THH: Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle

Transcript of Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle

Jump to Show Notes

Written by Lindsey Beckley

Produced by Jill Weiss Simins

Voice actor reading from newspaper: The town of Andrews [Indiana] . . . is much disturbed over the result of several spiritualistic séances, which have been held there by a medium named Johnson.

The first séance was held last Saturday night. At the meeting the terrible wreck at Keller’s station some years ago was called up. The five men killed in that wreck, including Trainmaster Wilcox, were talked to, and the noise made by the fated train, the puffing of the engine and the crash of the wreck were plainly reproduced. Those who were present in the room were terribly frightened, so realistic was the scene. A second séance was held at the residence of Robert Hart, with twenty people present. At this séance there were the customary exhibitions of tambourine playing, bell ringing, etc. While the bell was ringing someone requested that it be thrown, and it was hurled across the room with great violence, breaking a lamp chimney in its flight. After the séance was over the medium requested his audience never again to ask the spirits to throw anything, because that was one thing they always did when commanded.

Beckley: Scenes such as this, described in the July 11, 1893 issue of the Indianapolis News, were more common place in the Hoosier state than you might imagine at this time. By the late 19th century, American Spiritualism had swept the nation, including Indiana. And if you look past the spectacle described in that article – the tambourine playing, bell ringing, and flying furniture – you can glimpse the complexities surrounding Spiritualist beliefs. That story, like so many stories in Spiritualism, begins with tragedy. Five local men were killed in a dreadful accident, and here were their neighbors and friends still trying to find closure by calling them back from the dead. In this episode, we’ll explore a movement that meant different things to different people. For some, a night of entertainment. For others, a coping mechanism for unbearable grief.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Beckley: American Spiritualism, as opposed to spiritualism in the general sense of the word, was a religious movement based in the belief that not only do spirits exist, but they’re able and willing to communicate with the living through mediums. The root of the movement can be traced to the spring of 1848 when the Fox family began to hear knocking noises coming from the walls of their Hydesville, New York home. As the knockings continued, two of the Fox children, Margaret and Catherine, discovered that they could communicate with what they had come to believe was a spirit. Soon, the sisters took this new-found talent to nearby Rochester, New York, where they met prominent Quaker abolitionists Isaac and Amy Post.

In turn, the Posts introduced the young women and their ability to communicate with spirits to their prominent Quaker, Abolitionist, and Methodist friends. Through this network, Spiritualist beliefs were introduced into the highly mobile upper crust of East Coast society. This, alongside the accessible nature of the new movement which replaced the hierarchy and specialized facilities of other religions with a more informal structure, allowed Spiritualism to spread rapidly. Just months after the initial rappings were heard in Hydesville, there were thousands of so called “spirit circles” communicating with sprits in drawing rooms and kitchens up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Spirit circles, or séances, were a part of Spiritualism from the very beginning. Early séances conducted by the Fox sisters were described by historian David Chapman.

Voice actor reading from Chapman: Séances would begin with a prayer, while the party sat around a wooden table in a darkened room. If a spirit made its presence felt, participants could ask it yes-or-no questions, or the spirit might ‘call for the alphabet’ by knocking five times in rapid succession. If this happened someone would recite the alphabet until a knock was heard on a particular letter. This would be repeated until words and sentences were spelled out. The spirits had to be treated with great respect, or else they might refuse to participate.

Beckley: Soon, public demonstrations where hundreds of people gathered to witness the Fox sisters communicating with the spirits were organized.

[Eerie music]

Beckley: This is yet another factor in the rapid dissemination of American Spiritualism – each and every person who attended a séance or public demonstration was able to go back to their home town and hold a similar circle in their own home, with their own friends, who could in turn repeat the pattern, spreading the movement even further.

In this way, Spiritualism quickly reached the Midwest. By the mid-1850s, less than a decade after the Fox Sisters first made contact with the spirits in upstate New York, Spiritualism was fairly widespread in Indiana. It’s hard to estimate the number of practitioners since there was no formal system of reporting, but one historian claims that by the 1860s, 90% of Angola, Indiana residents were practicing Spiritualists. Of course, that’s an extreme case and the rest of the state was by no means majority-Spiritualist, but it shows how deeply the new religion had permeated Hoosier society. To get an idea of what at least some Indiana spirit circles were like, let’s look at Charles Cathcart, a judge and ex-congressman turned spiritualist.

