13 Jan David Myers: Freedom Rider from Hamilton County
By David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian
In honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and influence and in observance of MLK Day 2023, we will be looking at a local person who was an active participant in an important event of the Civil Rights movement.
Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Indiana Historical Society’s magazine, published an article in fall 2021 about David Myers. Myers (1940-2021) was born and raised in Hamilton County and still has family in the area. The article appeared just after his death in August 2021. He had joined the Freedom Riders in 1961, and the article covered these activities well. Rather than repeat that, this is a look at the environment that may have inspired him.
Hamilton County was in a transitional period in the 1960s. It was the beginning of the suburban boom and was coming out of the slump following the failure of the natural gas boom. The county lost 20% of its population between 1900 and 1930 and didn’t regain its previous population level until 1960. The African American population dropped steadily until 1970.
It is well known that the Klan dominated the county in the early 1920s. However, it is lesser known that after Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson was convicted of murder and rape in 1925, the organization continued under other names, such as the Junior Order of United American Mechanics, until at least 1935. In 1940, the year David Myers was born, American fascist William Dudley Pelley came to Noblesville to publish a magazine and establish a base for his “Silver Legion.” He was not well received, but he stayed anyway.
A prominent African American woman named Eva Stewart White wrote letters to the newspaper in 1941 about increasing discrimination in housing, restaurants, and theaters. Some of these places used the word “restricted” in their advertising. That same year, a new addition on the north side of Noblesville had its covenants printed in the newspaper which blatantly stated, “Only members of the white race will be permitted to live there.”
Many members of the local Black community went off to serve in WWII, and when they returned, they showed less patience with the discrimination. They garnered headlines with an attempt to desegregate Forest Park Pool in 1953. Some advances were made. In 1956, an African American community theater group called the Community Players was organized and performed plays by Noel Coward and Tennessee Williams. (The writer of the Traces article was off about something. He suggested that Myers may have known about the movie theater in Noblesville that was run by the Klan. However, it had closed in 1925 and reopened as the Logan Theatre in 1932. This was the venue that the Community Players used for their performances.)
This was the environment that Myers grew up in. The family lived in Fishers, and David’s elementary education and his first two years of high school were in Fishers. It was an ordinary childhood. He played trombone in the school band and was on the Fishers Tigers basketball team. He was a serious Boy Scout and worked at Camp Kikthawenund in the summer. He went to Noblesville High School for his junior and senior year, was a manager for the track team, and graduated with the class of 1958.
He showed a different mindset when he chose to attend Central State College, a historically Black college in Wilberforce, Ohio. One of his friends there, Godfrey Tetu, was from Kenya. (Tetu was finishing up undergraduate courses before moving to Harvard for his Ph.D. in mathematics.) Tetu came to Hamilton County in February of 1961 to visit the Myers family. He was surprised by a sign at a club in the southwest part of the county saying, “White People Only.” Otherwise, he liked Americans and their informality.
Myers’ participation as a Freedom Rider in May of 1961 caused a stir locally, particularly after he was arrested and sent to the notorious Parchman prison. In June, the Noblesville American Legion objected to the coverage in The Noblesville Ledger and said that Myers was a “misguided youth” who should not be celebrated. They issued a statement that said the paper “should investigate any individual…before he is made a hero on the front page.” Editor Jim Neal answered in his column “The County Line,” “The press does not make heroes or martyrs. Nor does it make villains. They make themselves. The press’s role is to report what these persons do.…If what they do makes them heroes or villains, it is what the public thinks that makes it so – not what the press has written.”
Myers himself added to conversation in July after his release from prison. In a letter to The Indianapolis News, he spoke of what he had seen and how there were many problems in the North as well. He said, “I would be very happy if I could tell my Negro classmates and teachers that I am from Indiana and hear them reply, ‘That is a nice place to live’ instead of, ‘That is a nice place to be from.’”
Myers moved to Ohio soon after this. However, by this time, change was starting to happen in Noblesville. Murphy White was elected to the city council in fall of 1967, and the interracial Human Relations Commission was organized in May of 1968, the same year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The last local Klan rallies happened in October of 1968. The first African American officer in the Noblesville Police Department was appointed in 1970.
While David Myers is an interesting story individually, the community’s effect on him and the return impact that he made are equally interesting. Stories like his help to highlight the significance of the MLK Day holiday and can inspire people to have a similarly positive impact on their communities.
Discover more about Martin Luther King, Jr., Freedom Riders, and the Civil Rights Movement in our suggested booklist!