CommUNITY Art Inspiration

Tolson Center for Community Excellence Mission, Vision, and Values 

Mission: The Tolson Center for Community Excellence empowers lives through inclusive learning, recreation and cultural exchange, opening doors to bright futures.
Vision: The Tolson Center for Community Excellence will be a centerpiece for an enlivened south-central Elkhart, a premier destination for neighbors near and far, and a pathway to equity and opportunity for all.
Values: The values of the Tolson Center for Community Excellence are:
+ Holistic growth through intergenerational interaction
+  Accessibility and service for all bodies and minds
+  Good stewardship of human, financial and ecological assets
+  Integrity and safekeeping across all operations
+  Responsible engagement through leadership and participation
+  Respect for legacy in the center’s history and contributions 


Centro de Tolson para Excelencia Comunitaria Misión, Visión y Valores
Misión: El Centro Tolson para la Excelencia Comunitaria fortalece vidas a través del aprendizaje inclusivo, la recreación y el intercambio cultural, abriendo puertas a futuros brillantes.
Visión: El Centro Tolson para la Excelencia Comunitaria será una pieza central para un animado sur-central de Elkhart, un destino importante para l@s vecin@s cercan@s y lejan@s, y un camino hacia la equidad y las oportunidades para tod@s.
Valores: Los valores del Tolson Center for Community Excellence son:
+  Crecimiento holístico a través de la interacción intergeneracional
+  Accesibilidad y servicio para todos los cuerpos y mentes
+  Buena administración de los activos humanos, financieros y ecológicos.
+  Integridad y seguridad en todas las operaciones
+  Compromiso responsable de l@s líderes y participantes
+  Respeto por el legado en la historia y las contribuciones del centro 




The Story of Herbert M. and Ruth Tolson and the Tolson Community and Youth Center  by John W. Bynum

In efforts to achieve political equality and social justice, our nation has sometimes instituted sweeping cultural changes through governmental initiatives; some of these changes altered social realities by redefining the relationship between the government and various segments of the population, and between the various subgroups of the general population among themselves. Although sometimes perceived as being belated, these alterations have been generally progressive, and within the nation, regardless of the time frame, they have improved both social justice and social equality. But in viewing the extensiveness of the affected populations and the depth of the cultural changes, it is frequently forgotten that the final aggregated national behavior, and the virtuous national improvements had their origin in local neighborhoods; they were all started by one neighbor talking with and inspiring another neighbor, and from these simple personal interactions, movements were initiated and the nation was changed. Occurring amidst the social transitions experienced by the nation in the early twentieth century, this is the story of Herbert M. and Ruth Tolson and how they inspired a neighborhood.  

Herbert Marvin Tolson was born in Fayette, Missouri on June 20, 1909 shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century and five years before the start of the Great War, World War I; Ruth Ouida Tolson, nee Cox was born in Sedalia, Missouri on September 20, 1913. Ruth was the eldest of four children born to Ellena Juanita Cox, a teacher and Frederick Edward Cox, a railroad fireman. Frederick Cox died in 1918 leaving a very young family, of which Ruth, then five years old was the eldest. Her mother took her and her siblings to Parson, Kansas to live on a large vegetable farm owned by her mother’s  brother, Harley Patterson. There, she worked on the farm until 1932 when she completed her high school education; she then attended Parson Junior College for two years; and afterward in 1936 she completed her B.A. degree at Kansas University in Lawrence, Kansas. After receiving her college degree, Ruth worked for a short period on a government project; she then joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC, in Fort Riley. Herbert Tolson attended Lincoln University where he received an A.B. degree in social work. After receiving his degree, he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps in Fort Riley, Kansas and there, he met Ruth; he was an education advisor and she was an instructor. The couple was married in Topeka, Kansas on May 17, 193 7.  

In 1919, World War I ended and the peace was accompanied by a period of national jubilation and economic opulence dubbed “The Roarin’ Twenties”; people were happy and the country was prospering. However, toward the end of the nineteenth century two separate social movements had gained popular support and was continuing to gain political influence: one of these was the national effort to gain voting rights for women, women suffrage; and the other was the Settlement House Movement, the establishment of settlement houses, a new social procedure for delivering welfare services to the impoverished members of communities. The Women Suffrage Movement started to gain momentum in the decades following the American Civil War and by the end of the nineteenth century, it had become a prominent issue for politician seek election at all 

levels of government; the movement was perpetuated by numerous organized women groups. In 1920, the nineteenth amendment, the amendment granting women the right to vote was added to the national constitution.  