[Music box music]

Beckley: Originally a skeptic, Cathcart attended his first spirit circle at the home of Mr. Poston of La Porte County, Indiana, with the goal of exposing the fraud he was sure was taking place there. The séances held at this particular circle were much different from those held by the Fox sisters which I described earlier – you see this a lot in Spiritualism since there was no official church structure and practitioners were able to just kind of make things up as they went along. The Poston circle, styled after circles held in Ohio, was a lively affair, similar to that described in the newspaper article at the top of the show.

[Dramatic music]

Beckley: Cathcart arrived to the séance armed with a homemade device that, when deployed, would light up the room in a flash. The lights were put out and the show started with a spirit referred to as “old king” taking up a bass drum. Cathcart deployed his flash device and described what he saw next in the Spiritual Telegraph, a New York-based spiritualist newspaper.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: What a picture for an artist! . . . [I] witnessed the stick beating the drum as if handled from above, and no mortal nearer than about eight feet of it! After striking a few blows by itself, in the light, the stick rose yet higher and leisurely, a curve in the air, gingerly fell on the shoulder of Miss Poston.

Beckley: With this shocking turn of events, Cathcart was a convert. He started his own spirit circle, also in LaPorte County, which was attended by many of his affluent acquaintances. Unsurprisingly, given the theatrical nature of his first encounter with Spiritualism, Cathcart’s own circles were quite showy with flying furniture, disembodied voices, and a veritable ensemble of spirits playing everything from a triangle to the guitar.  Obviously, this strain of Spiritualism is much closer to entertainment than to the expression of grief it was for many others. This included May Wright Sewall, who is better known as Indiana’s preeminent suffragist.

In 1895, Sewall’s husband and work partner, Theodore Lovett Sewall died. In the wake of his death, she wrote:

Voice actor reading from Sewall: Unlike many bereaved, I did not seek to forget my sorrow or him whose removal had caused it; on the contrary, I strove to keep the memory of him always present in my own mind.

Beckley: This reluctance to “move on” or forget is prevalent in many who eventually find themselves face to face with a medium, attempting to contact the dead. So it was with Sewall. In August 1897, after delivering a suffrage speech at Lily Dale, one of the largest Spiritualist camps in the country, a series of misfortunes stranded her in the camp for several days. During that time, she met with a medium, a meeting which she describes in her book Neither Dead Nor Sleeping.

Voice actor reading from Sewall: In that sitting, quite contrary to my own expectations, and equally so to any conscious desire, I received letters written upon slates which I had carefully selected from a high pile of apparently quite new and empty ones, had carefully sponged off, tied together with my own handkerchief, and held in my own hands, no other hand touching them. These letters, when read later in my room. . . were found to contain perfectly coherent, intelligent and characteristic replies to questions which I had written upon bits of paper that had not passed out of my hands.

Beckley: From that first experience, Sewall began visiting mediums on a regular basis and kept in regular communication with her deceased husband for the remaining two decades of her life. This was a something she did not share publicly. Neither Dead Nor Sleeping wasn’t published until July, 1920, twenty-three years after she first made contact with her deceased husband. In it, she revealed her Spiritualist beliefs and experiences and laid out her reasons for that belief.

The book was fairly well received, being heralded as an exceptionally logical exploration of the practice of Spiritualism, if a surprising subject for a woman of Sewall’s esteemed reputation to write on. But just two months after its release, with the revelation of Sewall’s convictions still fresh in the minds of Americans, Sewall died in Indianapolis. Her death following so close on the heels of Neither Dead Nor Sleeping resulted in the majority of her obituaries giving an inordinate amount of weight to that part of her life, leaving some of her very impressive accomplishments in the shadows.

