After a handful of black students were assigned to attend a previously all-white school, about 80 percent of white students boycotted classes for 10 days. “White students and other demonstrators gathered every day to jeer and threaten black students.”
Little Rock Central High School in 1957? New Orleans Frantz Elementary School in 1960? Somewhere else in the South? No, the setting was Emerson High School in Gary, Indiana, and the year was 1947.
The description is from Emma Lou Thornbrough’s book “Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century,” which devotes an entire chapter to the rocky history of school desegregation in the state. Gary school officials had decided to desegregate after racial tensions, including a strike in which white students demanded the removal of black students who attended separate classes at Froebel High School.
Schools in several of Indiana’s largest cities were formally segregated in the 1920s, the heyday of the Klan in the state. While Gary decided on its own to integrate, Indianapolis and Evansville continued to have racially segregated schools despite decades of objections from civil-rights advocates. Other cities, including Bloomington, had segregated elementary schools and integrated high schools.
In 1949, Democrats took control of the governor’s office and the House, and the state legislature passed a law prohibiting racially segregated schools. But school districts were given several years to comply; and in many communities, housing patterns meant most whites and blacks attended different schools.
In Indianapolis, the school board continued to build schools in locations that virtually assured they would be nearly all-black or all-white. Crispus Attucks was identified as the black high school until intra-district busing for desegregation began in the 1970s. African-Americans were proud of Attucks but objected to segregation, periodic overcrowding and a lack of vocational and technical education.
In Gary in the early 1960s, Thornbrough writes, about half of the elementary schools were nearly all black and about half were nearly all white. The Gary branch of the NAACP sued, but courts ruled the school board had not deliberately segregated the schools.
In Indianapolis, the U.S. Justice Department sued in 1968 over school segregation, a case that dragged on for 13 years and became entangled with the Unigov decision that consolidated Indianapolis and Marion County governments but left 11 city school districts. You can read that history from Chalkbeat Indiana, including a story on the lawsuit and another on busing in the city.
Eventually white resistance to integration gave way to white flight, not only from the cities but from the Indianapolis township school districts that had played a role in desegregation. Today non-Hispanic whites are only about one-third of students in the 11 Indianapolis public school districts. In the six “doughnut counties” around the city, over 80 percent of students are non-Hispanic whites.