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.

Inequality Remade: Residential Segregation, Indianapolis Public Schools, and Forced Busing

In 1971, the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) system was brought to court and found guilty of practicing de jure segregation or racial separation enforced by law. This lesser-known story of desegregation in Indianapolis’s schools reveals a community deeply divided over race and offers one local response to an important national conversation.

Indianapolis had been racially segregated long before the 1970s. In particular, residential segregation coupled with a practice called redlining reinforced boundaries between the city’s white and African American populations. Redlining is denying services to people based on race: in this case, financial services. In response to the Great Depression, between 1934 and 1968 the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) used the National Housing Act to make housing more affordable. In practice, the Act only made home ownership easily accessible to white people by guaranteeing their loans. It explicitly denied to back loans for black people or even residents of majority black neighborhoods.

Aerial View of Indianapolis, 1938, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Appraisers ranked residential areas on a grading scale from A (green) to D (red). These color-coded maps, created by lenders, developers, and real estate appraisers for the FHA and HOLC, dictated how easy or difficult mortgage companies would make it for residents to secure loans in different areas. The appraisal process proved damning to areas where African Americans lived. An A-grade area, as one appraiser said, would not include “a single foreigner or Negro.” The lowest D-grade, red areas included “detrimental influences in a pronounced degree” with “undesirable population or infiltration of it.” Since the appraisers purposefully graded areas where African Americans lived poorly, redlining made it impossible for African Americans to benefit from residential mobility and reinforced racial segregation in the city.

In Indianapolis, A-grade areas were mainly located in the suburbs while C- and D-grade neighborhoods were located in the inner-city – where 98 percent of the African American population lived. One Indianapolis neighborhood on the Old Northwest Central side of the city, where African Americans made up 90 percent of the population, was catalogued as D-25. The appraiser who surveyed the area in 1937 gave it a D-grade for being “blighted” and “almost solid negro.” Even areas described as having “better class” African Americans were still classified as D-grade. In contrast, desirable Grade-A locations, like A-1 near Butler University, boasted “[n]ative white; executive and other white-collar type” residents with “nominal” foreign-born and no black residents.

Courtesy of Mapping Inequality, Richmond.edu.

Explore the redlining map of Indianapolis.

These residential patterns made it easy for IPS to uphold segregation in the school system as the School Board would zone, or divide, different residential areas to feed into different schools. As such, racially segregated housing generated racially segregated schools. A deeply divided school system had been in place in the city since 1927 when the Ku Klux Klan pressured the Board of School Commissioners to build what became Crispus Attucks High School for African American students. IHB’s historical marker observes the school’s history.

Indiana Historical Bureau marker.

Although school segregation was outlawed in Indiana in 1949, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) reestablished the elementary school boundaries in 1953 to ensure that the school system remained racially divided. The boundaries were so clearly racially-motivated that “[i]n some instances the lines drawn . . . ignored natural boundaries, requiring students to cross a canal, railroad track” or busy street “to get to their assigned school where no impediment stood between the student and an adjoining school.” An African American child tragically died after being struck by a train in 1952 because of these boundaries.

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

In 1968, a group of African American parents of children who attended IPS schools requested that the US Justice Department file a suit in the federal district court to charge IPS with unconstitutional segregation. The case, United States v. Board of School Commissioners, was tried in Indianapolis in July of 1971. The verdict, given on August 18, 1971, found “a purposeful pattern of racial discrimination based on the aggregate of many decisions of the Board and its agents.” IPS was guilty of de jure segregation, including racist “gerrymandering of school attendance zones, the segregation of faculty, the use of optional attendance zones among the schools, and the pattern of school construction and placement.” The court believed that “complete desegregation within IPS boundaries would encourage ‘white flight’ and lead to rapid resegregation” of IPS. To address this, the State of Indiana was added to the suit so that the township schools within Marion County would have to racially integrate with IPS.

In 1973, IPS having taken no significant steps towards desegregation, the district court asserted jurisdiction over the issue. Judge Dillin of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ordered a one-way busing system to force IPS and the township schools to integrate.

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Many Indianapolis parents, both black and white, were nervous for this transition the preceding summer of the 1973 school year. Meridian-Kessler, located on the north side of the downtown, had only recently become multi-racial at the time, and the neighborhood’s August/September newsletter carried a somewhat anxious tone. The front page read:

Uppermost in the minds of most Indy residents this fall is the unsettled school situation . . . There are three grade schools within our boundaries, and our children attend two nearby high schools. All of these schools will be involved in the desegregation plan eventually due to the changing racial balance in this area.

