“Better Homes wants to have a fair shake:” Fighting Housing Discrimination in Postwar South Bend

Better Homes of South Bend Neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana. Photo by Peter Rigenberg, accessed Better Homes of South Bend by Gabrielle Robinson, 121.

On May 21, 1950, a group of African American Studebaker workers and their wives formed a building cooperative in South Bend, Indiana called “Better Homes of South Bend.” Like other building cooperatives, the group appointed officers and a lawyer, drew up incorporation papers, and set times for regular meetings. Unlike other organizations, members decided their cooperative’s activities had to be kept secret to succeed. The cooperative’s first meeting minutes even stressed “no information is to be given out.”

1928 aerial view of Studebaker plant in South Bend, accessed Michiana Memory.

Better Homes of South Bend members had good reason to be cautious. Discrimination in the local housing market had long limited African Americans to dwellings in the southwest part of South Bend, near the Studebaker Factory. Many members were part of the Great Migration of millions of African Americans from the South to the North for war industry jobs in the 1940s. Many had hoped to escape segregation and Jim Crow policies.

However, those with sufficient finances to make down payments found virtually no homes available to them and no banks willing to loan them money. Many of the city’s landlords would not rent to black residents. Real estate agents refused to show black home buyers houses in all-white neighborhoods and developments. White homeowners who tried to sell to black buyers risked physical threats and vandalism. Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough notes that the housing situation in South Bend was so dire for African Americans in the 1940s that many black families were forced to crowd into one or two bedroom units in substandard buildings.

Transcript from a public hearing in South Bend that exposed examples of discrimination in the local housing market from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. March 19, 1963, accessed Michiana Memory.

Alan Pinado, one of the only black real estate agents in South Bend in the postwar era, noted in an oral history of the Civil Rights Heritage Center that:

There were no first quality homes being built for middle class, middle income blacks in South Bend . . . The federal government was part and parcel of the segregated housing pattern. It was legally mandated that new communities be kept segregated.

Federal housing and real estate policy strengthened prejudice in the housing market, not just in South Bend, but nationwide. The federal government first became heavily involved in the housing market in the 1930s. After the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression, the feds created several new agencies, like the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), the Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLB), and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), to try to stem the collapse of regional housing markets and bolster the failing economy.

Federal Housing Administration brochure, ca. 1935, accessed columbia.edu.

Before the federal government stepped in, few became home owners. Banks spread mortgages only over three to five years. These mortgages required large payments that few could afford, especially during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, the government introduced the long-term, low-interest, self-amortizing mortgages most homeowners are familiar with today. Since these mortgages required smaller payments, home ownership became more economically feasible. Additionally, the federal government insured these loans through the FHA, making them an incredibly low risk for banks.

The government developed appraisal schemes to determine eligibility for these new loans. They adopted guidelines real estate associations had developed in the 1910s and 1920s to keep neighborhoods segregated. These associations erroneously decreed that the introduction of a non-white family into an all-white neighborhood would decrease surrounding property values. This policy kept many African Americans in poor neighborhoods, despite their income. For example, HOLC created survey maps of neighborhoods in 239 cities that color coded risk. Neighborhoods were coded into four groups, A-D. Only the best rated neighborhoods, marked A and B, would receive long-term loans. One criteria to receive an A or B rating included that the home in question sat in an all-white neighborhood.

HOLC security map for South Bend, Indiana. Accessed Mapping Inequality.

Similarly, the FHA Underwriting Manual, written in 1936, told appraisers to investigate areas surrounding a house for sale to “determine whether or not incompatible racial and social groups are present” because “if a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” The manual further encouraged the use of local zoning and deed restrictions, like racially restrictive covenants that prevented potential black buyers from purchasing a home from a white homeowner.

The JD Shelly family fought to live in this house in St. Louis, after a neighbor sued to enforce racially restrictive covenants. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Shelly family. Accessed nps.gov.

By the time Better Homes of South Bend was established, the FHA insured 1 in 3 mortgages for new construction. However, the appraisal practices described above became standard practice and permeated the entire housing market. Though the Supreme Court ruled these practices unconstitutional in Shelly v. Kraemer in 1948, FHA did not stop publicly endorsing such actions until 1950 and prejudice in the housing market continued well after. Even in 1961, the United States Commission on Civil Rights admitted that housing still:

seems to be the one commodity in the American market that is not freely available on equal terms to everyone who can afford to pay.

Better Homes of South Bend members formed their building cooperative to combat this prejudiced housing market in 1950. According to scholar Jessica Gordon Nembhard, African Americans have established co-ops since the Civil War help fight economic racism. Cooperatives, or “companies owned by people who use their services,” work by pooling resources to satisfy an economic need created by a marketplace failure.

Advertisement for M.W. Jones’s African American apartment co-op in Indianapolis. Indianapolis Recorder, November 11, 1950, 14, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The first large African American housing co-operatives began in Harlem in the late 1920s. Many early African American co-ops in Indiana were markets or grocery stores, formed in the 1930s or 1940s. Better Homes of South Bend was likely one of the first successful African American building co-ops in the state. Only one other similar co-op, an apartment co-op in Indianapolis started by M.W. Jones in 1950, described in the Indianapolis Recorder as the “first Negro co-op Apartments in the city and the State,” is known to have existed.

Better Homes of South Bend had many of their meetings at the Hering House, an African American civic center in South Bend. Accessed Michiana Memory.

At the first meeting, Better Homes members elected officers to run the group: Lureatha Allen as President, Earl Thompson as Vice President, Louise Taylor as secretary, Ruby Paige as assistant secretary, and Bland Jackson as treasurer. Eventually, twenty-two couples joined the group. Many members were neighbors along Prairie Avenue or Western Avenue. Eighteen of the twenty-two male members worked at Studebaker. Most of the women stayed home to take care of children. Since many of the women had more flexible schedules than their husbands, they often took on leadership roles in the cooperative.

Better Homes of South Bend lawyer J. Chester Allen, accessed Indiana Legal Archive

After incorporating, Better Homes members had to find land to build their homes. Their lawyer, J. Chester Allen, secured twenty-six lots on the northwest edge of the city on the 1700 and 1800 blocks of North Elmer Street from his acquaintance, George Sands, a prominent white lawyer in South Bend. Only a few families, all white, lived in this relatively undeveloped area. US Census and Housing Data, which divides South Bend into six wards containing roughly five to six thousand households. The data indicates that only seven “non-white” households lived in the ward containing 1700-1800 North Elmer Street in 1950. In contrast, all Better Homes of South Bend members lived in Ward 2 or Ward 6 at the time, both of which contained 530 and 835 non-white households, respectively.

DeHart Hubbard, accessed University of Michigan.

At a general meeting in September 1950, members enjoyed divvying up the lots and receiving their house numbers. The next steps involved getting loans to finance construction and a contractor to build homes on the lots. Better Homes enlisted the help of DeHart Hubbard, who worked as a race relations advisor at the FHA office in Cleveland. The FHA had finally started cracking down on racially restrictive covenants in their mortgages, after years of pressure from civil rights groups.

Through Hubbard, Better Homes got the FHA to handle their permanent mortgages and found four local banks to handle financing. Many members worried about meeting with local bank executives because they had heard bankers often denied home loans to African Americans, especially those who wanted to build outside black neighborhoods. Hubbard accompanied members to meetings with banking executives to remind the bankers that the federal government was insuring Better Homes’ loans and that members had good credit, therefore there was no reason to deny financing. In Better Homes of South Bend, member Leroy Cobb told author Gabrielle Robinson:

What I was really proud of was that here was a black man standing up to white executives and telling them that Better Homes wants to have a fair shake. It inspired me.

Leroy Cobb, a few years before joining Better Homes of South Bend, 1946, accessed Michiana Memory.

Better Homes also had to find a competent contractor. Member Margaret Cobb noted in an oral history for the Civil Rights Heritage Center at Indiana University South Bend, that contractors they met with “wanted to give us substandard materials,” to build their homes because members were black. Construction companies at the time often employed a double standard in building, using higher quality materials on homes for white homeowners and cheaper stock for similar African American homes. Leroy Cobb remembered in Better Homes of South Bend that one prospective contractor refused to put doors on closets in their homes. After two years, Better Homes finally found two contractors that supplied good plans at reasonable prices. All the houses were to be one-story frame construction on a concrete slab. Most floor plans contained five rooms and one bathroom.

Before construction could start, the city had to install sewer and water lines. Though the postwar building boom strained the city’s resources, negotiations between the city and Better Homes attorney J. Chester Allen stretched over years. Members suspect that the process might have taken so long because of an unwillingness for the Better Homes families to move to North Elmer Street.  After two years of letters and petitions, the group finally got sewers installed and construction began.

