Herman B. Wells: Champion for Racial Equality at Indiana University
Backstory and Context
When Herman B Wells was elected as the president of Indiana University in 1938, he could not have been sure how much he would accomplish in 25 years as president and many more as chancellor. Since his inaugural speech, Herman has been dedicated to “set[ting] a dramatic example of democracy in action inspiring to all citizens of the state.” His goals were clear from the moment he set foot on campus. Herman was pushing for education reform to be more inclusive to all students, including African-Americans, all 15 years before Plessy vs Ferguson was even ruled on by the supreme court.
Although it would take until 1956 for IU to allow its first black baseball player, dramatic displays of integration were taking place as early as 1950. In the years proceeding, many restaurants and gentlemen’s clubs on the popular Kirkwood Ave. just west of IU’s campus were exclusive to white students only. In a display of allegiance with his underrepresented African-American students, Herman declared that until all IU students were permitted access to these venues, none of his students would be. The student boycott of 1950 led to a sit-down between the private business owners, the mayor, and Herman B Wells himself where they discussed new solutions to move forward for both parties. This became a major theme of the 1950s, and doors would soon be open for students of all backgrounds to spend time together on campus and in the city of Bloomington. At a time in history where it was rare to see such radical steps taken to fight for the rights of black students, Wells made sure Indiana was at the forefront of the integrationist movement.
Wells would continue to push for anti-discrimination rules for the cafeterias on the Bloomington Campus. When Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity members entered the Men’s Grille in April of 1942, they were turned away due to the Grille’s discriminatory policy. This led to Wells’ scrutiny of the policy, unable to understand why these absurd rules were set in the first place.
African American students have been playing football in the Big 10 athletic league since the beginning of the century. However, a gentlemen’s agreement prevented African American students from playing all other sports, such as basketball and baseball. In 1956, IU introduced its first African American player to the team, catcher Eddie Whitehead. This decision to integrate came simultaneously with other local universities such as Butler, Purdue, and Notre Dame, who all felt it was the right move to begin integration in the best interest of the sport and the students. This would make a statement of inclusivity within the sports world, especially in the south. Included in the images is a scorecard from one of Whitehead’s early games in the spring of his first season. Whitehead went 1-2 with a 2 RBI triple and 1 walk against Butler University on April 24th, 1956. Whitehead was well-liked by his teammates and coaches. This was said to be a factor in why Whitehead agreed to travel with the baseball team on the IU Spring Break trip in March of that same year. IU was scheduled to play in Gainsville against 3 southern teams that still operated under a gentlemen’s agreement not to allow black baseball athletes to play.
Hudson, Herman. “Spring Break 1956: Sun and Racism .” Indiana Daily Student. April 18, 1997.
Indiana University. President. “Indiana University President’s Office records,
1937-1962.” Archives Online at Indiana University. 1937-1962. Accessed April 28, 2020.
“Eddie Whitehead”. Indiana University Archives. March 1956. http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/archivesphotos/results/item.do?itemId=P0052290
“Herman B Wells”. Indiana University Presidential Archives. 1938. http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/findingaids/view?doc.view=entire_text&docId=InU-Ar-VAA8877