Hoosiers resisted school desegregation

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.

1949 school desegregation bill.

1949 Indiana school desegregation bill. (Indiana Historical Society).

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.

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1920s decisions shaped racial landscape

You can look back nearly 100 years and watch as America took a serious wrong turn on race. Indiana, too.

Lynchings were widespread in the years right after World War I. Jim Crow laws solidified, and not just in the South. White mobs killed hundreds of African-Americans, including women and children, in East St. Louis, Illinois, Rosewood, Florida, Elaine, Arkansas, and Tulsa’s Greenwood district.

Indiana didn’t record incidents as horrific as those, but, as Emma Lou Thornbrough describes in the 2001 book “Indiana Blacks in the 20th Century,” the 1920s saw a rise in racial bias and racist policymaking that helps explain why Hoosier schools and communities are so divided by race today.

Book cover“The most conspicuous and lasting evidence of the rising tide of racial prejudice,” Thornbrough writes, “was the effort to segregate housing, by preventing blacks from moving into neighborhoods that white homeowners declared belonged exclusively to them, and to segregate all white and black pupils in separate schools.”

This was the era when the Ku Klux Klan wielded more power in Indiana than in any other state. It gained control of the Republican Party and elected candidates for governor, state legislature, city councils and school boards. It was estimated that 25 percent of native-born white men were members.

But the Indiana Klan of the 1920s was focused less on blacks than on immigrants, Catholics and booze, as historian Jim Madison has explained.The segregation of Indiana schools and neighborhoods was driven by white civic leaders, chambers of commerce and real estate organizations as well as by racist groups called the White Supremacy League and the White People’s Protective League.

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