The Pillars That Hold Us All Up

Author: Don Wycliff ’69

Wycliffjohnston The author, outside his parish church. Photo by Barbara Johnston

On the near west side of South Bend is an area I’ve taken to calling Holiness Central, because it is so heavily churched. Within a two-block area stand five churches, including mine, St. Augustine, the only predominantly African American Catholic church in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

On any given Sunday, you may find in the pews there G. Marcus Cole, the dean of Notre Dame’s Law School; Dianne Pinderhughes, a professor of political science and chair of the Department of Africana Studies; Alfred Guillaume, the retired executive vice chancellor of Indiana University South Bend; and other prominent Catholics, black and white, from the area.

At the altar on most Sundays, along with the pastor, is Deacon Mel Tardy ’86, ’90MBA, a faculty member and adviser in Notre Dame’s Center for University Advising, and the only black member of the clergy in the diocese.

Just east of St. Augustine is Pilgrim Baptist Church. On Palm Sundays, their pastor and congregation join with those from St. Augustine in a march around the block, carrying palms and singing in celebration of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

Next door to St. Augustine is the tiny Landmark Church of Holiness Through Christ, and across Washington Street is New Testament Missionary Baptist Church.

A couple of hundred yards west is Greater St. John Missionary Baptist Church, attended by several of my brothers in the 100 Black Men of Greater South Bend, including the president, Arnold Sallie, and his wife, Vivian. The Sallies live in Granger, but their church home is in the city, in black South Bend.

For most of my time as a Notre Dame undergraduate, the city of South Bend might as well have been labeled “terra incognita” on campus maps. We were forbidden to have cars and were discouraged in ways both subtle and explicit from exploring too far beyond campus boundaries.

Nevertheless, I and many other black students found our ways to the black neighborhoods on the West Side and the narrow black residential belt that used to lie just south of campus around the Five Points intersection and along State Road 23. If you needed a haircut or wanted a social life, you had no choice.

When I came back to South Bend in 2006 to live and work, it was a changed city. Downtown was a shadow of its former self. The black neighborhoods along campus’ southern edge were being displaced. And the West Washington Street corridor, which had been the heart of black South Bend, held no businesses; they had been replaced by housing constructed by the South Bend Heritage Foundation.

“Where do black middle-class people live around here?” I asked a black colleague at the University.

She replied, “I don’t know.”

Actually, they live everywhere. Black South Bend is less sharply bounded — segregated — than it was in the late 1960s, but it also seems less cohesive and more internally stratified. There is a substantial middle class, many of them older and living in Granger and other upscale areas, alongside similarly situated white neighbors and colleagues. The black working class appears diminished, along with the heavy industrial plants that used to employ them and thousands of working-class whites. The black poor, many of them living in single-parent households, seem more numerous and more detached from the economic mainstream, their lives more precarious.

Economics may not be destiny, but it does a good imitation. Those unequipped for the new technology-based economy risk never finding not just a job, but also a career, a mate, a family, a future.

It is as if South Bend has developed two different black communities, says Eldridge Chism, a retired educator who was born and reared in the city, moved away for many years and then, in the early 2000s, returned.

One community bears all the hallmarks of traditional, middle-class black strivers — appreciation of education, concern about community and, especially, attachment to church.

The other community is only tenuously a community at all. They are younger, often unemployed or underemployed, too often involved in drug culture, unmoored. They seek attachment and often find it in gangs — or “factions,” as gang-violence expert Isaac Hunt calls them.

Chism and I met more than 50 years ago, when he was a high school student in Notre Dame’s Upward Bound program and I was a counselor. We renewed our acquaintance a few years ago when I joined the 100 Black Men, a mentoring and community improvement organization. He already was a member.

“Things started changing in South Bend around 1985,” Chism says. “There was a big shift in employment. Before that, a kid could drop out of school and go to the factory and make as much money as his father did.”

