GARY — For a few hours Saturday, walkers got to see a part of this city that thrived, with black-owned businesses and a strong community that redefined resiliency.
Resiliency, Corey Hagelberg said, can be defined as “connecting with the community.”
Hagelberg, the director of Calumet Artist Residency, led the Resilient Midtown Tour, guiding people through the history of Gary’s Midtown neighborhood.
Starting from Campbell Friendship House, a settlement house built in 1928, and Washington Street Church of God, Hagelberg and other guides began the tour in the 2100 block of Washington Street.
Calumet Artist Residency, Indiana University Northwest and other community partners staged the free walking tour of Midtown, a hub of African American life in Gary during the Jim Crow era, when forced segregation divided the city.
“Black people had to settle in the Midtown neighborhood, so folks came up with unique strategies for self-reliance at a community level,” Hagelberg said. “There were unique forms of cooperation like the Consumers Cooperative Trading Company, which was the largest African American cooperative in the country with 400 members in the early 1930s. It was the largest African American grocery store in the country.
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“Our research found there also was the largest community garden in the country, a 300-acre garden at the area where Roosevelt [High School] is today.”
Midtown, Hagelberg explained, extended south from 11th Avenue to the Little Calumet River and west from Virginia Street to Grant Street. The tour covered sites from 21st to 25th avenues.
Among the sites toured were Campbell Friendship House and Washington Street Church of God, followed by Brother’s Keeper Garden and Food Forest, two blocks south on Washington.
Other stops included Israel CME Church at 2301 Washington St., the Jackson 5 house at 2300 Jackson and Roosevelt High School on W. 25th Avenue.
Midtown, said Judith Leek Mead, was “my life.” Born at 21st and Madison, she recalled going to Campbell Friendship House for swimming, plays, basketball, cooking and Girl Scouts.
A Merrillville resident with property in Gary, Mead said this area “means a lot to me.”
The Rev. Michael Dotson, pastor at Washington Street Church of God, offered a tour of the sanctuary of what began as First Baptist Church. His congregation is working to renovate the former settlement house across the street.
“We hope you support us with your prayers, that we’re trying to do something in Gary to make the city proud,” Dotson said.
Black and Hispanic people came to Gary during the Great Migration, leaving the sharecropping South for industrial jobs up North.
“They became self-reliant and self-sufficient,” Hagelberg said.
The two-mile-long tour made six stops, with other points of interest along the way. The tour also highlighted Black entrepreneurs who helped shape this community.
Local historian Korry Shepard spoke of businessmen A.B. Whitlock and Andrew Means. Originally a steelworker, Whitlock developed several newspapers, including the Gary American, which continued into the 1980s.
Means turned $90 into a construction company. Means developed 11 subdivisions in Gary, including some in Midtown.
“There’s a lot of history here, … right in the central district,” Shepard said. “This was the place to be.”
Hagelberg cited Vee-Jay Records, formerly at 1640 Broadway, which before Motown was the largest black-owned record company in the U.S. Vee-Jay closed in 1966.
Tiffany Tolbert, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said the first African Americans came from Pittsburgh to work in the Gary steels. However, steel companies did not provide housing for their minority workers.
This area had several names, Tolbert said, including “The Patch.” Those pioneering black people, she continued, “created their own community here.”
Earl Hooks, who grew up in Midtown, came from Virginia to show enlarged photos that will become part of an exhibit at Indiana University Northwest.
Hooks was born in 1965 at 2221 Washington. His grandmother operated a pharmacy, Mrs. Johnson’s Drug Store, at 2201 Washington. Her daughter Juanita, Hooks’ mother, eventually took over the pharmacy. His father opened the first African American art gallery at 1900 Broadway.
Earlene Douglas, who grew up in the Froebel High School area, remembered the Hooks family.
“Just think of all the history that’s here,” Douglas said. “The people who should be learning all this history, the kids, are not here.”
This was the final event in the Climate Season project, in which the Calumet Artist Residency partnered with the IUN Performing Arts Department to raise awareness about climate change and what can be done to address it.
Lauren Pacheco, director of arts programming and engagement for the IUN School of the Arts, said it’s ”really important” to highlight a part of the city so close to the campus.
“This is an opportunity for us to connect with this space,” Pacheco said. “These walking tours help humanize these vacancies in the city.”