Emerson High School was built in 1908 by E. C. Gerhard and contained the standard gymnasium, auditorium, and natatorium, as well as a restaurant and functioning zoo.
Racial integration slowly began in 1926, after Gary’s first superintendent William Wirt witnessed poor conditions and segregation in the city’s only other integrated school. This decision was met by the almost entirely white and racist student body refusing to attend class en masse, with protest numbers reaching above 1300 in 1927, causing the integration decision to reverse and the eighteen newly transferred students to be moved elsewhere. [ x ]
Another attempt was made to integrate several schools in 1945, and was met with similar protest. By this point in history, though, civil and human rights groups were finally beginning to gain traction and power, and were able to force the hesitant school administration in the right direction.
At his concert at the Memorial Auditorium (gallery coming soon!) Frank Sinatra confronted the Gary community, referring to the Emerson and Froebel school protests as “the most shameful incident in the history of American education,” and refused a $10,000 gig to speak to students at Froebel.
Finally, by this point, the disgraced school district came to terms with the fact that they shouldn’t need a pop star to plead with students to get over it and go to class. After enacting integration policies as law in 1947, the school changed its attitude to “firmness without appeasement” to the strikers, and finally began referring to them as “truant.”
It remained a high school until 1981, when Gary’s population had dwindled past the necessity for its number of high school buildings. It was then repurposed as a magnet program for Gary’s brightest young creators in its incarnation as Emerson School for the Visual and Performing Arts.
In 2008, though, after years of dilapidation and mildew, it was decided that Emerson was no longer fit for students and closed its doors forever.
The former Emerson building made tragic news in the Chicago area in July 2015. After receiving a call about a suspicious person entering the first of three abandoned schools on the block, police found 17-year-old Connita “Kiki” Richardson’s body, two blocks away from the home of her alleged murderer. [ x ]
Sandy (Mowry) Chavarria, administrator of the school’s memorial Facebook page and a member of Emerson’s class of 1970, says:
“I know this will just break your heart as it did mine. Stopped by our old girl today to pay my respects after they found a 17 year old girl’s dead body in here last week. Emerson is just a shell. It’s beyond sad. I really think the city will tear her down now. I don’t think I can stand to come back here again. 7/12/2015” [ x ]
With no windows left and additional architectural pieces scrapped daily by metal thieves, it is unlikely that what’s left of Emerson will last much longer.
American Urbex’s Emerson article [ x ]
Belle Beth Cooper’s “Events that Changed History” article on Attendly [ x ]
The Emerson High School, Gary, IN page on Facebook [ x ]
Children of the Mill by Ronald D. Cohen [ x ]