Celebrating Black History

Blanks family was 'invisible' in turn-of-century Fort Wayne

Despite prejudice in community, Nathaniel Blanks and his family found a home in the Summit City

Nathaniel Blanks came to Fort Wayne about 100 years ago looking for work and a better life for himself and his family.

He found it. But along with the good times came some bad.

Fort Wayne restaurants and soda fountains wouldn't serve Blanks and other African Americans. He and other people of African heritage had to be out of downtown Fort Wayne by sundown.

"They were treated as invisible people," says Miles Edwards, 46, of Fort Wayne, who is one of Blanks' great-grandchildren.

Nathaniel Blanks arrived in Fort Wayne around 1900 from Lauderdale County in Mississippi. He joined the wave of African Americans who left southern U.S. states in the late 1800s to look for better jobs at factories and businesses in northern cities.

Many of the 250 or so African Americans already living here worked as maids, waiters and cooks. Some worked at better-paying jobs at factories or for a railroad.

A few African Americans operated their own businesses. Barbers cut hair in their own shops. One woman ran a boardinghouse, where she rented rooms to people who needed a place to stay.

One of Nathaniel Blanks' first jobs was working at a local foundry, a factory that makes things out of metal. A few years later, he and his wife, Cornelia, bought a home with 4 acres of land just outside Fort Wayne.

Today, that land is well-inside the city limits near South Side High School. It is bordered by Dalman Avenue, Warsaw Street, Weisser Park and Ward Elementary School.

Some of Blanks' brothers also moved to Fort Wayne and settled in houses next to his on Dalman Avenue and on Agnes Street, the next street down from Dalman. Nathaniel Blanks' great-grandson, Miles Edwards, remembers it being like their own little community.

They all planted gardens in the open area of land between Dalman and Agnes. Each family also picked fruit from their own trees. Edwards' family had plum, peach, apple and cherry trees. The families also raised chickens in their back yards so they could collect eggs for eating and baking and have chickens for cooking.

"We never had a lot of material things, but we never went hungry," says Edwards, who still lives on the same block along with some of his relatives. But like most African-American families in Fort Wayne, the Blankses had to live a separate life from white families.

African Americans could work and shop downtown. But they couldn't eat at white-owned restaurants or soda fountains. They had to sit in the balcony at movie theaters. And they had to go home by sundown.

It was all because of racial prejudice -- one group of people thinking they are better than another group of people.

Prejudice caused other hardships, too. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, for example, African-American children could swim at the city pool that used to be in Lawton Park. But they had to go in the morning and leave by noon.

Girls in the Blanks family went to South Side High School because it was only a few blocks away. But older boys would walk several extra blocks to Central High School downtown because South Side wouldn't let African-American boys play on sports teams.

One of those boys, James Blanks, helped Central High School win the 1943 boys state basketball championship. In 1974, James Blanks also won election as the first African American to serve on the Allen County Council. The council decides how county government spends its money.

People's thoughts about racial prejudice began changing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Restaurants in Fort Wayne, for example, began serving African Americans. But sometimes that didn't happen until African-American ministers and businessmen sat down in restaurants and stayed until they received service.

On the national level, work by the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders led the U.S. Congress to pass laws, beginning in the middle 1960s, to make sure all people receive fair and equal treatment.

Those changes helped people like Miles Edwards, who was one of the first Blanks family boys to go to South Side High School.

The changes continue to make a difference, both to people living on the same block that Nathaniel Blanks settled on about 100 years ago, and others living all over Fort Wayne.
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