The American settlement house concept had its origin in Toynbee Hall, a settlement house established in the slums of London by Samuel Agustus Barnett, an Anglican priest in 1884. The Settlement House Movement, a European inspiration, instituted a new social welfare procedure in which the providers of poor assistance actually lived in the same neighborhoods as the impoverished families and individuals to whom they were giving advice and assistance. The new poor relief concept proved to be very effective in mitigating the conditions of poverty and in motivating the impoverished to become self-reliant; and because of this success, other settlement houses were soon established.  

Jane Addams, an American activist for women suffrage, educator and social reformer, visited Toynbee Hall in 1888. Jane recognized the settlement house concept to be a significant improvement in the methods by which welfare services were delivered to the less fortunate members of the community, and upon her return home to the United States she decided to imitate the procedure in a local community. On September 18, 1889 Jane Addams and Ellen Gate Starr, an educator and social reformer collaborated in founding Hull House, a settlement house on the west side of Chicago. The American settlement house embodied many of the concepts observed at Toynbee Hall with the functional objective being to maintain close cooperation with the neighborhood residents. The endeavor was very successful and other neighborhoods imitated the settlement house concept; by 1913, there were four-hundred-thirteen settle houses in thirty-two states. Jane Addams became internationally renowned as an activist for social uplift, women suffrage and world peace and in 1931 she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  

Having successfully acquired women’s voter right in 1920, numerous women suffrage groups were motivated and well-organized, and being so, they redirected their enthusiasm for social reforms and their resources toward other uplifting communal activity. The city of Elkhart is located 110 miles east of Chicago, the location of Hull House and the prime domain of the social welfare innovations advocated by Jane Addams. Elkhart was once a tum-around point for several railways serving the Midwest. One of the main railways bisected the urban area of the city creating a north and a south side. The start of the Great African-American Migration began in 1910; the Great Migration was the period in history when African-Americans, in large numbers, migrated from the rural southern states to the urban northern states seeking to escape the brutality and oppression of southern racial segregation, and hoping to find better economic conditions. From the start of the migration, African-Americans had been settling in the area south of the railroad tracks in the neighborhoods around Benham Avenue; consequently, this thoroughfare and the parallel neighborhoods became known as the Benham East area in the northern section and Benham West area in the southern section. The population of Benham West became predominantly African-American.  

In 1921, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a women’s organization focusing on local social uplift, founded the Colored Community Center. The center was located in the 800 block of South Sixth Street in the Benham West community; Martha McCurdy was it first worker. In 1924 the name of the center was changed to the Booker T. Washington Settlement House in recognition of the acclaimed black academician, 

author and political leader, and in alignment with the popular Settle House Movement.  The group later moved the location of the center to the 1300 block of Sixth Street and changed the name to the Booker T. Washington Community Center. Martha McCurdy resigned from the center in 1929 and a Mrs. Vandevilt became the director. In 1939, the center was moved to 409 St. Joseph Street, its most renowned location, and Bessie. Triggs, a native of Cleveland, became the director. Bessie Triggs resigned in 1940.  

During the formative years of Herbert and Ruth Tolson, the nation had experienced a calamitous economic downturn. The glee and opulence of the fantastic twenties vanished suddenly and unexpectedly on October 29, 1929 on a day remembered, and reviled, as Black Tuesday. On this day the stock market crashed and plunged the nation into a deep and prolonged economic depression. The Crash of 1929 started the Great Depression, a period of national economic contraction during which affluence diminished drastically, industrial production stagnated, and millions of people were left unemployed and destitute. The impoverished, many homeless and hungry, were compelled to rely on soup kitchens and the generosity of others to sustain themselves. The administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a number of government sponsored program to provide jobs for the unemployed and to stimulate the national economy. The Civilian Conservation Corps was one of the programs created to assist in this effort. During their teenage age years and during their early adulthood, Herbert and Ruth witnessed and experienced the hardships of the Great Depression; they witnessed the lines at the soup kitchens, they saw the interdependency of neighbor upon neighbor and they learned to appreciate the survival virtue of frugality. Most importantly, they saw the benefits of compassion, as acts of kindness engendered other acts of kindness, people touching other people, and as their lifestyle and behavior would later affirm, they cultivated this attribute within themselves and in their social interactions.  

