Harper shares story of local African American community

As has been documented in recent years, Culver was once home to a thriving African American community which included members of the first integrated high school basketball team in Indiana (in 1922), an African Methodist Episcopal Church, and many more notable features. Of that community, Jim Harper remains to tell the story, which is what he did last week at two events at the Culver-Union Township Public Library -- one aimed at teens (last Thursday) and one at adults (on Saturday), in honor of Black History Month.
Harper said he was actually born in Terre Haute, though he spent his youth from two or three months old, in Culver, most of it on land on which he lives following his return here after retirement.
Harper said he was one of seven children in his family, five of whom graduated from Culver High School, and three of those from college. He added family and church are other major influences, in his case Emmanuel church, which in his youth was an Evangelical United Brethren church, to which he was invited by neighbor girl Hazel Thompson.
“I’ve been involved in church all my life,” said Harper, who also attended seminary in Chicago as an adult.
Harper was involved in Culver’s public school, though not heavily in athletics.
“I had two left feet,” he recalled. “ I was active in (Culver’s) Hi-Y Club, which was responsible for all the concessions at the ball game. My junior and senior years, I was treasurer for (the) club.”
In fact, CHS Principal Raymond “Doc” Ives told Harper the Club made more money under Harper’s care than ever before.
In 1950, James Harper left Culver to attend North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, then an EUB school.
“My first year at college,” he said, “I was the only person of color in Naperville and at the school, but it didn’t seem to make a big difference. I was elected president of my freshman class at college!”
More recently, Harper said an article in The Chicago Tribune which suggested Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. likely wouldn’t have been allowed to stay overnight in Naperville during the 1950s and `60s, piqued his interest.
“I had to respond. I told (the author) I had been in Naperville and gone to school there, and had been free to move about without a problem. He did some checking (and) he printed my email to him questioning his statements.”
Harper’s college career was broken up, he said, by two years in the Army following his volunteering for the draft, after which he was trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky. After turning down repeated requests that he consider officers’ training school, Harper eventually went to radio school. He would be assigned to an infantry regiment in Korea, during a time in which America’s armed forces had only recently become desegregated.
His college major changed to philosophy-psychology, Harper returned to North Central, later attending seminary for a year, after which he moved to Chicago. A group of fellow students accompanied Harper on a summer trip to Europe in 1957, where he recalled being assigned an “old people’s home” in a small German town which saw its very first person of color in Jim Harper.
“I was an oddity,” he smiled, “I had a real good time.”
Harper didn’t know any German prior to the trip, though interestingly he recalled hearing the language when he first started attending Culver’s Emmanuel church, which still had a service in German, so dominant was the language in much of Indiana in earlier years.
Back in Illinois, a college acquaintance training to be a medical technician insisted Harper meet a young woman at the hospital. Considering his friend’s tastes in women dubious, Harper resisted (as did the friend’s female acquaintance, and for similar reasons!).
“But one day at lunch we ran into each other,” said Harper of his wife Ina, “and 50 years ago (in August), we were married.”
Following his seminary experience, Harper found himself serving a racially mixed church congregation in Chicago in 1963. His wife and several others in the church urged him to attend the civil rights march on Washington, DC, that summer, and as a result, Harper was a firsthand witness to the historic event, during which Martin Luther King delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech.
“When you’re raised kind of isolated, you don’t get wrapped up in those sorts of things,” Harper noted. “But I’m glad I went. A whole trainful of people went from Chicago to Washington.”
Referencing a photo slideshow of scenes of earlier African American life in Culver (presented by Jeff Kenney of the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver), Harper discussed the basis of Culver’s black population and fielded audience questions about it.
He noted the community had its roots in the 1896 exodus of over 70 boys and several faculty and staff to Culver Military Academy from Mexico, Missouri, after the military academy there burned down. Among other roles, blacks in those years occupied positions primarily as waiters in the full-service mess hall at Culver. The waiters and other African American staff formed a popular baseball team, the comics, which traveled around the state and gained quite a following in the early 20th century.
Culver’s black population, Harper indicated, became integrated and respected members of the community at large, some members forming the Rollins Chapel (African Methodist Episcopal, or AME) church which thrived until the 1960s. He also explained the community faded away as younger African Americans graduated high school and moved away to attend college and begin careers, and the older generation died out.
In fact, he said, a proportionately higher percentage of Culver’s black population of the 1920s through 1950s went on to attend college than their white counterparts -- many of whom would graduate into agricultural work at that time -- an unusual situation in the largely segregated America of the day.
Many members of Culver’s African American community were part of a social club called Entre Nous, whose often-elegant gatherings were referenced in The Culver Citizen of the day. Also included in the paper was a regular social column, “In the Colored Circles,” which ran alongside society news of Burr Oak, Delong, and other neighboring communities. Included were tidbits as to who visited whom, which clubs did what, and other news of Culver’s black community.
In answer to an audience question, Harper said the African American community of nearby Monterey was a separate phenomenon, launching on the heels of the mid-1950s development of Kings Lake, a resort for primarily Chicago-based African Americans.
As for Harper himself, since his return to Culver, he’s become a familiar sight here, most prominently in the local Lions Club and his church, Trinity Lutheran, along with Ina.
“My life has been interesting because of having been here,” he said. “I never considered myself pigeonholed because of my color. Some others did, maybe, but I didn’t. They say ignorance or naiveté can get you far, and I think that’s true. Growing up here gave me experiences I probably wouldn’t have had if I’d been raised in Chicago in a segregated neighborhood.
“Culver has always been a very provincial town,” he added. “If you were born and raised here, you belong, regardless of color. If not, you’re an outsider!
“I have always been a Culverite,” he added. “I used to tell people, ‘I’m from a town where you were good until you proved yourself otherwise.’”