“Better Homes wants to have a fair shake:” Fighting Housing Discrimination in Postwar South Bend

Better Homes of South Bend Neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana. Photo by Peter Rigenberg, accessed Better Homes of South Bend by Gabrielle Robinson, 121.

On May 21, 1950, a group of African American Studebaker workers and their wives formed a building cooperative in South Bend, Indiana called “Better Homes of South Bend.” Like other building cooperatives, the group appointed officers and a lawyer, drew up incorporation papers, and set times for regular meetings. Unlike other organizations, members decided their cooperative’s activities had to be kept secret to succeed. The cooperative’s first meeting minutes even stressed “no information is to be given out.”

1928 aerial view of Studebaker plant in South Bend, accessed Michiana Memory.

Better Homes of South Bend members had good reason to be cautious. Discrimination in the local housing market had long limited African Americans to dwellings in the southwest part of South Bend, near the Studebaker Factory. Many members were part of the Great Migration of millions of African Americans from the South to the North for war industry jobs in the 1940s. Many had hoped to escape segregation and Jim Crow policies.

However, those with sufficient finances to make down payments found virtually no homes available to them and no banks willing to loan them money. Many of the city’s landlords would not rent to black residents. Real estate agents refused to show black home buyers houses in all-white neighborhoods and developments. White homeowners who tried to sell to black buyers risked physical threats and vandalism. Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough notes that the housing situation in South Bend was so dire for African Americans in the 1940s that many black families were forced to crowd into one or two bedroom units in substandard buildings.

Transcript from a public hearing in South Bend that exposed examples of discrimination in the local housing market from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. March 19, 1963, accessed Michiana Memory.

Alan Pinado, one of the only black real estate agents in South Bend in the postwar era, noted in an oral history of the Civil Rights Heritage Center that:

There were no first quality homes being built for middle class, middle income blacks in South Bend . . . The federal government was part and parcel of the segregated housing pattern. It was legally mandated that new communities be kept segregated.

Federal housing and real estate policy strengthened prejudice in the housing market, not just in South Bend, but nationwide. The federal government first became heavily involved in the housing market in the 1930s. After the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression, the feds created several new agencies, like the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), the Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLB), and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), to try to stem the collapse of regional housing markets and bolster the failing economy.

Federal Housing Administration brochure, ca. 1935, accessed columbia.edu.

Before the federal government stepped in, few became home owners. Banks spread mortgages only over three to five years. These mortgages required large payments that few could afford, especially during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, the government introduced the long-term, low-interest, self-amortizing mortgages most homeowners are familiar with today. Since these mortgages required smaller payments, home ownership became more economically feasible. Additionally, the federal government insured these loans through the FHA, making them an incredibly low risk for banks.

The government developed appraisal schemes to determine eligibility for these new loans. They adopted guidelines real estate associations had developed in the 1910s and 1920s to keep neighborhoods segregated. These associations erroneously decreed that the introduction of a non-white family into an all-white neighborhood would decrease surrounding property values. This policy kept many African Americans in poor neighborhoods, despite their income. For example, HOLC created survey maps of neighborhoods in 239 cities that color coded risk. Neighborhoods were coded into four groups, A-D. Only the best rated neighborhoods, marked A and B, would receive long-term loans. One criteria to receive an A or B rating included that the home in question sat in an all-white neighborhood.

HOLC security map for South Bend, Indiana. Accessed Mapping Inequality.

Similarly, the FHA Underwriting Manual, written in 1936, told appraisers to investigate areas surrounding a house for sale to “determine whether or not incompatible racial and social groups are present” because “if a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” The manual further encouraged the use of local zoning and deed restrictions, like racially restrictive covenants that prevented potential black buyers from purchasing a home from a white homeowner.

The JD Shelly family fought to live in this house in St. Louis, after a neighbor sued to enforce racially restrictive covenants. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Shelly family. Accessed nps.gov.

By the time Better Homes of South Bend was established, the FHA insured 1 in 3 mortgages for new construction. However, the appraisal practices described above became standard practice and permeated the entire housing market. Though the Supreme Court ruled these practices unconstitutional in Shelly v. Kraemer in 1948, FHA did not stop publicly endorsing such actions until 1950 and prejudice in the housing market continued well after. Even in 1961, the United States Commission on Civil Rights admitted that housing still:

seems to be the one commodity in the American market that is not freely available on equal terms to everyone who can afford to pay.

Better Homes of South Bend members formed their building cooperative to combat this prejudiced housing market in 1950. According to scholar Jessica Gordon Nembhard, African Americans have established co-ops since the Civil War help fight economic racism. Cooperatives, or “companies owned by people who use their services,” work by pooling resources to satisfy an economic need created by a marketplace failure.