The city had reason to be nervous. Forced busing schemes in other cities like Detroit and Boston made headlines for the violence they incited. Indianapolis residents associated with the Ku Klux Klan became a common presence at anti-busing protest events. On the morning of September 27, 1971, Sgt. J. Adamson of the Indianapolis Police Department (IPD), was assigned to cover an anti-busing demonstration at the Indiana Statehouse. He identified “[a] group of approximately twenty (20) mixed men, women and male teenagers…under the name of ‘Americans for America’,” noting, “[t]his organization has strong Klan affiliation.” Three days later, September 30, 1971, the IPD deployed their Special Investigation unit to cover another meeting: The Citizens Against Busing at the Indianapolis Baptist Temple. Again, many involved were members of the KKK-affiliated group “Americans for America.” Meetings like these were not uncommon.

“Blacks Hurt in Boston Busing Protest,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 13, 1974, front page, accessed Newspapers.com.

In Indianapolis, the first buses of black students began commuting to white schools in 1973. Not all schools responded to the desegregation order immediately. Some townships, including Perry, Decatur, Franklin, and Lawrence only began accepting IPS students bused to their schools in 1981. That year, when her bus, coming from Indianapolis’s east side, pulled into Perry Meridian High School, LaTonya Kirkland was terrified. She “remembers a dozen of her white classmates approaching the bus, their hands slapping against the yellow metal side panels . . . the bus started to rock as the white students slammed against the bus” before throwing an egg at the window. Police had to escort her and her fellow black classmates into the school.

Perry Meridian High School was the site for many violent racial altercations. The burden of reversing segregation, a problem instigated by the white population, fell heavily on the shoulders of black teenagers. The letters “KKK” were found painted on the school building, and there were rumors of black students coming to school with weapons to protect themselves. Only one African American girl was actually caught with such a weapon. She was concealing a meat cleaver. The situation at Perry Meridian High School had escalated so much that in 1981 the FBI came to investigate.

The interconnected stories of redlining and the desegregation of IPS reveal a city deeply divided, struggling with issues of race and equality. In the end, busing briefly achieved what it was meant to do. The court order created schools which appeared racially balanced and integrated on paper, but were often still segregated and hostile. Indianapolis began to phase out forced busing in 1998, ending the court-ordered desegregation era with LaTonya Kirkland’s daughter LaShawn’s graduating class in the 2015-2016 school year.

Before Rosa Parks: Laura Fisher’s 1927 Fight Against “Jim Crowism”

Greyhound Bus, 1929, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection.

On November 19, 1927 Laura Fisher boarded a Greyhound Bus at a station in Richmond, Indiana. The African American passenger, destined for her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, felt ill and took a seat at the front of the bus where it was warmest. This infuriated the Cincinnati bus driver Glen Branoski, described in the newspapers as “of foreign descent,” who demanded Fisher sit in the back of the bus in the section he had designated as “negro.” After refusing to move, Branoski ejected Fisher from the bus. According to a November 29, 1927 article in the Richmond Item, Fisher re-entered the bus, which prompted Branoski to call police headquarters. The Richmond Palladium [originally the Palladium and Sun-Telegram] noted that he demanded that the police remove her, citing that “Jim Crow rule” was “provided by the [bus] company.” Even though Greyhound was headquartered in Duluth, Minnesota, the growing interstate bus line needed to be mindful of the regional laws regarding segregation.

Jim Crow laws “came to mean any state law passed in the South that established different rules for blacks and whites. Jim Crow laws were based on the theory of white supremacy and were a reaction to [Civil War] Reconstruction.” Historian Richard B. Pierce noted that Indiana “did not have as complete a system of Jim Crow” as southern states, although it “did have its own unique brand of discrimination.” In Fisher’s case, the police station cited that “state laws did not legalize such discrimination and the police department had no authority to help” Branoski enforce the bus line policy.

Palladium and Sun-Telegram (Richmond), November 21, 1927, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Richmond Item reported that following this refusal, Branoski ejected Fisher a second time “with such violence that she was painfully injured” and then he tore up her ticket. The paper noted, “A considerable crowd collected and trouble threatened for a time, Mrs. Fisher becoming almost hysterical from fright.” Had police officers not arrived in a timely manner, the newspaper predicted, there would likely have been a riot. This unlawful attempt to enforce of Jim Crow segregation led to Branoski’s arrest the day following the incident. An Item article reported that on November 21 he plead “not guilty” to assault and battery and was released on bond, ordered to report to city court the following Monday for trial.

