City Church: Spirituality and Segregation in Gary

City Church, 1929, courtesy of Sometimes Interesting.

On the corner of Sixth Avenue and Washington Street stands a complex forged out of Indiana limestone. Plants creep through shattered windows, “UR MOM” is spray-painted across a balcony, and the scorched roof opens up into the heavens. The remains of Gary’s City Church represent very different things to onlookers. For some, they symbolize the unfulfilled promise of industrial utopia. For others like Olon Dotson, professor of Architecture and Planning at Ball State University and a Ph.D. candidate in Purdue University’s American Studies Program, “The remains of the structure serve as a monument to racism and segregation.” For most, it is simply the backdrop for a scene in Transformers 3. Few would disagree, however, that City Church embodies the rise and fall of Steel City.

The church’s history is as nuanced as the feelings its remains inspire. The First Methodist Episcopal Church of Gary, was established in 1906, the same year the United States Steel Corporation gave birth to the city. The company converted acres of swampland and sand dunes, and soon Gary—named after U.S. Steel founding chairman Elbert Henry Gary—found itself dominated by steel mills. The expanding market for steel shaped the city’s built environment and encouraged population growth there. Between 1906 and 1930, increasing numbers of European immigrants, Black Southerners, Mexicans, and white migrants flocked to the region looking for work in the steel industry.

Bulkhead end Main West sewer coke ovens at channel openings, Gary, Indiana, November 13, 1909, accessed U.S. Steel Gary Works Photograph Collection, 1906-1971.

Historian James B. Lane contended that “Because of U.S. Steel’s limited concept of town planning, two strikingly different Gary’s emerged: one neat and scenic, the other chaotic and squalid.” Businessmen, as well as skilled plant operators and managers, settled North of the Wabash Railroad tracks. They resided in Gary Land Company’s subdivisions among paved streets, quaint homes, and lush rows of trees. Northsiders relaxed in limestone restaurants and club rooms after a long day of work. The cost to live in this area precluded many newcomers, primarily African Americans and immigrants, from settling there. They instead lived on the Southside, often in tarpaper shacks, tents, and barracks that lacked ventilation. Lane noted that because the Gary Land Company largely neglected this area, landlords “took advantage of the housing shortage and absence of health regulations or building codes by charging inflated rents and selling property under fraudulent liens.” This marshy region, deemed the “Patch,” attracted “mosquitos, and the pestilential outhouses, unpaved alleys, damp cellars, and overcrowded dwellings were breeding grounds for typhoid, malaria, and tuberculosis.”

Polish children by settlement houses, Gary, Indiana, ca. 1915, Joan Hostetler Collection, accessed The Indiana Album.

Lane noted that immigrant families on the Southside organized into “shanty” communities, where they “stuck together but adjusted their old-world lifestyles to new circumstances.” Sometimes various ethnic and racial groups socialized, and even learned from one another, as Black residents taught immigrants English and vice versa. Lacking access to the opportunities and amenities of the Northside, rampant crime and vice arose as “laborers entered the omnipresent bars armed and ready to squeeze a few hours of action into their grim lives.” Segregated from its inception, Gary’s social construction ultimately resulted in its implosion.

Reverend William Seaman, accessed Flikr. This image also appears in The Gary Post-Tribune, October 1, 1926, 9.

In the burgeoning metropolis, the aforementioned First Methodist congregation met in local schools, businesses, and an abandoned factory before constructing a church on the corner of Adams Street and Seventh Avenue in 1912. With rapid socioeconomic and demographic change taking place in Gary, the church, under the vision of white pastor William Grant Seaman, initiated plans in 1917 to move into the heart of the city. A native of Wakarusa, Indiana, Seaman earned his B.A. from DePauw University and his Ph.D. from Boston University. After ministering and teaching in various states, the pragmatic pastor relocated to Steel City in 1916 at the request of Chicago Bishop Thomas Nicholson.

Seaman, nicknamed “Sunny Jim” for his disposition, contended that Gary’s Methodist church had an obligation to ease the challenges faced by the:

industrial worker . . . often suffering injustice;

the foreigners within our boundaries . . . They represent some fifty different race and language groups;

our brothers in black, coming from the Southland in a continuous stream;

our own white Americans, who come in large numbers from the village and the farm.

