Today seems like a particularly good day to write a “Meander” about Lake County, which once again made it into the national news spotlight last night.
Sometimes called “The Region,” the northwest corner of Indiana is its own place, holding special meaning for our state’s ethnic history, labor history, religious history, and women’s history.
For example, Lake County has the highest percentage of Latinos in the state, roughly 14%. This ethnic community dates back to 1919 when U.S. Steel in Gary and Inland Steel in East Chicago imported Mexican laborers to help break the Great Steel Strike of 1919 (as told by Edward J. Escobar in Forging a Community: The Latino Experience in Northwest Indiana). Women workers from the city contributed to the steel industry during WWII; their Rosie the Riveter was Mela, Queen of the 12-Inch (Bar Mill). East Chicago remains a strong Hispanic center, with its historic Our Lady of Guadalupe parish.
African American workers came to the steel region as part of the Great Migration from the South in the early twentieth century. The community centered around the Midtown District, where Gary Roosevelt, one of the state’s newly built segregated high schools, opened in the 1920s.
Like nearby Chicago, the Region also has many ethnic groups from Eastern and Southern Europe. IHC recently funded a project to trace the Serbian community of northwest Indiana, one among many. In common with other groups in the Region, the “Serbs of Steel” look with pride to their military service in World War II and other American conflicts.
Quite a lot of these stories are preserved in the Calumet Regional Archives at Indiana University Northwest. (See images from the collection). Steve McShane, the archivist, has lately been involved in adding photographs of Gary and its steelworkers to I.U.’s digital library.
My recollections of northwest Indiana include working with the Senoras of Yesteryear on their book about East Chicago, visiting Gary Westside High School one day when the students were trying out their language skills on a visiting group from Japan, and organizing a 1995 conference that brought all the different ethnicities together for exhibits and panel discussions.
And indeed, there are features that unite the Region. For many years those of us who live in central Indiana suffered under the cruel jibes of NBA fans there, all of whom were Bulls devotees in the Michael Jordan era. Perhaps I should compile a briefing sheet for political candidates on the subject of “who roots for whom where, or, my state but not my team.” It would still, I suspect, apply to northwest Indiana.