Advertisement for M.W. Jones’s African American apartment co-op in Indianapolis. Indianapolis Recorder, November 11, 1950, 14, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The first large African American housing co-operatives began in Harlem in the late 1920s. Many early African American co-ops in Indiana were markets or grocery stores, formed in the 1930s or 1940s. Better Homes of South Bend was likely one of the first successful African American building co-ops in the state. Only one other similar co-op, an apartment co-op in Indianapolis started by M.W. Jones in 1950, described in the Indianapolis Recorder as the “first Negro co-op Apartments in the city and the State,” is known to have existed.

Better Homes of South Bend had many of their meetings at the Hering House, an African American civic center in South Bend. Accessed Michiana Memory.

At the first meeting, Better Homes members elected officers to run the group: Lureatha Allen as President, Earl Thompson as Vice President, Louise Taylor as secretary, Ruby Paige as assistant secretary, and Bland Jackson as treasurer. Eventually, twenty-two couples joined the group. Many members were neighbors along Prairie Avenue or Western Avenue. Eighteen of the twenty-two male members worked at Studebaker. Most of the women stayed home to take care of children. Since many of the women had more flexible schedules than their husbands, they often took on leadership roles in the cooperative.

Better Homes of South Bend lawyer J. Chester Allen, accessed Indiana Legal Archive

After incorporating, Better Homes members had to find land to build their homes. Their lawyer, J. Chester Allen, secured twenty-six lots on the northwest edge of the city on the 1700 and 1800 blocks of North Elmer Street from his acquaintance, George Sands, a prominent white lawyer in South Bend. Only a few families, all white, lived in this relatively undeveloped area. US Census and Housing Data, which divides South Bend into six wards containing roughly five to six thousand households. The data indicates that only seven “non-white” households lived in the ward containing 1700-1800 North Elmer Street in 1950. In contrast, all Better Homes of South Bend members lived in Ward 2 or Ward 6 at the time, both of which contained 530 and 835 non-white households, respectively.

DeHart Hubbard, accessed University of Michigan.

At a general meeting in September 1950, members enjoyed divvying up the lots and receiving their house numbers. The next steps involved getting loans to finance construction and a contractor to build homes on the lots. Better Homes enlisted the help of DeHart Hubbard, who worked as a race relations advisor at the FHA office in Cleveland. The FHA had finally started cracking down on racially restrictive covenants in their mortgages, after years of pressure from civil rights groups.

Through Hubbard, Better Homes got the FHA to handle their permanent mortgages and found four local banks to handle financing. Many members worried about meeting with local bank executives because they had heard bankers often denied home loans to African Americans, especially those who wanted to build outside black neighborhoods. Hubbard accompanied members to meetings with banking executives to remind the bankers that the federal government was insuring Better Homes’ loans and that members had good credit, therefore there was no reason to deny financing. In Better Homes of South Bend, member Leroy Cobb told author Gabrielle Robinson:

What I was really proud of was that here was a black man standing up to white executives and telling them that Better Homes wants to have a fair shake. It inspired me.

Leroy Cobb, a few years before joining Better Homes of South Bend, 1946, accessed Michiana Memory.

Better Homes also had to find a competent contractor. Member Margaret Cobb noted in an oral history for the Civil Rights Heritage Center at Indiana University South Bend, that contractors they met with “wanted to give us substandard materials,” to build their homes because members were black. Construction companies at the time often employed a double standard in building, using higher quality materials on homes for white homeowners and cheaper stock for similar African American homes. Leroy Cobb remembered in Better Homes of South Bend that one prospective contractor refused to put doors on closets in their homes. After two years, Better Homes finally found two contractors that supplied good plans at reasonable prices. All the houses were to be one-story frame construction on a concrete slab. Most floor plans contained five rooms and one bathroom.

Before construction could start, the city had to install sewer and water lines. Though the postwar building boom strained the city’s resources, negotiations between the city and Better Homes attorney J. Chester Allen stretched over years. Members suspect that the process might have taken so long because of an unwillingness for the Better Homes families to move to North Elmer Street.  After two years of letters and petitions, the group finally got sewers installed and construction began.

1700 block of North Elmer Street in 2015, the former homes of members Earl and Viro Thompson, Gus and Josie Watkins, and Bland and Rosa Jackson. Photo by Peter Rigenberg, accessed Better Homes of South Bend by Gabrielle Robinson, 86.

In the late fall of 1952, the first family, Bland and Rosa Jackson, moved into their home at 1706 North Elmer Street. By the mid-1950s, all twenty-two families had moved in between 1700 and 1841 North Elmer Street. Leroy and Margaret Cobb moved in on November 1, 1953 to 1702 North Elmer Street. Leroy Cobb told Gabrielle Robinson that on move-in day, “I was elated.” Finally, he and Margaret had enough space for their family.