He noted that this ministry was especially important, given that many urban churches had relocated to Gary’s outskirts as the city grew more congested. According to historian James W. Lewis, Reverend Seaman felt “the modern city was plagued by a breakdown of traditional community and social control, resulting in an anonymous, mobile, materialistic, hedonistic population.” He therefore believed that it was the church’s responsibility “to develop programs which would provide some of the support, guidance, and satisfaction characteristic of traditional communities.”

Worker at Tin Mill, American Sheet and Tin Plate Co., January 28, 1921, accessed U.S. Steel Gary Works Photograph Collection, 1906-1971.

Compassionate and industrious, Seaman felt called to meet the “religious and creature-comfort need[s]” of the laborers and their families who poured “in great human streams through the gates of these mills.” However, his beliefs about the city’s newcomers, particularly the African American population, are problematic by today’s standards. He felt that white church leaders were best qualified to uplift the growing Black population, writing in 1920 that “colored people are very ignorant, and to a surprising degree morally undeveloped, and this fact is true of a very large number of their preachers.” Seaman justified the need for white leadership by citing rumors that Black-led denominations “are cultivating in their people a sense of being wronged.” Like Gary’s Stewart Settlement House (on which he served as a board member), Seaman’s intentions seem two-fold: to implement social control in a diversifying city and to provide humanitarian aid.

Lewis noted of Seaman and other white leaders:

Although their perception of the cause was often flawed and their service of it often mixed with other motives, their actions revealed their conviction that the church should be a prominent force for good, even in the modern city.

While Seaman held a paternalistic view of the Black community, his efforts to combat racism drew the ire of the Ku Klux Klan. Seaman opposed showing the film Birth of a Nation, which reinforced stereotypes about the supposed inherent savagery of African Americans. He also tried unsuccessfully to convince the Methodist Hospital to admit Black patients.

Top: Construction of City Methodist Church; (L) ceremony to lay the church cornerstone (R) Bishop Frederick D. Leete speaking at ceremony (Rev. Seaman sits in light hat), 1925, accessed DePauw University Archives.

The ambitious pastor quickly got to work, meeting with leaders of the Centenary of Methodist Missions and the U.S. Steel Corporation to drum up support for a downtown church. His lobbying paid off and both groups donated approximately $350,000 to build an “oasis” that would be open seven days a week. In October 1926, Seaman’s vision was realized when City Church—as the First Methodist Episcopal’s downtown church came to be called—opened to much fanfare. Reporters marveled at the ornate cathedral, which boasted of a social-educational unit, gymnasium, rooftop garden, tennis court, and community hall equipped with a “moving picture outfit” and modern stage. It also contained retail stores and a commercial cafeteria, which generated income for church expenses. This was necessary, Seaman said, because the downtown church ministered to groups having fewer resources with which to support the sanctuary.

Although Sunny Jim sought inclusivity, records indicate that the congregation remained white until the church’s closing. Conspicuously absent from photographs of pews lined with worshippers—hair bobbed and suits pressed—were members of color. While Black residents did not bow their heads in prayer beside white congregants (who likely did not welcome their presence), they did utilize City Church’s amenities. According to Lewis, Seaman was fairly successful in promoting the community hall “‘as a religiously neutral ground for artistic and civic events,’” although “there was little mixing of cultures.”

Gary, City Church
Basketball game at City Church, no date, accessed DePauw University Libraries, Digital Library.

City Church tried to navigate race relations in a polarized city, to some degree, opening its doors to civic, social, and spiritual gatherings. In 1927, the church hosted a race relations service, in which members and pastors of African American churches Trinity M. E. and First Baptist shared in services. Reverend Seaman delivered the principle address, stating “We shall make no progress toward race union . . . until we view each other as God views us, children of the same Father and brothers all.” After toiling in factories, Swedes, Mexicans, and Croatians gathered at City Church to study, worship, and play. Romanian children, “Americanized” at schools like Froebel, congregated in the church gym to socialize and shoot hoops.

Production at City Church, courtesy of DePauw University Archives, accessed Opacity.

