Return to CUTPL Home Page
Images and text are subject to copyright infringement laws - CUTPL 2016
history includes a rather unique presence and influence from its
African-American populace. A glance at early 20th century Culver (town)
yearbooks reveals a black populace integrated into Culver's public
schools and a part of the community of the town of Culver, a somewhat
unusual set of circumstances for a small Indiana town at that time.
Culver's African-American community had its roots in the origins of the Culver Academy, founded by H.H. Culver in 1894. When the only moderately successful school boosted its attendance by merging with students from a St. Louis military school, there followed a contingency of black employees to Culver from St. Louis. Being the era that it was, African-Americans were primarily employed in service roles: domestics, waiters, custodians and the like, and Culver was no exception.
A photo printed in the 1905 Lake Maxinkuckee Art Annual shows H.H. Culver's wife entertaining guests at the Culver homestead (which still stands on the northeast shore of the lake) with services provided by an African-American helper. Such was the case, also, with many a cottage on Lake Maxinkuckee, where (often female) African-American domestic help was employed quite early on.
Below: Charlie Dickerson and Roy Watts check their fleet of waiters before a meal at Culver Academy's dining hall in this photo from before the late 1950s.
The Culver Military Academy, then, nearly from its outset, employed black help on its grounds. Perhaps most visible was its ongoing group of African-American waiters. Today's Academy students are accustomed to a cafeteria-style buffet dining experience at the Dining Hall, but until the late 1950s, meals were served to cadets by African-American waiters, the leaders of whom became well known and beloved to many students and faculty over the years (see below).
The heyday of Culver's African-American community might be seen as being between the 1920s and 1960s, after which older residents -- retiring and with no reasonable jobs to replace the fading domestic and service jobs that had attracted black workers for decades -- remained or were moved away by grown children who had moved away. According to many residents of the day, Culver's African-American populace (which tended to be more middle class and educated) were fairly integrated into the community at large (see interview with Jim Harper which follows).
What follows are photographs and stories pertaining to the development and people of Culver's African-American community.
Above: Members of The Comics baseball team in the early 1900s. The Comics were part of the segregated "Negro Leagues" of the day, and were comprised mostly of black players from the Culver area. In the above photo, from left: Charlie Wade, unidentified coach, Luther Whitted, Roy Scott, and David Whitted. In the lower photo, from left: unidentified coach, David Whitted, Charlie Wade, two unknown players, middle row of unknown players, Roy Scott, Roy Watts, and unknown player in front row. Photos provided by Thelma (Hodges) Moorehead.
Some of these individuals would later become well-known and iconic members of the community, particularly the Academy community (Roy "Sheep" Scott and Roy Watts, for example, became known for their roles in the wait staff at CMA).
Above: a page from the 1922 Culver high school yearbook features African-American basketball players Whitted and Wade, making this team probably Culver's first integrated team, and possibly one of the first in Indiana, if not the U.S.
Above: Thelma Scott (later Hodges), daughter of well-known Roy "Sheep" Scott, in her Maxinkuckee yearbook photos, 1922.
Above: members of her family and Culver's African-American community at the train station in Hibbard to see off Thelma Scott, on her way to Washington, D.C. to attend college at Howard University, a photo taken in 1924 and provided by Thelma's daughter, Thelma Hodges Moorehead. That Thelma Scott (later Thelma Hodges, a beloved figure in the Culver community when she and her husband returned to the town later in life) was a woman attending college was impressive; that she was an African-American woman heading off to college in 1924 speaks both to Thelma's determination and that of her family.
People in the photos (from upper left)...photo 1 (from left, back row): Dave Whitted, Luther Whitted, three unknown individuals, Zena Whitted, an unknown individual, Thelma Scott, two unknown ladies, Gussie and Lloyd Smith, Florence Watts and daughter Charlotte Watts.
Photo 2: David & Luther Whitted; in back: Zena Whitted, Thelma Scott, Lillie and Roy Scott. Photos provided by Thelma (Hodges) Moorehead.
The Rollins Chapel
In 1912, Culver's only African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rollins Chapel, opened its new building. No photos are known to exist of the building (if anyone has any, please contact us!), which sat just off of today's Lake Shore Drive (due south of the McKesson Ford building, today's City Tavern) on Coolidge Court. The church fell into disuse in the 1940s and was eventually torn down as the building deteriorated (today the spot remains an empty lot). Below is a 1912 article from the Culver Citizen.
African Church Services - The Culver Citizen, 1912
From One Township's Yesterdays by Edwin Corwin (1934):
The African M. E. Church
Above: Two articles from 1925 pertaining to the Rollins Chapel.
Left: an August 19, 1925 article on a folk concert recital at the Methodist Episcopal Church (located at the corner of Main and Washington Streets where the library addition is today) performed by the Rollins Chapel choir. It is interesting to note that the church's choir gave performances of what can only have been a unique brand of music to its audience in the Culver of that era.
