An excerpt from The Gary Anthology.
By Dena Holland-Neal
In 2017, while Gary celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Mayor Richard Hatcher’s historic 1967 election, Jesse Jackson suggested that a statue of Mayor Hatcher should be built in Gary, for all he’s done here. Well, you hear things like that all the time but rarely, I think, do they ever come to fruition.
Fast-forward to late summer 2019, when I was in a meeting with Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Ragen Hatcher, Mayor Hatcher’s daughter. The meeting was over and the three of us were talking about general things when Ragen looked out the window and said, “You know I was wondering if you could think about putting the statue right across the street in this park.” They were talking about the statue as if it was really happening. I knew nothing of it.
I asked if they were really going to build a statue and they said, “Oh no, the statue is built, it’s ready!” I was totally amazed. They actually built the statute! And I was ecstatic because Mayor Hatcher would be able to witness and be a part of the unveiling!
Mayor Hatcher was my godfather. He and my dad were best friends. My dad, James Holland, served as Gary’s first Deputy Mayor. When my dad made his transition, Mayor Hatcher stepped in greatly. Those two men were my mentors and instilled in me the need to be actively involved in social justice issues.
My dad taught economics and history at Gary Roosevelt High School. My mom worked as an accountant at Mid-State Auto Parts, located on 19th and Massachusetts. Right next door was a restaurant called the Gary Castle. A lot of the people that worked in the area would come and get hamburgers or hot dogs at lunch time. It was the place to be for lunch, where people would sit down and converse about local issues.
At 20th and Broadway were the law offices of Julian Allen, Jackie Shropshire, and Richard Hatcher. They would also come down for lunch. During these talks, Attorney Hatcher talked about running for Gary City Council. That’s how my dad met him and ultimately supported his candidacy. He did win and was elected as an at-large Representative on the city council, ultimately becoming the first freshman councilperson to be elected as council president. His position helped to propel him into running for the Mayor of Gary in 1967. My father became very involved in the campaign and this made me interested as well. This was my first political experience. As a young person who was being bused at that time out to Glen Park, I was trying to figure out what I could do to help his campaign.
I brought some little suckers called Charms. The campaign had tiny stickers that simply said “Hatcher.” I don’t know what they used them for. They didn’t say “Hatcher For Mayor.” They just said “Hatcher.” So I would take my suckers and put the stickers on them. I would hand them out to the young people on the bus as we were on our way to school. I’d pass the suckers out and say, “Here: you eat the suckers but give the sticker to your parents and tell them to vote Hatcher For Mayor!” I don’t know how effective that was, but he did win!
My first social justice action occurred when I was being bused to Bailey Junior High School, in the Glen Park section of town, which was all white at the time. When Dr. King died the school did not want to discuss or acknowledge his works. A group of us met with the administration and told them if we weren’t allowed to acknowledge Dr. King’s life, we would stage a walk out, and that’s what we did.
During the time I was growing up there would be times when Gary had gangs, then things would settle down. I guess those involved would outgrow the gang activity and the city would be gang free for a while until other groups would rise up.
When I was in tenth grade, Gary was having a gang problem. A man named Lovell Smith decided to put a group of students together. I don’t know why he chose to do this, but he called it Concerned Youth For A Better Gary. I knew somebody in the group, and they asked me to join. We had the gang leaders of the Tarrytown Rangers and the leaders of the Kangaroos, the two rival gangs. Also involved were just everyday students, like me, who were not involved in gangs.
We started in a little church that was on 15th Avenue. We gave a little dance and quickly our dances grew out of the church, so we start having them at pavilions. We went out to Marquette Park Pavilion. During that time, no one else could give a dance. Any other group that gave a dance would have it disrupted by fighting between the two gangs. We didn’t have that problem because we had the heads of both gangs in our group. It got to the point where people like the Black Student Union at Indiana University Northwest came to us and asked if they could give a dance with us.
The head of the Marquette Park pavilion told us we were the only youth group he’d let have a dance there. “Anybody else I got worry about them fighting and tearing things up,” he’d say. The same was true with the Knights of Columbus Hall on 5th Avenue. We were giving weekly dances and were making money. We had no concept of the large amount of money we were making; we’d count it and we’d put it in the bank.
We decided to set a goal to visit other cities that had African-American mayors, to see what their youth programs were doing and to see about coming back to Gary and starting a comprehensive youth program.We had made enough money to rent a coach bus, pay for our all of our lodgings and food, and give each person $5 a day in spending money. We visited Newark, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland. In Newark, we contacted the mayor’s office, and they paid for us to stay at the Y.
