Learning Civil Rights in my Segregated Upbringing in Elwood, Indiana

 


Photo by Joshua J. Cotten | Unsplash

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten | Unsplash

On Monday, June 15th, Michael Smerconish discussed on his radio show a study that suggested that white boys who grew up in diverse neighborhoods are more likely to become Democrats. The findings, described in the Los Angeles Times, “suggest that young boys exposed to people of different backgrounds may grow up to be more liberal-minded adults.” The vibrant discussion on diversity and integration made me reflect on my own upbringing in Elwood, Indiana in the 1950s and 60s. It was essentially a segregated town.

Back then in Elwood, World War II was over, the Baby Boom was in its infancy, and life was back to “normal.”  The world followed an established, predictable order, and life seemed fair.  We learned that America was the land of opportunity, and you could be anything you wanted to be.

Yet during this era, the modern Civil Rights movement had begun.  In 1955 Rosa Parks made her famous bus ride in Alabama, North Carolina had sit-ins in Woolworths in 1960, and Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated his dream in 1963 in Washington D.C.

In my hometown, Elwood, Indiana, we heard and read about these things.  Perhaps we saw them on the six o’clock news if we watched with our parents, but these things happened in faraway cities. There were cities in the South – the old Confederacy.  None of this happened in our town.

There were no civil rights protests in Elwood.  There were no racial conflicts because there were no black people.  Negroes, as they were politely known then, were not allowed in our town. Elwood was what is known as a “sundown town.”  Blacks were not allowed there after sundown, and for practical matters, practically not at all.

Later I learned that this edict may even have been posted on signs at the city limits.  I never saw anything like that nor any written reference to it.  Somewhere in my high school years, 1964 to 1968 I heard about this ordinance.  I was surprised, even shocked to hear such a thing.  It just wasn’t talked about.

You might assume, particularly if you did not grow up in such an environment, that children in this situation would learn to be bigots.  That they would have been taught that associating with black people was wrong and that it was okay to forbid certain folks to be in your city. 

Actually, my experience was quite the opposite, and I suspect my experience was similar to many of my peers.

What We Learned in School

Since there were no black people in our community, all we knew was what we learned in school.  In school, we learned that Lincoln had freed the slaves, that the scientific work of George Washington Carver was a good thing.  Black people were just like white people once they were freed.

I learned that “all men were created equal.” I don’t recall much more about African Americans in US History class.  I do remember learning of segregation, even separate drinking fountains.  But these things only happened in the South, the natural home of racists being the underlying assumption.

While I don’t remember textbooks addressing segregation, I do remember it being a topic of conversation in classrooms.  At some point, I came to learn that the Ku Klux Klan once had a strong presence in Indiana.  As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the country, race relations were a natural topic of discussion in history, social studies, and civics classes. 

Before my senior year in high school, the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia eliminated laws banning interracial marriage.  That year I took a class on civics and government, and I recall the teacher saying “interracial marriage was the ultimate solution to racism.”

This was a statement that really stuck with me.  I took his statement as a litmus test for the quality of relations between the races.  When interracial marriage was so accepted, so normal, that folks didn’t notice it, we would have arrived at the right place.  In any case, here was a teacher, an authority figure, reinforcing the message that blacks and whites were equal – or at least they should be.

First-Hand Experience – or Lack Thereof

At that point, I still did not know any black people.  In fact, I never even saw a black person.  I was taught that they were the same as us, but just happened to have dark-colored skin.  I assumed, and there was no reason to think otherwise, that their families were able to live in a house like ours – with the same Chevy station wagon and same stores.  Some of my white friends had darker complexions than others. This was no reason to see them as unequal.

But later my veil of idealism was lifted when I witnessed what other whites used to put down African Americans. They leverage differences to create hatred and distrust that these were different, lesser people. I never witnessed the behaviors that taught racism from the cradle; however, I’m sure there were many folks in my community that harbored these feelings.

For me, and I expect for other kids like me, the fact that racism was pervasive in other places gave even more legitimacy to the protests that we heard about in other parts of the country. We knew there were other towns with Black populations that white families cautioned their children not to go there.  We knew there were towns where kids were raised to see blacks as different and inferior. In their experience, African Americans were not just like us.  It was a given that they occupied a lower stratum of society. To them, segregation was not only normal but necessary.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that there were no bigoted, racist folks in Elwood.  In retrospect, there must have been and they must have had pretty strong influence.  Elwood continued to be a “don’t go there” city for blacks throughout the 20th century. I just never heard them express their opinion. In hindsight, maybe I was blissfully unaware.

Parental Influence

I do not recall my parents expressing any negative or discriminatory attitude toward Blacks. On the other hand, I don’t remember them ever sitting us children down and praising the efforts of civil rights leaders.  Perhaps it was another case of no need to discuss it as it was not an issue in our community.  It does seem odd however as politics was a popular topic around the Crimans house.

Their perspective is all the more interesting because unlike me and my siblings, they were raised in a segregated city with segregated schools.  They both grew up in Indianapolis and attended Shortridge High School.  Crispus Attucks High School was built when they were children just so Indianapolis blacks would not mingle with white students – separate but equal.

This upbringing was surely not universal for all of my peers. No doubt, many had parents who expressed biases to their children. Some of their parents worked in nearby cities like Anderson, Marion, and Kokomo where there were African Americans. 

My father would be well described as someone who held very traditional values.  The idea of demonstrations and civil disobedience would have been naturally distasteful to him.  Many white Americans thought racism was wrong but didn’t see that it had anything to do with them.  Perhaps he was influenced by the role Senator Everett Dirksen, a conservative Republican like Dad, played in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  I never remember discussing it with him, but likewise, I never got a hint that he thought desegregation was bad.

I do recall us sitting around our small TV watching the Nat King Cole Show.  If you thought you needed to lobby Dad to be sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement, you could scarcely have found a better approach.  A musically talented black man with a rich baritone voice singing the Great American Songbook. Dad was a sucker for a great Cole Porter tune!

Mother may have been even a more sympathetic supporter of desegregation.  I learned later in life, that she did a college thesis on a racially integrated church in Indianapolis.

My hope in writing this is to give the reader a sense of how my attitudes about race were impacted in surprising and unexpected ways. Naturally, my awareness of issues of race increased with age. By the time I graduated high school, I realized that racism existed as much in my part of the country as any other. But my attitude that racism was repugnant and evil was firmly etched in my mind.


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