As a prelude to the Great Migration, major metropolitan areas were gradually accumulating increasing number of African-Americans. Consequently, many of the problems confronting black people as they interacted with a prejudicial white dominant society were becoming visibly evident; organizations were established to discuss and rectify these “Negro problems.” On September 29, 1910 in New York City the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negroes was founded; that organization merged with the Committee for the Improvement of Industrial Conditions Among Negroes in New York, founded in New York in 1906 and with the National League for the Protection of Colored Women, founded in 1905. The new coalition of committees was renamed the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP was also founded during this same period. In 1920, the National League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes became known as the National Urban League; the league had as its mandate the enabling of African-Americans in securing economic self-reliance, parity, power and civil rights. Affiliate branches were established in other metropolitan areas. Herbert and Ruth Tolson left the CCC camp in Fort Riley to work for the Detroit branch of the National Urban League as youth advisors in 1939.  And in January, 1941 Herbert and Ruth Tolson became employees of the Booker T.  Washington Community Center, BTW Center, with Herbert filling the vacated position of executive director and Ruth functioning as a program coordinator; this was the beginning of a tour of community service which lasted for 15 years, and endeared the 

Tolsons in the heart of their friends and neighbors for generations. With the center having youth recreation as its core, and with the Tolsons having experience in education and youth guidance, it was natural that youth development would become one of the key operational mandates of the center: but this was only the foundation. The Benham West area was a predominantly black working-class neighborhood with black working-class needs and deficiencies, and perceiving the needs of their neighbors the Tolsons evolved a cradle-to-old age service philosophy which embraced all members of the community and provided assistance and guidance to all of those actively or subtly requesting them. This was not the service offered by an impersonal bureaucracy, it was neighbor helping neighbor; it was human warmth and genuine concern; and it was love and compassion. It was the personal dedication and emotional commitment manifested and encouraged by the Tolsons; it was their personality. Their personality became the Booker T. Washington Community Center.  Whether a child, a teenager or an adult, first and foremost, BTW was a recreation center — it was a fun place to be. It was a safe and comfortable environment with adult supervision and monitoring, and a drop-in anytime policy. For the adults, it provided meeting space for both serious tasks and for relaxation and leisurely conversation. For the younger crowd it was place to “hang-out”; it was a place where kids could go after school or in the evening and relax or meet with friends. While being fun and relaxing, the programs at the center possessed guidance and educational significance. Projects designed to promote proper youth development and group interaction were visibly apparent, and programs related to athletics were the ones with the greatest popularity and the most youth appeal.  

The softball teams organized and sponsored by BTW were formidable competitors in their respective leagues; the teams won the city championship on more than one occasion.  Equally impressive were the Golden Glove boxing teams organized and sponsored the center, they, too, won several city and Northern Indiana championships. Such regular and consistent publicity enhanced the reputation of the BTW Center, as it simultaneously motivated young people to participate in physical activities and, if possible, to join the BTW athletic teams themselves. The boys in the neighborhood played basketball at the center every day, but for a long time, the basketball court was an unpaved area of dirt. In later years, however, after the local Kiwanis Civic Club headed a project to pave the basketball court and install regulation goals and marked boundaries, the paved court became a center of basketball activity, and it remained so even after the BTW Center was officially closed.  

Programs which assisted in education attainment were also embedded in the operational protocol of the center. The center operated a library complete with a collection of National Geographic magazines and other reading materials, and it provided space for quiet study time. There were also formal classes offered in visual arts and public speaking. “Quiet Night” was another educational activity guised in fun; it was a one night a week activity presented in the format of the popular radio quiz shows. The young people competed to outperform each other in providing the correct answers to trivia questions. Christian education was not neglected either; during the summer, the center offered Vacation Bible School, with the classes being staffed by volunteers from churches in the community. 

