Portrait of a ‘sundown town’

Coming to terms with racism in a ‘Mennonite’ community

Jan 20, 2014 by

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In September 2013 the Goshen (Ind.) News published a letter I wrote in which I said that Marian Anderson, an internationally renowned African American singer, needed to stay at the Hotel Elkhart after performing at Goshen College in 1958 because of the “sundown law” tradition of Goshen.

Martin Luther King Jr. talks with professors Willard Smith, left, and Guy Hershberger at Goshen College in 1960. Some Mennonites admired King; others considered him a communist. — Photo by Elkhart Truth

Martin Luther King Jr. talks with professors Willard Smith, left, and Guy Hershberger at Goshen College in 1960. Some Mennonites admired King; others considered him a communist. — Photo by Elkhart Truth

Two retired Goshen College faculty members soon set me straight, clarifying that in the late 1950s all of the college’s honored guests in its Lecture-Music Series, regardless of race, stayed at the Hotel Elk­hart because it was the best in the area.

There’s a bigger picture here, however, and some backstory.

In doing additional research and reflection on this issue and related matters, I’ve learned that Goshen — from around 1900 (give or take a decade) until at least the 1960s — was one of about 100 Indiana municipalities that were considered “sundown towns.” That tranquil-sounding expression cloaked a nationwide chamber of horrors for African Americans during the first two-thirds of the 20th century.

In his 2005 book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, Harvard-trained sociologist and university professor James Loewen defines a sundown town as “any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it” or even staying overnight in it. The means of exclusion included:

  • Violence
  • Threats of violence
  • Vandalism of vehicles and other personal property
  • Racist verbal harassment
  • Profiling and arrest by local police
  • Restrictive property deeds
  • Social ostracism, especially from schools, churches and community clubs
  • Refusal of service in commercial establishments, such as restaurants, hotels and motels
  • Signs at city limits
  • Ordinances

According to Loewen, Goshen shared this notoriety with thousands of towns, cities, suburbs and even counties throughout the United States (especially in the Midwest) for more than 60 years.

Loewen’s book and website reveal that at least a dozen municipalities across the United States with substantial Mennonite populations were categorized as possibly, probably or surely sundown towns from the turn of the century into the 1960s or 1970s. Goshen, however, may have the dubious distinction of being the sundown town inhabited by the largest number of Mennonites.

To investigate any U.S. community, one can simply Google “list of sundown towns,” and the first entry shows a U.S. map titled “Sundown Towns in the United States.” The site is copyrighted by James W. Loewen, who has identified each listing as “Surely,” “Probable” or “Possible” as a sundown town.

Ethnic cleansing

Goshen met Loewen’s “Surely” criteria. He wrote me recently to say: “I have many pages on Goshen, more than on any other town in Indiana except Martins­ville. [There is] much evidence of Goshen being a sundown town.”

Loewen did not grow up Mennonite, but his father did — in Mountain Lake, Minn. David F. Loewen became a doctor and practiced in Decatur, Ill. (not a sundown town), where young James was raised. The author told me his father stopped being Mennonite in the 1920s, “so I was not raised Mennonite.”

In a 2008 Christian Century review of Loewen’s book, Steve Nolt, a history professor at Goshen College, agrees with the author that sundown towns were a form of ethnic cleansing, which also sometimes involved Jews, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans and Native Americans. But African Americans bore the brunt of the practice.

Social exclusion

In this article, I’m dealing primarily with Goshen because this is where I’ve lived nearly 40 of the last 50 years — and Goshen is where I’ve focused my research.

A personal encounter I had with Goshen’s reputation came soon after moving back to Goshen from Iowa in 1986. At a block party my wife and I hosted in our 13th Street backyard in May 1987, one of our neighbors began rhapsodizing about the “good old days” in Goshen when “colored people” had to be out of town by sunset. He complained about the influx of Hispanics and bemoaned the fact that Goshen wasn’t the way it used to be.