“Local Conditions,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 18, 1926, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Several local newspapers noted that this “Jim Crow” trial was the first racial discrimination case Richmond had encountered in many years. However, Fisher’s experience typified increasing segregation in Indiana during the mid and late 1920s. According to Emma Lou Thornbrough’s Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century, in 1927 a wave of racial discrimination led to the authorization or opening of segregated Indiana schools, including Indianapolis’s Crispus Attucks High School, Gary’s Roosevelt School, and Evansville’s Lincoln School. Each of these were barred from membership in the Indiana High School Athletic Association, on the grounds that the schools were not “publicly open to all” (the rule also barred parochial schools from IHSAA membership by the same rationale).  The rule was in effect until 1942, and prohibited all-black squads from competing against white teams.

Segregation also extended to recreation, housing, and medical care. According to historian James Madison, nearly every facet of Hoosier life in the post-WWI era was segregated or exclusionary, including “theaters, public parks, cemeteries, restaurants, hotels, beaches, swimming pools, orphans’ homes, hospitals, newspaper society columns, the state militia . . .” A March 15, 1927 article in the Huntington Herald demonstrates the attitudes of those Hoosiers calling for segregation, alleging “the average negro, given an inch will take a mile” and therefore “it is the negro’s mode of living that has resulted in the passage of all Jim Crow laws.”

Accessed via Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Madison noted that “Indiana blacks did not accept discrimination and segregation without protest,” evinced by Laura Fisher’s case. On November 28, Branoski reported for trial at the city court, where he gave no testimony and plead guilty to assault and battery (Richmond Palladium). He was fined $50, plus costs, and 20 days in county jail. The bus company, which fired Branoski but paid his fines, settled out of court with Fisher and paid her $500 to sign a “release from a damage action which had been threatened.” According to the November 29 Richmond Item article, Fisher took Branoski to court with the purpose of obtaining racial justice, rather than financial settlement. One of her lawyers stated that:

‘Negro residents of the community were not asking for the imposition of any severe penalty upon Branoski, merely a vindication of equal rights of Negro passengers with white passengers on public transportation conveyances. He several times asked Branoski’s jail sentence be reduced to 10 days.’

Greyhound Bus Station in Indianapolis, 1943, courtesy of loc.gov, accessed iupui.edu, Indiana Farm Security Photographs.

In announcing the verdict, Richmond police judge Fred Pickett stated that “The Indiana law on racial discrimination is clear. It does not tolerate discrimination” (Palladium, November 29). He added “Ignoring the fact that one of the principals in this case is a white man and the other a negro woman it must be viewed solely as an aggravated, unprovoked attack by a strong man upon a woman who was both weak and ill. She was both injured and humiliated.” Judge Pickett made his opinion clear, stating “I want it to be a matter of public record that this court regards an attack made by a man upon a woman a serious offense not to be lightly condoned.”

The Richmond Item, November 29, 1927, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Although his statements seem to emphasize injustice based on gender, rather than race, the Freeport Journal-Standard of Illinois noted “that Indiana does not recognize a ‘Jim Crow’ rule was emphasized by police judge, Fred Pickett.”

Muncie Evening Press, December 9, 1927, accessed Newspapers.com.

While research efforts to locate articles about the fates of Fisher or Branoski following the trial were unfruitful, the case was referenced in a similar bus incident occurring on November 23, just four days after Fisher’s ordeal. According to a December 17, 1927 article in the Indianapolis Recorder, prominent African American business woman Helen M. Dorsey filed suit against the Blue Goose Bus Line when a driver refused to let her board the bus. Unable to make it to a conference in Kentucky on time, she “arrived too late to take care of the matters.” She therefor sought $500 in damages, the amount offered to “a passenger, Mrs. Laura Fisher, at Richmond, Ind. a few weeks ago.” These 1927 cases highlighted Indiana’s increasing segregation and the daily battles African Americans waged-and sometimes won-to obtain equal privileges.

Check back February 16 to learn about Indianapolis Public Schools, residential segregation, and forced busing in the 1970s.

Bill Garrett and the Integration of Big Ten Basketball, Part 1

Bill Garrett shoots a lay-up in a game against the University of Illinois on February 27, 1950. Courtesy of Indiana University Archives

In 1947, Jackie Robinson made history when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Robinson set the precedent, and in the years following, many African American players would follow his lead to join big league teams. In 1948, just one year after Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, Indiana witnessed its own trailblazer in sports, as Shelbyville’s Bill Garrett broke the ironically named “gentleman’s agreement” that had barred African Americans from playing Big Ten college basketball (the Big Ten became the Big Nine in 1946 when the University of Chicago withdrew its membership. In 1949, Michigan State College – now Michigan State University – joined the conference, and it again assumed the name the Big Ten).

