News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 11, 2012

ISU students dig into race relations

Results of semester-long research project presented Monday

Sue Loughlin
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Austin Sisson’s research for a class opened his eyes to a turbulent period in Indiana State University’s history.

He and fellow students Ethan Hancock and  Nathan Clark studied newspaper coverage of student protests at ISU from 1965-75, and much of it focused on race relations.

“I definitely learned ISU was a lot more politically active than I thought it had been,” said Sisson, a senior and history major, who is from Clinton.

Students spent the semester conducting research for Anne Foster’s 300-level history class. Their projects also included research into a May 1970 race riot, general explorations of black and white student relations, experiences of African-American athletes at ISU as well as race relations and civil rights in Terre Haute.

The students presented their research Monday at Cunningham Memorial Library.

In studying articles from the Indiana Statesman during that era, “ISU didn’t really hold anything back from its student newspaper coverage,” Sisson said. “There was a lot more hesitation at other schools.”

In a separate project, ISU senior Abby Colwell and her group researched the history of African Americans in Terre Haute and “how that led to the civil rights movement here.”

She found that in Terre Haute, it wasn’t so much a mass movement as individuals who worked to make a difference.

Chelsea Young, a senior social studies education major, learned about Winton Jones, an African American pharmacist who opened his own drug store at 13th Street and College Avenue.

In part, he started his own business because white pharmacists in Terre Haute weren’t willing to hire him. Also, Young said, Jones wanted to have a place where African Americans could eat at the lunch counter.

“My people couldn’t eat any place downtown,” Jones told an interviewer for the Vigo County Oral History Program.

Jones, born in 1904, rented his first business location for 17 years at 13th Street and College Avenue and later built his own pharmacy and lunch diner on the same corner in 1942.

Young studied segregation in Terre Haute. While Terre Haute didn’t have Jim Crow laws, “We had custom laws,” she said. “It was understood for them [blacks and whites] to be segregated.”

She studied segregation in housing and found, “Terre Haute had red line districts. Realtors would draw a red line on a map … and box in neighborhoods and say, you can only buy houses in these neighborhoods,” Young said.

What Young also learned about segregation was that “nobody really talked about it. It was all quiet.”

Mike Berdowski, an ISU history major, was part of a group that studied the ISU administration’s reaction to the student protest movement.

The students, including Ashlee James, felt that then-President Alan Rankin was more flexible and more willing to negotiate with students than presidents at other campuses. Over time, ISU worked to hire more black faculty and staff, started a black studies program and opened the cultural center.

James, who is from Texas, was surprised to learn there had been a race riot at ISU in 1970 that received national attention.

Foster, associate professor of history, said the project enabled students to “act like real historians. … They are going in and investigating new topics. I think that’s exciting for them.”

It also was frustrating when they could not document things they learned in interviews or oral history.

The students also learned there were times when ISU was a pioneer in promoting integration, including — under John Wooden — in post-season college basketball tournaments that ISU refused to take part in because blacks were not allowed to participate.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@