Phil Gulley: White-Washed

When I asked about the racial history of my hometown, I was told we had nothing to hide. But the truth is much uglier.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

My father died this past year, and every week or so, I visit the town cemetery for a chat. Dad wasn’t the easiest man to talk with when he was living, but now that he’s dead, our conversations have improved. He and my mother are buried under a catalpa tree, which will provide nice shade come summer. Not that they’ll care one way or the other, but I appreciate it. When I visit my folks, I drop in on others residing there as well—my best friend from childhood, Tim Hadley, and his parents, Ralph and Evelyn; my high school vice-principal, Harry Bradley; and Doc Foster, who collected trash in our town when I was a kid.

Doc was the first black man I ever met, the last living remnant of 100 or so black people who once lived in Danville. Today, all that’s left of that group are a few houses, the fragments of a community that once comprised a good portion of our town’s population.

Growing up, I was never told anything about Danville’s black community. No one spoke about it, even though I spent a great deal of time chatting with people who were alive when more black folks lived here. Mr. Hoban told me about World War I. Mrs. Harvey talked about the Great Depression. Mr. Ellis taught me, and all his students, about World War II. But no one ever mentioned the black families who once lived in our town, so I never once wondered where they had gone and why.

When I finally thought to ask years later as an adult, the answers were vague. “Oh, they just moved.” “They died off.” “I’m not sure what happened.” “They found jobs in the city.” A few people even told me that Doc Foster told them to leave, conveniently blaming the exodus of black people on the one black person who stayed.

[pullquote align=”left” caption=””]The headline in that week’s newspaper read, “Ku Klux Klan Has Fine Parade.”[/pullquote]I now know black migration was inspired by two factors—economic opportunities toward which blacks moved, and social injustices from which blacks fled. More often than not, both causes were in play, but when I began researching the black exodus from Danville, I was assured it was for the former reason, not the latter. I was told by white people that the blacks in Danville were treated well. What I wasn’t told, what no one ever mentioned, was that on June 7, 1923, in a town of 1,800 people, nearly 12,000 people gathered on the town square to attend a rally of the Ku Klux Klan. The headline in that week’s newspaper read, “Ku Klux Klan Has Fine Parade.”

One of the speakers, a Reverend Lonugh (most of the speakers were Protestant pastors), made it clear the Klan was not against Catholics, Jews, and blacks, saying, “So long as (they) stay in their places, we are not against them. But when they come beyond the pale of their church, or organization, and hinder (our) progress, then God help them!” Behind him, a cross blazed with fire, while a float that passed in front of him carried a banner that read, “If you don’t like the U.S.A., there’s a boat that leaves every day.”

If you wonder why so many in our nation are alarmed about the rhetoric of our president and his chanting supporters, it’s because we know the moral abyss toward which it leads, and are determined that America should do well by all its citizens, not just the white ones.

There were no lynchings in Danville that terrorized the blacks, like in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. Nor did a mob of whites descend upon a black neighborhood, burn their homes, and massacre them, like in East St. Louis in 1917 and Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. None of our police officers shot and killed unarmed black men, a practice that’s still alive and well in too many American cities and towns today. None of that happened in my town. But in Danville, 12,000 people gathered three blocks from the black neighborhood and told the blacks to know their place and stay there, or else. “Knowing their place” was code for not voting, not eating in the restaurants, not asking for a room at the Hoosier Hotel. Thus began the black flight from Danville, most of the families moving to Chicago and Indianapolis, which were in no way bastions of equality and justice, though did by virtue of their large black populations offer a higher degree of safety.

While I wasn’t taught what whites had done to blacks here, I was taught, through rumor and repetition, that the latter were violent, though no mob of blacks ever gathered on our town square to warn the whites to know their place. Instead, they packed their belongings, surrendered their jobs, and abandoned their homes, quietly slipping away.

I hasten to add that Danville wasn’t uniquely racist. Danville’s sin was Indiana’s sin, which was America’s sin.

When I was a teenager, I was once asked if our town was racist. I said no, but I wasn’t the one who should have been asked. They should have asked Doc Foster why his house, and his alone, was on the other side of the railroad tracks. They should have asked the black folks who huddled in their homes, three blocks south of the square the night of June 7, 1923, while one speaker after another praised a nation that first enslaved them, and when it could no longer do that, degraded and abused them and drove them from their homes.

Four hundred years ago this year, the first African slaves were brought to what became the United States. For the next 246 years, we sold them into bondage, separated children and parents, and worked them into early graves. Then came the Civil War, when 200,000 black soldiers fought for their freedom, so let’s not trot out the tired canard that emancipation was accomplished only by whites. But even after that war was waged and won, the cruelties of slavery persisted through Jim Crow laws until the 1960s. Then our justice system conspired to imprison as many black men as possible, rending black families asunder, driving them into poverty, and robbing them of hope. I can’t think of a single year in those 400 that has been a good one to be black in the United States. Every time they struggled to rise, the boot of oppression kicked them back to the ground.

I point this out not to denigrate my hometown, which I love. One day I’ll be buried here, beside my wife, next to my parents. But our faith tells us that for the sin to be forgiven, it must first be confessed and set right. I hasten to add that Danville wasn’t uniquely racist. The rally participants poured in from dozens of other Indiana towns. Danville’s sin was Indiana’s sin, which was America’s sin. All fell short of glory, except for Doc Foster, who drove from house to house, carting away our trash, finding in his heart the grace to love and serve the families who had driven his family and friends away years before. He’s buried not far from my parents, conferring a beauty no flower can equal.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. Back Home Again chronicles his views on life in Indiana.