In June 2000 Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman, right, and Tim Shenk unveiled one of four “We Promote Tolerance” signs at the city limits. Shenk, son of the author, was a student in a 1999 Goshen High School Bioethics class that focused on diversity. He did the artwork and led efforts by class members to receive approval to create and place the four signs, which then graced major city entryways for more than a decade. — Photo by Goshen News

In June 2000 Goshen Mayor Allan Kauffman, right, and Tim Shenk unveiled one of four “We Promote Tolerance” signs at the city limits. Shenk, son of the author, was a student in a 1999 Goshen High School Bioethics class that focused on diversity. He did the artwork and led efforts by class members to receive approval to create and place the four signs, which then graced major city entryways for more than a decade. — Photo by Goshen News

Mike Puro, mayor of Goshen from 1988 to 1997, informed me recently that when he was Goshen’s clerk-treasurer in the mid-1980s he thoroughly researched the sundown-town issue and found no evidence of any such ordinances on Goshen’s books. And neither Puro nor Allan Kauffman, Goshen’s mayor since 1997, is aware of any city-limits signage barring African Americans; both indicate that Goshen’s methods of exclusion were largely social and cultural.

They add, however, that some property deeds for subdivisions included language that excluded African Americans — and Jews, according to Puro.

‘Not a proud time’

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1948 declared restrictive property covenants unenforceable. But the exclusionary practice continued in Goshen — indeed, all across the United States in sundown towns and other jurisdictions — for decades.

Jim Ingold, retired president of Goshen-based Cripe Title (now Stewart Title), recalls that in the early 1980s insurance underwriters advised Cripe Title employees to start crossing out the racist language on restrictive covenants, which they did, to ward off possible legal action.

Friends of mine who moved to Carter Road, about two blocks southwest of Goshen College, in 1982 were shocked to read No. 7 of their subdivision’s “Conditions and Restrictions”:

“No person other than a person of the Caucasian race shall at any time be permitted to own or occupy any portion of this real estate contained in this plat [or] subdivision, save and except [as] a domestic servant actually employed by the occupant of a dwelling on said real estate.”

The couple questioned the language and were told it no longer had legal standing.

Referring to Goshen’s sundown-town history in general and exclusive subdivisions in particular, Mayor Kauffman says, “It’s not a proud time in our history.”

Minstrel shows

That same Allan Kauffman, as a 7-year-old, played his accordion in the 12th annual Goshen Minstrel Show on March 15 and 16, 1956, at Goshen High School, according to the Goshen News’ “Looking Back” column of Feb. 24, 1990.

The News photograph, titled “1956 Goshen Minstrel Show,” has about 75 people of all ages pictured in front of a farm scene on the stage. About two-thirds of them are in “blackface.”

“I was so young,” the mayor told me recently. “Whenever there was a musical program, my mom would trot me out to play the accordion, which I had learned to play at age 5. As a child, it never occurred to me that we were making fun of a race of people.”

His 9-year-old brother, David, sang twice in the show. Kauffman (who didn’t blacken his face for the performances) doesn’t know if any minstrel shows took place in Goshen after ’56.

Wikipedia says this about the genre: “Minstrel shows lampooned black people as dim-witted, lazy, buffoonish, superstitious, happy-go-lucky and musical. The minstrel show began … in the early 1830s … and survived as professional entertainment until about 1910; amateur performances continued until the 1960s in high schools and local theaters.”

‘You had to leave quick’

Ironically, a century earlier Goshen was a vital link of the Underground Railroad, as many runaway slaves came north through Richmond, Fort Wayne, Goshen and Bristol en route to Michigan and Canada.

Fast-forward to the late 1980s. Offering an African American perspective on Goshen’s longstanding reputation in a January 1987 Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech to the Goshen Noon Kiwanis Club was John Stith, who had begun serving as Goshen’s postmaster in 1977.

In an address on “Race Relations in Goshen,” Stith said that when he was a high school student in South Bend in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he traveled to Goshen for the Goshen Relays. “Regardless of whether you won or lost,” he said, “you had to leave town quick.” Added Stith: “Forty years ago if you had told me I’d be [Goshen’s] postmaster — and live here — I never would’ve believed it.”

After the speech, a newspaper reporter informed Stith that the following sentence appeared in the Goshen Chamber of Commerce’s introduction to “The Maple City” as late as 1978 in the Goshen City Directory: “Crime is at a minimum, and contributing in large measure to the absence of crime is the character of the population — 97.5 percent native-born white, 2 percent foreign-born white, .5 percent non-white.” Stith said it did not surprise him that the quotation appeared in the ’78 directory.

Most of the “crime is at a minimum” language was lifted directly from a late 1930s book called Goshen; it was produced by the city utility. The language in Goshen served as the template for the Chamber of Commerce introduction in the 1939 to 1993 Goshen directories.

