The Interracial Group
and Brownie's


Two early South Bend answers to racism

The two most influential black leaders in South Bend A.A. during the early period were Bill Hoover, who died in 1986, and Brownie (Harold Brown), who came into A.A. around 1950, shortly after these events, and died in 1983.

Brownie
Brownie was a quite flamboyant speaker who did powerful leads, spent more time doing things with the white A.A. members, and was perhaps better known by them. There was a weekly group meeting in South Bend which was known even after his death simply as "Brownie's meeting." Bill Williams and Jimmy H. were partially confusing Brownie and Bill Hoover. But Brownie was also extremely important. The large basement meeting room at 616 Pierce Street, just off Portage Avenue near downtown South Bend, is currently referred to as "Brownie's," because of its linkage with Harold Brown's heritage. One can see the old barber's chair (no one remembers where it originally came from) in which Brownie would sit during meetings. There are a number of A.A. meetings held there every week, attended by a relatively equal mix of white and black people.

There are also A.A. groups still making month-long pilgrimages to Brownie's every year from many miles away, to do honor to him and Nick Kowalski (a Polish brick layer and ex-con who had found A.A. while imprisoned in the Indiana state penitentiary at Michigan City for murder). These are white A.A.'s, who received the message either from Red K., who had had Brownie and Nick as his sponsors, or from some of the people whom Red in turn had sponsored. The spiritual message which one heard from Brownie (who was black) and his friend Nick (who was white) was so powerful that it could bring alcoholics from drunkenness and anger to sobriety and serenity of life even at second and third hand. There is a group from Ann Arbor, Michigan, making this pilgrimage every year, as well as several groups from Chicago and its suburbs. There is also a group in Lansing, Michigan, which sometimes comes to South Bend, and another group in Bloomington in southern Indiana, which invites people from Brownie's like Raymond to speak to them. There are also supposed to be groups as far away as Florida and the New York City area composed of people who continue to honor Brownie's and Nick's memories.

Bill Hoover and the Interracial Group
The meeting with which Bill Hoover was most closely associated was officially called the "Interracial Group," to signal clearly, to anyone reading through the list of A.A. meetings, that there would be numerous black people present at that meeting. When there were enough black members in South Bend, they rented a building on Ardmore Trail and set up what they called an Interracial Club House, to continue the work that had been begun in the house meetings in Bill Hoover's home.

A later version of the Interracial Group was revived around 1975, when some of the black A.A.'s in South Bend again were feeling unwanted and out of place in many of the white groups. Some blacks felt that they could not talk openly in white meetings about many of their deepest resentments and fears: as this faction among the black A.A.'s perceived it, the white dominated meetings allowed white alcoholics, especially if they were newcomers, to be angry and obnoxious on occasion (at least up to a point), whereas black members were expected to be genial, smiling Uncle Toms at all times. This revived Interracial Group continued on for a few years after Bill Hoover's death in 1986, but the last mention of it in the meeting list put out by the South Bend-Mishawaka A.A. Central Service Office was in 1990 -- it seems to have died off at the end, because certainly by the 1990's there were many A.A. groups in the area which had both black and white members and where everyone present felt comfortable talking about anything they wanted. Some had just a few black members, but there were other groups where some of the black members played the major leadership role and at least 40% of the people present would be black. A group which was specially labeled the "Interracial Group" seemed like an anachronism by then.

 



South Bend in 1948 and 1949

Raymond and Jimmy H.'s Summary


EDITOR'S NOTE:  Raymond I. and Jimmy H. then summarized what they felt was the real significance of what happened in South Bend back in 1948 and 1949, based upon what they already knew, and what Bill Williams had talked about so movingly today.

  RAYMOND:  Tell me, here's something I never got straight. Bill say it was either you or Earl Redmond, one of you all made the statement, "Same whiskey as get a white man drunk, 'll get a black man drunk."

BILL WILLIAMS:  Earl made that one.

RAYMOND:  That was Earl ....

JIMMY H.:  Yeah, one of the main reasons, I believe, after they came -- I'm just carrying around, cause he told the story already. But I'm just saying, after he came -- after they came -- and then they got in harmony, and they said "You're right," and so they got together, and I think they open up the doors. Everybody got in the spirit, and ... that's the main thing ....

