The news came to Jacqueline Patterson as a shock.
Working as head of the Urban League chapter in Milwaukee, Patterson could not believe Vernon Jordan, president of the national Urban League, had been shot in Fort Wayne, her hometown.
It knocked the wind out of me, she said. I knew that everything was not great in Fort Wayne, but I had no thoughts that anything like that would happen.
If the 1980 shooting raised fears of a rising current of racism in the city, they were premature. A drifter with no ties to Fort Wayne and linked to white supremacist groups admitted later to a racially motivated cross-country shooting spree that included Jordan, who recovered.
To Patterson, Fort Wayne – where she was raised and had worked with the Urban League in the early 1960s – would remain a city that strived to resolve its racial issues. That was partly the reason she moved back in 1993 after 30 years. Compared with some other cities, Fort Wayne, she found, wasn’t too bad.
There’s always been this kind of feeling that I had for Fort Wayne, it’s that you’re going to find somebody who’s going to sit down and talk to you, and you all begin to figure out whatever it is you can do to improve the situation, she said. And that’s one of the things I liked about Fort Wayne. When I was retired and worried about coming back home, I said, Oh not to worry, they take their time, but if there’s a problem they’re going to go after it.’
In the 50 years since Martin Luther King visited Fort Wayne at the height of the civil rights movement, the Jordan shooting casts a shadow in an era that otherwise saw great advances for the city’s blacks: a push to further integrate schools, more black professionals, more black police officers, the first black fire chief and black school superintendent, the first local black politicians and an end to restrictive housing covenants that kept blacks from moving.
But along with those advances the fact remains that blacks still trail whites in key areas of employment, income and higher education. Blacks in particular took a hard hit during the Great Recession.
Although he notes the poverty and single-parent homes that characterize some Fort Wayne black neighborhoods, Jonathan Ray, Fort Wayne Urban League president, is positive about the past five decades.
In terms of creating a black middle class, there wasn’t one. Now there is, Ray said. And there are African-Americans who are in charge of making decisions. That just was not the case in early Fort Wayne or even 50 years ago Fort Wayne. So, it’s changed dramatically in terms of where it was and where it is.
Chief among the changes was enactment of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination. Affirmative action also played an important role in opening doors to jobs and education for blacks.
In 1990, 8 percent of blacks had a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Community Research Institute at IPFW. By 2010 the rate was 12.5 percent, according to the most recent census data. The rate for whites was 27.6 percent.
It was equal education in public schools that the local black community turned its attention to in the latter 20th century. Though public schools were technically integrated in the 1950s, de facto segregation existed in Fort Wayne into the 1980s.
The schools were segregated because of the housing pattern, said Hana Stith, a former teacher and co-founder of the city’s African/African-American Historical Society Museum. They were not deliberately set out intentionally to be segregated.
In 1969, black parents were urged by the Ministerial Alliance – a group of ministers from predominately black churches in Fort Wayne – to boycott public schools to protest a lack of a plan to integrate elementary schools.
By 1986, with some schools still not integrated, a grass-roots group called Parents for Quality Education with Integration challenged the district to have schools with a healthy mix of black and white students. The group sued Fort Wayne Community Schools in federal court and settled three years later. The agreement led to the birth of the school-choice system, with some magnet schools offering specialized classes to attract students.
It’s a system that Wendy Robinson, FWCS’ first black superintendent, has overseen since 2003. From her office window in the Grile Administrative Center on South Clinton Street, Robinson can view the neighborhood she lived in and the places important to her as a child.
Part of the black migration to the north, Robinson’s mother and father moved to Fort Wayne from Alabama in the early 1950s to join other members of her dad’s family already here.
Robinson said she experienced racial prejudice, but the Fort Wayne schools she attended – she calls the former Central High School a melting pot – is where integration occurred.
I think that this is a city where on the average people are more accepting, she said. We have churches and organizations that reach out. We try to care for other people.
Today, new immigrants have changed the conversation, she said.
In the ’50s it was the black-white issue. It was the racial tensions. Even when our system was sued for racial segregation it was a black-white issue. Now the city has to face all kinds of cultural differences. The black-white issue is only a piece of it. So, on some level I think we have gone much farther because I wouldn’t have been here 50 years ago. We didn’t have that many black teachers in the district 50 years ago.
But Robinson worries that the next generation doesn’t value education the same way her parents did. And, like Ray of the Urban League, Robinson bemoans the loss of high-paying, low-skill manufacturing jobs that have supported black families for years.
The loss has had a very negative impact on the African-American middle class in Fort Wayne, Ray said.
Blacks in Allen County trail whites in income by a wide margin, though the gap has narrowed in recent years. And far more blacks – an estimated 31 percent in 2011 – are in poverty, compared with 9 percent of whites. In 2011, an estimated 11.2 percent of local blacks were unemployed, compared with 4.8 percent of whites, according to census numbers.
A 2011 report by the Community Research Institute found that black median income in Allen County declined between 2007 and 2009, from an estimated $30,254 to $25,347, at the height of the Great Recession. While county black households earned 65.8 percent of what white households earned in 1999, the rate declined to 63.2 percent 10 years later, the study found.
In addition, blacks took the hardest hit among Allen County homeowners between 2000 and 2010, with 91 fewer homeowners. It is the only race/ethnicity in Allen County that had an actual decline in the number of owner-occupied homes, according to census figures. The county’s black homeownership rate dropped from 47 percent in 1990 to 39 percent in 2010.
People are still struggling, Ray said.
Much of the issue we are experiencing now in Fort Wayne as it relates to violence is just a culture of depression and a culture of people who feel like they don’t have any reason to do anything different, he said. If you have something on the line you make different decisions.
Money means advancement, security and for many, moving.
Gone are the days when a real estate agent could overtly block a black person from buying a house in Blackhawk Forest in the northeast area or any subdivision in the city by saying I’d never show you that house, as local historian Stith recalls a Realtor once telling her.
He said, I don’t have enough of you people as customers to lose my business, and if I showed you that house I would lose my business,’ Stith remembers the Realtor saying in the early 1960s.
By 2000, large numbers of blacks had vacated the area immediately southeast of downtown for homes in the extreme southeast corner of the city. There, they replaced whites, who were moving north and southwest of the city. More than 2,500 white homeowners left Fort Wayne’s southeast side between 1990 and 2000, as 1,200 black owners took their place, according to census figures.
The migration continued last decade, with nearly 5,000 blacks leaving the city’s southeast core. While an increased number of blacks have settled farther south along the city’s border, greater numbers have moved throughout the city, with the largest change in the northern and western parts of Fort Wayne.
Housing in Fort Wayne has improved drastically, Stith said. Blacks can buy homes wherever they have the money or wherever they like.
But there are other areas of concern. Stith and others see a need for more black doctors, dentists, attorneys and politicians.
I say there are many opportunities available to black people in Fort Wayne that they have not taken advantage of, she said. And I think that most of the improvement has come about with the laws of the land. Civil rights legislation passed in 1964 is tremendous.
Martin Luther King can take credit for pushing civil rights through events and demonstrations that eventually led to his death five years after appearing in Fort Wayne. But Ray notes the movement would not have been possible without many other leaders and activists.
Martin Luther King was so important, Ray said. But all of the other people who participated in the civil rights era made it all work. Martin Luther King certainly had a gift. He could really speak. His oratory delivery was unmistakably probably one of the best of all time. But a guy like Thurgood Marshall changed the law. And the law was really the thing that changed behavior.