“As we walk around, be sure to notice all the beautiful art throughout our building. This is the most extensive and expensive collection of original Black American art in any corporate setting in the world. We have all the brilliant Black artists,” David said, gesturing grandly at a life-size figure. “That’s an Elizabeth Catlett. I thought Mr. Wilson Jr. was going to have it on display outside my office.”I stopped to study the piece. It was a polished wood sculpture of a woman standing with her right fist raised in a Black Power salute. I had aced a Black art appreciation class at PSU by talking the talk. “Superb. The carved openings near the top and center of this figure are a penetrating juxtaposition to the protruding contours of the female anatomy,” I started to say, imitating art critic speak, as I examined the work. Not knowing David or his sense of humor, I checked myself and quietly admired the incredible piece, allowing a simple, “Beautiful,” to be said aloud instead.
“But since Verily,” David looked around and whispered, “is Mr. Wilson Jr.’s favorite, he got Homage to My Young Black Sisters.
“As a booby prize, I got Archibald Motley’s The Liar,” David said, pointing at the painting hanging between his office and Samuele’s.
I did a double take, trying to shake off the “six in one hand, half a dozen in the other” thought crossing my mind. From where we stood, David’s office was to the left of Samuele’s. So I couldn’t tell whose was what.
“I guess I shouldn’t really complain. He is an important Black Chicago artist. The colors are so vibrant. The composition is so complete.”
I agreed with him about the colors and composition but thought the exaggerated lips and the image of everybody hanging out at a pool hall was downright Minstrel. Tinsel Town had perfected the images of Motley’s men and put them to action. As Al Jolson had given them voice. Before that, there had been a century’s worth of newspaper cartoonists with like-minded illustrated illusions. I decided I’d best play along. I pursed my lips and raised an eyebrow as if I was expressing some appreciation of the work, then thoughtfully nodded.
“Of course, Mr. Wilson Jr. has the Geraldine McCullough and Richard Hunt sculptures positioned to greet you as you enter his penthouse suite.”
Again, I nodded. At the time, I had no idea who Richard Hunt was but admired his piece. I was familiar with Geraldine McCullough because Raven had run a spread on her a few months earlier, as an arriving Black woman sculptor. I believed, like LeRoi Jones, that every middle-class Black American should have original African-American paintings or sculptures adorning the crib.
“Maceo is only the third executive editor of Raven. The first was Walter Gates. He is this white man Mr. Wilson Jr. needed to help get the company situated,” David said, motioning for me to take a seat at a table as we stopped in the cafeteria. “Mr. Wilson Jr. launched Colored Cavalcade out of the back of his father’s store. Once the publication really got off the ground, Mr. Wilson Jr. wanted a better office space for his business, especially since he was about to start another magazine.
Raven was going to be a big step up, rather than relying on freelancers, he’d have to have three or four writers and editors. He also wanted to move closer to the Loop. This was in the late 40s, not long after the war. A Negro, trying to get a lease at 25th and Michigan Avenue, was bound to be challenged by special circumstances. That’s where Walter became useful.”
“They leased it to the white man.”
David smiled and nodded. “Mr. Wilson Jr. checked out the place by slipping on some coveralls and pretending to be Mr. Gates’ janitor. Then he sent Walter over to conduct the business transaction.”
“How did the realtors react when they discovered Mr. Wilson Jr. was the actual owner?” I asked, lighting up a Marlboro.
“They didn’t. Times were changing. By the time Mr. Wilson Jr. let Walter go several years later and made his financial interests known, the borders of Bronzeville had swelled to more or less swallow up WIPE’s offices. We were destined to be back in the Black belt. Twelve years after Mr. Wilson, Jr. had moved his offices in, Mayor O’Shea had his rubber stamp city council condemned the entire block so that the Stevenson could run through it. The expressway was as effective as the Berlin Wall for containing Blacks. As for WIPE, we moved out and back south to 35th Street—then we moved here,” he said, gesturing with both arms open, as if it was his corporation and not Mr. Wilson Jr.’s. “The second editor was Mona Adams, a brilliant Black woman who was a bitch. We convinced Mr. Wilson Jr. to demote her and decide on us.”
I nodded. “I’ve read Verily Welch since I was in junior high. He’s one of the reasons I decided to become a writer.”
“Verily is a good man, a nice man. But, he’s not that easy to approach,” David said and then smiled. “Don’t you think his first name is unusual?”
I nodded again.