Early Black A.A.

along the Chicago-Gary-South Bend Axis

The Stories and Memories of Early Black
Leaders Told in Their Own Words


Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana)


Editor's introduction:  Some of the earliest black A.A. groups in the United States were formed c. 1945-48 along an axis running from Chicago eastward through Gary to South Bend, Indiana. These three cities were linked by an interurban rail line called the South Shore Railroad which made it easy for people to travel back and forth. We know much more at present about early black A.A. in this area than we do about any other part of the United States.

Source:  Materials gathered for the Northern Indiana Archival Bulletin, published by the Archives Committee of Northern Indiana Area 22 of Alcoholics Anonymous, and printed in South Bend (contact the Michiana A.A. Central Service Office, 814 E. Jefferson Ave., South Bend, IN 46617).

For further background information:  Detailed material about four of the early black A.A. leaders who played a role in this story (Bill Hoover, Jimmy Miller, Brownie and Goshen Bill) can be found in the two-volume series on Lives and Teachings of the A.A. Old Timers in the St. Joseph valley region (northwestern Indiana and southwestern Michigan) put together by Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana) in 1993-96. The Hindsfoot Foundation is going to publish a second edition at the beginning of 2005, with the two volumes entitled The Factory Owner & the Convict and The St. Louis Gambler & the Railroad Man.


Interview with Bill Williams

Evans Avenue A.A. Group in Chicago



EDITOR'S NOTE:  On Saturday, July 17, 1999, three people came from Chicago -- Evans Avenue Bill W. (recently turned ninety-six years old), Jimmy H., and a younger man named Charles B. -- and met at the lakeside home of Frank N. a few miles south of Syracuse, Indiana, a little before lunch time, along with two people from South Bend: Glenn C. and Raymond I., who had arrived a little earlier and had been sitting outside enjoying the serenity of the lake, and watching a family of Canadian geese paddling around the edges. This is the story of early black A.A. Frank and Glenn were the only two white people there, present simply to tape record the conversations.

Bill Williams ("Evans Avenue Bill W.," Chicago) was born in 1904 and spent his early years in East Texas. He eventually ended up in Chicago, where he came into A.A. in 1945, when he was around forty-one years old. At the time of this recording (transcribed below), he had just turned ninety-six. Fifty years earlier, in 1948 and 1949, he had helped the two earliest black members of A.A. in South Bend, Bill Hoover and a woman named Jimmy Miller, at the time when the A.A. program was just getting established in that town.

Jimmy H. (Chicago) is well-known as a dynamic and colorful speaker, who frequently travels to various parts of northern Indiana to give leads. Two weeks earlier he had been one of the featured speakers at the Fourth of July hog roast at Chic L.'s farm along the Elkhart River outside of Goshen, Indiana -- a major annual event which often draws almost a thousand people, traveling from as far away as Ohio to eat, chat, play horseshoes, go on hayrides, and so on.

Charles B. (Chicago), a very fine man, came along with Bill and Jimmy to listen to these two great old-timers. He is much younger than Bill or Jimmy, so it is good that he will be able to help Chicago A.A. preserve the memories and the tradition later on, and understands how important this is.

Raymond I. (South Bend, Indiana) had also come. He first began attending A.A. meetings in 1974 and had been extremely close with the first two black people to enter the A.A. fellowship in South Bend, Bill Hoover and his wife Jimmy Miller. Bill Hoover became his sponsor in 1975. Most people in South Bend A.A. know Raymond, who is the "elder statesman" at Brownie’s at 616 Pierce Street, just off Portage Avenue near downtown South Bend. Brownie's (named after one of the other major black leaders in early South Bend A.A.) is the basement meeting room below a children's daycare center, where numerous A.A. meetings are held every week.

Frank N. (Syracuse, Indiana) came up with the idea of this get together after talking with Jimmy at Chic's hog roast. Frank had come to the event to socialize and enjoy, along with three other members of the Indiana Area 22 Archives Committee -- Floyd P. (Frankton), Klaus K. (Fort Wayne), and Glenn C. (South Bend) -- when he suddenly realized that the elderly Bill W. whom Jimmy was talking about was the same man who had come to South Bend to speak fifty years ago to help get the first black A.A. members in South Bend fully accepted.

Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana) came along to help Frank tape record and edit the information which Bill Williams and Jimmy H. were going to provide.

When the group was all assembled, everyone sat down in a room with large glass windows looking out over the lake. Frank had trays of cheese and cold cuts and vegetables out on his dining room table, and asked who wanted coffee or a soft drink or something else. Jimmy H., who is a vegetarian and studiously avoids being around cigarette smoke, said he would just fix himself some hot water, while Bill W. asked if Frank could give him a cup of hot tea.

When the tape recorders were turned on, Glenn C., to start things going, read from a transcript of Jimmy Miller's story, and then asked Bill Williams what he himself remembered about those events. Now some background needs to be given here: the first A.A. group in north central Indiana was founded in South Bend on February 22, 1943, by Ken Merrill and Joseph Soulard "Soo" Cates, and quickly began spreading into the surrounding parts of Indiana and Michigan, but it remained a totally white organization until 1948, when two black people in South Bend, Bill Hoover (who died in 1986) and Jimmy Miller (an erect, impressive black woman who was still living at the time of this meeting) asked for help.


Jimmy Miller's Story

The First Lady of Black A.A.
in the St. Joseph River Valley


EDITOR'S NOTE:  Jimmy Miller (South Bend, Indiana) was born in Wayne, Arkansas, in 1920, but her family moved to South Bend when she was only three months old, so she is essentially a South Bend person. In March of 1993, Raymond I. arranged for Glenn C. to go over to Jimmy Miller’s house and tape record some of her reminiscences for the A.A. archives, including the story of how she and Bill Hoover (South Bend, Indiana) became the firs two black A.A. members in that part of Indiana. After they came into the fellowship, Bill and Jimmy eventually got married, so Jimmy was able to talk at length about Bill’s A.A. career as well as hers. She died around two or three years ago, so we can give her full name now. (This entire conversation is transcribed in Glenn C., The Factory Owner & the Convict, which is due to come out in a second edition in early 2005, published by the Hindsfoot Foundation.)

  JIMMY MILLER:  I was a periodic drinker. Very much so. When I went out, I stuck to my 7-Up, my Coke. I drank at home. I was a loner. If I had a week’s vacation from a job, I stayed drunk that whole week. I mean drunk! --- go into D.T's, had to go to the doctor. We had an alcoholic doctor ... I found out about this doctor, and I'd go get a shot, and I’m all right. But I ... that was my pattern.

Maybe I would go a year without a drink, because I knew better, because then I would be drunk anywhere from one week to two weeks. But I would make sure it was during my vacation -- never lost a job, never got into financial trouble, no kind of way. But then I knew I had this time to stay drunk.

RAYMOND:  It's cunning, it's baffling, and it's powerful.

JIMMY MILLER:  But I knew I'd get drunk, because I know there was something wrong. The reason I didn't drink when I'd get out, go out: I knew better. I was going to get drunk! I knew that I would be clear drunk for at least a week, so I had to plan these things.

And I used to tell my mother, that I knew better. She said, "Oh honey, you don’t need no help. You just drink sometimes." So she would go and get, like, get the neighbor to go get me two or three pints of whiskey, and I'm quite young, maybe seventeen, sixteen, and when I started drinking she would hand me a pint. I'd go on up to my room. She'd check on me, or she'd bring me soup to eat. And I said, "Mama, I've got to be an alcoholic." And she said, "Naw, my baby gone stop one day." But she was ....

RAYMOND:  ... Enabling.

JIMMY MILLER:  She never .... No, I think she did the best thing she could do.

When I drank the whole fifth of vodka, that was my last drink. I decided to go to drink me a fifth of vodka, it was just coming out [on the American market]. So I drunk this fifth, I was working at the cleaners.

I blundered at work that morning, the temperature was about 115 [degrees Fahrenheit] in there. I worked for a solid week, without anything on my stomach but a drink of water. I'd get off from work, I'd make it as far as getting on the floor and I would stretch out. It almost killed me.

I didn't have no more afterwards. But like Ray Moore say [he was an Irishman, who became Jimmy and Bill's sponsor when they came into A.A.], he was surprised by me being a periodic drinker. To know that I was an alcoholic.