The BTW Center kept young people off the streets and out of trouble, and it was the main facilitator in encouraging proper decorum and social development among the youths in the community. For the youths, the social clubs organized and supported by the center were viable, and very successful, alternatives to the negative, and possibly criminal, influence of teenage street-gang activities and associations. In accomplishing this, the center’s social club strata were thoroughly inclusive, with membership opportunities being available for all age groups and for various social proclivities. On the local level, there were the Minutemen’s Club for young boy, the Dukes for older boys, the Girl’s Reserves for older girls and the Dollar Club for men in the middle years; in addition, there were several other clubs for young adults, married women and older adults. For those seeking a more expansive organizational involvement, there were the Boy Scouts of America, the Girl Scouts of America and the Y-Teens. The social clubs were effective venues for developing leadership and organizational skill, and for encouraging community involvement. The refined social attitudes instilled by the clubs,  and the influence of the Tolsons, were quite visible in the behavior of the young people  frequenting the center; they were available for clean-up duties after every event; they  were reluctant to break the rules even when encouraged to do so within the context of fun  activities and humorous pranks; they exercised self-discipline; obeyed rules of conduct;  and implemented group discipline by mandating that everyone follow the rules or risk  being banished from the center.  

The social clubs were industriously and intuitively motivated, with the groups engaging in numerous projects; and this was particularly true of the girls’ clubs. The girls social clubs organized dances varying in presentation from lavishly decorated gatherings with themes and formal regalia to simple ‘hops” put on for friendly association and conversation. Ruth Tolson was particularly fond of the Valentine Day Dance held in 1945, the period when Herbert was away for military service. The theme was “Three Twinkling Hours” and it was sponsored~ by the Y-Teens. She commented that that dance was the first time many of the boys and girls wore formal attire, and it was also the first time many of them had attended such as elaborate affair. Apparently, it was an evening to remember.  

World War II started in 1939 and the United States became officially involved in 1941, the same year that the Tolsons arrived at BTW. For most of the war Herbert served on the local draft board, but in 1944 he was drafted into the military and served in the Navy. For his military duty, he was assigned as the personal chauffeur for President and Mrs. Harry Truman. After the war in 1945, President Truman was instrumental in getting Herbert accepted into the Atlanta College for Social Service where he earned a master’s degree. During his absence, Ruth Tolson served as acting director of the center. Upon completing his degree requirements, he returned to his position as executive director of the BTW Center.  

The center coordinated and sponsored numerous seasonal, and opportunistic block parties for the community. There were annual Christmas parties, Easter parties and Halloween parties, and periodically, there were other parties such as skating parties and pet parades; and all of the events were heavily attended. The legendary Halloween parties attracted hundreds of revelers from all over the city; streets in the vicinity of the center were roped off by the Fire Department, and the crowd celebrated in the street. There was a greased pole to climb for a cash reward, festive dancing, participation games and all manner of Halloween fun. These events unified the neighborhood and further enhanced support for the BTW Center and its operations.  

Besides recreation and education, the center was also actively engaged in providing other important services to the neighborhood. Under the guidance of Ruth Tolson, the center operated a preschool nursery which cared for thirty to forty children per day.  Located in the community, the preschool provided neighborhood mothers with a convenient day care service, equipped with educational curriculums and reliable child supervision. This service gave mothers the opportunity to acquire employment or to engage in other resourceful endeavors. Furthermore, by being exposed to the classroom environment and the learning methodology in which they would encounter in the future, the children were better prepared for elementary school. The preschool program conducted actual academic ceremonies, and by receiving performance awards and participating in promotion ceremonies and graduation exercises, the young students experienced the emotional encouragement and the personal gratification associated with positive academic accomplishments; these experiences were beneficial influences in motivating them to continue their education.  

At the BTW Center the Tolsons established a well-baby clinic which included periodic visits by doctors and nurse to provide medical examinations for infants and young children. There was a nutrition program and after-school childcare. The center was a source of information on housing opportunities and the availability of financial assistance for housing, and having information on job openings, it was also an employment agency. For many years, Herbert and Ruth Tolson were the only two paid staff members at the center, and all this they were able to accomplish. In the later years, an office person and a janitor were hired as additions to the staff. The Booker T.  Washington Center was funded by the Community Chest which became the United Fund and then the United Way, but the many services and activities offered were only possible because of the selflessness of the Tolsons and the overall benevolence of the community and the city-region.  

