Friday, January 26, 2007
Civil Rights Struggle in South Bend
(Audio) When my wife and I bought our house in South Bend, the previous owners passed along a blue binder of brittle paper. This inch-thick document was the title abstract. Once in awhile I wander through the pages and catch a glimpse of our area’s past. On January 4th, 1840, the co-founder of South Bend, Alexis Coquillard, paid $635.95 at auction for a large property east of the St. Joseph River. Later this farm was owned by John Studebaker and then by his heirs. In 1926, a company called Whitcomb & Keller bought the property, subdivided it, and started building houses. They called their little paradise Sunnymede.
Whitcomb & Keller carefully established the legal restrictions that would make this new neighborhood desirable. No cheap houses could be built – nothing that would sell for less than $4500. There would be side yards – houses could not run up against a neighbor’s property. No farm animals could be kept. None of the properties could be sold or leased to anyone who wasn’t white. The only non-Caucasians legally allowed to live in these houses were the domestic servants.
During those years, this was typical segregation in Midwestern life. By the time my parents married, in the 1950’s, protests and court cases had started to disrupt matter-of-fact racism and segregation, but there was a long road ahead. When I began watching the evening news, in the 1960’s, cities like South Bend were struggling with a cluster of issues that had been hushed up by the practices of segregation. For many who had conveniently looked the other way their whole lives, the civil rights movement came as a shock and an outrage. For those who had endured their whole lives, it came at long last. For those who worked to change America, the civil rights movement came meeting by difficult meeting, vote by hard-fought vote, setback by setback, town by town, and year by year, all across the country. It’s one of our most powerful stories.
The Northern Indiana Center for History, the Civil Rights Heritage Center and the South Bend Tribune have created a new exhibit that looks at the civil rights battles of the 1960’s. Using articles, editorials, letters to the editor, special reports, interviews, news photographs, and even poetry, the exhibit shows one community coming to terms with racial inequality. In dozens of clippings, a visitor can find area journalists at first unimpressed, then committed to getting the conscience-stirring story right.
You can see community leaders, some who are among our elders today, carefully and passionately naming the exact injustices they faced. On a few hot summer nights young people of both races went spinning through the streets in rumor-driven riots. National leader Martin Luther King visited and stirred huge audiences, and huge audiences stirred again in demonstrations at his death. Local people asked the public schools to teach integration and equality by living up to them. Business leaders were challenged to remake their hiring practices from the ground up. The exhibit, now open at the Center for History, shows the civil rights movement reverberating through people’s lives, and it reminds a visitor of today’s poverty and social divisions and work that has been left unfinished.
One of my favorite stories in the exhibit has to do with segregated housing and the taken-for-granted discrimination that is written into the title of my own South Bend property. In 1966 white real estate agents weren’t accustomed to showing new homes to black couples. To build a new tradition of equality, eight white couples and eight black couples arranged to go to open houses together. Their brave visits were announced in advance and arranged so as to awaken everyday hospitality and disarm prejudice. They aimed to reinvent the customs of our region, one industry, one neighborhood, and one heart at a time.
Note: The point about awakening hospitality so as to disarm prejudice comes from Monica Tetzlaff, chair of the department of history at IU South Bend and director of the Civil Rights Heritage Center. She was kind enough to visit the exhibit with me and share her understanding of a number of the clippings, and my essay was enriched by her generosty and insight.