Blogs > Jim Loewen > Victimized by Folklore

Oct 29, 2011

Victimized by Folklore

Claiming the status of victim has become an effective way to solicit attention on behalf of justice and social change in the United States.  Women claim to be victimized by male violence.  African Americans claim to be victimized by racism.  Gays play the Matthew Shepard card to gain sympathy and a hearing.  On October 13, 2011, residents of Martinsville, Indiana, put a new twist on the victim role, claiming to have been "Victimized by Folklore."  

The occasion was the 2011 Annual Meeting of the American Folklore Society, hosted by Indiana University in Bloomington.  Joanne Stuttgen, long-time resident and president of the local historic preservation society, moderated a session with the above title.  Other Martinsville residents spoke as well.  Their point was:  Martinsville has not been a racist community; that charge amounts to nothing but folklore, by which they meant falsehood. 

Martinsville lies twenty miles north of Bloomington, about halfway to Indianapolis.  It used to straddle the four-lane highway that connects the university to the largest single source of its students.  It is a city of 12,000.  In 1890 the town had 53 African Americans; by 1930 it had four.  In the fall of 1943, apple farmers in the county faced a dilemma:  hire migrant workers or lose their crops.  When a few apple pickers from Jamaica arrived in Martinsville, "local citizens gathered in the town square to protest, only to be dispersed by the news that the state police were on the way," according to anthropologist Kellie Hogue.  By 1970 the black population was down to just one.  The 1990 census showed none, but in fact one African American woman did live in Martinsville.  According to Stephen Stuebner at the Southern Poverty Law Center, "She was so terrified of harm from racists who might try to track her down that she marked 'other.'"  The 2010 census lists 24 African Americans but does not yet tell how many live in households. 

In becoming all-white during the nadir of race relations—that terrible period between 1890 and 1940 when the U.S. went more racist in its ideology than at any other point in our past—Martinsville did nothing unusual.  In Sundown Towns, I show that about 70 percent of all towns in neighboring Illinois went sundown by 1940, including the Martinsville in neighboring Illinois.  A similar ratio probably obtained in Indiana.  By the 1950s, the state had so many sundown towns that folklore in the black community held that whites had developed a secret code:  any town or county with a color in its name kept out African Americans.  The notion of a code was nonsense, of course, but the evidence seemed to point that way:  all these "color-coded" communities in Indiana probably kept out African Americans:

Brown County
Greene County
Lake County
Silver Lake
Vermillion County
White County

However, so did at least 250 other counties and towns in Indiana.  Sundown towns were simply so common that all towns with color in their names happened to be all-white on purpose.  Martinsville was a Ku Klux Klan hotbed in the 1920s, but again, so was most of Indiana.

In the late 1950s, Martinsville High School played basketball against Crispus Attucks, Indianapolis's de jure segregated black high school, without incident.  By 1967, however, when Martinsville played Rushville in football and Rushville's star running back was African American Larry Davis, Martinsville fans were yelling "Get that nigger!"  Then, on September 16, 1968, something happened in Martinsville to separate it from the hundreds of other sundown towns in Indiana.  On a late summer evening, Carol Jenkins, a 21-year-old African American from Rushville, walked along Morgan Street.  She was selling encyclopedias door to door. (1)  Unfortunately, the sun was going down.  A white supremacist chose to enforce Martinsville's sundown rule by stabbing her to death with a screwdriver.  It was her first evening in the city, so she knew no one; thus no one had any conceivable personal motive for killing her.  At about 7:30 pm, she had gone to a house briefly, seeking refuge from a car with two white men in it who had been shouting racial slurs at her.  So most people (correctly) assumed the motive to be rage at Jenkins as a black person for being in the city after dark, according to reporter Mark Singer. (2)

In the aftermath of the murder, NAACP leaders and reporters from outside the town levied criticism at the city's police department, alleging lack of interest in solving the crime.  Martinsville residents responded by defining the situation as "us" against "them," them being outsiders and nonwhites.  The community seemed to close ranks behind the murderer and refused to turn him in, whoever he was.  "The town became a clam," said an Indianapolis newspaper reporter interviewed by Singer.  Cognitive dissonance set in:  the acts—murder plus apparent cover-up—could not be changed.  But attitudes could adjust, to justify those acts.  If someone from Martinsville did it and police now seemed to be covering it up, then the whole town seemed involved.  Now Martinsville came to see itself not just as a sundown town—it already defined itself as that—but as a community that had united in silence to protect the murderer of a black woman who had innocently violated its sundown taboo.  To justify this behavior required still more extreme racism, which in turn prompted additional racist behaviors and thus festered on itself.

Ironically, it turned out that no one from Martinsville murdered Carol Jenkins. On May 8, 2002, police arrested Kenneth Richmond, a 70-year-old who lived nearby but not in Martinsville.  His daughter, who had sat in his car and watched while he did it when she was seven, now came forward to give an eyewitness account.  Although many people inside as well as outside Martinsville assumed its residents had been sheltering the murderer these 34 years, in fact no one in the town had known who did it.  No matter:  cognitive dissonance kicked in anyway.  This is the notion that most people alter their opinions to match their actions.  In Martinsville, because everyone thought the community had closed ranks in defense of the murderer, some residents justified such acts by concluding that keeping out African Americans was right.  Additional acts of racism in the aftermath seemed appropriate.

