Analysis: IU building should not be named after a racist
By Andrew Shaffer
I bet you’ve passed it a few hundred times, maybe more.
It is a sign, small and simple. White words wrap around a dull maroon rectangle with the declaration: Ora L. Wildermuth Intramural Center.
This sign, which stands outside of the School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation building, represents the man, and the man represents the institution.
So who is the man?
One thing Judge Ora Leonard Wildermuth advocated would have made George Wallace proud. For Wildermuth, it was segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever. He put it in his own words on Nov. 19, 1945, in a letter to IU comptroller Ward G. Biddle. Wildermuth, then-president of the IU board of trustees, wrote, “I am and shall always remain absolutely and utterly opposed to social intermingling of the colored race with the white. I belong to the white race and shall remain loyal to it. It always has been the dominant and leading race.”
Wildermuth was one of the first citizens of Gary when he arrived there in 1906. He served as Gary’s first schoolteacher, librarian and municipal judge. Wildermuth owned land in Gary, including the home where IU football great George Taliaferro lived. At IU, Taliaferro became an All-American at halfback, leading the Hoosiers to their only undefeated Big Ten conference championship in football. In the summer of 1944, before his senior season at Theodore Roosevelt High School, Wildermuth employed Taliaferro to tend to chores around the judge’s house.
“You would have thought that he was my father,” the 80-year-old Taliaferro said in a voice softened by the years.
Taliaferro, the first black NFL draft pick and source of IU athletic pride, admits, “If I had known at that time how Judge Wildermuth felt, I would have never come to Indiana University.”
In 1971, the IU Fieldhouse was renamed the Ora L. Wildermuth Intramural Center. The fieldhouse was home to the IU men’s basketball team from 1928 to 1960. Wildermuth received the naming honor because he presided over the construction of the fieldhouse.
From 1938 to1949, Wildermuth was president of the IU board of trustees. When the school sought funds, the trustees sought a reason. Both reason and racism clashed in the summer of 1948 when IU President Herman B Wells sent out a correspondence to the homes of each board member. Wells specifically requested from the trustee president to spend $60,000 to build new dormitories for the “colored housing situation.”
Wildermuth responded to Wells by writing, “So few of them succeed and the average of the race as to intelligence, economic status and industry is so far below the white average that it seems to me futile to build up hope for a great future.”
By early September, every trustee had chosen a side except Wildermuth’s. The tally was four in favor and three who opposed building the dorms. Wildermuth remained the deciding vote. Wells offered to meet, so Wildermuth suggested the university swimming pool. As the two presidents walked their way around the pool, it became clear there was more at stake than $60,000.
For Wells, integrating IU was necessary for two reasons: legality and liberty.
Ever since a 1938 U.S. Supreme Court decision that required the University of Missouri Law School to admit a qualified black applicant, Wells braced for the legal repercussions that IU might face. The decision increased the likelihood that state universities would be sued over segregation. After all, Wells was a lifelong bachelor who called IU his “mistress” and the students his “children.” The jovial giant did not want to see his mistress entangled in the red tape of racism because if the family was fighting, the children would react to the unrest.
But, Wells’ foremost concern was the liberty of his students, black and white. Segregation was a hotbed of headaches for the IU president. Ironically, his solution to integrate the University mimicked the school’s methods of segregating it. Wells used subtlety. He integrated the Union cafeteria by asking the manager to quietly remove signs that read “Reserved” for black patrons. Wells integrated the university swimming pool when he told IU’s popular black football lineman J.C. “Rooster” Coffee to hop into the water and swim at the busiest hour. Wells did everything short of pushing Coffee into the pool.
“Wells had a warmth and charisma that was very significant,” Dean of Students Dick McKaig said. “He was an exceptional individual who truly devoted himself to the Institution.”
Taliaferro agrees. “This man was a genius,” he said of Wells’ work in integrating IU. “He did it by himself, and it was incredible.”
No longer would those signs of segregation stand out at IU, and, though everything had changed, in fact, nothing had changed.
That quickly became apparent as Wells and Wildermuth circled the same pool that Coffee had jumped into five years earlier. Still, they were forced to compromise on the issue of color. While they talked, blacks were still barred from the dorms and most campus dining halls, University social events and most Bloomington restaurants.
Wildermuth wasn’t the only one who carried those sentiments.
“Ora’s philosophy was typical of the period,” said Andrew Kincannon, coordinator of diversity, recruitment and retention for the School of HPER, who is black. “But (it is) still unacceptable to be glorified by naming a campus building after him.”
Wells was trying to make a change as he treaded softly through the conversation. He knew Wildermuth would eventually cave in because the issue was not about integration, but opportunity. If Wildermuth voted “Nay” at the Oct. 1 meeting, Wells informed Wildermuth, he would become the focal point for the NAACP and add more tumult to the times.
Wildermuth voted “Yea,” and the measure passed to construct housing for black female students. But even after passing the $60,000 through the budget, the University was still criticized. The decision was “most unsatisfactory” to state NAACP President Willard B. Ransom. He pleads in a letter to Wells, “May we ask you to reconsider … and bring about immediate integration of Negro females into the dormitory system?” Wells informed Ransom that his hands were tied. The trustees under Wildermuth would never pass such an initiative.
The judge’s ideology was an enigma. Throughout his life, Wildermuth was one of the leading proponents of public education in Indiana. Still, he was vehemently against the integration of that public education.
On Sept. 1, 1949, the state of Indiana passed House Enrolled Act No. 242, which required the integration of all public kindergartens, common schools, public schools, colleges and universities in Indiana.
Wildermuth stepped down as trustee president the same year the act was passed but remained on the board until 1952.
The time has come for change
“It’s our prerogative to change it because of the history it represents,” Kincannon says. “It is a very derogatory thing because it represents a very negative part of our history at HPER and at Indiana University.”
HPER Dean David Gallahue agrees that there should be a public forum discussion in which all the facts are presented. McKaig said once all the facts are presented and “if it is a visible symbol of an unwelcoming institution, then certainly the right thing to do is change the name.”
I agree with Gallahue and McKaig because there should be a discussion before the destruction of this sign. But, there must be a change. There has to be a change.
I offer an alternative, and raise these two questions:
Do Wildermuth’s actions represent the core values of IU?
Is there a more deserving IU alumnus to replace Wildermuth’s name?
“I am opposed to any other race attempting to swallow up the white race,” Wildermuth continued in his letter to Biddle. “If a person has as much as one-sixteenth colored blood in him, even though the other fifteen-sixteenth colored blood may be pure white, yet he is still colored.”
Instead, I’d like to suggest another name for HPER: the J.C. Coffee Intramural Center.
Replace the white man who wanted to segregate IU with the black man who helped to integrate it.