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IU Northwest undergraduates analyze historical implications of two Gary monuments

Revelations praised, to be published in South Shore Journal

Friday Mar 08, 2013

What do the King of Pop and a founder of U.S. Steel have in common? If you said that they both have had a profound influence on the City of Gary, you’d be right.

But, as two Indiana University Northwest undergraduate students learned during their extensive research project over the Fall 2012 semester, the thread that connects the city’s namesake, Elbert H. Gary, and hometown pop star Michael Jackson, as well as an entire city population, actually runs much deeper and reflects American culture as a whole.

The revelations uncovered by Amalia Shanks-Meile and Elizabeth LaDuke, both seniors graduating in May 2013, earned the attention of the publishers of the online South Shore Journal, a peer-reviewed journal sponsored by One Region and the IU Northwest Center for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE). Their article will appear in the a future edition.

LaDuke, an English major from Crown Point, and Shanks-Meile, a history major from Portage, studied the histories and public memories associated with two notable Gary monuments that were erected decades apart in honor of Gary and Jackson.

As the students summarize in their paper’s abstract, “Both men had a fundamental impact on the city, yet each is remembered within a starkly different historical context by the Gary public. Unlike Elbert Gary, Jackson is clearly visible in Gary’s current public, and this appears to reflect the socioeconomic changes the city has experienced. Elbert H. Gary once stood as a nationally known figure, and now his legacy has become eclipsed by the pop culture icon in the town he helped build.”

In their paper, the students explore the cultural evolution of the city of Gary and how this evolution is reflected in the city’s public memory regarding these two figures.

For two undergraduates to have their research published alongside esteemed academicians is especially noteworthy, said Associate Professor of History Christopher Young, Ph.D., who mentored the students throughout their project.

“They are building on historiography,” Young said. “When they are talking about vernacular and official culture, they are building on what others have said, but they are using that as a model to understand this local history . . . By looking at these two men and how these two men are remembered, it is really revealing about American culture. It’s revealing about local culture and history. On top of that . . . a story like this creates this awareness for people of what is around them.”

During their research, the students became intrigued by how well-kept and grandiose the monuments for Jackson and Gary were, while so many others in the city had fallen into disrepair.

“We started to think about the differences in what Elbert Gary means and what Michael Jackson means and the fact that no one really thinks about Elbert Gary, even though he was the city’s founder, but Michael Jackson holds this deep meaning to people in Gary,” LaDuke said.

The students discovered that, though generations apart, these two figures hold much meaning together. As one example, the Shanks-Meile and LaDuke explored one city location where the two figures coalesced – an ornate but now run-down church that once reflected much of the public’s remembrance of Elbert Gary. Amidst the rubble, more modern remembrances of Jackson have surfaced, such as graffiti declaring that the city is “the home of MJ.”

“The church symbolized the struggles of Gary,” LaDuke said, “but it also symbolized how people in Gary are able to adapt their meaning in a way that is meaningful for them.”

The students set out to analyze how the past shapes the present; what the monuments mean to folks today and what they symbolize, among other things. They discovered a shift in how a culture chooses to remember its heroes. As Shanks-Meile pointed out, celebrities seem to have usurped more official positions.

“The whole project showed me how we use the past to define and contextualize the present and everybody does this differently. It is a very personal process,” LaDuke said. “As a society, we come together and make these agreements about what certain things mean, but they are based on these underlying influences that we may not even understand. For instance, Elbert Gary does affect how people in Gary think of themselves and think of the city, but not everyone necessarily realizes the ways in which that happens.”

Shanks-Meile said she walked away from this research project with a greater understanding of her own identity as an American in the 21st century.

Upon her May 2013 graduation, Shanks-Meile will apply to law school. LaDuke is applying to the Peace Corps.

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