1700 block of North Elmer Street in 2015, the former homes of members Earl and Viro Thompson, Gus and Josie Watkins, and Bland and Rosa Jackson. Photo by Peter Rigenberg, accessed Better Homes of South Bend by Gabrielle Robinson, 86.

In the late fall of 1952, the first family, Bland and Rosa Jackson, moved into their home at 1706 North Elmer Street. By the mid-1950s, all twenty-two families had moved in between 1700 and 1841 North Elmer Street. Leroy and Margaret Cobb moved in on November 1, 1953 to 1702 North Elmer Street. Leroy Cobb told Gabrielle Robinson that on move-in day, “I was elated.” Finally, he and Margaret had enough space for their family.

Baton twirlers in the annual Elmer Street Parade, August 1962. Photo courtesy Vicki Belcher and Brenda Wright, accessed Better Homes of South Bend, 97.

In August 1954, the group celebrated their new neighborhood with a picnic featuring cakes, pies, potato salad and barbecued chicken and ribs. Over the years, Better Homes members grew a vibrant community, filled with family cookouts and outdoor activities like baseball, kickball, and building snowmen. There was even an annual Elmer Street Parade.

The Indiana Historical Bureau will honor Better Homes of South Bend with a new state historical marker.  The marker will be revealed at a ceremony open to the public July 1, 2017 at 1702 North Elmer Street in South Bend. Check on our Facebook page and website for upcoming details.

Better Homes of South Bend members at their celebratory picnic in August 1954. Photo courtesy Leroy Cobb, accessed Better Homes of South Bend, 91.

The Hoosier Partisans Move for Autonomy as the Cleveland Clique Tightened Its Grip on the Bee Line Railroad

See Part V to learn about the Cleveland Clique’s elusive grasp for control of the Bee Line Railroad.

Map of Bee Line Railroad Component Lines: the Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, the Bellefontaine and Indiana, and Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati
Map of Bee Line Railroad Component Lines: Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Cleveland (blue), Bellefontaine and Indiana (red) and Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati (green), courtesy of Erin Greb Cartography.

In the four months since John Brough left the presidency of the Bee Line’s Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Cleveland Railroad (IP&C) in February 1855, more than just its name had changed. The Hoosier Partisans’ move for autonomy would take concrete form as the Cleveland Clique tightened its grip on the Bee Line Railroad

Calvin Fletcher, reluctantly elected president in John Brough’s stead, had met with a litany of key personnel and other midwestern railroad presidents to gain a broader perspective. He had also dealt with a variety of operational, cash flow and accounting issues left unaddressed by Brough.

Images of John Brough and Calvin Fletcher
(L to R): John Brough, courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. Calvin Fletcher, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

As a result, by April the line’s Superintendent had resigned. At the same time, Fletcher engaged an individual to look into unaccounted for and delayed freight. He pushed for cost reductions at the engine shop at Union, and restructured the road’s finances.  John Brough, reflecting on his own performance, acknowledged: “It appeared there were large discrepancies between the books of the Superintendent and those of the Secretary…As President I should have discovered these discrepancies and applied the remedy.”

Map of the proposed route of the Mississippi and Atlantic Railroad, the Terre Haute and Richmond Railroad, and the Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Cleveland Railroad
Map of the proposed route of the Mississippi and Atlantic Railroad (orange), Terre Haute and Richmond (magenta) and Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Cleveland (blue), courtesy of Erin Greb Cartography.

On top of Brough’s lapses while heading the IP&C, he had been removed as President of the Mississippi and Atlantic Railroad (M&A) by late May 1855 in favor of Chauncey Rose – founder and former president of the Terre Haute and Richmond Railroad. The M&A, the Cleveland Clique’s bet to reach St. Louis, was in its death throes. It had taken a public relations beating at the hands of Illinois river town and Chicago politicians, who questioned the road’s legal legitimacy – and John Brough’s managerial track record. Investors abandoned the M&A, leaving Brough without portfolio.

Image of Chauncey Rose
Chauncey Rose, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Calvin Fletcher, frustrated by what he discovered as president of the IP&C, informed the Hoosier Partisans: “I feel that my official duties in the RR are oppressive & that I must leave them…There is a degree of corruption in relation to it that I cannot arrest—or rather the effects of which already passed that I cannot overcome.”

As the July 1855 annual meeting approached, the Partisans pushed Fletcher to continue on as president. They soon faced reality:  he would not remain. As late as the day before the meeting Fletcher could not figure who would become his successor. It soon became clear, however, the Cleveland Clique had been making plans as well. Incredibly, John Brough would be resurrected not only to retake his prior role at the IP&C, but also be anointed as president of the Bee Line’s Bellefontaine and Indiana Railroad (B&I) at the same time!

Brough’s operational and financial shortcomings would have been obvious to the Cleveland Clique by then. On the other hand he was loyal, politically savvy, and possessed an Ohio pedigree. Given the newly redefined and more limited scope of the president’s role, and with strong Clique operational and financial expertise now present on both boards, Brough was serviceable.

Effectively, the Cleveland Clique would now control both the B&I and IP&C. While not yet legally consolidated, the two roads would be run as one while John Brough and the Clique considered the calculus to officially bind them together.

Sparked by Brough’s Clique-masterminded elevation to the dual Bee Line presidential roles, the IP&C’s Hoosier Partisans squirmed under the terms of the joint operating agreement foist upon them by the Cleveland Clique the year before. Both the perpetual nature of the contract and mandate to consolidate with the B&I “at the earliest possible moment” were not sitting well. Discovering the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad (CC&C) had never technically executed the contract, the Hoosier Partisans made a move to modify its language.

By the IP&C’s March 1856 annual meeting, revised terms of the joint operating agreement had been hammered out. A newly reconstituted and more representative overall executive/finance committee was arranged. At the same time, the contract term was reset to five years, instead of being perpetual. Any party to the contract could now terminate it with three months’ notice. However, this clause could only be exercised after the agreement had been in place for three years.

Map of the Bee Line Railroad component lines, and Columbus, Piqua and Indiana and other roads aligned with the B&O (to Wheeling WV), Pennsylvania (to Pittsburgh PA) and New York Central (to Buffalo NY) trunk lines.
Map of the Bee Line Railroad component lines (blue, red, green), and Columbus, Piqua and Indiana (brown) and other roads aligned with the B&O (to Wheeling WV), Pennsylvania (to Pittsburgh PA) and New York Central (to Buffalo NY) trunk lines, courtesy of Erin Greb Cartography.

Fortunately for the Hoosier Partisans, the IP&C’s three-year joint operating obligation ended as the Columbus, Piqua and Indiana Railroad (CP&I) finally reached Union in the spring of 1859. Now the IP&C could anticipate a substantial revenue boost as freight and passengers traveled to/from Columbus across CP&I track to Union. From Columbus, Pittsburgh could now be reached – and the Pennsylvania Railroad headed to Philadelphia – via affiliated lines.

Union and the IP&C were proving to be a pivotal funnel for other traffic as well. Freight and passengers headed to/from New York across the CC&C and aligned roads to the fledgling New York Central Railroad at Buffalo would find their way to Union. Similarly, via the CP&I link between Union and Columbus OH, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O) could now be accessed at Wheeling WV. And, courtesy of a new through-line arrangement connecting the B&O’s eastern terminus at Baltimore with New York City, a second alternative for reaching this center of commerce from Union became a reality.

The IP&C would be the clear beneficiary of these new connections to the east – if only it could effect a separation, if not a divorce, from the B&I as well as the CC&C. Then, standing individually, the IP&C could strike lucrative through-line agreements with each of the eastern trunk lines and their local affiliates. By way of these arrangements, the Hoosier Partisans could once again regain control over their own destiny.

At the March 1859 IP&C board meeting, Partisan David Kilgore proposed a three-person board committee be appointed to “pursue a line of fair and impartial conduct between our two connections at Union.” The concept was for the IP&C to direct traffic under its control and destined for New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore to these connecting roads “in proportion to the trade and travel received from the several points named above.”

Images of David Kilgore, Thomas A. Morris, and Stillman Witt
(L to R): David Kilgore, from the author’s personal collection; Thomas A. Morris, Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society; Stillman Witt (J. Fletcher Brennan, ed., Biographical Cyclopedia and Portrait Gallery of the State of Ohio, Vol. 2. Cincinnati: John C. Yorston & Co., 1880.)

In addition to David Kilgore, ubiquitous Indiana railroad construction engineer, recent president of the Indianapolis and Cincinnati Railroad and IP&C board/executive committee member Thomas A. Morris, and Cleveland Clique and CC&C strongman Stillman Witt were appointed to the committee.

The stars were aligning from an operational standpoint as well; a March 28 letter from the receiver of the CP&I announced they “will be prepared in a very few days to transport passengers and freight” between Union and Columbus OH.

