East Central neighborhood was center of black life

By Connie Haas Zuber of The News-Sentinel

During the postwar years, increasing numbers of Southern black farmers sought better livelihoods and social conditions in Northern industrial cities, and many moved to Fort Wayne.

Most of the new migrants were poor, but even African Americans who were financially solvent found it next to impossible to get a loan to buy or fix up a house in Fort Wayne.

During that period, Fort Wayne's East Central neighborhood became home to nearly half the black population. But less than a score of new homes had been built and more would not be built until years later.

"In 1949, there were 959 homes for 6,277 blacks in Fort Wayne," IPFW sociologists Peter Iadicola and Patrick Ashton wrote in their 1982 study, "The East Central Neighborhood, A Celebration of Community."

Sheds, garages and structures that might otherwise have been torn down were forced into service as homes, often lacking running water, bathrooms and floors.

"Ultimately, the answer must come in the form of low-cost housing projects," The Journal-Gazette said on Jan. 8, 1950.

But Fort Wayne officials were reluctant to undertake public housing projects, and state and federal laws were changing. Housing for blacks continued to deteriorate.

By 1958, the city Plan Commission concluded that downtown was dying economically and that substantial numbers of central-city residences were dilapidated. That same year, Ernest E. Williams, later editor of The News-Sentinel, documented slum conditions in a widely read series, "What's Wrong, Right With Fort Wayne," the Iadicola and Ashton study states.

In 1959, the City Redevelopment Commission was finally formed, but its first projects, taking it well into the next decade, were the City-County Building and Three Rivers Apartments, neither of which made improvements in housing for blacks.

By the end of the decade, blacks comprised half the population of East Central, and 45 percent of the city's black population lived there, with most of the other black residents clustered in areas around the East Central neighborhood.

By 1960, blacks in Fort Wayne had 50 percent fewer rooms per person than whites, the study states. Eighty-eight percent of white people lived in sound housing, but only 52 percent of blacks. More than 33 percent of blacks lived in deteriorating housing, compared with 10 percent of whites. And 15 percent of blacks lived in dilapidated housing, compared with less than 2 percent of whites.

As the East Central area's black population grew, businesses in the area closed.

The number of general merchandise stores in the neighborhood hit its 20th-century high in 1950 with 93 establishments. By 1960, 87 remained. Half the neighborhood grocery stores closed between 1940 and 1960. The number of medical doctors in the neighborhood peaked in 1940 at 17 and had dropped to 12 by 1950 and 10 by 1960.

In the 1950s, black residents were adapting to social changes, too. The Phyllis Wheatley Social Center, which had been the hub of black community social life since it was founded in East Central in 1920, shifted emphasis from social and recreational programs to economic and political issues. It became the Fort Wayne Urban League by the end of the 1940s.

The Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department's new McCulloch Center, built in response to a study that found the East Central neighborhood "highly susceptible to delinquency," had opened in 1949, with former Wheatley Center recreation director Al Jennings as its director. Jennings added the Wheatley-style social programs to the recreational offerings the park board wanted the new center to have.

But longtime neighborhood residents and staff people told the interviewers doing research for Iadicola and Ashton's study that the new center never played the central role the Wheatley Center had played.

Nationally, schools began changing after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., case. Schools were to be desegregated because, the court ruled, separate facilities were not equal.

Desegregation did not come to Fort Wayne schools in the '50s, though. It would be decades later before the city's elementary, middle and high schools were desegregated.

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