Statue of Chicago’s Black Founder Defaced on ML King Day Weekend

Another tale from “Post-Racial America”

The city of Chicago was founded by a black man.  But you knew that already, right?

On Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Chicago restored a downtown sculpture of its Haitian-born black founder situated on Michigan Avenue’s Manificent Mile near where the fur trader’s palatial (by 18th century standards) home, trading post, saloon, and expansive farm stood for half a century.   On Sunday (the day before the celebration of “King Day”) it was discovered that a black mask had been painted across the face of the artwork.

ct-ct-dusable-statue-vandalism6-jpg-20150119Credit: Chicago Tribune

Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable was the first non-indigenous settler to set up shop in what is now the booming heart of Chicago.  Historians quibble over the precise date DuSable showed up at the confluence of the tiny Chicago River and the mighty Illinois Lake – now Lake Michigan.    Most settle on 1772 or thereabouts.

But there is no doubt whatever that this black Haitian was first “non-Indian” to put down permanent roots in what was to become this nation-state’s second (now third) largest city.  Thus, the  “founder of Chicago” sobriquet was given to DuSable by the state of Illinois in 1968.

According to the Chicago Tribune, it appears that someone splashed black paint specifically across the eyes of the DuSable statue. The paint dripped down the bronze bust’s cheeks, giving it the appearance of crying.

In a statement, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel  condemned the  vandalism thusly:

“The Jean Baptiste DuSable statue commemorates our city’s founding father, and the defacement of this treasure disrespects all Chicagoans and attacks the heritage of our heroes and the common values that they stood for — values that we stand behind as a city and that we also celebrate today by honoring Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy,” Emanuel said.

The creator of the bust, sculptor, Erik Blome, said that an assistant notified him last Sunday morning that what appeared to be a black mask had been painted across its eyes and face.

“It’s awful; it’s so disturbing,” Blome said. “You take a risk when you put something in public, but you don’t [ever] want it vandalized.”

Blome further explained that Chicago’s Haitian-American community asked him out to do the bust of DuSable because of his track record in creating similar sculptures of  Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

Officials of Chicago’s world renowned DuSable Museum of African American History also expressed concern about the defacement, especially since it occurred during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.  Charles Bethea, curator of the DuSable Museum,  expressed  a profound sadness that the artwork had been damaged.

“Wanton acts of vandalism of public art is never a good thing,” Bethea said in a statement. “How we as a people treat art and artists is a microcosm of how far we have come as an intelligent society.”

The statue was donated to the city and installed in October of 2009.  It  is mounted on a granite pedestal and stands more than 6 feet high.

Owen Leroy, a Haitian-born Chicagoan, told the Tribune that he emailed news of the defacing to dozens of other Haitian-Americans on Sunday.

“Deep inside, I was a little bit upset,” he said.  “The statue, basically for the Haitian community, represents a major sign of attachment that we have to the city of Chicago.”

So, how did it happen that DuSable became the first “non-Indian” to establish a permanent presence in “Eschicagou”?  (A Pottawatomie word meaning “smells of onions” because of the miles of wild onions which once grew along the banks of Lake Michigan).

After all, LaSalle, Joliet, and Marquette had all come through this precise locale and tried mightily, repeatedly, but failed, to convert the local Potawattomis, Illinois, and Miami locals to Christianity and establish trade relations with them all.

Well, DuSable did something that apparently did not even occur to these other erstwhile white would-be “founders of Chicago.”   His was an act so basic, so simple and so obvious that had those first French guys and/or their English, Irish, German, Scottish, Spanish and Italian descendants or successors done the same thing, the history of this country would have played out much less violently than it actually did.

DuSable asked permission first.  

  • A Personal Note:  I took my first trip to Africa (Ghana, Sierre Leone, Senegal) under the tutelage of the late Dr. Margaret Burroughs (1917 – 2010).  Dr. Burroughs was one of the original founders of the DuSable Museum (1973).  This piece is written in her honor and dedicated to her memory.
Herbert Dyer, Jr. is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Herb may be reached at: Read other articles by Herb.