IU alumna and writer Janet Cheatham Bell will speak Thursday at IU about growing up in a segregated Indianapolis and attending IU during the 1950s and 1960s.
Bell will talk about the several books and essays she’s published about her experiences. Afterward, there will be a book signing.
IU history professor Eric Sandweiss organized the event for his class about Indiana’s place in American history to understand racial barriers in Indiana during the mid-1900s. But he said he encourages all students and non-students to attend and hear Bell’s stories and ask questions.
“I always want to provide firsthand voices and perspectives that students can’t get from textbooks,” Sandweiss said. “And she has a wealth of experiences to talk about, to see what has changed and what hasn’t.”
Bell saw segregation for the first time at age 5 when she and her childhood best friend, who was white, watched their older brothers walk to school together.
She thought the boys were going go the same school but later found out that her friend’s brother went to one school while Bell’s brother walked another half mile up the road to a different school for black students, she said.
Bell and her friend were also separated once they reached school age.
“It felt wrong,” she said. “To find out she could go to that school but I couldn’t, it felt like something was wrong with me.”
When Bell moved to Bloomington in 1955 for college, the atmosphere was tense, she said. A few years before her arrival, some areas of campus, including the dorms, had been desegregated for the first time.
“It was sort of still in the experimental stages to see if black and white women could actually live in the same dorm and not kill each other, I suppose,” she said.
Bell said she didn’t notice any incidents of hostility between black women and white women in the dorms. But she said the women tended to spend time with others of the same race.
“That was from both sides,” she said. ‘If you grow up in a segregated society where you don’t socialize or interact with people who don’t look like you, just because they put all of you together in a building doesn’t mean that you suddenly start interacting with them.”
This seemed to be the case on the rest of campus, too, Bell said. With a small percentage of black students in an overall student body of about 12,000, she said the black community all knew each other and organized their own social activities and sorority and fraternity life.
“It was like having a small black college inside a large white college,” she said.
James Wimbush, IU vice president for Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs, said in an email that IU is honored to welcome Bell back to Bloomington as the city approaches its bicentennial.
“In a time for reflection on our university’s history, Bell’s stories and writings offer us a powerful reminder of how important it is to foster a diverse and inclusive society for all,” he said.
The free event will take place at 4 p.m. in Woodburn 100, where a controversial mural called “The Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press” hangs. Bell said she will briefly talk about the mural.
“The mural is a history of Indiana,” she said. “And the Klan is definitely a significant part of Indiana. That’s why I don’t object to it. It’s accurate.”
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