When Reverend Seaman left in 1929 under unclear circumstances, the church turned inward and ministered less frequently to Gary’s immigrant and Black populations, especially during the demanding years of the Great Depression and World War II. Unfortunately, Gary’s Negro YMCA closed and African Americans were the first to be let go at the mills, making churches and relief organizations more crucial than ever. Resentment built among Gary residents as they competed for government support, resulting in the voluntary and forced repatriation of Mexican workers on relief rolls. The church did offer programs where weary (likely white) residents could momentarily forget their troubles, hosting Gary Civic Theater plays and an opera by a renowned singer.

Church records from the early Atomic Era denote renewed interest in ministering to the church’s diverse neighbors. The degree to which the church took action is unclear, although advertisements for Race Relations Sunday indicate some walking of the talk.* City Church photographs document an immunization clinic, which served both African American and white children, as well as cooking classes for Spanish girls. It is clear, however, that, despite the efforts of some City Church pastors, members of the white congregation largely did not support, and sometimes opposed, integrated Sunday mornings. With Steel City’s influx of African Americans and immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s, Gary’s white population fled to the suburbs, depleting the urban core of tax revenue. City Church members belonged to this exodus. Tellingly, on a 1964 survey, Rev. Allen D. Byrne appears to have checked, only to erase, a box noting that the church ministered to racial groups. 

Immunization Clinic hosted by City Church, no date, courtesy of Calumet Regional Archives.

This changed temporarily with the leadership of Reverend S. Walton Cole, who perhaps came closest to fulfilling Reverend Seaman’s mission, with his 1964 appointment. Cole wrote frequently in City Church’s newsletter, Tower Talk, about confronting one’s personal prejudices and the role of the church in integrating minority groups. Unafraid to confront social issues, Cole argued at a Methodist Federation meeting, “We are not socialists and communists when we talk about moral problems in our nation. Wouldn’t Jesus talk about poverty if he walked among us today?” Under Cole’s pastorship, the church hired Aurora Del Pozo to work with Gary’s Spanish-speaking population. Such efforts, Tower Talk reported, went a long way in understanding their Hispanic neighbors, noting “we were introduced to the viewpoints and attitudes held by these Spanish speaking people that were a surprise to most of us.”

Cole, addressing the trend of church members to “shut their ears and eyes” and move out of the city, noted in 1966:

Hate is the strongest of all. We hate the Negroes, the Puerto Ricans, the Mexicans, the Irish, the English, the Germans, the French. We hate the Jews, the Catholics, the Baptists, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Republicans, the Democrats, the Socialists. We hate everybody, including ourselves. This is the way of the world, the secular world.

Reverend S. Elbert Cole, accessed DePauw University Archives.

He countered that the Christian way centered around demonstrating love and hope for all. The NAACP awarded Reverend Cole with the first Roy Wilkins award for his work in civil rights. During his pastorship, the church worked to redevelop the downtown area, striving to “maintain a peaceful and developing community by improving race relations.” But this same year, fugitive James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, setting off a string of riots across the country. Riots in Gary’s Midtown section, formerly the Patch, that summer resulted in gunfire, looting, and burning. Gary’s first African American mayor, Richard Hatcher, contended “‘slum conditions in the city and inequalities in education and employment have fostered the tenseness'” that led to the riots.

Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher (arms crossed) and Reverend Jesse Jackson (at the podium) at a press conference for the National Black Political Convention, March 11, 1972, AP/Charles Knoblock, accessed Belt Magazine.

Some of Gary’s African American residents got involved in the Black Power Movement, which arose after decades of educational, political, and housing discrimination. The movement espoused racial pride, social equality, and political representation through artistic expression and social (and sometimes violent) protest. In 1972, Gary hosted the National Black Political Convention, which drew over 10,000 Americans of color. State delegates and attendees—comprised of Black Panthers, Socialists, Democrats, Republicans, and Nationalists—hoped to craft a cohesive political strategy to advance Black civil rights. This event highlighted Gary’s polarization along racial lines, which became so profound that City Church reported in the 1970s: “Evening sessions are difficult without police protection. Most folks are afraid to come downtown.” This schism was perhaps inevitable, given that city planners constructed Gary around the color of residents’ skin. As City Church membership sharply declined, church leaders realized they needed to build meaningful relationships with the local community.

