Facing the Fight: Systemic Racism in Muncie

Facing Racism in Muncie, Indiana

Cornelius Dollison’s story written by Lauren Bishop-Weidner.

Cornelius is 74 years old.

My parents came to Muncie from Mississippi, after my dad realized that no matter how good a farmer he was, he would never succeed in the corrupt sharecropping system. Bad year, good year, it was all the same with the white landowners keeping the books.

My father got a job in a foundry, and he encouraged his brothers and sisters to come north. I am an only child, but I sure didn’t grow up as one—our house was crawling with cousins. One family at a time, relatives would move in with us until they got a check or two ahead and could get a place of their own. Even when they moved out, we all lived close by each other in the Industry neighborhood, not far from where Millennium Place is now. When I was about 12, we moved to Whitely. We continued to host people coming up from the South—my dad always helped the community.

With the move, I transferred from Blaine School to McKinley. At Blaine, I had been enrolled in Algebra, but the principal at McKinley discouraged all black kids from any college preparatory classes. “Oh, you don’t want to do that,” he told me, “I’ll just put you in General Math.”

Looking back you see the racism, all that potential wasted. It’s really sad, how the school system kept black students out of challenging classes, just because of the color of their skin. Algebra or not, I finished school. And my jobs all required me to use the higher math skills he didn’t think I could learn.

God granted me favor in my jobs by directing me to people willing to take a chance on a black man. I hired on at Westinghouse as an assembler, and then became the first African-American in Production Control. When I put in for that position, the supervisor told me no. I stood there fighting tears, and he decided to give me a chance to prove I could do the work. This was a management position, a real opportunity for me to develop and grow in a job usually reserved for white men. Eventually I transferred to Quality Control, where I did engineering-type testing, calibration, and inspection.

My next job was in the Station Department of Indiana & Michigan Power, overseeing maintenance and new construction. The work was challenging both technically and intellectually. I’ve always felt very fortunate that they saw my potential as an employee. My last job before retirement was at the GM plant in Anderson. Anderson had the best Process Engineering department of any General Motors plant in the country at that time, with a lot of innovative new directions. I even got to work on developing the first computer for use in a car.

When I graduated from high school in 1960, African-Americans in Muncie were expected to take menial jobs. We didn’t even have black teachers, let alone black bankers or managers. But during the 1960s, things started to change. As far as I’m concerned, Rev. A.J. Oliver of Shaffer Chapel A.M.E. gets the credit for opening up employment opportunities for Muncie’s black community. Rev. Oliver operated a lot like Dr. King, gently but firmly guiding civil rights work in Muncie. We did some picketing of local utility companies and downtown businesses. Rev. Oliver would ask the managers, “Why can’t we have some of our girls working as clerks and tellers?” or “You take our money but you won’t hire us to work for you?”

Most of the businesses started to hire blacks—they didn’t like that negative publicity—but the manager at Pepsi just wouldn’t budge. Rev. Oliver tried all the usual tactics, and during one visit to the manager’s office, Rev. Oliver asked if he could use the phone. As he picked up the receiver, he casually asked who the manager reported to, and then called the guy’s boss—the president of Pepsi Cola! Pretty soon Pepsi was hiring us, too.

Muncie joined the nationwide sit-in to desegregate Woolworth lunch counters. The store was downtown on Walnut. Three or four of us sat down to order, and the girls behind the counter didn’t quite know what to do. They glanced back at the manager, who shook his head, so they said, “We can’t serve you here.” We just sat there. One whole business day we occupied that counter—and this was going on at all the Woolworth stores across the country! Woolworth’s finally relented, and other businesses followed suit. What sense does it make to turn down somebody who wants to spend some money for food?

In those days, the downtown YMCA was for whites, and black kids hung out at the Madison Street Y. It was a wooden building with an outdoor basketball court on one side and a baseball diamond on the other. Inside we had pool tables and ping pong. I remember when I was little we had a swimming pool. It seemed so big, all that blue water. But when it developed a leak, they had to close it, and we didn’t have a pool until Tuhey was desegregated.

Segregation is less obvious today, but it’s still there. We had college students just last semester who were warned not to go east of Martin Luther King Boulevard. They felt silly after they got to know the Whitely neighborhood—folks here would help anybody! Law enforcement has a long way to go, too. It’s a work in progress, for sure. But one person can make a difference. Rev. Oliver proved that.

This story originally appeared in Facing Racism in Muncie, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by R.A.C.E. Muncie in Muncie, Indiana.

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