Welcome Home to the LGBTQ+ Culture Center

By 

LGBTQ+ Culture Center. Photo courtesy of Rafal Swiatkowski

The IU LGBTQ+ Culture Center fittingly occupies a house originally built for the first Dean of the School of Education, Henry Lester Smith, and his wife Johnnie Rutland Smith—two passionate champions of civil rights.

This story originally appeared in Volume 2 Issue 2 of the IU Bicentennial Magazine. It is published here with permission.

As you enter the old brick home in the heart of the campus, you’ll find a sign above the fireplace mantel that reads “Welcome Home.” That sign has been a symbol of welcome for hundreds of students for the past 25 years whose sexual orientation or gender identity has caused them to feel less than welcome in many places in their lives. Students who are not welcome in their own homes come to see this space as a refuge, as a sanctuary, as a place to be themselves. In fact, LGBTQ+ students who have graduated and gone on to live meaningful lives and do great things have returned to this house to express their thanks to our staff for the support they found during some difficult years in their lives.

Opened in 1994 as the GLB Student Support Services Office, the ‘T’ for transgender was added a few years later. In 2016 the office took on a new title, the LGBTQ+ Culture Center to affirm the variety of identities with which current students identify. This name change happened soon after the former office, which originally reported to the Dean of Students, was invited to join the Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs.

The fact that the center is located in a house, as opposed to an administrative building, is significant. That was noted when the building was renovated in 2011 and ‘rainbow’ ribbons were cut by Provost Karen Hanson, Dean of Students Pete Goldsmith, and Peg Zeglin Brand, the wife of the university president, Myles Brand, whose decision to open the office sparked a legislative controversy and Chancellor Emeritus Ken Gros Louis, whose gentle persuasion with the Board of Trustees led to the office’s eventual opening. As the building was rededicated, Chancellor Emeritus Gros Louis said: “The sign in front of this building identifies it as an office. But the people who first built and lived in it; the workers who later renovated it; the students, faculty, staff, and alumni who have passed through it; the benefactors who donated over $20,000 for its furnishings; and all of us here today know that it is really, a home.”

We didn’t talk a lot about gay issues when I was growing up, but my grandparents cared a great deal about civil rights issues and I think they’d be thrilled at the way their former home is now being used.

Connie Smith, granddaughter of Lester and Johnnie

Henry Lester Smith was born in 1876 and died in 1963.

• He was the son of an abolitionist and wrote about the Underground Railroad.
• He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from IU in 1898 and 1899, as well as another master’s and doctorate from Teachers College Columbia University.
• He served as a teacher and principal in small towns in Indiana before returning to IU where he served as the first Dean of the School of Education from 1916-1946.
• He was chosen as secretary general of the World Federation of Educational Associations which led to the establishment of UNESCO.
• He was a leader in comparative educational studies researching educational models in countries around the world.
• He believed it was important to create relationships between instructors and their students.
• He recognized the potential of African American students, indirectly called for desegregation which caused controversy in the Southern states.
• He recognized the contribution of women by appointing Kate Hevner Mueller as an Associate Professor in the School of Education, who was later appointed as Dean of Women.

In 1934 Dean Smith was elected by a record vote to be president of the National Education Association and on that occasion William Book in “The Scroll” of Phi Delta Theta wrote “Dean Smith will long be remembered for his efforts to make education a real practical and dynamic force, for producing a better understanding among the nations of the world and a practical means for promoting the cause of peace throughout the world.” Kelly Kish, Director of the Office of the Bicentennial, called Dean Smith one of the most under-rated administrators in the history of Indiana University.

Johnnie Rutland Smith was no less a significant presence on the IU campus than her husband, Lester.

• She was born in 1888 and died in 1977.
• She married Henry Lester Smith in New York City in 1915.
• She received a bachelor’s degree from Florida State College for Women in 1908 and a master’s degree in English literature from Columbia University in 1915.
• She went on to teach 5th and 6th grade and high school English in Florida.
• She and Lester raised three children together.
• In 1931 she earned a master’s in Education and in 1934 a PhD in psychology from Indiana University.
• She served as translator of the World Conference of the Teaching Profession in NY in 1945.
• In 1955 she participated in the White House Conference on Education and in 1960, the White House Conference on Children and Youth.
• She co-authored “An Introduction to Research in Education” in 1959.
• She was involved in various civic organizations, especially those that supported women, promoted education or both, serving on the Bloomington Hospital Board and the Bloomington Girl Scout Council.

Upon her death in 1977 a reporter for the Herald-Telephone in Bloomington wrote: “Mrs. Lester Smith was one of the most beloved and distinguished women in the Hoosier state.” The very day on which Chancellor Emeritus Ken Gros Louis spoke at the renovation of the LGBTQ+ Center, a woman whose son happens to be gay, spoke to me of her memories as a student serving tea for Johnnie Smith and assisting in welcoming her many friends to Bloomington. It struck me that 705 E. Seventh Street was a home to many from its very earliest days.

We plan to hang photos of the Smiths and display some of their story by that “Welcome Home” sign.

On a mild and sunny December day in 2017, I decided to visit the graves of Henry Lester and Johnnie Rutland Smith. I discovered in my research that they are buried in the Covenanter Cemetery in Bloomington not far from where I live. I did so to pay my respects to two amazing individuals in whose home I am privileged to work. And I did so to contemplate the mysteries of life. As I stood by their gravestone, I gave quiet thanks for their legacy. I thought about the issues that were important to them and to me. I reflected on the value of education, and about the lives of students who have been impacted as they entered their old home, those who entered before that “Welcome Home” sign was hung above the fireplace and those who continue to walk through our doors.

Lester and Johnnie, I think you would be pleased with how your former home is now being used.