Throwback Thursday: Democracy in Action


On Monday, February 9, I sat and watched the wheels of democracy in action as members of the Mayor’s staff successfully lobbied the South Bend Common Council to approve the final phase of the Smart Streets initiative. The lone dissenting vote was cast by Councilman Henry Davis Jr. who represents the second district, an area predominately on the west side of the city.

South Bend does not have an incredibly long tradition of integrated government. Our first Council member of color, J. Chester Allen, won his seat only fifty-five years ago.

He, along with his wife and fellow lawyer/judge, Elizabeth Fletcher Allen, lead the South Bend Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the fight to integrate the Engman Public Natatorium. When the Natatorium first opened in 1922, it was the largest indoor swimming pool in the entire state of Indiana. In an era when the Ku Klux Klan was mainstream (and Indiana’s governor was a card-carrying member), city government officials chose to exclude African Americans from this city-owned pool.

This continued for fourteen years when, after pressure by the NAACP, the state ordered the city to allow African Americans for one day a week. In effect, the pool became segregated, with one “colored day” per week (or per month, in later years) allowed. In a historical irony, the word “public” is carved in concrete at the front door of the building, despite the fact that a significant portion of the public was denied entry. Mr. and Mrs. Allen, along with a team of civil rights leaders both black and white, worked for over thirty years to end the city pool’s segregationist policies.

Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms…” I had the privilege of watching South Bend’s democratically elected officials spar against the Mayor’s representatives, and sit patiently while members of the public – some coherent and reasoned; others, not as much – directly address their leaders. The majority may rule, but as this matchbook shows, the majority of American men used to smoke as well.


Sources: “Son Visits Natatorium His Parents Fought to Integrate.” South Bend Tribune. Accessed February 11, 2015.

Image credit: Image Credit of the Civil Rights Heritage Center Collection of the Indiana University South Bend Archives.

About the Author: George Garner is a graduate of Kutztown University (Pennsylvania) with a bachelor’s degree in history and the Cooperstown Graduate Program (New York) with a master’s degree in museum studies. Garner gained experience in museum administration, exhibitions, education, and collections care at such well-known institutions as the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael’s, Maryland. Garner currently works with the Studebaker National Museum and the Indiana University South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center.

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