Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Indianapolis Public School Segregation & Dr. King

The following is part of a letter that that Gregory Wright sent to his pastor, Dr. Kent Millard, the Senior Pastor of St. Luke’s Methodist Church in Indianapolis, just prior to January 15, 2008 in anticipation of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. It is such a poignant story that I asked him if he would allow it to be reprinted here. He agreed.

By: Gregory Wright

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. day has a special meaning for many Americans. I personally honor his memory for two reasons: first, he was a great American, speaker and writer; and second, because he followed his heart, went bravely against the conventional wisdom of his peers, and thus fostered positive change. This change has helped people of color gain the rights of others and thus help repair some of the psychological damage caused by segregation. I know a little – only a little – about segregation. Here is my personal account of the ugly face of segregation when I first entered the Indianapolis public schools.

In 1948 or 1949, when I was about six years old, the American Indian grandmother that had raised me, Alpina, took me to live with my mother and her new husband at 1458 South Lee Street in Indianapolis. The next morning, after breakfast, she took me to see IPS school #46, the Daniel Webster School, which was one block west of my new home. To get there we walked a few doors south to Howard Street and turned east for a block to the school. It was on Reisner Street and faced Howard. She pointed out the fine brick two-story brick building that could become my school. It was impressive.

We next retreated along Howard Street; and, at Lee street, instead of turning North toward my new home, we turned and walked to another school that was located a block to the south. This was the Indianapolis Public School colored children attended. The school “campus” consisted of a collection of pre-fab metal buildings called Quonset Huts that had been used during WWII by the U.S. Army Air Force at nearby Stout Field as barracks. Some of the windows were cracked. The buildings had never seen paint and were rust-stained. I was later told that heat came from a Franklin-style stove at the end of the classroom room. It was fed Indiana coal from a small coal bucket that was replenished by the older children from a stack of coal that had been dumped outside.

With her back to the colored school, Grandma Alpina kneeled to look me in the eyes. She said to me in a firm even voice that I should not tell anyone at the Daniel Webster School that I was part Indian. If they found out, they could make me attend the school in front of me. My new father enrolled me in the Daniel Webster School. He had red hair and said that I was his son. I did as I was told and denied my Indian heritage for many years even after desegregation.
That happened 60 years ago. But, for me to tell this story even today, it is sometimes difficult to maintain my composure. Even today, when I read these, my own words, I again hear my Grandmother’s voice in my mind, and recall that day and experience a combination of emotions.
The more I learn of Dr. King, the more that I respect his work. He not only helped African Americans, he has helped all people of color. He helped not only us; I believe that he helped all Americans.

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