A Concern for Civil Rights

Photo by Linda Evans

by Dan Carpenter

Vivian Farris is no fan of discrimination. “I believe everyone has the right to his opinion,” says the owner of the Illinois Street Food Emporium. “It’s only when it hurts someone that I draw the line.”

She told the folks at the Governor’s Residence as much when she continued catering food there even as their boss was endorsing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act she so detested. Farris, who hung one of those THIS BUSINESS SERVES EVERYONE signs on her restaurant’s front door, couldn’t quite make room for State Sen. Scott Schneider, sponsor of the legislation. She was renting an ice machine from the Indianapolis Republican’s family business, Mr. Ice. She told them to come and get it. For Mr. Ice, it was a loss of business, but not of civil rights.

Farris said her first exposure to discrimination occurred a half-century ago at a drugstore soda fountain in her hometown of Anderson. She went there with her grandfather, George Anton, an immigrant from Greece who struggled with his second language. “The girl behind the counter just yelled at him, ‘Speak English!’ I was stunned by that. The ignorance of people. He was very successful in business. He owned a cafeteria where black and white people worked. I never knew inequality around there.”

After decades of managing Indy restaurants, Farris bought the iconic Emporium from Ernie and Sue Kobets in August 2014. She reports that business has been good at the thriving 56th and Illinois commercial node. She has baked a cake for a same-sex wedding, although wedding cakes are not a standard feature of the Emporium’s extensive bakery trade. To her, the volatile issue of accommodating LGBT customers is a no-brainer.

“As I think about the politics, discrimination, all this stuff going on, I just don’t get it,” she says. “It just seems like sheer prejudice. I welcome everyone. Gay, straight, it doesn’t matter. Should I refuse to serve you because you’re tall and thin and have a beard? That’s foolish. I’m trying to earn a living.”

Farris took part in some of the demonstrations against RFRA and watched the wranglings in this legislative session over proposed inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in anti-discrimination law. After the U.S. Supreme Court sustained marriage equality last summer, she served as a wedding witness for friends—but with some reserve. Not everyone wants to get married, she told them. “It’s wonderful, but what concerns me now is civil rights.”

Dan Carpenter is an Indianapolis native, a long-time Midtown resident, a survivor of 36 years at The Indianapolis Star, and the author of four books. A version of this article appeared in the February/March 2016 issue of the magazine.