Bloomington city council OKs new conservation district, gets a quick lesson in Black history

When the 1940 U.S. census was taken in Bloomington, Indiana, the enumerator who visited 935 W. 7th Street took down the information about the residents of the house from Ada Deal, a 40-year-old Black woman.

She was born in Kentucky, like her husband, Maceo, who was one year older. The Deals had nine children at that time, ranging from seven-month-old Charlotte to 19-year-old Mary. They owned the house they lived in, which was valued at $1,200.

Maceo Deal, who’s listed as the “head of household,” is described as an “interior decorator” who worked for a department store.

Deal got a mention a couple weeks ago, at the Dec. 4 meeting of Bloomington’s city council. That’s when the council gave unanimous approval to  a new conservation district on the west side of town, where Deal used to live. A conservation district is similar to, but less restrictive than, a historic district.

It was Near West Side citizen Betty Bridgwaters, who cited Deal, when she made remarks from the public podium.

Deal’s name came up in connection with some descriptions of local Black history, which left the staff report about the new district “a little skewed,” as Bridgwaters put it.

What is a conservation district?

Called the Near West Side Conservation District, it’s the area roughly bounded on the north by the railroad right-of-way alongside Butler Park, on the south by Kirkwood Avenue and on the west by North Adams.

In a historic district, any exterior alterations are subject to review by the city’s historic preservation commission (HPC). In a conservation district, it’s just moving or demolishing buildings, or constructing new buildings that are subject to HPC review.

The vote on the proposal at the council’s committee-of-the-whole meeting in early November was 8–0. So the council’s unanimous approval on Dec. 4 was expected.

What was not necessarily expected was commentary delivered by Bridgwaters during public commentary. Bridgwaters added to the staff presentation on a couple of levels: cultural and architectural.

Cultural History

Conservation districts have to meet at least one of 10 possible qualifying criteria. Among the five criteria met by the Near West Side District is the area’s role in the development history and social heritage of the city. That includes the community’s Black history.

The commentary from Bridgwaters came after oral remarks from Conor Herterich, who’s the city’s historic preservation program manager. Herterich’s remarks included the following:

How it pertains to Black history in Bloomington, is around the turn of the 20th Century, the African-American community moved to the west side, for a couple of reasons. One was the relocation of the Showers furniture factory, where many were employed. And the other was de facto segregation in Bloomington, which made living in other neighborhoods difficult for African-Americans.

The point of some of the commentary from Bridgwaters was that working at Showers was not the only way Black people made a living on the west side.

A lot of the people who lived on the west side were in business for themselves, Bridgwaters said. They were beauticians and barbers. The rest of them pretty much did server work, she added. The were janitors, caterers, and cooks, she said.

Bridgwaters also weighed in against the idea that there “were a good many or a majority or a large percentage of the Black males on the west side who were employed at Showers.” She pegged the number at around 10 or 12.

If you read the census, Bridgwaters said, “you will see what they did.”

From the 1940 census, here’s a sampling of jobs that Black men living on the west side of Bloomington held, besides working at Showers.

Wyatt Buka, 26, worked as a laborer for the WPA. McKinley Brock, 45, also worked as a laborer for the WPA.  He was a lodger with Ada Edmunds and Maddie Johnson.

James Shaunteo, 39, worked as a barber.

Fred Johnson, 66, worked as bail washer with the railroad. Neither of Johnson’s sons worked at Showers. Floyd Johnson, 23, worked as a shoeshiner. Joe Johnson, 21, was a dishwasher in a restaurant.

William Wilson, 47, was fire knocker for Monan Railroad. His wife Ellen was a beautician. Harry Lyons, 65, who was a lodger with the Wilsons, was a barber.

Like Wilson, Lyman Brown, 48, was a fire knocker for Monan Railroad. His wife, Georgia, was a cook in a private residence. William Woods, 29, was a porter in a restaurant.

James Skaggs, 57, was a bail washer with the railroad.

Julius Hawes, 65, was a janitor at the courthouse. His son, Arthur Hawes, 41, was a porter in a barber shop. George Burkes, 37, worked as a clerk in a drug store.

Herlie Stone, 42, appears to have worked at Showers (a “furniture plant”). But his son Haskell Stone, 19, was a shoe shiner.

About the idea that people moved to the neighborhood in order to be closer to Showers so they could work there, Bridgwaters said, “I didn’t know anyone when I grew up who moved to be closer to where they worked. That was just nonexistent. …You lived where you could live, you went to where you could work.”

