By: Todd Smekens
MUNCIE, Indiana NEWS – I was fortunate to meet with Gary Younge, a very well-respected journalist from London, when he first came to Muncie. Gary writes for the Guardian UK, and stayed in Muncie for 5 weeks, leaving shortly after the election. While he was here, it didn’t take him long to pick up on the racist fervor in town as the result of Donald Trump embracing Richard Nixon’s, “Southern Strategy”. Unlike Richard, Ronald Reagan and the Bush’s, Donald was unable to “polish over it with political correctness”. His white supremacist stances were blatantly obvious.
A deeper analysis of Trump’s victory shows that fears played a major role in his victory – fear due to economic insecurity and a changing demographical landscape. I’ve written many articles about the hate which surfaced after the election of our first black president. The Southern Poverty Law Center said hate groups grew 1,800% after the 2008 election and it drove the growth in America’s conservative movement. It was racism driven by white supremacists rejecting a black president. The Alt-Right or Neo-Nazi groups also exploded after Obama became president. As we’ve learned with the appointment of Stephen Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist, the Alt-Right has a place at Donald Trump’s table. Therefore, we cannot deny that hate and racism were a major factor in Trump’s success.
We also know that Trump was successful in Delaware County. Gary referred to Delaware County as a “swing county” in our state. In the primary, we also supported two populist candidates – Bernie Sanders and Trump. So, how much of Trump’s victory in our community was predicated on racism versus populist anger. Quite frankly, they’re so inextricably connected, it would be pointless trying to separate them.
Aside from our political bent, we’ve been called Middletown since the famous, Bob and Helen Lynd sociological studies. Gary specifically wanted our perspective on the presidential election as a microcosm of the United States. We fit the narrative rather well – the signs of the collapsed middle working class are everywhere. We’ve suffered under four decades of Neoliberalism, and we have plenty of racists. His articles in the Guardian UK were well received around the globe.
In the case of Muncie, we have a colorful history with white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). You can pick up several historical projects exploring those connections. As our history books note, many KKK leaders were well-respected white business owners and affluent people, but you don’t get to read much detail. Just note, they wore robes and hoods to protect their anonymity. America was founded as a slave country, so it was a very popular mentality. After the Civil War ended in 1865, racism didn’t vanish. Several of the historical accounts note the connection between the KKK and the Republican Party, especially in Muncie. Down south it was the Democratic Party – the Dixiecrats.
Historians have accessed an abundance of documents over the time period. However, most are completely white washed over to depict a story more favorable to the local Elites. Some things never change. For instance, in Muncie, I’ve read several of the studies funded by local foundations, and all of them attribute race problems to the KKK. Muncie factory owners in the 1920’s sought workers from Kentucky and Tennessee. Therefore, it would make sense they might have introduced a “southern attitude toward blacks” in our community. Although, racism was already alive and well in Muncie long before southern factory workers were bused into our community.
However, every single historical study I’ve read stops short of connecting the white industrialists, more specifically, the Ball family to racism. We even know that racism during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was a popular attitude.
We had a “Freedom Bus” last year to display our local history, and it mentions the Ball brothers benevolently, as one of the “few factory owners in the Midwest hiring black workers”. I guess this positive depiction comes with funding these historical projects. Whatever, you would like to call it, I refer to this as “white washing” our history. Needless to say, our history books are full of “white washing” away ugly truths we’d prefer future generations wouldn’t know. Slavery, racism and genocide are the most popular truths we rename, or completely gloss over.
I was referred to one research paper that slipped through the cracks detailing how the Ball family engineered Muncie by class and race. It outlines exactly what sociologists and urban planners refer to as “systemic racism” in this country. The scholarly paper contained the following language written into Muncie’s, Westwood Neighborhood Association documents, and signed by E. B. Ball:
The ownership and occupancy of lots and buildings in this addition are forever restricted to members of the pure white race.
The language gets much more colorful, but I think you get the idea of who exactly was excluded. The Chinese and Jews were also forbidden from living in Westwood. The restrictions lasted well into the mid-1900’s. In fact, many Jewish homes built during the 1950’s and 60’s in Riverside/Normal City were a result of the restrictions in Westwood. According to several local sources, most of Muncie’s neighborhood association documents contained language restricting people of color. The redlining of neighborhoods became illegal by the federal government, but generations of hard-coded racism is hard to change. It becomes embedded in the communities culture and the defining lines still restrict.