Of course, Sewall wasn’t the only prominent Hoosier Spiritualist. Long before Neither Dead Nor Sleeping revealed May Wright Sewall as a convert, Dr. John and Mary Westerfield of Anderson, Indiana, were introduced to the movement. This introduction would eventually lead to the establishment of what would become one of the nation’s most prominent Spiritualist centers.

In 1855, John’s and Mary’s only son, John Jr. died at the age of fourteen. The couple, who organized lectures on various topics of a scientific and pseudo-scientific nature, were already familiar with the idea of Spiritualism. So, perhaps it was natural that they turned to the comfort offered by mediums in their grief. Over the next months, many of those who had attended their lecture series also converted to Spiritualism and this small group began to advocate for a state-wide organization of Spiritualists.

[Music]

Beckley: Alongside this effort to organize, the Westerfields also began searching for a location for a Spiritualist camp, where believers could congregate and commune.

[Music]

Beckley: From these efforts, the Indiana Association of Spiritualists was founded in the late 1880s, and in 1890, thirty acres of land was purchased in Chesterfield, Indiana where their Spiritualist camp – Camp Chesterfield – was established.

If you’re imagining a small, backwoods operation, you’re mistaken. When the camp opened, there was a dining hall, lodging house, two séance rooms, a few small cottages, and a tent auditorium structure that seated 500 people. By 1895, an office building, Bazaar building, stables, a grocery store, an ice cream parlor, and a wooden auditorium building had been added to the site, showing a phenomenal amount of growth.

This was far from the last growth spurt that the camp experienced. Under the leadership of Mable Riffle, the camp reached its zenith in the 1920s. Two fully furnished hotels were constructed, as well as a chapel, several more cottages, and a decorative outdoor area. By 1927, the six week season at Champ Chesterfield was drawing an average of 20,000 people. Some of these visitors came seeking the thrill of communing with the spirits and others looking to reach deceased loved ones during a time a grief, illustrated by the increase in attendance in the wake of both World War I and World War II.

Throughout its history, Camp Chesterfield hosted mediums with a wide variety of different Spiritualistic abilities. These included materializing mediumship, a phenomena where a medium summons the physical form of a spirit, and spirit photography, in which the forms of dead loved ones can be seen in the presence of their living family members. And also slate writing, or writing done without the aid of human hands – usually on a slate using chalk.

Yet, not everyone who experienced these supposedly otherworldly happenings were convinced by their experiences at the camp.

[Music]

Beckley: In 1925, at the height of its popularity, reporter Virginia Swain attended the camp and participated in several séances, which seem to have quite missed the mark on all accounts. The first of a long series of articles written about her time there starts.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: I have met a brother whom I had never heard of before. Nevertheless he died in my arms six months ago – he told me so himself!

Beckley: She goes on to detail a long list of almost laughably bad readings she received at the camp, but even more damaging than the bad press – she reported the perceived fraud to the police and on the very same day her first article ran, news of a mass arrest of 14 mediums was reported. The charges were dropped just weeks later, but the exposé and the arrests left a wake of soured public sentiment in its wake.

In 1960, scandal arose once again when Tom O’Neill, editor of the popular Spiritualist magazine the Psychic Observer and researcher Dr. Andriga Puharrich uncovered fraud while trying to capture the first motion pictures of the materialization of a spirit. With the full knowledge and permission of the mediums conducting the séance, the two men took an infrared camera into the séance room. Looking through the lens of the camera, they saw that what in the dark had looked to be wispy figures emerging from nowhere were actually workers of the camp entering the séance room from a hidden door.

When these findings, and the images captured during the séance, were published in the Psychic Observer under the headline “Fraud Uncovered at Chesterfield Spiritualism Camp,” something rather surprising happened. It was O’Neill, rather than the camp, that came under fire, with droves of advertisers dropping their support for the magazine, eventually leading to its demise. I suppose that’s a clear demonstration of just how deeply adherents to Spiritualism hold their beliefs.

