Civil Rights and Segregation: Curator George Garner (Convo with Kyle Video and Transcript)

The text below is a transcript of the Convo with Kyle podcast. Bold text is Kyle Bell. Standard text is George Garner.

Thanks for listening to Convo with Kyle. My name is Kyle Bell.

As a writer, an author, and journalist, my work has always been about telling stories. But now, I want to tell a different story. I want to tell your story.

The goal of this project is to share with you the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary work. They may be your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers who want to make their communities, and this world, a better place for all of us. So let’s start a conversation.

Joining us is Curator George Garner. George works at the Civil Rights Heritage Center at Indiana University South Bend. He has previously worked at the Studebaker National Museum, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Thank you, George, for coming on the show.

It’s good to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

So, George, why don’t you start by telling us a little about the Civil Rights Heritage Center and your work there?

Sure. So the Civil Rights Heritage Center, through IU South Bend, is housed in a building that started its life as the Engman Public Natatorium. It was South Bend’s first indoor swimming pool. And yeah, when it was built in 1922, even though it was a city-owned site, even though it had that word “public” carved into the concrete out front, between 1922 and 1936, if you were a person of color, you were denied entry. And from 1936 to 1950, entry was only allowed on a segregated basis.

So in 2010, IU South Bend took over the site. At that point, it had been operating — it operated as an integrated swimming pool from 1950 until 1978. But it closed in 1978 and had been sitting vacant for about 30 years before then.

IU South Bend took that site and turned it into the home of the Civil Rights Heritage Center. So we use that story of segregation, we use that story of exclusion to really look at contemporary issues of race, civil rights, social justice, of course for African American communities but for all marginalized communities — for LGBTQ, for Latinx, for women, for anybody who’s been marginalized or otherwise oppressed.

There’s a place for the things that we’re talking about. There’s vibrancy. There’s a need for it. So it’s this really amazing space and this really unique space that can speak directly to that history and use that history to inform the present.

So when you say that the Natatorium was a public facility, was it owned by the city of South Bend?

Yeah, this was a South Bend Parks and Recreation pool, just like any other public, quote unquote, park today. So the fact that this was city-sponsored exclusion and segregation, it’s an important part of our story.

Yeah, I mean, when people think about segregation, it’s usually a place like Alabama that probably pops in their head.

I think that’s true, yeah. I think that story has been told as a Southern story. When most of us learn about it in elementary school or high school, we see those images of Martin Luther King, we see the lunch counters. And it tends to get taught as this thing that happened a long time ago, it happened pretty much south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and it was solved at that was it. Now there’s no more problems.

And that’s far from the case. And that’s something we really want to drive home. Segregation very much happened in the North, and I go to work every day in a place where that happened. And so, we really want to drive that point home of — not just this space. This was one space, but it was one space among so many — not just in South Bend but across the United States — in the quote unquote “North,” which is often supposed to be or talked about as somehow better than the South. And I just don’t think that’s true.

A few years ago, when I was the editor of the South Bend Voice, you wrote a series of articles that highlighted the work of civil rights trailblazers in South Bend. I’ll provide a link to those articles in the description below for anyone who is watching on YouTube.

But South Bend has a surprisingly rich activist history, actually, and you documented that history in these articles. One of those trailblazers was Odie Mae Johnson Streets. She graduated from Central High in 1931, which was one of the only integrated schools in South Bend.

I want to quote Odie Mae here from the article that you wrote, quote:

“Black girls were not allowed to take swimming classes, so one day I told my friend, ‘I’m going to sign up. They will have to tell me I can’t take swimming lessons.'”

Mhm.

Could you talk a little bit about Odie Mae’s background and–

Yeah, so again, she’s this fascinating character, right? Odie Mae was incredibly light skinned, so as they say, she could have easily passed if she chose to. But she didn’t, in the 1930s, when places like the Engman Public Natatorium were excluding people of color.

