that the mural existed. After first investigating in 2014, he wrote me, “we’ve found no documentation on the commission, and don’t have any information on when [the panels] were removed, who removed them, or their present whereabouts.”
The Chicago Council on Fine Arts began as a mayor-appointed agency in 1976 and had become the Chicago Office of Fine Arts by 1982; it was folded into the Department of Cultural Affairs, along with the Mayor’s Office of Special Events and the Office of Film and Entertainment, in 1984. The city apparently doesn’t keep CCFA records, or any documentation of them, though the Artists-in-Residence, Chicago: 1977-1981 booklet mentions specific CCFA projects, including, briefly, Eda’s. (Some COFA papers can be found in the Harold Washington Public Library’s special collections.)
Through Schulman, I learned that Georg Stahl was also looking for remnants of the King Memorial Mural. He’d hoped to include panels from it in a 2015 exhibit he was organizing on porcelain enamel painting in Chicago for the Koehnline Museum of Art at Oakton Community College. He’d nearly forgotten about the piece. He soon found out from Eda that it was gone.
Stahl says he wrote e-mails to the offices of then-Fourth Ward alderman Will Burns (who quit in 2016 to take a job with Airbnb) and Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, who had been the alderman when the artwork went missing. Stahl learned that the ward had convened community meetings to discuss the possibilities of “restoring” the piece, meaning that the panels must’ve been saved. “Records must exist,” he says.
But both Burns’s and Preckwinkle’s offices replied that they didn’t have any information. Stahl also went to the Department of Buildings and looked through the records there. He discovered what I did when I recently talked with Marko Mihajlovich, a DOB coordinator who handles demolition and wrecking permits: none was issued for the concrete structure and the enamel panels. “We issue permits only for buildings,” he told me. “We don’t deal with sculptures or public art.”
Stahl’s show, “Art After 1600° Fahrenheit: Enamel Painting in Chicago,” ran at Oakton in May and June 2015. It included several works created by students and artists in the SAIC mural painting class, as well as photomontages of prototypes of abstract murals Stahl had designed for the State Street subway system in the late 1970s, a project that was never realized. In lieu of the actual panels, Stahl reconstructed for the exhibit a replica of Eda’s old model (which was lost) of the King Memorial Mural to which he adhered the artist’s original color scale drawings.
Eda flew up from Louisiana and did a gallery talk on June 4. After describing the process of creating the artwork to a couple dozen visitors, he concluded, “We want to know what happened to it. Whether it was taken down and destroyed or whether it’s somewhere in storage . . . somebody knows something about it.”
Granted, the fate of a missing artwork, even a King memorial, may be a trivial matter compared to the city’s—and the nation’s—escalating affordable housing crisis. Everyone deserves a safe, economical, and dignified place to live. But everyone also deserves meaningful public art.
There are few public artworks in Chicago memorializing King. The earliest known piece was Geraldine McCullough’s 1973 Our King, a nine-foot-high bronze sculpture that imagined him as a West African chieftain. It stood in front of the Martin Luther King Apartments, a housing project at Madison and Kedzie that replaced buildings burned out in the 1968 riots after King’s assassination. After the base of the statue began to corrode, Rickie Brown, now the executive director of the West Side Historical Society, led a campaign to rescue it. Since 2015, it’s stood in front of the West Side Housing Association’s Austin Wellness Center.
The MLK Memorial District, located on a four-acre area in North Lawndale, is centered around the demolished tenement at 1550 S. Hamlin where King and his family lived in 1966 during his Chicago campaign for fair housing and to end slums. It’s now the site of an affordable housing apartment complex, with a museum. A project of LISC Chicago and the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, a district composed of a park, gardens, art, a new public library, and other facilities is taking shape.
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Living Memorial , dedicated in 2016, commemorates the 50th anniversary of King’s open-housing march through Marquette Park on August 5, 1966, when an angry white mob bearing swastikas and other racist signs threw bottles and rocks, one of which hit the civil rights leader on the head. Commissioned by the Inner-City Muslim Action Network and supported by a diverse group of organizations, institutions, and other donors, the three ten-foot-high carved-brick stelae by artists Sonja Henderson and John Pitman Weber stand in a mosaic-decorated park plaza at 67th and Kedzie.
