taking the words of Jesus seriously

The next step on the path towards reconciliation is an important one.  It is at this point that we reach a critical juncture of either rejection or repentance.  Racial justice is not something easily obtained and for some white folks the temptation to return to silence or inactivity is a reality.  For others it is at this stage that one commits to living differently.  A motto I live by states, “for the way I am shame on my parents, but if I’m this way in the future shame on me.”  We have all been shaped by our past both positively and negatively.  When talking about racism it’s easy for many white folks to say things like, “let’s move on already, ” “we cannot live in the past, ” but it is up to us to act responsibly to make changes to those areas that have had negative consequences on ourselves and in society.   The following are some steps I made at understanding some of my own history and the history of the white enclave of my birth.  It has been this journey that I have been inspired not to look down on my hometown, but to have my eyes opened to her great potential in our society to model real racial justice.

Over a decade ago I was taking a course, “Black History and Theology, ” at a seminary in Kentucky.  At one point the professor told us a story about a house “in the North” used during the slave days to hold runaway slaves and free blacks until they could be sold to Southern slave owners.  He located the house in Huntington, Indiana.  I was floored for two reasons.  First, the mere fact he mentioned Huntington, Indiana in class–the place of my childhood–was a bit shocking considering how small it is (population: 17, 000).  Second, I was taken aback that he was using my home town as an example of how racism still exists in the North.  He informed us that the “slave house” had been dedicated in the town (in a not so distant past) not to condemn the act of racism but rather to honor the owner of the house!  I knew exactly which house the professor was alluding to.  Three or four years later, I found a brochure for the “Dedication of the Lambdin P. Milligan Slave House, ” published in 1985.  The brochure shed more light than I initially wanted… the professor was right.  In 1985, my hometown dedicated the slave house in memory of Mr. Milligan, a Southern sympathizer during the Civil War who had been arrested for organizing an armed rebellion against the North.  He was tried by a military court, rather than a local court (which was later ruled illegal).  That’s where good ol’ Habeas Corpus comes in.

Milligan filed in Federal Court of Indiana a Writ of Habeas Corpus claiming illegal imprisonment.  Ex Parte Milligan was a famous decision that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court after two Federal Judges in Indiana could not agree on the case.    The decision invalidated Milligan’s arrest and conviction, saying that military courts have no power over civilians as long as civil courts are functioning.  He was eventually set free because of the legality of the matter and the town of Huntington praised his return.  Over a hundred years later the town was still praising him, rather than challenging his racial stance.

A couple years ago I came across the book, Sundown Towns, by James Loewen.  Once again, Huntington was mentioned – indeed, seven or eight times.  Around this same time I learned that Huntington University was seeking to become more diverse in its student body.  As one step along this path, the University deemed it important that the town declare itself an “inclusive community.”  The “Inclusive Communities Partnership” is a program of the National League of Cities whose purpose is, “to motivate cities and towns to make a public commitment to building inclusive communities, ” among other things. It was interesting to see a dialogue emerge in the letters to the editor of the local newspaper, both for and against taking this step.

Reading Sundown Towns, in conjunction with hearing the tones of racism from several residents of Huntington in the modern day led me on the hunt to discover the deeper truths to the history of my town, a sundown town.  The initial step we took was gathering some students, faculty, and staff of Huntington University and talking about the need to find hard evidence that Huntington was in fact a sundown town.  Our desire was not to simply bring up the “bad ol’ days” but to admit to our racism and to seek ways to overcome it.  We decided that we would start the project as an independent study for three HU students as well as a faculty member, a couple of staff, and myself.

First we checked the census data from the start of Huntington to the present day, looking for the number of people of color in each decade.  We looked for any increase or decrease and made note of it as a decade to focus on when looking at the local newspapers.

The Huntington library holds every local newspaper on microfilm.  The newspaper card catalog contained the following useful categories: negro, colored, black, African-American, KKK, and Miami Indians.