We’re talking about a decade after the 1910s, the 1920s, about 19% of the white men in St. Joseph County, Indiana were members of the Ku Klux Klan. In the midst of all this, here’s this light skinned woman who very much chose to embrace the fact that she was of African descent, that she was a woman who was born as an African American and born to African Americans.

She was born in Dawson Springs, Kentucky. So, again, it’s also this story of the Great Migration for millions of African Americans, escaping lynching, escaping Jim Crow racism, trying to escape the Klan but still being met with some of that same racism that they found down there.

And I think a lot of her activism was influenced by her being a member of the Baha’i faith. Baha’i believe not in a capital G, a Judeo-Christian god, but that there’s a god that is this figure that many different religions have bits and pieces of, but it’s a united god. It’s a god that unites all humanity and that may come in different forms to different people. But it’s a very uniting and united way of looking at people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

So I think that helped inform some of her activism. So she encountered racism in her own life, again, being told that she couldn’t join the swim team on Central High because she identified as an African American woman and really having that bravery to stand up and say what she said, that, no, I’m going to make them tell me no and then defend that position, defend the fact that they don’t think I’m as human or as good as any other person can be.

So she ended up marrying a gentleman by the name of Dr. Bernard Streets. And Dr. Streets became not the first but one of the first African American dentists. He was an early graduate of the Indiana University Dental School back in 1929, if my memory serves me correctly, but then came back to South Bend and opened a dental practice on the West Side, which at this time was and was increasingly becoming more African American but also Eastern European. So in addition to his African American clients, he had a lot of Polish American clients. So he ended up teaching himself Polish in order to serve all of them.

And so, the two became just this one of a couple power couples, and just constantly getting involved, and lending their own voices, and being brave and standing up to those who would discriminate, like people did at the Natatorium. They became some of the people who were advocates for integrating the Natatorium, among other places, like theaters, like restaurants.

I found it noteworthy because Odie Mae, as a woman of color, she actually ended up, it seems, taking her experiences and helping people who came from similarly difficult situations.

Mhm.

She taught English to women who stayed at the YWCA in South Bend, and also served on the board of — what was it, the El Centro Migrant Center?

Yep.

So I kind of find that striking. She didn’t just focus solely on civil rights for African Americans.

Yeah. Yeah, and I think that’s part of her being a part of the Baha’i faith. It’s, in an early way, looking at what we now call intersectionality, recognizing that any group that has been marginalized that the issues are more binding than they are separating. So she ended up getting her degree in Spanish from Indiana University South Bend. She was an early graduate of the same program that employs me and that funds the Heritage Center.

And my alma mater.

Exactly, exactly. So she used that to work with the next wave of immigration that was coming into South Bend, the Latinx population that was coming in, particularly in the ’40s and ’50s — but yeah, again, looking at the issues that were affecting black people were also affecting brown people, and working hard to try to do that.

But the thing is, there are differences. And the language barrier was one of them for Latinx. And so, that informed some of her work and her using that degree, her using that training to be able to do that. It’s a special story.

I think it might be useful to mention to viewers that — or at least give a little background on South Bend as a city. Obviously, South Bend is in Indiana. It’s an industrial Midwest town in this time period we’re talking about. As George said, South Bend was a destination city during the Great Migration.

I mean, compared to I guess the typical Midwestern city / town, South Bend’s a pretty diverse place. It has a large African American population and it now has a growing Latino population. Would you add anything to that, George?

No, I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve described South Bend as the quintessential, prototypical Great Migration city. We have had an African American community in this city longer than there’s been a city. That’s one of the things that we touch on at the Civil Rights Heritage Center, too, making sure that African American history — making sure we share that African American history — has been with this city for an incredibly long time, that there have been people of color living in and contributing to South Bend throughout the course of its entire existence.

But it’s also true that there wasn’t significantly high numbers until the turn of the 20th century and until the Great Migration. Between about the 1910s and the 1930s, our African American population quintuples. It explodes.