Perhaps the worst blow to the camp came in 1976, when medium Lamar Keene wrote his exposé The Psychic Mafia, in which he laid bare allegations of widespread fraud throughout the camp. According to his claims, there were rooms full of tens of thousands of notecards with information on every person who had ever had a reading at the camp. He told stories of stealing, pickpocketing, and more, all in the name of a good spiritualist reading.

But, of course, even this exposé didn’t spell the end for Champ Chesterfield, which is now considered to be the longest continually active Spiritualist camp in the nation. The camp, like Spiritualism itself, has persisted through scandal, bad press, and more. Today, the camp is a mixture of American Spiritualism, with several resident mediums available for readings, New Age Spiritualism, with meditation retreats and Tai Chi classes, and a training center for up and coming Spiritualist leaders.

Even outside of historical camps like Chesterfield, of which there are a handful left scattered across the country, we still hear the echoes of Spiritualism in modern America. Take, for instance, mediums such as TLC’s “Long Island Medium,” Theresa Caputo, or if you’re a 90s kid like me, Sylvia Brown. Like the Fox sisters in the mid-1800s, these women mix entertainment with amateur grief counseling, helping people through difficult times by giving them the chance to communicate with lost loved ones. Or, if one wants to be cynical about it, using people’s grief for financial gain and personal fame.

But that’s what makes Spiritualism such a wonderfully complex topic. It can be a coping mechanism. It can be entertainment. It has film-flam men and sincere practitioners. Some people feel genuinely helped, and others feel helplessly duped. And we didn’t even get to this, but it was led, in large, by women and had close ties with both the abolition and women’s suffrage movements. But many of its practitioners, like May Wright Sewall, were tarnished by their association with it. Spiritualism is often used as an entry point into ghost stories and ghastly tales, something to be trotted out for Halloween and then put back into the closet with the paper skeletons on November 1, but that paints a much more one dimensional picture of it than in reality. Join us in two weeks when we dig further into this topic with Ball State University professor Rachel Smith, who studies the intersection of Spiritualism and feminism.

[THH theme music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thank you to Justin Clark and Dr. Michella Marino of IHB for lending their voices to today’s episode. Find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for Listening.

Show Notes for Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle

Braude, Ann, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Britten, Emma Hardinge, Modern American Spiritualism, New York: MDCCCLXX,

Chapin, David, “Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity, Amhurst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004.

Keene, M. Lamar, The Psychic Mafia, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1997.

Sewall, May Wright, Neither Dead Nor Sleeping, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1920.

Newspapers

                “Events in Hoosierdom,” Indianapolis News, July 11, 1893, 6.

“Mediums Under Bond After Raid,” Muncie Evening Press, August 24, 1925, 1.

Websites

                “Camp Chesterfield: A Spiritual Center of Light,” campchesterfield.net.

 

From Redlining to Better Homes: The Better Homes of South Bend Housing Cooperative

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Hear an interview with Mike Jackson, who live in the neighborhood built by Better Homes here. 

Transcript for From Redlining to Better Homes

[Birds Chirping, Neighborhood Sounds]

Beckley: Dr. Bernard Vagner and his wife Audrey moved to South Bend, Indiana in January, 1949. The young couple had decided to lease some rooms in a house while familiarizing themselves with their new city. But by that summer, it was time to start looking for a place of their own. After being shown several properties that left much to be desired, they decided that perhaps building their own home would be a better option. And they were in luck – there were two lots available on the corner of Campeau Street in a nice neighborhood. According to the Vagner’s attorney, the landowner was very anxious to sell. And she must have been for when the couple arrived to look at the land, she showed up with the deeds in-hand, apparently ready to make a deal that very day.

That is, until she saw the couple. As soon as she laid eyes on the pair, she started making excuses – “the neighbors might not like it.” “My husband wouldn’t approve.” And so on. What she hadn’t realized until that moment was that the Vagner’s were African American. And in the US in 1949, that meant that many neighborhoods were closed to them, whether they had the money to buy a home there or not.