A crucial series of IP&C-arranged meetings with presidents and general managers of several of the eastern trunk lines and their Ohio-affiliated roads took place in Columbus, Ohio that May. The importance of Union and the IP&C’s Indianapolis connection west toward St. Louis were obviously not lost on the roster of kingpins who decided to attend the Columbus confab.

As might be expected, there were two distinct perspectives on the IP&C’s postulated autonomy. Those regional lines aligned with the Pennsylvania Railroad or B&O via CP&I connections at Columbus OH endorsed the IP&C’s move toward independence. Not surprisingly, those roads associated with the New York Central via Bee Line alignments at Cleveland, or with the Pennsylvania Railroad via the Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad [O&P] (passing near the B&I’s eastern terminus at Galion OH) took the opposite position. Among this group was the CC&C’s then president, Leander M. Hubby.

Image of Leander M. Hubby
Leander M. Hubby, (Biographical Cyclopedia and Portrait Gallery of the State of Ohio, Vol. 4. Cincinnati: Western Biographical Publishing Company, 1887.)

Shortly after the meeting, as Hubby contemplated the implications of the IP&C’s stratagem – with its alternative access to New York City via the B&O – he balked. “This company would not quietly submit to receiving a divided business from the IP&C.” Hubby went on, and to the heart of the matter, “this company contributed largely in money and credit to the completion and opening of the Bellefontaine Line…I think it my duty to say…this Company…will at once form other connections which are being offered them.”

Bee Line financier Richard H. Winslow of Winslow, Lanier & Co. tag-teamed with Hubby, mounting an attack on the IP&C’s soft financial underbelly. “In view of your embarrassments growing out of the large debt falling due the 1st of January next, we should think it a hazardous experiment and one that may lead to very bad consequences.”

In many respects the Hoosier Partisans’ dream of an independent IP&C had been dashed years before when it accepted the financial help of “foreign” interests—be they in New York, Cleveland, or Europe.

Hollow recognition was paid to the Partisans in the wake of the Union episode. At the annual IP&C board elections in July 1859, Thomas A. Morris was elected president. In turn, John Brough stepped down from the IP&C presidency but continued to hold dual roles as president of the B&I and chairman of the overall Bellefontaine Line executive committee. The title of general superintendent was also added to his dossier. Brough and the Cleveland Clique would control eight seats on the IP&C board to the Hoosier Partisans’ seven.

At the May 1860 board meeting, extension of the revised Bee Line joint operating contract was considered. Swallowing its pride and with a financial gun to its head, the IP&C board reluctantly moved to accept it.  If anything, the Union episode crystallized the Cleveland Clique’s determination to drive the B&I and IP&C to a formal and final consolidation under their direct control.

And while the IP&C’s contract extension with the B&I had taken more than a year to be resolved, the Union episode hastened the day when the IP&C would no longer exist as a separate entity. And with it, the Hoosier Partisans’ dream of maintaining control of their own destiny faded to a smoldering ember.

Check back for Part VII to learn more about the push and pull of the Hoosier Partisans and Cleveland Clique, leading to the legal consolidation of the Bee Line component railroads.

Continue reading “The Hoosier Partisans Move for Autonomy as the Cleveland Clique Tightened Its Grip on the Bee Line Railroad”

Kenneth Rexroth: Poet, Pacifist, Radical, and Reluctant Father of the Beat Generation

For the exciting tale of Rexroth’s turbulent Hoosier upbringing and the mischief he got into along the way, see part one: The Midwestern Making of Kenneth Rexroth.

Photo accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.
Kenneth Rexroth, Portrait of Andree Rexroth, accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 122.

After a period of hitchhiking their way towards the West Coast, camping, and living on cold food, the twenty two-year-old burgeoning poet Kenneth Rexroth and his new artist wife Andrée, arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1927. Rexroth biographer, Linda Hamalian, referred to them as “forerunners of the flower children who flocked to Northern California during the fifties and sixties.” In San Francisco they found exactly what they had been hoping for: a rich cultural environment without the pretense they sensed in the East Coast artistic community.

Montgomery Block, photograph, 1906, accessed Peter Lawrence Kane, “Bohemian Grave: The Montgomery Block,” San Fransisco Weekly, July 9, 2015, courtesy of archives.sfweekly.com

They quickly met other artists and writers and found jobs painting furniture. They moved into an apartment on the Montgomery Block, often called the Monkey Block, that had long housed artists and writers, including the Hoosier author Ambrose Bierce. Rexroth wrote that they had little money, but “limited needs” and were able to live “the kind of life that I’ve lived almost always since, a sort of semi-monastic life devoted to writing and painting.”

Andree and Kenneth Rexroth, “Bathers,” oil on canvas, n.d., accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.

The young couple also spent time enjoying the lush and varied natural environment surrounding San Francisco which Rexroth wrote “kept me in California all these years.” They swam and hiked and noted the unique flora and fauna. This love for nature deeply influenced Rexroth’s writing and he worried about destruction of the natural world by developers. In later years, he described himself as a sort of early environmentalist writer:

My poetry and philosophy of life became what it’s now fashionable to call ecological. I came to think of myself as a microcosm in a macrocosm, related to chipmunks and bears and pine trees and stars and nebulae and rocks and fossils, as part of an infinitely interrelated complex of being. This I have retained.

Reprint of the WPA Guide to California (Pantheon Books, 1984) accessed Amazon.com.

By the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Rexroth was employed by the Work’s Progress Administration (WPA) contributing to the “American Guide” series of handbooks for each state. Rexroth and several other local poets and writers created the California guide and were able to inject information on natural conservation and  into the otherwise standard guidebook.

While he had contributed scattered “cubist poetry” to what Hamalain described as “ephemeral publications” upon his arrival in San Fransisco, by the 1930s he was regularly writing and publishing work in journals and small volumes of poetry. Much of this poetry combined natural imagery with his radical leftist political beliefs and strong anti-war sentiment. For example, his poem “At Lake Desolation,”  published in the magazine The New Republic in 1935, contrasted the stillness of nature with the horrors of war. The poem begins:

Kenneth Rexroth, “Requiem for the Dead in Spain,” New Republic, March 24, 1937, 201, accessed ebscohost.com;

The sun is about to come up and the regiments lie
scattered in the furrow their large eyes
wet in the pale light and their throats cut

He explored similar themes in his poetry throughout the 1930s and became a staunch pacifist. In 1937, the New Republic journal published Rexroth’s poem “Requiem for the Dead in Spain,” lamenting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. He began the work by describing his walk through the beautiful Sierra Mountains under the stars, the tone changes as he suddenly feels sick thinking about the war. He laments:

I see the unwritten books, the unrecorded experiments,
The unpainted pictures, the interrupted lives,
Lowered into the graves with the red flags over them.
I see the quick gray brains broken and clotted with blood,
Lowered each in its own darkness, useless in the earth.
Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco suddenly
I am caught in a nightmare, the dead flesh
Mounting over half the world presses against me.

James Laughlin, ed., New Directions in Poetry and Prose (New York: New Directions, 1937), photograph accessed via Amazon.com.

That same year, the influential independent publisher James Laughlin included Rexroth’s work in his second annual New Directions in Poetry and Prose, a publication the Academy of American Poets referred to as “pivotal.” In 1940, Macmillan published Rexroth’s first major collection, In What Hour. The work was considered wholly original and cemented his place at the forefront of the San Francisco literary movement.  A reviewer for the Oakland Tribune wrote: “Rexroth is wholly and essentially a poet in the new manner. Usually a poet’s first work, and this is Rexroth’s first book, enables the acute reader to name his literary progenitors. But Rexroth’s poetical parents, if he has any, are not known.”  The critic continued, “Despite this break with tradition, or it may be, as the apostles of the modern poetry claim, because of this independence, Rexroth’s book is important and tremendously interesting.” Hamalain wrote that the poems that make up In What Hour “demonstrate his remarkable ability to render plausible the possibility of spiritual presence and a sense of unity in the natural world” despite the threats of the modern age.

Oakland Tribune, September 1, 1940, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.
Kenneth Rexroth, Marie Rexroth, wax, silica, and pigment on board, c. 1936, collection of James S. Jaffe Rare Books, LLC., accessed jamesjaffe.com

While his writing career was taking off, his marriage was dissolving.  Rexroth moved out and began a relationship with Marie Kass, a “whipsmart” nurse, who would become his second wife in 1941. While he was happy with Marie, he was devastated when Andrée died October 17, 1940 from a seizure.  He wrote of Andrée in a poem published in The Phoenix and the Tortoise:

I know that spring again is splendid
As ever, the hidden thrush
As sweetly tongued, the sun as vital —
But these are the forest trails we walked together,
These paths, ten years together.
We thought the years would last forever,
They are all gone now, the days
We thought would not come for us are here.