And I think there is an analogy today between that and Latinx immigration into the United States, into the American South. There have been a significant increase in those populations. And just like now, those new populations aren’t being welcomed with open arms. There’s the thought of that person as the other and something else. And we saw the exact same thing with the African American populations in South Bend.

But this was a thriving, industrial town. If anybody has ever heard of Studebaker, of the wagon manufacturer and the car manufacturer, this was where they were all made for decades. But that provided ample employment opportunity for thousands of African Americans who were trying to escape sharecropping, who were trying to escape the Jim Crow down there. And this was a path forward. This was a job.

You also wrote about Helen Pope, who was a nurse. Can you share a little bit with us about her story?

Yeah, so Helen’s another one of those trailblazers. Among the many things in her life and career, she became a nurse at a time when patient care was segregated as well, when white patients wouldn’t accept the care of a person of color. So she helped integrate what was then known as the Northern Indiana Children’s Hospital.

And then, throughout the ’70s and the ’80s, one of the things in South Bend — like so many industrial cities — after the industry left and as we’re seeing so much change in mechanization, automization, those things that we hear brought to the forefront now — particularly with the recent election and particularly among white workers — this has been happening in communities of color for decades. And it happened here in South Bend around the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Studebaker, for example, closed December 20, 1963. 7,000 people lost their job in a day. A huge portion of them were African American.

And at one point, it employed tens of thousands of people in the city.

Exactly. You’re exactly right. And Studebaker was the largest industrial employer of African Americans, too. So that story of industrialization really hits African American communities throughout the 20th century. Those two are inexorably linked.

But as that industry changes and as cities try to struggle to decide who and what they are in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st, and South Bend really struggled with that. And there’s a lot of things that they did to try to adapt and to try to change. And a lot of them didn’t work.

So one of the things that Helen Pope was involved in is this thing called the Model Cities program. It’s really looking at creating these model blocks where there would be hyper-local government that would be able to make decisions. And, I mean, we can look back on them — we can look back on some of those big urban planning ideas now and realize that maybe they weren’t the best ideas. But, at the time, I think they were struggling just to try to find something to do to stem the tide of tens of thousands of people who had been moving away from the city in the wake of all of this de-industrialization.

So I wanted to quote — and by the way, I’m going to mention again that I’m going to put the link to George’s articles below in the description so you can check those out. I’m going to go ahead and quote from you one of your articles. You said, quote:

“I became enthralled with history because, to me, history is so much more than closed companies or torn down buildings. It is about people, like you and me, who lived their lives facing trials and troubles, happiness and hardships.”

I think it’s important to document and have conversations about these topics that often get overlooked or they’re simply not understood, and to learn about those from people who lived through challenging periods in our country’s history. But, anyway, that’s a long version of me saying that I agree with your statement. You certainly put it more eloquently than I did. Could you reflect on that a little bit?

Well, thank you. I mean, I wrote that a while ago. And I was thinking that I don’t remember — I mean, I’m sure that — but that sounded great.

[LAUGHTER]

Past George did something good there. No, also, I’ve spent my professional life combating the idea of history being dead, that it’s that dry recitation of something that is no longer relevant. I just don’t think that’s true.

And, again, one thing that we do at Civil Rights Heritage Center is make sure that we very much are actively involved in present-day activism and activist issues, becoming directly involved with those organizations, those groups, providing a space, providing a voice. And it’s because we’re rooted in history that that work can happen. We can play a role of making sure that people are aware that these issues aren’t new, that there are systemic issues and systemic challenges at hand.

And that we have to dismantle them, and that we have to dismantle patriarchy. We have to dismantle white supremacy. We have to dismantle institutional racism. These are things that haven’t been invented in the past five to ten years, and they also haven’t been solved in the past five to ten years.

The election of Barack Obama, for example, did not — while it was this incredible watershed moment, it did not mark the end of any of those things that I just described. And as, again, we’ve seen in this most recent election cycle, it’s that I think it’s proven that. But all of those conversations have to be rooted in history and have to be rooted in what has happened for decades, generations before us — that has influenced us — before we can start to change that, before we can start to really pull those institutions apart and build something truly more humanistic and more collaborative.

