To hell with good intentionsBy Jason Shenk
The discussion of the site [for public housing] drew impassioned arguments from most of those attending. They contended that the site was wrong because it took [demolished] the best homes in the Negro section while leaving the actual slum area and that the completed project would be unattractive to white families because it was located in a segregated area.
— “Opposition to Site Snags Housing Work,” Elkhart Truth, Sept. 13, 1963
One [African-American] man pressed hard to learn what uses the land will be put to under renewal. [Renewal director] Webber said the uses cannot be determined until the studies and plans are made. If there are no plans, even tentative ones, why was part of the area rezoned for industrial uses? he asked. There was no answer.
— “Benham West Residents Question Urban Renewal Plans,” Elkhart Truth, March 28, 1969
At a local church’s Easter dinner this year, I sat next to Steve Robinson, a neighbor who critiqued the way I’d been working for a local non-profit organization. He said, “If you’re going to be working here, there are things you need to know.”
I’m glad he made his point clear. Though I’d be living and working with good-faith efforts in this neighborhood for over a year through Mennonite Voluntary Service, I didn’t know about the stories mentioned above.
Robinson emphasized that today’s context can’t be seen in isolation from the past that formed it. So as neighbors gather to listen and share more recent stories about police violence and cover-ups, community leaders, discriminatory hiring — some trends begin to emerge.
Stories like these show that the black community in Elkhart has long organized to seek justice, often with firm opposition from the powers that be. Edith Pasley stands out as a figure in many of these stories — first woman president of the local NAACP, leader of revival services, book studies and grassroots community-development efforts.
Through all that’s been done to the black community here, people have survived. When Robinson reflects on these stories, he touches on the characters who’ve lived and organized in south central Elkhart.
Mennonites like C.J. Dyck and the founders of Church Community Services aren’t the only people who have worked for solidarity and justice over a lifetime.
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