Rep. Greg Pence criticized for racist items sold at his mall

EDINBURGH, Ind. —
U.S. Rep. Greg Pence is coming under criticism for allowing the sale of objects with racist depictions of African Americans at a sprawling antiques mall he co-owns — and the issue has taken on particular significance as the Republican defends his congressional seat in Indiana amid a national reckoning on race.

The Exit 76 Antique Mall in Edinburgh, Indiana, has more than 4 million items for sale by the merchants who rent booths from Pence, the vice president’s older brother, and his wife — including porcelain dinner sets and vintage clothing, Civil War relics, first edition classic rock records and thousands of old baseball cards.

But sprinkled throughout the mall’s 72,000 square feet (6,700 square meters) are also dozens of objects that trade in Jim Crow-era caricatures and stereotypes, like a coin bank featuring an exaggerated, straw-hatted Black figure biting down on a watermelon or “Mammy” biscuit jars depicting smiling Black enslaved women. Some are hard to find, while others are clearly on display.

Jeannine Lee Lake, Pence’s Democratic challenger, drew attention to the objects recently on social media, but customers say they have complained to management at the mall about the items as far back as 2008.

Pence did not reply to multiple questions and requests for comment about the items, of which The Associated Press identified more than three dozen during visits on July 21 and 23. Through a spokesperson, Pence distanced himself, telling The Star Press last week that he “is not engaged in the active management” of the mall.

Lake, who is one of three Black candidates for federal office in Indiana this fall, said the issue was brought to her attention by a woman who used to live near the mall who sent photos of “awful objects degrading and dehumanizing Black people” for sale. Lake visited the store in June and said she saw “rows and rows” of items, “mocking Black skin, displaying protruding lips and having bugged out eyes.”

“It made me want to cry,” Lake said.

Lake said taking Pence to task for the goods sold at the mall was “a necessary action for an African American woman running for Congress” — especially at a moment when protests across the country are highlighting and calling for an end to institutionalized racism. Demonstrations swelled after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minnesota police officer pressed a knee into his neck, and have made racial injustice a central theme of the 2020 election.

Pence easily beat Lake in Indiana’s deeply conservative 6th Congressional District in 2018 and is expected to win again. His brother, Vice President Mike Pence, held the seat for 12 years. The vice president’s office had no immediate comment.

Lauren Smythe — who sent the photos to Lake and lives in Columbus, in the district Greg Pence now represents — told the AP that she first came upon the items in 2018. When she complained to management then, she was told that Confederate flags for sale would be removed, but also that the managers saw no issue with other merchandise. There were no Confederate flags seen for sale when an AP reporter visited this month.

Margaret Lowe, a Methodist pastor from Greensburg, also in Pence’s district, said she and her sister also complained to management — as early as 2008, two years after the Pences bought the store. They were told nothing could be done. The AP spoke to five other people who have said they also asked mall management to remove items over the last decade.

Joyce Bishop, the onsite manager of the mall, declined to answer specific questions concerning the merchandise. But in an emailed statement Monday, Bishop cited the mall’s “Offensive Material Policy,” which bans items that “promote or glorify hatred, violence, racial, sexual or religious intolerance” and prohibits “racially or ethnically offensive language, historical items, reproductions, and works of art and media.”

Bishop said mall staff had “recently completed an audit of merchant booths and cases for potentially offensive materials to ensure compliance to this policy.” Bishop did not describe what the audit entailed or when it was conducted.

The emporium in Edinburgh and a smaller antiques mall in nearby Bloomington are Pence’s largest assets. The two malls, held by the Pence Group LLC, are valued at $5 million to $25 million, and are owned by the congressman and his wife, Denise, according to Pence’s financial disclosure filing. The Edinburgh mall rents booths, of which there are around 600, to merchants, starting at $189 a month, and also takes a commission of 7% to 19% from each sale.

Lake said she wants Pence to remove the objects, saying they are “being sold now for a whole new generation of the promulgation of hate.”

The objects all appear to be reproductions — though some are priced as if they were authentic antiques, said David Pilgrim, director of Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum, which houses one the country’s largest collections of racial segregation memorabilia. The items are similar to those curated by the museum and used to educate the public about racism, Pilgrim said.

Such items can also be spotted in antique shops and other retail outlets across the United States.

“During the Jim Crow days, these everyday objects — banks, cookie jars, toys, games, postcards, and more — served as propaganda,” said Pilgrim. “They were ways of saying: ‘Those people are different from us. … We don’t want them in our neighborhoods, schools and churches.’”

Pilgrim said the objects can be educational, as they are in his museum, but he said their presence at a store was of dubious value.

“Are the people buying them for educational purposes?” Pilgrim asked. “No, of course not. Are they buying them to document racism or to celebrate it?”

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Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.