By David Denson, Gary Crusader
In the city of Gary, November 4, 1967 marked an historic and triumphant day. The Black community, along with a coalition of progressive whites and Jews, elected the first Black mayor of a major city.
It would be Richard Gordon Hatcher who would step into the role. He was first a city council member and during his time on the Council, he managed to get the majority- white body to support an open occupancy ordinance—the first of its kind for the city.
Hatcher’s ascension to the office of mayor was also aided by information regarding the potential of the Black vote in Gary. The year prior to his election as mayor, Dozier Allen ran for the position of Calumet Township assessor, and though Allen was not successful in his bid, post-election analysis indicated that the African-American vote had become powerful in Gary.
The following year, Hatcher announced his candidacy and proceeded to run for the office. Although he was able to secure the support of the Black community, the white community and the white power structure did not embrace his candidacy.
Due to the possibility of mass voter fraud, the federal government had to come in and monitor the election. This signaled the beginning of Hatcher’s relationship with the federal government.
Following his election, Hatcher set out to build an inclusive and participatory government in Gary. First, he addressed the crime issue, which had been plaguing the city. He received federal aid toward eradicating crime in the areas that were heavily crime- infested.
In his first term, Hatcher proposed the Model Cities’s program that was aimed at rehabbing the areas of the city where the crime and poverty existed.
Although Hatcher wanted Gary to be a city where all felt welcomed, many in the white community were not eager to participate in the plan, and during his first two terms in office, a massive white flight from the city took place. Soon, there was an exodus of many of the white businesses that were prominent fixtures in the city.
Despite the lack of participation from the white community, Hatcher maintained the vision of a viable working city. Through the efforts of his administration, along with the assistance of the federal government, funds were made available to build a transportation center and fitness center in downtown.
In an effort to revitalize the downtown area, the Hatcher administration built the Genesis Convention Center and the Sheraton hotel, and the convention center was built despite major opposition from U.S. Steel Corporation.
In the area of housing, the Hatcher administration supported affordable housing throughout Gary. Additionally, he secured several programs that addressed the needs of the elderly.
In the wake of the declining business community, Hatcher used the availability of several jobs initiatives to provide employment for Gary residents. Through the Mayor’s Youth Foundation, many Gary youth were employed in summer jobs. The program also provided scholarships for the youth.
State Rep. Charlie Brown, who headed the program, said that today he encounters people who talk about how the program impacted their lives. “It was amazing how many people we were able to help back then,” said Brown.
Hatcher is also credited with ushering in the city’s first affirmative action legislation. This allowed minority businessmen and women an opportunity to receive contracts with city government.