In a pivotal year at a pivotal time in history, Martin Luther King Jr. approached the podium at the Scottish Rite auditorium 50 years ago this week, greeted by a sea of black and white faces.
Two months after he was jailed in Birmingham during protests to end segregation and two months before the March on Washington, where he would give his now-historic I Have a Dream speech, King faced an overflow crowd. Hundreds were turned away at the door as a small contingent of protesters stood across the street holding signs.
Introduced as a glorious disturber of people and the peace, King would deliver a rousing speech and move on to immortality.
Fort Wayne and scores of cities that King sought to disturb would face a growing civil rights movement among blacks wanting to raise themselves from the second-class status given them.
Not known as a hotbed of civil unrest, Fort Wayne in 1963 had grown nonetheless from a century of racism. Since arriving in numbers, blacks experienced continual high unemployment, with businesses late in hiring them and outright discrimination among many.
Blacks were unable to get home loans, and real estate agents directed them to certain neighborhoods.
And the black community was largely silent.
While occasional dissent was heard, the black population was small, with many believing they were better off than other blacks elsewhere in the country. And many black leaders, heavily dependent on white money to fund black programs, were reluctant to rock the boat.
British history professor Iwan Morgan, who taught and did research at IPFW in 1979-80 as part of a teacher exchange program, was struck by what he learned.
Fort Wayne avoided the extremes of Southern Jim Crow and of Northern ghettoization. Morgan stated in a recent email. But racial discrimination and racial control were fully woven into the fabric of its life, and the relatively small black community lacked the economic and political resources to challenge these.
King’s appearance on Wednesday, June 5, 1963, gave voice to that plight and reminded Northern cities such as Fort Wayne that they were not absolved from a history of segregation. For Fort Wayne blacks it was a struggle a century in the making.
Blacks, some of them servants, were reported to have visited the city in colonial times but their numbers remained small by 1850, when only 81 were counted by the census as residents.
As it had in so many Northern industrial cities, work would bring large numbers of blacks to Fort Wayne. And it was well into the 20th century that job demands prompted increased hiring.
Labor shortages and strikes pressed companies to recruit blacks from the South in 1917 and 1918. That helped the number of blacks in the city more than double to 1,454 between 1910 and 1920.
But many lost jobs as strikes ended in the early ’20s and either left the city or settled for service jobs, unskilled labor or other work unpopular with whites.
The black men were carpenters, they were construction workers, chauffeurs or they hauled trash, said Hana Stith, co-founder of the city’s African/African-American Historical Society Museum. Her uncle, a carpenter, was recruited in 1915 by what became Joslyn Steel.
Dead-end jobs would hamper the city’s blacks for years to come. Good-paying factory work was largely out of reach by design.
In the 1920s, local business leaders enticed other industry by promoting the city’s pool of German, Irish and British workers as more reliable than the labor force of larger cities made up of other European immigrants and blacks. It worked.
Among 15 businesses that located in Fort Wayne between 1925 and 1932, only International Harvester Corp. hired a small number of blacks.
As the Great Depression took hold in the 1930s, and with most local manufacturers unwilling to hire them, many Fort Wayne blacks found construction work through the federal Works Progress Administration.
Black women, shut out of clerical, telephone, nursing and sales jobs, were also denied good-paying work.
More than four-fifths of African American women, consistent with national patterns, worked as servants, cooks, or cleaning ladies, researcher Peggy Seigel wrote in a 2008 research paper.
Neighborhoods were generally integrated, said Stith, who was born in the Westfield neighborhood consisting of black and white families on the city’s near-west side.
Lacking financing, many blacks bought houses out of pocket as they saved money, or they built their own homes, she said.
The average property value in Fort Wayne was about $4,000 in 1940, according to census figures.
By 1940, the unemployment rate was 38 percent among blacks, 11 percent among whites. World War II would turn the corner on jobs for blacks, at least temporarily.
As the number of local jobs supporting the war effort more than doubled between 1940 and 1943, several companies began hiring blacks. That prompted a new wave of migration from the south.
By 1950, the city’s black population had reached 5,200. Still, some jobs remained out of reach.
Catherine Hayden, whose father was the city’s third black policeman, recalls a sister who returned to Fort Wayne looking for work after graduating from historically black Hampton Institute in Virginia as a home economics teacher.
But at that time they were not hiring anybody that looked like us at Fort Wayne Community Schools and would not even talk to her, Hayden said.
Though schools were integrated, teachers were white.
Fort Wayne’s Defense Committee and Interracial Commission pushed for jobs in the early 1940s. As a result, Wayne Tank, S.F. Bowser, Fruehauf Trailer and General Electric hired black men for the first time.
Yet, many businesses defied a presidential executive order in 1941 that called for equal treatment of races in defense industries.
Many of these firms were engaged in war work but did not fall afoul of the federal and state antidiscrimination watchdogs largely because African Americans did not protest against them, Morgan wrote in his research paper.
One exception was a new Studebaker plant, which hired blacks only as janitors and common laborers. The company agreed to change after blacks complained to federal officials.
After World War II, some blacks were bumped in seniority by returning servicemen, continuing a practice among local businesses to treat blacks as a disposable workforce.
While surveys during the war found Fort Wayne tolerant on race issues and above average in industrial relations, Seigel found the findings masked the city’s deeply entrenched traditions of job segregation and discrimination.
Fort Wayne blacks, she added, lacked the essential support, more common in larger cities, of local community organizations and labor activists.
Some of that was laid bare in a report by the National Urban League midway in the century.
In 1949, Fort Wayne was the state’s second-largest city but ranked eighth in black population. Job discrimination was blamed in a survey compiled by the Urban League.
Only six black women and 21 black men held professional or semiprofessional jobs. Only nine women and 18 men were clerical or sales workers, the survey found.
Black women worked at twice the rate of white women because of the limited employment available to Negro men and the accompanying low wages, The Journal Gazette quoted the report’s author, J. Harvey Kerns.
The report also found discrimination against blacks by union members.
Vast areas of possible and preferred employment are barred to the colored population, with the result that a large proportion of Negro employables are forced into areas of uncertain and poorly paid jobs, the report states.
While public recreation was generally open to blacks in the city, the report noted poor housing conditions for blacks and restrictive neighborhood covenants that kept them from moving.
The neighborhoods that once housed blacks and whites began to change.
What happened is when the blacks started coming and moving into the neighborhoods there’s what you call white flight, said Stith, the museum co-founder. The white people left, and the black people moved in. And we became segregated because of the housing pattern and the Realtor’s redline. Realtors would not sell a house to any black people in a white neighborhood. Nor would the bank give a loan.
A history of segregation in Indiana would fall even as some whites angrily pushed back against integration.
But it would take another decade.
Blacks were finding their voices across the country, and leading that charge was a young man fresh out of divinity school.