This idea, that love and nature could serve as spiritual refuge in troubled times, became even more significant with the outbreak of World War II and the entry of the United States into the conflict in 1941. Rexroth maintained his pacifist stance and applied for conscientious objector status February 19, 1943. Throughout the war, Rexroth worked with pacifist organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, and the local branch of the National Committee for Conscientious Objectors. He wrote that at one point he received a notice from his draft board that his status had been changed from 4-E, conscientious objector to 1-A, available for armed service.  He wrote, “I immediately appealed. The process dragged on for over a year while the FBI investigated the claim as by law they were required to do . . . There was no question that I was a bona-fide Conscientious Objector.”

Executive Order 9066, February 19, 1942; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives accessed https://www.archives.gov/.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, some Americans began questioning the loyalty of Japanese Americans, a large number of whom lived on the West Coast. In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which relocated Japanese Americans, including native born citizens, inland, away from the coast (which had been identified as the Pacific military zone) and confined them to internment camps. Thousands were forced to leave their homes and businesses.  However, some Americans, including Rexroth, opposed internment as racist and unconstitutional.

National Archives caption: Registration in San Francisco, California. Residents of Japanese ancestry file forms containing personal data, two days before evacuation, at a Wartime Civil Control Administration station. National Archives Identifier: 536056 accessed https://catalog.archives.gov/id/536056
National Archives caption: Posting of Exclusion Order at First and Front Streets in San Francisco, California, directing removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the first section in San Francisco to be affected by the evacuation.
National Archives Identifier: 536017 accessed https://catalog.archives.gov/id/536017

Rexroth wrote in his autobiography that even before the U.S. declared war on Japan, that he worried Japanese Americans would face persecution. He wrote a letter and sent it to various pacifist groups and religious groups, stating that when war was declared, “the persecution of Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry, because they are marked by their color and features, will be worse than that of the German-Americans of the First World War.” He wrote in his autobiography, “I managed to persuade them to set up a committee with the absurd title of the American Committee to Protect the Rights of Americans of Oriental Ancestry.” When Rexroth and other members of the Friends Service Committee got word from a “contact in the White House” about the order for internment, they “immediately got on the phones,” and urged each person they called to call five more people. They also called university and political contacts and civil liberties organizations. While perhaps an aggrandizement, Rexroth credited this work with mobilizing opinion in the Bay Area against internment.

National Archives caption: Waiting for Evacuation in San Francisco, California. With baggage stacked, residents of Japanese ancestry await a bus at the Wartime Civil Control Administration station, 2020 Van Ness Avenue, as part of the first group of 664 to be evacuated from San Francisco on April 6, 1942. Evacuees will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration.
National Archives Identifier: 536065, accessed https://catalog.archives.gov/id/536065

Rexroth took more direct action as well. Again according to his autobiography, Rexroth explained a scheme that saved several Japanese-Americans, including a personal friend, from internment.  He contacted the Midwest Art Academy in Chicago, which he called a “phony correspondence school” that advertised scholarships “in cheap pulp magazines” for classes on “photo retouching, art, dress design, and knitting.” He convinced the school to sign registration papers for Japanese American students for a fee. He then contacted the “colonel in charge” of evacuation in San Francisco who agreed to provide educational passes for such students despite the school’s organization being “kind of a racket.”  He located funding through Jewish residents of San Francisco and worked with Quakers to “set up a student relocation program.” In this way, Rexroth wrote, “we started shoveling people our of the West Coast on educational passes.” The poet Robert Duncan wrote that both Kenneth and Marie were also “working in the camps . . . taking messages back and forth.”

Kenneth Rexroth, The Phoenix and the Tortoise (New York: New Directions, 1944).

Rexroth’s practice of Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga also influenced his pacifist views and actions. He incorporated this worldview, along with a belief of the transcendental power of love, into his writing. In 1944, New Directions Press published Rexroth’s The Phoenix and the Tortoise, a rumination on history and humanity’s major failings: war and its threat to the natural landscape. In this lengthy poem, there is still hope for humanity in nature and through love. While the tortoise represented the earthly and the mortal, the phoenix represented the transcendent, sublime, and immortal power of love. Likewise, the ocean symbolized nature’s power to transform and serve as sanctuary in a world threatened by war.  Literary critic John Palattella explained, “Nature’s indifference to human death is not a threat but a source of consolation, since the ocean’s one unchanging characteristic is that it changes everything.”

W.G. Rogers, “Author of the Week,”Waco (Texas) Herald Tribune, December 25, 1952, 25, Newspapers.com

While Rexroth and a small number of avante-garde writers flourished in the San Francisco area for several years, the end of the war in 1945 saw an influx of new artists and writers. Many of these new voices were drawn to the area because they had read Rexroth’s works and heard about the creative coterie he had organized: a group of rebellious writers who were exploring anti-establishment and far left politics in their literature along with other cultural critiques. Rexroth believed it was the war itself that created this cultural climate. He wrote in San Francisco Magazine:

Just as London under the buzz bombs enjoyed a literary renaissance and a profound change of social relationships . . . so San Francisco during the War woke up from a long provincial sleep and became culturally a world capital.

Rexroth also maintained what Beat scholar John Tytell called “a sort of western salon, a weekly literary gathering,” where Rexroth introduced poets to each other and hosted readings. Out of this meeting of minds came “an entirely new cultural synthesis,” which produced new movements in theater, art, and poetry. One newspaper described this literary gathering in 1948 as “the San Francisco bay area poetry forum,” but the broader movement became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Rexroth considered the combination of political discussion, poetry, and jazz to be the foundation of the movement. Over the following decade, this San Francisco Renaissance ushered in the rise of the Beat Generation. Rexroth’s role as bandleader of the San Francisco movement was responsible for his gaining the title “Father of the Beat Poets,” though he would later reject the title and the movement.

Webster Schott, “Writers Dig the Beat Generation,” Kansas City (Missouri) Times, February 27, 1958, 34, accessed Newspapers.com.

According to the Academy of American Poets, “Beat poetry evolved during the 1940s in both New York City and on the West Coast, although San Francisco became the heart of the movement in the early 1950s.” The Beat Generation rejected mainstream culture and politics and expressed themselves through new and non-conventional forms of poetry. Beat scholars point to the salon-type meetings organized by Rexroth as essential to bringing the Beats together. In the gatherings, the Beats would explore and embrace influential themes in Rexroth’s prolific writings like anarchism, pacifism, mysticism, and environmentalism. Beat scholar Ann Charters also credits Rexroth’s writings on Asian philosophy as influencing the Beat writers’ interest in “Buddha consciousness.”

“Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bruce Lippincott, and Kenneth Rexroth Performing at the Cellar,” photograph, 1957, accessed Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Rexroth also helped establish jazz as an essential element of Beat poetry. During this period, Rexroth gained fame for combining his poetry with the music of local jazz groups. In San Francisco, he often performed at the Cellar, which became known for jazz and poetry performances and at the Blackhawk club with jazz bands like the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Two such performances were released on vinyl in 1957 and 1959.

Kenneth Rexroth, Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, 1959, Fantasy Records, accessed garagehangover.com

Rexroth toured the country, performing regularly in New York City. According to the Academy of American Poets:

Rexroth was among the first twentieth-century poets to explore the prospects of poetry and jazz in tandem. He championed jazz and its musicians, publishing appreciations of players like Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, defending jazz in print against critics who deemed the music less than serious, and most importantly, he played in a jazz band himself, helping to define a role for the poet in the jazz world and a role for jazz in the poetry world.

“American Poet Kenneth Rexroth Reads One of His Poems as Three Musicians Play Instruments Alongside Him,” photograph, January 1, 1960, accessed Getty Images.

In the liner notes for his 1959 recording Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, Rexroth wrote that jazz poetry “takes the poet out of the bookish, academic world” and returns the poetry to the realm of public entertainment. Rexroth believed that combining music and spoken word connected the audience and poet directly (as opposed to the mediation of the written word) and restored poetry to oral tradition.

“Poet Kenneth Rexroth Reading a Book at a Poetry Reading,” photograph
February 1, 1957, Getty Images, accessed gettyimages.com.uk

Mainly, however, it was his rejection of mainstream culture that aligned Rexroth with the Beat movement early on. For example, in 1951, in a syndicated review of Rexroth’s poem “The Dragon and the Unicorn” one critic noted that these rebellious writers were reacting to the post-war period with disgust. He stated that though in their writing style, they break with tradition, but their rebellion makes them part of a long tradition of creativity.

Six Gallery Poster, Allen Ginsberg Project, accessed ginsbergblog.blogspot.com.

