How We Ended Up Coming to Gary

“It was the dirtiest place in the mill. But I guess they made a decent salary. So he encouraged my father to leave Florida and move to Gary.”

Transcript for In My Own Skin

We grew up in the neighborhood that was near Pulaski School. My grandfather lived in the neighborhood. He didn’t live on our block, but he lived a couple blocks over and he had come to Gary, gotten a job at the steel mill, was very active in the union, in the United Steelworkers Union, was a griever for the coke plant, because at that time, most African Americans who worked for U.S. Steel worked in the coke plant because it was the dirtiest place in the mill. But I guess they made what was a decent salary at that time. So he encouraged my father to leave Florida and move to Gary. All of my folks—my father and my mother’s side, they were all from Florida. Gainesville, Alachua, Florida. And so that’s how we ended up coming to Gary.

My mother did day work, and I don’t know if you know what day work is? But that is when they went to white people’s houses and cleaned them up. My mother used to catch the bus and do that. We called it East Gary at the time before they changed their name—they didn’t want to be associated with Gary—and they changed it to Lake Station, but she worked in East Gary. She also worked doing day work at some houses here in Gary. On 5th Avenue, there were a lot of doctors who worked at the hospital who lived on 5th Avenue in those tall apartment buildings that you see now. They lived there, and my mother worked in some of those and so, that’s what she did. And my dad worked at U.S. Steel. I know whatever he did, wherever it was, it was hot. I remember him saying that. He would come home and say it was so hot, you know? And at one point, they were laid off for some reason and he worked at a cleaner’s. And then, after he went back to U.S. Steel, he did that part-time; he worked at a cleaner’s. He was, as he would say, “a presser.” He would press clothes.

So as I said, I know my grandfather worked at the coke plant. And he did a lot to help as many African Americans as he could. Well, he helped them get employment and helped them to not be mistreated. He was very involved. And he would take me—at one point, down on 5th Avenue, they had, they called it the Philip Murray Building. And the lady who worked in the office was black, she was African American: Jeanette Strong. And he and some other white guys who were in the union were instrumental in getting her a job there, a clerical position there.

I was probably too young to remember, you know, when he became involved in the union. I just know that he was, and I know that even after he left the area, some guys who worked at the coke plant had said to me, “I remember your grandfather. He was really active. He did a lot of things to help us.” As a matter of fact, Curtis Strong was the person who took his position after he left, retired and moved back to Florida. And he said that a lot of the accomplishments those guys in the coke plant achieved because of my grandfather. So I felt real good about that. Yes, I did. I still do.

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