Unfortunately—and I guess, now that I am older, I know this isn’t really that unusual—we pushed so hard for our goal that when we came back home we dissipated. We never got to the point of obtaining our real objective, but in the process we did see a lot. Some of the people with us had never left this area before. And even though we didn’t put the youth group together, I did work with other groups from that time forward to try and do things that would improve the community.
The years between 1968 and 1972 were eye opening. This was my introduction to politics. My dad used to tell me, there really are two countries. You have or you have not. And most of that is based on race. (The haves being people who are not African-American, the other being African-American and Hispanic.) I learned a lot just having my eyes open and watching.
When Mayor Hatcher ran for reelection, in 1972, I worked with his youth foundation, led by Lew Drinker. Lew also worked security for the mayor, so he would take us out campaigning. We went door to door every Saturday, knocking on doors saying we need your vote for Mayor Hatcher. And it just went on and on. I have been involved in politics in some form ever since that time.
Even while serving as Gary’s first Deputy Mayor, my father always taught a class at Indiana University Northwest. Teaching was his first love, and politics a very close second. He retired from teaching after nearly twenty years to take a position in Gary’s city government. While teaching at Indiana University Northwest, one of the things he learned was that many students, including many from Gary high schools, knew nothing about the election of Richard Hatcher or the National Black Political Convention. It hurts my heart to see how Gary looks today, and knowing we have young people who know nothing of the history of this community. If you don’t know your history, you’re destined to repeat the things that caused the erosion. They look at this community as a terrible place and a horrible place to live, because we did not continue to ensure that people understood the history of this community and its importance with things happening across this country.
One of the things America said to Gary was: “We’re going to do everything in our power to make this community fail.” I often compare Gary to Haiti. In both instances those in power wanted to send a strong message that said they did not want the people to think we were in a position to determine our own destiny.
When we became one of two cities to elect the first African American mayor of a major city (Cleveland was the other), the press immediately began to demonize Mayor Hatcher and anything he did to try to better Gary. Businesses, who later admitted that they weren’t having financial problems, chose to leave this community and illegally build the Town of Merrillville. The state legislature penned a “Gary only” bill, allowing a town to incorporate up to the city’s buffer zone. It is not legal to have legislation singled out for only one city, or to allow another city or town to incorporate up to a city’s buffer zone, thus preventing that city any chance of expanding. But it happened to Gary.
Reverend John Jackson at Trinity United Church of Christ, where I serve, told the church a story about a chaplain friend who was working in a hospital. He was making his rounds and walked into the room of a man who said, “I know you’re here to give me last rites, but before I leave there’s something I’ve got to confess.” As he told it, the man was a business owner in Gary and met with other business owners after Richard Hatcher’s election. They decided that although none of them were having financial problems, they chose to uproot their businesses because they didn’t want to stay there with him as mayor. The man told the chaplain it was a racial issue. The chaplain said, well, “I’m glad you confessed that, but I didn’t come to give you last rites. I’m simply making my rounds.”
That man’s mindset was the mindset at the time, and with the press demonizing him, people really started to believe all of their rhetoric that Mayor Hatcher didn’t want white people in Gary, that they had to leave. None of that was the case. If you look at his administration, you would clearly see that it was always a racially mixed administration. At some points I think there may have been more whites than blacks in positions of authority. Mayor Hatcher hating white people was so far from reality, but that was the mindset the business community and the press wanted people to have. And they wanted people to believe that Black people destroyed this community. What garbage has been spewed about Gary!
In reality it was the business community that no longer want to be here, so the mall was built in Merrillville and the stores went out there. Many stores that were doing exceptionally well in downtown Gary decided to move to Merrillville, but because of the high rent some went out of business. One that comes to mind was Comay Jewelers.
But, as bad as the press portrayed Gary, it would always amaze me that people who moved here to work, even some of reporters for the Chicago Post-Tribune, ironically, would come to Gary and even after their employment ended, they would stay. They recognized that at that time African-Americans were holding positions in Gary they were not able to hold in other places. There were opportunities that existed in Gary for African-Americans that did not exist anywhere else.
One of the things that hurts me the most right now is that people here don’t know that history. They look at us as a shattered place. Many of the people who live here now were not here then. Many of their families were not either. People have come in from Illinois and other places but they don’t know the history of this place, so they don’t see anything good coming out of Gary.
The National Black Political Convention in 1972 was very special to me because I graduated from high school that year, and it was held at Gary West Side, my high school. That whole experience was very exciting for me, to have it held right at our high school, in our city. The fact that Black people from all over the country came to Gary is something that resonated with me and has remained with me.