Right: An August 12, 1925 article on the death of George Rollins. There is a respectful tone to the article, which describes 68-year old Rollins as coming from Mexico, Missouri (along with many other early African-American settlers here) in 1899 to the Culver Military Academy as a cook. "All of this community," says the article, "have had nothing but good words for George. He was a man of his word, believed in the right things, and acted out his beliefs."
The article further notes that Rollins "saw the need of a church in Culver for the people of his race," and that he donated the land on which the building was built, and worked very hard in the congregation. Mrs. C.L. Watts of Culver was listed as one of his surviving children.
Culver Academy's African-American icons
Below: Roy "Sheep Scott" held court at Culver Academy for decades in a number of roles, including overseeing the janitorial staff of the campus. He also became an unofficial "counselor" to students, many of whom adopted him as a beloved confidant and sounding board for any number of personal and academic problems. Scott, as was true of many of the long-term African-American staff at CMA, was a resident of the town of Culver for years, living on the south end of town. His daughter, Thelma, as was previously mentioned, returned from a teaching career as Thelma Hodges and became one of Culver's more prominent citizens until her death in 1990 (see later articles).
From left, below: Roy "Sheep" Scott on the Academy's campus in a photo provided by Thelma (Hodges) Moorehead; Scott holding court with Academy cadets in a photo courtesy Academies archivist Bob Hartman; Roy Scott in two photos taken on the site of the Culver homestead, probably in the 1950s. The first photo shows Scott with one of the Culver brothers; both photos are courtesy Thelma (Hodges) Moorehead.
Above, from left: Charlie Dickerson and Roy Watts inspect waiters in the Academy dining hall, in a photo from 1939, courtesy Bob Hartman, Academies archivist; Roy and Lillie Scott (at right) at an Academy faculty wedding in the 1950s; "Cap" Grey, described by Jim Harper as one of Culver's "characters." He is seen here at the dining hall at Culver Academy, sometime between the 1930s and mid-1950s, where he worked.
Above: one of the regular features of the Culver Citizen's past was a series of what can only be called "gossip columns" designated to specific regions of the area (Burr Oak News, News of Hibbard, Maxinkuckee village news, etc.). An occasional example of this was the above, "In the Colored Circles," which documented the social goings-on of Culver's black populace. Most of the news, as in all of the aforementioned columns, was mundane (so-and-so visited friends in Delong and so forth), but it is interesting that the newspaper chose to devote space to the social activities of the African-American citizens of the area. The above example is from Oct. 15, 1930. The "Colored Circles" column seems to have appeared sporadically, and showed up mostly in the 1920s and 30s.
Above and below: members of Culver's African-American community through the years. Above, from left: Mrs. Zena Whitted, wife of David Whitted, in her Culver home. Middle photo: Lillie Scott, wife of Roy "Sheep" Scott and mother of Thelma Scott, who became Thelma Hodges, in the kitchen of their Main Street home. At right: a photo captioned, "Mr. Brown Lee, roomer at Mrs. Gussie Smith's house." All photos here provided by Thelma (Hodges) Moorehead, grand-daughter of Lillie Scott.
Above, from left: Lillie and Roy "Sheep" Scott at their 50th wedding anniversary. Lela Dickerson, wife of Academy head waiter Charlie Dickerson. Charles Dickerson Jr. and his brother James, sons of Lela and Charlie Dickerson, in the 1950s. A 1953 photo with (from left) Adelaide Weaver, Elsie Byrd, Nadine Byrd, Babe Scott, Agnes Cabell, Zina Whitted, Rose Simmons, Thelma Hodges, and (squatting) Charlie Dickerson Jr. Photos here provided by Thelma (Hodges) Moorehead, grand-daughter of Lillie Scott.
Above: fascinating photo of Culver's "Cafe Society" pictured in the 1940s. The group was an African-American social club which gathered in various homes. Pictured, from left: (seated) Thelma Hodges, LaVeda Pierce, Elsie Byrd and Adelaide Weaver, and standing, unidentified couple, Morsell (Bob) Hodges, Smoke Pierce from Michigan, Charlie Weaver, Ace Byrd, Roy Scott, and Roy Lear. The youth is unidentified. Photo courtesy Thelma Moorehead.
Above, from left: Charlie Dickerson at home in later years. A 1944 birthday party with (from left) Amy Willdridge, Sharon Whitted, Betty and Elenor Smith, Thelma Lillie Hodges (later Moorehead), Winston Smith, and an unidentified child. Last photo at right: Amy Willdrige, Sharon Whitted, Betty and Elenor Smith, Thelma Lillie Hdges (later Moorehead).
Above: Photos from Barbara (Moore) Cope's collection. The Moore family lived in Culver for several years, and Barbara (who now lives in Gary and has become an acclaimed educator and community leader) has returned to Culver recently to participate in talks about Culver's past African-American community. From left: Barbara Moore and unidentified siblings; Moore as part of an elementary school class at Culver elementary, photographed on the school playground at the time; Barbara Moore; Barbara and two other, unidentified children; Omey Ross, Lucille Moore, Elva Moore, and an unidentified person; Barbara Moore Cope in 2006.