The Vagner’s weren’t able to purchase a home that year. In fact, it took them until June of 1955 to find a house – that’s nearly 6 years of searching…just to find someone willing to sell them property. At this same time, similar experiences drove 22 families also in South Bend, to come together to confront this racist exclusion and build a community for themselves – a community called Better Homes of South Bend. In this episode, we’ll explain and examine the role redlining has played in our state’s history and tell the story of Better Homes of South Bend, which was created for the precise purpose of defeating redlining.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History

Newsreel: I was just one of the New Deal’s idealistic programs that changed the face of the nation.

Beckley: On August 1, 1933 seventeen thousand people stood in line in front of the newly opened Home Owners Loan Corporation office in Chicago. The Home Owners Loan Corporation, or HOLC, was a newly formed government-sponsored organization – part the New Deal – formed to address the ongoing foreclosure crisis in America. To do this, HOLC was offering long-term, low interest rate home mortgage loans for both refinancing existing mortgages and financing new home purchases.

Newsreel: Home ownership is the basis of a happy, contented family life. And now, through the use of the national housing act ensured mortgage, it’s brought within the reach of all citizens on a monthly payment plan no greater than rent.

Beckley: This meant that many Americans, for the first time in their lives, had the opportunity to own their own home, rather than renting. Many white Americans, that is.

[Music]

Beckley: In the 3 decades after the establishment of HOLC, just 2 percent of all loans went to non-white families. Various methods were employed to exclude minorities from receiving home loans, but among the most effective and infamous were the Residential Security Maps. These maps, kept secret and only discovered by historians in the 1980s, are considered the basis for the widespread, systematic denial of housing loans for Black Americans, known as redlining, a term referring to officials drawing red lines around specific neighborhoods.

HOLC began research for the maps in the mid-1930s. Working with local realtors and banks, the organization painstakingly divided 239 American cities, including what were then the 7 largest cities in Indiana – Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Gary, Muncie, Terre Haute, Evansville, and South Bend –  into neighborhoods, assigning each neighborhood a grade of “A” through “D.” “A” being what they considered to be the best, and “D” the worst – kind of like school. Each grade corresponded with a color on the security map – green for “A,” blue for “B,” yellow for “C,” and red for “D.”

Many features of a neighborhood were considered when assigning these grades. Building type and age, proximity to shopping and business districts, sales histories…and “infiltration of inharmonious racial groups.” The Underwriting Manual, which served as a comprehensive guide to those deciding who was to receive HOLC loans stated that:

Voice actor reading from HOLC handbook:  “If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in [home] values.”

Beckley: If the valuator judged an area to even be in danger of “infiltration,” they were instructed to downgrade the rating of the whole neighborhood. And those ratings were incredibly important. White families seeking a mortgage in a green or blue area were nearly always approved. In yellow areas, the chances of approval dropped dramatically. And if were looking to purchase a property in a red area, their chances were slim to none. For Black families, the possibility of obtaining a mortgage in any area was close to zero.

If you’re Black, you can only live in specific all black neighborhoods. Banks won’t approve mortgages for any homes in that area due to redlining. But you can’t get a loan for a house in other neighborhoods because you’re Black. Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro’s books Black Wealth / White Wealth on this topic:

Voice Actor:  “African Americans who desired and were able to afford home ownership found themselves consigned to central-city communities where their investments were affected by the “self-fulfilling prophecies” of the FHA appraisers: cut off from sources of new investment[,] their homes and communities deteriorated and lost value in comparison to those homes and communities that FHA appraisers deemed desirable.”

Beckley: Making it even more difficult for minority families to purchase property, many neighborhoods had what were called racially restrictive covenants. These covenants were written into the deed for the property, and they could be very specific about who could and could not purchase the home in the future.

Voice Actor: “No person other than one of the Caucasian race shall reside on any of said described premises excepting that a domestic servant in the actual employ of an occupant may reside in the home of his master.”

“Said tract shall not be sold, leased, or rented to any person or persons other than of white race nor shall any person or persons other than of white race use or occupy said tract.”

Beckley:  Both of those are examples of real covenants in deeds from the 1930s and 40s in Seattle, Washington. Similar covenants existed across America.

