Updated: October 7, 2013 1:13PM
It’s 1961 and I’m walking toward the front entrance of Roosevelt High School in Gary. What a beautiful structure and park-like setting, with manicured lawn and trees giving testimony that, “This school has pride!”
I was 23 years old with just two years experience teaching at Calumet Junior High. But the Gary school system offered more opportunity for advancement, so I applied for a job. An assistant superintendent called to inform me that a social studies position was open at Roosevelt. When he asked if integrating the all black school would be a problem for me, I said, “No.”
I stayed at Roosevelt until retirement in 1996. I was welcomed with open arms by some, skepticism by others and outright hostility by a few. People ask me, “Why did you stay so long?” Because teachers were respected there, and I had a front-row seat to exciting cultural and historical events taking center stage.
Now, more than 15 years after retirement, I am disheartened by what has happened to Gary and my old school. And I’m worried that “race” is becoming the fall guy for America’s crumbling social fabric.
Why is it that 50 years after the glorious march on Washington and speech by Martin Luther King Jr. our country has not put the issue of “race” behind us?
When I entered Roosevelt in 1961 I was greeted by sophisticated educators who humbled me with their knowledge. I had to learn fast by listening to them and reading books by black authors. I came across these words by Frederick Douglass, Co-Emancipator with Abe Lincoln, who said:
“Everybody has asked the question… ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us! …All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone!”
Historically, through slavery, Civil War, Jim Crow, lynchings, migration and segregation the black race had advanced on its own. When civil rights laws in the mid-60s eliminated most legal barriers to progress, it looked like the sky was the limit.
But then the Democratic Party, civil rights leaders and a liberal media stuck a dagger into the heart of black culture. A note said, “You can’t make it on your own!”
Some teachers expressed their concern that government “good intentions” would destroy the black family and neighborhoods. I witnessed firsthand how federal policies were loaded with disincentives. The less you did for yourself the more government would help you.
Roosevelt’s slogan, “The Best” no longer rang true. Government was rewarding mediocrity over individual effort and achievement.
I retired early, disappointed that welfare was replacing education as the way to plan one’s life. It’s human nature to pick a “hand out” over a “hand up,” if there’s a choice. But the “hand out” usually comes with an unstated caveat, “I’m doing this to keep you in your place and advance my interests” — the sad historic role for blacks.
Shaking off the bonds of dependency will be difficult, with the Democratic Party buying off the black vote, when iconic civil rights leaders hang on with their fear-mongering and the media use blacks to drive their myopic agenda.
My prayer and plea is that people will not blame race for bad circumstances, when it is failed ideologies like socialism that have created the “mischief.” After all, it wasn’t the race that changed at Roosevelt.
Martin Henrichs lives in