Above: Charles Dickerson, Jr. as profiled in a 1938 edition of The Culver Citizen, described as "one of the best ball handlers on the (Culver High School) team."
Above: Thelma (Scott) Hodges, daughter of Roy "Sheep" Scott and Lillie Hodges, in her later years. She and husband Bob Hodges returned to Culver after retirement, and became involved in the Culver community again. Thelma, an antiques collector, became manager of Country Cousins Antiques on the west side of Main Street in downtown Culver and taught antiques classes at Ancilla College. She was also active in local politics and real estate, and a member of Wesley United Methodist Church, where her funeral was held in 1990. The Culver Citizen memorial above, from March 21, 1990, gives more detail.
Thelma Hodges' daughter, Thelma Lillie (Hodges) Moorehead, grew up in Culver and eventually moved to the Virgin Islands, where she still resides. Thelma Moorehead has provided many of the photos and information for this page.
Below: The Jan. 15, 1947 Culver Citizen announces one of the town's most memorable tragedies: four African-American children drowned in Lake Maxinkuckee when they fell through the ice near today's Indian Trails, east of the town park between the park and Culver Academy. The children were on their way to see a movie on the Academy campus, and in spite of the best efforts of rescuers (Dave Burns, for instance, dived into the icy waters and pulled several of the children's bodies out), the four were gone by the time they were pulled from the waters. Martha (Payson) Ryman recalled the long fire siren that signaled a lake emergency (usually a drowning or someone falling through the ice) in the dark of that night, and the numbing dread brought about by that sound. She recalls a terrible gloom in Culver that followed, as the town joined the children's families in mourning.
Dead were Estalla Simmons, Paul Robertson, Betty Smith, and Winston Turner. A fifth child, Eleanor Turner, aged 12, escaped with her life.
The articles below give details.
In July, 2007, Mildred Isom (originally of Culver, now of California) sent the essay that follows, along with several photos. The essay contains her recollections of her friendship with -- and subsequent grief at the death of -- Betty Jane Smith, one of the four African-American children drowned in the 1947 tragedy. Betty Jane was buried in Mildred's band uniform, a fact which (as the essay discusses) Mildred blocked from memory. Mildred Isom's essay was shared in part with the audience at a July 7, 2007 program on Culver's African-American history, and both the audience and the people participating in the program were touched not only by the essay, but the photos she sent. We are grateful to Ms. Isom for sharing these memories with all of us, and her essay is reprinted with her kind permission, below.
Betty Jane Smith was a member of our exclusive quartet of friends at Culver High School. She was an orphan who came from Chicago to live with her grandparents in our little farm town of Culver, Indiana, in the early 1940’s. The four of us were immediately drawn together into the same activities with the same goals. Marching Band, softball and other sports were our first choices but we soon we all joined Chapel Choir and the orchestra. Our band and sports teams went out of town each year to compete in contests statewide.
Above, from left: Betty Jane Smith; Mildred Isom, Betty Jane Smith, and Eleanor Turner (photos courtesy Mildred Isom)
Betty’s bubbly personality kept us all cheerful and here long black sausagecurls were a natural. Never before and never after have I been a part of such a fun loving, loyal and hardworking group. Before long Betty’s cousins, Eleanor, Winston and Paul arrived to live with the grandparents. Their parents were professionals in Chicago, a dentist, doctor and podiatrist. I did not even know what a podiatrist was at that time. Betty’s grandmother’s name was Augusta but we all called her Ga Ga because the little ones could not pronounce her name. The grandfather was Lloyd Smith, a rotund, jolly white-haired gentleman who kidded us for our attempts at cooking but never failed to consume it. This family was one of the only two black families in our town and were not related. In Plymouth, IN, a mere 10 miles north, blacks were not allowed in town after 6:00 pm. This was a mystery to us in our teenage years in the mid-1940’s.
More time was spent at Betty Jane’s house than mine. I was always invited for Friday night sleepovers, Sunday dinners and holidays. My mother had passed away many years before, my older sister was married and my father worked long hours and was seldom home. Betty Jane although much loved and always cheerful, still I think, felt like and orphan and basically so did I at the time. We were a comfort to each other and felt like sisters. During the summers one or more of the quartet joined us in swimming, fishing, bike ridding, and any kind of sports, music and babysitting.
On Friday nights during the summer we usually rode our bikes around the north side of Lake Maxinkuckee to attend the free movies offered by the Culver Military Academy. During the winters we walked directly across the lake which was frozen over three months of the year. One Friday night I had the flu and did not go with them. About 8:30 p.m. my father came home and told me that he and two friends had pulled Betty Jane, Winston and Paul from the lake. They had fallen through a thin spot in the ice. Betty Jane’s cousin, Eleanor Turner, was the only survivor. Eleanor said that her brother,
Life went on, of course, Eleanor continued high school with us but we did not become any closer as she was the studious one and being chubby all her life, she did not care for sports. She did continue to be in the marching band. At our class reunion six years ago she wrote saying she was married, living in New York and regretted she would not be able to attend the reunion.
