School strikes by students for any reason are rare in the history of the United States. Gary is unique in that it has had two school strikes, both motivated by white racism, in its history. Gary had one of the highest percentages of African American residents of any Northern city during this time, with African Americans comprising 9.6% of Gary’s total population in 1920 and 17.8% of Gary’s total in 1930. Many whites feared the large number of Black students who were already in the schools. Their fears were not only about direct physical contact with students they perceived as inferior to them, but also the sentiment that Black students did not deserve the same support as white students.
The Emerson School Strike happened in the fall of 1927. The Emerson School was on the north side of the city and served mostly the families of “middle class and elite skilled workers.” Few European immigrants’ children attended this school. Eighteen students from the all-Black Virginia Street School, which was overcrowded and in need of modernization, were reassigned to Emerson. This increased the number of African American students at Emerson from six to twenty four, out of a total student body of about 2,800.
Over 600 white Emerson students boycotted on the first day of the strike, Monday, September 26, 1927. They carried a banner that read, “We won’t go back until Emerson is white.” The strikers’ numbers increased to 1,357, which included about three-fourths of the high school students, by the third day of the strike. At a city council meeting held on September 30, “the idea of a totally segregated high school for [B]lacks emerged. Construction started immediately on the all-[B]lack Roosevelt High School.” In order to get the white students to return, educators and city officials agreed to re-segregate the school. The eighteen Black students who had attempted to attend Emerson School were forced to return to the Virginia Street School. No Black students would be allowed to attend Emerson.
The Roosevelt School, which opened in 1930, complied with Indiana State law and the 1896 legal decision in Plessy v Ferguson that allowed for racial segregation so long as it was “separate but equal,” although the premise that separate could ever be equal was of course false and would be overturned in the Supreme Court’s Brown V. Board of Education 1954 decision.
At the Froebel School in Gary, both white and Black students attended. But at Froebel, “Black seniors attended a separate prom, and their pictures were excluded from the year book. The school administration refused to permit [B]lack students to join extracurricular activities, such as Band, athletic teams, or ROTC; they could only use the swimming pool the day before it was cleaned.” This is where Gary’s second school strike happened in 1945. You can learn about the Froebel School strike here.