It became apparent they had waited too long. The 1973 Pastor’s Report to the Administrative Board noted:

Most residents in the immediate area will already have found a convenient church where they are welcome . . .  Furthermore Blacks are not likely to come to a church which they ‘feel’ has excluded them for several years. The neighborhood may have continued to change from one social class group to another, so that there is an almost unbridgeable gap between the white congregation and the persons living in the community.

A survey of urban church leaders cautioned in 1966 that, regardless of resources or mission, a white church in a Black neighborhood could only carry on for so long, that the “ultimate end is the same. THE CHURCH DIES!” City Church leaders considered merging with a local Black church, but when community interviews revealed that minority groups did not trust the church, leaders decided to close in 1975. Die it DID.

City Methodist Church, April 26, 2017, accessed City Savvy Imaging.

After decades of decomposition, philanthropic organizations and city leaders have turned their attention to redeveloping the building. After all, as Professor Dotson warns, Gary is in jeopardy of the “eminent collapse under the weight of its own history.” As of now, the most likely outcome involves stabilizing the building and converting it into a ruins garden. A supporter of the ruins concept, Knight Foundation’s Lilly Weinberg, seemingly invokes Reverend Seaman with her statement that “Creating spaces for Gary’s residents to meet and connect across backgrounds and income levels is essential to community building.” Some in Gary oppose this plan, arguing that if the city receives funding it should be allocated to existing African American churches that need structural support, rather than one that ultimately abandoned the Black community.

Regardless of City Church’s fate, Ball State Professor Olon Dotson argues it is crucial that Gary’s legacy of segregation is incorporated into its story “for the sake of the young children, attending 21st Century Charter School at Gary, who look out their classroom windows, or wait for their parents every day, in front of the abandoned ruins of a church, in the midst of abandoned Fourth World space.” If the ruins embody Gary’s past, what is done with them now could signify Steel City’s future.

For a list of sources used and historical marker text for City Church, click here.

* Without the digitization of Gary newspapers, and given the lack of documentation of Gary’s Black residents during the period, it is difficult to give voice to those City Church attempted to reach. Pastor Floyd Blake noted in 1973 that the church conducted over 100 interviews with Black, white, and Spanish-speaking residents regarding their perception of City Church. Although we have been unable to uncover them, they could provide great insight. Please contact npoletika@library.in.gov if you are aware of their location.

“Tired of Going to Funerals:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary

Delegates, including Reverend Jesse Jackson, marching into the National Black Political Convention, courtesy of Gene Pesek/Chicago Sun-Times, accessed wbez.org.

They agreed that black prisoners should receive fair trials, that black Americans should not die years earlier than white counterparts, that black workers should be afforded a living wage, and that black candidates should be given opportunities to craft legislation that affected their communities. They shared a collective outrage. In 1972, organizers asked them – Americans of color affiliated with Socialists, Democrats, Republicans, Nationalists, and the Black Panthers- if they could overcome differing ideologies to channel this outrage into political action at the National Black Political Convention (NBPC) held in Gary, Indiana. Black poet and activist Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) advocated for the gathering to practice “unity without conformity.”

According to an essay in Major Problems in African American History, the Gary convention was the culmination of a series of uprisings in protest of discrimination, which historians refer to collectively as the Black Revolt. Black Americans were emboldened by tragic events, such as the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, as well as legislative progress, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  In an interview, North Carolina convention delegate Ben Chavis recalled:

I had gotten tired of going to funerals. . . . so much of the Movement had been tragic. You know. And I have to emphasize [Rev. Martin Luther] King’s assassination was a tragic blow to the Movement. And so four years later, March of ’72, for us to be gathering up our wherewithal to go to Gary, Indiana–hey, that was a good shot in the arm for the Movement.

Historian Stephen Grant Meyer identified 1968, when King was assassinated, as the year in which the modern civil rights movement began to diverge. No longer was integration the primary means to make political and economic gains.  This fracture gave rise to a Nationalist faction, which sought to promote black identity and improve living conditions through a separate black nation. The polarization was reminiscent of the late-19th and early-20th century debates between reformer Booker T. Washington and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, who both worked to ease the economic and social plight of African Americans. Washington believed this was best achieved by earning the respect of white citizens through hard work and self-help. Du Bois, on the other hand, believed white oppression should be cast off by protests and political activism, in large part through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization he co-founded.