Bill Garrett was born in 1929, at a time when segregation and racial discrimination were rampant in Indiana. The Indianapolis Times had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the Ku Klux Klan’s influence in state politics the year before, and just one year later the state would experience the horrific lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion. In their thoroughly researched book Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball, authors Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody note that Shelbyville avoided much of the racial violence that other Indiana communities experienced at this time, but that segregation was nevertheless commonplace. Garrett, like other African Americans there, attended the segregated Booker T. Washington Elementary School, and when he entered Shelbyville High School in the 1940s, he was one of only a few black students in his class.

Garrett and a portion of his junior class, 1946. Image source: Shelbyville High School 1946 Yearbook
Garrett and a portion of his junior class, 1946. Image source: Shelbyville High School 1946 Yearbook

Despite this, Garrett became widely recognized for his skills on the basketball court, and by his senior year in high school (1946-1947), he was one of the star players on Shelbyville’s varsity basketball team. Newspapers across the state praised him for his play. On January 9, 1947, one day after Garrett helped lead the Shelbyville Golden Bears to a decisive 59-40 victory over Greencastle, the Greencastle Daily Banner recognized him as “one of the smoothest performers and best shots” to appear on the Greencastle court over the years. He was quick, clever, and had a “natural talent” for the game. Many regarded him as the second Johnny Wilson. Wilson, also African American, had graduated the year before from Anderson High School, where he led the team to the state basketball title and was named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball.” The Indianapolis Recorder noted the similarities between the two in a March 22, 1947 article, stating that the resemblance in their play was “uncanny.”

The mark of greatness, however, in Garrett as in Wilson, is the ability to sweep through the opposition and turn a stalemated contest into a rout. It is that extra speed and split-second timing which stamps an all-state player as distinguished from a good player. It is cool floor-generalship and flawless ball-handling – and Garrett has them all.

When the 1947 Indiana high school basketball tournament kicked off in late February that year, 781 teams competed for a shot at the title. Despite the odds, Garrett, along with starters Emerson Johnson, Marshall Murray, Hank Hemingway, and Bill Breck, helped lead Shelbyville to the school’s first basketball championship. On March 22, Shelbyville defeated the East Chicago Washington Senators 54-46 and advanced to the title game where they beat undefeated Terre Haute Garfield 68-58.

Garrett Cuts Down Net
Logansport Press, March 25, 1947, p. 6

At a time when segregation was prevalent in the state, Shelbyville’s team featured three African American starters: Murray, Johnson, and Garrett, each of whom had captured the hearts of Shelbyville fans.

Garrett had set a new individual state tournament scoring record during the competition. His 91 points in the final four games broke the 85-point record set by Johnny Wilson the year before. And like Wilson, he too was named “Mr. Basketball” for the season.

After the 1947 title game, many wondered where Garrett would continue his basketball career. Despite the fact that he, Wilson, and other African American players were leading their teams to high school titles and were considered some of the best players in the state, the “gentleman’s agreement” barred them from playing college basketball on Big Ten varsity teams into the late 1940s. Reports out of Indiana University at this time note that there was “no written rule in the Big Ten regarding participation in athletics. The unwritten rule subscribed to by all schools precludes colored boys from participating in basketball, swimming, and wrestling.”

In the years following, many would question the inconsistency of this rule, as blacks participated in football and other Big Ten sports during this period. Some speculated that the reason for the discrepancy was that basketball was played in more intimate settings with briefer uniforms, thus increasing the chance of contact between white players’ and black players’ skin.

Referred to as the” gentleman’s agreement,” the “unwritten rule,” or the “lily-white rule,” the color line in basketball came under increasing attack throughout the 1940s as more and more talented black players were being overlooked solely because of their race. In 1944, African American Richard (Dick) Culbertson played varsity at the University of Iowa, but coaches largely regarded his participation as an exception rather than the rule. Culbertson was a substitute rather than a starter, and wartime conditions had made it more difficult to field a team, leading to slightly relaxed rules.

