Rep. Greg Pence criticized for race-related items sold at his mall

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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 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 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 shops and other retail outlets across the United States. Black Americana collectibles have long been popular items in antique stores and in online marketplaces. Many of the collectors are Black.

“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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33 thoughts on “Rep. Greg Pence criticized for race-related items sold at his mall

  1. Correction to your headline – should read “racist items” rather than race related. Stop using euphemisms to soften these blatantly racist issues

  2. Ok, you have done it. IBJ has jumped the shark.

    For the rest of us, a new rule by whomever is making up these new rules.

    If you own real estate you are now responsible for the moral and ethical views of anyone who occupies.

    Before anyone cries foul, here are the examples:

    I own an office building in California, I live in Indiana. If a company puts up a sign in the window that says “I hate X,Y and Z”, it is fair to criticize me and get me thrown into the pile.

    I own a park in Tennessee, again I live in Indiana. A group of people go the park, have an unscheduled event with signs that say “I hate X,Y and Z” per this transitive guilt, I am now in the pile.

    I can keep going, but just going to sell everything I own so I don’t get in trouble.

    1. John Q P, analogy is bogus. What if many people over years told you about the offensive signs etc and you did nothing. That’s what happened here.

    2. Here’s an example – I own a series of gas stations in Indiana. I declare business bankruptcy and leave behind a bunch of toxic sites that are contaminating nearby drinking water.

      You think it’s fair I handle the cleanup for the mess I left behind? Or should I call on my political connections and have the state of Indiana handle it to the tune of $20 million dollars?

      That’s what Greg Pence did. So I guess I’m not too concerned about racist trinkets when he’s got things like this on his record. But he’ll be an elected official as long as he wants with his last name.

    3. Joe B – Obviously you have never been to Gary, Indiana. Over 75% of that City is abandoned industrial sites, most contained extremely toxic chemicals. Gas Stations all over Gary closed and the owners walked away. The State has not even scratched the surface in cleaning up old gas stations in Gary.

      I do not recall one story where the State of Indiana recovered any damages for site clean ups. Are Politics or Connections involved in Lake County?

    4. Joe B and Tim O, politics and who’s to blame aside, there are funds out there to help with cleanup of environmentally impacted properties. For example, Indiana has case law that enables the use of general liability insurance policies to fund investigation and remediation of contaminated properties such as the Kiel Brothers sites in which the Pence family was involved, or abandoned industrial sites in Gary. Dispensing petroleum, dry cleaning, machining metals, making steel, etc. are necessary processes in our current, modern lives. Unfortunately, and often not due to negligence, but rather due to bad luck and sometimes a series of small errors that result in large problems, these types of operations sometimes result in chemical releases into the environment. Those releases represent a liability in the form of a cost to the responsible party. If the main goal is to get contaminated properties such as these redeveloped, returning them to productive reuse, where taxes are generated, jobs are created, and neighborhoods are revitalized, there are resources out there to help fund the environmental investigations and cleanup (sometimes through government grants, but quite often through insurance policies and other private funds) and create jobs, revitalization, and tax revenue in areas of a community or in the state where it is most needed.

    1. This has nothing to do with media bias against conservatives. It has everything to do with human decency and trying to eliminate racism. No getting off the hook by claiming media bias.

    1. ..Like the freedom for women to choose what happens to their bodies?….That kind of freedom?

  3. when will the IBJ report on Clinton the child sex abuser? is that not a story? or obama and biden trying to fix an election?

    oh yeah, fake news. oh and none of them are racists…

  4. The article notes that some museums and individuals collect such items to document history, but how can that happen if the items are not sold to them? Perhaps some items could be donated to a museum if the owner is aware of it, but if not sold in a shop or eBay, how would a collector get them (I’m presuming an “honorable” collector such as a black person wanting to remember/document the history of injustice)? I assume that the implication is that these items not be sold and instead destroyed? So, my honest question here is what should be done with these items if they shouldn’t be sold?

    I’m genuinely concerned about things that perpetuate truly racist views. I like going to antique shops and to watch Antique’s Roadshow, and when I see items such as described in the article I think of them as a reminder of how bad things once were that such objects were considered acceptable. I would be concerned that such evidence of the past be erased. So, for those who think it racist that these items are for sale, is it your position that enough of these items are in museums and honorable collector hands that it would be best if the rest were just destroyed?

  5. Let’s see, you want to remove all things that have an association or have had an association with any type and/or form of racism in the past. I agree. Get rid of it as racism is disgusting and should never be condoned. Not today and never again.

    But while we are at it, since we are removing and often times obliterating any history of racism (statues, flags, etc), the DEMOCRAT Party should be next. That is, unless you want to be a hypocrite. The DEMOCRAT Party should no longer exist…PERIOD…look at its history! The Democrat Party’s history is steep in slavery and racism. Don’t believe me, go back to even before 1860 and up to and through the Civil Rights Movement of 1964 and then just take a quick look at the Political Party voting behind the events that led to the Civil War: slavery, succession and the Reconstruction Amendments (13th, 14th and 15th) plus the Civil Rights Movement.

