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Embracing equality: Leader made Columbus city for all people

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Owen Hungerford is the winner of the 2013 William R. Laws Human Rights Award by the Human Rights Commission.
Owen Hungerford is the winner of the 2013 William R. Laws Human Rights Award by the Human Rights Commission. PHOTO BY SHARON SHIPLEY

The 1960s was an era when it was common for black residents in Columbus to be denied housing, refused service in restaurants and given limited job opportunities, recalls Owen Hungerford.

The Columbus man, now 84, said he did not like what he saw at the time.

Hungerford decided that he wanted to be part of a social change that was needed more than 50 years ago and in 1962 helped create the city’s Human Rights Commission, then known as the Human Relations Commission.

Hungerford, who retired from Irwin Management, will be honored April 10 during the annual Human Rights Commission dinner as recipient of the 2013 William R. Laws Human Rights Award.

Owen Hungerford

AGE: 84

HOMETOWN: Oak Park, Ill.; later moved to Rushville, where he grew up.


FAMILY: Wife of 58 years, Annette; daughter, Emily; son, David; seven grandchildren.

EDUCATION: Rushville High School graduate; received a bachelor’s degree from Transylvania College (now Transylvania University) where he majored in English and philosophy.

CAREER: Retired from Irwin Management client services as vice president.

Annual dinner

WHAT: Columbus Human Rights Commission annual dinner.

WHEN: 6:30 p.m. April 10.

WHERE: The Commons.

PROGRAM: Recognition of Owen Hungerford as the William R. Laws Human Rights Award recipient; featured speaker, Will Miller, president of The Wallace Foundation in New York City and former president and CEO of Irwin Management Co. in Columbus. Also recognized will be winners of the Benjamin M. King Essay Contest and J.I. Miller Art Contest.

THEME: “The Columbus Journey to Building a Welcoming Community.”

TICKETS: $30 a person. Tables of eight can be purchased together. Deadline is April 5.

WHERE TO BUY TICKETS: The Human Rights Commission office on the first floor of City Hall or by mailing checks to the commission at 123 Washington St., Columbus, IN 47201.

INFORMATION: 376-2532 or

The annual award is named after the former First Presbyterian Church minister in Columbus who became known as a civil rights leader, youth advocate and peacemaker. Laws died in 1985. A scholarship bears his name today to support higher educational achievement for Columbus’ black and disadvantaged students.

The Human Rights Commission’s board selected Hungerford for his work from the 1960s to 1990s with human rights and his other community involvement.

Laws recipients are recognized for their contributions to the community in an area of human equality

Hungerford is credited with being a central architect in crafting the commission’s first human rights ordinance and championing its passage by City Council.

The city’s early Human Rights group was the first local human rights commission in the state.

Gil Palmer, the commission’s current chairman, said Hungerford went about his work to help bring equality to residents because he thought it was the right thing to do.

“It is part of who he is,” Palmer said. “He didn’t do it for the fanfare or accolades. It was how he felt inside.”

Many Columbus residents might not know the history of how blacks and other nonwhites faced discrimination here and how people like Hungerford helped lead a change in the law, Palmer said.

“He clearly earned the Laws award,” Palmer said.

Lorraine Smith, director of the Human Rights Commission, said Hungerford’s legacy and work on human-rights issues represent what makes Columbus the special community that it has become.

“There has been and there is a community spirit and philosophy that Columbus doesn’t progress unless there is opportunity for all,” Smith said. “Owen’s work helped set the groundwork for this philosophy. We call it a welcoming community today.”

Palmer said Hungerford also participated in the commission’s Oral History Project, “Lifting Up A Voice: Paving a Path to Justice in Columbus, Indiana,” a video completed in 2000. The video features local residents talking about the city’s human rights journey through the 1960s and beyond.


Hungerford said his friend Benjamin “Mickey” King told him one day in the mid-1960s that he had to drive to Indianapolis to get a haircut because the barbers in Columbus refused to cut the hair of black men.

Hungerford was surprised and frustrated when he learned King also was having trouble finding a house or apartment to rent.

King, a college graduate, was hired to be a microbiologist at what was then Bartholomew County Hospital and had adequate income to pay for his housing. Money, however, was not the issue for local landlords, Hungerford said. Rather, it was the color of King’s skin.

Hungerford said Columbus did not have the riots or other highly charged racial tensions of the South during the height of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but it had its share of discrimination.

“Mickey and I were talking, and there were all kinds of problems,” Hungerford said. “But housing was the major problem, and Mickey and I decided we ought to do something about it.”

King and Hungerford began working together to draft a city ordinance to ban discrimination in housing.

Hungerford said they faced opposition from prominent city residents, plus political and business leaders of that time.

Some accused the two men of trying to stir up trouble. Others said the anti-discrimination laws simply were not necessary.

The men pressed on, however, and today’s Human Rights Commission — with offices in City Hall — serves as a resource for residents who believe they have been discriminated against based on race, religion, color, gender, disability and national origin or ancestry.

Focused on helping

Hungerford said crafting an anti-discrimination ordinance to make bias in housing illegal was just the first step.

“The ordinance was very quickly expanded to include other issues beyond housing. We knew we had only scratched the surface,” Hungerford said.

They also wanted to address education and employment issues and to raise awareness that discrimination sometimes was a habit that was learned.

“Mickey and I wanted to help the community understand how discrimination is defined, how subtle it is,” Hungerford said.

“We believed then and I believe now that we were, and even today are taught to discriminate illegally. It is part of our lifestyle, which can only be changed through education.”

Not everyone was on board with the fight against discrimination, but some important leaders were helping lead the charge. They included businessman and philanthropist J. Irwin Miller of Columbus and attorney and later U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton who represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District.

The newly formed city commission had no money and no staff in the 1960s, but Hungerford wasn’t afraid to do what was needed.

Hungerford remembered taking off from his job with Irwin Management in the 1960s and 1970s to make personal calls at people’s homes, sometimes being greeted by frightened residents.

One Vietnamese woman first wielded a knife, thinking she needed to defend herself from this white man at her door. She later offered Hungerford an enthusiastic hug at a community event after he helped her through a problem.

Hungerford said he was honored to help start the commission.

He said his compassion and understanding for people of all color, races and circumstances was passed to him from his family.

“I think it came from my father. He never met a stranger,” said Hungerford, who as a young man considered being a minister before he chose a different career path.

During his time at Irwin Management, he worked most often with J. Irwin Miller and Miller’s aunt, Elsie Sweeney, assisting them with their philanthropic giving.

Decades after the height of Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., problems still exist, Hungerford said.

Today, despite Columbus’ welcoming city efforts, he still sees Columbus residents who are hesitant to accept people of different races or from different countries, whether they have arrived here without a high school diploma or with a college degree.

“It’s very disturbing,” Hungerford said.

His advice? Get to know others and you will become more accepting.

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