Historic marker details Froebel High’s legacy
By Carole Carlson email@example.com/302-0949 May 9, 2014 5:10PM
Virgie Thornton, left, and State Rep. Vernon Smith look at the new historical marker unveiled Friday that commemorates Froebel School. | Carole Carlson~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 11, 2014 6:11AM
GARY — Froebel High School was torn down nearly a decade ago, but its memory lives on in the hearts of its graduates, many of whom lived through a dark and fascinating period of the city’s history.
On Friday, those graduates got their first glimpse at an Indiana historic marker on the spacious former grounds of the school, 15th Avenue and Madison Street, which closed in 1977.
It took two years for supporters to secure the marker, which details Gary’s trials with racial integration and civil rights. The Northern Indiana Public Service Co. kicked in seed money to buy the monument, and Powers Construction erected it.
“Closing this school was the beginning of the death of this community,” said state Rep. Vernon Smith, a 1962 graduate and one of those who led the effort to gain the state marker.
In many ways, Froebel stood as Gary’s monument to integration, as well as a testament to social segregation.
Gary schools Supt. William Wirt, who won a reputation as one of the most progressive and innovative school leaders in the country, oversaw Froebel when it opened in 1912.
Gary historian and Indiana University Northwest professor James Lane, who attended Friday’s ceremony, said Wirt gained fame for his “work-study-play” philosophy that became a national model.
Following Wirt’s vision, Froebel boasted two swimming pools, a huge auditorium, a vocational center, a playground and gardening area and a three-room apartment so girls could hone their homemaking skills. No other high school looked like Froebel, and one historian called it the finest in the nation.
Froebel quickly established itself as an academic mecca, as educators from across the country came to see its campus setting, architecture and educational amenities.
By the tumultuous 1940s, the city’s Midtown section around Froebel teemed with Eastern European immigrants and Southern blacks who came to Gary for the good-paying jobs at the booming U.S. Steel mill. Froebel was Gary’s lone integrated school — blacks and whites sat side by side in classrooms but remained segregated socially.
Blacks couldn’t join the school choir, band or drama club. They could swim in the pool only on Fridays, the day before it was cleaned. While the white prom was at the Hotel Gary’s Crystal Ballroom, the black prom was held in the girls gym.
“We got along until a handful of whites started talking about a boycott,” Alma White, a 1949 graduate, said. “We had all kinds of nationalities and we all got along.”
The growing racial and cultural tension came to a head in September 1945. Talk of a boycott, fueled by peer pressure, grew, and many white students walked out, forcing Froebel to cancel its football season.
The number of whites boycotting the school steadily grew from 400 to 1,200. They demanded that blacks be removed from the school, saying Froebel shouldn’t be a “guinea pig” in an experiment on race relations.
The students’ boycott gained national news coverage as other U.S. cities began wrestling with civil rights for the first time.
Frank Sinatra, a civil rights advocate, came to Gary in November 1945 to try to quiet tensions. He performed at Memorial Auditorium and urged the white students to go back to school.
More celebrities followed, including poet Carl Sandburg, cartoonist Bill Mauldin and author Clifton Fadiman.
Finally, on Nov. 12, nearly two months after they boycotted, the white students returned to school.
“We all got along and had to live together as people,” said White, who went on to receive a degree in social work.