On October 7, 1955, at a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Rexroth introduced Allen Ginsberg who read his revolutionary poem “Howl.” Scholars often point to this as the culminating event of the San Francisco Renaissance and solidification of the Beat movement. Charters described the movement as “awakening a new awareness in the audience (at the Six Gallery) of the large group of talented young poets in the city, and giving the poets themselves a new sense of belonging to a community.”

Rexroth championed many of the new writers in a 1957 article for The Nation, including high praise for Ginsberg. He described the scene at the height of the movement:

Poetry readings to large and enthusiastic audiences are at least weekly occurrences – in small galleries, city museums, community centers, church social halls, pads and joints, apartments and studios, and at the very active Poetry Center at San Francisco State College, which also imports leading poets . . . Poetry out here, more than anywhere else, has a direct, patent, measurable, social effect, immediately grasped by both poet and audience.

Fred Danzig, “‘Beat Generation’ Got that Way through Draft, Missiles, Hydrogen Bombs, Wars,” (Elwood) Call-Leader, April 28, 1958, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Rexroth argued that the Beat movement started as a radical literary movement, but quickly turned into a “hipster lifestyle,” that is, the pursuit of fashionable trends and not larger truths. He soon distanced himself from the movement because he felt the East Coast Beats, and especially Jack Kerouac, were opportunists seeking fame and mainstream acceptance. Rexroth was quoted by a reporter in 1958 as saying, “This beat thing, which is a publicity gimmick in the hands of Madison Avenue, will die away.”

“Poet Kenneth Rexroth Reading a Book,” photograph, February 1, 1957, Getty Images, accessed gettyimages.co.uk

Regardless, Rexroth had directly influenced the Beat movement probably more so than any other poet.  In 1958, one reporter astutely wrote that Rexroth “seems to fix the entrance requirements.” Charters explained that Rexroth was one of a handful of writers who had “sown the seeds” for the flowering of the Beat movement. She refered to Rexroth as a “mentor” for the younger Beats and “the dominant force in the cultural life of San Francisco for more than half a century.”

The “Classics Revisited” series was compiled into book form, first edition in 1968. Image: Kenneth Rexroth, Classics Revisited (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1986)

Although the Beat movement melted into the counterculture movements of the sixties and rock and roll became the dominant outlet for rebellious youth, Rexroth remained a central figure in American literature. He continued to write poetry and extensive cultural and literary criticism. In addition to his original contributions, his translations of foreign poetry and his writings on literature such as his “Classics Revisited” column in the Saturday Review increased his importance to the literary world.

Kenneth Rexroth, The Alternative Society (Herder and Herder, 1970).

Writing for the Chicago Review, Rexroth scholar Ken Knabb looked back on the over 800 columns that Rexroth wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and San Francisco Magazine during the 1960s and 1970s.  Knabb wrote in admiration of the diversity of topics that Rexroth covered: reviews of jazz and classical concerts, operas, films, Chinese theater, performances of Shakespeare; discussions of art, literature, fishing, architecture, drugs, wine, Civil Rights, war, and politics; observations from his world travels; arguments for the women’s liberation and ecological movements; and criticisms of the past cultural movements through which he lived and participated. Knabb concluded that “as an ensemble . . . they add up to a social document and critical commentary of remarkable range.”

Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung, The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (McGraw-Hill 1972)

While Rexroth had begun translating poetry from other languages in the 1950s, he dedicated more and more of his time to the task later in life. He paid special attention to translating the work of women poets starting in the 1970s in works such as The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (1972) and The Burning Heart: The Women Poets of Japan (1977).  By this point, his own work incorporated imagery and meter learned through decades of translating Chinese and Japanese poetry.

In his review of Rexroth’s collection The Morning Star (1979), critic Emiko Sakurai praised these poems especially as “extraordinary poems, rich and sensuous, always immediate, febrile and powerful” and called Rexroth “a poet of the first rank.”  However, Sakurai had a hunch about Rexroth. He noted that “The Love Poems of Marichiko” were “ostensibly” written by a young Japanese woman. Indeed, they were actually written by Rexroth from this imagined perspective. Critics noted the transformative power his work as a translator had on his own original work and his ability to write convincingly from the a feminine perspective of his invented character.

Wolfgang Saxon, “Kenneth Rexroth, 76, Author; Ffather Figure to Beat Poets,” June 8, 1982, D26, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Upon Rexroth’s death in 1982, the New York Times described this “poet, author, critic and translator of Chinese, Japanese and classic Greek poetry” as greatly influential on later generations of writers. The Times obituary noted that he received acclaim from both radical literary and political circles as well as “honors and awards from more orthodox literary corners,” such as Guggenheim fellowships and a prestigious grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.

Although he came to despise being called “Father of the Beats,” Rexroth created a cultural movement that influenced the voice and  worldview of some of America’s best poets. Frankly, there would be no Ginsberg or Kerouac without Rexroth. However, it is his own unique voice that will forever hold his place in this country’s literary canon. Perhaps the best summary of his significance comes from poet and publisher James Laughlin, who described his friend Kenneth Rexroth aptly as “an American cultural monument.”

Left to right: Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, and James Laughlin. Image is detail of photo by D. Sorenson, City Lights in North Dakota Conference, March 18, 1974, accessed Allen Ginsberg Project.

Further reading:

Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).

Ann Charters, ed., The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 1992).

“THE DAMNED THING WORKS!:” Philo T. Farnsworth & the Invention of Television

Philo T. Farnsworth with early television camera, 1930s
Philo T. Farnsworth with early television camera, 1930s, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library, University of Utah.

It is notable that in this age of celebrity worship, most people cannot name the inventor of the television. Even the meticulous Aaron Sorkin confused the details of Farnsworth’s life in his stage play. Woefully unrecognized, Farnsworth conceived of the idea for electronic television at the age of 14 and brought his conception to fruition in 1927 with his first electronic transmission.

Like Apple founder Steve Jobs, Farnsworth nurtured a broad, idealistic vision of how his invention would change the world, envisioning how television might increase literacy, facilitate the sharing of cultures and even prevent wars through global discourse. Farnsworth’s greatest resource, much like Jobs’, was unconventional thinking and an ability to assemble a small team of determined ingénues like himself. Farnsworth’s wife, Elma “Pem” Farnsworth, attributed her husband’s success to “intuitive thinking, logic, and hard work,” as well as his ability to combine “seemingly unrelated elements into new instruments of amazing effectiveness.”

Farnsworth's childhood home in Indian Springs Utah
Farnsworth’s childhood home in Indian Springs Utah, courtesy of The Philo T. Farnsworth Archives.

The inventor of television grew up in Utah prior to the existence of power lines, making his radical electronic concepts all the more remarkable. Farnsworth’s family moved to a farm in Rigby, Idaho, where Farnsworth delighted at the sight of a Delco power system, immersed himself in scientific magazines and invented tools that facilitated household chores. While working on the farm, a teenaged Farnsworth observed the straight rows created by the horses as he plowed, and abruptly thought “he could build the image like a page of print and paint the image line after line . . . with the speed of the electron, this could be done so rapidly the eye would view it as a solid picture.”

According to Pem, Farnsworth reasoned that by using an image dissector tube, he could manipulate electrons to “change a visual image into a stream of electrical current, transmit that to another vacuum tube at the receiver, and on a fluorescent screen turn the current back into the visual image again.” Farnsworth sketched his idea on the blackboard of his high school chemistry teacher, Justin Tolman, and presented him with a drawing of it, which would prove invaluable years later during a 1935 patent suit ruling.

Philo T. Farnsworth's sketch for teacher Justin Tolman
Philo T. Farnsworth’s sketch for teacher Justin Tolman, courtesy of philointhehall.com.

In 1923, Farnsworth moved to Provo, Utah and pursued formal education, enrolling at Brigham Young University (BYU) to study mathematics and physics, although, like Jobs, never graduated. Ironically, his lack of formal training contributed to his success, as fundraiser George Everson recalled that Farnsworth “attacked the whole assignment with no engineering experience and little engineering knowledge, but to compensate for these inadequacies he had courage and genius.” After leaving BYU, Farnsworth worked for Everson as an organizer at the Community Chest Campaign, who, along with fundraiser Leslie Gorrell, funded Farnsworth’s electronic television idea. With this financial backing, Farnsworth moved to California, eventually establishing a lab on Green Street in San Francisco and hand-picking a team of scientists and innovators.

In the team’s early days, engineers shuffled in and out of the lab with various instruments, a “glittering array of crystals, prisms, and lenses.” This activity attracted the attention of police in the Prohibition era and Pem stated “it’s not hard to imagine how suspicious our operation must have looked to an outsider. Strange packages were being brought in, and the curtains were drawn for demonstrating the light relay.” Pem reassured two policemen, who came to investigate the lab, that she and her husband were not operating a still and continued their electronic experiments.

