In 1952, when the rest of his teammates went to baseball practice after school, Francis Elmore couldn’t play ball. The team would have likely still been on the field when the sophomore needed to clock in for his shift cleaning a downtown office building.
The coach proposed a deal: If he put in three practices and played all of the games, he would receive participation points and earn stripes for his letter jacket. Elmore says he held up his end of the bargain.
When his name wasn’t called for the team, Elmore said the principal claimed he’d missed too many practices. During a confrontation in the front office, Elmore struck the principal, resulting in his suspension from school and the loss of his varsity letters.
Elmore, who is black, doesn’t know whether race played a factor in the incident. But more than six decades after his graduation, Crawfordsville High School is making amends. The school presented the now 83-year-old Elmore with a varsity letter and a lettermen’s jacket.
“When we see opportunities to make amends and make something right, we definitely want to do that,” Superintendent Dr. Scott Bowling said.
Growing up on Crawfordsville’s north side, Elmore said he usually didn’t feel the sting of discrimination, which younger relatives attribute to the family’s stature.
Not all parts of town were historically friendly to the black community: Downtown restaurants refused to serve black customers as late as the 1940s, and black moviegoers once had to sit in a separate section of the Strand Theater. Elmore attended the segregated Horace Mann and Lincoln schools in elementary school.
Elsewhere, some took issue with the black player on the Athenians baseball team. A few schools forfeited games to avoid playing against Elmore. When a waitress didn’t take Elmore’s order during a team dinner at one-small town restaurant, coach Bill Chase intervened.
“Bill Chase asked her… what’s the problem?” Elmore recalled. “Well, we don’t serve black [people],” the woman replied. The entire team walked out of the restaurant in protest.
While on the team, Elmore worked as a fill-in janitor at the Ben-Hur Building, going in early on mornings before school and returning after class to clean until closing time. Chase wanted to help his player balance the schedules and suggested the three-practice arrangement to satisfy Elmore’s lettering requirements.
Elmore thought he was ready to be fitted for his jacket.
“I was in study hall and they started calling the names [of players] to come down to the office so they measured and everything,” he said. “My name was never called, and it just hurt me.”
Elmore went to the office to ask why his name wasn’t mentioned. As the secretaries double-checked the list, principal Louis Darst, whom Elmore didn’t like, rose from his desk.
“I just walked up to him and I said, ‘Hey, I’m supposed to get my jacket and letter,’” Elmore recalled saying.
“You have to make at least 27 practices,” Darst replied, waving off Chase’s agreement.
“I said, ‘I don’t think so’, so I turned around and took one step and busted him,” Elmore said, mimicking the sound of a punch.
He was suspended from school for a month and stripped of his athletic letters. He graduated in 1954, becoming the first black person to be hired at the Indiana Bell Telephone Co. in Crawfordsville.
Although Elmore said he would’ve taken another swing at Darst, who died in 1988, if they ever crossed paths again, he let the incident go.
“For all these years, it didn’t bother me any. But it’s just the fact that I had faith in Bill Chase and he always told me the truth, the skinny on everything… and I really appreciated him,” Elmore said.
But one of Elmore’s daughters, Vicke Hudson-Swisher, wanted to bring closure. After working on the project off and on for 20 years, she approached the superintendent’s office. Bowling contacted athletic director Bryce Barton, who uncovered yearbook photos of Elmore’s baseball team and other records from the school’s archives.
“And honestly that, in combination with Vicke’s story, was all I needed to make a ruling that we needed to make sure and restore his athletic letter,” Bowling said.
Bowling presented Elmore with his jacket during a ceremony Monday afternoon, as relatives, friends and school board president Steve McLaughlin looked on.
When Hudson-Swisher told her father she was contacting the school, Elmore said enough years had passed “I could care less.”
“But now that I’ve got the jacket, the letter, I’ve changed my mind,” the plain-spoken Elmore said as the room filled with laughter. “And I tell you, I’m really proud of it.”