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Inquire Indiana: What's The History Of Racism In Indiana?

KKK

The KKK became especially powerful in Indiana in the 1920s. (Courtesy Indiana Historical Society)

We’re answering people's questions about the Hoosier state as part of our Inquire Indiana project.

A Bloomington resident asked us to find out more about the history of racism and hate groups in Indiana, and their impact on our lives today.

"So Jim Crow and segregation and all of those kind of things because I feel that we don’t talk about that type of stuff," says Shelby Hoshaw. "And, it’s an important part of our history and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it. Because without talking about it, we’re not going to address the issues that are happening today."

We found out the history of racism in Indiana is long and complicated. 

Early Racism Illustrated In Constitution, Rise Of KKK

Though it’s evolved over the years, racism’s been a constant in Indiana history. It’s been around much longer than the state itself, but we see the attitudes manifest in Indiana’s first constitution in 1816. While it prohibited slavery, it also didn’t allow black men to vote.

"And in many other ways the pioneers at the very beginning excluded African Americans from citizenship and from full participation in everyday life in Indiana," says James Madison, a professor emeritus in Indiana University's history department. "And that pattern laid down at the very beginning and persisted into the 20th century."

Many people think of Indiana's history with the Ku Klux Klan when they think of racism in the state. The KKK became especially powerful in the 1920s, when it had significant influence over state politics. At the time, Madison says a great number of Hoosiers supported or were sympathetic to the Klan. 

In 1924 voters elected Edward Jackson as governor, who was rumored to be a Klan member because of his close ties with Indiana Klan leader D.C. Stephenson.

Madison says the KKK of the '20s had a long list of enemies. 

"Certainly the Klan’s enemies included African Americans," he says. "But the Klan’s enemies also included Jewish Hoosiers and, above all and most importantly, Catholics and immigrants."

Crispus attucks
Crispus Attucks was the first and only all-black high school in Indianapolis. (WFIU/WTIU News)

Racial Divides Illustrated In Makeup Of School Systems, Neighborhoods 

During the same decade the Klan rose to power, Indianapolis opened its first and only all-black high school, Crispus Attucks

"When it first was built, it was built out of racism," says Patricia Payne, director of the Racial Equality Initiative for Indianapolis Public Schools. "The school board members were Ku Klux Klan members. They did not want white students and black students going to school together."

Payne’s parents were in the first two graduating classes and their pictures still hang on the walls of the school.

She says Crispus Attucks became a symbol of strength for the black community. Many of the teachers were university professors who couldn't get jobs elsewhere because they were black. Payne says they challenged and encouraged the students, who left the school culturally and academically prepared for the complicated world. 

"What happened was we took lemons and made lemonade," she says.  

Now there’s a museum in the high school that tells the story of much more than Crispus Attucks. It starts as far back as ancient Egypt.  

"The museum is important also because we make sure all children understand that the history of black people did not start on a plantation in America," Payne says. "I have been told so many lies about my history in school now where you’re supposed to be learning the truth."

The exhibits are far from the only evidence of racism still present in Indiana today. It’s evident in the makeup of school systems, neighborhoods, and jail populations. Decisions made decades ago are still having an impact today.

Like the decision Indianapolis city leaders made in the 1970s to unify Marion County and Indianapolis governments – but not the school systems.

"You look at what it did to public education and how in many ways the divisiveness we have with school districts … really shifted issues around access and issues around parity and quality and equity that have unfortunately fallen along racial lines," says Michael Twyman, who teaches classes at IU about race and social justice.  

He also points to how the building of the Interstate impacted historic, vibrant black communities in Indianapolis. Payne's family was among those displaced to make way for the roads. 

"I don’t know how you ever really rebound from that, at least in a short amount of time because it then begins to create certain impediments and barriers for other economic development," Twyman says. "Because when you do infrastructure that really begins to define what’s possible, it makes it very difficult to get not only economies of scale but really the type of critical mass of resources that will allow certain communities and neighborhoods to be vibrant again."

KKK rally
The KKK held a rally in Madison, Ind. in 2018. But most of the people who showed up were protestors. (WFIU/WTIU News)

Is Indiana A Racist State?

Those scars make it hard for Indiana to buck the reputation of being a close-minded, sometimes racist state.

Just last year the KKK held a rally in Madison, Ind. But the event drew far more protestors.

"Across the state in small towns I sense that there is a movement toward more acceptance and a movement against hatred and dismissiveness toward those who are different," Madison says. 

Madison says it’s up to Hoosiers to take a stand and make a change.

"Individual Hoosiers in communities in Indiana have done just enough dumb, stupid, hateful things to spark the question again and again ‘Well is Indiana klan state?’ My answer to that is no, it’s not. But Indiana has flirted down to the 21st century with some of the culture, some of the ideas, some of the beliefs and values that so informed the Klan in the 1920s."

That's one of the reasons IPS has a racial equity initiative that teaches educators and community members about the impact of racism, and what they can do to stop it from being normalized.

"No institution or organization can escape racism," Payne says. "It is here and that is why we are so serious about this initiative."

But she says addressing racism is also an individual responsibility.  

"We can’t change your hearts and minds and mindset. That’s something you’ve got to take on your own self."

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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