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The Racial Integration of Bloomington in the 1940s

Blog post by Randi Richardson

The Gables, across from the university at 114 Indiana Avenue, was the first of many Bloomington business establishments to be racially integrated in the 1940s.  This photo, from the IU Photo Archives, is believed to be taken about 1918.  Notice the dirt street.

Several months ago I watched an Oscar-winning movie, Green Book, from the comfort of my home with ear phones and captions so I didn’t miss a word.  The move is based on the true story of two men, an Italian-American named Anthony Vallelonga aka Tony Lip, and an African American, Don Shirley, a gifted pianist.

Shirley, who lived in the Bronx at the time, was contracted to do a 2-month tour through the Deep South to play in various venues catering to the upper echelon of society.  Given the status of racial relations in the Deep South at the time of the tour in the early 1960s, Shirley needed a driver who could “handle himself” and Tony Lip, also a resident of the Bronx, uncouth and racist, could do that in spades.

At the start of the journey that would change both their lives, Tony is handed The Negro Motorists’ Green Book detailing establishments across the country that would welcome blacks.  The hotels noted in the Green Book were home to Shirley during the course of his travels south while Tony Lip stayed in more desirable accommodations on Shirley’s dime.  A lack of desirable housing, be it temporary or permanent, for people of color was just one small aspect of racial prejudice particularly prevalent in the Deep South for many years.

Having been born female and white in the late 1940s, grown up on the outskirts of Indianapolis and raised within a small church denomination in a rather isolated environment, my life was not touched by racial prejudice.  I didn’t see it, didn’t experience it and didn’t even hear much about it.  Even today I  find racial prejudice nearly incomprehensible to grasp until it is right in my face like that depicted in Green Book.

As I watched the movie I wondered if Bloomington appeared in the Negro Motorists’ Green Book.  My heart belongs to Bloomington.  In 1967 when I arrived, I did not see any restrictions that limited what people of color might do or go.   Of course, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t prejudice; the differences between the town and gown segments of Bloomington society, for example, was palpable and rather unsettling.

With a little help from Amazon, I ordered a reproduction copy of the Travelers’ Green Book, International Edition 1963-64, advertised for a “vacation without aggravation.”  In fact, there was no listing for Bloomington hotels, motels, tourist homes or restaurants.  That could be a good thing in so far as there was no need because the businesses were available to everyone irrespective of color, or a bad thing because access was limited but nothing was available for people of color.

From reviewing the book titled Taliaferro by Dawn Knight, I learned that George Taliaferro, a person of color, came to Bloomington to play football and attend Indiana University in the 1940s.  He experienced racism on the football field and in Bloomington.  He was forced to live some distance from the University because at the time there was only very limited housing available to available to people of color.  Likewise, local restaurants, especially those close to campus, did not serve blacks in their dining rooms.

A wall-sized photo of the 1945 championship football team, which included Taliaferro, hung in the Gables Restaurant, a popular student hangout across from the university at 114 S. Indiana Avenue.  Taliaferro could only see a glimpse of it from the outside window by pressing his head tight against the glass.  Rather than dining at the Gables, Taliaferro was forced to walk several miles home each day to take his meals and then trek several miles back to the University for classes and/or athletic activities.

Finally becoming frustrated with his situation, he approached Herman B Wells whose term as president of the University was marked partially by his interest in integrating the campus.   Wells listened thoughtfully before dialing the number for Pete Poolitsan, one of the Gables’ owners.  With a veiled threat to ban students from the Gables if African-Americans were not permitted to eat there, Poolitsan agreed to let Taliaferro and a friend of his choosing eat at the restaurant for one week.  If there were no complaints, the next week Taliaferro could bring two more friends.   And so on.

When no complaints were received, more and more African Americans dined at the Gables.  Soon other restaurants in the community opened their doors to blacks.  And other business establishments, like theatres, also lifted their restrictions on when blacks might attend events and where they might be seated.

Slowly the integration that Wells and people of color in the community had hoped for became a reality.

Undoubtedly prejudice in Bloomington did not disappear altogether, but references to negro-friendly establishments in Bloomington in a Green Book for travelers were thankfully not needed after the 1940s.