Gary, Indiana, my home town, has been immortalized in song in the movie “The Music Man.” Over the last few decades it has also been publicized in newspapers and television news as the murder capital of America and a completely unsavory place to live. Founded in 1906 on the southern shores of lake Michigan, Gary began its life as a steel mill town. It was once dubbed the “city of the century.” In many ways it reflects the problems the United States faced during the 20th century.
Gary was a one-factory town whose life blood depended upon the steel mills. As long as the steel mills were doing fine, the city prospered. When the mills faltered, Gary’s economy became anemic. Historians Raymond A. Mohl and Neil Betten believed that Gary never enjoyed successful city planning from its inception. They claimed U.S. Steel was more concerned about steel production and profits than they were about the welfare of the community.
From the very beginning, Black people were a part of the demographics of Gary. More than 200 Black construction workers helped lay the site for the city and the steel mill plant complex. By 1910, there were 400 Black citizens. By 1920, Blacks represented 10% of the city’s population. Unfortunately, also from the beginning, Blacks suffered from racial bigotry. Public parks were forbidden to them. Most theaters were off limits to Black patrons. Blacks were contained in designated neighborhoods,. The idea of integration in schools was out of the question.
Gary Superintendent of Schools, William Wirt, the same Wirt that was considered in the early 1900’s as a progressive school administrator, stated that “it is only in justice to the negro children that they be segregated.” ( Yes, it was an “in-justice.”) There were two serious student boycotts in Gary at Emerson School and Froebel school. Both boycotts were brought about because of integration with black students.
In 1927, a boycott at Emerson lasted for five days and ended with the compromise to build an all black high school. Emerson School is the school from which Oscar winner Karl Malden graduated. The school that hate and fear built in 1928 was Roosevelt High School, my alma mater.
The Froebel school boycott lasted much longer and included several hundred white students. It began September 18, 1945. It’s notoriety even prompted the appearance of Frank Sinatra at Memorial Auditorium on November 1, 1945. He turned down a $10,000 engagement to come to Gary and urge students to return to class. Sinatra told the audience that the strike was “the most shameful incident in the history of education.” Although his personal appearance did not influence the striking students, it did bring much unwanted national attention to Gary. Even Carl Sandburg and the novelist Edna Ferber came to Gary to see firsthand what all the fuss was about. The strike finally ended on November 12th. One result of the strike was that 116 Black students were allowed to attend five previously all White schools.
Even though most of the black schools in Gary lacked needed supplies, the dedication of the teachers more than made up for the deficit. The school system produced many celebrities including the Jackson 5, Avery Brooks, William Marshall, Ernest Thomas and Fred Williamson. The music department at Roosevelt high school won many regional and state awards under the direction of A.K. Williams. The basketball and track team was the one to beat in the regional contests. Many believe that only prejudice and cheating kept the teams from taking state championships.
Gary was prosperous the first sixty years of its existence. In terms of race, it was a segregated city. In 1967 that changed. Gary elected Richard Hatcher mayor, one of the first Black mayors of a large city. White flight was the reaction. Many fleeing citizens claimed they were afraid of gang violence and the tie between gangs and Hatcher. Some admitted they did not want to be governed by a Black man.
When the White people fled, they took their money and their resources. At first it wasn’t a problem for Gary because it received lots of federal money. Gary was a “model city,” a symbol of liberal democrats’ largesse. This was the era of “black power.” A Black economic summit was held in Gary in 1972 and attended by people from all over the country. I was fortunate to also attend. Most delegates were impressed by the empowerment of Gary’s Black residents. Celebrities and national politicians were always stopping by to visit Hatcher. It was an exciting time for Gary.
In the mid seventies, the oil crisis hit and the steel mill laid off thousands of workers. The money from the government dried up. Celebrities shunned the city. Gary then became another symbol--one of urban blight, decay and mismanaged government. The main topic of discussion in the city was about how to fix Gary. The city became a bad joke in the media.
By 1990, Gary was 85% Black. The steel mills were still operating but the employees were mostly from neighboring cities and predominantly White. As economic opportunities dwindled, violent crimes rose in response. Houses that couldn’t be sold were abandoned. Drug addiction and teen pregnancies became status quo.
For me, Gary can best be described by a statement my grandmother Posie always said--”It’s holiness or hell.” On one hand, the city is littered with run down, vacant houses and on the other hand it boast beautiful beaches on Lake Michigan. On every other street corner there was either a liquor store or a church. The drug dealers stand on the corners now while even more churches try to claim sinners’ souls. The few bookstores in town are either religious or pornographic. That’s Gary now.