Baton twirlers in the annual Elmer Street Parade, August 1962. Photo courtesy Vicki Belcher and Brenda Wright, accessed Better Homes of South Bend, 97.

In August 1954, the group celebrated their new neighborhood with a picnic featuring cakes, pies, potato salad and barbecued chicken and ribs. Over the years, Better Homes members grew a vibrant community, filled with family cookouts and outdoor activities like baseball, kickball, and building snowmen. There was even an annual Elmer Street Parade.

The Indiana Historical Bureau will honor Better Homes of South Bend with a new state historical marker.  The marker will be revealed at a ceremony open to the public July 1, 2017 at 1702 North Elmer Street in South Bend. Check on our Facebook page and website for upcoming details.

Better Homes of South Bend members at their celebratory picnic in August 1954. Photo courtesy Leroy Cobb, accessed Better Homes of South Bend, 91.

Roberta West Nicholson: “Without a Scintilla of Prejudice”

See Part I to learn about Roberta West Nicholson’s efforts to educate the public about sexual health, her Anti-Heart Balm Bill, and the sexism she faced as the only woman legislator in the 1935-1936 Indiana General Assembly.

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Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from Nicholson’s six-part interview with the Indiana State Library.

At the conclusion of Nicholson’s term in the Indiana House of Representatives, the country was still in the grip of the Great Depression. Nicholson recalled witnessing a woman standing atop the Governor Oliver P. Morton Statue at the Statehouse to rally Hoosiers from across the state to press Governor Paul McNutt for jobs. She was struck by the fact that the woman was wearing a flour sack as a dress, on which the Acme Evans label was still visible.

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Oliver P. Morton Statue at the Statehouse, courtesy of Waymarking.com.

To see for herself if conditions were as dire as she’d heard-despite some local newspapers denying the extent of the poverty-Nicholson took a job at a canning factory. There she learned that the “economic condition was as bad or worse than I had feared.” She hoped to ease this struggle as the Director of Women’s and Professional Work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, January 3, 1937, accessed Newspapers.com.

As Director, she got further confirmation about the impoverished conditions of Hoosiers during a visit to a transient shelter on Capitol Avenue. She reported:

I couldn’t tell you the dimensions of it, but there were fifteen hundred men on the move that were in this one room and there wasn’t room for them to sit down, much less lie down. They stood all night. They just were in out of the weather. You see, these men were on the move because one of the things about that Depression was that there was lack of real communication, and rumors would go around for blue collar work and they’d say, “They’re hiring in St. Louis,” which proved to be incorrect.

In her role at the Indiana WPA, Nicholson managed all jobs undertaken by women and professionals, which included bookbinding and sewing. She also helped supervise the WPA’s Writer’s Project, consisting of a group of ex-teachers and writers who compiled an Indiana history and traveler’s guide. This project was led by Ross Lockridge Sr., historian and father of famous Raintree County author, Ross Lockridge Jr. Nicholson noted that Lockridge Jr.’s book “had more to do with making me fall in love with my adopted state than anything I can tell you.”

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WPA project for the blind, young woman operating braille machine at the Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, courtesy of the National Archives.

One of Nicholson’s largest tasks involved instructing WPA seamstresses to turn out thousands of garments for victims of the Ohio River Flood in 1937. The workers were headquartered at the State Fair Grounds, where the flood victims were also transported by the Red Cross during the disaster. Nicholson noted that many of the women of the sewing project worked because their husbands had left the family as “hobos,” traveling across the country to look for work; in order to support their families the women made clothes for the “next lower strata of society.”

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Jeffersonville Station submerged by the 1937 flood, image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Collection.
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WPA workers, “Flood Control,” Indianapolis, courtesy of the National Archives.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited their WPA Project, headquartered at the RCA building. The 1500 women continued their work as though nothing were different. Mrs. Roosevelt’s approval seemed to validate the project, especially since the women “were constantly being made fun of for boondoggling and not really doing any work and just drawing down fifty dollars a month.” Nicholson spoke with the First Lady throughout day, concluding “I’ll never forget what a natural, lovely and simple person she was, as I guess all real people are. I was pretty young and it seemed marvelous to me that the president’s wife could be just so easy and talk like anybody else.”

In the early 1940s, Governor Henry F. Schricker appointed Nicholson to a commission on Indianapolis housing conditions. The reformer, who grew up “without a scintilla of prejudice,” concluded that the real estate lobby was at the center of the disenfranchisement of African Americans. As she saw it in 1977, the lobby prevented:

[W]hat we now call ‘upward mobility’ of blacks. I don’t think we would have this school problem in Indianapolis we have now if the emerging class of blacks with education and with decent jobs had not been thwarted in their attempts to live other than in the ghetto. They were thwarted by the real estate laws.