In a time when fewer people owned automobiles, Herbert transported the boys to the boy’s summer camp and Ruth transported girls to the girl’s summer camp in their personal vehicle. In addition, Herbert frequently transported the ill for medical assistance and expectant mothers to the hospital for the delivery of their babies; the couple was always available for emergencies, and they even participated in all-night vigils when neighbors were injured or sick. What affected their neighbors also affected them. It was this foundational philosophy, their core belief, which permeated the operational protocol of the BTW Center, and inspired others to give of themselves, their time and their resources in assisting their community.  

People donated clothing to the center for distribution to needy individuals and needy  families; magazine and reading materials were generously donated to the center’s library;  movies were donated for movie night held every Friday; police officers, both on and off  duty frequently demonstrate their support by dropping by the center to play checkers,  shoot pool and interact with the kids; the Fire Department assisted with the block parties  and other activities, the Kiwanis assisted with the construction of the basketball court; a  local Army recruiter collaborated with the National Guard in providing gear for a Boy  Scout camping trip; local churches and their members participated in center-related  religious event; and many members of the community volunteered their time to staff the center and assure that adequate personnel were available to provide the necessary services required for the scheduled events. It was because of the communal spirit of sharing that the BTW Center was able to provide benefit and services far in excess of its monetary budget.  But the seed for this neighborhood cooperation and benevolence was the Tolsons; they were the source of the compassion and cohesion — the togetherness, that made the center the focal hub of the community. They had the understanding to shape the behavior and attitudes of the young people placed in their care, and they had the proficiency to lead the community and inspire other to higher levels of neighborly concern. Their effectiveness was due to their image and their lifestyle; this attitude is illustrated in the poem Live Your Creed by the African-American poet Langston Hughes:  


I’d rather see a sermon than to hear one any day.  

I’d rather one walk with me than just show the way.  

The eye is a better pupil and more willing than the ear.  

Advice may be misleading but examples are always clear.  

And the very best of teachers are the ones who live their creed  

For to see good put into action is what everybody needs.  

I can soon learn to do it if you let me see it done.  

I can watch your hand in motion but your tongue too fast may run.  

And the lectures you deliver may be very fine and true.  

But I’d rather get my lesson by observing what you do.  

For I may misunderstand you and the fine advice you give  

But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.  

by Langston Hughes  

The Tolsons lived their creed.  

A community survey conducted in 1954 indicated that the BTW Center had outgrown its physical structure and that a larger newer facility was needed. The National Federation of Settlements was to conduct a confirming study in 1955, and then a building committee was to be appointed. This authoritative pronouncement was perceived by the Tolsons and the black community as being an implicit “promise” to construct a larger and better facility in the African-American neighborhood. As a concomitant endeavor, Herbert initiated efforts to have the Booker T. Washington Center affiliated with the  National Urban League; but due to a lack of funds, the merger could not be accomplished.  

At about the same time, the nation was experiencing a dramatic shift in it attitude about racial equality and racial segregation. In 1896 in the case Plessy v. Ferguson the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that separate but equal accommodations for white and black citizens was legal under the constitution, and this decision established a legal mandate for the then prevailing policies of racial separation or racial segregation.  However, in 1954 in the case Brown v. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court repudiated its earlier decision and declared that “separate but equal” was not a legal mandate and that segregation in public education was unconstitutional. The Supreme 

Court had subtly intimated that American society should be racially integrated. This launched the Civil Rights Movement and the national quest to acquire racial equality, equal opportunity and social justice for African-Americans. The protests against racial segregation were characterized by acts of targeted civil disobedience occurring in the form of sit-ins and boycotts; and these civil actions generated brutal police reprisals, massive arrests and spectacular national news coverage.  

It was within this national temperament that the Tolsons and the Booker T.  Washington Center were seeking to obtain a new facility in a predominantly black neighborhood. They were seeking to replace an old facility that had been established and operated under the abandon racial policy of “separate but equal,” with a new one that would either focus on satisfying the needs of the proximal black community or a new one, possibly in a different neighborhood, which would evenly satisfy the needs of a city wide racially integrated clientele. The sentiment and support for either action was mixed at the time. As dictated by the prevailing attitude of a recalcitrant black America, in February 1956, upon learning that the pending decision to build a new facility in the black community would be declined, the Tolsons resigned. Following their resignation, the center was closed that same month. The closing was supposed to be temporary pending the official decision from the second survey, but the results of the repeat survey which was to provide justification for a larger new Booker T. Washington Center instead, recommended that, ” the Negro should be integrated into all of the agencies of the community and into the entire community.” The decision of the board was to transform the facility from a building-centered program with a black cultural inclination to a community-centered program with a multi-cultural orientation. The building was sold, the furnishings were auctioned off and the Booker T. Washington Center as an actual community center ceased to exist.  

