The madness of Martinsville

Photo courtesy of the Hoosier Times.

SHYAM K. SRIRAM | GUEST CONTRIBUTOR | ssriram@butler.edu

Editor’s Note: The original version of this column stated that Martinsville “will always be racist.” This has since been stricken from the piece. The Butler Collegian regrets publishing a statement that does not speak to the possibility of change — change that the town’s residents are striving for. According to an Indy Star article, the town’s “reputation was sealed” by the murder of Carol Jenkins, but Martinsville’s residents are striving to heal and show others more of their town. The Collegian should not have painted the entire town as racist for the past events that have occurred there. Shyam Sriram, the guest columnist, has accepted the invitation from Martinsville residents to tour the town once the coronavirus travel restrictions are uplifted. 

Corrections: Carol Jenkins was 21 years old at the time of her death and not 20. The men who murdered her were not from Martinsville. Carol Jenkins was a 21-year-old black woman who was murdered in Martinsville in 1968 and whose case was not solved until 2002. She was followed and harassed by two white men, who were visiting the area from Bloomington. The Butler Collegian regrets these errors. 

My relationship with the state of Indiana began in July 1997, when my dad and I visited West Lafayette for the first time to go on a Purdue campus tour ahead of freshman orientation. In the 23 years since, I have made many trips around the state and have explored everything from Indiana Dunes National Park and Shipshewana’s Mennonite and Amish country to snow-tubing in Lawrenceburg and Beck’s Mill in Salem. But there is one city I still have never visited, and that is Martinsville.

Just mentioning Martinsville stirs up a feeling of uneasiness and a general malaise. Perhaps it is apocryphal, but to this day, people of color speak of Martinsville in hushed tones as that one place you never stop to get gasoline because it is the town that time forgot. The city is often associated with racist and xenophobic behavior towards visiting sports teams in 1998 and 2012, photos of a 2019 mayoral candidate in blackface and even a recent incident involving an Asian American doctor asked to leave a gas station because of the coronavirus.

In researching this piece, I discovered that Martinsville’s racist history was cemented by a Civil Rights-era hate crime. Carol Jenkins was a 20-year-old black woman who was murdered in Martinsville in 1968 and whose case was not solved until 2002. She was followed and harassed by two white men who eventually held her down and stabbed her through the heart with a screwdriver. The city acknowledged her death in 2017 with a stone memorial at City Hall.

Well into the 1970s, Martinsville was a sundown town. It was one of thousands of municipalities across the U.S. that used racist signs and illegal policies to implement “curfews” restricting black people — but also Native Americans, Jews and Chinese people — from entering town or being seen in public at night.

Virginia Commonwealth University has a tremendous online resource depicting the proliferation of Ku Klux Klan chapters between 1915 and 1940. The site allows you to zoom in and look at specific states, and it is quite terrifying to watch chapters populate all over the Midwest. By 1940, the KKK had a presence across the entirety of Indiana, with almost 50 “Klaverns” in Fountain Square, South Bend, Lafayette, Columbus, Bedford and Evansville among others.

I do not remember when I first heard about Martinsville, but it was sometime in college and in the conversation of places I should avoid — something about the KKK and this idea of a racist city that refused to adapt, no matter the politics changing around it. In polite society, this may have once been described as “old fashioned” or “quaint.” But in 2020, can the residents of Indiana continue to accept the depiction of our state as out of touch and backward because of the mulish tendencies of this one city in Morgan County?

When I posed this topic in my state and local politics class, a few students were shocked, but not many, because “every state has a Martinsville.” We discussed our personal experiences with discrimination in Fishers, Avon, Kokomo, Plainfield and Zionsville. I suppose what bothers me about the idea of a place like Martinsville is what it says about my own civil rights and the supposed Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Think of this lunacy. I am an American citizen and am the first person in my family born in the U.S. I am a resident of Indiana and have a driver’s license from this state. I can allegedly go where I please and do not need anyone’s permission, yet I have to avoid certain towns and cities because their residents are racist or xenophobic. There is no logic in this.

I believe that cities like Martinsville not only endure, but prevail — paraphrasing William Faulkner — because of federalism. The national government cedes many responsibilities to the states, who then devolve many policies to the local level. Why do we excuse away entire towns, cities, and even states for being impervious to change? Further, I believe that it is the responsibility of states to adjudicate the behavior and policies of their counties, cities and towns.

This is a controversial policy, for some, because many Americans feel it takes away from notions of self-rule and representative democracy that have existed since the Mayflower Compact. Look at all the blowback now with people who do not believe in social-distancing because their rights are being impinged by “big government.”