RAYMOND:  After he left, after he came and talked, Ken Merrill, he played piano, and in playing the piano, this was the way of accepting blacks into the program -- Ken Merrill. I wasn't there now.

BILL WILLIAMS:  I was there.

RAYMOND:  But you said, after they played the piano, this was making the amends.

JIMMY H.:  And I hear what was said, and so I know now how it got started, how that integration came about -- spiritually -- not officially through politics. Because I found out something here today, and I've heard it leaped through, but I heard it talked though and lived through here.
 

EDITOR'S NOTE:  The small black (or actually interracial) A.A. group in Chicago was for two or three years an absolutely vital support to Bill Hoover and Jimmy Miller in South Bend, and the small group of black A.A.'s that started to form around them there in north central Indiana beginning in 1948, 1949, and 1950. Bill W. made a few more comments about that period, and how he and the Chicago people had helped.

  BILL WILLIAMS:  Oh, about three years one of us came -- one, two, or three of us -- came over here every Sunday afternoon ... whatever time it was.

GLENN:  To support the people in South Bend. To support those people in South Bend.

BILL WILLIAMS:  Yeah. Cause, see at points it was just Bill and some woman -- I forget her name -- black woman.

RAYMOND and GLENN:  Jimmy.

BILL WILLIAMS:  That was the only two it was.
 


Chicago in 1945

The first black people to join A.A.


EDITOR'S NOTE:  Then Glenn C. asked Bill Williams to talk about something that happened a few years earlier: how the first black people came into the A.A. program in Chicago in 1945.

  GLENN:  Now just to make sure I got it all straightened out, you were born in nineteen oh ...

BILL WILLIAMS:  Four.

GLENN:  1904. Now what year did you come into A.A. in Chicago?

BILL WILLIAMS:  I think it 'uz, umn ....

JIMMY H.:  Forty-five .... It was December '45. Cause Redmond came in in March, you told me ....

BILL WILLIAMS:  But anyway, I know Redmond came in in March, and I came in that following December.

GLENN:  So when you came to South Bend, then, you had about four or five years sobriety behind you? You had a good program by then.

BILL WILLIAMS:  Oh yeah, I was pretty solid. I knew by that time that it was going to work. Cause the first -- see, when I first came in, it was my intention to only stay three years. [Laughter] And I knew that I would get it, and I would know anything to do in three years.

Because I'm a tailor by trade, and I went to school, and they wanted me three years to finish tailoring. I finished it in one year. I said, if I can finish tailoring in one year, and I can make anything now to be made out of cloth -- and I still do a little of it -- well, I could get this in three years. So I figured in three years, I'd have this -- and I planned to stop going to the meetings! [Laughter] . . . .

GLENN:  And you're twenty-nine years old now [Bill had joked earlier that he told people he was twenty-nine], and you’re still working at it!

JIMMY H.:  I'm still working on it!

BILL WILLIAMS:  See, this is -- see, Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t something that you get.

GLENN:  Yeah.

BILL WILLIAMS:  It's a principle that we practice. I been in church since 1911. I been a member of a Baptist church since 1911. I still go to Sunday School and church every Sunday. I haven’t finished it!

GLENN:  Yeah.

BILL WILLIAMS:  You can't complete that .... A.A. isn't something that you will get. It's a principle that we practice. And the word practice is we haven't completed it. You never heard a doctor yet -- how long he's been in business -- there's a sign up there, he's "practicing medicine." He's practicing.

What Alcoholics Anonymous .... It's something said, and I hear people say, and you probably have heard it in your group, that they've been around a few years, and they're "cured." Ain't no such a thing as an alcoholic being cured! There is two incurable diseases, two known incurable diseases. There's alcoholism and ... diabetes .... They are arrested. If I was "cured," I could drink this alcohol now and go on and do all right. But see, alcoholism is one of the progressive, incurable diseases. The disease progress even though you don't drink. You don't have to drink to make it get worse! All we have to do is to stay alive [laugher] and it will get worse. Two diseases like that, alcoholism and diabetes. Nobody -- doctors are smart, but they've never found a cure for diabetes .... It's something with our system .... I can drink anything [else] I want to, but I can't drink alcohol ....

GLENN:  Now when you came into A.A. in Chicago, in 1945, did you hit trouble there too? Was there a color bar .... there in Chicago in 1945? I don't know anything about Chicago.

