A Challenge to Integration: The Froebel School Strikes of 1945

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, 1. See Hoosier State Chronicles for complete article.

On September 18, 1945, hundreds of white students at Froebel School walked out of their classes to protest African American students at the institution. According to the Gary Post-Tribune, the striking students “urged that Froebel school be reserved for whites only” or that they be transferred to other schools themselves.

While the conflict between segregation and integration was far from new, the student strike in Gary would call into question the very values the United States fought to uphold during World War II, which had formally ended just two weeks before the “hate strike.” The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, composed of black ministers, made this point clear when it issued its “appeal to reason” to the citizens of Gary, Indiana:

It is indeed regrettable to note that after the nation has spent approximately 190 billion dollars, the colored citizens of Gary have sent about 4,000 of their sons, brothers, and husbands to battlefields around the world and have supported every war effort that our government has called upon us to support, in a united effort to destroy nazism and to banish from the face of the earth all that Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo stood for; to find in our midst those who are endeavoring to spread disunity, race-hatred, and Hitlerism in our community.

Gary Post-Tribune, September 20, 1945, 3

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, sec. 2, p. 2.

Integration was not a recent development at Froebel when much of the white student body went on strike in the fall of 1945. In fact, Froebel was Gary’s only “integrated” school throughout the first half of the 20th century, though the term warrants further explanation. When the K-12 school opened in 1912, Gary school officials recognized that African American students should not be denied the opportunities available to white students at the new school and established two separate rooms at Froebel for black students. By 1914, a report published by the United States Bureau of Education indicated that there were approximately seventy black students attending the school, but that “the other patrons of the school, most of whom are foreigners, strenuously object to mixing colored children with the others; so they are placed in separate classes in charge of two colored teachers. . .” Thus, despite integration, Froebel remained internally segregated.

Image courtesy of Randolph S. Bourne, The Gary Schools (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1916), accessed Archive.org.

A 1944 study conducted by the National Urban League showed that Froebel’s black students were “welcomed as athletes, but not as participants in cultural and social affairs.” They could not use the swimming pools on the same days as white students, were barred from the school band, and were discriminated against in many other extracurricular activities.

Conditions at Froebel improved slightly during the 1940s, due in part to Principal Richard Nuzum. He created a biracial Parent-Teachers’ Association, integrated the student council and boys’ swimming pool, and enabled black students to try out for the orchestra. Unfortunately, his efforts towards further integration angered many of Froebel’s white students and their parents, who would later criticize Nuzum of giving preferential treatment to African American students. These feelings, paired with a rising fear among many of Gary’s white, foreign-born inhabitants about increases in the black population in the city, largely contributed to the 1945 school strike.

Table courtesy of the “Report of Technical Advisers to the Special Investigating Committee Appointed by the Gary Board of Education,” October 21, 1945, 7.

Newspapers across the state covered the strike(s) extensively throughout the fall, and the story quickly made national headlines. By September 20, the strike spread to Gary’s Tolleston School, where approximately 200 additional students skipped classes. On September 21, 1945, the Gary Post-Tribune reported that between the two schools, well over 1,000 students had participated in the walkouts up to this point.

Eager to see an end to the strike, to avoid potential violence, and to get students back to school, Superintendent Charles D. Lutz and the board of education issued a formal statement on Friday, September 21, demanding that students return to classes on Monday. The school board threatened to take legal action against parents of students under age sixteen if they continued to strike, while those over age sixteen risked expulsion.

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The school board was not alone in its hopes of ending the strike. Gary Mayor Joseph E. Finerty, the Gary Council of Churches, and the school PTA all issued appeals hoping to bring an end to the walkouts. Other opponents of the strike included the NAACP and CIO United Steel Workers Union. Many blamed parents of the striking students for the racial tension existent in the school, stating that racial hatred was not inherent, but learned at home. A September 26, 1945 editorial in the Gary Post-Tribune also noted:

Fundamentally this is not a school problem. It has developed out of the changing population in the Froebel area. . . As a result of this influx of Negro families some white property owners feel their homes and churches have depreciated in value.

While students at Tolleston agreed to return to classes by the school board’s stated deadline, those leading the strike at Froebel refused to return until Wednesday, and only on the condition that the school board meet with them beforehand and comply with their demands.