To those who ask why Indiana is still not committed to fighting its racist legacy, exemplified by cities like Martinsville, I would respond by saying that Indiana’s political institutions like the Governor’s Office, the Indiana Supreme Court, and the General Assembly contain structural barriers to democracy, particularly when that change might result in a loss of white privilege at the expense of any kind of minority success.

Authors

18 Comments

  1. Jennifer said:

    As someone who lived in Martinsville from 2000-2017, I can totally understand your point of view. As first generation American and a Jew, I was also warned about the town and was fearful. For the first 10 years the only time I went “into town” (I lived on the outskirts) was to go to the store or the post office. Otherwise, I worked and played in Indianapolis or Bloomington.

    Then something changed. I met people. I met a lot of people. A few bad apples, but mostly good. And then I got a job there. And I made it my mission to be outspoken and share my openmindedness. And guess what, it’s contagious. I was loud but subtle. I didn’t tolerate stupidity and made that clear. I wasn’t out to offend, but to educate. Over time, I brought in friends from Indianapolis and Bloomington who were black, gay, Asian, etc. I introduced them to my friends. I brought my friends from Martinsville to my Indy Hangouts. And soon those circles expanded on their own.

    There is less animosity towards outsiders in Martinsville than people realize. There is, however, a curiosity about outsiders since they are so rare. The stigma goes both ways.

    Change has to come from within. But that won’t happen if outsiders won’t give the town a chance. Trust me, there are some who are definitely a problem, but most of the town can’t stand their behavior and do not tolerate it. The incident at the Marathon Station with the doctor a few weeks back is a prime example. The town went into an uproar.

    I hope more people will give the town a chance. And over time the bad seeds will get run out or die off. Just my opinion.

  2. J said:

    Perhaps you should do your research. The Carol Jenkins murder was committed by someone who did not live in Martinsville, the recent gas station incident was at an establishment owned/operated by a Bloomington resident. Neither incident was condoned by the community, but has left a scar on our reputation. Ignorance, like this article only perpetuates a false image of our city. I am not so foolish to think that there are not racist residents here–as they are everywhere, but that is definitely not a reason to say that Martinsville is or ‘will always be’ racist. To say so makes you no better than those who committed such heinous actions, shame on you.

  3. Anonymous said:

    As a naturalized American, born in India and living in Martinsville, IN for 18 years, I find this article biased and extreme. I’ve lived in many different states in this country since moving from India including California, Massachusetts and Virginia and I have faced racism in those states. I’ve lived the longest in Martinsville however, for 17.5 years. Have I faced racism here? Sure, but the instances are very few and far between in my nearly 18 years of living in this town I call home now. This town has a horrible reputation and I was afraid to move here. Right after I moved here, a lady from Bloomington(originally from Turkey) told me that I was brave to live in Martinsville. Are there some racist people here? Sure. Just like they are everywhere. For the most part, I believe the majority of people here are kind, friendly and are trying their best to shed the town’s horrible reputation. My kids go to school here. My daughter has told me that some people are a little ignorant, but again for the most part, my kids have not complained about people being racist towards them. On the other hand, I’ve had friends and former classmates from India who live in different states here in the U.S. tell me that their kids have faced racism in their schools in the East coast, Texas and even in FL. About the Asian man who was asked to leave a gas station because of this virus, there are literally hundreds of different places in the United States that this had happened to Asian people because ignorant people believed all those that looked Chinese, carried the virus. I read so many article about this everywhere. That was based on ignorance not racism. I find it ironic that a person who has never lived in Martinsville, nor has himself encountered racism here, writes an article about racism in Martinsville. Hopefully, next time an opinion piece on racism in Martinsville is written, they will actually ask people who live in Martinsville to write it or interview residents of color who live here and ask for their opinion. Sadly, racism is everywhere, so to single out Martinsville as the most racist place in Indiana or in the United States today, purely based on what happened decades ago is just plain ignorance, in my opinion.

  4. Olivia said:

    I’d like to point out some flaws In Shyam’s research.
    Carole Jenkins was murdered by men who lived in the Mooresville/Indy area, they were not residents of Martinsville.
    The Person who kicked the man out of the gas station was immediately fired and was a person of color himself. I’ve lived in Martinsville my entire life and have never met a true blue racist in my entire 22 years. Giving readers the notions that a whole city must be “excused” or “dealt with” is foolish. This is possibly the most ignorant article I’ve read.

