“I’m not from Miller. I’m not from Chicago. I’m from Gary.”
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Transcript for No Intention of Leaving
I would always be careful. I’m not from Miller; I’m not from Chicago. A lot of friends would say all that. It’s close enough, right? It gives you an idea. No. “I’m from Gary.” “Gary, Indiana?” “Yeah, Gary, Indiana.”
So Miller was an established community, wealthier, you know more of the executives from the mills, and a lot of people have been there for a long time, so it was just a little more you know, it was the nice, it was a nice area. Aetna’s a kind of the other side of the tracks here on the east side of Gary: there’s Miller, Aetna, and Ryan, and so that’s where we grew up at in Aetna.
Well, so it was more of a blue-collar neighborhood. Aetna kind of sprung up out of nowhere in the fifties as a result of an expansion at the US Steel. There were parts of Aetna had been around for a long time. In fact, there’s an ammunition plant that dates to the 19th century in Aetna, but there were only a few older homes, literally a handful, maybe less than ten, a couple of them are pretty nice, a couple of them still stand. In the fifties, with the great expansion in the employment at the mills, there were a lot of new people that came in, and Otto Fiefield was a real estate developer. He built just about every house in Aetna. Amongst the different houses in Aetna, we were one of the fortunate ones that had a basement, you know, on our block, there were basements in all the houses, but most of the houses in Aetna if you drive through there, were little tiny houses built on slabs. By today’s standards, our house was tiny, too, but not compared to the others.
You know, as a child, it was a pretty white neighborhood. I don’t recall, and I’m trying to remember Mrs. Cotton. She was my first grade teacher at Aetna and she was black, and I bet, I’m sure that’s the first black person I ever knew or met. She didn’t make it through the year, and I don’t know if it was because she left because she was uncomfortable, or if she was actually asked, you know, let go. It infuriated my mother because Mrs. Cotton, first of all, there’s no reason that she shouldn’t have continued to be my teacher—that was bad enough—but every time she’d see me write, she would remember that that was the only person that ever was trying to teach me proper penmanship, and as a left-hander, I was beginning to learn how to not drag my hand across the page, and when Mrs. Cotton left, all that went by the wayside, and I never did learn how to write properly after that.
During the time that we were there is when the white flight began in Gary. So I was born in ‘59. Richard Hatcher became the mayor in 1968. And what we know today of course is that began a process of what’s called the white flight, the great white flight, from Gary. So I remember my dad telling stories about that and, you know, not fond ones. We stayed, the family wasn’t, had no intention of leaving. There was by the, by the eighties, there was a lot of crime in our neighborhood—we’re out of school and out of college—and there was a number of break-ins at their house, and we really thought it was unsafe, and we persuaded my mom and dad to move to Miller, move somewhere, and Miller was as far as we could get them to go. So they stayed in Gary, and it was unfortunate because they made their last payment on a 30-year mortgage one month, and then had the brand new mortgage the next month, so that killed my mother.
I fought hard to avoid becoming a cynic because as I got older—so I had the, you know, the thought: “Racism and bigotry can only hold us back so long.” I thought, “Well, it does take time, you know? A generation needs to pass. Twenty years maybe, or whatever it’s gonna take, you know? We got to get through, all the folks that, you know, grew up, you know, with their biases and their bigotries, and then things will be different.” And maybe they are—certainly they are in a lot of ways, but unfortunately, not in a way that has created a profound change in the city. Here we sit, forty years later, and honestly, it seems like we’ve taken more steps backwards than we have forward on balance in that forty years.