LIMA — The use of blackface, a group of Lima teenagers concluded, “could be construed as insulting” to blacks and was, in general, a bad idea, particularly now.
“Now,” in this case, was January 1964, four months after the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham, Alabama, Baptist church on a September Sunday, killing four African American girls who were getting ready for a youth service.
The Lima teenagers weighed in on the issue as a local service club prepared its annual minstrel show, a show which, according to The Lima News, had featured performers in blackface for the previous seven years.
“The subject arose at the regular meeting of the group, composed of four representatives from each of the six area high schools. Msgr. E.C. Herr, panel moderator, said he plans to bring the subject before the Human Relations Commission meeting 4 p.m. next Wednesday. He is a member of the latter group,” the News reported on Jan. 17, 1964.
However, Herr, who also was principal of Lima Central Catholic High School, added that he was “certain” the show would not go on, that the service club “would not insult the Negroes by going on in blackface, not after the killing of the four girls, the bombing, the fire hoses and police dogs.”
He was right. “Minstrel custom finished,” read a headline in the News the following day. The club’s president, according to the accompanying story, “revealed late Friday the club’s board of directors made the decision last November. The show is scheduled in March. The decision was not made public, however.”
The forum in which the touchy issue was brought up, the Human Relations Commission, was born some four years earlier, at the beginning of the turbulent 1960s. On March 22, 1960, the News reported that Lima City Council had “endorsed the establishment of a human relations committee to alleviate racial and religious tensions and discrimination …”
Councilman Frank J. Klein said at the time that “We are moving into an era of housing rehabilitation in the city. It’s a fact Negroes cannot get financing unless they buy in certain areas. Since we are moving into this era, I think the committee will have a big job.”
The job was probably bigger than anyone knew in 1960. For more than a decade the commission, with 16 members appointed by the mayor, would meet, listen, lecture, cajole and recommend. It could not, however, mandate much of anything; it lacked any power other than the power of persuasion.
“Its purpose is primarily educational, striving to achieve changes through negotiation, rather than militant action,” the News reported Oct. 27, 1963. “This summer the commission released its first major report, detailing examples of housing and employment discrimination in Lima. The report also praised the public school system for its record in hiring Negro teachers and assigning children to schools.”
Housing discrimination, particularly early on, was the commission’s focus. On Oct. 14, 1965, Msgr. Herr, who in 1964 succeeded Rev. Earl Luginbuhl, pastor of Central Church of Christ, as chairman of the commission, called for the end to “what he termed ‘ghettos’ in Lima,” the News reported. “This is un-American and immoral,” Herr said, adding that he was “more interested in eliminating these ghettos than I am in getting roses on Market Street.”
In 1966, the commission turned its attention to the lack of recreational facilities on the south side of Lima. “Concluding Lima has racial discrimination problems with its public recreational facilities, the city Human Relations Commission has decided to launch an investigation,” the News reported Oct. 20, 1966.
“The people of Lima have salved their consciences believing Bradfield is taking care of the Negro population,” Msgr. Herr told the News. “Definitely there is discrimination in recreation in our city.” Later, he would amend this, saying the discrimination “is not against a people, but against a section of the city.”
Unlike housing, where changes would come slowly, change came quickly when it came to recreational facilities. “Development of public park and recreation facilities in Lima’s south end will begin as fast as possible, residents of the area were told by City Council Tuesday night,” the News reported Feb. 22, 1967.
Less than a month later, the Human Relations Commission expanded. On March 16, 1967, the Allen County Commissioners approved extending the scope of the commission countywide. Unfortunately, the scope of issues before the commission also had expanded as the racial unrest plaguing the nation spread.
“Rumors of racial unrest, demonstrations and riots heard in Lima the past month, has prompted an appeal from the Human Relations Commission for ‘community harmony’ and responsible action not to repeat such rumors,” the News wrote on Sept. 22, 1966.
Community harmony proved hard to attain in Lima and the nation during the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and shootings involving police and minorities fueling unrest.
Meanwhile, as the racial problems multiplied, the group formed to combat racial tension began to falter. “In recent months the HRC has sought to justify its continued existence and energize itself through assuming more authority,” the News wrote April 17, 1969. “Over the past years its meetings have seen poor attendance and many times have failed to muster the eight members needed for a quorum.”
More authority would prove elusive. On June 2, 1969, an anti-discrimination ordinance was introduced at City Council, “which gives the HRC broad subpoena and enforcement powers, is designed to outlaw discrimination in the community due to color, race or religion in housing, employment and public accommodations.”
It ultimately failed, as did several more introduced over the next half dozen years. The commission itself would be revived and reformulated several times as well.
Finally, on Dec. 3, 1975, frustrated by the failure of the latest attempt to give the HRC “some teeth,” the members decided to resign at the Jan. 6, 1976, meeting. “The vote came in response to what Chairman Ric Bratton characterized as city council’s “deliberate effort to put together an ineffective, inept commission, and one that is doomed to failure,” the News wrote.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.