And you know, then I went to send and get all this literature. I was ecstatic at something.

Then I couldn’t get into A.A.
 

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Jimmy made a phone call to the A.A. number in South Bend, but this was 1948, and she was told bluntly over the telephone that Alcoholics Anonymous was for white people only. However, unknown to her, Bill Hoover (who was also black) had also called the South Bend A.A. number about the same time, so a certain amount of soul searching had begun among a few of the A.A. leaders. Jimmy did not know that Bill had also phoned the A.A. number, but she did know who Bill was.

  JIMMY MILLER:  I had known Bill since '36 or '37. He and one of my brothers was strong alcoholics, so they was running buddies. They used to just say, "Mama, I'm going to sleep on the porch" (in them days you slept on the porch) and him and Bill would drink all night long. You know, I had known Bill for years, never thinking that we would ever marry.

RAYMOND:  Talking about [your brother] Luxedie?

JIMMY MILLER:  No, my brother Jesse. He was a "sophisticated drunk."

JIMMY MILLER:  Bill and I had called in three days apart .... they didn't have any set up for colored people (that's what we were called) .... [first Bill phoned them for help, and then] I called in, and they also told me they didn't have any setup for "colored people."

And at the time that Bill called in, Ray Moore was there, and he heard this remark -- they didn't have anything for colored people -- so he said, “That's all right, I'll take it.” So they tried to discourage him, but anyway, he made the call on Bill.

Three days later I called in, so he brought Bill over to my house, and he said, well he would sponsor us. Only they told him -- they didn't have any set up for colored whatsoever -- we couldn't come to the open meetings or the closed meetings, so Ray had brought two of his friends with him.

GLENN C.:  He was an Irishman?

JIMMY MILLER:  Uh-huh. Dunbar [came with him], and the other one was Ken Merrill. So in the meantime, they decided we could meet from house to house, so we met at my house, Bill's house, [and at the homes of] Ken Merrill and Dunbar.
 

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Bill Hoover, and Raymond I. (whom he later sponsored), were convinced that it was not simply coincidence, but the power of God at work, that made these two particular people -- Jimmy and Bill -- call into A.A. at the same time. And Bill Hoover was convinced that it was the power of God at work that made Ray Moore, an otherwise perfectly ordinary Irishman who had a job at the Bendix plant, insist on making the twelfth step call on these two black people in spite of the stiff opposition from within the A.A. group itself.

  JIMMY MILLER:  When Ray Moore called on me, he was really surprised that I [already] had the ... Alcoholic Anonymous book. I was determined. He say two or more, but it's just a coincidence the way Bill and I called in.

My husband [Bill Hoover] used to tell me, used to tell me that he had a slip. I said, not really. 'Cause after Ray Moore called on him that evening, he drank the next day, and never had a drink since. So you really -- I couldn't even call that a slip, could you? He called on him that day, he didn't know enough about the program -- bad handled -- so he drank that night, never no more!

Said he was just determined. We really went through a lot ....

I said, well you couldn't really call that a slip, because the man just come over and talked to you, you didn't know anything about the program.

But I came in thinking I knew quite a bit -- which I did, 'cause I had read the Big Book. I read any and everything! Like my Grapevines [the A.A. periodical]. I run through 'em, and then I put 'em right here, and I read 'em over.
 

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Getting someone in the South Bend A.A. group to make a twelfth step call was only the first of many barriers that would have to be surmounted. Ray Moore -- who has been dead for many years now, Jimmy said -- continued to come through for her and Bill, and served as their sponsor during those earliest years, hearing their fifth steps, and advising and counseling and supporting them and fighting for them every step of the way.

But when Jimmy and Bill came into A.A., it was still 1948, and the terms on which help was offered them by the South Bend A.A. group at first was incredibly humiliating and demeaning, in often unbelievably petty ways. The closed meetings were still normally house meetings in those days, and when Jimmy and Bill went to one of the few white homes where they would be admitted at all, they were promptly sent back to the kitchen like household menials, and could hear only as much of the people speaking as would travel back to that distant part of the house.

