Some Traditions Never Die
rIn the 1940s, it was not common in Gary Indiana – still decades away from becoming a major African-American community – for white owners of a business to give a chance to a black youth.
Yet two special men did just that, starting a story that continues today with a store that is still open for business at its original location.
You look out the window and it is still Broadway in downtown Gary. The sunlight suddenly is brighter, the cars more plentiful, the area once again a bustling business district.
Turn around and it is 2012. The store is one of a few still open, an oasis in a boarded-up city.
The Esquire Men’s Shop is doing business, as it has been for more than half a century.
The beginnings came in the late ’40s, when a young street kid, Rozelle Hammonds, was given the chance of a lifetime that led to his journey of a lifetime.
Butzie (Leroy) Gensburg and his friend and partner Jack Zemel had established the first of a three-store business on Broadway. High-end men’s suits, exquisitely crafted hats of all types, accessories like matching ties and pocket squares, nothing but the best.
At the same time, Rozelle was finding life was a tough road by age 15.
“I ate from the garbage bins,” he said. “I knew when the grocers took their stuff to the city dump and I’d go there and get bananas. I ate well, I thought.
“I came from a broken-down home. I was on my own.”
He was placed at the Gary Children’s Home. He was sent to high school at Roosevelt. Fate was about to intervene.
“The school, the school had this program,” Rozelle remembers. “They’d get businessmen who wanted to give a kid a chance and match a kid up with them.”
Butzie was such a businessman.
“He let me wash window and clean up, sweep,” Rozelle said. It was 1946 and white business owners hiring a black teenager was a novelty. But Butzie had told his children he never saw color. He saw someone who needed a chance.
“Pretty soon, they moved me to sales,” Rozelle said. “After so many more years, I was called a partner.”
The trio stayed together. In 1980, Butzie died. Rozelle said, “I was able to buy his shares of the store from his wife and kids and now I was a real partner.” When Jack died a few years later, Rozelle bought his part, too. Now it was no partners.
Gary had begun its economic decline as Big Steel, 15 blocks on the other end of Broadway downsized. Rozelle put all he could into the main store, closing the other two.
He had seen the first black mayor of a major U.S. city, Richard Gordon Hatcher, come and go. Other black politicians followed, always with a plan to resurrect the Steel City. But Broadway became more boarded-up than boardwalk.
Rozelle remains. Pictures of Butzie’s son (now 55) still hang in the family gallery in one corner, where he is forever a third-grader. There’s pictures of Butzie and Jack as well. Store clerk Genary Brown has been there for decades. Rozelle’s son, Marcus, is the store manager now but Rozelle still shows up four weekday mornings (“My dad off is still Friday,” he says) to open the shop and greet customers. “We are still known by our merchandise,” he said. “You name all the men’s stores that used to be around. Now we’re the only one left.”
Along the way, he has met all the Gary greats. Fredd “The Hammer” Williamson, one of a myriad of entertainers who sprang from the Gary streets, made a 1996 movie, “The Original Gangstas,” a take-back-the-streets tale of inner-city survival. The cast included Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Paul Winfield, Ron O’Neal, Richard Roundtree and, wouldn’t you know, Rozelle had a walk-on role because The Hammer had shopped at his store.
“Oh, Williamson is a loyal customer,” Rozelle says.
“It’s slow,” he admits. “But the customers come. They come from south Bend and Michigan City because you won’t get the quality or the service we provide anywhere else. Class reunions, they come here. They can’t believe we are still here and they will shop. We sell the best. Shoes, hats, everything.”
He can rattle off inventory and brand names faster than you could access the information online. Facebook? Facetime? How about real time? With a real face.
Rozelle is 81 now.
The street kid is a businessman of merit. He also is a reverend, leading the Church of God and Christ. “That’s another miracle,” he said. “My pastor was a bishop. I started going there in 1950. You have got to have a bishop to run church that big,” he said. He joined and became a church minister, Rev. Rozelle.
Then the bishop died. An aging congregation had to have a new leader. Rev. Rozelle stepped up from assistant pastor.
“On thing I always stood for, is don’t go down the wrong road just because life is tough. I proved the right way will get you through. To do the right thing is not easy. None of this was thrown into my lap.”