I got my first teaching job in 1969 and was assigned to Perley Elementary School. In those days, Perley was 95% black. Of the 36 elementary schools in South Bend the vast majority were all or virtually all white. The remaining few had a high percentage of minority students. During those days, minority meant black as there were few Hispanics or Asians in South Bend. This situation was called de facto segregation because students went to their neighborhood school. The school boundaries were determined by white school administrators.
When spring of 1970 rolled around, I began my first stint as an elementary track coach. One of my tasks was to set up dual meets with other schools. I called Jefferson first because they were close by, and had their own track. I can still remember the conversation I had with their coach:
Me: How about getting together for a dual meet.
Jefferson coach: You have a lot of colored kids at Perley, don’t you?
Me: Well, yes we do.
Jefferson coach: I don’t want to run you, but you can use our track.
McKinley, Tarkington and Eagleston were white schools in our area that would run us, but most of our dual meets were with other urban schools.
The elementary track season culminated with a sectional. The top finishers went to the regional and the top finishers of the regional moved on to the city championship meet. This was all organized by the downtown athletic office.
Since the sectionals were all supposed to consist of clusters of nearby schools, I expected that the schools closest to Perley would be in our sectional track meet. In fact, Perley was grouped with four other inner city schools and one white school. There was one other sectional that was similarly grouped while the remaining four sectionals consisted of white schools. (In politics, this practice is called gerrymandering.) The result of this was that many good runners and field participants in the two inner city sectionals did not advance to the regionals because of the stiff competition they faced in their sectional. Less talented participants in easier sectionals did advance.
Here are two other situations that I witnessed during the era of de facto segregation in South Bend. When Perley had away basketball games, teachers would drive the team to their opponents’ gym. I was usually one of the drivers and would always stay to keep score for Perley. Once, when we were getting the students and teachers organized to travel to a suburban school, our basketball coach pulled me aside and whispered something shocking in my ear. He said that two years before when we traveled to that school (an occasion when I was unable to go) the Perley team was forced to dress in the maintenance equipment room. When I heard that, I told the coach that if they treat us like that again we should just turn around and head home. Our coach told me to cool down. “Let’s just see what happens.”
We arrived at our opponents’ school, walked down the main hallway and stopped at the gymnasium door. The home team was warming up, the stands were full and there was a lot of noise. When we started walking in the gym, the all-white crowd and home team stopped what they were doing and stared at us. There wasn’t a sound as the all black Perley team, accompanied by their white coach and me, walked silently in single file to the visitors’ dressing room.
Here is the other side of the coin. Perley usually won its home games, but when we didn’t, some of our students would throw rocks at the cars of the visitors’ team as they pulled out of our parking lot. We teachers tried our best to maintain order, but it wasn’t easy.
That’s the way it was in 1970’s South Bend.
To read more about the history of diversity and civil rights in South Bend, see Michiana Memory at michianamemory.sjcpl.org. Its Historic Newspapers section currently includes The Reformer, a newspaper produced by the South Bend African-American community, and the Civil Rights and African American History section brings together primary historical sources illuminating progress towards full civil rights for all the people of this diverse community, with a special emphasis on the history and development of the African American community. You may also want to read Gabrielle Robinson’s new book Better Homes of South Bend: An American Story of Courage. Another local resource is IUSB’s Civil Rights Heritage Center with it’s ongoing displays and special events.