The Northwest section of town was restricted to the professional and business class. From a chapter titled, The Gravity of Capital Spatial and Economic Transformation in Muncie, Indiana, 1917–1940, LaDale Winling wrote:
After the Balls’ investments in northwest Muncie spurred building on the outskirts of the city, investment on the east side of the city stagnated even while Muncie developed into a leading Indiana city and a node in the Midwestern networks of education, health care, cultural production, and finance, in addition to its already robust industrial
position. The business and professional class withdrew from their traditional residential neighborhoods in the East End and left deterioration and declining property values in their wake.
The Balls’ geographically concentrated investments and ongoing civic philanthropy exerted their own force, a kind of gravity of capital, that drew other investments towards itself, profoundly influencing the future of Muncie, Indiana, in ways that were both intentional and unforeseen.
The Ball’s essentially created Northwest Muncie to move away from the growing industrial working class and growing minority class after slaves were freed from the south, and began migrating to the north. The Balls also established Burris School in 1929 to serve their Ball Teachers college and the upper class whites in Northwest Muncie.
In the decades that followed, Muncie would grow dramatically, but the growth would be contained within those “forbidden boundaries”. As civil rights surfaced in the 50’s and 60’s, the city would build a high school in the Northwest corridor serving the white upper class, while the white working class in south Muncie would build a high school named after the confederacy – flying the Rebel flag as its symbol.
The Lynd’s were smart to choose Muncie as the microcosm for the USA, but we didn’t quite fit the definition completely. We were a little more contrived, or controlled, than our growing country of immigrants. Gary learned this from talking with James Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University:
It [Muncie] did have a small foreign-born population because the local business class imported workers from Tennessee and Kentucky. “There was a conscious attempt to keep foreign workers out,” says Connolly. “Because they wanted people to go home during slack times and they were worried foreigners would bring in dangerous ideas.” But once again, this made it atypical compared with other towns of its size.
However, our Middle Class consisted of a “knowledge or professional class” and a growing “working class” propped up by union wages. When industry vanished from Muncie in the 80’s and 90’s, our urban design based on race/class divisions became all to clear.
As mentioned, Gary Younge lived in Muncie for a month while covering our election. While here, he spent time with Yvonne Thompson, Muncie’s Human Rights Director. She took him to the Shafer Chapel in Whitely. Gary learned about the infamous Marion lynchings in 1930, just a few years after the Lynd’s finished their famed Middletown study. He recorded the following:
The bodies were left to hang overnight and were cut down in the morning. By that time news reached Reverend JE Johnson, a pastor and mortician 30 or so miles away in Muncie. Knowing that Marion had no black undertakers, he braved the trip to Marion that morning to pick up their bodies and prepare them for a Christian burial. When rumours spread that a white mob was coming to take the bodies back, Muncie’s black community armed themselves in preparation and the town’s white sheriff, Fred Puckett, stood with them. The next day Puckett and a posse from Muncie’s black community escorted Johnson to the county line from where he continued to Marion to deliver them for burial.
This took place just one year after Middletown was published. But the experiences of people like Johnson and many of those who stood with him that day, are omitted from the “typical” American story of Middletown.
“How are you going to have a thorough study of this town and leave us out?” asks Thompson, who’s wearing a black T-shirt stating: “It Matters.” “And then tell everybody it’s the ‘real America.”
Sorry Yvonne, like everything else in Muncie, Indiana history, you’ve been white washed. It makes you wander who could have exerted that much pressure on the Lynd’s in the 1920’s, to have them exclude the treatment of the black community? Who could exert enough pressure to white wash our history in Muncie, again and again?
Most likely the same family who controls Muncie in 2017 and who coded racism into our Midwestern community in the early 1900’s. An obvious question is, “If racism was so prevalent and acceptable during the early 1900’s, why not own your involvement? Why use your wealth and influence to wash it away like it never happened?
Here’s an ironic twist for closing this article. The lynching of two black teenagers in Marion and the iconic photos taken of the limp bodies and the all white mob, inspired a poem which was later sung by the great Billie Holiday. “Strange Fruit” was the title. The song was black listed in the United States because it inspired uprisings within the black community. According to the Independent, “Strange Fruit” was once described by record producer Ahmet Ertegun as “a declaration of war … the beginning of the civil rights movement”.
Last week, Rebecca Ferguson offered to sing at Donald Trump’s inauguration later this month, but only if she can sing, Strange Fruit. Here’s Billie Holiday’s incredibly powerful original performance: