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First black Culver High School grad, 1906, predicted shift in race relations

February 8, 2013

George Rollins, father of Clara Rollins, CHS class of 1906.

With the exception of Hollywood invention, it's rare in actual history that a real, live person steps outside the context of their own era and predicts something which today we hold as a given. So imagine the first African-American student to graduate from Culver High School, Clara B. Rollins, standing in front of not only classmates and school officials, but the assembled parents and community leaders at commencement exercises of the school in May, 1906, and giving what The Culver City Herald newspaper described as "an instructive and thoughtful review of the development of the colored people of the South since tbe civil war."

More to the point, Rollins' speech reflected, said the Herald, her belief that "the time will come when the negro will not be socially ostracised."

This newspaper has written in the past about the unusual legacy of Culver's black community and some of the community leaders it included. Around the turn of the 20th century, few were regarded as highly as the Rollins family, and in particular its patriarch, George Rollins, whose daughter Clara would deliver that speech.

Rollins, whose Culver Citizen obituary in August, 1925, described him as "the much respected colored man of Culver," was perhaps best known for the church which bore his name into the late 1960s, Rollins Chapel on Coolidge Court, though Rollins himself wasn't a pastor. Instead, he had donated the land for church in early 1912, believing Culver's community of some 50 or more black residents needed a place of worship to call their own.

Given what the historical record tells of George Rollins -- who was born in 1856 and had little formal education of his own -- it's reasonable to assume his daughter Clara's clarity on the race situation in America was due in good measure to her father's counsel.

But the historical record also suggests the climate in Culver and at Culver Military Academy -- where most of the local black community was employed at the time, including George Rollins -- while far from perfect, may have had a bearing on her attitudes as well.

And while Clara Rollins' speech before the assembled Culver community on race relations could have been partly a rebuttal to whatever racism she encountered here, the fact that she felt comfortable enough to deliver the speech gels with other historical information: that for all the problems of the day, there was a somewhat unusual climate in Culver as regards race relations, certainly compared to the deep South at the time, but perhaps also compared to many surrounding communities.

BEGINNINGS

Culver's black community began in earnest with the influx of students, faculty, and staff of the Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, Missouri, to Culver Military Academy in 1896, when the Missouri institution burned. Rollins himself arrived here in 1899, according to his obituary, though a 1949 Citizen article says 1897.

According to a letter to the editor published in the Citizen in Sept., 1964 by William J. Smith (who notes he was Culver's milkman from 1908 to 1911), George Rollins' parents had been slaves, and Rollins saw to it "that his several children had a good education."

During Smith's tenure, Rollins was chef at the Palmer House Inn -- which was eventually re-dubbed the Culver Inn -- adjacent to CMA. And, whether or not he was CMA's first chef, as some articles suggested, he was certainly one of its first (the Academy started in 1894).
Smith notes George Rollins "was a Christian gentleman and a member of the Methodist Church in those days."

In an article in March, 1949, the Culver Citizen wrote, "The Negro population of Culver started in June, 1897, when James Joplin and George Rollins came to Culver with their families to work at the Culver Military Academy. The chruches of Culver were quick to open their doors to this small minority group, and for twelve years the two races worshiped together; from this a fellowship and friendship grew that has lasted through the years."

The latter point is reflected in Smith's letter: "(At) the Methodist Church in Culver (prior to the construction of Rollins Chapel)...there were in those days what was called the midweek prayer meeting. After all the rest had had their say, Mr. Rollins would get to his feet and give amodest testimony that outstripped all the rest of us."

ROLLINS AND HIS CHAPEL

The Citizen article continued: "In 1907 the population had increased to about fifty. Mr. Rollins, or 'Pap' Rollins, as he was called, decided to do something about a place of worship for his people. Owning a plot of ground he decided to donate a portion of this in order to help make it possible. Calling his people together, he found them very eager. It was decided to build the small church that stands on Coolidge Court today. As a token of gratitude the members decided to call the church 'Rollins Chapel.' It was to be non-denominational so that all would feel free to worship.

"The first pastor was Rev. A. J. Taylor who came from Indianapolis and worked part time. The trustees were Ed Johnson, James Joplin, and Brooks Armstead. Today the membership stands at about 35 with 15 active members. Charles Dickerson, Roy Watts (Mr. Rollins son-in-law), and Robert Hill are trustees. Harold Scott, Alex Joplin, and Chauncy Simmons are stewards. Rev. Culpepper is pastor at the present time."

Some of the above names will be quite familiar to many in Culver: Charles Dickerson, for example, was head waiter for decades at the Academy mess hall, assisted by Roy Watts; Harold "Sheep" Scott had been head custodian and was a beloved figure among CMA cadets as well as Culver residents at large. His daughter, Thelma Hodges, was a prominent force in local business and politics into the 1980s. Chauncy Simmons, too, was prominent both at the Academy and in the town of Culver.

As an interesting side note, Rollins Chapel happened to be built at the former site, south of Lake Shore Drive on the west side of Coolidge Court, of Culver's early jail.

According to Edwin Corwin's "One Township's Yesteryears," "The jail was still there in 1901, but there was not much use for it then, except maybe when some one came in on an excursion and got a little tight and had to be put in there to sober up. 'Neighbor' Cromley, who was Marshal for a number of years, remembers well the old jail when it stood on its original site."

In 1912, Rollins Chapel was dedicated with a Children's day service by the members of the Sunday school.

"The audience was composed chiefly of white people - men, women and children - who took a sympathetic interest in the program which was arranged and rehearsed under the direction of Mrs. Taylor, wife of the pastor. The children entered heartily into the rendition of their parts and the audience seemed to enjoy every number from the shy recitation of Jeanette Artis, a 3 year old tot, to the graceful elocu­tionary number by Miss Alberta Armstead. At the close of the exercises Pastor Taylor made an effective plea for subscriptions and contributions to liquidate a balance due the carpenter and to pay for the seats and the organ. As a result $22 was added to the avail­able funds of the society."

The chapel was 20 x30, and cost about $450.

Initially, Rollins had been part of a mission of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but in 1917 it officially joined the AME Conference. Its first pastor after joining was the Rev. Charles Bell.

At intervals during the history of this church, resident pastors were located at Culver, wrote Corwin in the 1930s. Among these was the Rev. A.T. Williams, who was assigned as pastor in October 1924. Interest was stimulated when it was then announced that the African M.E. Church would again have a pastor in Culver and the first church services of the year would be held.

Rollins Chapel made the local news from time to time, such as the August, 1925 appearance of its members in concert at the Methodist church in downtown Culver, where they performed hymns and spirituals, utilizing monies collected at the door for the upkeep of the Rollins building.

In Nov., 1929, Roy Watts remodeled and enlarged the building adjoining the chapel and converted it to a two-story dwelling, which presumably would be the house at today's 221 Coolidge Court.

FINAL YEARS OF THE ROLLINS CHAPEL

By the 1960s, though Culver's black population was dwindling as younger generations moved on and in most cases attended universities and went on to their own success, Rollins Chapel charged on. In Sept., 1963, the Citizen reported on a fall rally at the church which filled it to capacity. At the time, the pastor was the Rev. Huben Jones of Gary, and several visiting pastors contributed to the program, which was attended by a number of Culver's white residents as well.

"From a portrait on the wall," noted the Citizen, "the kindly eyes of a great friend of the community of a generation ago, who was also the donor of the chapel, Mr. Rollins, seemed to smile with approval as the members of the chapel greeted and made welcome the visitors."

A special service the following April at the chapel drew a number of visitors from Elkhart and LaPorte AME churches, wrote the Citizen, and a group of youth from the Culver Bible Church sang several numbers.
Services were regularly advertised in the Citizen at the chapel until 1968, after which services discontinued there. That was the same year George Rollins' son, Dr. Hollis T. Rollins, a Detriot dentist, passed away. After graduating from the Indiana Dental College, he's spent the rest of his life practicing in that city.

George's wife Nettie Easley Rollins has passed away in 1932, and his daughter Florence -- wife of Culver's Roy Watts -- in 1976.

Two of George Rollins' children met early fates. Lawrence, born in 1902, died in 1921, though a cause of death isn't apparent at the moment.

CLARA'S TRAGEDY

Rollins' other daughter, Clara, the first African American to graduate from Culver High School, tragically never lived to see her predictions concerning race relations in America come true. In fact, she didn't even live to see her father's dream of a church for the black residents of Culver come to fruition.

In Oct., 1908, Clara married Joseph Artis in her parents' home. The two would move soon thereafter to South Bend, where, in Dec., 1909, Clara was fatally burned in a kerosene explosion in the couple's home there. She, like her entire family, rests in the Culver Masonic cemetery.

FAREWELLS

By 1972, the Culver Methodist Women's thrift store -- today in a house on Ohio Street -- occupied the Rollins Chapel building, which was torn down soon after, the community it had been built to serve having dwindled to just a few.

Perhaps the Culver legacy of George -- and Clara -- Rollins is exemplified in his 1925 Citizen obituary: "All of this community have had nothing hut good words for George. He was a man of his word, believed in the right things and acted out his belief.
The Rollins Chapel is a lasting memorial to his life."

"Yes," concluded William Smith's letter to the editor, decades later. "I remember George Rollins, as a wonderful friend. Last year I stood at the headstone of his grave in silent remembrance of him."

It may be telling to note, in a December, 1947 blurb in the paper, that "The Citizen staff was surprised recently when a delicious cake was brought to the office by a representative of Rollins Chapel. The pre-Christmas remembrance was presented as an expression of appreciation for the Citizen's cooperation in publishing news of the activities of the church."

Another minor indication of the status of the African American community in Culver's past was the regular appearance of a column in the Culver Citizen titled, "In the Colored Circles," which documented the comings and goings of the town's black residents, much as similar columns reported on the social lives of residents of Burr Oak, Delong, Hibbard, and other small offshoots of Culver proper.

The very last appearance of the column which had, by then, become simply "Colored Circles," appeared in the Citizen in 1960, and was written by Mrs. Nellie Jackson.

Whether or not she knew hers was the last in a series of such reports dating back some 50 years, Mrs. Jackson's closing words that week, after detailing the Dickerson family's efforts in driving many snowbound congregants to Rollins Chapel the previous week, seem to allude to the presence of the column itself:

"We, being patrons of our only weekly paper, thank you for cordial treatment."

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