‘No Negro population’

Further research indicates that the wording at the end of the “crime” sentence in the 1939-55 directories was: “and no Negro population” instead of “.5 percent non-white.” From 1957 to 1962 it said “97.5 percent native-born white, 2.5 percent foreign-born white.” In 1964 “.5” was added.

In the 1968 Goshen, Indiana publication by the Goshen Chamber of Commerce this sentence appears on page 40 under “Goshen History”: “Big city slums, riots, marchers and hippies are as out of place here as little green men from mars” [sic].

The Goshen Chamber of Commerce was exaggerating only slightly in 1939 when it first said “and no Negro population.” In the U.S. Census for 1930 the number 2 appeared in the “Negro” column for Goshen. In 1940 the same column had 6. In 1950 and 1960 Goshen’s “non-white” population was 11 and 37, respectively. In 1970 the census showed 47 “Negroes” and 94 members of “other races.”

Of Goshen’s 2014 population of just over 32,000, about 850 residents are African American, and about 9,500 are Latino.

Travel nightmares

Even in the early 1960s, Stith also noted in his ’87 address, his family would always pack a lunch when traveling south out of South Bend “because there was no place to eat along the way — unless you happened to come across a black community.”

Beginning in 1936, an African American New Yorker named Victor Green began publishing The Negro Motorist Green Book. According to Black America Web: “Because of the racist conditions that existed from segregation, blacks needed a reference manual to guide them to integrated or black-friendly establishments.”

The last edition of The Green Book was printed in 1964.

The less familiar early material of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech contains this sentence: “We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.”

Elkhart, Goshen hotels

The Hotel Elkhart clearly had higher-quality accommodations in 1958 than either of the now-closed Goshen hotels: the Hotel Hattle on East Lincoln Avenue or the Hotel Goshen at Main and Clinton streets. But a 24-year-old student at Goshen Biblical Seminary named Victor Stoltzfus was troubled by rumors among Goshen College students that Marian Anderson had to go to Elkhart for her lodging.

African American singer Marian Anderson signs autographs for children after her Feb. 6, 1958, performance at Goshen College. That night she stayed at the Hotel Elkhart. Victor Stoltzfus, then a seminary student and a future president of Goshen College, said, “I asked why an artist of the stature of Marian Anderson would not be welcome in a Goshen motel or hotel.” — Photo by Goshen College Maple Leaf

African American singer Marian Anderson signs autographs for children after her Feb. 6, 1958, performance at Goshen College. That night she stayed at the Hotel Elkhart. Victor Stoltzfus, then a seminary student and a future president of Goshen College, said, “I asked why an artist of the stature of Marian Anderson would not be welcome in a Goshen motel or hotel.” — Photo by Goshen College Maple Leaf

Soon after Anderson’s Feb. 6 performance, he went downtown and spoke with the manager of the Hotel Goshen. In a 2012 report by a Goshen College class called Reporting for the Public Good, Stoltzfus said, “I asked why an artist of the stature of Marian Anderson would not be welcome in a Goshen motel or hotel. He told me that several investors put their life savings into the hotel he managed. He also said that salesmen and others coming to Goshen would avoid a hotel in which a Negro had slept. He really feared loss of business.”

Stoltzfus would go on to serve as president of Goshen College from 1984 to 1996.

C. Norman Kraus, a Bible and religion professor at Goshen College from 1949 to 1979, told me recently that he had a letter in the Goshen News after Anderson’s 1958 performance titled “No Room in the Inn.” In the letter he recalled chiding Goshen’s hotels and motels for denying lodging to African Americans, including Marian Anderson.

After the letter appeared, Kraus remembers getting a phone call from Forrest Cripe, owner of the Parkside Motel located just a few hundred yards north of the college. Cripe was upset with Kraus for suggesting that all of Goshen’s hotel and motel operators were racist. A member of Eighth Street Mennonite Church, Cripe told Kraus he had decided to accept Anderson as a guest if he were asked, but no one asked.

A poll — and two letters

Three years after Anderson sang at Goshen College, the Goshen News conducted a poll of the town’s two hotels and four other overnight establishments; the article appeared Feb. 7, 1961. Under the headline, “Negroes Not Exactly Welcome Here As Over­night Guests, Poll Reveals,” the first sentence reads: “Goshen residents have been pointing an accusing finger at the South for its integration inadequacies, but a poll of Goshen motels and hotels today revealed that Negroes aren’t exactly welcome as overnight guests in the city of Goshen.”