These demands, which the Gary Post-Tribune published on September 21, were three-fold: 1) the removal of all 800 black students from Froebel; 2) the ousting of Principal Richard Nuzum, whom they believed gave preferential treatment to black students; and 3) that school officials stop using Froebel students as “guinea pigs” in race relation experiments (Froebel was the only high school in Gary with a racially mixed attendance at the time).

Horace Manual, Horace Mann High School Yearbook, 1942. Courtesy of Ancestry.com

The Gary school board met with the striking committee on September 25, and when it refused to give in to the students’ demands, the strike continued. Leonard Levenda, spokesman for the striking committee, was quoted in the Gary Post-Tribune on September 26, stating that the walkout was the result of “a long series of episodes provoked by the behavior of Negro students.” Levenda continued by blaming Nuzum for not taking action against African American students after these reported “episodes.” The strike continued until October 1, when students finally returned to classes after the school board agreed to formally investigate the charges against Principal Nuzum.

Walter White to Charles Lutz, letter, September 24, 1945, Papers of the NAACP.

In response to the incidents at Froebel, Mayor Finerty urged the formation of an inter-organization racial unity committee to help improve race relations in the “Steel City.” Finerty, as quoted in the Indianapolis Recorder on October 20, stated “we in Gary must take positive steps in learning to live together in unity in our own city. Now, more than ever, there is need for unity within our city and the nation.”

Another article in the Recorder that day examined the reaction of white leaders in Chicago, who did little to conceal their disgust for the strike and criticism of the strikers:

These racist demonstrations have been an insult to democracy and to the hundreds of thousands of whites and Negroes who deplore this American form of Hitlerism. . .  We further pledge not to walk out on democracy and on this problem which has its roots principally in the attitude and actions of the white man, not the colored.

In early October, the Gary school board appointed a special investigating committee and temporarily relieved Nuzum of his duties as principal. By October 21, the investigation came to a close and a report regarding conditions at Froebel was issued. Nuzum was exonerated and returned as principal and the report called for the school to return to the status it had before the strike. Angered by these results, students staged another walkout on October 29. Levenda and other striking students argued that they were not going on strike, but rather “being forced out by the actions of Mr. Nuzum.”

Chicago Tribune, November 1, 1945, 31, accessed Newspapers.com

Searching for a way to bring a final end to the strike, Anselm Forum, a Gary-based community organization dedicated to social harmony, helped bring Frank Sinatra to the school to perform and talk with the students about racial tension in the city. While many students appeared attentive and understanding of Sinatra’s calls for peace and an end to racial discrimination, the striking committee refused to back down.

Frank Sinatra meets with members of Anselm Youth Forum, Gary ROTC, and Froebel students, 1945. Photo courtesy of Associated Press, via Hoboken Historical Museum Online Collections Database.

It was not until November 12, when State Superintendent of Public Instruction Clement T. Malan agreed to study conditions at Froebel that the striking students returned to classes. Even then, some mothers of the parents’ committee continued to oppose the students’ return.

Racial tension continued even after the strikes ended in November 1945. By the spring of 1946, students at Froebel threatened to go on strike again, but were stopped by the Gary school board and Froebel student council. Newspapers reported that the leaders of the previous strikes, in union with Froebel’s black students, issued an anti-strike statement in March 1946. In this statement, they encouraged the Gary school board to issue a policy to end discrimination in all of Gary’s public schools.

Due in large part to the “hate strikes” at Froebel, the Gary Board of Education adopted a policy on August 27, 1946, to end segregation and discrimination in the city’s public schools. Scheduled to go into full effect by September 1, 1947, the policy read:

Children under the jurisdiction of the Gary public schools shall not be discriminated against in the school districts in which they live, or within the school which they attend, because of race, color or religion.

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society

In accordance with the policy, Gary’s public schoolchildren would attend the school nearest them and would be given equal opportunity “in the classroom and in all other school activities.” According to historian Ronald Cohen, the decision made Gary “one of the first northern cities to officially integrate its schools.” In 1949, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law to abolish segregation in the state’s public schools. The law required that schools discontinue enrollment on the basis of race, creed, or color of students.

Despite these measures however, discrimination in the Gary public school system did not disappear. Because of segregated residential patterns, few black students transferred to previously all-white institutions. The 1950s saw a resurgence in de facto segregation in the city as the black population there continued to grow and fill already overcrowded black schools.