  JIMMY MILLER:  So when Bill would walk it, they would invite us into the kitchen. The women took time to give us some broken cups! And they decided to give us broken cups, so we just took it. Ray told us, no matter what, be calm about it, so we sit in the kitchen, where we could hear from the family room, living room, whatever.  

 
Side note:  Brownie
told the same story

EDITOR'S NOTE:  Even in 1950, two years later, when Brownie (Harold Brown) came into the South Bend A.A. program, he said that he, as a black man, was also at first given the broken-cup treatment when he went to A.A. meetings at white people’s homes. (This is taken from a tape recording of a lead he gave around 1972.)

BROWNIE:  When I come on the A.A. program, my people wasn't welcome. They was meeting in the homes at that time. I had to drink coffee out of a broken cup because they refused to give me a decent cup! Yes, I've sat in some of'em's homes, where they put their finger in their nose at me, then they buck at me. In other words, want me to get out of there.

But I wasn't particular about being with them. What I wanted is what you had. I was trying to get sober. All I wanted to do was to learn it. They couldn't run me away. The rest of 'em were behind me pushing, saying "Brown, push on!" and they kept pushing me, and I kept going. It's to say, oh, look it! It wasn't easy for me to make the A.A. program.

But I come here [into this hostile situation], a thought come to me: if they open the door, I get it myself. And I begin to study this A.A. program. And when I mean study it, I know it. I don't need you to tell me about it. I knows everything, in the steps and everything, what it says.

And they told me that this was a spiritually program. Well now, if this is a spiritually program, ain't got no business being prejudiced. My God tells me, "I have no respect for persons." Alcohol ain't prejudiced. It don't give a damn who it tear down.
 

EDITOR'S NOTE:  So the tales of black people being given only the chipped and cracked coffee cups to drink from in early South Bend A.A. are amply documented, as embarrassing as this fact is to many present-day white A.A. members in this area.

But to get back to Jimmy Miller and her story: Although Jimmy and Bill Hoover were allowed to attend closed A.A. house meetings as long as they could tolerate this deeply offensive treatment, it was six or seven months before the white members would allow them to go to open meetings at all. Even then, it was not until two black A.A. members from Chicago came over to South Bend to give leads at the South Bend open meeting on several occasions, that the black people in the South Bend A.A. program began to be treated with at least a measure of ordinary social respect.

The two black A.A.'s from Chicago were Earl Redmond and Evans Avenue Bill W. (Bill Williams), so being able to record some of Bill's memories of those long ago events was a special privilege for the two members of the Area 22 Archives Committee.

  JIMMY MILLER:  So then, we still couldn’t go to an open meeting. So we just kept meeting, and then, one or two more blacks called, and we met that way, and then Ray got real worried, and Bill's wife [at that time] called her cousin in Chicago: Earl Redmond. So Ray had a hard time getting permission for him to speak at an open meeting ....

We still wasn't allowed to go to an open meeting, but we went anyway, so when he finished talking -- now this is a good six, seven months later -- they opened up, and said we could come to an open meeting.

We could come to the group, and Ray told us don't be talking, just listen, and learn, and that's the way. And after we got about five more blacks . . . . that’s the way the group got started.

But we were treated real coldly at the open meetings, and finally -- like several of the speakers, we tried to shake their hands, and they would just turn and walk off -- [but] after Earl Redmond come down about three times, then they started shaking hands.

Hey Raymond, what's the other gentleman, Bill's other cousin in Chicago?

RAYMOND:  [Evans Avenue] Bill Williams.

JIMMY MILLER:  Bill Williams, he come down, and after he made a talk it really opened up for us.

RAYMOND:  Fourth black man to make A.A. in Chicago.

JIMMY MILLER:  And I'm telling you! But we held on.

RAYMOND:  Do you remember being at the talk, that Earl Redmond made, to help you all get in?

JIMMY MILLER:  Yes I do. He said, you know, this was basically formed: no race, creed, religion, or anything. And then if you read it out the Big Book, it's all [a matter of] if you had the desire to stop drinking, that's all that's required.
 


 
 
 
 

CLICK HERE  To continue the story

CLICK HERE  To return to the previous page:  How A.A. Came to Indiana

CLICK HERE  To return to the Hindsfoot Foundation home page