Local artisan Paquita Purnell was packing up a minivan Tuesday with the last of her wares after she pulled out of her vendor space at Best of Janesville Vintage Mall.
Purnell and several other tenants say they’re removing their booths from the south-side vintage mall after a vendor at the mall’s sister site in South Beloit, Illinois, displayed a Confederate flag with Ku Klux Klan symbols written on it and two artworks showing racist caricatures of Black people.
The incident happened Saturday during the busy Vintage Shop Hop. It has drawn fire on social media from tenants and customers who say mall owner James Flister took too few steps to publicly apologize for the vendor’s displays, which customers and vendors say are racist.
Tenants also claim Flister threatened to evict at least one of his mall tenants after the person spoke out against the displays.
On Saturday, vendors at the Best of Beloit Vintage Mall in South Beloit said they spotted a booth that displayed two paper fans depicting caricatures of Black people with distorted facial features and unrealistically dark skin.
Another piece on display was a miniature folk-art sculpture depicting a gleeful white boy perched on the back of a Black child crouched on his hands and knees.
Both children are set against a stylized brick wall. The white child is writing the words “Welcome to Dixie” on the wall while clutching what appears to be a white rope with one end tied around the Black child’s neck.
Flister told The Gazette on Tuesday that the mall removed the flag and caricature art soon after vendors and customers saw them.
Purnell, who is Black, said about two months earlier, a vendor in Flister’s South Beloit mall had displayed a 1940s tea towel printed with caricatures of Black children.
She characterized the art as a Jim Crow-era depiction of “Pickaninny” children.
“They never removed that towel even after it was reported to them,” she said. “They left it there for days, weeks. It stayed right there until it finally sold.”
Purnell said she has worked the cash register at Flister’s vintage malls, and she also has helped him attract some of the more than 200 tenants that lease space in his two vintage malls.
“It’s 2021 now. We’re not in 1940s America anymore,” Purnell said. “I told them how inappropriate it was, and nothing was done. After that, I said, ‘My contract is up in four months, and after that I’m leaving.’”
Flister posted on his malls’ Facebook pages that his managers had learned about items a customer “felt” were “racist/inappropriate” at the South Beloit store.
“We wanted to let you know that not only do we not condone inappropriate items; but if and when we find them, we take them out. These items were taken out immediately,” Flister wrote in the post.
But Purnell and another vendor, Crystal Perez, say Flister downplayed the situation in text messages and Facebook comments.
Perez said Flister threatened to evict her from her vendor space at the Janesville mall, 3138 S. Highway 51, and ultimately did so after Perez publicly aired information about the racist items.
Perez, a Janesville native now living in Clinton, sells country and farmhouse-inspired decor. She said she took Flister to task for not meeting the controversy head on, and she thinks Flister should have made a public apology with a full explanation of what happened. But she said he did not disclose details and instead used quotations around the words “racist” and “inappropriate” in his social media post.
Perez said that seemed flippant to her.
“In this day and age, it’s just not acceptable, and especially not with the movements we’ve ... recently had going on, Black Lives Matter, the George Floyd issue,” Perez said. “This is absolutely unacceptable, and it’s becoming more aware to society that it’s just unacceptable.”
Perez said she and other vendors got calls from customers all weekend who said they plan to steer clear of both vintage malls.
“People felt there was completely zero concern for what hurt them—those things put on display that they and a lot of people had seen,” she said.
Perez left the Best of Janesville Vintage Mall after Flister sent her this Facebook message, which was obtained by The Gazette:
“I really love you guys and would love to not kick you out,” but “on each team there is a head coach. I am the head coach. If you are not on board with what is going on, it may be better to part ways than to disrupt the locker room. I will leave that up to you at this point.”
In a phone interview, Flister said he thinks his malls and vendors have a good reputation, and he called the one vendor’s items an “isolated incident.”
He said it can be difficult and “impractical” for the malls to screen all of the vendor spaces for potentially objectionable items.
He declined to comment on text messages in which he appeared to threaten to remove tenants who continued speaking out and pressing him for further public apologies.
He called the texts “internal” communications.
In other text messages to tenants, Flister seemed to boil down the incident to a matter of political correctness or self-censorship on a “spectrum” of personal opinion.
In texts between Flister and another tenant obtained by The Gazette, Flister said the unfolding controversy over the Black caricature items and the Klan-themed Confederate flag reminded him of recent public sentiment over perceived racist themes in some Dr. Seuss books.
“It is definitely a spectrum,” Flister wrote. “When we see something inappropriate, we take it out—unfortunately the definition of ‘offensive’ is so all over the board—Example: Dr. Seuss and Washington Redskins recently.”
In the same exchange, Flister characterized the situation as “silly” and wrote, “It will all blow over, I’m sure.”