Analysis: Possible historic designation of building a chance to reckon with Bloomington’s racism

On the Bloomington city council’s Wednesday agenda for a first reading is an ordinance that would establish a new single-property historic district for the building at 424 1/2 S. Walnut Street.

Consideration of the ordinance could be a chance for the city council and the community to review an episode from Bloomington’s restaurant industry in 1950, which was described this way in a World-Telephone article: “Downtown Bloomington restaurants, closed this week in protest of a campaign to force them to serve Negroes, are to be reopened for business beginning on Thursday of this week, serving customers of all colors.”

The building at 424 1/2 S. Walnut is probably best known for the most recent business that was housed there, which was The Player’s Pub.

Part of the argument for the property’s historic designation is the building’s connection to Henry Boxman, who operated the place as Boxman’s Restaurant” for nearly three decades, from 1929 to 1958.

One of the possible criteria that can qualify a building for historic designation is its association “with a person who played a significant role in local, state, or national history.”

Boxman is described in the report prepared by Conor Herterich, the city’s historic preservation program manager, as “one of Bloomington’s greatest restaurateurs,” who helped found the Indiana Restaurant Association and re-established the Bloomington Chamber of Commerce, among other achievements.

Not a part of the report prepared by Herterich is an analysis of where, if anywhere, Boxman’s Restaurant might have fit into the segregationist history of Bloomington’s downtown restaurant scene of the 1950s.

The possibility of a discussion of segregationist practices by Boxman’s Restaurant might have been foreshadowed by veiled, nonspecific allusions to some information at last October’s meeting of the historic preservation commission (HPC). That’s when HPC member Jeff Goldin told his colleagues about some “sensitive” information that could “sully some reputations,” which he wanted to verify before voting.

At its October meeting, the HPC still voted 5-2 to forward a recommendation to the city council for historic preservation and to place the building under interim protection against demolition. Dissenting were Goldin and Sam DeSollar.

When the city council got a preview of the item at its Jan. 8 work session, councilmember Jim Sims previewed his question to Herterich by saying, “Please understand, I’m not trying to pass today’s values and societal norms on what was back then. But it was brought to my attention, and some articles and stuff from some constituents, that the Boxman building and the restaurant, in fact, did not allow Black diners to utilize that facility.”

Sims wanted to know what, if any, impact the segregationist practice might have on the building’s historic designation.”

Herterich said he’d heard “rumors” about segregation at Boxman’s but he’d never actually seen evidence of it. Herterich said he’d love to get his hands on evidence that he could read or photographs he could look at that would corroborate the story.

Sims said he’d forward to Herterich the research he’d been provided. Responding to a request from this publication, Sims also sent along the research to The Square Beacon.

The information included several documents:

What is it that might connect Boxman’s Restaurant to the “flash famine” that was caused by the closure of Bloomington eateries to avoid serving Black patrons?

In the 1980 interview, Boxman describes how he was one of three co-founders of the Indiana Restaurant Association. In his memoir, Herman B Wells, who served as president of Indiana University from 1938 to 1962, describes the episode involving the restaurant closures as a confrontation between him and “the local restaurant association.”

In his memoir, Wells described the push he made to get restaurant owners to stop barring Black students from dining in their eateries, something he said was “not just immoral but also illegal.”

When restaurant owners threatened to shut down their restaurants, which meant white students would also have no place to eat, Wells told the owners he’d arrange to have meals served on campus.

The newspaper clippings allude to the push from the university without naming Wells: “The restaurant operators recognize and appreciate, that Bloomington’s colored townspeople have not participated in the controversy which the restaurant owners declared originated on the Indiana University campus.”

In the four newspaper articles, none of the restaurant owners or their restaurants are named. It is an unnamed spokesman for eight downtown restaurants to whom the following statement is attributed: “Certain Bloomington restaurants have closed their places of business in the interest of public safety for an indefinite period of time as the result of an organized effort on the part of a group of individuals to force their patronage on restaurants which are located in the business district of the city.”

The only person named in any of the articles is then-mayor Thomas Lemon, who is described as trying not to take a side on the practice of segregation in Bloomington restaurants: “While recognizing that restaurant operators have the legal right to close when they wish, Mayor Lemon indicated that he, personally, has no objection to patronizing restaurants which cater to all races.”

Lemon is quoted as saying, “Both sides have been a little hasty.”

At the city council’s Jan. 8 work session, councilmember Sue Sgambelluri said she thought a restaurant of Boxman’s Restaurant era “in many ways, probably did not adhere to the values we hold today.”

Sgambelluri wanted to know: If the council identified ways that Boxman’s Restaurant discriminated against some Bloomington citizens, does that have an impact on the council’s ability to designate it as a historic property? If the building were to be designated as a historic property, Sgambelluri wanted to know, “How do we tell that story in an honest way?”

Herterich responded to Sgambelluri’s question by saying, “I would fight tooth and nail to put a plaque in front of the building.”

Herterich said that it’s an issue that is being confronted on the national stage. Herterich said, “We have some buildings with ugly history. But do we destroy all those buildings and pretend they never existed? Or do we tell their story and how it was part of our struggle?”

On Wednesday, the city council won’t deliberate on the proposed ordinance. It’s just a first reading.

Still, what could be interesting to watch is whether the ordinance is referred to a four-person standing committee for closer scrutiny, or instead to the whole council (the “committee of the whole”).

It will be Sims, as city council president, who can make the initial referral. But that can be changed by a vote of the council on Wednesday night.

The standing committee that is assigned to the historic preservation commission is the housing committee. New committee assignments could be made on Wednesday. Right now the housing committee consists of Kate Rosenbarger, Susan Sandberg, Ron Smith and Steve Volan.