A website about the project notes that it’s “Chicago’s very first memorial honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” and “the very first permanent memorial to Dr. King and the Chicago Freedom Movement in the state of Illinois.” That’s not quite true: Eda’s piece was designed to be permanent too—or, as Nathan put it in her 1982 Reader story, “meant to outlive many of the people in the neighborhood.”
Last fall, when I wrote to the office of Fourth Ward alderman Sophia King, I got a call a week later from Preckwinkle’s executive assistant Pamela Cummings. (The e-mail had been forwarded.) Preckwinkle, she said, “didn’t really remember” the artwork or neighborhood meetings. “We also talked with people who’d been in the community for a while, and they didn’t know either.” Cummings insisted that if the memorial was connected with the King Community Service Center, then it would’ve been the city “that would’ve taken it down or removed it.”
You’d think. Since March 2017, I’ve filed very specific Freedom of Information requests with eight city departments—CHA, Buildings, Transportation, Planning and Development, Streets and Sanitation, Fleet and Facility Management, the Public Building Commission, and—with repeated follow-ups—Family and Support Services (whose forerunner agency, the Department of Human Services, sponsored the piece). None claimed to have records.
Stahl and Eda find it hard to believe that such a prominent, cumbrous public artwork (and its paperwork) could seemingly disappear without a trace. “It was a very large piece!” Eda says. “There’s almost like a whole veil of secrecy [about it].”
He and Stahl separately explain that professional expertise would have been necessary to dismantle the structure without destroying the porcelain enamel. The art panels affixed to the concrete-along with metal roofs and end panels-were seamlessly sealed, caulked, and screwed into place. The seals would’ve had to be cut. Had crowbars or sledgehammers been used to loosen the panels from the concrete, they would’ve broken. “My feeling is that they simply destroyed a more than $100,000 work of art out of ignorance, a fact they try to hide,” Stahl wrote me.
“I don’t know how they managed it,” says Eda, “unless they just bulldozed it down.”
Privately, a city official conceded that that was most likely the case. Starting in the late 1990s, the Bonheur Development Corporation and Hearts United Community Development, a group of area churches and community groups, had partnered to build dozens of subsidized mixed-income developments in a several block area around 43rd and Langley, according to a November 2001 Tribune article. By 2002, the Quincy, an affordable housing town-house complex, occupied the sculpture site. Fred Bonner, the BDC’s president, didn’t return repeated calls to three phone numbers at his companies, but last October BDC office manager Faith Underwood did call back to say, “He knows nothing about it.”
I called Bob Mathes, the senior vice president of Linn-Mathes, the Quincy’s general contractor; it turns out he was the project manager for the site. He said that there wasn’t an artwork in the plaza when the construction firm started. “I think if we had known that there were significant art pieces there, we certainly would’ve saved them,” he said. “Actually, I’m a supporter of public art.”
He did recall what could’ve been piles of concrete rubble. He said that if there had been a structure there, Linn-Mathes would’ve used a demolition company. But it subcontracted with an excavator, which hauled the rubble away.
But could the porcelain enamel panels still exist, in storage, somewhere? Perkins McDowell, who was the King Center’s building engineer when the artwork was removed, retired in January 2013. He didn’t return repeated calls to his home. Recently, the front desk referred me to Human Services district manager Jaime Palomino, whose office is in the King Center. He said he hadn’t “seen those items in the building” and that artwork wouldn’t likely be placed into storage for too long, if at all.
“When it comes to art, or statues, or certain things, there is a tendency to just demolish or destroy those items,” he said. “The time comes when people want to do certain things in the building, and it’s in their way. Space is valued, and if there is something that is never used, they throw it to the lake.” (Unless, of course, someone took the panels home.)
Eda’s not surprised to hear that. “It’s almost as if I never worked there,” he says. “The powers that be decided that the mural painting and the artist-in-residence program wasn’t important-there are no records of it. They didn’t want it to exist. That’s a tragedy, but that’s the way politics is. If they don’t like something, or what it’s saying, they got a way of destroying it and forgetting all about it. It’s like it never happened.” v