During the years after Jenkins's murder, gas stations in Martinsville repeatedly refused to sell gasoline to African American customers, at least as late as 1986.  As racist as Mississippi was during the civil rights struggle, I lived there then for eight years and never heard of a town or even an individual station that would not sell gasoline to African Americans.  To refuse to sell fuel to a person whom you want out of town seems particularly irrational, when fuel is precisely what they need to get out of town.  Of course, most motorists do have enough gas to make it to the next town, and they will carry with them the message:  avoid Martinsville at all costs.

In the 1990s, fans and students in Martinsville intensified their harassment of visiting athletic teams that had black players.  In 1998, that tradition won Martinsville an article, "Martinsville's Sad Season," in Sports Illustrated: "On January 23, as Bloomington High North's racially mixed team got off the bus upon arriving for a game at Martinsville, about a dozen Martinsville students greeted the visitors with a barrage of racial epithets."  Students shouted things like "Here come the darkies."  The Sports Illustrated account continues:

During the junior varsity game several Bloomington players were bitten by Martinsville players.  During the varsity game a member of Martinsville's all-white team elbowed a black North player in the stomach so fiercely that the player began vomiting.  As he was doubled over on the sidelines, a fan yelled, "That nigger's spitting on the floor!  Get his ass off the floor."  According to a report that Bloomington North filed with the Indiana High School Athletics Association, epithets like "baboon" and threats such as "You're not safe in this town" continued after the game, which Martinsville won 69-66.  "It wasn't just nasty," says one Bloomington North fan, an adult who was in attendance, "it was downright scary."

As a result, Martinsville was told it could not host a conference game in any sport for a year.  "This wasn't the first time that charges of racist behavior were leveled against one of Martinsville's teams," the story made clear.  "In the last year at least two high schools in central Indiana have dropped the Artesians from their schedules after games were marred by brawls and racial slurs.  School administrators in Martinsville ... were unwilling to discuss the incident or its aftermath." (3)  After the attacks of 9/11/2001, the town's assistant police chief spoke out against gays, Hindus, and Buddhists.  Instead of a reprimand, he won a standing ovation at the next city council meeting.

Real estate agents played a major role.  Not only did they keep out blacks, they also screened out the "wrong kind" of whites.  In about 1995, an agent was showing a white couple homes in Martinsville.  In the words of the wife:

We spent an evening driving around the village, which seemed very nice, and found a beautiful house that we decided to call on.  I made arrangements with the real-estate lady to view the house... The house seemed nice, as was the agent... When the tour was complete, she told me I was more than welcome to call her with any questions or concerns and gave me her business card.  When I took out my wallet to put away her card, my picture fold fell out onto the bar and opened up to a portrait of some very good friends—good friends who happen to be engaged and Japanese and African American.  She looked at the photo, put her finger on the very corner of the picture and turned it slowly toward her, like it could jump up and bite her if she made any sudden movements!  She said to me: "Oh, you associate with those kind of people?"

All these actions gave Martinsville a particularly scary reputation among African Americans. According to Professor Alan Boehm in 2002, who had attended Indiana University in the 1970s, Indianapolis's large black middle class got the state to build a by-pass around Martinsville, "because they did not want their children put in harm's way when they drove between home and the university."

Not everyone in Martinsville was or is racist, of course.  John Wooden grew up in the city and went on to coach a host of black players at UCLA, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  From all reports he got along well with everyone; certainly he won more NCAA games than anyone else in the history of men's basketball.  Some Martinsville churches have developed relationships with black congregations in Indianapolis.  In 2007, I met with members of Martinsville PRIDE, which formed after the Sports Illustrated story, including some of the people who spoke at the folklore session.  They came from two different positions.  Some of them did not want Martinsville to be a sundown town and looked for ways to bring that about. 

More than half, however, did not want Martinsville to be known as a sundown town.  The difference is important.  Moderator Joanne Stuttgen claimed that folklore victimized her and her fellow panel members "on a daily basis."  This notion is in accord with the wish not to be known as a sundown town.  As a result of this mindset, in 2007, I could not arouse much enthusiasm for the idea that Martinsville might take the three steps necessary to stop being a sundown town.  These steps would also of course cause it to stop being known as a sundown town.  They are:

1.  Admit it.  "We did this."
2.  Apologize.  "We did this, and it was wrong, and we're sorry."
3.  And state, "and we don't do it any more."  [And that last step requires teeth:  We now have a Racial Ombudsperson, or a Civil Rights Council, and we are hiring teachers and maintenance workers affirmatively, and housing them in Martinsville, and ....]

In 2007, Martinsville PRIDE members did not think they could get the city leadership even to consider step #1! 