The Tolsons pursued other career options. For an interval, Ruth Tolson occupied herself with the parenting of her two children, her son Herbert Jr. and her daughter Princess Ruth. In 1965, after her stint as a stay-at-home mom, she became employed as a caseworker for the Elkhart Welfare Department, a position from which she retired in 1975, after ten years of service. For a few months after leaving the center, Herbert Tolson worked for the Elkhart Post Office; he then acquired a position as a parole officer for the State of Indiana. The position, however, required a daily commute from Elkhart to Gary, the location of his office. After two years of employment the long daily drive became too burdensome, so he obtained a position with the St. Joseph Welfare Department; he retired from that position in September of 1974 after eighteen years of service. For a limited period after his retirement, he worked part-time for the Elkhart County Manpower Administration.  

Although the Booker T. Washington Center was no longer operational as a recreational facility, the administration board remained intact, and a new executive director, Edward W. Allen, was hired in October of 1956. He operated out of the building at 409 St. Joseph Street until the structure was sold; then a new office was established at 209 South Second Street.  In the interim, the Civil Right Movement, achieving greater momentum and more national support, became an irrepressible force for changes in racial justice. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference emerged as the de facto leader, and subsequently, the acknowledged leader of the movement. Individual, and sometimes spontaneous, acts of protest and resentment became organized efforts to target racial injustice and to engender public outrage against the oppressive segregation system.  Boycotts and sit-ins were accompanied by freedom rides and massive protest marches as the activism intensified. Concurrently, the National Urban League under the leadership of Whitney Young, as executive director in 1961, expanded its role and became a more strident and more active participant in the civil rights struggle; he expanded fund-raising and increased the growth of the league by visibly championing the cause of equal rights and social justice; during its zenith in 1963, the National Urban League was instrumental in organizing the March on Washington.  

After the closing of the BTW Center, the board continued its efforts to become a branch of the National Urban League, and after several years of planning, the Booker T.  Washington Center on February 11, 1963 was officially accepted as an affiliate of the National Urban League; the name of the local organization was changed from the Booker T. Washington Center to the Elkhart Urban League, the EUL.  

On Saturday evening March 22, 1975, nineteen years after the official closing of the  facility, former residents of the Benham West area and other members of the community who were influenced or affected by the Booker T. Washington Center assembled to express their gratitude to the Tolsons; the testimonial dinner was attended by two hundred-forty persons, a convocation which included administrative participants, parents of children who attended the center, the, now, much older children themselves and other friends from the community. The evening was an occasion of remembrance and reflective appreciation.  

It was acknowledged that, for many, the center was a home away from home: it was a place of direction during personal uncertainty, it was a place of solace during domestic turbulence, and it was a place of rest and restoration during periods of weakness, and many partook of its benevolent sustenance. During the war years, sometime even before going to their homes, soldiers returning to the city would stop first at the center, and there, as they reflected on the calm of a past playful childhood, they would hope to see a welcoming relative or a friendly face. But BTW was more than a physical structure, it was the Tolsons themselves, and the endearing manner in which they treated others. For the hundreds of people who passed through the doors of the Booker T. Washington Center, as they touched their hearts and influenced their minds, the Tolsons became their friends. In their acknowledgements the Tolsons were especially proud of the many who “grew-up” in the center and then became doctors, lawyers, bankers, professional athletes, businesspersons, police officers, teachers, nurses, musical talents or just productive citizens. In his testimonial statement Herbert Tolson acknowledged that those who had shared the experience of passing through the center had become a “most beautiful family.” To express their gratitude, the organizers of the dinner gave the Tolsons a gift of a cruise to the Caribbean. The Tolsons took the cruise in June of 1975 and on Saturday September 20, 1975 Herbert M. Tolson died.  