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. According to the NWI Times, he declared “all black people, involved in any way with survival programs for the black community, [to be] revolutionaries at the National Black Political Convention,” AP Photo, courtesy of the NWI Times.
NBPC organizers, who had begun planning the conference in 1970, struggled to find a city willing to accommodate an influx of politically-engaged black Americans. Gary Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, an advocate of civil rights and minorities and one of the first African American mayors of a major U.S. city, volunteered his predominantly black city. Not since the 1930s, with the first meeting of the National Negros Congress in Chicago, had such a massive and diverse gathering of people of color convened to advance their rights. Approximately 3,000 official delegates and 7,000 attendees from across the United States met at Gary’s West Side High School from March 10 to March 12. The attendees included a prolific group of black leaders, such as Reverend Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, U.S. presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, Amiri Baraka, Muslim leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, Black Panthther co-founder Bobby Seale, and Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz. Organizers sought to create a cohesive political strategy for black Americans by the convention’s end.

Television crews waiting for convention to start, courtesy of the NWI Times.

A bomb threat was called into convention headquarters at the Holiday Inn and a local gang reportedly deposited guns in school lockers. These threats to disrupt the convention necessitated additional security. Uniformed and plainclothes policemen reinforced the northwestern Indiana city. Armed civil defense personnel supplemented the police presence and boxer-turned-activist Muhammad Ali served as sergeant-at-arms.

The high school, decorated with red, white, and blue bunting, thrummed with activity. As vendors sold books, banners, and souvenirs, a band prompted snapping and feet-tapping with “gutsy,” drum-driven music. The Munster Times reported “Two or three white reporters, their faces split with grins, were lost somewhere with the music. A policeman absentmindedly slapped the butt of his pistol to the beat.” Delegates ranging from “pinstripe-suited conservatives to youngsters in colorful flowing robe-type shirts [dashikis] and mod fashions to the black-uniformed para-military” milled about the gym waiting for the delayed convention to finally start. Organizers scrambled to respond to complaints that the elevated platform for journalists blocked the stage.

Welcome poster, courtesy of the NWI Times.

Entertainers like James Brown and Harry Belafonte lent their support to the convention by performing. Comic and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, weighing 90 pounds as a result of fasting to protest the Vietnam War, addressed the audience about issues of policing and drug access and asked, “‘[H]ow can a black kid in Harlem find a heroin pusher and the FBI can’t?'”

State delegations, national organizations, and individuals proposed resolutions in the creation of “A National Black Agenda” (Muncie Evening Press). This agenda would extend the movement beyond the convention. As convention attendee and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York Dr. Ron Daniels noted, the Black Agenda was “integral to holding candidates, who would seek Black votes, accountable to the interests and aspirations of Black people.”

Delegates from Illinois suggested fines and prison sentences for businessmen found guilty of discriminatory practices. North Carolina attendees proposed a bill of prisoners’ rights that included humane treatment and fair trials. Delegates from Indiana and other states demanded that the U.S. dedicate resources to the plight of black Americans rather than the Vietnam War and end the conflict immediately. North Carolina representatives also urged that black men receive Social Security benefits earlier than white men since their life expectancy was eight years shorter. The Muncie Evening Press noted that “Politicking was intense . . . as state delegations tried to compromise their own views with positions they felt other delegations could support.” Tensions ran so high that part of the Michigan delegation walked out of the convention.

Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Keynote speakers Reverend Jackson, executive director of P.U.S.H. and Operation Breadbasket, and Mayor Hatcher ignited the crowd and “stoked rhetorical fires aimed at molding the diverse black communities represented here into a solid unit that can tip the political balance this presidential election year and from now on” (Munster Times).

