West Side historian Rickie P. Brown Sr. remembers the community’s reaction when a statue honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was unveiled on the front lawn of an East Garfield apartment complex nearly 30 years ago.
“They couldn’t stand it,” Brown said of a six-foot bronze sculpture molded in the image of Dr. King, but infused with symbolism associated with African art. “The symbolism on it, people didn’t understand it.”
But Brown, president of the West Side Historical Society (WSHS), knows the significance of the statue called “The Chieftain.” He fought to save the bronze statue from the scrap heap. Now he wants the statue to be a centerpiece for a proposed museum honoring notable West Side residents.
As a kid, Brown remembers when King came to Chicago in 1966. He remembers when the sky blazed red as riots broke out on the West Side after King was shot in 1968. Securing a permanent home for the statue is personal for Brown.
“I wanted to do everything that was possible to ensure that the statue still stood, so our children can see it,” Brown said.
The statue was erected in 1977 on the lawn of the Martin Luther King (MLK) Plaza apartments, 3220 W. Madison St. Crafted by renowned sculptor Geraldine McCullough, the statue depicts King as an African chief.
McCullough took inspiration from tribal art of the 15th-century Benin culture – now modern day Nigeria. According to the historical society’s website, McCullough used symbolism to represent King’s philosophy of nonviolence.
According to an excerpt from James Reidy’s book Chicago Sculpture on the WSHS website, the statue depicts King holding a “broken sword with a cross-shaped handle and a prayer wheel. … Around King’s neck is necklace of tigers’ teeth worn by Bini royalty and the Nobel Peace Prize medallion awarded to King in 1964. The row of heads of people on the crown represents King’s followers. Above is a dove of peace.”
The statue commemorates King’s time on the West Side, when he moved into a tenement apartment on 16th and Hamlin. King came to Chicago to start the Chicago Freedom Movement to protest the deplorable tenement housing blacks lived in.
“Basically it symbolizes the hope of all men, not just the African-American community,” Brown said of the statue.
Since then, it has fallen on disrepair. Its three-foot concrete base was crumbling and steel posts which held the base to the ground rusted. Tenants of the complex complained that the statue might topple over and hurt playing children. City inspectors forced management to remove the statue, and it has sat in storage since November 2011. Its fate was unknown, until Brown interceded.
When Brown found out that people interested in the statue only wanted it for scrap, he launched a campaign to obtain it. He secured letters of support from U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-7th) as well as several West Side elected officials.
“This was appalling … to hear that the statue would have been done this way,” he said.
Soon Brown secured a meeting with the apartment complex’s owner. Brown said the owner was very cautious about who to give the statue to – Brown had some competition. DuSable Museum of African-American History on the South Side also wanted the statue.
“We told him that it needed to stay on the West Side of Chicago,” he said. “That is the reason why we fought as hard as we did to be able to obtain it.”
Lori Russell, MLK Plaza apartments’ property manager, was pleased that the statue has found a home. She said the owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, wanted it in a place where the statue would be represented well.
“The owners did not want it to go to anyone that was not going to use the statue to represent the neighborhood,” Russell said.
Until the museum is built, Brown wants to place the statue in a temporary park reclaimed from vacant land on the corner of Mayfield and Chicago Avenue. His organization worked with the Austin African-American Business Networking Association (AAABNA) and the city of Chicago to secure the land.
The association’s director, Malcolm Crawford, is optimistic that the statue will be in Brown’s possession soon. Crawford noted that Austin, a community of nearly 100,000, doesn’t any have public art commemorating blacks.
“I always say you can’t be what you don’t see,” he said, noting that there is not even a statue of Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable. “What does that say that the father of Chicago does not have a public image in our community?”
The Bean (official name is “Cloudgate”) in Millennium Park and the Picasso are public art that draws dollars and tourists to downtown, something Crawford believes could happen with the “African Chieftain” statue on Chicago Avenue. His organization has been pushing to create a black business district on that thoroughfare for years.
Brown is seeking donations and grants to fund both the park and museum. He hopes to have the park completed for his organization’s annual Juneteenth Festival in two months.
“We asking the entire West Side community to make sure that this happens,” he said. “The West Side of Chicago needs a consciousness to who we are as a people.”