It took two years for Eugene “Eda” Wade to complete one of his biggest projects: painting the fire doors at Malcolm X College with images of Black culture and Egyptian and West African designs.
He transformed the 64 steel canvases — 32 10-by-four doors, front and back — into something vibrant, inspiring and majestic.
Maséqua Myers, who went on to become executive director of the South Side Community Art Center, remembers how, as a student attending Malcolm X, the doors “instilled an immeasurable amount of historical pride to hundreds of thousands of young African American students walking by them daily.”
“The doors were such a wonderful gift to give to the students,” muralist Dorian Sylvain said.
A Chicago star in the Black Arts Movement, Mr. Wade died April 15 of heart failure at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
After retiring in 2005, he moved back to his native Louisiana to enjoy a return to warm weather, according to his daughter Martha Wade. Mr. Wade was 81.
“He was a master artist,” said Chicago poet Haki Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press Foundation.
He also repainted sections of Chicago’s Wall of Respect mural at East 43rd Street and South Langley Avenue in 1967. The building and its mural have long since been torn down, but art historians often cite it as the nation’s “original community-based outdoor Black Power mural,” according to Jeff Huebner, author of a book on one of Mr. Wade’s collaborators, “Walls of Prophecy and Protest: William Walker and the Roots of a Revolutionary Public Art Movement.”
The Wall of Respect helped launch “a revival of mural painting in the United States,” said Daniel Schulman, director of visual art for the city of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.
It displayed images of cultural icons including Muhammad Ali, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, Ornette Coleman, Wilt Chamberlain, W.E.B. DuBois, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Sidney Poitier, Nina Simone, Cicely Tyson and Malcolm X.
It also featured an image of Illinois poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, who recited “The Wall” at its dedication, including these lines:
It is the Hour of tribe and of vibration,
the day-long Hour. It is the Hour
of ringing, rouse, of ferment-festival.
On Forty-third and Langley
black furnaces resent ancient
of ploy and scruple and practical gelatin.
They keep the fever in,
fondle the fever.
worship the Wall.
The Wall — organized by the Visual Arts Workshop of the Organization of Black American Culture — was an exuberant community counterpoint to officially sanctioned public art like the Picasso sculpture, unveiled downtown the same year. It also was an expression of Black pride and autonomy.
“The entire mural was an act of defiance,” Huebner said.
“This was public Black art, and we’ve always spelled Black with a capital ‘B,’ ” said Madhubuti, who called the Wall of Respect “one of the most critically important artistic international statements made from Chicago artists.”
Like Brooks, Madhubuti recited a poem he’d written titled “The Wall” at the dedication. It included the line:
Our heroes, we pick them, for the wall
The mighty black wall about our business/blackness
Can you dig?
The Wall of Respect was, in the parlance of the day, a happening. And it soon begat other happenings, becoming a gathering spot for poetry readings and dance and musical events.
“As a theater director, my company and the Kuumba Workshop presented numerous performances at [the] Wall of Respect, which had become a spiritual site and creative center,” Pemon Rami said.
Mr. Wade’s “religion section of the Wall of Respect was seen in the background for many of our performances,” Rami said.
Alterations to the Wall of Respect became a source of debate and controversy. At one point, Walker — sometimes called the originator of the project — asked Mr. Wade to “paint over” artist Norman Parish’s section. That caused a “lasting rift,” according to a 2017 Cultural Center show about the Wall of Respect.
In addition to the Wall of Respect, Mr. Wade worked on neighboring murals — one called the Wall of Truth, another a porcelain-enamel piece memorializing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In his younger years, Mr. Wade went by the nickname Edaw — Wade spelled backwards. He later shortened that to Eda.
He also worked on public murals in Detroit, including the Wall of Dignity, at Kennedy-King College and in Baton Rouge.
“His fading 1996 ‘Legacy’ survives on a Metra retaining wall at Kinzie and Laramie,” Huebner said.
“Eda’s style of painting was unique and memorable,” said Romi Crawford, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “His painting is, at once, figurative and graphic, bold and confident in terms of design, the maneuver of symbols, and adamant in its use of color.”
He didn’t mind when producing his murals — like the doors at Malcolm X College — took him away from Chicago’s weather extremes.
“I went inside because it was too hot outside in the summertime, and it was too cold in the wintertime,” he once said.
Mr. Wade felt it was important to introduce color to the doors when he took on the Malcolm X project in the early 1970s.
“When I went over there and I saw those doors, they were jet black,” he once told the Chicago Sun-Times. “They were quite depressing. I thought it was a challenge.”
He decided to use quick-drying acrylic paint.
“You must realize that, during the time I was painting it, I had students, constant traffic back and forth, and sometimes I would have to close off a section so the students wouldn’t knock over my paint,” he said.
Eight of the Malcolm X doors are now at the DuSable Museum of African American History.
The remaining 24 are at the new Malcolm X College, which “is working to raise funds to properly display them at the college,” said Katheryn Hayes, an associate vice chancellor.
Young Eugene grew up in Scotlandville, a community that’s now part of Baton Rouge. At 7, “He saw a little boy drawing a cowboy, and he told himself he wanted to do that,” his daughter Martha said.
By fifth grade, he had teachers asking him to decorate their classrooms and offering extra credit for doing it.
He got his bachelor’s degree in arts education from Southern University and A&M College, his daughter Jessica Scott-Wade said, and a master of fine arts degree in painting from Howard University.
Mr. Wade became a popular teacher at Malcolm X and Kennedy-King, according to his daughters.
“He always said it wasn’t about the mone,” Martha Wade said. “He just wanted to share the knowledge and share the creativity.”
He was creative as a parent, too, she said, taking his children bike-riding and on outings to the lakefront and amusement parks.
“He believed he was put here to be a father,” she said.
Mr. Wade continued creating well into his later years, switching to digital art.
“I moved from being a traditional artist — painting with paint, such as oil paint and acrylics, and things like that on a large scale or even on canvas — to painting on a computer,” he said in 2015 for a video posted to YouTube.
In addition to his daughters Martha and Jessica, Mr. Wade is survived by daughters Elizabeth J. Wade and Ivy Scott-Wade, sons Durand and Manaseh, his brother Robert and five grandchildren.
Martha Wade said a Chicago memorial service, featuring some of Mr. Wade’s paintings and a video devoted to his work, is being planned for June.
Contributing: Lee Bey