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Pioneering artist, graphic designer was grandson of slaves

Thomas Miller 91 Obit phopioneer for African-American graphic designers

Thomas Miller, 91, Obit photo, a pioneer for African-American graphic designers

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Updated: August 27, 2012 11:22AM

Thomas Miller, a pioneering African-American artist and graphic designer who had a hand in the iconic “batwing” Motorola logo and a redesign for 7UP, was able to pry open many doors slammed in his face in the corporate world of the 1950s, through perseverance, a strong belief in himself, and sheer talent.

Mr. Miller, a longtime Beverly resident, died last week at Smith Village retirement community on the Southwest Side. He was 91.

A grandson of slaves, Mr. Miller worked for about 35 years at the famed Chicago design firm of Morton Goldsholl Associates, where he created corporate trademarks and packaging. He crafted a mint leaf for the Canadian marketing of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum, said his daughter, DePaul University Professor Joyce Miller-Bean.

“He worked on some of the really important logos [Morton Goldsholl] did, for example, the Motorola logo,” said Victor Margolin, a professor emeritus in the Art History Department at UIC, where Mr. Miller’s papers are stored in the library’s special collections. He developed designs for Hamburger Helper and the International Minerals & Chemical Corporation, and he worked on a 1970s redesign of 7UP’s logo and packaging.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, he was just one of a handful of African-American designers working in Chicago — and the nation. Still, “Chicago was probably the city that had more black designers than anywhere in the country,” Margolin said, thanks to the vibrance of Chicago’s African-American business community and the draw of publications like Ebony. Also, “There were some enlightened patrons here, I would say, mostly Jewish; a few firms that were willing to hire black designers.”

Mr. Miller’s daughter said her father felt a strong bond with Goldsholl, who hired him when others wouldn’t give him a chance.

Early on, Mr. Miller and Goldsholl attended a Chicago event memorializing the Holocaust, she said. It featured a haunting display with a baby shoe from one of the camps. “Morton Goldsholl called him over and said, ‘Tom, you want to know why I support the civil rights movement? So I never see another child’s shoe like this.’ ”

Mr. Miller grew up in Bristol, Va. As a boy, he pulled his little wagon down to the local newspaper office to get leftover paper to practice his drawing.

Legendary African-American boxer Jack Johnson was a friend of the Miller family, his daughter said. “Jack Johnson used to bounce dad on his knee.”

He majored in fine arts at Virginia State College and then enlisted in the U.S. Army in World War II. Whenever he had free time, he drew or painted. While stationed in Europe, he sold his paintings to people in Belgium, France and England.

Despite his service to his country, he was reminded of the state of U.S. race relations when he returned home, near Oklahoma’s Camp Gruber.

“When we got back to the States, there were Germans and Italian prisoners of war. We [African-Americans] could not go into a restaurant and eat. The prisoners of war — 12 or 15 of them — [went] into a restaurant with a couple of guards. And here I am with my men in uniform, and we got to go through the kitchen and sit in the rain to eat,” he told the Daily Southtown in 2007.

After the war, he attended Chicago’s Ray-Vogue School of Design. “He was the only black person there except for the janitor or handyman,” Margolin said. Mr. Miller said he took many courses in varied art techniques to make himself “super-qualified.”

Still, while looking for a job, “I was told over and over again, I had all the qualifications but I had the wrong color. One person told me, ‘You can work in here in this studio, but you’ll have to work behind this screen so nobody could see you,’” he told the Southtown.

Goldsholl “said he wasn’t hiring me because I was black and he felt sorry for me. He said he was hiring me because he needed a designer.”

“That,” Mr. Miller said, “turned a corner for me because it made me feel good. I even think about it now.”

The Heritage Gallery on 113th Street carried his portraits of African-American life. His artwork also decorated Smith Village.

Mr. Miller’s wife of 51 years, Anita, died before him, as did his daughter, Pamela Miller. He is also survived by his son, Thomas Miller, Jr., and four grandchildren.

A memorial celebration is planned for 2 p.m. Aug. 12 at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History, which is filled with his mosaics of famous black Chicagoans. “He’s a very important figure to us,” museum president Carol Adams said.

As he told the Southtown, “I’d be foolish not to be proud of the work that I’ve done.”

Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick

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