Speeches, Letters, and Publications
Walter E. Massey
Thank you, and welcome to this commemorative symposium in honor of one of the most important cultural moments in Chicago over the past fifty years or so. Even if it is no longer standing, the Wall of Respect's impact as a social, political, and artistic statement lives on to this day, around the rest of the country and world.
In fact, I understand that we have some of the artists in the audience with us today—artists, would you mind standing so that you can be acknowledged?And those of you who attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in particular—would you mind showing your hands?
I ask because I think it is important to acknowledge the important role that education, and especially higher education, played in many of these artists' lives. In addition to the School of the Art Institute, the artists who participated in the Wall's creation attended some of this city's finest institutions, from Northwestern to the Illinois Institute of Technology and Columbia College. Jeff Donaldson, for example, was one of the first African Americans to receive a PhD in Art History—he attended Northwestern—and would eventually chair the Art Department at Howard.
The School of the Art Institute, too, played an early role in making a higher education in the arts more available to the African American community, both by accepting African American students in greater numbers than its peers, but also by being more receptive to different perspectives in general.
For example, one of the school's most influential teachers ever, Kathleen Blackshear, was famous for insisting her students take trips to the Field Museum and Oriental Institute so that they could engage with non-Western artwork. Kathleen herself was influenced deeply by African sculpture in her own work, and alumni like Margaret Burroughs, co-founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History here in town, revered her for the support she provided African American students throughout her many years at the school.
For generations, this more welcoming and open attitude has enabled our students to take risks in their work, to explore underrepresented ideas, and to pursue more daring, powerful, and, ultimately, more meaningful projects.
So, it is no surprise to me that alumni like Wadsworth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Norman Parrish were directly involved in the making of the Wall of Respect, and that Bill Walker once cited an older generation of alumni like William McBride and Charles White as major influences.
The men and women who painted the Wall of Respect were not just artists—they were thinkers and critics who were engaged in the issues and intellectual conversations of the day. They were committed to their artistic and aesthetic visions, certainly, but I also think it is important to remember that their work came out of careful thought and study, the kind you learn to do in college and that stays with your for a lifetime.
I arrived in Chicago in the summer of 1966, fresh out of graduate school with a PhD in Physics from Washington University and a job at Argonne National Laboratory in the suburbs. But I had an apartment on the South Side at 56th and Drexel, so I became familiar and engaged with the South Side.
Those were very heady days, as I recall. Of course it was prior to the assassination of Dr. King and many other things, but there were so many exciting, new, and burgeoning activities in all the fields of the arts— Kuumba Theater had its beginnings around then, as did the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music.
I was very interested in that because I had been a saxophone player myself, and I recall driving by and riding my bike by the Wall of Respect that was then being created. I had no idea of the significance of this installation or what it would mean later. But I remember just being impressed by the sort of energy and activity around new ideas respecting race, culture, art, literature, and music on the South Side.
So you can imagine how it must be for me now to be here tonight as President of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to be looking back nearly 50 years at what that era represented and what this Wall helped to begin.
I think it is also ironic, in a way, that we are remembering the anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and to paraphrase his words, I think this Wall was a work of art that was "of the people, by the people, and for the people"—and it is something we will respect, and other generations will respect, forever.
Thank you for coming tonight. I am so pleased to be a part of this spectacular event.