New historical marker commemorates Black history in downtown South Bend

Sep 19, 2021

South Bend city leaders, local historians and family members unveiled a historical marker dedicated to J. Chester and Elizabeth Allen, two civil rights lawyers who had their offices in downtown South Bend.
Credit Gemma DiCarlo/WVPE

The Indiana Historical Bureau dedicated a new marker in downtown South Bend this weekend, the second in the city commemorating Black history.

The marker stands outside the Lafayette Building on Lafayette Boulevard, where J. Chester and Elizabeth Allen practiced law for nearly 30 years. 

 

“The couple really dedicated their lives to fighting racism, injustice and discrimination wherever they saw it,” local author and historian Gabrielle Robinson said at a dedication ceremony Saturday. “Whether that was in housing or discriminatory lending, in employment, in everyday activities, in education.” 

 

In addition to the law practice, J. Chester was elected state representative in 1938 and 1940, where he introduced bills barring discrimination in employment and the judicial system. He was also appointed Negro Activities Coordinator of the State Defense Council in 1941 – where he opened WWII defense jobs to Black Hoosiers – and helped desegregate South Bend’s Engman Natatorium in 1950.

 

Elizabeth founded a local Red Cross nurse’s aid training and placement program for black women in the early 1940s. As an NAACP member, she worked to desegregate educational facilities and advised the Legal Redress Committee.

 

A new historical marker stands outside the Lafayette Building in downtown South Bend, where civil rights lawyers J. Chester and Elizabeth Allen had their offices.
Credit Gemma DiCarlo/WVPE

  Bruce Allen – J. Chester and Elizabeth’s oldest grandson – said his grandparents knew how “unwinnable” those fights were in the 1950s and 60s.

 

“They were well read, they devoured newspapers – of course they knew,” Allen said at the ceremony Saturday. “And they did it anyway. And I think the reason they did it is because it brings dignity to all of us.” 

 

The historical marker is the 24th installed in St. Joseph County and the first commemorating Black history in downtown South Bend. The Allens’ youngest son, Irving, said it helps keep local civil rights history alive alongside national history.

 

“In little cities and towns and villages all around the country, there were heroes of civil rights,” he said. “Yes, I know Martin Luther King – but what about the people right where you live?”

 

South Bend Mayor James Mueller said it commemorates an important part of the city’s “collective history.”

 

“We can’t move together as a community… if we don’t have a full account of our shared history,” he said. “That’s why it’s important, as we continue our march toward racial justice and true equity, that we have these stories.”

 

IUSB Civil Rights Heritage Center Director Darryl Heller agreed, adding that the city’s collective history “is not pretty.”

 

“We want to make it seem like it’s a triumphant narrative of constant progress. But we know that that’s not the case, that there’s been setbacks,” Heller said. “It’s people like the Allens who stood on the beaches when those pushbacks were happening and put their shoulder to it and insisted that we continue to move forward.”

 

Contact Gemma at gdicarlo@wvpe.org or follow her on Twitter at @gemma_dicarlo.

 

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