Farnsworth’s 202 Green Street lab in San Fransisco, courtesy of The Philo T. Farnsworth Archives.

Farnsworth focused on perfecting the image dissector tube with the help of Pem’s glassblowing brother, Cliff Gardner. The scientific team constructed numerous models before developing a bulb that was delicate, yet strong enough to transmit an image electronically. After years of failed experiments and twelve hour work days, on September 27, 1927 Farnsworth transmitted the first “electronic television image.” With Farnsworth and his staff at the receiver, Cliff inserted the slide into the Dissector and a small line materialized in the receiver room, ushering in the television age. Farnsworth wired Gorrell a simple message: “THE DAMNED THING WORKS!” and applied for his first television patent on January 7, 1927.

Farnsworth was “the first to form and manipulate an electron beam” and according to his biographer Paul Schatzkin “that accomplishment represents a quantum leap in human knowledge that is still in use today.” Farnsworth’s ability to harness electrons negated the need for mechanical objects to transmit images and later contributed to breakthroughs in radar and electron microscopy.

Farnsworth Television Model, 1936, courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library at the University of Utah.

However, transforming his historic achievement into a commercial product involved years of financial and legal problems. Farnsworth struggled to maintain a balance between scientific experimentation and his financial backers’ desire for a return on investment. In 1928, Farnsworth met with impatient investors who demanded to see “some dollars” in his invention, and stunned them when an image of a dollar sign materialized in the screen before them. This presentation bought Farnsworth more time, but later that year the backers repealed their support, forcing Farnsworth to rally his team to continue with the development of television.

In the period between his first transmission and first public demonstration of the television in 1934, Farnsworth continued to navigate around financial problems, company reorganization, and protests by radio and film actors fearing the new medium could jeopardize their jobs. The primary obstacle to commercialization was RCA’s lawsuit regarding his 1927 television system patent. Russian scientist Dr. Vladimir Zworykin attempted to devise an electronic television system and applied for a patent in 1923, despite lacking proof of its feasibility. Farnsworth invited Zworykin, a former employee of Westinghouse, to see his San Francisco lab in 1930 in hopes that Westinghouse might fund his invention. Unbeknownst to Farnsworth, Zworykin no longer worked for the company and his visit to the lab was motivated by personal objectives.

Farnsworth’s television system patent, contested over in the 1935 patent suit against RCA, accessed Google Patents.

Farnsworth demonstrated how to construct an Image Dissector for Zworykin, who later replicated the tube and presented it to RCA. Farnsworth’s refusal to sell his patents to RCA prompted the company to sue for priority of invention, so as to introduce commercial television to the public. The U.S. Patent Office settled the “David and Goliath confrontation,” as described by Farnsworth’s wife Pem, when it ruled in Farnsworth’s favor based on Justin Tolman’s presentation of Farnsworth’s high school Image Dissector sketch. For the first time in RCA’s history, the company had to pay patent royalties, rather than receive them. The ruling also established Farnsworth as the inventor of television, despite ongoing debate and distortions to the historical record like Aaron Sorkin’s stage play proclaiming RCA the victor of the suit. Schatzkin provides a superb synopsis of the debate about the inventor of television and errors punctuating the narrative in The Boy Who Invented Television.

Farnsworth continued to fight against RCA’s appeals and his refusal to bow to the corporation taxed his mental and physical health. While struggling with depression, exhaustion and a dependence on liquor to cope with the stress, Farnsworth vowed to bring television from conception to commercialization. He aimed to get into broadcasting, but because the FCC would not yet allocate spectrum space for television, Farnsworth decided to enter into manufacturing, which would lead him to Fort Wayne, Indiana.

According to the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library at the University of Utah, in 1938 the Farnsworth television show was taken on a country- wide tour and was very well received.

Stayed tuned to learn about Farnsworth’s Hoosier television manufacturing plant.

Etheridge Knight: “can there anything good come out of prison”

A sketch of Etheridge Knight in prison by Terrance Hayes, accessed theparisreview.org.

“I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.” This is how poet Etheridge Knight Jr. described his experience at the Indiana State Prison, where he served eight years for armed robbery. This post focuses on the years 1960-1968, in which the man “with something to say” began sharing his voice through poetry.

Born in 1931 in Corinth, Mississippi, Knight’s family moved to Paducah, Kentucky before moving to Indianapolis. He dropped out of school as a teenager and enlisted in the army in 1947. Knight served as a medical technician in the Korean War until 1950, when a serious injury would indirectly serve as a catalyst for his revolutionary Poems from Prison. His wounds proved so physically and psychologically traumatic that Knight soon developed an addiction to morphine. Or as Knight put it, “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me.” Following his army discharge, Knight supported his habit by dealing drugs and stealing, which led to his sentence in the Michigan City, Indiana prison.

Betty De Ramus wrote in the Detroit Free Press that black poets of the 1960s, including those writing behind bars, were not trying to

pass civil rights laws or integrate bathrooms or even to trouble America’s conscience. They were battling for the minds of blacks, bent on persuading them of their potential and power, trying to open them, layer by layer, to their own lost beauty.

She argued that this movement, comprised also of African American music, theater, films, and novels were black artists’ way of “lighting candles in the darkness.” Knight would become a quintessential voice of the Black Arts Movement, described by Larry Neal as “’radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Arts is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America.’”

Knight did not immediately illuminate the darkness at the Indiana State Prison, where he became embittered by “racist guards and racist parole boards.” According to a 1972 Baltimore Sun article, he began writing poetry 18 months into his sentence, inspired by other black poets like Gwendolyn Brooks (who later visited him in prison) and Langston Hughes. He recalled “I read Walt Whitman and the European poets, too . . . I could never really get to them as I got to Hughes and Brooks.”

According to the Poetry Foundation, Knight “was already an accomplished reciter of “‘toasts'” before he entered the penitentiary. These toasts were long, narrative poems spoken from memory that related to “‘sexual exploits, drug activities, and violent aggressive conflicts involving a cast of familiar folk . . . using street slang, drug and other specialized argot, and often obscenities.'” At the Indiana State Prison, he “toasted,” amidst cell doors slamming and prisoners shouting. Other times, Knight recalled, “Sometimes in the joint . . . I’d back people up against the wall and say, ‘Here, you want to hear this?’ After all budding poets do need an audience, and where better to find one with time to listen?”

Knight later stated that “Poetry and a few people in there trying to stay human saved me . . . I knew that I couldn’t just deaden all my feeling the way some people did.” This poetry explored themes like “suffering and survival, trial and tribute, loss and love.” The Richmond Palladium-Item reported that through his words he “lashed out at the power brokers in prison and in literature with equal intensity and humor.” At first the budding poet encountered no trouble mailing out his poetry in an attempt to get published. The authorities did not resist, he recalled, because they considered James Whitcomb Riley to be a poet and “they didn’t understand what I was all about.”

His first published piece, a tribute to Dinah Washington, appeared in the Negro Digest about a year after he started writing from prison. Once published, prison officials began censoring his mail and prohibited him from mailing out his poetry. Knight responded by “smuggling material out to friends . . . who worked on the outside.” This resistance to prison life manifested not only in words, but in behavior and he spent time in solitary confinement, or, as he termed it the “hole” and “on the rock.”

Courtesy of The Paris Review article “Terence Hayes Brings Etheridge Knight Into Focus”

“The more oppressive the system you live under, the louder the poets scream,” Knight contended in 1989. And scream he did. His short stories and verses written in the penitentiary, were published in periodicals, anthologies, and the Journal of Black Poetry. Most famously, he published his book Poems from Prison, which included poems like “Cell Song” and “A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison.” When he left prison in 1968 he worked as a punch press operator at a factory in Indianapolis. By 1972 his scream had been heard across the country and he had taught students creative writing at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and the University of Pittsburgh, and served as poet-in-residence at Lincoln University in Springfield, MO. He alleged that year that “There is more creativity going on in college campuses and prisons than any other places in the country.”

Knight assessed his years in prison, “My time made me see that prisons don’t rehabilitate. If you come out with any degree of sanity at all, you’re lucky. Prison is inhuman. It kills you.”

But poetry brought him back to life. Knight went on to establish Free People’s Poetry Workshops to counteract the “domination of the publishing industry by moneyed white males.” His books and spoken word garnered popular and critical acclaim and he received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, won the American Book Award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Knight at typewriter, ca. 1960s, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The poet, described by modern African American poet Terrence Hayes, as a “talented, ex-con, con man, blues-blooded rambling romantic” died in 1991 and is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. For an in-depth examination of Knight’s works, see thepoetryfoundation.org.