During the sixties the issues of civil rights and racial equality dominated the national political agenda and under the influence of this public pressure the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and President Lyndon B. Johnson acquired tacit support for the War on Poverty Programs espoused within his Great Society platform. With the passage of these major social initiatives the impetus sustaining the Civil Rights Movement gradually diminished, and with it, the popularity and financial support for proactive civil rights organizations such as the National Urban League.  

As the laws for racial integration were implemented, the nation and, indeed, the Benham West community in Elkhart were in a state of social transition. The previous national policy of “separate but equal” had left the black community deficient in resources. While the policy had declared that the African-American neighborhoods receive accommodations and public resources comparable to those provided to the white community, a disproportionately larger amount of those resources had gone to the white areas, thus over a period of time the facilities and public accommodations in the white communities were superior in number and quality to those available in the black communities. Civic authority confronted with the option of refurbishing low quality black community facilities as a mean of achieving racial integration or selecting the superior white facilities, the obvious choice, and the fiscally justifiable choice, was to allow both blacks and whites to utilize the high-quality facilities which previously had been for whites only. For most racially segregated communities, this was the prevailing decision, and it was particularly true as it related to public schools and public recreational facilities such as the Booker T. Washington Center.  

Another probable, but largely unanticipated, consequence of community racial integration was that black families with the financial mean, or with the education and training to acquire such means, would also arrive at the same conclusion as that of the white civic officials; they, too, abandoned the predominantly black communities for the financially secure and more affluent white communities. Of course, the flight of the economic foundation, potential customers for local businesses, necessitated that the local businesses themselves seek other locations to sustain their income and grow their customer base. Consequently, predominantly black communities became areas infested with high concentration of abandoned structures and visible urban decay, these areas became high crime neighborhoods, areas of sexual solicitation and areas of open illegal drug transactions. As it happened in other cities, it also happened in the Benham West area of Elkhart, the area that previously had been monitored, guided and stabilized by the Tolsons and the Booker T. Washington Center.  

Urban Renewal, a program designed to demolish abandon building and remove urban blight, was the national legislative response. The city bought and demolished the building that housed the former Booker T. Washington Center at 409 St. Joseph Street as part of a urban renewal project. In the same Benham West area, the Elkhart Urban League  

purchased as its office complex the vacated structure that former housed the predominantly black Ullery Primary School at 626 W. Cleveland Street. The school was a large sturdy structure that would allow the EUL and the neighborhood the opportunity of fulfilling the earlier promise made to the Tolsons of providing a new larger community center. Unfortunately, as the issues that propelled the Civil Rights Movement receded from the national headlines, so did the financial abundance of the National Urban League and the local Elkhart Urban League. The League returned to the established, now mature, social programs which had catalyzed it birth and, in the earlier years, nurtured its existence, but after the loud clamor and raging discord accompanying the Civil Rights Movement, the old perennial issues, while being continuously relevant, were merely a whisper among the other more urgent social and political issues attracting the attention of the people and the nation.   

With decreasing levels of funding, the Elkhart Urban League was unable to hire experienced managerial personnel and consequently, it was hindered in its ability to implement the community programs for which it was being funded. The large Ullery building was an extravagance that further exacerbated the financial hardships experienced by EUL, but it was also a symbol of promises made and abandoned, and a vision of hope, of “what could be”; the board refused to sell the structure and, to once again abandon the promises made. Already mired in financial delinquencies related to past due national dues and local debts, the local Urban League affiliate missed the 1986 deadline for submitting documentation and being audited to obtain funding support from the United Way; the United Way was its main source of financing for daily operations, and because of this act of fiscal mismanagement, EUL was dropped by the agency. As would be expected for a branch lacking financial support, the National Urban League trustees voted unanimously to drop the Elkhart Urban League as an affiliate of the national organization. Consequently, after twenty-three years of community service, the board of the Elkhart Urban League formerly shut the doors of the organization in the fall of 1986. Ruth Tolson had maintained her interest in the well-being of the community, and over the years, sometimes as a board member and other times as a concerned citizen, she had continued to affiliate with the Elkhart Urban League; she was deeply saddened by the closing.  