  5. C. Tullar said:

    Please let me preface my comment about your opinion piece with pointing out that I am not a Martinsville native. I was not born here, or anywhere in Indiana for that matter. I like to say I am from everywhere. Originally from a state in the Midwest, I have spent a large part of my adulthood living in places all over this country. Places that range from California to Texas, and from Minnesota to Georgia to list just a few. That being said, I consider myself unbiased in my observations, even with Martinsville being my home for the last 15 years.

    In your essay you stated “But there is one city I still have never visited, and that is Martinsville.”
    So let me ask you, having never visited the city, how is it you believe you can sit in judgement in any way on it? A community you have no first hand knowledge of? It would appear that misinformation, fears of others, rumors, and common gossip have made you as prejudiced as you accuse the people of Martinsville of. Your article is a very good example of the reason Martinsville continues to have “the reputation” you allude to. By writing and publishing an opinion piece that is wholly based upon innuendo, conjecture, and misinformation by omission, you are guilty of perpetuating the continuation of this false narrative.

    Yes there is the tragic history of a young woman killed many decades ago. She was killed by two men who were not from Martinsville. The one that was definitively identified was living on a farm in Hendricks county at the time of the murder. Prior to the murder, a Martinsville resident walked with her for several blocks while she looked for her coworkers, and then offered her to come into their home to wait for them. She refused and went on her way alone. In 1968 at the time of this murder, there were racial tensions all across this nation. It was at the height of the civil rights movement. Martinsville Indiana was no exception to racial bias of the time. Although if you had mentioned those items you chose to omit, then you wouldn’t be able to continue with the false narrative you are trying to promote.

    It is unfortunately a part of this nations past that prejudice and racial targeting has been a part of its history. It has occurred in many cities in many different states. It is a sad commentary on our society that one incident, having occurred decades ago, is responsible for so much negative press, that the fear continues yet today. This fear is obvious in your statement “Just mentioning Martinsville stirs up a feeling of uneasiness and a general malaise”. Again let me remind you that you have never been to Martinsville.

    You also referenced a recent incident that occurred here. One where a motorist from Bloomington stopped at a local gas station, and was told to leave because of his appearance. Yet again you provided only part of the information as further proof for validity in maligning the people of Martinsville as racist. Providing all of the information to your readership would not have fit the narrative you are trying to make. What you failed to reference, is that the person who is guilty of this behavior is himself an immigrant from India, and not a native of Martinsville. He obviously did not learn his behavior growing up in this town. He did not learn this behavior by being influenced by the towns “norms”. He is one human being with his own fears and failings, that reacted towards another human being with that prejudice and fear. The same kind of prejudice and fear you have chosen to perpetuate and promote with your opinion piece here. The same kind of prejudice and fear, so unfounded in reality, that keeps the name Martinsville unfairly maligned in peoples minds.

    I would challenge you or any of your readers to actually come to Martinsville. Spend some time here. Watch the people that live and work here. Talk to the people from here. After you have done that, then analyze your feeling based on the facts of your own observations. Not on the rumors or shoddy reporting habits of others that have never spent any time here.

  6. Cassie said:

    I am from Martinsville and we are not all racist!! I’m proud of my town and where I come from.

  7. Mari said:

    You said you have never been to Martinsville… Maybe you should visit before you put pen to paper.
    You are assuming the worse.

  8. Todd Vandagrifft said:

    This entire article is completely outdated. Many accusations are missing vital information or are simply not true.

  9. Maddie said:

    This article is not accurate at all. I live in Martinsville and I graduated from Martinsville. You’ve never even been here and you’re saying that the town is still racist? I’m not denying that it used to be and there might still be people that are, but what town doesn’t have those few people? Also, Carol Jenkins was shot by two men from INDIANAPOLIS. There are so many diverse people that live here, people that I personally know, and never have problems with racism. What you’re doing is spreading a bad reputation for this town when you’ve never seen it for yourself, when you’re just believing things you’ve been told or have read. When you say these things about the city of Martinsville, you’re essentially saying that I’m a racist, my family, and every other family that just lives here is one too. You should really do accurate research before you write an article that shames an entire town for something that’s not true.

  10. Tasha said:

    You should really fact check yourself. The woman that was killed was killed by someone passing through, not a resident. The Gas station incident you mentioned is owned , operated, and employs Indian people who did not grow up here. I do not know anything about the black face situation you speak of. it is not fair to the town or the people to not look at the full story and report accurately. Racism exists not matter the culture and to assume, without saying, that we are basically a bunch of white racists is not accirate. There is more racism is the big and inner city than what you see here. I should know. I am from Raleigh, NC. The people here have been very kind to me and have seen much kindness even through this mess to other minorities like myself.

