The Civil Rights Heritage Center: Local leaders transformed a place of division into a symbol of unity

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As part of Black History Month, ABC57 is celebrating, honoring and remembering Michiana’s rich Black history. One symbol of change in Michiana is the Civil Rights Heritage Center in South Bend. Local leaders had to fight for transformation at a place of discrimination and segregation.

Imagine something as simple and unfair as being denied the opportunity to swim in a pool because of the color of your skin.

For some, it’s just a something mentioned in history books.

But for others, it was a reality they actually lived.

“Growing up I couldn’t swim there, later on in life my kids could swim there but the Civil Rights Heritage Center was right in the heart the African-American neighborhood but blacks couldn’t swim there,” said Gladys Muhammad, a longtime South Bend resident.

“I would have had no problem coming in, it cost about a quarter at the time, so I’d put down my quarter, get a towel walk into that door to what was the boys changing room, I put on my swimming trunks, wear my little floaties and try to go out to the pool,” said George Garner, Assistant Director and Curator at the Civil Rights Heritage Center.

ABC57’s Naja Woods asked, “So what about someone who looked like me, if I tried to enter?”

“We hear so many stories of what might have happened, the answer would have been no. You would have not been considered a part of that public,” Garner said.

For people who looked liked Naja and Gladys Muhammed, things were much different when they approached the Engman Natatorium’s ticket counter in the 1920s through the 1950s.

“It irritated my kids, because they were at the age where you wanted to go swimming. As a matter of fact, we didn’t have a public pool anywhere. Not even the schools on the west side at the time had a public pool that you could go swimming in,” Muhammad said. “Years later we would get a little upset because you couldn’t do certain things because you were black.”

Muhammad, her family members and so many others lived that harsh reality for nearly three decades when the Natatorium, one of the largest public swimming pools in the state, wasn’t actually open to all people.

“What did it mean that a portion of that public, the portion that I present as, the portion that I belong to specifically and deliberately denied the meaning of that word to include all people. That was an act of violence and it impacted I don’t know tens of thousands of people for at least 30 years,” Garner said.

“Black people paid taxes to maintain it, but we couldn’t swim there,” said Charlotte Pfeifer, who was elected South Bend’s first Black city council president in 1996.

It wasn’t just the pool.

In South Bend, there was a practice of separating Black people of all classes from the rest of the city, binding them to just one neighborhood and certain schools on the west side.

“It really wasn’t the only thing. I grew up on the Lake, we call it the Lake in South Bend Indiana that’s where we had to live. You couldn’t live anyplace else is, you lived on the west side, even affluent people. Some of them had doctors, had their white friends buy their houses for them so they could live,” Muhammad said.

But even in 1937 when prominent black lawyers Like J Chester Allen and his wife Elizabeth Fletcher Allen fought for integration at the Natatorium, Black people’s rights were still bound by segregation.

“There were a couple of our affluent people, two judges later on who became judges, they lived on west Washington Street, like I said the doctors and the lawyers got together and they were a part of the NAACP, the Allens and they got together and said okay we pay taxes here and this wrong. Everyone should be able to use that natatorium. Then later on in life they had one day a week where Blacks could swim and they would change the water,” Muhammad said.

“The state was willing to stipulate that African Americans deserved access, they were not willing to stipulate that Black people and white people should swim together in the same space, so it was the state that ordered segregation once a week on a Monday,” Garner said.

The Natatorium fully desegregated in 1950. It closed in 1978.

It sat dormant for more than 30 years, until a group of Indiana University students took a trip to Birmingham, Alabama to learn about the Civil Rights Movement.

It ignited their passion to transform what was once a place of pain and division into a center for inclusion and education.

“When they came back they were interested in what had happened in South Bend, Indiana, and places in South Bend where Blacks had once upon a time been. And all of the institutions were gone, except for our churches. The bars were gone, the hotels, everything had been torn down because it was so substandard. The last thing was the Natatorium, and so we thought okay we should raise money and do this Natatorium and call it the Civil Rights Heritage Center,” Muhammad said.

“And Black people came together and now it is, we took something negative and made it into something positive,” Pfeifer said.

Muhammed and Pfeifer joined Indiana University and the South Bend Heritage Foundation to help lead the fight for change. They resurrected the former Natatorium into the Civil Rights Heritage Center in 2010.

“The Natatorium was a symbol of once upon a time in South Bend, Indiana, of racism and segregation. But today it stands as a symbol of what change can happen. Make a wrong into a right,” Muhammad said.

Muhammad and Pfeifer wanted to not only revive the center, but the entire neighborhood.

“The people in this neighborhood got together and decided that I was going to run for city council so I did because we wanted to save our neighborhood, we wanted to revitalize it but consciously not gentrify it,” Pfeifer said.

They helped open community spaces like the Charles Martin and Charles Black Center on the west side.

But even with the changes, Muhammad says their work is still not over.

“I’m proud of that Civil Rights Heritage Center like I’m proud of other things in South Bend, Indiana. More money could be invested in some projects especially on the west side of South Bend. Funds are not always put here like they should be put, but people have to stand up and sometimes demand that you do this,” Muhammad said.

In a time with so much division and hate, they all say it will take unity and love to continue to make a difference right here in South Bend.

“I also believe the African American population in South Bend has tremendous potential if they learn how to work together and come together and forge a unique tie,” said Vergeous Gillam, “Brother Sage,” who has lived in South Bend since 1995.

“I could see the Civil Rights Heritage Center being there. I could see the Charles Martin Center, a warehouse being a new place for people to come. And if you can take an empty building and make it beautiful you can do the same with people. The progress that we can make in buildings, I think people can change their lives the same way and that’s just an example of how change can really occur,” Muhammad said.

The Civil Rights Heritage Center was purchased by Indiana University back in 2020 to help maintain the center.

Its open to students and the public.

Leaders say it serves as a place of reminder of the collaborative effort by so many to turn a past injustice into a new justice for everyone.

The Civil Rights Heritage Center is at 1040 West Washington in South Bend. Visit their website for more information. https://clas.iusb.edu/centers/civil-rights/index.html

The center is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Tuesday and Thursday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

If you can’t make it, you can take an interactive, virtual tour of the center on their website. Click here to access the tour. https://my.matterport.com/show/?

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