Iron Curtain

“You know, growing up, race was never discussed… There were no signs: ‘Whites only,’ ‘Blacks only.'”

This story is part of our Flight Paths initiative. To find more stories from Flight Paths, click here. It was produced by Rebecca Werner for the Welcome Project.

Transcript for Iron Curtain

In my neighborhood, in Glen Park, nobody had any money. There really were no professionals. This wasn’t doctor, lawyer, that kind of a neighborhood. These guys were steelworkers and et cetera. A typical day for me was a lot of chaos. This was a two bedroom house one bathroom, so you can picture five kids and two adults. You can imagine we didn’t live very well. It was loud, it was dirty, it was messy. You know, I had just about the greatest friend that a guy could have. This guy knew how I lived. He could never come over to my house, it was just, I would be too embarrassed to have anybody in my house. As much as I could get away from my house, I did. Didn’t mean I didn’t love my brothers, and sisters, and my parents; just couldn’t stand the dirt and the noise.

You know, growing up, race was never discussed around me. Nobody on the block would ever talk about this. That’s what’s so strange about Gary. There were no signs: ‘Whites only,’ ‘Blacks only.’ But it was like there was an iron curtain there that you just didn’t penetrate.

But in 1968, a Valpo Law graduate named Richard Hatcher, a black man, got elected mayor of Gary. And I’ll tell you exactly what happened, because it happened on my block, and it happened on every block in Glen Park. Almost immediately after this guy got elected: ‘For Sale’ signs up. There was this huge flood of people that left to flee to Portage, Valparaiso, Merrillville. People were concerned property values would go down. And there was a great fear that pent-up resentment from black people was going to spill forth in terms of violence against whites. What was a hundred percent white area—I would say it was seventy-five percent black. My street turned into a—just a ghetto. I went down there a couple years ago. It really—it’s scary. Any house that isn’t boarded up are just a mess. They need paint, there’s debris in the yard, you might see a car in a front yard, all rusted-out. Truthfully, I wouldn’t get out of my car in my block now. It just looks rough, like something could happen.

But in 1968, we moved to Miller Beach. Lily-white Miller Beach. My street now, where I used to live there in Miller, it’s ninety percent black. However, that house in Miller Beach looks better now than when we lived in it, so it isn’t necessarily true that if black people move in, they will destroy. Didn’t happen in our Miller neighborhood. Why it happened in Glen Park, I don’t know.

I’m guilty of not taking a very active role in change, but listen to the way this situation was handled in Gary, Northwest Indiana. Everything would’ve been fine in Gary if people would’ve just calmed down. It just—he got elected, and it was like, “Uh-uh. We don’t want to talk. We just want to run.” As you get older, then you have the luxury to go back and reflect on, “Why didn’t I get active in civil rights in Gary, Indiana?” I mean, I didn’t even think or care about the Vietnam War; I didn’t care about black people. I didn’t—I didn’t care about anybody except my own survival because that’s the way I had to think about it. And so, you know, have regrets about that because you have very strong feelings about these things now, but when you’re going through things the way I went through them, you just have to bury it. You have to keep on going.

Hold a Conversation

Can you imagine leading a conversation about this story? Where? With whom? What kinds of questions would you pose? (See How to use the questions for reflection for one approach.) Please email your questions to us or post them in the comment box for our consideration. If you use them in an actual discussion, let us know how the conversation went.