The News reported that just one manager (of the Hattle) had recently provided overnight lodging to an African American. The other five were either forthright about their denial of accommodations to African Americans or declined to disclose their policies.

In response to that article, Ray Keim, pastor of East Goshen Mennonite Church at the time, wrote a letter that appeared in the News on Valentine’s Day 1961:

This is to commend you for your bravery in releasing the facts about the attitude of hotel and motel owners in Goshen relative to accepting Negroes as overnight guests. I believe that a gentle but persistent pressure such as you applied in that report will help awaken consciences without causing violent reactions that only do harm. God bless you for your stand.

Keim died in April 2013.

Wayne C. Yoder of Goshen had a similar letter in the News on Feb. 13, 1961. Excerpts include:

I want to commend you for your editorial integrity and courage in putting your finger on a very sore spot in our community… . While many of us have not actively supported this prejudice, we have, by our silence, given our assent. This is not a time, then, for pointing fingers at someone else, but rather a time for repentance and examination of our own attitudes before God.

Anderson, Einstein, King

Marian Anderson also had sung at Goshen College on March 26, 1953, and Martin Luther King Jr. came to the college March 10, 1960, for an address on “The Future of Integration.”

Willard Smith, a Goshen history professor, invited King to stay at his home in 1960, much as Jewish physicist Albert Einstein had welcomed Anderson into his home in Princeton, N.J., in 1937 after there was an issue with a local hotel. However, according to retired Goshen professor John Smith (Willard Smith’s nephew), King left Indiana immediately after his ’60 speech.

Integration at three colleges

A decade or two earlier, the climate at Goshen College may not have been quite so accommodating to African Americans, none of whom attended the college in its first 48 years of existence.

Goshen’s Mary K. Mishler, now in her early 90s, had spent time in the late 1940s with her husband, Dorsa J., in Ethiopia, where he had met two Ethiopians who were coming to Goshen College. Upon returning to the U.S., Mary recalls reading a college official’s clarification that these were black Ethiopians and not black Americans. The Mishlers were troubled by the official’s need to make that distinction.

Daniel Grimes, Goshen’s first African American elected official (city councilman for eight years starting in January 2000), said his mother, Florence Baynard (later Grimes) of Lancaster County, Pa., roomed with Rowena Lark of Chicago in the 1945-46 school year at Goshen College. Baynard had been told by her bishop at Andrews Bridge Mennonite Church that Eastern Mennonite School (soon to become EMC) in Harrisonburg, Va., would not accept her, but Goshen College would.

The first African American student at Goshen College was Rowena Lark’s older sister Juanita Lark, a senior in the fall of 1942. She had spent her junior year at Hesston (Kan.) College. Willis Johnson was the first African American student at EMC (now Eastern Mennonite University) in 1948.

Incidentally, despite the fact that Goshen is now nearly one-third Hispanic, there has never been a Latino elected official in Goshen. Ten offices are filled every four years.

‘Need to tell these stories’

In the 2012 Goshen College report, Nolt said that Loewen’s book is important and that “communities who fail to acknowledge their racial past may have a harder time moving forward in a positive way.”

Continues Nolt: “It’s not like we need to dwell on this and say the community is forever marked by it, but the other extreme would be to just not acknowledge it at all, which could blind us to ways that prejudice might continue.”

Lee Roy Berry Jr., an African American Goshen attorney and government professor at Goshen College for 40 years, began teaching at Goshen in 1969. He endured a couple of profiling incidents with city and county police in the mid-1970s, but for the most part he and his family have lived peacefully in the home they built in 1973 just west of Goshen’s city limits.

Regarding Goshen’s racial history, Berry said recently, “We need to tell these stories. It’s easier to have a false understanding of our community than it is to deal with ambiguities. This process helps to foster healthy humility for all of us. Historical analysis helps to ground us better and see reality more clearly.”

Dan Shenk, of Goshen, is owner/operator of CopyProof, an editing business he founded in 1990. A 1975 Goshen College graduate, he reported for the Elkhart Truth from 1986 to 1999, mainly covering Goshen. Shenk moved to Goshen in 1965, left in 1978 and returned in 1986. He and his wife, Vera, have two adult sons, Tim and Jason. His email address is dan@shenkcopyproof.com.


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