 

Material for this post was derived from:
“Poet Gains Worldwide Acclaim,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 27, 1968, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Helen Fogel, Detroit Free Press, February 22, 1969, accessed Newspapers.com.

Randi M. Pollack, “Etheridge Knight Talks on Prison,” The Baltimore Sun, February 18, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Mike Fitzgerald, Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana), March 18, 1984, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Etheridge Knight: Going Against Safe Literary Doctrine,” The Indianapolis Star, March 12, 1989, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Cleveland Clique’s Elusive Grasp for Control of the Bee Line Railroad

See Part IV to learn how the Cleveland Clique leveraged on John Brough to solidify its control of the Bee Line and a route to St. Louis.

John Brough, Henry B. Payne
(L) John Brough, courtesy of the Ohio History Connection. (R) Henry B. Payne, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

With John Brough’s election to president of the Indianapolis and Bellefontiane Railroad [I&B] on June 30, 1853, the Cleveland Clique cemented its position as the Midwest’s dominant railway cabal. Brough’s dual roles, both there and as president of the Mississippi and Atlantic Railroad (about to initiate construction between Terre Haute and St. Louis), personified the Clique’s reach.

It was also a visible sign of president Henry B Payne’s effectiveness crafting and implementing the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad’s [CC&C’s] growth strategy. Now his attention turned to commanding the Bee Line component railroads and a line to St. Louis, both physically and legally. But, the Cleveland Clique’s grasp for control of the Bee Line Railroad would be elusive at best.

Map of railroads between Indianapolis and Cleveland c1860, annotated to show component Bee Line railroads, and the Columbus, Piqua and Indiana railroad
Map of the Bee Line component lines: CC&C, B&I in red, I&B in blue; Columbus, Piqua and Indiana Railroad (CP&I) in brown, courtesy of Erin Greb Cartography.

Just prior to Brough’s promotion, the I&B’s Clique-influenced board had resolved to convert its 4’ 8½” ‘standard gauge’ track (lateral dimension between rails) to the 4’ 10” ‘Ohio gauge.’ By law, the Ohio legislature had mandated that all railroads chartered there must be constructed to this dimension. As a result both Ohio legs of the Bee Line, the Bellefontaine and Indiana [B&I] and CC&C, had been built to this dictated standard. The Indiana-chartered I&B’s non-conforming gauge, however, prevented uninterrupted service between Cleveland and Indianapolis.

The I&B moved carefully to implement its gauge-change resolution. This was because, in early 1852, former president Oliver H. Smith had come to terms on a through-line agreement with a rail line being built between Columbus OH and Union IN – the Columbus, Piqua and Indiana Railroad [CP&I]. When completed, this important link would provide a connection to lines extending toward Pittsburgh, and on to Philadelphia over one of the growing trunk line giants: the Pennsylvania Railroad.

image of Oliver H. Smith
Oliver H. Smith, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

As part of through-line negotiations to coordinate schedules and share facilities, the CP&I had acceded to Smith’s demand that it petition Ohio’s legislature to build to the I&B’s ‘standard’ gauge. It soon received a legislative exemption and began building. However, the CP&I met financial headwinds almost immediately – most notably from the Pennsylvania Railroad, which failed to meet its guarantee commitment when the company defaulted on construction bonds. Unfortunately, following bankruptcy reorganization, the CP&I would not complete construction to Union until 1859.

From the I&B’s perspective, the CP&I’s financial problems and construction delays seemed insurmountable. In contrast, the temptation to avail itself of lucrative east-west business across the combination of Ohio gauge B&I and CC&C lines proved irresistible. Under cover of a finely crafted resolution to skirt its through-line agreement with the CP&I, the I&B board resolved to lay track using the Ohio gauge as “other circumstances and relations for the welfare of the Road may require.” Under this guise, by the summer of 1853, it had re-laid track between Union and Muncie to the “Ohio gauge”.

Given this developing situation, the CP&I felt compelled to act. It successfully sought a preliminary injunction to block further track/gauge conversion. The Bee Line was effectively stymied in its effort to achieve a uniform gauge run from Cleveland to Indianapolis. Although the I&B argued the 1852 through-line agreement was silent on the CP&I’s track conversion accord, Smith’s apparent sidebar pact proved compelling to the court. I&B president John Brough, backed by a new board replete with Clique members, was directed to move decisively to resolve the problem in late summer 1853. It proved to be a particularly costly settlement.

Together, all component roads of the Bee Line agreed to guarantee the CP&I’s performance on $400,000 of bonds issued to complete the road to Union. Beyond eventually finding themselves on the hook for this issue, the Bee Line roads would provide another, and then another tranche of funding by the time the CP&I limped into Union in 1859. At least the I&B could now finish its Ohio gauge track conversion between Muncie and Indianapolis. And, under terms of the settlement, the CP&I also re-laid its track to the Ohio gauge.

Winding up the CP&I lawsuit had been a prerequisite to inking a Cleveland Clique-initiated through-line agreement among all Bee Line component roads. The day after securing the CP&I settlement, the Bee Line’s through-line agreement was signed. There were two telling provisions that spoke to the different vantage point of the Cleveland Clique and Hoosier Partisans.

Map of midwestern railroads c1860, annotated to show Bee Line component railroads and intersecting rail lines to Pittsburgh
Map of the Bee Line component railroad: I&B, B&I in blue, CC&C in red; lines to Pittsburgh in brown: CP&I to S&I/P&S, O&P, courtesy of Erin Greb Cartography.

On the one hand, the agreement allowed the B&I and I&B to make “fair and eligible connections and business arrangements . . . to secure . . . their legitimate share of the business between the cities of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.” While this clause provided a degree of freedom for the Hoosier Partisans and their Ohio counterpart to step away from their CC&C overseer, the other clause was engineered to reign in these independently minded stepchildren: “The B&I and I&B shall be consolidated at the earliest practicable moment.”

As to the latter clause, it would be easier for the Cleveland Clique to do its bidding if the Hoosier Partisans’ influence was diluted in a newly constituted board. At the same time, combining the two lines could prevent the Partisans from cutting their own agreement with the CP&I to carry traffic back and forth to Columbus and toward Pittsburgh via Union – totally avoiding carriage over the B&I and CC&C. And there was also a second option to reach Pittsburgh, via the Ohio and Pennsylvania Railroad (O&P) – passing near the B&I’s eastern terminus at Galion OH. Still, at the time, the Clique’s consolidation mandate only served to draw the two smaller lines more closely together in their common struggle for independent decision-making. As unfolded for the Cleveland Clique, however, its consolidation directive would not be accomplished easily or quickly.

image of David Kilgore
David Kilgore, from the author’s personal collection.

Squirming under the Clique’s dictate, and recognizing its strategic position as the funnel for rail traffic to and from Indianapolis to either Cleveland (and New York) or Pittsburgh (and Philadelphia), the I&B board served up its own subtle message. Essentially touting its option to bypass Cleveland through separate links to Pittsburgh, Hoosier Partisan David Kilgore proposed a name change “from and after the first day of February 1855. . . . The said Corporation shall be known by the name and style of the ‘Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Cleveland Railroad Company’ [IP&C].” It was overwhelmingly adopted.

The name change really symbolized much more. The locally controlled and focused I&B railroad era was gone. The newly rechristened road would now test its wings as a regional player—hoping, like a teenager seeking freedom from parental control, to stand apart from the clearly parental CC&C.

Map of the proposed Mississippi and Atlantic Railroad route from excerpt of Map of the Bellefontaine and Indiana Railroad 1852
Map of the proposed route of the Mississippi and Atlantic Railroad. Excerpt from “Map of the Bellefontaine and Indiana Railroad and connecting lines” (W. Milnor Roberts, Chief Engineer: 1852). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Separately, in 1854, John Brough was ramping up his Mississippi and Atlantic Railroad [M&A] – destined to link Terre Haute and St. Louis. After an arduous legal effort to validate its claim to an Illinois charter, the M&A had prevailed against Chicago and Mississippi River town political interests earlier in the year. However, it would soon be faced with another trumped-up legal challenge and a concerted public relations effort to undermine its viability and management capabilities. Such obstacles were having a detrimental effect on Wall Street investors.

In March 1854 a legal opinion by Abraham Lincoln’s Illinois law office asserted the illegality of the M&A’s corporate existence. Then, a New York newspaper article questioned Brough’s managerial track record at the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad. The investor community was beginning to shy away from the M&A.

Nonetheless, with short-term funding secured, Brough pressed on with the M&A’s building phase. He issued a marketing circular and let contracts for the whole line by May, announcing the line would be completed by the summer of 1856. Brough would spend an increasing amount of time on this effort as 1854 wound down.