Froebel School state historical marker. Installed in Gary in 2014 at 15th Avenue and Madison St.

Bill Garrett and the Integration of Big Ten Basketball, Part II

Check out Part I to learn about Bill Garrett’s time on the Shelbyville High School basketball team, the “gentleman’s agreement,” and Garrett’s entry in Big Ten basketball.

Bill Garrett celebrates with his teammates after scoring IU's game-winning basket against Wisconsin in January 1950. Image credit: Bloomington Daily Herald, January 9, 1950, 1
Bill Garrett celebrates with his teammates after scoring IU’s game-winning basket against Wisconsin in January 1950. Image credit: Bloomington Daily Herald, January 9, 1950, 1

In an oral history interview in June 1970, Bill Garrett reflected on his early experiences at IU and on the school’s varsity basketball team. Garrett noted that “it was somewhat of an adjustment as far as the team players were concerned” and that it made things “rough at the start.” Despite encountering discrimination from some of the squad’s older players and while on the road for away games, Garrett quickly made a name for himself on IU’s team. In a February 1949 article, the Bloomington Daily Herald commended Garrett on his talent, and noted the positive impact that he and other young players were having on the team. By the end of the season, Garrett had tallied 220 points, the highest total on the squad that season. This success continued into his junior and senior years, with newspapers commenting on his speed and play-making ability. In a January 5, 1950 article, the Wisconsin State Journal reported:

Indiana’s attack is built around William Garrett, a lithe Negro who stands only 6-2 1/2 but plays offensive center. He is quick as a cat and has a devastating one-handed shot.

The following month, the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading African-American newspaper, referred to him as “the most spectacular member on the team coached by Branch McCracken.”

Image credit: Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame
Image credit: Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame

During Garrett’s time on the varsity basketball squad, the team’s record improved greatly. According to the Indiana Basketball Men’s Database, in the 1947-1948 season, the year before Garrett joined the team, IU won only eight games and lost twelve. The following season, Garrett’s first with the varsity squad, they improved to fourteen wins, and by his senior year (1950-1951), they went 19-3 and were ranked seventh in the nation.

Much of the team’s success during this period stemmed from Garrett’s talent on the court. On March 6, 1951, the Jasper Daily Herald reported that Garrett had broken IU’s four-year career scoring record with a total of 792 points in only three seasons of play. His 193 Big Ten points during the 1950-1951 season also broke the old record set in the 1946-1947 season.

Image credit: Indiana University News Room
Image credit: Indiana University News Room

On February 24, 1951, the Indianapolis Recorder announced that Sporting News, a well-respected sports publication in the country, named Garrett to its All-American team. The Recorder quoted sportswriter Cy Kritzer in its February 24, 1951 issue regarding the selection. Kritzer remarked:

“Above all, he [Garrett] was a playmaker. The game has none better than the Hoosier star on the fast break.”

Just a few weeks later, the United Press named Garrett a second-team All-American. The All-American team was selected by a poll of the nation’s leading sportswriters and radio broadcasters. Garrett’s teammates also voted him Most Valuable Player of the season.

While at IU, Garrett was the only African American to play on a Big Ten varsity basketball team. On March 11, 1950, the Indianapolis Recorder published an article entitled “Bill Garrett Needs Company” in which it reported that Garrett was disappointed about being the only black basketball player in the conference. The article noted that in addition to Indiana University, DePauw, Earlham, and Anderson College all had African American students on their teams that season, and it encouraged Big Ten schools to follow their lead. However, by the following year, as Garrett’s final college basketball season was coming to an end, some feared that the Big Ten might revert to an all-white status again.

In their book Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball, Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody note that African Americans John Codwell at the University of Michigan and Rickey Ayala at Michigan State were playing freshman basketball during Garrett’s senior year. At this time, freshman could not play on varsity teams except for the 1951-1952 season, which included an exception because the Korean War made it difficult to field a team.

