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HAMMOND | In September 1960, Annie Hicks entered Maywood Elementary School as the first black teacher employed in Hammond.

The opportunity was exciting, scary and confusing. She parked her car in view of her classroom window out of fear of vandalism.

Her path to the classroom had its bumps, but she felt a responsibility to persevere.

"I often felt a heavy burden on my shoulders," Hicks said.

Hicks shared her story Monday at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the Hammond Civic Center.

As a child, she grew up noticing none of her teachers was black and decided she would be the first black teacher in the city.

She graduated from Hammond High School and enrolled at Ball State Teachers College. She worked as a student-teacher in Hammond, but when she tried to apply for a full-time position, the superintendent told her "Hammond was not ready for a colored teacher," she said.

Hicks recalled her dad said, "Annie, this is a wall that has to come down."

A civil suit was filed. At the end of the proceedings, Hicks didn't walk away with bags of money, but she received a teaching job in the city.

Most of the people went out of their way to be friendly, she said, but some forgot she was in the room and used racial slurs. Over time, they noticed her demeanor. A fellow teacher said Hicks was steel to the bone.

Hicks said the theme of Monday's event, Knowing Your Past Can Create a Brighter Future, rings true.

"Just look who is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.," she said.

Hicks was the keynote speaker at an event that started as an early morning march from City Hall to the Hammond Civic Center.

U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. and 3rd District Councilman Anthony Higgs were among the speakers.

Higgs unveiled a mock-up of a plaque in honor of King, which will be installed in his namesake park in Hammond.

The event, sponsored by the Ministerial Alliances of Hammond and Vicinity Inc. and the city of Hammond, included a presentation of trophies to winners of an essay contest. It also featured singers and a praise dancer.