For Midwestern Town, Looking Past 'Sundown'
ED GORDON, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
For decades, so-called sundown towns were notorious for shutting out African- Americans and other minorities after nightfall. They became common in the late 19th century and existed throughout the nation, more often in the North. Many have remained mostly white, but some say they are now doing more to welcome people of color.
In a moment, how a national push for inclusiveness has dozens of cities signing up. But first, one community vows to lead by example. Bluffton, Indiana - just south for Fort Wayne - is a small town with about 10,000 residents, almost all white. Not long ago, the city's mayor experienced an incident that led him to address what he calls an underlying current of racism.
Here's Bluffton Mayor Ted Ellis in his own words.
Mayor TED ELLIS (Bluffton, Indiana): About two years ago, we did what mayors do. We were out cutting ribbon at a new business, and the business owner was a Sikh, and he was probably the first in Bluffton. I got a copy of the photo from the paper, and handwritten note at the bottom of that photo said we don't wear turbans in Bluffton and we speak English.
Now Chopra(ph) spoke English much better than I do, so that wasn't an issue. This was obviously someone who didn't know him. But it really was a punch to a gut for me. We're pretty nice to each other and pretty civil in Bluffton, but I realized that there is an undercurrent here that sometimes manifests itself in some pretty ugly words. And I felt we needed to address that.
I sit on the board of directors of the National League of Cities. And when our president, Jim Hunt, gave this as his program of emphasis and asked for cities to join, it was a very natural thing for Bluffton to sign up because we'd been working on this for a year.
So as it turned out, we were the first in the nation to sign up. Little Rock, Selma, Alabama were a couple of the next few that joined us. But it has attracted some attention that a community without any news making history, I guess, of racism or other inclusiveness issues has stepped up and actually committed to being a little more inclusive.
We talked about diversity the first year, and I addressed it in my state of the city address, and I said we need to work on it. We got some -raised some money actually, and appointed some focus groups and some committees and we couldn't get traction. And diversity, frankly, in many circles is a code word for race. And when you're in a nearly all-white community, it's hard to get people excited unless there's a problem. And there certainly wasn't an overt problem here.
When we start talking about inclusiveness, it's a different ballgame. And inclusiveness becomes almost a Rorschach for people. Nearly every one of us can think of a time in our lives when we were excluded from something, whether it was the baseball team or cheerleading in school or families who have split up. Maybe we've been excluded from our own families at some point in time.
We know that pain. We can identify that pain. And when we present it to people in those terms, that what we really want to do is make sure everyone is included, and we don't just systematically or accidentally or inadvertently exclude people from participating fully in our community - that hits home and that's where we've gotten traction.
Already, we've had some meetings with building principals - with some church leaders in our community - and I've kind of let them define what inclusiveness means to them. And for our educators, inclusiveness means to help bridge that divide between the haves and haves-nots in our school system. Almost to an individual, they said that's where we have a problem in our community today, that that gap is getting wider between the wealthy and the poor. And that we need to make sure that the poor are included in all of our decision-making, and all of the activities that we offer.
I hope that we won't be marked by any dramatic events but that some day in the future, someone will look back at this point in our town's history and say there something happened. There something changed. There they began to make a difference and people began to feel a little bit more part of the community.
GORDON: That, again, was Ted Ellis the mayor of Bluffton, Indiana.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.