After the reunion banquet, three of us left in the quartet, met at Helen Sikora Zalas’ house, my longtime girlfriend’s, in South Bend, IN, to carry on with our own reunion. After rehashing and chuckling about a lot of past incidents, Betty Jane’s name was brought up. Helen turned to me and said, “That was really nice of you to let them use your band uniform for Betty to be buried in.” I said something like “huh”? Then the other two girls told me the Band Director had asked if I would donate my uniform and I had said yes so they transferred my medals onto a maroon cardigan sweater. Helen asked if I remembered going to the services. I had to say “no”, I was told we all marched fully uniformed down Main Street to the Evangelical Church for services and further to the cemetery. One of the girls said that the Band Director accumulated enough funds to purchase a new uniform jacket for me about a year later. I had no recollection of these events at the time and still do not.
As the years go by I still think of Betty Jane and the way we were (pause) a long time ago.
-Millie Isom, 2005 (Written for and read in Santa Rosa Junior College’s Autobiography Writing Class)
Additional Notes: The last name of Eleanor and Winston was Turner. The married name of Eleanor or Beverly may have been “Ball.” My reunion material is unavailable at the moment.
Jim Harper: Growing Up Black in Culver
Originally published in the Spring, 2006 Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver Newsletter, this interview with Culver resident Jim Harper was conducted and edited by Jeff Kenney, and transcribed by Alison Heath, both of the library.
Jim Harper was born in Terra Haute Indiana. His parents, who had met in Culver (his father worked for Culver Military Academy and his mother worked for families on the East Shore of Lake Maxinkuckee), moved back to Culver when he was two months old, and he spent the rest of his childhood here, leaving after graduating high school, to attend college in Illinois. Earning degrees in psychology and philosophy, and attending seminary, Mr. Harper did not return to live in Culver through most of his adult, working life. After retirement, Mr. Harper and his wife, Ina, moved from the Chicago area to Culver, where they are involved in the community, active in both the Lions’ Club and Trinity Lutheran Church.
Photo above left: Jim Harper's high school graduation photo.
Could you talk about the unique experience of being a person of color in Culver growing up?
I think Culver was unique, even in that score, and I can only speak personally. I never really felt that I was that much of an outsider. I have heard others say differently, especially girls. My sisters, for example, did not feel that they were completely accepted, as much so as I think I felt.
My brother, who is a very very quiet person, you ask him a question and you get a “yep,” “nope” answer, but I did call him one day very specifically because someone had raised the question of him not being seated at a basketball game, in his band uniform as well. I had never heard such a story and I asked him very specifically about it. He claims it never happened. How Termite Baker got that story I do not know, but she insisted at the time that she was talking about it that it was true. He claims it never happened and I never heard anything about it, so I think that, had it happened, I would have been fully aware of it. He would have been (because in second grade I think he was held back), so he was three years behind me in school, which meant that he and my older sister were in the same class, both of whom were in the band, so if that had happened I am sure I would have known about it.
The one thing I will say: when I was a junior or senior in high school, Argos had a skating rink and I loved to skate and went there very very regularly. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday afternoon were the skating times and if the skating rink opened for the most time I was there, having gone with my buddies here from Culver. I do understand that they, being the officials of the skating rink, wondered “gee, should he be coming that often?” and no one ever said anything to me about it. I continued to skate ‘til I went away to school. When I came home from school for vacation (and it was primarily vacation, Christmas or Thanksgiving, because you just didn’t travel back and forth that quickly), I went skating and never had any problem other than knowing that was discussed.
Did knowing that give you a sense of unease?
I didn’t have sense to let it, just to be real frank about it! It was one of those things that you were aware of the fact that people of color were not always accepted everyplace, even in this general area, but for some reason that I can’t begin to fully explain, I never had been directly affected by that. Aware of it, but not directly affected, in school or any place in or around town. Well, I guess you would say that (the skating rink issue) was “directly” when you know that was being discussed, but to say I couldn’t do it (skate) because of that, it didn’t happen.
You mentioned the girls. Do you think that was, overall, similar for most people of color growing up in that era? Were you somewhat unique in that sense?
Well, I think maybe somewhat unique, and ignorance allows you to do some things that probably, if you were fully aware of the possible consequences, you wouldn’t do. I credit my dad a lot for that. He didn’t let me think that there was anything I couldn’t do. He wasn’t overt in doing that, but as I look back he had his subtleties, and I just never felt that if I wanted to do it I couldn’t do it and moved forward with that in mind. The people who were my classmates, my teachers, those that I came in contact with did nothing to squelch that feeling. For that I’m very thankful. So, although I may have been the only one in many instances I never felt like I was the only one in those instances. Now, I do believe in all that I’ve learned since then, that would have been an unusual thing to have happen, especially in that time period.
