A special bond marks a historic milestone

55th Anniversary gala to highlight the shared struggle of a newspaper and city

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Photo by Ted Brown

By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader

While one suffered from white flight and segregation, the other stepped in and crusaded for integration and equal opportunities for Blacks. As one inspired thousands with uplifting news, it gained new life from a city that had been smeared in the media.

Together, the city of Gary and the Gary Crusader have weathered many storms. From an era of segregation and economic hardship, a unique bond was forged. Their histories have become intertwined as the two strive to rise above economic hardship during tough times.

Many newspapers in Gary have come and gone. Across the nation, bundles of historic mainstream newspapers have folded in an industry that has been in decline in the last decade. Cities with large minority populations were left without a voice when integration swept the nation and Black newspapers closed as advertising revenue shifted to online news organizations on the internet.

Meanwhile, The Great Recession continued to drive up unemployment in Gary and weaken the city’s battered economy. Through it all, the two entities, remained inseparable with a common purpose to uplift Blacks with hope and opportunities.

It’s a bond that will be displayed when the Gary Crusader celebrate its 55th Anniversary on June 3 at B. Coleman Aviation hangar at the Gary/Chicago International Airport.

This year’s theme, “Highlighting Our Past and Crusading for Our Future,” could be used to describe the contributions that the newspaper has made over the years to help Gary return to a bustling city.

For over five decades, the Gary Crusader has put out nearly 2,860 editions without skipping a beat. Now, the paper that has become an institution to thousands of readers is planning one of the biggest parties in Gary in recent memory. And Gary’s top brass and residents are joining in the celebration.

On Monday, April 4, about 100 people joined Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson to begin planning for the bash during a lively Golden Committee reception at the Genesis Convention Center. As the smooth sounds and harmonies of a live jazz band played, guests wined and dined before they joined one of 13 committees that will oversee details of the Crusader 55th Anniversary gala. Guests signed up on committees whose responsibilities range from securing entertainment to managing publicity for the event.

Freeman-Wilson is the chairperson of the gala. During a speech, she inspired guests to plan a birthday bash that would reflect the Crusader’s history and importance to Gary.

“The Gary Crusader is not just a newspaper. It’s an institution and we must have a big celebration,” she said. “We know that print media in recent years have been waning, but the Gary Crusader is still here.”

The Gary Crusader is part of the Crusader Newspaper Group, an organization that also produces The Chicago Crusader. Last year, nearly 1,000 dignitaries helped that newspaper celebrate its 75th Anniversary with a massive gala at the Chicago Loews Hotel. From the menu to the entertainment, many guests are still talking about the lavish affair in Chicago that featured author Michael Eric Dyson as the keynote speaker.

During that celebration, Freeman-Wilson served as honorary co-chairperson. At Monday’s planning reception, Freeman-Wilson challenged the crowd to create an even bigger celebration for the Gary Crusader’s 55th Anniversary.

The ceremony will be the latest event that will be held inside the B. Coleman Aviation hangar at the Gary/Chicago International Airport. Named after the legendary Black female Aviator Bessie Coleman, the facility last July hosted the ribbon cutting ceremonies that dedicated the extended 8,900-foot runway.

The city’s late historian Dharathula (Dolly) Millender, who died last year, will be honored posthumously at the anniversary gala. Millender was the first managing editor at the Gary Crusader. A tenacious woman of small statue, Millender’s tireless energy helped the Crusader publish news in Gary, East Chicago and Hammond, Indiana.

In 1961, the Crusader began operating in a rented space on West 19th Avenue and 1930 Broadway. Balm L. Leavell, Jr. then Editor and Publisher of the Chicago Crusader was urged to start a Gary newspaper by Hasan and Samuel Adib, two members of the Nation of Islam. During the time, Blacks in Gary were not welcomed in the city’s affluent neighborhoods, including Miller Beach.

Leavell and Joseph H. Jefferson were members of the Negro Relations League in Chicago, an organization that fought for jobs, housing, education and the betterment of all aspects of life for Blacks. They welcomed the opportunity to help bring about a better lifestyle for the residents of Gary.

The paper’s current publisher, Dorothy R. Leavell took over soon after her husband died after a relatively short illness in 1968. After the election of the city’s first Black Mayor, Richard G. Hatcher, the Crusader established a mission to publish the “good” news in Gary and Northwest Indiana. Crime stories rarely received front-page coverage, but Blacks’ achievements by Blacks were the paper’s central focus.

Over the years, Gary has lost other newspapers. They include The Gary American, The Info and the Gary edition of the Chicago Defender. The Gary Crusader has remained. It’s historic bond has taken on new meaning as it helps fuel the city’s rebirth, as it highlights Gary’s achievements, as it continues to recover after years of decline.

“Gary is on its way to recovery,” Dorothy said at the reception on Monday. “We are glad to be a part of it.”

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