By Pat Smith
Greensburg — This is the second part of a series about events in Greensburg in April 1907.
Last week’s column ended as Dr. Calvin D. Davis wrote that it was an established fact that Greensburg’s African American community in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century contained people of considerable achievement who were respected and liked by their white neighbors. He continued:
“As years passed young people, black and white, found few jobs available in Greensburg. The number of industries grew smaller. Farmers throughout the 1920s and 1930s had inadequate markets and some of them started using machinery which cut down on the need for laborers. African American and whites left. Soon all the African American men were gone. Only a few African American women remained. The situation began to change a few years ago. The market for farm products increased around the world. Factories were built just west of downtown Greensburg and then others were built on the northeastern side.
“At least one factory is owned by a Japanese firm, another by a French firm. Japanese, Chinese, South Asians, Filipinos and African-Americans appeared in Greensburg. It should be noted that some individuals of Asian or African ancestry who are now citizens of Greensburg and Decatur County were here before Honda arrived.
“Racial topics, especially those which concern this country, often cause American historians difficulty. It is easy to offend even when there is no intention or need of offending. For that reason American historians should be careful when dealing with such topics to consider all available evidence. During my last years as a teacher at Duke University I was privileged to have as a colleague the late John Hope Franklin, probably the greatest late twentieth century American historian of black Americans whose wise, compassionate interpretations of history wins the admiration of all who read his books. Franklin was an African-American and a great American citizen.
“It is unfortunate that Professor Loewen rarely demonstrates compassion like that found in Franklin’s work, and it is unfortunate that he has used his own interpretations of what happened in Greensburg in April 1907 to discredit the Greensburg of today and former Governor Daniels.
“It was Loewen who first used the term “mini-riot” to describe the 1907 incident and that term is certainly more accurate than “riot.” It was, in truth, a small affair. Certainly there was serious misbehavior by members of both races, but it did not lead to establishment of the identity of a “Sundown Town” for Greensburg at that time or at any other time in its history.”
That completes Dr. Davis’ remarks.
Some information about the African American community before the 1907 incident: According to the 1900 census of Decatur County, there were 25 households of African American families living in Washington Township. The total number of African American residents was 110, and that number included those boarding in households. Four people were listed as boarders in the household of Samuel McGee and two were listed as boarders in the Thomas Gaines household.
Seventy-seven of those 110 residents could read and write or were listed as attending school. Eleven of the adults of the 110 could read but could not write. There were 19 children under school age. Thirteen of the 25 heads of households owned their own homes. There were six African American graduates of Greensburg High School before the turn of the century. Only nine African-Americans graduated from Indiana colleges before 1900s.
At one time a school for “children of color” was open in rooms over the First National Bank in Greensburg, but it was not a successful project. A petition was circulated nearly half a century before the event of 1907 that African American children could attend school with the white children. The petition was written and circulated by the African American, residents but signed by residents of both races.
The petition stated: “We the colored people of the city of Greensburg, respectfully ask you that our children be admitted to all the rights and privileges of the public schools. We beg to say that we make this request for the reason that there are not sufficient colored children in the city to justify the organization of a separate school for them.” (from Lorene E. Shirk’s book Schools in Decatur County Indiana 1820-1978.
Mrs. Shirk also wrote that one of the signers of the petition was Richard Lewis, father of David Robert Lewis a later graduate of Greensburg High School and the first African American to graduate from the Purdue School of Engineering.
Continued next week.