[Music]

Beckley: Together, redlining and racially restrictive covenants all but excluded minority families from participating in the American dream. The dream owning a home that could be passed down through the generations. This has had long term effects – access to home mortgage loans is an underpinning of wealth building in America, meaning that these practices hindered the upward mobility of all Black Americans. In fact, Mapping Inequality states that:

Voice Actor:  “More than a half-century of research has shown housing to be for the twentieth century what slavery was to the antebellum period, namely the broad foundation of both American prosperity and racial inequality.”

Beckley: In the early 1950s in South Bend, Indiana, 23 families challenged this inequality with bravery and ingenuity.

Most of South Bend’s African American population had arrived during the Great Migration, a period from around 1916 to 1970 when many Black Americans moved from the rural south to northern cities to fill the need for industrial workers during the first and second world wars.

Newsreel: America is many things to many people.

Beckley: Before this time, very few Black families lived in South Bend.

Newsreel: It’s all races, creeds, and religions.

Beckley: Those few families of color who did live in the city lived alongside their white neighbors, without much segregation.

Newsreel: Freedom to own property.

Beckley: As the black population began to rise, though, this changed dramatically.

By the time the families we’ll be following for this episode were living and working in South Bend, Jim Crowism, a term used to describe the racist attitudes, policies and laws from the late 1800s to the 1960s, was a strong force in cities throughout America, including South Bend. In Better Homes of South Bend, author Gabrielle Robinson writes of the Black citizens of her city:

Voice actor reading from Better Homes of South Bend: “They met Jim Crow at every step; whether they were at work… or at home…whether they were shopping and served only after white customers had been helped or could enter city hotels and restaurants only as bellboys and waiters.”

Beckley: Decades of redlining had forced the majority of South Bend’s Black population into rentals in the area surrounding the Studebaker plant, which was also one of the main employers of African Americans in South Bend. In two developments just one block from the immense, smoking factory – Maggie’s Court and Horse’s Alley – 54 families were crowded together in 44 small rental houses.

[Music]

Beckley: Those who didn’t live in that most densely populated areas often rented nearby federal defense homes.

These homes had been built to accommodate the rapidly expanding African American population during World War II and were prefabricated homes supplied, as their name suggests, by the federal government. These were meant to be temporary structures, constructed quickly and to be torn down after the war. That had never happened due to the continued lack of housing for African Americans in South Bend and the refusal of white residents to allow desegregation.

[Music]

Beckley: Even if white residents were willing to sell their homes to a Black family, they would have been hard pressed to find a realtor willing to help navigate the process. Up until 1950, the official code of ethics of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers stated,

Voice actor reading from Code of Ethics: “A realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence would clearly be detrimental to property values in the neighborhood.”

Beckley: After 1950, this portion of the code was amended to remove “race or nationality,” but that didn’t lead to any change in their practices – redlining, racially restrictive covenants, and general racism worked together to keep the Black families of South Bend from owning land in large swaths of the city.

It was in this context that several families gathered after church on Sunday, May 21, 1950 to take matters into their own hands. Their plan was to form a housing cooperative. Through this co-op, which they named Better Homes of South Bend, the families hoped to achieve what few had done before – own their own homes, outside of the industrial slums they had been relegated to for their whole lives. The idea was for them to pool their money and resources to purchase several undeveloped lots. The co-op would obtain a mortgage loan to start the construction and then each individual family would, with the co-ops help, obtain their own mortgage to finish construction.

By and large, the people of Better Homes were just like the vast majority of the Black residents in South Bend. Many had moved to the north seeking employment and better opportunities for their families. Almost all of the men worked at the Studebaker plant in one position or another. And they had all struggled to find adequate housing for their families.

Now, I’m going to get into the actual nuts and bolts of how the Better Homes of South Bend hoped to achieve their goals – bear with me, I promise the payoff is worth it.

[Music]

Beckley: Like any new organization, the members of Better Homes of South Bend started by electing officers, hiring a lawyer, and drawing up incorporation papers. Their lawyer, noted African American civil rights advocate J. Chester Allen, advised the group that forming a corporation gave them the best chance of success. So, that’s what they planned to do. He also estimated that the group would need at least $2,000 for startup money. This money came from the founding families themselves, who would pay an initial amount of $100 to secure their spot and another $300 payment as soon as they were able to. Considering one Studebaker worker reported his income as $72 per week, these sums were nothing to be scoffed at.

