A Different Perspective On Our Story About The Walnut Room

Listener Joyce Miller Bean shares her family’s experience of racism and discrimination when visiting Marshall Field’s in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Joyce Miller Bean in the 1950s
On the left, Joyce Miller Bean in 1959. On the right, Joyce Miller Bean (seated) with her sister Pam in front of their home just after Christmas in 1956. (Courtesy of Joyce Miller Bean)
Joyce Miller Bean in the 1950s
On the left, Joyce Miller Bean in 1959. On the right, Joyce Miller Bean (seated) with her sister Pam in front of their home just after Christmas in 1956. (Courtesy of Joyce Miller Bean)

A Different Perspective On Our Story About The Walnut Room

Listener Joyce Miller Bean shares her family’s experience of racism and discrimination when visiting Marshall Field’s in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Curious City reporter Monica Eng recently answered a question about the history of a Chicago Christmas tradition: visiting the State Street Marshall Field’s (now Macy’s) to view the holiday display windows and eat lunch in the Walnut Room restaurant. Lots of people wrote to Curious City to share their happy memories of trips to Marshall Field’s at Christmas.

But Joyce Miller Bean, a storyteller and retired English professor at DePaul University, wrote in to say she had a “vastly different” experience at the store when she went there as a child during the 1950s and ‘60s.

“I was really upset by your recent piece about the fuzzy warm memories of Marshall Field’s. I’m a Baby Boomer who was born and reared in Chicago. I’m also Afro-Indigenous (African American and Native American of the Muscogee-Creek Nation),” she wrote.

“My college educated, tax paying, professional parents (Dad was a graphic designer and Mom was a Social Worker) and my siblings and I were far from welcome at Marshall Field’s especially in the way we were treated by the sales clerks and the staff at the Walnut Room,” she added. “We would be ignored or treated rudely and subjected to countless other racist indignities which are too numerous to go into here but which left you knowing that you were far from welcome as a Field’s customer or as a human being.”

And the Curious City team heard from others who said they had similar experiences to Miller Bean. As we did some additional reporting we learned we’d missed an important piece of the Field’s history — one of racism and discrimination.

In her book, Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement, historian Traci Parker notes that African Americans rarely encountered ‘White Only’ or “No Colored’ signs in northern cities; “Instead it was only when blacks sought service that they learned the proprietor’s race policies.” She recounts a 1952 complaint filed against Marshall Field’s for hiring on the basis of skin color, noting that Field’s representatives told the Chicago Commission on Human Rights they were concerned that the “employment of dark complexioned employees would negatively affect the ‘character, atmosphere and flavor’ of the company and would therefore be harmful to the firm’s competitive position.” In 1953, Parker notes, the Commission sided with the complainant and recommended a change in the “apparently discriminatory practices of Marshall Field and Company.”

So we asked Miller Bean to share her story and the memories she holds of visits to Marshall Field’s as a child, a young professional and even now. Below are highlights of her conversation with reporter Monica Eng.

Can you tell me about your experience at the Walnut Room as a child?

Miller Bean: That would have been around 1956. My mom took me to the Walnut Room because my mom and dad wanted their kids to have the nice experiences that Chicagoans had. I remember standing in line with mom and there was a maitre d’ and he kept literally stepping around momma and me and going to these other people who were all white [in line behind us]. And of course, my mother said, “Excuse me, we’re next in line.” And he kept coldly saying, “I’ll get to you.” So eventually we just left. I didn’t go back to the Walnut Room for years, until I was actually finished with college and was working. And I was hesitant to go back.

You said African Americans didn’t feel welcome at Marshall Field’s. Can you tell me more about that?

Miller Bean: You felt this sense that they would only take your dollars grudgingly. I can remember one year, it was near Christmas and my mother had taken me down to the toy section, which was famous. They had stuffed animals that were the same size as the baby animals they actually represented. I was no more than five and was waiting eagerly to go see [the stuffed animals]. The clerks at the store were taking other [white] children, putting them up on top of the floor models and having them pet them. And I waited for one of the clerks to come get me, but they just ignored us. I was very hurt. I remember that. And I looked at my mom and she said, “Come on Joy, we’ll go.”

A friend and I were talking about this and she remembered in 1971 she was about five at the time, and they went to buy [Christmas] ornaments. They were at the counter waiting to pay and the young man behind the counter was ignoring her mother. So her mother went to go get a manager. The manager was horrified that this young man had done this and was apologizing but, while the two adult women were talking, my friend was right behind her mom, a few feet behind — a little 5-year-old girl. This clerk, a young man, came angrily from behind the counter, obviously upset that his manager was not supporting him on this, and ground his foot onto the foot of this little five year old, stepped on it, smashed her toes and angrily looked at her and then walked off.

She said, to this day, she was too frightened by his look to say anything to her mom at that moment. She’s now in her 50s and said, “I still remember the pain that I felt when he did that and his face, the hatred and anger.”

Did you experience this at other big department stores in Chicago?

Miller Bean: No. I remember going to Carson Pirie Scott & Co., which was also a nice upscale department store. I don’t recall ever feeling unwelcome [there]. They had a restaurant, and then they had a diner type of place that was full of shoppers called the Tartan Tray, which is where my mom and I would go for lunch if we were shopping. And I thought that was exciting and the people were lovely … I had a grilled cheese sandwich like I could have had at home, but they would be so sweet … When you were trying something on, you would be treated like everyone else. I enjoyed going to Carson’s. Rothschild was another clothing store when I was a youngster and I remember mom and dad would sometimes go there to buy clothing for my siblings and myself. And the lady that was there in the women’s department, it was almost like she was a private shopper. We would go back and she would say, “Oh, Mrs. Miller” to my mother and “Oh, Joyce,” just as nice as you please. Wieboldt’s and Sears too, I don’t recall having anybody be ugly like [they were at Field’s].

Did you talk to your kids about your experience at the store?

Miller Bean: My late husband [Al] was also a Chicagoan. He was seven years older than me. And that makes a difference because Al and I used to talk about that vast difference, and things were even worse for him. So when the kids were growing up, we told them about these experiences. I first started going back [to Field’s] in my 20s when I was working. At the time a person asked us to have lunch at the Walnut Room and I found … some [staff members] were nice, some were rude. But then I was also a grown up and if I had someone rude, I would call the manager and stop him or her. It was a mixed feeling, but I just didn’t have the same joy [that some people had] going in there.

My kids, of course, they are millennials, so when they would go, it was a different experience. My daughter … about three or four years ago, she went to the Walnut Room with a work colleague and had a fine meal. And she remembered the things that I had discussed … Now, when they were young we loved the [Christmas] windows. Fields’ windows were wonderful. But you can look at the windows in complete comfort from the ‘safety’ of the sidewalk with no one judging you or anything and just enjoy them. So my kids, they know the history of Chicago’s racism as well as the good things about our city, and they feel like anyone else.

Hear more of this interview by pressing the play button above. This transcript was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.