Learning the racial geography of Indiana as a young Black girl in the 1980s
By Tanisha C. Ford
I was somewhere between asleep and awake. It was Christmas Eve, 1987, and we were cruising up Indiana State Highway 37 in my mom’s 1973 Ford Mustang—cobalt blue—making the trek from Bloomington, Indiana to our hometown of Fort Wayne, so we could celebrate Christmas with family. The sounds of Walter Hawkins’s Love Alive II, a tape mom kept in steady rotation, were blaring through the car’s speakers.
Over Hawkins’s “Be Grateful,” I could hear my mom, in the driver’s seat, bickering with my aunt, who was riding shotgun. My eight-year-old spirit registered a panic in my aunt’s voice that I had never heard from her before. “Girl, we can’t stop! We’re in Martinsville,” my aunt said.
Mom firmly told her that we had to stop because the car’s headlights were out. I looked out the window, which was still slightly iced over. Darkness had chased us down, leaving nothing but a midnight blue mass of sky. In front of the Mustang, where long cylinders of white light should have been emanating to guide us up the highway, there was only black. But my aunt was willing to risk the possibility of sliding off the slick, winding road, rather than stop in Martinsville, Indiana.
I was too young to know it then, but this was the cause of the panic: we were a car of two Black women and a Black girl in a reputed sundown town of southern Indiana—after dark.
Sundown towns are communities that have historically been “all white on purpose,” their whiteness enforced either officially (in the past, some towns had signs posted with messages like “Whites Only Within City Limits After Dark”) or through unofficial, often violent means. Thousands of sundown towns existed across the country. By some estimates, there were as many as two hundred in Indiana alone. And they are not unique to small towns—James Loewen, in his book Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, identifies “sundown suburbs” of larger cities. Many sundown towns remain overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, white.
News of Black folks being threatened, beaten, and lynched in places like these spread rapidly through our communities’ informal networks. Some of those stories had been circulating since the 1920s and ‘30s, when there was a resurgence in Klan activity in Indiana and across the U.S. Black women were particularly vulnerable to beatings and lynchings, as well as sexual assaults. It’s what prompted the publication of The Negro Motorists’ Green Book in 1936 (which was published regularly until 1966). The only people who have the luxury of ignoring this history are those who haven’t had to order their lives by that unofficial rule and the vigilante violence that was promised if you were caught in a sundown town at dusk.
Beyond its reputation as a sundown town, Martinsville was also known as the epicenter of Klan terror in Indiana. I had never heard of Martinsville before, but I was intrigued by this infamous place that could reduce a grown woman to near tears. I jolted up in my seat, butting into the conversation. “What’s Martinsville? What’s wrong with the car? What are you scared of, Aunt Janice? Are we gonna make it home in time to open my Christmas gifts?”
No one in our car uttered the words “sundown town”; that was a language I’d come to know later in life. For now, I was getting a particular kind of geography lesson. I didn’t know where Martinsville was on a map in relationship to Fort Wayne, but I was learning that I wasn’t supposed to be there. I added it to a list that included Waynedale and Huntington, places I’d also heard the adults in my life say to stay clear of. Conversely, in Indianapolis, we could find communities of people who looked like us, soul food restaurants, concerts, and big events like the Circle City Classic, which catered to Black folks.
The lesson was clear: navigating the state was less about knowing direction and more about knowing “your place.” Mom and Aunt Janice seemed to know—instinctively, it seemed—where they belonged and where they didn’t. And clearly, Martinsville was the latter.
We pulled into a mom and pop gas station. A string of Christmas lights framed the shop window. The clerk on duty, an older white man, peeked his head out. Seeing our dark bodies emerging from the car, he walked outside, slowly, with a perplexed look on his face. Presumably, because Black folks knew to steer clear of Martinsville, whites in Martinsville had become accustomed to rarely, if ever, seeing us in real life.
My mother explained what had brought us to his establishment on this crisp winter evening. I searched the man’s eyes for some tell-tale sign of his comfort level. He wasn’t outwardly hostile—I’d experienced overt racism enough times in my young life to know what it looked like. But he also wasn’t kind in that way that mom and dad’s white friends who came to the house were.
Mom and the clerk performed an awkward dance of human politeness as he led us into the gas station so mom could call my father collect. He offered us space to sit inside while we waited for my father to arrive. Aunt Janice was fixing her mouth to say “hell no!” when my mother jumped in and politely declined his offer, saying we would wait in the car. Mom and aunt Janice poured cups of the shop’s bitter coffee to help them stay alert. We made our way back to the car.