She added that black residents were essentially prohibited to live “anyplace but in the circumscribed areas which the real estate lobby approved . . . And now we have school problems and I think it’s a crying shame that we put the burden for directing past injustices on the backs of little children.”

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, December 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

While World War II lifted the country out of the Depression, it magnified discrimination against African Americans. After passage of the Selective Service Act, the City of Indianapolis hoped to provide recreation for servicemen, creating the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center, on which Nicholson served. She noted that they were able to readily procure facilities for white regiments, such as at the Traction Terminal Building, but locating them for black troops proved a struggle.

Although a black regiment was stationed at Camp Atterbury near Edinburg, Indiana, Nicholson reported that:

The only place to go for any entertainment from Edinburg, Indiana is Indianapolis. Well, what were these black soldiers going to do? They couldn’t go to the hotels, they couldn’t go to any eating place. There was no question of integration at that point. It’s difficult to believe, but this is true; because the Army itself was segregated.

She recalled that her task was so difficult because “There was nowhere near the openness and generosity toward the black soldier that there was toward the white, although they were wearing the same uniform and facing the same kind of dangers.” Lynn W. Turner‘s 1956 “Indiana in World War II-A Progress Report,” reiterated this, describing:

[T]he shameful reluctance of either the USO or the nearby local communities to provide adequate recreational opportunities for Negro troops stationed at Camps Atterbury and Breckenridge and at George and Freeman Air Fields.

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, December 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Upon this observation, Nicholson fought for black servicemen to be able to utilize the exact same amenities as their white counterparts. One of her tasks included providing troops with a dormitory in the city because “there was no place where these young black men could sleep.” After being turned away by various building owners, Nicholson was allowed to rent a building with “money from bigoted people,” but then came the “job of furnishing it.” With wartime shortages, this proved exceptionally difficult. Nicholson approached the department store L. S. Ayres, demanding bed sheets for the black servicemen. According to Nicholson, some of the Ayres personnel did not understand why the black troops needed sheets if they had blankets. She contended “the white ones had sheets and I didn’t see why the black ones should be denied any of the amenities that the white ones were getting.” Nicholson succeeded in procuring the sheets and a recreation facility at Camp Atterbury for African American soldiers.

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African American Army anti-aircraft regiment, Indianapolis Recorder, September 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Never one to bend to societal, political, or ideological pressure, Nicholson encountered vicious resistance in her support of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), a national network advocating for the education, safety, and health of children through programming and legislation. She noted that support of the organization was frowned upon in the state because:

[T]hese were the witch-hunting years, you know, and anything that came out of the federal government was bad, and in Indiana that feeling was rife. It was a matter of federal aid education and in Indiana there was a great deal of militant resentment of that federal aid education.

According to Nicholson, a coalition of institutions like the Chamber of Commerce and the Indianapolis Star, along with “some very rich, very ambitious women who wanted to get into the public eye” aligned to destroy the PTA in Indiana. Nicholson recalled that her support of the PTA on one occasion caused a woman to approach her and spit in her face. Ultimately, Nicholson’s opposition won, and defeated the PTA. Nicholson noted that as a result Indiana’s organizations were called “PTOs and they have no connection with the national.” At the time of her ISL interview, she lamented that “without that program for schools where disadvantaged children go, a lot of the schools just simply couldn’t function.”

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, February 16, 1951, accessed Newspapers.com.

Nicholson also described a brush with the Red Scare of the 1950s. In a series of articles, an Indianapolis Star journalist accused the State Welfare Department of “being riddled with communism and so forth.” Knowing she was affiliated with one of the women in the department, Governor Schricker summoned Nicholson to his office about the allegations. She noted that while the accused woman was “kinda kooky,” Nicholson was able to assure from “my own knowledge that these two women were possibly off in left field, but that I thought the whole operation was just as clean as anything in the world could be.”

In 1952, desiring respite from the city, the tireless reformer and her husband bought a broken down house in Brown County to fix up for weekend visits. After suffering from ulcers, likely from over-exertion, Nicholson officially retired as the first director of the Indianapolis Social Hygiene Association on December 31, 1960 (serving since 1943). Nicholson passed away in 1987, leaving a positive and enduring imprint on the city’s marginalized population.

Regarding her career, Nicholson combated allegations that she only did what she did because she wanted to be around men. Perhaps an apt summation of her life, Nicholson noted “My way was sort of greased-had a good name and had done some things. I had a reputation for being able to get things done.”