I keep looking at our present-day and comparing it to the past. The decade that I really think about that I think mirrors the present is — maybe imperfectly — is the ’60s. There’s definitely a cultural shift that’s taking place right now that seems similar to the ’60s, a shift in values taking place, and also a demand for more rights, expanded rights.

And we’re seeing that in movements like the successful push for nationwide marriage equality and we’re seeing it in Black Lives Matter. It seems like social activism is more alive today and young people are more active today than at any point really since the ’60s. I don’t really have a question for you there. It’s more just an observation.

Sure.

But perhaps you can comment on that?

No, I think you’re exactly right. And yeah, when I think of what decades, I tend to see maybe more alignment with the 1870s, maybe even the 1910s and 1920s. And I say that because every time there have been these major leaps forward, there’s always a regression backward.

So while the Civil War ended slavery, Reconstruction ensured that a new racial caste system went into place and that equality didn’t happen. When we saw — again, when African Americans were moving north, we saw this backlash here and segregation take — coming into places like South Bend in the 1910s and 1920s, and again, organizations like the KKK becoming national movements, a movie like “Birth of a Nation” in the 1910s.

So I kind of see that happening now, that the nation has responded to the first African American president with another backlash. And so, I think it’s important to galvanize and set up those firewalls and make sure that those people who need protecting in this era have those firewalls in place, and that we continue to move forward, that we don’t let this backlash slide us back too far — and we continue to be active, and get out there, and be brave about it.

Civil Rights Heritage Center, in connection with a number of community organizations, organized an event called The People’s Inauguration. It was very much meant to be a mark of resistance against the things that we knew were going to happen. And in addition to holding events at the Civil Rights Heritage Center, we held events at the local mosque here in town. And it was this wonderful event, all of these different community organizations from the mosque to Civil Rights Heritage Center to the LGBTQ Center to talking about reproductive justice and pro-choice issues. Hundreds of people came to this because they wanted to get involved somehow, wanting to take that action, take that stand.

In a way, it’s regrettable that didn’t happen before and that didn’t happen earlier. It’s important to remember that there are people who have been doing this work for years, who have been affected by this more so than many. And, in fact, there’s a lot more “woke” people now. Again, that’s a good thing, but it is important to recognize — recognizing that it might be new for some people, but it’s not new for a lot of people. I think we have to recognize that while also acknowledging and hoping that we can maintain this, that this pressure, that this galvanization that has happened continues and continues to have some positive results.

So for anyone that’s curious, George, what exactly is a curator?

Sure. I’ve had somebody describe it to me as being an editor. There’s about 150 different jobs and one word. And I think that’s true.

But, basically, the way I like to describe it — particularly with my work at Civil Rights Heritage Center — is that building has 90 years of history in it and this city has 150+ years of history in it. It’s my responsibility to know as much of that as I possibly can, to collect, preserve, and keep those tangible documents — the artifacts, the photographs, the papers, all of those things that help us share that history, and then share that with as many people as humanly possible.

So that’s anywhere from school groups coming in to tours off the street to undergraduate history classes and just anybody and everybody in between. But, essentially, the preservation and dissemination of the pieces of history is a good way of describing what many curators do.

So what did you study for undergrad?

Yeah, so, my undergrad was in history, and luckily did an internship at the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and some staff there, who were graduates of the Cooperstown Graduate Program. It’s this amazing masters-level museum studies program in Upstate New York. You eat, sleep, drink, and breathe museum studies for two years straight, but you leave there with this incredible view of the role of museums, and the power of museums, and what these places can do and what they can mean to many different people.

Collecting and putting stuff on display is just a small part of what they do. And if they’re doing it wrong, then that’s all they’re doing. If they’re doing it right, though, they’re really looking at the stories. They’re really looking at creating these experiences for people to come in and be moved in some way, either by learning something, either by feeling something, by spending time there, by getting involved in some way, shape, or form.