As we looked through these articles we collected pieces of our story and began to identify several topics that seemed to summarize the racial story of Huntington.  Some of the themes included:

  • stories of the Miami Indians, who were forced to leave the area as a result of a treaty;
  • more about Lambdin Milligan and the group he was associated with;
  • evidence of the underground railroad;
  • a “Colored Campmeeting, ” where 700-800 African Americans gathered in Huntington at the fairgrounds in 1892.  We discovered that this was part of a social movement, a sort of early day civil rights movement where African Americans would call for equal rights.

We also found evidence in several articles that pointed to a culture of exclusion in Huntington that seemed to lay a foundation of it being a sundown town.  We’ve cataloged stories of 3 Arab women being denied overnight housing and after being refused an overnight stay in “the barns” and “wood sheds” they “grew quite boisterous, but finally departed.” (Huntington Herald 1 July, 1892).  In the Huntington Herald August 1, 1902 we found an article about an African American gentleman that was jailed after getting into a fight with a local white man.  Later that day the following note was fastening to the African American man’s house for his wife to read, “We as citizens give you just twelve hours to leave this town, and if this order is not obeyed a mob shall await you, and you will have to put up with what comes.  We mean business. (signed) Committee.”  Finally we found several articles about a petition signed by over 300 citizens of Huntington to have all African Americans driven out of town.  The Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper wrote the following about the petition,

Huntington, IND  — Mayor Charles McGraw received a petition signed by 328 white persons asking that “Huntington Negro population deportment.”  The population of this city is largely composed of foreigners.  The clamour for the dismissal of our people was said to have been started by the Germans and Austrians, who first objected to the men being employed by a local foundry to do war work.  The citizens have been so bitter in their denunciation of our people that trouble is feared.

August 25, 1919 Chicago Defender

We also ethnographically interviewed about a half dozen people, both whites and people of color, listening to their perspective of race and why Huntington is still so white. From these conversations emerged stories from the living memories of those we interviewed – complete with details that made them credible.  From the 1920s all the way till the 1970s some family members were respectable citizens by day but dawned the Ku Klux Klan hoods by night.  We were told by several eye witnesses that Huntington posted a sign on the edge of town warning black people to be out of town before sundown and that the sign was not taken down until about 1961.  Also, in the mid-1960s a house in the county was secretly burned to the ground during the night, after whites learned that a black family from Fort Wayne was attempting to purchase it.

In many ways I feel like we are just getting started on this journey.  One way we are looking to present our findings to townspeople is by creating a “Reality Tour.”  The tour will consist of ten spots throughout Huntington that would act as springboards for our findings and the different issues that have emerged as a result of our study.  The purpose of the tour would be to look at our history, the good and the ugly, and come to a place where we can admit the reality of our racism as well as point to hope for the better future.  We also hope that at some point we can also apologize for our actions and then seek out some concrete ways for living out reconciliation.  The possibilities for Huntington to model to other small predominantly white towns a new way of racial justice is great.  A Harmony Initiative has been formed to work with the churches and other local institutions to make sure they have racially just practices in place. Now would be the time to create a training program in the local high school to train youth in cross-cultural relations.  Also looking into the history of the African Americans and the Miami Indians who were driven from this land and not only offer apologies but explore other means of reparations if that is a possibility.

I feel that too often white folks want an easy answer, a concrete way to fix something.   Reconciliation does not call us to simply “fix something, ” but rather to join a journey, a long journey of grace, active listening, self-discovery, openness, mistakes, pain, and hope.   I believe Huntington stands at a crossroads of racial justice.  There are many people beginning to understand its past and are making active steps to write a new legacy of racial justice.

What White People Can Do about Racism” is a collection of thoughts by Chris Lahr. Through this blog series he hopes to touch on lessons learned from his journey of living in a small predominantly white town in Indiana to living in a city (Philadelphia) where white people are currently the minority. Check out the first post in this series here. Chris will be teaching the workshop, “What white people can do about racism” at the CCDA Conference in Indianapolis on October 13, and 15.

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Chris Lahr is a Recruiter and the Academic Director for Mission Year. He is also a part of the Simple Way in Philadelphia. He is a writer and a speaker. For information about having Chris speak,  email Jen Casselberry.

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