So by that you mean other kids (of color) growing up?
Yes, even in Culver, women especially. Now my brother doesn’t seem to have had much of a problem either. There was (and he was older than I) a (person of color with the last name) Windburn, and I can remember him not having that feeling. He had served in World War II and I talked to him much later and I know that he did not feel that he was completely free to do what he wanted to do at all times.
He grew up in here?
Yes, he grew up here as well. If he was alive, and this is a guestimation, he’d be in his eighties, probably about eighty-five.
So he grew up in an earlier era. Do you think that made a difference or do you think it’s just his personal experience?
I really couldn’t say. I’m sure that it had something to do with it. Most of my “growing up” was after the war. I believe that the war changed a lot of thinking in a lot of people. Maybe not overtly, but there were subtle changes. Like we’ve talked about women working, and I believe that in some respect people became more receptive to things they were not use to.
So you think that the war even affected the race question?
I think it did.
For the better, do you think?
In some respects, yes. Even though the army was not integrated at that time, there were those men who had contact with the “black soldier” and they were good soldiers so they came to realize “Hey…” and that’s speculation on my part (to be real frank about it) so, I don’t’ know. There have probably been some studies to that effect. I don’t know of any that I’m aware of. Cont. top of next column.
Can you talk about when your dad came to work here for the Academy and maybe you can describe why maybe that’s the reason why a lot of the black families came here?
That’s (the Academy) for the most part why most black families were here. The Academy hired janitors and all of their waiters were black men, at least all that I’ve ever known about. These people first came, a lot of them, out of Chicago and St. Louis. Those kinds of metropolitan areas they (the Academy) went to recruit, and when they did their selling point was that they had housing for you. I think that we mentioned that there were “the shacks,” (housing the Academy provided just for its black waitstaff) which at the time wasn’t bad living because a lot of these people were “rural black farmers.” So you come to this and you’ve got indoor plumbing!”
Could you talk about “the shacks” some more and where they were?
To say where they were, I think that would be 17th road just north of (State Road) 10 and the north side of the Academy. I think it‘s primarily vacant now. They were on that road, set apart of course from the main campus of the Academy. But, that was the housing for their waiters.
I’ve been told that there were some in what we call the “Indian Trails” now. Was that earlier…later?
It would have been earlier, I think. At the time (later) it was not bad housing. They did let them get quite run down after awhile. I don’t remember when they changed from the waiter system to the now cafeteria system. Because, at that time, every meal (breakfast, lunch, and supper) was a sit-down served by a waiter. That was the caliber of the Academy at that time. They didn’t really pay them that much. It was a low-wage job. There’s no ifs ands or butts about that. But, then they also had them as janitors. My dad came as a waiter and then he became a janitor. South barracks was the one that he had primary care of. Sheep Scott, who I don’t know how long he had been in town or stayed in town...Sheep was the superintendent of the janitors, so to speak. That was his responsibility, to see over all the janitors. Charlie Dickerson was the “head waiter.” He had responsibility for all the waiters. Roy Scott was his immediate assistant.
I get the impression from looking at old papers that the students really related to Sheep Scott.
They did, not only did the Academy students relate to him, but all the kids here in town knew Sheep Scott. One of the reasons why was because he provided a lot of us with sports equipment. When those cadets left in the spring to go home for the summer they left anything and everything in their rooms. Some of it was quite valuable. These were kids with money. The population of the Academy now is poor compared to the population and of the economic situation of the kids at school then. You knew that if the kid was at the Academy, and the only exception to that were the kids of people on staff, they had money. I don’t know of any kid in town whose parents didn’t work for the Academy, in a teaching or professional capacity that went to the Academy. For example, Peter Sexton, who I started first grade with, went to the Academy and his father was the chaplain. Those were the kinds of kids who went to the Academy from town.
Do you know how far back they were bringing in black wait staff?
I believe from the inception of the Academy. I think that the Academy moved to Culver in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s.
From what I’ve heard, most of the early students were from St. Louis because there was a fire. And to my understanding they brought the wait staff with them from St. Louis.
Yes, like I said a lot of these people I knew had roots in St. Louis and families down there.
When did that stop? What general period?
I’m not sure when the waiters stopped. I believe in the late 50’s early 60’s but that’s a pure guess. I was not here when it stopped. I’m inclined to believe over into the 60’s though.
Now we look at that sort of system and that sort of arrangement and we think it’s almost demeaning, just because of this rigid color line. Was there an awareness of that at that time?
Yes, I would have to say there was. This was especially true later when in the middle 40’s they started bringing in people from Arkansas. These were primarily the black rural people. They were “not accepted” in town by either whites or blacks. They were not sophisticated at all, it just wasn’t there, it wasn’t their background. Are you familiar with a writer from the Chicago Tribune? I think his name was Roy Ottley. He made (a) statement in one of his articles one time, and he was talking about rural blacks moving to the cities and the things that happened in and around that. His comment was, “they bring their baggage with them,” meaning that those traditions, those sayings that they grew up with, when they moved someplace else, that’s still was a part of them. That was the case with those young men coming up from Arkansas. They lived and they did things as they were used to doing them in their own situations, which was, in a very real sense, completely foreign. Not, bad per se, as you look back, but foreign to those of us who lived and grew up here. It just wasn’t the same.