While similar in many aspects, the men’s speeches hinted at the divergence in philosophies pervading the convention. Hatcher believed change could come from within the existing two-party system, so long as the parties responded to the needs of African Americans. However, if legislators continued to neglect black constituents, black Americans would create a third party and, he told attendees, “we shall take with us the best of White America . . . many a white youth nauseated by the corrupt values rotting the innards of this society . . . many of the white poor . . . many a White G.I. . . . and many of the white working class, too.” The party would also welcome “chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Indians [and] Orientals” (Indianapolis Recorder).

However, Jackson, appealing to Nationalists, urged the immediate formation of a black party, potentially called the “Liberation Party.” He asserted “‘Without the option of a black political party, we are doomed to remain in the hip pocket of the Democratic party and in the rumble seat of the Republican party'” (Kokomo Tribune). Jackson also called for the establishment of black institutions to oversee black educational, economic, and judicial matters. He asked the crowd “what time is it?” and the audience, electrified, shouted “It’s Nation Time!”

Harry Williams, “Convention Raps Busing,” The Republic (Columbus, Indiana), March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Jackson’s proposal drew criticism from some black organizations, like the NAACP, which believed that continued segregation, albeit black-led, would impede progress. According to Major Problems in African American History, the NAACP circulated a memo at the convention denouncing the proposal of a separate nationhood for African Americans and criticizing the rhetoric for being “‘that of revolution rather than of reform.'” An Indianapolis Recorder editorial articulated this point, noting “The only road to nationwide achievement by a minority is through cooperation with the majority.”

Presidential campaign poster courtesy of the Library of Congress, accessed BBC.com.

Another contentious issue in the 1970s: school desegregation through the forced busing of black children to white schools. The Jackson faction opposed busing and defined successful black education not as being able to attend white schools, but rather as children attending black-led schools. The endorsement of the presidential candidate that would best represent black interests also generated conflict at the convention. Some delegations supported Democrat Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black Congresswoman, while many Nationalists wanted a leader from a black party.

After intense debate, a steering committee tentatively adopted a National Black Agenda. The committee officially published the 68-page document on May 19, Malcolm X’s birthday. The resolutions included black representation in Congress proportionate to the U.S. black population, a guaranteed minimum income of $6,500 for four-person households, a 50% cut in the defense and space budgets, and an end to national trade with countries that supplied the U.S. drug market. The resolutions, designed to move black Americans towards “self-determination and true independence,” represented major, yet tenuous compromise among the black community.

Image courtesy of NWI Times.

The steering committee also formed the National Black Political Assembly, a body tasked with implementing the Black Agenda. Dr. Daniels noted that, although many of the agenda’s resolutions never materialized, “thousands of Black people left Gary energized and committed to making electoral politics a more relevant/meaningful exercise to promote Black interests.” He attributed the quadrupling of elected black officials by the end of the 1970s, in large part, to the Gary convention and the “audacity of Black people to . . .  defend black interests.” The NBPC was notable too for its inclusion of black Americans from all walks of life, rather than just prominent black figures, in formulating how to ease the struggles of the black community. The Recorder also noted that Mayor Hatcher’s reputation “has been considerably burnished in the white community as well as the black by the success of the historic event” (Indianapolis Recorder).

In 2012, Gary hosted the 40th anniversary of the National Black Political Convention. Speakers discussed the issues that had prevailed into the 21st century, such as a disparity in prison sentencing and poverty. One speaker remarked that without Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black president Barack Obama would not have occupied the White House. Another speaker, who ran for mayor of Baltimore, lamented that forty years after the convention “we’re still asking what to do instead of how to do it.” When asked if it was still “nation time” one speaker responded “it’s muted nation time.” Black Americans, they agreed, needed to “have the audacity.”

Contact: npoletika@history.in.gov

 

SOURCES USED:

“Black Convention Split Over Separation,” Terre Haute Tribune, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Black Meet Without Incident Bodyguards, Police Vigilant,” Munster Times, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Black Political Movement Born in Gary,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Creation of ‘The National Assembly’ Concludes Black Political Convention,” Kokomo Tribune, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Dr. Ron Daniels, “It’s Nation Time: The 40th Anniversary of the Gary National Black Political Convention,” Institute of the Black World 21st Century, March 28, 2012.

