The promise of jobs and prosperity lured thousands to Gary, Indiana, especially after World War II. The steel mills attracted immigrants from Europe and blacks from the South. Gary was also piloting a progressive education model, which included Froebel, an integrated K-12 school.
Ronald Cohen is a Gary historian and author of Children of the Mill: Schooling and Society in Gary, Indiana: 1906-1960. There was racial tension across the country after the war, and in Gary, Cohen noted, a fear of white residents rioting against black residents was prevalent.
“Gary was a segregated city, so most schools were in completely white neighborhoods,” explained Cohen. “So Froebel happened to be in the middle of the largest integrated neighborhood, an area called ‘The Patch’ and that was the rougher part of the city.”
William Hill will turn 90 in December; he said he remembers things were tense when his family first moved to Gary from Memphis.
“It was a bad time,” said Hill.
Hill described Gary in the ‘40s as a thriving but flawed metropolis. Froebel was the only integrated school in the entire city -- but Hill still experienced discrimination.
“We couldn’t swim in the pool. We could not take part in the prom. Caucasians would go down to the Hotel Gary. Beautiful surroundings. We had to have our proms in the girls gym,” he recalled.
Hill said he was relieved when his family eventually moved across town and he was able to attend Roosevelt, an all-black school.
In September of 1945, a group of white Froebel students, led by Leonard Lavenda, organized a walk out. They wanted all the school’s black students -- and its principal -- gone. When Cohen interviewed Lavenda in 1982 for his book, Lavenda insisted the walkout wasn’t about race. He said it was about equality.
“We wanted equality with Thomaston, Emerson, Horace Mann (school). Yes, take them (African American students) out,” said Lavenda. “We wanted to be equal with them. They (the Gary school board) said, ‘no we can’t do that.’”
A third of the students at Froebel were black. Lucille Bobo (nee Gause) said she was known for her school spirit: She was on the honor roll, was moved up two grades and rarely missed a chance to cheer at ballgame. When she heard the white students were walking out, at first, her feelings were hurt to think people would have feelings of dislike or hatred toward her.
“All I knew is that he lead a march out of the school,” said Bobo. “But why would he march against me? I didn’t do anything to him. I didn’t even know him.”
The school board rejected the call to have the black students removed, but it took a couple of weeks to consider the white students’ second demand, to fire the principal. When it decided to reinstate him, the white students switched their demand and Lavenda organized another walkout, as Cohen recalled.
“They said, ‘OK, we understand that you’re not going to remove the black students. However, if we’re integrated, that all the schools, near a black residential population, they be integrated as well’” Cohen recounted. Practically speaking, they proposed changing the school boundaries so that black students would attend other schools in Gary, not just Froebel.
The second walkout made national news: It got Frank Sinatra’s attention, who, in the ‘40s, was a star on the stage, screen and radio. Sinatra was also an outspoken progressive.
In 1945, Sinatra recorded the song “The House I Live In,” which talked about tolerance. When he heard about what was happening in Gary, he wanted to perform it at the Memorial Auditorium.
The special concert was held on Thursday November 1st of that year. Hill remembered the day being a holiday of sorts, kids had the day off from school so they could see the show. Thousands packed the Memorial Auditorium as Sinatra sang and gave a speech about acceptance to the multi-racial crowd. He urged the white students to go back to school and end the strike.
Lavenda didn’t attend the concert. He told Cohen that Sinatra came to his house to plead him to end the strike.
“The thing with Sinatra was he thought he could come over and sign a song and say, ‘Go back to school, go back to school,’” Lavenda remembered. “He may have meant well. But we had problems here; you’re entertaining people you don’t know what's going on here.”
Sinatra failed to end the walk out -- but days later, the school board did when it threatened to expel the striking students. The following year, the board wound up implementing the white students’ second plan, of course, not in the spirit the students intended.
By 1947, all Gary schools were integrated -- yet the city remained largely segregated. The population began to shrink in the 1960s, with layoffs at the steel mills and white flight. Lavenda has since passed away; Cohen said that when he interviewed Lavenda in 1982, Lavenda told him, he wasn’t a racist.
“He lived in an integrated neighborhood,” recalled Cohen. “He thought it was an issue of fairness.”
William Hill still lives in Gary. And he says the Sinatra concert sparked a lifelong interest in Civil Rights.
“That instilled activism in me, from that time on,” said Hill. “I still do that now, even with this latest movement with Black Lives Matter. I’m a part of that.”
Lucille Bobo stayed too. After graduating from Froebel in 1949, she spent four decades working as a secretary for the Lake County prosecutor’s office. On any given Saturday, she can be found at a Gary flea market, selling clothes and donating the money to charity. Bobo beams when she talks about her high school memories. She never lost her school spirit, and she was recently reminded of that by a former classmate.
“One of them came here [to the flea market] this morning. George Revetta played basketball for Froebel,” said Bobo. “And he told people today that I made up a cheer ‘Cheese, cheese, cheddar cheddar, nobody can beat George Revetta!’” she repeated with a smile.
In the end, Sinatra’s visit didn’t have the intended effect. But the negative national exposure that came with it may have been the catalyst for integrating Gary schools.
Follow WBEZ reporter Yolanda Perdomo on Twitter @yolandanews.