By: Kate Luce
The City of South Bend honored Dr. Darryl Heller, director of the Civil Rights Heritage Center and professor of the Women and Gender Studies department, for Black History Month in February.
The city invited Heller for a ceremony to honor many community members for Black History Month. Throughout the month of February, honorees were displayed on digital billboards throughout the area.
“I am, like many other people in the city, deeply concerned with racial equity and justice. We spend a lot of our time and energy with our work to try to make that a reality. It’s nice of the city. It’s one of those things that I love about South Bend, the recognition of people who are engaged in the community and making it more inclusive, more equitable, more just across the board. That recognition from the city says a lot about the city as well,” Heller said.
He began working back in 2015 and has been providing the community with educational resources and a safe space for important conversations.
“I describe it as a hub of education, activism and culture. With that physical space, we have on West Washington Street, because it is embedded in the community, it creates a safe space that brings people together. Not necessarily do we have to agree, but we can have real civil conversations about really heard topics. I think that is important,” Heller said.
Heller’s roots tie into activism and education. He received his undergraduate degree in philosophy at the College of Charleston but moved to the midwest two decades years later to pursue his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. When the director position for the center opened up, Heller knew it would be a great fit.
“I didn’t get my Ph.D. because I wanted to be an ‘academic.’ I wanted to learn, and I wanted to learn the world better. When I finished graduate school, I was not sure what to do. I was not driven to become an academic or a faculty member, but I loved teaching, that was always part of it. When I saw the ad for the Director of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, it immediately piqued my interest,” Heller said.
Heller has overseen many endeavors the CRHC and IU South Bend have taken. During the first three years as director, he oversaw peak audience attendance for events.
In January of 2020, IU South Bend officially purchased the building after leasing the building from the South Bend Heritage Foundation in 2010.
“It took ten years for IU South Bend to buy the building, but we did it last year. It is important to give a very strong shoutout for making it happen. Chancellor Susan Elrod, who spearheaded that effort, and Dean Brenda Phillips, who has been an avid supporter of the Civil Rights Heritage Center and has supported the freedom to develop it in the way we did,” Heller said.
The CRHC is deeply rooted within the South Bend community. The center started off as the Engman Natatorium, first built in 1922 and was the largest public pool in Indiana. At first, Black community members were not allowed to swim there, but in 1937, after a lawsuit, Black citizens were allowed to swim segregated once a week. In 1950, the natatorium was fully desegregated. In 1978, the building closed its doors and went into a state of disrepair.
The South Bend Heritage Center partnered with the City of South Bend, IU South Bend and beneficiaries to renovate and reopen the building in mid-2010. The CRHC is one of the last symbols of the civil rights movement in South Bend.
This year, like most of IU South Bend, the CRHC had to change its programming to fit COVID-19 guidelines. The majority of their events were hosted on Zoom, but the CRHC was allowed to have a small audience or speakers come to the center if necessary. This year, they hosted Zoom lectures, poetry readings and even a school board ‘Meet the Candidates’ forum.
“Having people in-person is really important to the extent possible. There is a different kind of energy that is brought out during discussions. It has been a challenge but it has brought new opportunities. We have been able to expand our audience,” Heller said.
During the summer, the CRHC hosted a Zoom event with three generations of Black Lives Matter activists to discuss their views on the movement. In total, that event saw over 300 people from throughout the country.
For Black History Month, the center decided to not do their usual programming. Rather than having their typical 3-4 events a week through Zoom, the center decided to provide resources on Black history and shed light on Black voices to the community.
However, they did hold their annual celebration of Malcolm X through Zoom. They honor him on the day he was assassinated, Feb. 21. The bulk of this year’s Black History Month events focused on self-reflection through their resources.
“Each week we would send out a new set of materials or resources out, we would always get a lot of feedback from folks on how much they appreciate it. I think it was successful,” Heller said.
However, with Fall 2021 scheduled to begin in-person, there is still hope that things could look “normal” for the center next year. Heller is looking to connect with all the civil rights heritage centers that are connected to public universities and host them in South Bend for a conference to speak on the importance of civil rights centers. He was starting this in early 2020 but had to put it on hold due to the pandemic.
“Our civil rights heritage center with IU South Bend is fairly unique. Many other universities have civil rights centers affiliated with them, but most of them are associated with their law school … Almost all of them are on campus. If anyone outside of the community wants to engage with the center, they have to physically come out to campus. We are unique because our center is not on campus, we are out in the community. This allows for the community much broader access to the space,” Heller said.
Now, IU South Bend includes the CRHC in its identity, even if the center is three miles away. The CRHC, through its education, provides students and the broader community a place where important conversations can happen.
“We are funded through the public, and we need to give back to the public. It is also true that most of our students come from the region. We have an obligation to educate them in the communities they live in. The Civil Rights Heritage Center plays an important role in that,” Heller said.
For more information on the CRHC and their future events visit, https://clas.iusb.edu/centers/civil-rights/index.html.