Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

January 22, 2014

Pat Smith: Re-examining the Greensburg riot of 1907

Pat Smith
Greensburg Daily News

---- — This week begins a series about events in April 1907; not a reprint of the 1994 series but on the same subject.

Former St. Paul resident Ruth Dorrel supplied most of the information in the 1994 series, and her research is being used in this series. Ruth worked at the Indiana Historical Society as editor of the genealogy magazine. She’s now at Franklin College. This time Dr. Calvin D. Davis, retired professor of history at Duke University, agreed to write an introduction to this series and gave advice about what should be included. Part of his introduction will be in this week’s column and the rest will be in next week.

Anything in this series could be found by anyone with patience and time to research it, so this isn’t an effort to appear to be an expert.

Curiosity prevailed years ago when told that all African Americans had been “run out” of town in a 1907 riot. While researching other subjects over the years, it became obvious that there were nearly as many Black Americans here after 1907 as before. That contradicted what had been spread about events of that year. Retired writer and newspaperman Smiley Fowler, who was 24 years old in 1907, clearly remembered what happened and shared his knowledge. Others who helped with this latest series include Russell Wilhoit and Lori Osting.

The first series was written before the Internet became commonplace, a good thing since we know not to trust everything we find from that source. It was especially distasteful when the old story was recently re-circulated without any regard for what actually happened. Dr. Davis’ calm approach helped immensely. Here is what he wrote:

“Pat Smith’s decision to revise and republish her 1994 articles about the Greensburg riot in April 1907 should be welcomed by all Decatur Countians. A few months ago an article appeared on George Mason University’s History Network which referred to another network article published in 2006. It was about Greensburg and was titled, ‘Honda’s All American Sundown Town.’ The author of both articles apparently was James W. Loewen, retired professor of sociology at the University of Vermont and a visiting professor at Catholic University in Washington D.C.

“Loewen’s books have received considerable attention, and I have been especially interested in three of them, Lies My Teacher Told Me, published in 1995, told of errors and omissions in history textbooks. Lies Across America, published in 1999, tells of errors in information provided at America’s historic sites. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, published in 2005, is probably his best known book. On its dust jacket are endorsements from several able historians; one of them is a friend and colleague of mine in the Duke University history department.

“Loewen defined a sundown town as any town which has deliberately excluded African-Americans. He discovered that many towns, most of them in Northern and Western states, have done so. He has given special attention to communities which put up signs warning blacks to stay out at night. Greensburg is one of the seven towns he identifies by name from a total of 30 which drove out blacks after what he calls ‘mini-riots.’

“On a map of Indiana he identifies Decatur County as a Sundown County. He does not mention the shocking crime which led to the demonstration in Greensburg which became the ‘mini-riot.’ Soon after publishing Sundown Towns, Loewen learned that Honda would locate a factory at the edge of Greensburg and that is probably why his opinion of Greensburg became harsher and it probably explains why he published an essay so negative in regards to our community.

“Loewen, supported by the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, was planning a lecture at IUPU and Ball State University when the commission abruptly withdrew support. Loewen believes his article about Greensburg had disturbed the governor and that he or members of his staff had prevailed upon the commission to withdraw support. I do not know why the commission withdrew support but I do know that ‘Sundown Town’ is an inaccurate description of Greensburg at any time.

“Pat has discovered that the Greensburg black community in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century contained people of considerable achievement who were respected and liked by their white neighbors and she has found that they continued to live here after the 1907 incident. Russell Wilhoit’s careful research has confirmed that most Greensburg blacks of 1907 lived here until the end of their lives. South Park Cemetery is the final resting place of many of them.”

Continued next week.