After the initial meeting, things moved quickly for a time. Less than a month later, they were able to successfully place an option on 26 undeveloped lots on North Elmer Street. Leroy Cobb, the youngest member of the Better Homes group, recalls the first time he saw the Elmer Street site over 60 years later. He and a friend took a bus to the area and, after getting lost, he finally set eyes on the empty street that would become his neighborhood. Little did he know that acquiring the land would be the easiest part of the process.

Every step after that was slowed by bureaucratic red tape, discriminatory practices, and the normal problems that can creep up when taking on a project of this size.

Since these were totally undeveloped lots, one of the first hurdles was getting the city to install sewage and water lines, a task that took years to complete. The next, more obvious task was to hire a contractor, but the local contracting companies were notorious for using sub-par materials for homes being built for African Americans. When they finally found what they thought was a suitable contractor, he delayed and made excuses and changed prices so often that it was hard to attribute it just to bad business practices. And later, once the families moved in, the discrimination continued. One Better Homes resident recalled that the local little league changed the borders of the district to stop just a few blocks before Elmer Street, apparently to exclude Black children.

However, there were reasons for celebration alongside the frustrations. Milestones that were scattered throughout that same time included divvying up the lots, hiring contractors, and obtaining mortgages. That last one was especially important since local banks were well known for denying black families mortgages, especially in non-black neighborhoods. Leroy Cobb recalled the meeting with the bank executives:

Voice actor: “Here I am, just a bit over twenty years old, sitting in one of those fancy board rooms and facing all these white men in their suits.”

Beckley: DeHart Hubbard was an African American man and the race relations adviser for the Federal Housing Authority. Leroy Cobbs recalled Hubbard helping the group navigate the mortgage process, saying:

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

Beckley: And really, the whole experience must have been inspiring. The process, though long and sometimes demoralizing, was ultimately successful.

[music]

Beckley: All told, 22 homes were built through the Better Homes of South Bend Co-op. The first family was able to move into their home sometime in 1952, but it wasn’t until 1954 that all Better Homes members were listed in their Elmer Street residences in city directories.

[Music. Bird song]

Beckley: Just think about what that meant to those families. They were able to obtain what had seemed unobtainable – a piece of the American dream. The families celebrated their accomplishments with a community picnic in the summer of 1954, and let me tell you, looking at the group photo from that picnic is something special. A group of well dressed, smiling people, kids fidgeting, eyes squinted in the bright light of a beautiful summer afternoon, posing with the roofs of the homes they had worked so long to secure visible in the background. It’s beautiful. And it’s lasting.

That picnic wasn’t the only community celebration in the years to come. Picnics were held every summer. There were neighborhood parades, where a King and Queen were crowned. The children grew up together – they were the only African American students to attend the nearby Marquette Elementary School, just as their families were the only African American families to live in that area of the city. The success of Better Homes went beyond the immediate reality of living in a new neighborhood though.

Home ownership is a foundation of generational wealth and security in America. The Better Homes families built more than just houses in that empty space – they built a community and, even more than that, they built a legacy. When Better Homes of South Bend author Gabrielle Robinson spoke to the children of the members of the organization, she discovered the true importance of the project. Beyond breaking color barriers or defying racism, the members created a safe, happy place for their children to grow up and those children reflected fondly on their childhoods on Elmer Street.

Voice actor: “It was a wonderful neighborhood to grow up in.”

“We had hedges between our homes, and flowers in the yard. On Saturdays you could hear the lawnmowers in the yards.”

“We were proud of where we lived.”

“You couldn’t get away with anything…On Elmer Street, I had many dads.”

Beckley: These children went on to become lawyers, teachers, principals, nurses, and more. At a time when 70-75% of African Americans in the nation graduated high school, 100% of the Better Homes children graduated and 13 went on to graduate from college. And today, some of them can still be found right there on Elmer street, living in the same one story homes with flowers in the yards and hedges on the fence line that their parents built all those years ago.

