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Black History and Gary, Indiana: Saluting the City of Firsts

By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader

(The last of a three-part series)

Gary, Indiana is irrefutably a quintessential American city of firsts – when it comes to the plight of African Americans.  It takes more than a few columns – or for that matter, a few books – to capture the contribution of Gary, Indiana to the landscape of Black America. So in this third of a three part series, I only want to focus on “firsts” that were achieved in various fields of endeavors by Gary natives.

Not only was Richard Gordon Hatcher the first African American elected mayor of a major U.S. city, but as a result of his vision, four years later the nation witnessed the first ever Black Political Convention – which was held not in New York, Atlanta, Chicago or Detroit but in his own Gary, Indiana.

Respected political pundits debate the sense of oneness of purpose at the monumental international convergence of minds and some walked away disappointed. That fact is not in dispute. But who even knew it was possible to convene such brilliant minds in one place at one time. And who would be naïve enough to believe there would be autonomy in a setting of such divergent thought.

Equally indisputable is the fact that the African American political meetings in Gary forever altered the landscape of Black American politics. This “first” was undoubtedly the catalyst for a surge of Black candidacies and elections to unprecedented levels of government from the precinct, township, city and county levels to statewide and national positions of influence. Soon we would see Black mayors in Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Washington D.C. and so many other major municipalities.

As an outgrowth of the Gary political convention in 1972, you would see the emergence of Black governors, lieutenant governors, state legislators, judges, Congress and eventually, the White House. Not quite a decade past civil rights legislation and the Voting Rights Act, there are Black Americans not merely raising their hands to whisper politely. but raising uncompromising voices to reject the status quo. Gary was the birthplace of this marvelous new militancy that transformed rhetoric into irreversible resolve.

Gary has provided the gold standard for the prominence of women in government leadership. Out of the foundation laid by iconic Gary women in politics like Katie Hall, Earline Rogers, Carolyn Mosby and Dharathula “Dolly” Millender came the State of Indiana’s first African American female mayor Karen Freeman Wilson.

Significant milestones in sports were provided by Gary natives. For example, Gary Olympian Lee Calhoun became the first consecutive gold medalist in 100-meter hurdles (1956 in Australia and 1960 in Spain). Orsten Artis, was a member of the starting five of the first All-Black team to win an NCAA basketball championship – Texas Western University. Glenn Robinson was the first Garyite chosen No. 1 in the NBA. And, George Taliaferro was the first Black player chosen in NFL draft history.

In the first ever match between United States and Russian fighters, light heavyweight Charles Adkins of Gary defeated Viktor Mednov in a 2-1 decision in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. In the annals of high school track in the U.S., Gary Roosevelt Coach John Campbell is without peril – winning a stunning 10 consecutive state championships. The 1968 Gary Roosevelt Panthers basketball team was the first school from the Steel City to win the IHSAA State Championship.

Gary provided several firsts in entertainment and the performing arts. After popularizing the role of Hawk on “Spenser for Hire,” Gary Roosevelt thespian Avery Brooks reached his television peak after he beat out 100 actors to become the first African American captain to lead a “Star Trek” television series.

Horace Mann graduate Patricia Patterson, whose show business name was Kellee, was the first African American crowned Miss Indiana – catapulting her into the coveted Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, N.J. Buoyed by the experience, Kellee Patterson went on to a successful recording and concert career.

In the field of medicine, Gary’s Deborah McCullough, M.D. claims several firsts. She was the first African American woman to graduate the I.U. School of Medicine. Dr. McCullough then became the first Black woman to complete OB-GYN residency at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and, subsequently, the first to establish a private practice in obstetrics and gynecology.

Many who read this column will immediately come up with an even longer list of Gary firsts that are not included in this column. That is my premise from the outset, this inconspicuous and often-maligned municipality perched on the shores of Lake Michigan has contributed disproportionately to the greatness of Black America. It will take volumes to document it in a comprehensive manner.

This conversation is simply to whet the appetite of those who had no idea and to conjure a handful of reminiscences for those who lived or studied this history. Google the remaining incredible example or, better yet, sit down with someone from Gary who can share far more information and intriguing anecdotes about these individuals and so many other great Black American cutting edge innovators.

At some point, Gary is a story that needs to be chronicled and told in its grand entirety.

CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].

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