  11. Gwendolyn Foley said:

    This article is such a wrong depiction of Martinsville. For the writer to create this article without having been here and bashing our city not only makes me upset, but the facts in this aren’t correct. The people here in Martinsville are some of the most caring people you’ll ever meet. In every town you’ll find someone who is racist, but that’s no way to speak for the whole town, especially about this incident that happened many years ago. Regarding the recent incident with the gas station here in town; just to be clear, the person who made the disparaging comments is not from Martinsville. So again, Martinsville gets blamed for the actions of those who are not from Martinsville and it represents the residents of this town poorly.

  12. Laura Wooten said:

    This is a terrible misrepresentation of the City of Martinsville. We have been trying for years to get rid of this image of being a Sundown town. The city has its horrific past but so does every city in the United States. I grew up there, and let me tell you, if not perfect, but it’s a decent place. While it may not be as progressive as some of the more metropolitan areas of Indiana, there are bright shining spots of progress, and it is no worse than any other small conservative town. The behind the times feel of Indiana cannot be pinned on a single city. If you go to Martinsville you will have a normal experience, and maybe even eat some pretty good food. This article is assuming so much about a place the author has never been, and is pinning the issues of an entire state on a small town. If the author would ever like to visit Id be more than happy to show them around myself.

  13. Ken Barnes said:

    I grew up in Martinsville and was a resident when the horrendous Carol Jenkins murder happened. It was horrible and our town suffered for many years because of it until the truth finally came out. I question whether this man ever set foot in our town. Most of what he says is merely regurgitated from earlier “hit pieces”. Regarding his comment regarding sundown towns, I lived here from the late 50″ until I moved to Indy back in the 80’s for a job. I never saw any of those “signs” to which he refers. I lived in Indianapolis for 35 years before returning to Martinsville seven years ago to retire back in my “hometown”. I experienced far more racism in Indy than ever in Martinsville, from all races. When this shutdown is over I welcome any and all of you to visit our nice little town. It’s undergoing a change due to the I69 construction. We have many nice restaurants on the downtown square and nice shops to visit before and after dining. You’ll also notice folks from all races and nationalities living here and enjoying “small town” life. Come and see for yourself what we are like and don’t believe everything that you read. This is very shoddy research, a horrible and totally undeserved “hit piece” and should be retracted. The author should be fired.

  14. Hayley said:

    You should regret the entire article and take it down. Under no circumstances is this okay. Bring awareness to racism EVERYWHERE. This is disgusting and disappointing.

  15. J said:

    By the way, the recent incident involving the Asian American doctor who was asked to leave a gas station due to coronavirus, was told to leave by the station owner, who just happens to be an Indian American (just like the writer, if I’m not mistaken).

  16. Nick Schomisch said:

    To whom this may concern,

    As both a Martinsville ’01 and Butler, BSE ’05, alum I’m disappointed this made print and/or posting on the internet. I understand this an ‘opinion’. I wouldn’t expect Shyam to reach out to Butler alums who grew up or currently live in the town. But I would expect the University to reach out to us. Again, this is one’s opinion..
    Noting the amount of corrections, there wasn’t much done in research either. Mainly hearsay which unfortunately a lot of the media is turning to nowadays. I miss the day of investigative journalism, something I would expect the University to teach.

    I’m pleased to hear Shyam is planning to visiting my hometown. My sister still teaches at the middle school and my niece is going to be a senior at Martinsville High School this coming year. I’m pleased my fraternity brother, Chip Kellar, wrote a response and it has since been published. My sister and Chip would be great ambassadors in showing you or anyone else around. Chip knows my family so it would be too hard to make it work.

    No town is perfect, including Martinsville, as one who did not have a single home sporting event to participate or attend to my sophomore year; I learned at a young age perception can exceed reality. If Shyam would like to have a conversation with someone who was there that night for first hand knowledge I would be glad to share. By the way, I’m confident if we lost to Bloomington North that night nothing would have ever happened.

    To conclude, to isolate one town based off of perception is unfair. Unfair to the readers and unfair to those who consider it home. Martinsville isn’t perfect.. Neither is Carmel.. Neither is Zionsville either.

    If you have the desire to: Shyam and others please feel free to reach out to me. If you need my information the school knows how to reach me.

    Sincerely,

    Nickolas J. Schomisch, CPA
    Senior Tax Manager, PwC
    Greenville, SC

  17. Dr. S said:

    Confirming this a completely accurate perhaps even understated account of Martinsville, as a mixed race person who lived there. They have gone to great PR lengths to change their wikipedia page to remove the racist history recorded there, but they have not changed their racism. Thank you for speaking up on behalf of POC who can not!

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