You told me the story about the Jitterbug.
Yes, that being one.
The jitterbug was a dance that came out around the middle 40’s. I remember very specifically at one of the school dances they (the rural black waiters newly in town) came in for the dance and they were doing the jitterbug. I don’t know if I can compare the jitterbug to any dance that we know of now, but it was “sexually provocative” in terms of what people knew in terms of dancing (in those days). I can remember Bill McClain telling Trudy McKey talking about that, “that just shouldn’t be done, those people shouldn’t be doing that!” And Trudy says to him, “Bill! Jim’s back there listening to you!” And his comment was, “Oh hell! He’s one of us! I don’t care if he hears it!”
A part of the provincialism in Culver in reality is the people who were born and raised here belong here. Yes, if you come in and you’re not white you’re more readily recognized as a stranger. So you can say it’s prejudice and in a very real sense it is prejudice, but it’s not prejudice based solely upon color. It’s prejudice based on being strange, too. A lot of what happened in Culver still happens. My buddy’s wife was raised over by Huntington and they have been married 25 years. Not too long ago she said every now and then she very much gets that feeling that she’s an outsider.
You distinguish between provincialism and prejudice.
They both start with “p,” and the end results, when it hits you, is the same. But, there is that subtle difference. Culver is very provincial. There’s no ifs ands or buts about it. Prime example: when I moved back it was almost like I had not been gone. The church that I now attend did not even exist when I went away to school. But, the first Sunday that we went, the one lady said, “Are you (of the Harper family I knew)?” and when I said yes, even though a number of the people in that church now were not born or raised in Culver, you were accepted as a Culverite, a native. In a lot of other instances of things I’ve become involved in, it’s the same kind of situation. I think the fact that I’m a Lion (a member of Culver’s Lions’ Club) is easily an indication of that. Though Lions have reached out a little bit more so than you might expect in a sense.
Did some of the rural black waiters from the 1940s that you mentioned put down roots here at all?
Not that I know of. All the people that have roots here were the ones that had been here for sometime prior to that influence. I can understand why. Number one; there were no females to speak of for them to mate with and that is an indication of people settling down. Number two; even the blacks here did not readily accept them. So color alone is not a leveler so to speak in terms of social interactions.
One thing that has really seemed to change is that there were so many more black families living in Culver in the past. Could you talk about that a little more?
I want to say that there were close to 30 families, but what didn’t happen then were a lot of the kids went away to school, but when they did they didn’t come back. One exception that I know of would be Thelma Hodges (the mother). Thelma (the daughter) didn’t come back. That was true of most of us. You get an education, and this was true of most kids, there just weren’t the jobs here. Some stayed as teachers but beyond that the economy really wasn’t such that kids came back. I don’t care whether you were black or white. Probably even more so for those that were black prior to my time. I don’t believe that Culver (the public school) has a black teacher on staff. I don’t know that they’ve ever had a black teacher on staff. The Academy, yes, they do now, but not in the town. That is what holds people, I don’t care if you’re black or white, you’ve got to have an economic base to work from and Culver’s never really had it.
Most of the families that were working for the Academy at this time. Did most of the adults stay on until they were older and passed away?
Yes, most of them did. In some instances the children would move them away because they were gone, but most of them that I know stayed here, died here and are buried here.
Is the fact that there was this black populous in Culver fairly unique in this part of the country in a town this size?
Yes, I do believe so. As I was growing up, if I’m not mistaken, Plymouth had one gentleman who was black. I have no idea who he was. I believe someone once told me that there was one in Argos, but I couldn’t verify that in any way whatsoever. Now the Plymouth one I would say yes that did happen. He did live there. Whether he had a family or not I do not know. No other town close to us that I knew of, except South Bend and Logansport would be the closest places where there were people of color.
Going to school: what was the social scene like for you in that sense?
I did not date in high school. I had a lot of female friends, but I really didn’t date. I didn’t start dating until after I went away to college. Now, did I secretly feel that I couldn’t? I can’t answer that. I’m just not sure. Do I feel that I couldn’t have dated? I think I could have. I had one gentleman whose daughter had been married a couple of years and I had been in the service and just gotten back and I might have even finished college and was in seminary at the time. I got to talking to another character of our town and he said to me, “you know I always thought that you and the man’s daughter were going to get together.” He was thinking in terms of marriage per se.