Harry Williams, “Convention Raps Busing,” Columbus Republic, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Hatcher to Keynote Black Convention,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 11, 1972, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Jay Harris, “Black Political Agenda Hit on Busing, Israel,” Wilmington (DE) Evening Journal, May 19, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

John Hopkins, “Leaders Mold Black Power: Warn Parties” and James Parker, “Blacks Marching to Different Drums,” Munster Times, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Keeping Watch,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, March 10, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Major Problems in African American History: Documents and Essays, Second Edition, eds. Barbara Krauthamer, Chad Williams, and Thomas G. Paterson (Cengage Learning, 2016): 510-515.

“National Black Agenda Calls for Permanent Political Movement,” Kokomo Tribune, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Plans Span Wide Range of Opinion,” Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Wants Changes,” Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Blacks Must Wage Two Wars:” The Freeman Field Uprising & WWII Desegregation

Registration at Freeman Field in 1944, courtesy of the Indiana State Archives.

The 1948 desegregation of US armed forces can be partially attributed to a bellwether protest at Indiana’s Freeman Field in the spring of 1945. Here, officers of the African American 477th Bombardment Group challenged the unlawful exclusion of blacks from officers’ club, resulting in their arrest. The uprising immediately gained the attention of the War Department, NAACP, and lawmakers such as Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg. The refusal of more than 100 black officer’s to comply with “Jim Crow” policies underlined the broader push for civil rights in the World War II era.

America’s involvement in WWII exposed the great disparity between the fight for freedom abroad and the treatment of African Americans at home. In 1945, The Pittsburgh Courier alleged that it was difficult to understand how President Harry S. Truman’s administration “can claim to be prosecuting a war to bring democracy to all of the world when it will not enforce its own orders supposedly establishing democracy in its own country.” Similarly, Hoosier businessman and Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie expressed concern with the treatment of African Americans in the Armed Forces. In his 1944 article “Citizens of Negro Blood” for Collier’s Magazine, Willkie stated that World War II “has made us conscious of the contradictions between our treatment of our Negro minority and the ideals for which we are fighting. The equitable treatment of racial minorities in America is basic to our chance for a just and lasting peace.” Roberta West Nicholson, Indiana state legislator and daughter-in-law of Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson, worked with the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center during WWII and observed the same type of discrimination at Camp Atterbury. She successfully fought for black servicemen’s rights to utilize the exact same amenities and recreational facilities as their white counterparts, lamenting “It’s difficult to believe, but this is true; because the Army itself was segregated.”

Indianapolis Recorder, April 7, 1945, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Discrimination forced African Americans to fight to even be admitted to the Army Air Corps, which was an exclusively white organization until the late 1930s. According to James Allison’s “Mutiny at Freeman Field,” with the outbreak of global war, the Army revised its policy and recruited black units, but kept them segregated from white counterparts. The Air Corps sponsored flight schools for African Americans due to pressure from Congress and NAACP leaders, but accepted none of their graduates, despite exemplary records. Allison noted that “Countervailing pressures from politicians seeking the black vote and enterprising blacks who threatened to sue resulted in an Air Corps decision to form an African American fighter squadron” in 1941. The squadron, designated the “Tuskegee Airmen,” was trained at Alabama’s Tuskegee Field and produced a formidable combat record.

Unlike the Tuskegee squadron, the 477th Bombardment Group was trained at a base in Seymour, Indiana that included white servicemen. The group was first established at Selfridge Field near Detroit, under the command of white officer Colonel Robert W. Selway. The group was transferred to Kentucky’s Godman Field as the result of racial tension and protest similar to that which later occurred at Freeman Field. The 477th was then moved to the Freeman Field air base in March 1945 to train with better facilities. The Indianapolis Recorder noted in April that:

Arrival of the group here stimulated open hostility on the part of tradesmen in the nearby town of Seymour . . . Most of the trades people announced they would furnish no service or sell commodities to the new arrivals at Freeman Field. Negro residents of Seymour, less than 100 in number, are striving valiantly to meet the needs of the soldiers.

Freeman Field Airport and Industrial Field, 1947, Indiana Historical Society, Digital Images Collection.

