Subtle racism hindered social efforts

Fort Wayne visit
Fort Wayne visit
Dr. Martin Luther King is shown in his 1963 visit to Fort Wayne. Greeting him were, from left, City Councilman John Nuckols, Dr. Allen Wilson and the Rev. Clyde Adams. At right is the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, who succeeded Dr. King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Council.

Local blacks struggled with the rest of the nation to overcome discrimination.

By Shannon King of The News-Sentinel

Factories and the allure of earning a solid living drew hundreds of blacks to Fort Wayne during the 1940s and 1950s. Here, there were no signs above water fountains designating "for coloreds only,'' and the threat of being lynched was slim.

But the subtle racism many blacks faced — housing discrimination, poor-quality education and lack of representation on city boards —led to boycotts, marches and turmoil in the 1960s. The decade proved to be a turning point for blacks in Fort Wayne. The struggle eventually led to integrated schools and blacks on the police force and city boards.

"It was a difficult time,'' said the Rev. James Bledsoe, pastor of St. John Missionary Baptist Church. The Mississippi native moved to Fort Wayne in 1946 after serving in the U.S. Army. "But we made the best of a bad situation.

"During that time we had no chance of buying a home in certain areas of the city,'' Bledsoe said.

Morale was low sometimes among blacks, but many looked to religion for hope. As a show of support, Martin Luther King visited the city and spoke to an overflow crowd at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in June 1963.

The biggest struggle for blacks was integrating the schools.

In the mid-1960s residents marched to push for improvements in central-city schools and the redrawing of boundaries for Central High School. There also were marches demanding a black representative on the school board.

"I remember that march,'' said Mary C. Ray, a retired teacher from Fort Wayne Community Schools. "There was a certain amount of danger for us. As we were marching past Barr Street, there was someone dropping big bags of ice from the building, and it almost hit my twins. "I remember telling my husband that this would be the last day I would march. Fortunately, it was the last day we had to do it because (school officials) agreed to place a black on the board.''

The struggle for more equality reached a fever pitch in September 1969 when a boycott of the four central-city schools – Hanna, Hamar, McCulloch and Smart – began.

Classrooms had as few as one student because parents took their children out to attend "Freedom Schools'' in six black churches. More than 1,300 students were registered.

The boycott, which lasted nearly 10 days, ended after the state school superintendent negotiated a solution. School officials agreed to establish an integration policy and to stop construction and modernization of central-city schools until a plan was adopted to integrate them.

The decade's turmoil paid off for future city residents, Ray said. "We cannot say that we are not better off,'' she said.

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