After that, no such luck. The deindustrialization that began in the mid-1960s with the shuttering of the Studebaker Corporation continued apace. The Uniroyal factory in Mishawaka, for example, where Chism worked for several years while pursuing degrees at Holy Cross College and IUSB, closed in 1997 and was razed in 2000.

With industrial jobs largely shut off as an avenue to middle-class advancement and stability, education became more important than ever, and the penalties for the lack of it more severe. Economics may not be destiny, but it does a good imitation. Those unequipped for the new technology-based economy risk never finding not just a job, but also a career, a mate, a family, a future.

Richmond and Virginia Calvin made their marks in South Bend as educators. Reared in small towns in Louisiana, they came to South Bend in 1972, when Richmond was hired to the faculty of the School of Education at IUSB.

Virginia took a job teaching at Washington High School. She dealt immediately with racial convulsions and turbulence as black students sought to assert themselves in a school previously dominated by students from white ethnic backgrounds.

Over time, as Richmond thrived at IUSB, Virginia moved up in the South Bend public school system. Eventually she became superintendent, the first African American to serve in that role in Indiana. She vaulted from that position to the chancellorship of Ivy Tech Community College.

Together, the Calvins have endowed scholarships at IUSB and Ivy Tech. In 1999, they led a campaign to establish the African American Community Fund at the Community Foundation of St. Joseph County.

“We wouldn’t be where we are if we hadn’t had mentors,” Virginia Calvin told me. As a result, she and her husband go out of their way to pay it forward. Throughout black South Bend, people invoke the names of Virginia and Richmond Calvin for their examples as community leaders and personal mentors.

After his first visit to the city, in the late 1980s, Arnold Sallie went home to Louisville, Kentucky, and told his wife that if there was one place in the United States they would never live, it was South Bend, Indiana. “Racism permeated everything,” he says.

A few years later, his employer, Xerox, offered him a position here. It was a good opportunity and he and Vivian wanted to be closer to their hometown of Joliet, Illinois. So they accepted.

House hunting was a challenge. “The owner of one home refused to let us in,” Vivian says.

Nevertheless, they persisted. The Sallies, like most successful people, are less given to cursing the darkness than to lighting candles. And they are not reluctant to let the leaders of powerful businesses and institutions know, in Arnold’s words, that “we bring assets to the table.”

Vivian, then a corporate executive, couldn’t find a suitable position here. So she started her own public relations firm. She later held top positions at the Chamber of Commerce and WNIT public television.

Arnold, now retired from Xerox, devotes his time to volunteer activities, including serving on the board of Bethel University. He created and still organizes the Michiana Diversity Leadership Initiative, which trains young minorities to become board members and leaders in the area.

Underlying the couple’s approach to their role in the community is a conviction that positive attitudes and a focus on possibilities, rather than obstacles, can make life better — for the black community and for South Bend as a whole.

Arnold says he and his wife always are looking to see “how can we positively impact” whatever situation they find problematic.

“Our community needs to look at things from a positive rather than a negative perspective,” Vivian says. “We need to bring new people to the table with positive perspectives.”

She adds, “Unless you’re at the table, you really don’t have a voice.”

Alfred Guillaume has become one of my best friends. We’re the same age, 73, and we’re both black Catholics with roots in Creole Louisiana. We both have wives who are Unitarian Universalists. A native of New Orleans and a scholar of French literature, Guillaume is one of the most recognizable figures in black South Bend. He serves on a host of nonprofit boards, cooks for the St. Augustine soup kitchen and, along with half a dozen others, conducts classes for the Freedman Academy, the youth-mentoring program of the 100 Black Men.

One of his proudest accomplishments was leading the creation of the Civil Rights Heritage Center while he was at IUSB. Located in the former Engman Public Natatorium on West Washington Street, the center houses an archive of documents and artifacts related to the fight for civil rights in South Bend and beyond.

A dynamic historian, Darryl Heller, runs the center. Heller is a veritable font of ideas. He has made the center into a venue for thought, discussion and debate about issues of race and rights and privilege and power. Crucially, the participants are not just academics but also ordinary citizens and activists.

