Monday, January 24, 2011

From Jackson Street to Jackson 5 Blvd

Almost two weeks before the Jackson 5 returned to Gary, Mayor Richard G. Hatcher issued an official proclamation that honored them changing the name of the street they had once lived on from Jackson Street to Jackson 5 Boulevard. The proclamation was printed in its entirety in several Back newspapers, including the Chicago Defender.

This was actually not the first time the Jackson 5 had returned to Gary since they had followed Motown to Los Angeles. They had come to Gary in August of 1969, where they performed on August 30 at Gilroy Stadium with a host of other Motown artists, including Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, and Yvonne Fair. At that time, the Jackson 5 were photographed with Mayor Hatcher, giving the Black Power salute.

So just who was Mayor Richard Hatcher, and what was the relationship between him and the Jackson 5? Certainly part of it was pure local pride, since the Jackson family had lived in Gary, Indiana, and Hatcher was the city's mayor at the time they rose to national fame. But the Jackson 5 were frequently honored with ceremonies and were given keys to cities they had never lived in, and had only traveled to for a concert appearance.

With Mayor Hatcher, however, it went deeper than that. He was the first Black mayor of Gary, elected in 1967 after a hard-won battle against a white Republican candidate. And even though Hatcher ran on a Democratic ticket, he had all but been disowned by the Democratic party who feared that he would subvert the status quo with his radical politics.

Since Hatcher the candidate got no money from the Democratic party, many African-Americans from around the nation offered their support. To them, Hatcher had become a symbol of change, freedom, and self-determination, so much so that he garnered support from Black celebrities with as disparate political points of view as Dick Gregory (a militant anti-war activist) and Sammy Davis Jr. (a conservative Republican). At a 1968 Hatcher fundraiser, for instance, Harry Belafonte and Bill Cosby joined Dick Gregory and Sammy Davis, Jr. on stage.

One of Hatcher's biggest supporters was Berry Gordy, Jr. On September 28, 1968, Gordy offered some of his biggest stars to honor Mayor Hatcher as "the mayor of the century." Stevie Wonder, Shorty Long, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers, and Abdullah performed for an audience of 8,000 Gary teens. Proceeds from "Motown Soul Day" went to "disadvantaged youths" and the ticket price was just $1.50 to make it affordable to those who didn't have a lot of money. Reports of the event from the Chicago Defender do not indicate whether any local groups performed. If so, the Jackson 5 would have been likely candidates (and isn't it interesting that two of the Motown groups who did perform are the two most frequently credited with discovering the J5?).

Whether the Jackson 5 were there or not, this is likely the event that was later re-imagined and re-shaped into the infamous Diana Ross discovery story. (I can't find evidence of Diana Ross ever appearing at an event for the mayor of Gary.) Even Mayor Hatcher played along with the Motown publicity scheme, mentioning it in a telegram allegedly sent to Ross by Hatcher, congratulating her for discovering the Jackson 5. The telegram was included in the Jackson 5's first press kit. He specifically mentions that he looks forward to the Jackson 5 returning for the second annual Motown Soul Day (later called Festival Gary '69).

So back to Jackson Street. Mayor Hatcher's proclamation, which you can read in its entirety in the press clipping at the top of this post, states that Jackson Street will temporarily be named Jackson 5 Boulevard from January 25-31, 1971. When the Jacksons landed in on January 31, they were presented with the new street signs in front of their old house at 2300 Jackson Street.

It would take a first-person account from someone who was in Gary that week for us to know if the street signs were ever erected and, if so, how long they remained in place before some lucky fan got a nice souvenir. We do, however, know exactly what happened to the signs the Jacksons were given.

I wonder if they are still there.

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