The Better Homes of South Bend Co-op was a success. It afforded those families the opportunity to live in a nice area. The children of Better Homes members integrated their schools and went on to successful professional careers. And some other families were even able to move into the same area after the Better Homes blazed the path for them. Unfortunately, this success did not spread far from those few blocks on Elmer Street.

Redlining and other exclusionary practices have left a lasting effect on South Bend. Today, 83% of families living in areas that received “D” ratings on the 1937 Security Maps fall in the low to moderate income bracket while 95% of families living in areas that received “A” ratings earn mid to upper incomes. Simply put, neighborhoods that were redlined in 1937 are economically depressed today. The same holds true for the vast majority of cities where Security Maps were developed.

In those instances where a formerly “D” rated area now contains a high number of mid to upper income earners, it is by and large the result of gentrification, which comes with its own set of problems. When an area is gentrified, the people who have lived in the area for generations – often minorities – are forced out by inflated property taxes and higher living costs. This leads to the question posed by National Community Reinvestment Coalition researcher Bruce Mitchell:

Voice actor:  “Is Gentrification promoting sustainable desegregation? Or is it just a movement towards increased segregation in the next census period?”

Beckley: If gentrification is a movement towards increased segregation, it’s likely join the likes of slavery and redlining in history books as the basis for widespread wealth building for white Americans and widespread inequality for Black Americans.

However, redlining is effecting our communities in more direct ways than its relationship with gentrification. In fact, just this year, in June of 2019, First Merchants, an Indiana based bank, settled a redlining lawsuit brought against them by the Department of Justice. Although it settled out of court, the case was strong and made it more evident than ever that redlining is more than just a footnote in history – it’s an ongoing injustice in American cities.

[Theme music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. My main secondary source for the information on Better Homes of South Bend in this episode came from Gabrielle Robinson’s Better Homes of South Bend: An American Story of Courage. If you would like to see all of my sources, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. We’d like to thank Brenna young, Carrie Reiburg, Alleah Varnett of Shortridge High School, Sam Smith of Butler University, and Justin Clark of the Indiana Historical Bureau for lending their voices to the podcast. Find us on twitter and Facebook as the Indiana Historical Bureau. And please, take a moment to like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. As always, thanks for listening.

Redlining Show Notes

Jackson, Kenneth, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Lipsitz, George, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.

Robinson, Gabrielle, Better Homes of South Bend: An American Story of Courage, Charleson: The History Press, 2015.

Tindall, George and David Shi, America: A Narrative History, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Underwriting Manual: Underwriting and Valuation Procedure Under Title II of the National Housing Act, Washington D.C.: Federal Housing Administration, 1936 accessed Hathai Trust: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015018409246&view=1up&seq=5

Newspapers

                “Thousands Ask U.S. Home Loans on First Day,” Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1933, p.9.

Articles

                Mitchell, Bruce and Juan Franco, HOLC “Redlining” Maps: The Persistent Structure of Segregation and Economic Inequality, National Community Reinvestment Coalition, 2018, Accessed: https://ncrc.org/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2018/02/NCRC-Research-HOLC-10.pdf.

Welsh, Nancy, “Racially Restrictive Covenants in the United States: A Call to Action,” Agora Journal of Urban Planning and Design, 2018, Accessed: https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/143831/A_12%20Racially%20Restrictive%20Covenants%20in%20the%20US.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

Websites

                Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America: https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=5/36.721/-96.943&opacity=0.8&text=intro

                Racial Restrictive Covenants: Neighborhood by Neighborhood Restrictions Across King County, “The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project:” https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/covenants.htm

“T-RACES: a Testbed for the Redlining Archives of California’s Exclusionary Spaces”
R. Marciano, D. Goldberg, C. Hou: http://salt.umd.edu/T-RACES/

https://www.educationnext.org/graduations-on-the-rise/

https://www.indiana-demographics.com/south-bend-demographics

Other

The Indiana Historical Bureau. “Better Homes of South Bend” Historical marker file.