In 2011, their presentation at the American Folklore Society shows that this viewpoint still prevails.  Residents voiced their anger that Martinsville is the subject of “widespread folklore” that labels the community “racist” and “the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan."  Of course, to be upset by that reputation is understandable.  The reputation not only causes African Americans to avoid Martinsville, it prompts the Klan to continue recruiting there.  It also causes economic stagnation.  Earl Woodard, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce, complained in 1989 that owing to "its bad image," Martinsville "hasn't nabbed a single one" of the industrial facilities that "rained down on central Indiana" in the 1980s. (4)

At the Folklore session, Stuttgen claimed that outsiders have been "fooled by folklore" and that Martinsville never had a sundown sign or exclusionary policies.  But to claim that their reputation is all "folklore," by which Martinsville residents meant "untrue," is itself untrue.  Indeed, Martinsville PRIDE knows better:  some of its members have been ostracized simply for their membership in PRIDE.  Bloomington journalist Jeff Harlig, who has closely followed Martinsville for years, points out that even white people not born in the town "are never fully accepted as citizens of Martinsville, no matter how long they live there."  Nonwhites by definition were not born in the town, so they bear a double stigma.  A resident of a nearby town told me in 2007,

When our middle child (who is African American) was a baby, I was invited to a party there.  My husband was out of town and the hosts (who grew up in Martinsville) suggested that I may not want to come down without him. 

Thus Martinsville residents know that their town can still be uncomfortable, even unsafe, for minorities.  It's not just "folklore."  Facing its past honestly would require residents to admit that even though Carol Jenkins's killer did not live in Martinsville, the town's sundown policy legitimized his act in his own eyes, thus empowering his hatred.  Instead, Martinsville consigns the sundown policy to folklore, which they misdefine.  The American Folklore Society lists at least ten different useful definitions of "folklore" at its website.  None is "untrue."  It is unfortunate that the Hoosier Folklore Society sponsored this session, thus legitimizing the panel's misuse of an important term.

People at the session came up with various steps that Martinsville might take to counter its reputation.  One person suggested putting up billboards showing people of different races saying "Martinsville Welcomes Everyone." Another audience member suggested that Martinsville open an Indiana Civil Rights Museum, since Indiana seems not to have one.  She saw it as a way to use Martinsville's negative history in a positive way; it might also draw visitors and business to Martinsville.  Another mentioned that Martinsville might officially declare itself a "refugee city," which might draw a new and diverse population quickly.  Somehow, the Martinsville residents found reasons to reject every idea offered by the non-Martinsville attendees, according to my source who sat in on the session.  Ironically, one concern was that airing race relations issues in public in Martinsville might lead to flaming discussions on the web.  Then use of racial slurs and other abusive comments by discussants would only cause Martinsville again to look racist in the eyes of the world.  The panel seemed oblivious to the obvious:  their worry about the likelihood of such comments was itself evidence that Martinsville had not wholly outgrown its sundown past.

"Folklore" does not mean "falsehood."  Nor has folklore victimized Martinsville.  History—solidly researched, based on good interviews with a variety of important actors and on documents where available—shows that Martinsville earned its notoriety in so-called "Hoosier folklore."  Residents of Martinsville do have one point:  it is true that hundreds of other communities in Indiana have been equally unwelcoming to African Americans while keeping their racism under the radar of journalists and historians.  Indeed, a resident of another Indiana sundown town once denounced Martinsville’s racism to me until I asked if she had done anything to end the purposeful all-white nature of her own community.  Nevertheless, Martinsville’s notoriety does not mean that journalists and historians have been unfair to the town.  Rather, they have not yet done a competent job uncovering many other towns with similar practices.

Some of these communities in Indiana are moving on.  For example, the mayor of Bluffton, formerly a sundown town, enrolled his town in the “Inclusive Communities" program of the National League of Cities.  Elwood boasted sundown signs at its corporate limits in the 1930s, took them down when Republicans symbolically nominated native son Wendell Wilkie for president there in 1940, and then put them right back up.  Elwood is also moving on.  Several years ago, its mayor proclaimed Martin Luther King Day and led a commemorative parade.  Knowing his town's history (not folklore), he posted SWAT teams on rooftops, but there was no problem; the observance has become annual.  Martinsville might usefully take either of those steps, in addition to the three-step program.  That would be more promising than residents’ presentation to the American Folklore Society. 

When historians confirm a sundown town, they encourage it at least to take the first step toward getting past their racism:  admission.  Blaming "folklore" for "victimizing" a community takes a step in precisely the opposite direction. 


(1) Encyclopedias were large books filled with articles claiming to cover all human knowledge.  In those days, parents trying to do their best for their children bought them, especially multi-volume sets called The World Book Encyclopedia

(2) Singer's January 7, 2002, New Yorker article, "Who Killed Carol Jenkins?" set a high standard of reporting. 

(3) "Martinsville's Sad Season," Sports Illustrated, 2/23/1998, 24.

(4) Earl Woodard as paraphrased by Jeff Swiatek, "Martinsville tired of living with image of racism, bigotry," Indianapolis Star, 6/25/1989.


Copyright James Loewen

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