    Just research how that voting went in the Democrat Party. Don’t want to take the time, okay, here let me share…this should help:

    13th Amendment – Abolish Slavery (Vote: 100% Republican; 23% Democrat);

    14th Amendment – Amendment to give slaves citizenship (Vote: Republicans 94%; Democrat’s 0%);

    15th Amendment- Right to Vote for all men regardless of race (100% Republicans; 0% Democrats).

    Oh and let’s not forget the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (Vote: Republicans 80%; Democrat’s 63%.)

    Now take a look at those facts and tell me what Party has a history of racism in spite of the distorted rhetoric and narrative of the media and the Democrat Party. If so, they need to go if our statues and anything that has ever been associated with racism must go! If you believe otherwise, check your hypocrisy meter as it is probably off the charts.

    Hmm, will IBJ write an article on that?!

    1. abe lincoln – republican
      MLK – republican
      when will they start taking down the robert byrd statues and renaming everything with his name on it? – kkk leader and beloved democrat- filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965

      but hey – democrats – just say you are sorry and everything is OK.

      saw a great sign today in a yard – “vote blue – no matter who” – those open minded democrats – ha!

  6. Glad to see the IBJ is consistent. It consistently criticizes Republicans and attempts to boost Democrats. And in an election year no less.

    Pence owns a mall, rents out space to people who sell cheap trinkets, and somehow he’s responsible for everything they sell. So, okay, fine, they make a policy they says no items promoting hate can be sold in their mall, they go through and clean out all the confederate flags, but I guess they missed the cheap trinkets, so that’s not good enough.

    Let’s say the social justice fairies sweep through Pence’s mall tonight and magically make anything remotely offensive to anyone disappear. Then what? What challenges facing African Americans are overcome? Are their crappy Democrat-run IPS schools improved? Is black-on-black violent crime eliminated?

    It’s so easy to write articles about cheap trinkets in a mall owned by a Republican politician, just to make his Democrat challenger look good. But beyond that it means nothing, and it accomplished nothing. But that’s okay, IBJ, you just keep trying to boost your Democrat buddies.

  7. The hypocrisy of the left is on full display here. I do not condone racism one bit but when Jeanine Lake uses this in her campaign against her opponent I think the real motive becomes very clear: “To use any method available to slander and malign her opponent.” This attitude that others are always responsible for someone else’s actions is a farce. It did not work for Curtis Hill and the Republican Party did not back him for re-election. That did not have anything to do with the color of his skin. He simply made a mistake; an error in judgment and was held accountable for it. If he were a democrat it would’ve been excused and defended and his accusers would’ve been branded “racists”. That is the world we live in today and I am sick of the double standard. There is no common sense or decency anymore. Political correctness and victimhood is ruining the country.

  8. People who own businesses want to use their business, and the limited liability protection the state gives to corporations, LLCs and LLPs, to advance their personal religious beliefs: for example, some bakers won’t serve gay marriages, etc. But when that business is asked to not promote racist drivel on its property, we hear all manner of excuses about why doing nothing by that business should be acceptable. Nonsense.

  9. Vincent: Excellent points all, and I would add that those 23% of Democrats who voted in favor of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery? There were no Southern Democrats in Congress at that time because the southern states had seceded. That means only 23% of NORTHERN and border state Democrats voted to abolish slavery. I guess the rest were fine with it. And the 14th? If your numbers are correct, that means no Northern or border state Democrats at all voted for that. This is your Democrat Party, folks!

  10. Is the mall still open??? Last time I was there there were a LOT of empty booths and several selling flea market junk. Their booth rent is way too high for anyone to last long there…….

  11. Michael G. And just how is Greg Pence a useless weasel? Because he is of a different political party than you? Love your tolerance for diversity. He has done nothing for Indiana? So you are deep in knowledge into his policy? Know how he has voted? Know of his philanthropic background? You know his morals? His values? His character and integrity? And he has done nothing for Indiana? If you are going to make negative comments like that, please list facts to convince the rest of us of your argument and position to prove he is wrong and you are right. And while you are at it, so the Vice President is also an idiot? Wow aren’t you just full of compliments. I am pretty sure you don’t become a governor and VP by being an idiot. Again, is it because his political party is different from you? Or he has a difference of opinion about social issues? Would he no longer be an idiot if he always agrees with you? If so, give him a ring as I am sure with your cast knowledge is always being right that you can convince the VP to use you as a political consultant and life coach. By the way, what have you ever done for Indiana or even your own community for that matter. Glass houses!

  12. I had a rented booth at Greg Pence’s Edinburgh Antiques Mall for quite a while. As a tenant, I had a contract with the mall owners. It explicitly cited that vendors were not allowed to sell offensive, suggestive, or profane merchandise. These were forbidden items. The mall policy was to notify the vendor when items were identified as “should be removed.” What else was the management team supposed to do? If the management were to remove items from rental spaces, it would open up a liability issue. These offensive items are the responsibility [and perhaps moral issue] of the vendor, not the management.

    Greg and Denise Pence to be very good people. I may not always agree with their politics, but that is called a democracy.