No one bothered us. Not even the clerk, who had returned to his mundane shop duties. But my mother and aunt began sharing stories with me—some joyous, some utterly terrifying—about what is was like to be college students in Klan country during the peak years of the Black Power movement.
This was more than a mere passing of the time. This was two Black women trying to work through fear and trauma, sharing their vulnerability with me, a girl of a different era, of a different generation, but of the same blood.
In 1968, just four years before my mother arrived on IU’s campus, a twenty-one-year-old Black encyclopedia saleswoman named Carol Jenkins was brutally murdered in Martinsville by a Klan member. The murder went unsolved for more than three decades. Meanwhile, hundreds of young Black women like my mother left their homes each year to attend IU, the specter of Jenkins’ murder a constant reminder that they could never—and would never—feel or be safe.
The racial violence of the area was even more explicit for my family. My mom told me her brother, my uncle Howard, was beaten bloody in Martinsville when he, not being from the area, stopped to get food on his way to visit her at college.
The IU campus wasn’t even a refuge from anti-Black harassment. My mom told stories of the KKK marching on public streets. University police officers would harass Black students for gathering on the yard in groups considered “too large.” White professors assumed that Black students were not prepared for the rigors of college, often grading them more harshly than their white counterparts. Many of these stories of racial discrimination on campus were chronicled in the IU Arbutus yearbook, given titles such as “Black Life in the Ivory Tower.” These stories mirrored those written on the pages of Essence in the early ’70s, by and about Black students at predominantly white institutions.
Up until that Christmas Eve, the only depictions I’d seen of the Klan were in films, like the scene in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), in which Klan members attack Billie Holiday’s tour bus, hitting her in the eye with the butt of a wooden stake. But here I was, now, hearing of my own family’s encounters with these enigmas in white hoods. I now understood that there were fleshy bodies underneath those hoods—real people—who hated us simply because we were Black.
But in the quiet spaces of their dorm rooms and apartments, mom and her peers could dance out their rage, they could style out their rage. I could hear it in their voices, in the ways they told their stories, but it would not truly sink in until I was much older: survival then—as it is now—was about stealing moments of intoxicating pleasure amidst many more that were singed by violence.
I heard tales of Black, sweaty bodies doing dances like “the dawg” and “the hustle” at the annual Omega Psi Phi Mardi Gras party. Mom and her friends would go decked out in elephant-leg pants—bout the widest bell bottoms you’ll ever see—and lace-front dresses and knee-high boots, with their Afros picked just so. Those parties were safe havens where young Black folks, who were few in number on campus, could dance and listen to soul and funk tracks—unapologetically young and Black.
My mom and my aunt had gotten into a rhythm, telling their stories, feeding off of each other like a well-trained performance duo. Black girl hand gestures abounded. Aunt Janice would let out her signature screeching cackle when things got really funny. Mom’s voice would boom when she told one of her “bet not no one mess with me” stories. They laughed as they tried to remember the name of “so-and-so’s boyfriend” who did “woopty woop” at “such-and-such’s” apartment “that one night.” I learned of the men my mom loved long before she and my father became a thing.
I would interject here and there with questions, wanting more details to add to the mental movie of the past that I was directing in my head. But for the most part, I knew to keep quiet because something big, something important was happening here. This was more than a mere passing of the time. This was two Black women trying to work through fear and trauma, sharing their vulnerability with me, a girl of a different era, of a different generation, but of the same blood. Through them, I experienced the full range of Black emotion, their stories offering a context for my aunt’s fear earlier that evening. It came from a real place.
By the time my father dashed up to the gas station in his big, mint green Mercury Cougar to rescue his wife and daughter, I felt a little older, a little less innocent. I had come face-to-face with white supremacy, learning at a young age that people will do anything—including taking a life—in order to maintain some semblance of power. It was a rite of passage that, even then, I knew my white peers did not have to experience. Their privilege shielded them from ever having to learn about this real American horror story. Yet, the trauma of the past was now etched into my skin. To be a Black girl in this world meant pain would be part of the experience.
But my passage also taught me about Black resilience, Black joy, Black creativity. Something about sharing the tiny space of the old Mustang with my mom and my aunt helped us to bond. For those few hours, we were on equal footing. All of us scared, and them telling stories to keep the haints away. The stories were our survival. The air never went silent. ■
This story was produced in partnership with Indiana Humanities’ INseparable project. Read more stories in the series here.
Tanisha C. Ford is an award-winning writer, cultural critic, and associate professor of Africana Studies and History at the University of Delaware. She is the author of Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion; Kwame Brathwaite: Black Is Beautiful; and Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul. Portions of this story first appeared on her blog at tanishacford.com.
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