After years of public debate and fiscal procrastination, on Friday June 29, 1990, the city held a groundbreaking ceremony for the long promised new and larger Booker T.  Washington Center, only now the community center was designated to be the Tolson Community and Youth Center; the honor was bestowed in memory of the service and dedication given to the neighborhood by Herbert M. and Ruth Tolson. In November 1991, the new center opened its doors at 1320 Benham Avenue; the promise was fulfilled — Ruth Tolson died on Thursday October 7, 1992.  


Herbert M. Tolson: “What you accomplish and where you go is within you.”  

Ruth Tolson: “You’ve got to touch people; if you haven’t done that, you haven’t done your job.”  

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistle?  

Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.  

A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.  

Matthew 7: 16-18  

In loving memory of Herbert M. and Ruth Tolson 


The Movement Behind The Mural  By Andrew Kreider

It was twenty-five years ago.  Pastor Duane Beck of Belmont Mennonite Church had just done a funeral for a young man in the neighborhood who had died from a gunshot wound.  At the service, Pastor Duane told the young man’s friends: If you would like to do something to bring meaning and change from this death, then I’ll help you organize yourselves.  Out of that offer, a local movement began – it was entirely youth led, and it called itself Drop Your Guns.  Over the next number of months, DYG organized themselves into a hopeful force in Elkhart.  They spoke to local businesses, to churches, to schools, to service clubs, they cooperated with the police, they lobbied the City council on behalf of a gun safety ordinance.  They raised money.  They organized six gun buy-back events at which over 250 illegal guns were taken off the streets.  Drop Your Guns crossed barriers of class and culture.  It was African American, it was White, it was Latino.  One of the significant leaders was a local rap star.  For many participants, the movement helped them refocus their lives.  They learned the skills of community leadership.  They brought meaning out of a tragedy.  Notably, at the trials of three young men who had been arrested before Drop Your Guns began, their sentences were changed from prison time to probation because of their change and positive impact on the city through DYG.
Drop Your Guns only lasted a short time, but it gave birth to several other important local movements.  One offshoot was the Violence Intervention Project – VIP – which worked in the schools and with young people on violence prevention and intervention techniques.  Another offshoot was the group that called itself Healing Elkhart Through Little People – HELP –  a group of local teens that advocated for peace and healthy lifestyles in the community.
HELP, working with the Violence Intervention Project asked for, and received, a Genesis Grant from the City of Elkhart.  With that money, they supported the painting of a giant 30-foot-tall mural on the side of the building housing the Louie and Kelly Bar at the corner of Prairie Street and Main Street just south of downtown Elkhart.  The young people gave their input for the content of the mural, but the painting itself was done by a gifted local artist, Kelby Love.
Kelby, like those young people, was an Elkhart native.  He’d gone to Roosevelt elementary, Pierre Moran Middle School, Central High School.  He was a gifted athlete, and also a tremendous artist.  And when the time came to choose, Kelby chose the arts.  He trained first at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, then later at the prestigious Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn NY.  Kelby’s skill in the painting of animals brought him particular recognition.  But on his return to Elkhart, he carried his gifts humbly, and put himself into the service of his community.
I remember Kelby working for years at Roosevelt Elementary School.  My kids all can still picture him and his bald head presiding over the In-School Suspension room – a role model, a disciplinarian, a mentor to so many.  So how appropriate to have Kelby helping give voice to the movement of young people he knew and cared about.
The mural went up in July 1996.  And it is stunning, even now.  A giant figure with flowing hair reaches down from the heavens, using a strong right arm to separate two warring figures who “drop their guns” in surprise.  Above the heads of the two figures we see a brown hand and a white hand clasped in unity.  We see a book and an apple for the schools.  We see a cross, for the faith community.  We see a garden for new growth.  We see the Violence Intervention Project logo, with its’ central figure holding out hands to stop conflict.  We see the houses of Elkhart.  We see four figures – adults and young people – with their arms linked.  The whole mural just sings – sings the story of young people who want hope and change, a community that unites across barriers of race and says No More to violence.
I drive past that mural every day on the way to work.  And it seems like its message is as important today as ever.  In my view, it represents the very best of the city of Elkhart.  It’s a testament to what happens when older powerful people allow young people to lead change.  That’s what Duane Beck did when he offered to help Drop Your Guns get started.  It’s what Kelby Love did when he took the spirit of the youth movement and painted it sky high for all of us to see.