And could you tell us how you ended up in South Bend?

Sure. So it was a different museum job than the one I have now, but I moved here after ricocheting around the East Coast for a while, between undergraduate, and grad school, and internships, and post-grad school jobs. I think I calculated, at one point I had moved about nine to ten times in about ten years. It was a lot.

That is a lot.

Yeah, so I moved out here, and having not been in the Midwest really at all, having not been aware that South Bend was a place that existed.

[LAUGHTER]

I was vaguely aware of Indiana, that that was a place that existed. But yeah, so I regret I was one of those East Coasters who thought of the Midwest as this kind of flyover country. And I readily admit that I was wrong, and that perception is a terrible perception, that there are an incredible amount of wonderful spaces in the Midwest, and that the perceptions of what it is politically and culturally are just that. They’re perceptions.

And it was coming here that helped me realize that. Again, this is a former industrial powerhouse that had been struggling with its identity. But in the 21st century, after decades of struggling, I have met more people here who care about this place than any other place I’ve lived previous. And I’ve met more people who are willing to experiment, who are willing to make change.

Those cities that I lived in on the East Coast, they were further ahead in the process. And so, they were fairly inflexible. They were places that I lived in and consumed, really, but I didn’t get involved with, because there wasn’t that space for it.

We’ve been working to make change for so long. And there’s this desperation, in a way, to just do something. That creates this really exciting space to be able to have ideas, and to run with them, and get to know people in the community who are very open and very willing to say yes to things. And I absolutely love that.

So I’ve been here for the past ten, so I’ve completely reversed that ricocheting that I was doing before, but doing what I wanted to do, which was actually be in a place for a while. Out of all the places to be, South Bend’s been a great place to be.

And you started off at the Studebaker National Museum, right?

I actually started off at The History Museum.

Oh, okay.

Yeah, and then I did a project or did some work at the Studebaker Museum, too, which is coincidentally right next door, and then Civil Rights Heritage Center is about two–

[INAUDIBLE]

–to escape that little block around West Washington, which is totally great.

Yeah. So if people wanted to check out the Civil Rights Heritage Center, where can they find it online and where can they find it in person?

Sure, so online it’s CRHC.IUSB.edu. There’s a number of digital assets, including a podcast that we’ve done ourselves where we share stories from our oral history collection. So it’s people who have lived the experiences here in South Bend either as people of color, or as LGBT, or as allies in the civil rights movement. We share those stories on that. And then in person, we’re at 1040 West Washington, so just a little bit west of downtown South Bend.

And are you open seven days a week?

We are open five days a week — Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and then Tuesday from — sorry, Tuesday and Thursday from 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. And those are just the regular public hours where we do tours and things like that. But there’s events that happen anywhere from at least one to often three to five times a week.

So right now, for example, we have a lecture series going on. So for those in South Bend, it’s this free lecture series by our director, who’s a University of Chicago historian, Dr. Darryl Heller, talking about race and social movements. So he’s done things on women and the foundation that they laid for the modern civil rights movement. We’re going to do another one on the Black Panther movement and yet another one on Black Lives Matter.

We’re also doing a film series. We recently just showed a film about a native Hawaiian transgender woman, where her native Hawaiian culture has been more celebrated than it has been in many Western cultures. And that’s true for a lot of different cultures, that there’s this celebration instead of discrimination. So it followed her experience as a transgender woman in relationship but also trying to coach students on traditional Hula dancing. So there’s just all sorts of different events and things that we do on a regular basis.

Awesome. Do you want to plug anything for social media or anything?

We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. So, yeah, everybody’s encouraged to follow us there for sure. We post regularly on each of those.

Well, I think that’s about it. Thank you so much for joining us, George.

It’s a pleasure. Thanks for the conversation.

I’d like to thank you again for listening to Convo with Kyle. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more episodes. You can also keep the conversation going on social media by visiting facebook.com/convowithkyle and twitter.com/convowithkyle. I’d love to hear from you.

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