It was interesting because I had been very close to her and considered her a very good friend and still do. But, I never thought of her in terms of romantically. It just never occurred to me. I was somewhat surprised that he thought that. I don’t know to this day if she knows about that. Sometime I’ll have to ask her. But, I’ll never forget that. He thought that it was going to happen. I knew that he had always liked me. We were friends. You know how youngsters and older men can be friends. I learned from him, I respected him, I liked him. I know that the feeling was mutual. So yes, he would have accepted that. As I said, he expected it, and why, I do not know. Just because I would stand on his porch and talk for an hour or two to his daughter, you know… But, again, as I think back I would really like to know what that feeling would be, and I never tested it.
One thing we haven’t touch on yet is the Lions Club minstrel shows.
Above: Two shots from the 1940s and 50s of the Lions Club Minstrel shows in Culver; The front (left) and inside (right) of a program from a Feb. 3, 1950 Lions Club minstrel show, this one performed at the Culver Academies for the students. This artifact, loaned by Academies archivist Bob Hartman, is interesting, too, in the detail it gives not only in the kind of performances that made up a typical minstrel show, but also in the recollection of local names of yesteryear.
I participated in those! Again you’re looking at a different time and a different mindset for the whole country. Minstrel shows at that time were strictly a form of entertainment. I doubt very seriously that anyone in town, and I do mean anyone, gave a lot of thought in terms of them being negative as far as a stereotype to black people. In later years it developed and yes it was. If someone tried to put on a minstrel show now they would probably be rode out of town on a rail so to speak. I can only speak personally because I’ve never discussed with any other person of color that was in town at that time. There were several and one of these days when I contact some of them I’m going to try to remember to raise that question. I know that in our family it was never talked about, one way or the other. Like I said, I participated in it.
One of the Lions, when I became a Lion brought it up, “do you remember when?” Yes I did, how could I not, especially when you bring it to my attention? He talked about how much fun we had working at it. Yes, these were fundraisers and everyone knew what Lions did with their funds. That by itself wouldn’t justify it but that was the reason why it was happening. I think probably most people were completely unaware of the social negatives that developed in and around those shows. Ignorance lets a whole lot of things happen in innocence, and I really think that’s what happened here. Most of us were ignorant to the fact that it was negative to some people, and in that ignorance we innocently went on and did those types of things. Now does that make it right? No. Should it happen again? No. But, you don’t condemn a whole town for what took place way back, when what took place was not done for a malicious reason and it definitely was not malicious in being done.
Were minstrel shows a pretty common thing in many towns?
I think they were. Just across the country in reality. If you look back, some of the first tv shows were minstrel shows. Now, I can’t verify that, but I’m almost sure that I’ve seen records of that. I do know that a lot of productions went on in cities that were minstrel shows.
What period did those go on?
I would dare say the roaring 20’s up in until the 50’s. It probably started to diminish a little in the 50’s because there were other forms of entertainment coming out. But, I doubt very seriously that any of them took place in the 60’s.
Was this an annual thing in Culver?
Yes, it was an annual affair. I don’t know how many years total it went but I do know that it was an annual event.
Were they a variety such as comedy and musical?
Yes, they were: comedy and musical. The purpose was to make money for themselves. That doesn’t mean the negative wasn’t there, it just wasn’t the prime purpose of doing the shows. I think that we sometimes move away from that reality and see only the negative, only the denigration that is in some instances taking place, in that kind of music and those kind of play situations. When, to put one down wasn’t the real intent.
I think a lot of people of my generation have never seen one and don’t know what the content is. Would you say a lot of humor was genuinely a race-based humor or was that just the pretext and it was just generic humor?
It was both. It was humor because if you are not completely familiar with something it’s funny to you, because it’s different.
So, it would be racially based for primarily that reason, I believe. And with that humor, with that coming out, if I can get you to laugh you’re going to come back to my play, you’re going to come back to my movie, and I’m going to make money. Now, if I have offended a group, well, maybe so, but that’s not my real intent. But, I don’t let my real intent stand in the way of me offending somebody. So, it’s bad no matter how you look at it but sometimes you have to really give thought to how did it start and why did it start. I firmly believe that it started because someone (an artist) felt that this is one way for me to put out something to the public that’s going to be beneficial to me economically.
The people who were putting these on in Culver, do you think they gave it a moment’s thought?
Not that I’m aware of. And I don’t really think that we had enough of a black population at that time to bring that awareness to anyone else. Or, if that black population was integrated enough into the total society of the town to make a statement. Like I said, I never heard anything negative from anyone. Now, sometimes you just don’t listen and I hope that wasn’t my case. I can’t say that it absolutely wasn’t. I think in retrospect if I had heard so and so did say this, but I don’t have that retrospect.
You and I talked about a rumor that’s going around. There’s a very famous picture of the depot of a train arriving…
Yes and you were talking about who the girl might have been. My first guess, if it’s not Thelma Hodges, would be Jane Dickerson, because of the time period. I can’t think of any other person that would have been old enough to be in that shot. Because, if I remember, I think this would have been an eight to ten year old at the time. Either of those would fit that picture.
You said there were about 30 black families throughout Culver. Were they fairly spread out through the town?
