By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader
It is worrisome that someday there may be a complete disconnect between younger African Americans and their rich heritage.
Shirley Chisholm, Harry Belafonte, John Coltrane, Huey Newton, James Baldwin, Gordon Parks, Cicely Tyson, Berry Gordy Jr., John H. Johnson, Mae Jemison, Barbara Jordan, Fannie Lou Hamer, Nikki Giovanni, Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robeson, Colin Powell, Angela Davis, Don Cornelius, Curtis Mayfield, Julian Bond, Dr. Benjamin Mays, Wilma Rudolph, Ralph Bunche, Harold Washington, Arthur Ashe, are names that should resonate.
When Black college students and recent graduates were asked to identify those 25 icons they did not fare well. A few knew more than five of them. A handful knew two to five. Most knew one or zero. I repeat. Most did not know virtually any of these great Black Americans.
Thus the need for this three-part Black History Month series which will narrow the scope of focus to notables from Gary, Indiana in an effort to affirm for those near and far the monumental achievements of people influenced by life in the Steel City.
Some cynics ask can anything good come out of Gary – arguably, the most maligned municipality on the planet. The hidden, often obscured truth is that a disproportionate number of achievements emanate from this misunderstood city on the sandy shores of Lake Michigan – in plain sight of the nation’s second largest metropolis, Chicago.
Most are surprised, no stunned, to realize the true greatness of Gary, Indiana.
Most are familiar with the fact that the first African American mayor of a major U.S. city was Gary’s own Richard Gordon Hatcher in 1968. All are aware that the most famous entertainer of all time, Michael Jackson, and his gifted siblings Janet, Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon, Tito, and Randy got their start in a tiny house at 2300 Jackson Street in Gary.
Those same people likely are unaware that literally three blocks east, on the corner of 23rd and Jefferson Street, is the historically-preserved home of Gary native stage and screen actor William Marshall who was once called America’s greatest living Othello. He appeared on dozens of television programs and made movies, including the “Blaxploitation” hit, “Blacula.” When Marshall died in 2003, such greats as Sidney Poitier, Paul Winfield, Ivan Dixon and Marla Gibbs were among his eulogists.
With Gary blood flowing through her veins, Gabrielle “Gabby” Douglas became the first person of African descent in Olympic and the first U.S. gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics. In 2012, the Associated Press named her the Best Female Athlete of the Year.
In the 70s, one of the most popular television shows was “What’s Happening,” starring Gary Emerson High School graduate Ernest Thomas. After beginning his career on Broadway in the play, “Love for Love,” Thomas’ television character “Raj” was his true show biz launching pad. He went on to more television shows, such as Chris Rock’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” and to the big screen in the Spike Lee classic, “Malcolm X.”
From that same era emerged another incredible thespian, Gary Roosevelt’s Avery Brooks. In addition to acting, Brooks is an accomplished vocalist and educator. He immortalized two iconic TV show roles – Hawk in the series, “Spenser for Hire” and Bejamin Sisko in the famous “Star Trek” series.
The illustrious list of Gary luminaries spans every conceivable career field. Moving from the entertainment realm to the political, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it’s natural to conjure the memory of the first Black Congresswoman in Indiana history – Katie Hall of Gary. She is the author of the Dr. King National Holiday Bill signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.
Gary may have not as readily benefited from revenue generated by floating casinos had it not been for the vision and tenacity of former Indiana State Sen. Carolyn Brown Mosby. A champion for minority-owned businesses in Gary and throughout the state, Sen. Mosby rose from the position of an administrative assistant in the graduate department of economics at the University of Chicago to become a fellow of the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Institute of Politics at Harvard University.
Seguing to the topic of minority-owned business, none in Gary has reached greater heights than Powers & Sons Construction – acknowledged as one of the top African American owned enterprises in the nation.
Started by the late Mamon Powers Sr. in 1967, the company has flourished from home building to delivering high-quality finished projects exceeding $1 billion in construction costs. The consummate corporate citizen, Powers & Sons has generously endowed the community with scholarships and major support for myriad people-oriented programs.
Finally, in this initial Black History Month installment, Gary’s Deborah L. McCullough, M.D. is a genuine trailblazer. She was the first African-American female in history to graduate from the Indiana University School of Medicine. She was also the first Black female to complete an OB-GYN residency at Cook County Hospital and the first to establish a private practice in obstetrics and gynecology in Northwest Indiana.
Impressive as this first listing of great “Garyites” may be, there is much more to come!
(NEXT WEEK: George Taliaferro, H. Theo Tatum, Fred Williamson and Vivian Carter)