Elkhart County's history is rich with pioneers - creators from diverse backgrounds who built businesses, communities or unique and innovative products. Vision is just something we do around here, from urban centers to rolling farmland.
You can’t tell the story of Elkhart without Herbert and Ruth Tolson.
The Elkhart couple’s name lives on today at the Tolson Community Center, which is slated for a multimillion-dollar renovation.
The Tolsons were mainstays in the city of Elkhart’s Benham neighborhood, especially from 1941 to 1956 when they were the forces behind the Booker T. Washington Center. According to an Elkhart Truth article published in 1975, “From the cradle to old age, the BTW Center was the focus of community life in the predominantly black neighborhood now sometimes known as Benham West.”
Though that building closed, when a new center emerged years later for youth sports, education and social activities, it was appropriately named after Herbert and Ruth Tolson.
Their story will be told in the Elkhart County Historical Museum’s live video streamed “Virtual Stories of Elkhart: Herbert & Ruth Tolson” on February 25-26, 2021.
Kelby Love’s mural
Another landmark of Elkhart history is the work of one of the city’s most famous artists, Kelby Love.
Though Kelby Love’s artwork is prized around the country by collectors, one of the Elkhart native’s most personal works is a mural at Main and Prairie streets. The peace mural was created in the 1990s in a protest against gun violence and in support of the Violence Intervention Project’s call to reduce the number of guns in the community.
The building on which the mural is painted was recently purchased by the city of Elkhart’s Redevelopment Commission, which has plans to preserve the mural.
Notable Elkhart County residents
Elkhart County’s black residents have made history on the local and national level:
- Thomas I. Atkins was born in Elkhart and was the first black student body president at both Elkhart High School and Indiana University in Bloomington. He went on to serve as general counsel of the NAACP from 1980 to 1984. He also served on the Boston City Council and was Secretary of Communities and Development, the first black cabinet secretary in Massachusetts.
- Ben Barnes was the first black person elected to countywide office when he won a seat on the Elkhart County Council in 1974 and served four terms. He also touched countless kids’ lives as the founder of St. James Boxing Club, but that only scratches the surface of Barnes’ life of service. Read more here from the Elkhart Public Library’s history collection.
- Charles Gordone grew up in Elkhart and went on to become a noted playwright, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1970 for “No Place to Be Somebody.”
- Rod Roberson became the city of Elkhart’s first black mayor in 2020.
Black History Month events
Here are local events that will help everyone appreciate the black experience:
Goshen College: Join the college’s live stream of “Virtual Chapel: Celebrating Black History with Worship and Song” at 10 a.m. Wednesday, February 10, 2021.
NAACP – Elkhart Branch: The annual celebration of black leaders in business, sports, politics and social services will be online via Zoom from 4 to 5 p.m. Saturday, February 20.
Elkhart County Historical Museum: “Virtual Stories of Elkhart: Herbert & Ruth Tolson” on February 25-26, 2021.