These men, many of whom were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart, encountered racial discrimination from white servicemen at Freeman Field. Little had changed regarding their treatment since WWI, during which African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker and her sales agents wrote a letter to President Woodrow Wilson officially condemning the mistreatment of black troops. According to the Recorder, African American officers at Freeman were denied entry into the air base’s tennis courts, swimming pool, and “swanky” officer’s club after 5 p.m. by Officer Selway, who created a “superficial classification that prevented their enjoyment of facilities established for commissioned personnel.” This classification violated Army Regulation 210-10, which prohibited the racial segregation of officers at army camps. According to Allison, black officers mobilized to challenge the discriminatory action, meeting in hangars to plan a peaceful protest.

On April 5, 1945, Selway learned of the plan and ordered a provost marshal to guard the club and turn away black servicemen. At the end of the night, 61 officers were arrested for attempting to enter the club, three of whom faced a jury in July for “jostling a provost marshall [sic].” On the 7th and 8th, more officers were arrested for attempted entry of the club. In a move that could further institutionalize segregation, Selway pressured black officers to “sign a statement that attested to their understanding of the order that had established one club for trainees and the other for supervisory personnel” (Allison). Officers were read an Article of War threatening death for failure to obey command and then issued a direct order to sign. Undeterred, 101 officers refused to sign and were subsequently arrested and sent back to Godman Field. According to Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough, a commander of a local black American Legion Post asserted “Blacks must wage two wars-one against the Axis powers, the other for full citizenship at home.” The Freeman Field officers did just that.

Officers, Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, circa March 1945, Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 3, Folder 68, Indiana Historical Society.

First Lieutenant Quentin P. Smith was among those who refused to sign and recalled “‘I thought, ‘Oh my God this can’t be happening . . . He had given me a direct order to sign. I had finished college and all I had to do was just stay alive and I’ll be a general. I had no voice then'” (1992, Merrillville Times). After refusing to sign, he was escorted to his barracks at gunpoint and held under arrest for twelve days. In a document endorsed by Smith on April 25, he contended “The cited regulation appeared and still appears to be a ‘Jim Crow’ regulation” and that he:

could not, and cannot understand how Medical Officers, qualified as Flight Surgeons and having completed all required Army medical training and having completed years of private medical practice could have been classified as ‘trainee’ personnel unless the distinction were solely one of color.

He added he wished to indicate “his unshakeable belief that racial bias is Fascistic, un-American, and directly contrary to the ideas for which he is willing to fight and die.”

Quentin P. Smith (center) with honor graduates of Class 45-A, Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, circa March 1945, Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 3, Folder 68, Indiana Historical Society.

The Recorder reported that “The mass arrest which is believed unprecedented in the history of the Army has this post in an uproar and has disrupted the entire training program of the 477th Bombardment group.” By the 26th, it appeared that the uprising was beginning to influence Army policy, as the newspaper noted that “Officials of the Public Regulations Bureau of the department in Washington admitted momentous changes are being considered as result of an investigation of conditions surrounding” the incident. On April 28, The Pittsburgh Courier called for the immediate release and “return to duty” of the arrested men and that “Anything less will be a travesty on justice.”

Administrative reprimand of Smith by Selway, courtesy of Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 38, Folder 3, Indiana Historical Society.
Roger C. Terry, courtesy of indianamilitary.org

Following public outcry and the efforts of the NAACP, all were released and served with an administrative reprimand, with the exception of three men. The Recorder noted on June 30, that Selway had been replaced with African American Colonel B.O. Davis Jr. However, the three men arrested for “jostling” an officer continued to be confined and were prohibited from obtaining counsel. In July, a jury acquitted Lt. Marsden A. Thompson and Lt. Shirley R. Clinton of “disobedience of a direct order,” along with Lt. Roger C. Terry, although he was found guilty of “jostling” an officer and forced to pay $150. In 1995, the Air Force set aside Terry’s conviction. In an Indianapolis Star article, Terry declared that this removed the weight he had been carrying since the ordeal and that “What came off my back was that all my hatred went away. All of it.”

Although their military records remained tarnished until the 1990s, the black airmen’s protest significantly influenced President Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces on July 26, 1948. In negating Terry’s conviction, former assistant secretary of the Air Force concluded that the Freeman mutiny was crucial to military integration and a “‘giant step for equality.'”

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.”