On March 25, 1947, after watching Bill Garrett, Emerson Johnson, and Marshall Murray help Shelbyville win the state championship, John Whitaker of the Hammond Times wrote an open letter to the commissioner of the Big Ten in which he asked why the “unwritten agreement” existed:

If the biggest, braggingest athletic conference in the middle of the greatest country in the world can use Negroes like Buddy Young, Ike Owen, Dallas Ward, Duke Slater, George Taliaferro and the like to draw $200,000 crowds for football . . . and Negroes like Jesse Owen[s] and Eddie Tolan to win Olympic crowns . . . why can’t it use them in basketball.

In June 1947, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that despite Garrett’s hopes to play Big Ten basketball at IU or Purdue, the “gentleman’s agreement” might force him to continue his career in California. The news disappointed many who had hoped to see Garrett stay in state, and prompted Recorder writer Charles S. Preston to call out the state and the Big Ten conference in hopes of bringing an end to the ban:

Indianapolis Recorder, June 7, 1947, p. 11
Indianapolis Recorder, June 7, 1947, p. 11

What in Hades is the matter with the Hoosier state, when we are going to let one of our best basketball players of all time get away from us, and go out to California to play! And all because of a ridiculous ‘unwritten law’ that doesn’t begin to make sense!

Though some denied that such an agreement barring blacks from Big Ten basketball existed, the continued absence of African Americans on these teams indicated otherwise.

Fearful that Garrett would be bypassed by Big Ten teams like others before him, black leaders in Indianapolis banded together in order to persuade IU to give him an opportunity to make the school’s team. Faburn DeFrantz, Executive Director of the Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis, spearheaded the effort, and in the months following the 1947 state high school tournament, he and other black leaders drove down to Bloomington to meet with IU President Herman B Wells on Garrett’s behalf.

Faburn DeFrantz Image source: Indianapolis Monthly http://www.indianapolismonthly.com/the-tipoff/iu-honors-barrier-breaker-garrett-at-game/
Faburn DeFrantz, image courtesy of Indianapolis Monthly.

President Wells was eager to end racial discrimination and segregation at IU, and had already been doing so quietly in other parts of the campus at this time. After meeting with DeFrantz and the others, Wells asked IU basketball coach Branch McCracken to give Garrett a chance to make the team, noting that he would handle any potential backlash from other Big Ten coaches.

In DeFrantz’s unpublished autobiography, excerpts of which were obtained by Graham and Cody during their research, DeFrantz acknowledges Wells’ role in helping to break down racial barriers at IU:

In Indiana University’s President Herman B Wells democracy found an ally. No overhaul of policy such as that accomplished at Indiana University could have been possible without the cooperation he gave.

In an October 4, 1947 article, the Indianapolis Recorder praised DeFrantz and others for their efforts to get Garrett to IU and recognized them as “key figures in the victory for democracy.” In January 1949, during Garrett’s first season on the varsity team, the Recorder named DeFrantz to its 1948 Race Relations Honor Roll, noting his unremitting campaign to help end racial discrimination in sports. Two years later, Garrett would also be named to this Honor Roll.

Herman B Wells, 1947 Image source: Indiana Daily Student http://www.idsnews.com/article/2014/07/the-wells-effect-how-herman-b-wells-shaped-iu
Herman B Wells, 1947, image courtesy of Indiana Daily Student.

Garrett was admitted to IU in the fall of 1947 and played one year on the freshman basketball squad. He made his regular-season varsity debut in December 1948 as IU beat DePauw 61-48. In doing so, he became the first African American player on an IU varsity basketball team. More importantly, the Recorder recognized on December 11, 1948, that “Garrett’s entry into the Big Nine ranks may prove to be the beginning of the end for an anti-Negro ‘gentleman’s agreement’. . .”

Integration in basketball, both at the high school and eventually the college level went a long way in improving race relations in the state, as fans cheered their teams to victory regardless of the color of their players’ skin. On February 18, 1950, the Recorder reported on the influence that sports had on blurring the color line, stating:

Race prejudice, too, has generally been given the bum’s rush by the fans who lose sight of everything but the fortunes of OUR TEAM. The performances of such athletes as Bill Garrett, Johnny Wilson, and a host of others have probably done as much as anything else to kill the Ku Klux Klan spirit in Indiana. A quick field goal by a Negro player will do more to “convert” the ordinary Hoosier than all the Race Relations Days in a century.

Garrett helped “convert” thousands in Shelbyville and across the state during his high school years and he would work to do the same while playing at IU.

Check out Part II coming later this week to learn about Garrett’s achievements while on IU’s squad, his impact on other African-American players, and his career after graduating.