BILL WILLIAMS:  Oh yeah! Yeah, it was the same thing. It's still prejudiced, even now.

GLENN:  How did you deal with that? In Chicago, in 1945?

BILL WILLIAMS:  Well, I was born in Texas.

RAYMOND:  He's a cowboy! [Laughter]

JIMMY H.:  You all got into A.A., and you had to go out to Evanston, and Joe Diggles and all of 'em, and the guy said, Earl Treat, said and all, "Give us ninety days." Tell us about that ....
 

 
CONCLUDING EDITIORIAL NOTE

Preserving the History of Early Black
A.A. in Chicago and Gary, Indiana

The two most influential black leaders in South Bend A.A. during the early period were Bill Hoover, who died in 1986, and Brownie (Harold Brown), who came into A.A. around 1950, shortly after these events, and died in 1983.

There is more discussion on this tape which has still not been transcribed. The Evans Avenue Group in Chicago, the first A.A. group in that city, is still in existence. Evans Avenue, where it was originally located, is near the lake, running north and south between 69th Street and the southern edge of the University of Chicago campus. Raymond I. took Frank N. and me to visit their present building -- they still call it the Evans Avenue Group, but it is now in a slightly different location -- and they have a lot of memorabilia from the days of early black A.A. in Chicago, which would be helpful in writing a fuller history.

We have on tape Bill Williams' lead which he gave at the Kentucky State A.A. Convention (which Frank N. located for us), and also a tape recording of some of the profound things Bill said on spirituality at a regional conference held in South Bend, Indiana, several years ago. It would be extremely useful if someone in Chicago A.A. would write up an account of his life, and combine it with material about one of the great white A.A. figures from early Chicago A.A., Tex Brown.

In Tex Brown's case, we not only have tape recordings of leads which he gave, and a good deal of information which his widow knows about his life, but also many of his writings, including one of the best descriptions I have ever read of how to engage in the kind of meditation where the mind is emptied (as far as possible) of all images, concepts, and words. This would be an extremely important and enormously valuable historical project.

Jimmy H. in Chicago, who was one of the people at the meeting at Frank N.'s lake house, is still active -- he is going to be the main speaker at the New Year's Eve Dance in South Bend at the end of 2004 -- and Jimmy knows a good deal about early black A.A. in Chicago which needs to be tape recorded and/or put down in writing.

The Northern Indiana Area 22 Archives Committee (and its Northern Indiana Archival Bulletin) have a tape recording of a lead given by John Shaifer, one of the great black old timers from Gary, Indiana. This was obtained by Beth M., a member of the Archives Committee, who also interviewed John and got that interview down on tape. He died not long after that, so we are very fortunate to have that material at all.

Past Delegate Ben W., and Mozell (who runs a very successful A.A. meeting place in downtown Gary), have between the two of them a lot of information about early black A.A. in Gary which has never been recorded or transcribed. In the heyday of the great steel mills in Gary, airline pilots would find their way to Chicago's two airports and other places in the area by looking for the huge plume of smoke rising up into the air from the smelters, which could be seen from an enormous distance away. It was a very important industrial city.

Jimmy Miller and Bill Williams have both died within the past three years. Raymond I., Frank N., Brooklyn Bob Firth (also now dead, a good Irish Catholic, see some of his sayings in The Higher Power of the Twelve Step Program: For Believers & Non-Believers), and Glenn C. represented A.A. at Jimmy's funeral. She left the special request that someone sing at her service, "I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free. His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me." This was Jimmy's great spirit expressed perfectly.

And we've lost that marvelous man Bill Williams now too. Raymond I., a younger man he sponsors named Charles, Frank N., and Glenn C. drove to Chicago to represent South Bend A.A. at Bill's funeral.

So we are losing these people rapidly. Tape cassettes and pieces of paper get lost or damaged. One can only hope that one or two A.A. folks in Chicago and Gary will begin collecting and writing up this material while the people, the tape recordings, and the documents are still around. Otherwise the rest of this inspiring story will be lost forever.

There are things that A.A. people all around the world can learn from the courage and dedication of Bill Williams, Bill Hoover, Jimmy Miller, Brownie, Goshen Bill, and their friends. It does not matter how badly you believe the cards are stacked against you when you come into A.A. You can get sober and your spirit can learn to soar to the heights. They showed us how to do it. Their lives were God's message to all of us.

 



 
 
 
 



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