I did have to leave the convention on Saturday; our boys basketball team was headed downstate, and I had to go down to Lafayette to watch us play. Even in the midst of this monumental national convention, if you are a Hoosier and your team is going downstate, and it is your senior team, you go. The guys on the basketball court were my classmates and close friends of mine. I had to go and be there to support them as well. But then I rushed back home to get to the convention. And to come back home and see the convention and see Black people from all over the country here…
One of the things that was really special—and we may not have recognized how important this was at the time—not having a lot of hotels in the area at the time actually worked to our advantage, because the people who came to the convention stayed in homes with people who lived in the community. That in itself did a lot because if I’m here for this convention and I’m staying in your home we will get to know each other, and we will talk about the convention. It brought people closer and enlightened people. It made it very personal.
What the convention did, and this to me was outstanding—prior to the convention, there were not many African Americans who had run for political offices. The convention propelled people to leave Gary and say I’m going home to run for office. One of them was Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Many outstanding people working for social justice, working for the marginalized, were at that convention. They returned home and ran for office. And it came right out of Gary, Indiana.
I sit here now and try to think back to the excitement that was so great for me as a seventeen-year-old involved in social justice and social action. To know that this is my community. This is where I lived, and this is were I was born. Seeing all of these people converge on Gary, to come here to discuss the future of African Americans, was a monumental experience. Knowing that all of this came about because of the vision of Mayor Richard Hatcher made it especially special for me. I think it would have been exciting to attend as a delegate from Atlanta or Newark, but I was just totally taken back that this was my hometown and that I knew the person who had the vision and then made it happen. It gave me a clear focus on who he was.
His statue symbolizes for me all the good that he put into this community. A lot of people for years did not recognize that. They didn’t recognize that he truly gave his life to this community. And he never gave up working to better Gary, even after leaving office. He continued to fight for this community.
On the day the statute was unveiled, I was asked to introduce Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. As I introduced him, one of the stories that I told involved a second convention we held, I think in 1981, in New Orleans. A lot of the African Americans in leadership said they would not attend if Minister Farrakhan was invited. It was Mayor Hatcher who said that Farrakhan has a voice in the African-American community, and therefore he should be there. Mayor Hatcher was one of the conveners and he stood firm, and Farrakhan was invited as a result. Mayor Hatcher realized that all voices had a right to be heard.
The fact that Mayor Hatcher was alive to see the statue meant the most to me. Too often we only realize people’s greatness after they have transitioned. And as a result, they never get to realize the honor they have received. I am so glad that was not the case this time! Initially, because he had not been feeling very well, his family told me he probably wouldn’t stay for the reception. He not only stayed, but he was one of the last leave! He really got engrossed in how many people came up to speak with him. I was so very, very happy about that, to see that he has finally been honored in the way that he deserved.
I am so grateful that Mayor Hatcher was able to see it unveiled, to be a part of the celebration, to be in the pictures, and to attend the reception. I’m sure that it was a day that stood out among many exceptional days he experienced during his lifetime. He was so shocked to see people he did not expect to be there, some he had not seen in years. He really enjoyed himself, but being the humble man that he was, he told me he couldn’t believe they had done this for him, to which I replied that there was no one else I could think of more worthy.
While they were in office, my father and Mayor Hatcher would have a meeting in the morning to figure out which battle they were going to fight first. They had to decide, is today’s fight going to be a local fight? Is it going to be a state fight? Is it going to be a federal fight? They had to figure out what was best for this community. Not everyone had that same mindset. It became a battle to make sure that Gary got what Gary deserved. The daily decision of which fight to fight was to make sure Gary got what it was justly due.
Two months following the unveiling, Mayor Hatcher made his transition. While I know we all must one day make that same journey, it was extremely difficult for me to accept that he was in fact gone. But I realize God has called him to new work, beyond Gary, Indiana. He has left a legacy, one I hope to follow: work to make life better for those who were marginalized and be a voice for those whose voices are ignored. That was Mayor Hatcher’s life-long focus…and he never walked away from it. ■
Reverend Dena Holland-Neal serves as the Assistant Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ-Gary. She answered the call to ministry under the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., Pastor Emeritus, of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Pastor Wright asked Rev. Dena to sit on the New Church Start Committee for the church in Gary, Indiana. That was a monumental, life-changing experience.
Cover image of Mayor Richard Hatcher in front of Gary, Indiana’s Municipal Building in 1967. Bettman collection/Getty images.
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