The center’s location is of more than incidental interest. Early on, the Engman pool forbade blacks to use the public facility. It finally allowed them in on a day reserved for blacks. And to be sure the insult was not missed, say those who remember, the people in charge drained the pool after blacks used it and filled it with fresh water for whites to swim in.

John Charles Bryant is a griot, an oral historian, a collector and teller of stories. He is one of those people Africans had in mind when they created the expression: “When an old man dies, a library burns.”

Bryant literally knows where the bodies are buried. I got to know him when he led me and two other men on a tour of Underground Railroad sites in southern Michigan. Many of the sites were cemeteries.

Bryant descends from one of the first black families to settle in South Bend, that of Farrow — or possibly Pharoh — Powell. He tells the story of Powell’s 1833 migration from North Carolina, where the legislature had mandated that free blacks leave the state. Powell and his family went first to the southern Indiana town of Spencer, and later moved to South Bend, a place of greater promise.

The story of these early black settlers is told in considerable detail in a video shown at The History Museum, two blocks east of the Civil Rights center. The narrator of that video, Michael Warren, was a basketball star at South Bend Central High School in the 1960s, an All-American guard at UCLA under John Wooden and an actor in the TV series Hill Street Blues.

Bryant’s knowledge extends beyond his family story and encompasses much of the history of black South Bend. Happily, much of it has been captured in interviews available through the St. Joseph County Public Library. So when Bryant goes, the library he is will endure.

Twenty-nine-year-old Jorden Giger is, to quote a lyric from the 1960s, part of “a whole generation with a new explanation.” Elders in the community pride themselves on their ability to maneuver within the system and negotiate with the local power structure. But Giger and his companions in South Bend’s Black Lives Matter group pride themselves on their willingness to confront, demand and heighten tensions to call attention to injustices and inequities.

That’s what they did throughout former mayor Pete Buttigieg’s surprisingly enduring campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. They raised legitimate questions about the relationship between South Bend police and the city’s black residents and portrayed Buttigieg as unconcerned about the black community and lacking in support among black South Benders.

Giger, a native of South Bend and a graduate of DePauw University downstate, has said the differences between his compatriots and the older generation of black leaders is “not age so much as ideology.” As he sees it, the interests of poor and working-class people in South Bend ought to be paramount in leaders’ minds. As long as they are not, problems will fester.

Significantly, while older leaders almost invariably mention education first when asked what most needs fixing for black South Bend to thrive, Giger says it’s the relationship between police and the African-American community. Second on his list is the “school-to-prison pipeline,” including disciplinary practices that see black boys as problems from their earliest years.

New explanation. Different agenda.

Gladys Muhammad, Lynn Coleman, Alma Powell and Sy Barker are all elders of the black community. All fought the good fight in one arena or another when they were younger. All continue to push the boulder up the hill, trying, in Muhammad’s words, to achieve “justice, equality, fairness.” And while none of them demeans Giger’s concerns, none feels a need to apologize for what they have done or how they did it.

Powell was the first African American woman to serve as principal of a South Bend public school and a leader in desegregation efforts. Lynn Coleman was a South Bend police officer who later served in Mayor Steve Luecke’s administration and became a role model and mentor to many younger people. Muhammad years ago worked in what was then the black studies program at Notre Dame and subsequently in a range of community leadership positions. I call her now the “mother superior” of black South Bend. Sy Barker, a retired former executive of the Whirlpool Corporation, has become, along with his pastor at Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, a leader in a revitalization effort on the city’s southeast side. Not incidentally, both Barker and Muhammad served as surrogates for Buttigieg during his campaign.

Eventually, inevitably, the experienced elders will yield to the energetic young. South Bend will be challenged anew to live up to the promise that attracted Farrow Powell and generations of African Americans after him. Because for all that has been achieved, there’s still plenty of work to do.

Don Wycliff is a retired journalist and co-editor of the 2014 book of essays Black Domers: Seventy Years at Notre Dame