The Integration Situation: The 1927 Emerson School Boycott

Emerson VPA image

Gary, Indiana’s Emerson School, built in 1908, became a visual and performing arts school in 1982. It closed after its centennial year.

As a special education teacher, I said I would never write a story about teaching or schools. But in researching the history of my hometown of Gary, Indiana, I discovered rich–and sometimes infamous–stories about not only the city itself, but also the school system. A 1927 incident involving nearly a third of one school’s student body walking out for a week caught my eye.

That incident serves as the backdrop to a fantasy manuscript I’m currently working on about an angel in 1927 Gary, Indiana whose extended time on earth is causing him to disintegrate into a demon.

Emerson with windows

Side view of Emerson in 2014. The school had been closed for several years at this point.


The Gary Community School Corporation was once considered a premier educational system (a complete contrast to its present state). Its “platoon” model, the brainchild of superintendent William A. Wirt, was sought after by other cities. Wirt designed this work-study-play curriculum after his belief that city life ruined children, as they weren’t exposed to the style of schooling he experienced as a youth growing up in a rural area. Instead of spending time at a desk for almost half the school day, Wirt envisioned a curriculum that not only trained the child academically, but also provided guided leisure time, which kept students from what he termed a “street and alley education.”

“Employment for his idle time,” Wirt wrote in a draft I found of a 1926 speech on Work-Study-Play Education, “must be found by the big brother so that the wants that give value to work and the tastes that give value to leisure will be developed.” Wirt’s model resembles what we see in today’s secondary schools: 60-minute blocks for academics; 60 minutes for play/physical education; 60 minutes for his revolutionary Auditorium program, in which several classes met in the school auditorium for lessons that included hygiene, drama, music, and public speaking; and 60 minutes for work training or special classes such as art. According to the 1925 school statistics housed at Indiana University Northwest Calumet Archives, sixty-five percent of the district’s nearly 18,000 students voluntarily attended Saturday school. Sixty percent voluntarily attended eight weeks of summer school. From all historical accounts I’ve read, students actually enjoyed all the time spent in school.



Current back view of Emerson. This large campus once housed a zoo for its science classes

Construction began on Ralph Waldo Emerson School in 1908. In 1927, it was one of two unit schools that housed kindergarten through 12th grade. At the time, two of the twenty-one schools in the city were reserved for “colored” students only. And out of the nearly three thousand students attending Emerson in 1927, only seven were black. According to James Lane’s City of the Century and evidenced in school yearbooks prior to 1927, those black students were hand-picked to attend the school because of their fair skin. I learned that by the end of 1927, all black students had been forced to leave.

The 1927-28 school year began with the transfer of twenty or so black students into Emerson. Accounts vary as to why. A history of Emerson, published in the ad book for the school’s centennial celebration in 2008, cited redistricting as the reason. Another account cited the poor and overcrowding conditions of the nearby Virginia Street School. Within three weeks, about 900 white students suddenly boycotted the transfer. Emerson’s 1928 yearbook recalled events through snippets like these:

September 7: School starts.

September 10: New students (“confusion”).

September 22: Strike! Strike! Mass meetings. Esh the orator.

September 23: Still strike! Meeting in East Side Park. Picture in all the papers.

September 25: Board of Ed acts. Meeting in Auditorium. Everyone talks. Pleasings, threats, promises, denials, defiance, etc.! Big Joe has a say.

September 27: All is well, oil is spread on the troubled waters. Everyone is back in school.

According to one historic account (and the dates vary; some sources have this occurring in 1926), a locked door on the morning of September 22 led to a logjam of teenagers in the hallway. A single negative remark towards a group of black students led to the week-long walkout. Students Drucilla Miller and Lucia Beddow summed it up in the 1928 yearbook this way: “Then, too, remember the dreadful strike? And the strikers, and the strike leaders, and the “scabs?” We’ll not soon forget that, will we?”

In the end, black seniors who attended Emerson before the transfer were allowed to return to school, only to be asked to leave for good by November 1927. The boycott resulted in the construction of Roosevelt High School in 1931, Gary’s first school built exclusively to serve the black community. In 2003, the Gary Community School Corporation awarded one of the last surviving black students displaced by the boycott her high school diploma.


Front entrance of Emerson. The school ended its days as a visual and performing arts school.

Ironically, this incident was just the first of two boycotts stemming from integration; the other, more widely publicized because of Frank Sinatra’s involvement, occurred in 1945 at Froebel School. I chose to use the 1927 incident as a plot point for my manuscript because I find the Roaring Twenties fascinating, and the city of Gary was not immune to the glamour and corruption of that time period. It also provides a thread to connect my main protagonist’s exile from Heaven to an actual event of the day: black students exiled from the only school they’d ever attended.



About Michelle McGill-Vargas

Michelle hails from Gary, Indiana where she enjoys writing historical fiction, flash fiction, and short stories. Her writings have appeared in "Lutheran Witness", "Splickety Magazine", "The Copperfield Review", and "Typehouse Literary Magazine." She served as vice-president of the Indiana Writers' Consortium. Until the day her historical fiction manuscripts get published, she pays the bills as a special education administrator with a background in deaf education. In October 2018, she will be a contributor to Concordia Publishing House's quarterly devotional series "Portals of Prayer." Visit her blog at
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4 Responses to The Integration Situation: The 1927 Emerson School Boycott

  1. Dee Enrico-Janik says:

    Looking forward to your book’s pulication!

  2. Janet Nedberg Buzolitz says:

    I enjoyed reading this article. It peaked my interest because I am a 1971 graduate of Emerson School. My graduating class had 174 students. I am Caucasian and I was in the minority in that class. Although we had racial tensions during that time, it was nothing like the tensions we are experiencing now. I never went down that prejudice road. I more or less got along with everyone. There certainly wasn’t the violence we see today. I pray that all people will learn to be tolerant and embrace differences. Thank you for writing this.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post. My hope was to find someone who had some knowledge of the 1927 incident from a parent or grandparent (or I guess by now, a great-grand). But it’s always interesting–at least to me– hear people’s stories of growing up in Gary. Thanks for that!

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