Better Homes of South Bend: An American Story of Courage

The History Press, Charleston, SC , 2015

ISBN: 978.1.46711.865.1

In 1950, a group of African American workers at the Studebaker factory in South Bend were on a secret mission to build homes away from the factories and slums where they were forced to live. They had come from the South to make a better life for themselves and their children, but they found Jim Crow in the North as well. After three years of struggle, they succeeded. It took all the courage and perseverance they could muster. In the process they set an example of what W.E.B. Du Bois called "intelligent cooperation.”

The group that called themselves Better Homes of South Bend wanted something that sounds so simple: they wanted homes in a nice neighborhood. But it was a huge undertaking in the climate of the times. African Americans had to live segregated in the poorest most run down areas of the city. Most whites just wouldn’t tolerate to have African American neighbors. The “code of ethics” of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers said that "A realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in the neighborhood." Realtors and banks followed this code by not allowing African Americans to move out of their segregated areas. In South Bend, doctors, professors, and other professionals were not allowed even to see any property in a white neighborhood. 

 

It took Better Homes over three years during which they had to overcome many obstacles, but in the end they succeeded. Not only did they build twenty-two homes in a neighborhood where no African Americans had been before, but they created a vibrant and thriving community that welcomed everyone. Soon other families joined them. All of them worked hard. Most had two even three jobs in order to give their children a good education. And the children in turn became educated professionals, teachers, principals, lawyers, librarians and more. As one of them said: "We should be forever grateful to our parents that they made this move. It made a difference to all our futures."

 

It would be satisfying to end the story on this not of success. But, of course, it doesn't. Housing discrimination continued both locally and nationally. Nevertheless the achievement of Better Homes is relevant today. This group was not merely a victim of white oppression, but they were courageous actors in their own right. In fact Better Homes can be seen as the true defender of American values, of freedom, democracy, and engaged citizenship.

 

Moreover Better Homes has many lessons for us today. It demonstrates all the qualities necessary to effect social change. It takes thorough organization. The members couldn't have achieved their goal on their own; instead they formed a corporation and collaborated. Members also stuck to their vision, despite many setbacks. They engaged in open dialogue and reached out to all constituencies. Throughout they demonstrated ingenuity, perseverance, and courage. This is exactly what W.E.B. Du Bois envisioned in 1933 when he wrote: "It is now our business to give the world an example of intelligent cooperation so that when the new industrial commonwealth comes we can go into it as an experienced people and not again be lft on the outside as mere beggars."

 

Taping of documentary on Better Homes

Allison Bethune and Shaun Weiss came up again from Atlanta, this time to tape testimonies and memories of the next generation of Better Homes. The meeting also served as a wonderful reunion.

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