That characterization by Bridgwaters looks consistent with Maceo Deal’s situation. His work is described in the 1940 census as an interior decorator at a department store. So at that point, based on the census form, it doesn’t look like Maceo Deal worked for the Showers furniture factory. But at some point, he did work for Showers, according to a couple of Herald-Times articles, published in 1996 and 2005

Deal also served as a kind of counterpoint to the staff’s written report, which describes the employment policies as “progressive,” elsewhere saying that “The Showers company corporate culture was unusual for its time and employed women and African Americans as well as white men when other industries did not.”

Bridgwaters described how Black workers, including Deal, were relegated to the shipping area at Showers:

[Black workers] weren’t allowed to be inside building furniture and what have you. Mr. Deal built a model because Mr. showers challenged them and just said one day, “Is there anyone here who could make a good model for me? And Mr. Deal said, “I can.” … And Mr. Deal went home, and the entire weekend he had a light on in his garage, Friday night, all day Saturday, all day Sunday, early Monday morning, and he finished a fine piece of furniture. There’s a picture of it. And he received high compliments. And everyone would’ve thought that he might have been invited to be in the design section or the building section of Showers. He went right back to the shipping docks. And a lot of the men on the west side had gone to him while he was still working on this piece, because he was a fine craftsman, to say, Why are you doing this? You are just going to embarrass yourself. You know they will never let you work inside. And he did it anyway. Because he could.

Herterich’s characterization of “de facto” segregation in Bloomington drew a counterpoint from Jim Sims, who is the only Black member of the city council. Sims described how a Black man he knew had bought a house in the early 1950s and the deed had a restriction against selling the house to a Black person.

“So we say there’s unwritten laws and rules, well, that may be the case, but there were some written laws and covenants on the deeds,” Sims said. He added, “Of course, the guy who owned it sold it to him.”

Sims said he did not mean his remarks to be chastising. He called Herterich’s report a “wonderful presentation.” At the same time, he said, there were some things that, as Bridgwaters had pointed out, were lacking.

Sims said, “There has been a whitewashing of Black history over time… and you can do your research and come up with a lot of things, and you can find a lot of stuff, but there are certain things that just aren’t there because they have been socially whitewashed. And I think that’s why oral histories are so important.”

Architecture and Geography

If the legislation creating the conversation district will not preserve individual histories of people, what, if anything, will it preserve?

Councilmember Steve Volan talked about the district in terms of geography.

Geography is to the “where” as history is to the “when”—they are cousins. … We’re specifically talking about preserving the history of things built in a certain place. Built things, geographic things. It’s the story of geographic preservation. What’s the point of this preservation? What we are preserving is architecture, but more importantly the scale of an area. The pedestrian scale. The houses on streets. The relatively close distances between the houses and the street, and the houses to each other. The modest sizes, the dimensions that encourage interaction in conversation that create neighbors and neighborhoods.

Volan also mentioned that he didn’t want to preserve everything. As an example, he gave the clever ways that people kept houses cool before the advent of HVAC technology. He didn’t want to go back to that, he said, but wanted to keep the forms of houses that kept them cool before we had machines that can do it.

In her remarks, Bridgwaters had talked about some clever cooling devices—transoms above doorways that promoted air circulation. Those were among the architectural details she felt were missing from the description of the district.

Other elements cited by Bridgwaters, that were more detailed than basic building forms, were front doors. When she grew up, everyone had two front doors, but in the 1950s and 1960s, as people upgraded their homes, they took one door out, she said.

In the 1950s, the house she lived in had its ceilings lowered and aluminum siding was put on. The wooden porch was replaced with a concrete block porch, she said, because her father was “sick and tired of replacing boards.”

Those were the kind of details that should be in the report, Bridgwaters said.

The Near West Side conservation district is now the largest such district in the city of Bloomington.

2 thoughts on “Bloomington city council OKs new conservation district, gets a quick lesson in Black history

  1. I am glad to see this recognition for the neighborhood. I wish the area west of Adams from Kirkwood to 7th could have been included as this was also a part of the African-American community. Until fairly recently there were two prominent black churches on the West side of Adams.

  2. Thank you so much Mrs Bridgwaters for educating us on the history of the men and women who lived here. As I understand my shotgun home on 7th St was at one time the neighborhood grocery store.

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