November 1, 1945: The House He Lived In

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One of the interesting aspects of studying history is to view public figures, blessed with long lives, and see the roles they played  at different periods in their life.  Frank Sinatra, who towards the end of his life was noted primarily for his body of work as a singer, associations with the Mafia, and stories about his frequently extreme personal behavior, was quite the political activist as a liberal in his younger days.  (He would switch to the Republican party after being snubbed by JFK during the Kennedy administration.)  One example of this was when he gave a concert in Gary, Indiana, to help solve a problem with racial strife in that city.  Blacks from the South had been attracted to Gary by wartime jobs, as was the case with many Northern cities, and this influx led to racial turmoil.  The city had one integrated high school, Froebel High School.  White students protested integration by organizing two walkouts that attracted national attention.

Sinatra had recently cut a record, The House I Live In, pleading for tolerance.  Probably both in an honest effort to help, and to gain much needed positive publicity after being attacked for draft dodging during the War, Sinatra gave the concert on November 1,1945.

The draft dodging rumors were unfair.  Sinatra had been designated a 4-F by his draft board due to a perforated ear drum, caused during his delivery at birth, chronic mastoiditis and mental instability.  ”During the psychiatric interview, the patient stated that he was ‘neurotic, afraid to be in crowds, afraid to go in the elevator, makes him feel that he would want to run when surrounded by people. He had comatic ideas and headaches and has been very nervous for four or five years. Wakens tired in the A.M., is run down and undernourished. The examining psychiatrist concluded that this selectee suffered from psychoneurosis and was not acceptable material from the psychiatric viewpoint.” 

Sinatra was met in Gary by a large and enthusiastic integrated audience, with both black and white teenage girls in rapturous hysterics as he sang.

GS2-Screaming%20students

Sinatra got some good national publicity and doubtless his heart was in the right place.  The concert of course did nothing to resolve the racial disputes since only in Hollywood are such deep rooted problems dealt with so easily as by a concert.

Gary never really did deal with the racial disputes.  The problem was ultimately “solved” by a shift in racial demographics and the declining economic fortunes of Gary.  Today it is the home of around 80,000 people, 84% black, most poor with one-third of the houses in the town unoccupied.  A sad long coda to the now long forgotten Sinatra concert.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this story. My late mom was born and raised in Gary and her dad worked in one of the steel mills for 40 years before he retired and moved to Illinois near us. She would have been 18 and just graduated from high school when this concert occurred, although she did not attend this concert (as far as I know). The high school she attended (Wirt) was all white but she could remember there being a huge uproar over mere rumors that one or more black students might attempt to enroll. She also told me that at least one of the high schools (probably Froebel) would only allow black students to use the swimming pool right before it was drained and cleaned. It seems very hard to imagine that racial attitudes like this — which my mom did NOT share — existed within living memory, but they did.

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