ELKHART — Representatives of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary sought to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Monday with a panel discussion and community conversation featuring the theme “Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart.”
Free and open to the public, the panel discussion featured local voices alongside event facilitator Benjamin Tapper, an associate for resource consulting with the Center for Congregations in Indianapolis.
Trapper holds a Master of Public Affairs from Indiana University and a Master of Divinity from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis. He also hosts the Invisible Truths podcast.
Joining Trapper on the stage were longtime Elkhart residents and community leaders Jean Mayes and Plez Lovelady.
Mayes is an ordained local elder to St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church. She earned a degree in biblical studies from Bethel University in Mishawaka.
Lovelady is senior pastor at Southside Baptist Church in Elkhart and currently serves as chancellor of Beulah Bible College & Seminary.
In beginning their panel discussion, Tapper asked each of the panelists to first reflect on some of the past injustices they and the greater African American community experienced in early Elkhart, such as the city’s demolition of the African American neighborhood west of Benham Avenue in the 1960s and 1970s.
“As we think about the history of systemic oppression and the harm that has been done, especially to communities of color here in the U.S. ... it’s pretty easy to get lost on the broad national scope,” Tapper said. “But if we look at specifically Elkhart, the city you all have grown up in and you’ve been shaped and molded by, can you each name one or two specific harms that you have seen perpetuated in this city, and then speak to the impact of those harms over the years from your perspectives?”
For his part, Lovelady recalled the African American community of his youth being segregated to only certain sections of the city, and being barred from access to other areas and businesses that were only welcoming to white people.
He also recalled the difficulty for many black residents of the city in securing employment after high school, with many area businesses refusing to offer jobs to the city’s African American residents.
“Once we graduated from high school, the real Elkhart came out. You could not get a job. There was no respect for you. And a lot of the people we thought were our friends literally didn’t speak to us,” Lovelady said. “There was a lot of hate, a lot of craziness that went on that we had to deal with. And I think one of the saddest parts was when they tore down the village.”
Mayes took it back even further than the demolition of the village west of Benham Avenue, noting that she actually attended an all-black school in South-Central Elkhart as a very young girl, the mention of which today she says has been virtually eliminated.
“I remember a day when there used to be a black school here. I attended that black school. It was called South Side School,” Mayes said. “It’s very hard to find any reference to that school. It’s almost like our history was erased. And I think that’s the problem that is happening all over the country, is black history is being erased.”
Mayes also recalled her family trips to the city’s Bucklen Theater, where people of color were required to stay in the upper balcony area, separated from the white attendees.
“I thought it was great to go upstairs, because I could throw popcorn down on people downstairs. I had no idea that that was segregation,” she said. “But my family never let us think that way. My mom and my father ... they were people that taught us like this: My dad said, ‘You’re the prettiest thing on this earth, and any dream that your heart conceives, you can achieve it, because God will not give you a dream you can’t have. And that is the same thing that I raised my children on. Any dream you can conceive, you can achieve.”
Moving on from the discussion of past harms, Tapper then asked each of the panelists to reflect on some steps they feel could potentially be taken in the future to try and begin remedying some of those past harms.
“What would it look like to envision what Elkhart could be?” Tapper asked.
For his part, Lovelady said the first step has to be to stop looking at skin color as something that separates people.
“What can we do to make things better? Stop looking at skin, and realize what we’re dealing with is sin,” he said. “Something has to be repaired. The mind has to be repaired. We must get back to basics, which is nothing other than recognizing, first of all, that God took dirt and made our bodies. And no matter how low you try to fit me into the system, one day they’re going to place you in the earth, and you’ll understand that you’re nothing but dirt.
“To make things better here, we’re going to have to look at things holistically, economically, and realize that we’re coming to the table with worth,” he added. “Understand that it’s not the color of your skin, but it’s what you’re bringing to the plate that is going to make a difference. There has to be a heart change. There has to be a mind change.”
Mayes offered a similar sentiment.
“It has to be a heart change. But the thing we have to remember is, in order to have a heart change, we have to look at each other as individuals. We have to begin to judge each other individually,” she said. “We all walk our different paths just like everybody else does, but in order for us to begin to become a community, we have to judge each other as an individual, and not as a mass group.”