Image credit: Indiana Daily Student, January 25, 1951
Image credit: Indiana Daily Student, January 25, 1951

Although no African American players joined him at the varsity level before he graduated, Garrett’s example on and off the court helped create opportunities for others in the future. On March 6, 1951, with his college career winding down, the Indiana Daily Student ran an article on Garrett, noting the school body’s pride in him and how much he would be missed the next year. According to the paper, Garrett was “one fine model for a young athlete to pattern himself after.” At a time when segregation was still practiced in many areas of the state, and black athletes were still scarce in certain sports, this was saying a lot. It was a testament to both his talent and character, and again called into question why blacks should not be permitted to play Big Ten basketball.

Garrett graduated from IU with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education in June 1951. In the season immediately following his graduation, at least seven black basketball players made Big Ten teams. On November 17, 1951, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Ernie Hall had become the first African American basketball player at Purdue, and that Bob Jewell, who played at Crispus Attucks, made the University of Michigan’s team. In January 1952, the Recorder noted that in addition to Jewell, Michigan had two other African American players that season: Don Eaddy and Jonn Codwell. The paper traced this progress back to Bill Garrett, stating:

Following the path opened by Bill Garrett at Indiana University, sepia cagers are now making Big 10 and other leading teams in increasing numbers.

Likewise, the Capitol Times of Madison, Wisconsin also credited Garrett, noting that he was “the Jackie Robinson of the cage court” and that he had “blazed the way for others of his race in the college game this season.” Other African American players during the 1951-1952 year included Rickey Ayala at Michigan State, Walt Moore at Illinois, and Deacon Davis at Iowa. Notre Dame also challenged the color barrier at the school during this period, with African Americans Joe Bertrand and Entee Shine joining the Irish squad.

Though racial prejudice in sports did not end, black players continued to find success on Big Ten and other Midwest basketball teams.

On May 5, 1951, Bill Garrett was drafted by the Boston Celtics to play in the NBA. Though the league was still in its infancy, it was already attracting some of the best players from around the country. Again Garrett’s selection was a testament to his talent on the court. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, Garrett “found himself the only Negro among 86 stars who were drafted” to play professional basketball that year. However, Garrett would never get his opportunity to join the team. On August 25, 1951, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that he had been drafted into the U.S. Army. The Korean War (1950-1953) was already in full swing by this time, and Garrett was ordered to report for induction into the Army by September 7.

Image credit: Indianapolis Recorder, September 26, 1953, 14
Image credit: Indianapolis Recorder, September 26, 1953, 14

It is unclear when the Celtics released Garrett. According to a March 29, 1952 article in the Indianapolis Recorder, Garrett took his regular Army furlough with the Harlem Globetrotters in April of that year. One year later, on September 26, 1953, the Recorder reported that he was discharged from the Army and signed a contract to play with the Harlem Globetrotters. According to Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody, NBA teams limited the number of African American players on their rosters during this period and the Celtics already had two others.
Garrett played with the Globetrotters until 1955, when he decided to leave the team. According to his wife, Betty Garrett Inskeep, “he wasn’t happy playing for them. He was a very easygoing person, but he was competitive when you’re supposed to be competitive, so what the Globetrotters did did not suit him at all.”

Two years later, on July 13, 1957, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Garrett had been hired to succeed Ray Crowe as head basketball coach at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis. Garrett had his work cut out for him. Crowe had led the all-black high school to the state basketball title in 1955 and 1956.

Garrett coaches Crispus Attucks to the 1959 Indiana high school state championship. Image credit: Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections, 1959
Garrett coaches Crispus Attucks to the 1959 Indiana high school basketball state championship. Image credit: Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections, 1959

In his first year on the job, Garrett helped the team win its sixth straight sectional crown. Just one year later, he coached Attucks to the state championship, again bringing glory to the school. The Indiana Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association named Garrett Coach of the Year soon after the tournament.

Garrett coached Attucks for ten years before assuming the position of athletic director at the school in 1968. In 1974, he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Sadly, Garrett died of a heart attack just a few months later, on August 7, 1974, at the age of 45. He was assistant dean for student services at IUPUI at the time of his death.

Though his name is not as widely recognized as Jackie Robinson’s or other pioneers in race relations, Garrett’s influence and contributions in helping to diminish racial discrimination in both high school and college basketball in the mid-1900s should not be forgotten.

Be sure to follow IHB’s Facebook page for information on the upcoming dedication of a new state historical marker to commemorate Garrett and the integration of Big Ten basketball later this year.