There was some concentration but they were fairly spread out. For example, a good number lived off Plymouth Street on Clover. There just some that lived just north of Jefferson. Then, of course, we lived at the south end of town out sort of by ourselves relatively speaking. But, no they weren’t all clustered just in one exact spot.
You described a much tighter knit community in general.
Oh yeah, I really think so. And a prime example, on a weekend (nowadays) if you drive around Culver how many Illinois plates would you see parked in front of houses where you see them every week so you know they have some type of ownership of that residence. You didn’t see anything like that when I was growing up. Number one, people didn’t travel as readily. Who would’ve thought if you commuted to South Bend to work that was a long ways to go? People did it, but then to go 100 miles on the weekend just for 2 or 3 days, that was a long distance. For example Naperville to here, it would take me about 3 ½- 4 hours to get here. That’s driving. You had 2 lane roads the whole way. By the time you wound in and around these kinds of things, it just took time.
Would you say the town was more it’s own and there was less spill-over between the lake community and the Academy community, so the town was more of it’s own community?
There was almost no spillover between the Academy people and town people or the lake people and town people. The interaction with the lake people and town people would be the town people would go work for them maybe. But, there was basically no social interaction between the townspeople and the lake people, almost none I would say. It was very close to that with the Academy people, especially the staff. It was a separate entity entirely. The schools didn’t even play one another in sports as they do now.
I get the impression that a townsperson was not encouraged to go on campus. Now it’s perfectly acceptable to take your dog or your child and walk across campus.
I alluded to that earlier, the only kids who went from Culver Elementary School to the Academy were kids whose parents were on staff as teachers or a professional level. Now you get someone working over there as a clerk and their kid goes to the Academy.
I understand that there was a segregated pier in the area of what today we call the “Indian Trails.” Do you know anything about that?
Yes there was. If I’m not mistaken, do you know where the boat pier is (in the town park)? There was the beach lodge and then the pier. I want to say that was it. But, I never went to it. We always went down here off Davis Street!
So you didn’t really swim at the public beach either?
No, because that was too far away. Every down here on this end of town went to Davis Street.
You’re talking about all these black families being in Culver. Is that who that pier would’ve been for, or would it have been for the Academy staff?
Believe it or not I can’t give a good answer to that. The black families that I knew with kids lived down this way (further south) and Davis Street was convenient. So, all of us kids and some of them of course were black…Glen Schrimsher, Vern McKey, a guy by the name of Allen Hewitt, Chuck Porcher, the Crossgrove kids, they all lived down that way and we all used Davis Street pier. I think I went down to the public beach 2 or 3 times at most. It was convenience and that wasn’t where those persons that I grew close to and affiliated with really went. So there no reason for me to go so I didn’t. Like I say, I had been there, swam there, never was told I couldn’t or I shouldn’t.
Then when we started riding bicycles around everywhere…you know where Key Waste is, that used to be a gravel pit. We used to go over there a lot and do some stupid things! When we went there it was always almost all boys, you didn’t need a swimming suit and you did stupid things like grabbing a big rock and seeing how long you could hold on to it before you ran out of air. I think they said in some places that was 60 to 100 feet deep. There was one area that I know I never got to the bottom of it and I know several others who claim they never did either. We had one guy who said he did but nobody believed him. Your bike would take you to Burr Oak, Hibbard, all around.
It was on Coolidge Court, immediately south of what is now the City Tavern building and it (the lot where the chapel stood) is vacant. When that building may have been torn down, I don’t have the foggiest idea. I do know that when I moved back it was already a vacant lot. I know that it (the church) existed. It existed when I was a young kid. We never went there with any regularity, although we had gone. I do know that when my sister was in early high school she would play for them from time to time because she had developed into a fairly decent pianist. Do you remember a Mrs. Fisher in town? Her husband was one of our mailmen in town. I can’t remember if he had our route. He was a rural mail carrier. They had one old guy and I can picture him but I can’t remember what his name was. The name of the church was Rollins Chapel.
I know you said you weren’t around when it started, but you have any idea of how long the church had been established?
This is a pure guesstimation, but I think somewhere in the middle to late twenties.
By the time you became aware of it, was it somewhat well attended?
I don’t remember if it had a weekly service. For some reason I think it was on a monthly basis, but again that’s somewhat sketchy. I think if I had been a vital part of it more I would have a better recollection.
Could you describe what the building of the church was like?
I remember it was a narrow building, I believe there was a steeple on the front, I would dare say it would have probably sat 40-50 people, I remember it was a frame building. I don’t remember any brick on it, and it had a stone foundation.
Was it still somewhat in operation when you graduated high school?
I want to say yes but I can’t remember anything happening there. It wasn’t a thriving church by any stretch of the imagination. I really don’t think it was because by the time I was getting out of high school most of these people had started going to either the Methodist church, which was right here on the corner (of Main and Washington Streets), or Emmanuel (on South Main Street), and I believe some were even going to the Bible Church. It was just getting started then.