By the beginning of 1855 it was becoming clear Brough had the M&A on his mind. At the very least, the M&A’s pivotal role in the Cleveland Clique’s Midwest control strategy virtually mandated Brough’s full-time attention. Rumblings of his imminent departure reached IP&C board members by early February. He resigned as IP&C president on February 15, noting “experience has demonstrated to me that in this event my entire time and attention will be required on that [M&A] line.”

image of Calvin Fletcher
Calvin Fletcher, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Former I&B director (1852-53) Calvin Fletcher, among Indianapolis’ most prominent civic and business leaders, was elected president in Brough’s stead. Reluctantly thrust into the role, Fletcher noted, upon hearing of his election: “I learned to my regret I was appointed President of the Bellefontaine R.R. Co.”

Fletcher’s reticence to assume the post was understandable, based on his close familiarity with the affairs of the I&B. “I fear their affairs are desperate . . . It needed my character & acquaintance to unravel the mischief of the finances. . . . The president Brouff [Brough] has no influence on the road. All employees eschew his authority & claim that the Superintendent is the man to look to & not the President. The road & its business is [sic] in great confusion.”

image of James F. D. Lanier, c1877
James F. D. Lanier, Sketch of the Life of J. F. D. Lanier, self-published, 1877.
image of Chauncey Rose
Chauncey Rose, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Even though Brough was dealing with M&A matters full time beginning in mid-February 1855, the concerted efforts of powerful Chicago and Mississippi River town political interests had swept away investor confidence. James F. D. Lanier, the M&A’s financier through the Wall Street firm that bore his name – Winslow, Lanier & Co. – decided to take desperate action.

On May 20th the M&A board, controlled by Lanier, demoted Brough to Vice President in favor of Chauncey Rose. Rose, founder of the Terre Haute and Richmond Railroad linking Indianapolis with Terre Haute, assumed the presidential mantle. In spite of his impeccable reputation as a railroad executive, Rose’s presence failed to sway the investor community.

John Brough would not live to see the Mississippi and Atlantic Railroad completed to St. Louis. And, more to the point, how would the Cleveland Clique view Brough as their pawn in its broader Midwest railroad control strategy?

Check back for Part VI to learn more about the Hoosier Partisans move for autonomy as the Cleveland Clique tightened its grip on the Bee Line Railroad.

Continue reading “The Cleveland Clique’s Elusive Grasp for Control of the Bee Line Railroad”

The Midwestern Making of Kenneth Rexroth: Robbing Cash Registers and Reading the Classics

At times described as cantankerous, paranoid, and bitter, Kenneth Rexroth, the trail-blazing Hoosier poet, cajoled and harangued some of the best poets of the Beat Generation. At the same time, he worked tirelessly to promote their work. Rexroth’s own radical poetry both preceded and inspired the Beats, though at times he refused to be associated with the movement that he thought had lost its meaning by the late 1950s, and especially that “hipster” Jack Kerouac.

Kenneth Rexroth, accessed via Poetry Foundation.

As important as Rexroth’s poetry is to American literature, his life story is perhaps even more fascinating. And while much has been written about his years in San Francisco laying the groundwork for a literary renaissance in that city that grew into the larger Beat movement, little has been written about his time in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio – a period when the budding poet rubbed elbows with anarchists, burlesque dancers, criminals, and the artistic and literary elite of the Midwest and the world.

Kenneth Rexroth Home, South Bend, Indiana, 2016, accessed Google Maps

Kenneth Rexroth was born on December 22, 1905 in South Bend, Indiana. Young Rexroth’s first residence was a house at 828 Park Avenue in South Bend which still stands and will soon be the site of an Indiana State Historical Marker commemorating his life and career. In Kenneth Rexroth: An Autobiographical Novel, he described the house as “substantial and comfortable,” near to the Oliver Hotel and Mr. Eliel’s drug store. According to a 1905 article in the Elkhart Daily Review, Rexroth’s father was working as a traveling pharmaceutical salesman.

In 1908, the Rexroth family moved to a home on East Beardsley Avenue in Elkhart, Indiana, a relocation that made the local newspaper.

Elkhart Daily Review, June 29, 1908, 1, accessed NewspaperArchive.com
“Surface Car Terminal, Elkhart, Indiana,” photograph, ca. 1910, The Indiana Album.

Rexroth wrote a description of the Elkhart home as well:

This was a quiet residential street above the river where all the best homes in the town were in those days, where the patent-medicine people, the musical-instrument people, the buggy-works people, the corset people, and all the other leading citizens of the town lived in their wooden, sometimes Palladian or Romanesque mansions, and we had our own little Palladian house.

While Rexroth was born into a comfortable life, his family’s circumstances soon deteriorated. His parents, Charles Marion and Delia Rexroth, had difficulties with alcohol, chronic illness, and each other. Rexroth wrote that his mother was drinking champagne when she went into labor and bluntly called his father a “drunk” and a “constant gambler.” When he was five, circa 1910, they left the lovely house on East Beardsley due to his father’s diminishing finances. The family moved more often then, mostly renting, but Rexroth remembers living in a “run-down Victorian house” on Second Street that he believed they owned. Despite setbacks, he remembered his childhood in Elkhart fondly. His mother taught him to read early and immersed him in classical literature. He spent time at the library, learned French, explored the neighborhood, and fell in love with Helen, “the little girl next door,” when they were just six or seven. His parents were able to afford a family tour of Europe, which made quite an impression on young Rexroth.

However, his mother continued to succumb to a chronic illness that multiple doctors were unable to diagnose, and his father intensified his drinking and gambling. Sometime around 1914, when Rexroth was nine, the family moved briefly to Battle Creek, Michigan, and then to Chicago the following year, where they lived with relatives. Rexroth’s father’s alcoholism put him near death on at least one occasion and he left the family, likely for some sort of sanitarium. Rexroth moved with his mother into a small apartment and they rarely saw his father. After a painful period fighting what was likely tuberculosis, Delia Rexroth died in 1916. Eleven-year-old Rexroth went to live with his father and grandmother in Toledo, Ohio. Here, Rexroth began to seek and find trouble.

Photograph, 1916, accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.

Rexroth had little supervision in Toledo. He began running around town with a gang of boys who would rob cash registers and, despite his young age, he ran various money-making hustles that involved running errands for “brothels, cardrooms, and burlesque shows.” He also witnessed the Willys-Overland labor strike that turned riotous. Rexroth wrote that this was a significant moment in his youth and he “started off in the labor movement.” In 1919, at this uncertain juncture in Rexroth’s early adolescence, his father also died.

Rexroth’s aunt, Minnie Monaham, retrieved the thirteen-year-old trouble maker and brought him back to Chicago to live with the rest of the Monahams. The 1920 U.S. Census shows that the nine person household was located on Indiana Avenue, but they soon moved to an apartment on South Michigan Avenue in the Englewood neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. Rexroth enrolled in the nearby Englewood High School. School administrators quickly expelled him for his poor attitude and attendance. It was outside of the Chicago public school system, however, that Rexroth pursued a more profound education.

Carl Sandburg, “Chicago,” 1916, Chicago Historical Society, accessed via Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Perhaps in the same manner he was able to gain access to the burlesque theaters of Toledo, Rexroth found access to the clubs of the poets and writers gathered in this Midwest city during the second wave of the Chicago Literary Renaissance. Among these were important local poets such as Carl Sandburg and Harriet Monroe, writers and intellectuals such as Hoosier-born Theodore Dreiser, and political thinkers such as famous Hoosier socialist, Eugene Debs, as well as the “big names” of the international art and literature worlds. This intellectual elite met at formal and informal clubs and locations around the city.

Rexroth also explored the radical political movements of the period at venues such as the Washington Park Bug Club, also known as Bughouse Square, which met in a “a shallow grassy amphitheater beside a lagoon off in the middle of the park,” according to Rexroth. Bughouse Square was, for a time, “the most celebrated outdoor free-speech center in the nation and a popular Chicago tourist attraction,” according to the Chicago Historical Society. Here, people with a host of different ideas would get on their soapboxes (sometimes literally) and orate to the crowds that would gather. Rexroth wrote that “here, every night until midnight could be heard passionate exponents of every variety of human lunacy” such as:

“Anarchist-Single-Taxers, British-Israelites [or Anglo-Israelite], sell-anointed archbishops of the American Catholic Church, Druids, Anthroposophists, mad geologists who had proven the world was flat or that the surface of the earth was the inside of a hollow sphere, and people who were in communication with the inhabitants of Mars, Atlantis, and Tibet, severally and sometimes simultaneously. Besides, struggling for a hearing was the whole body of orthodox heterodoxy — Socialists, communists (still with a small “c”), IWWs [International Workers of the World], De Leonites, Anarchists, Single Taxers (separately, not in contradictory combination), Catholic Guild Socialists, Schopenhauerians, Nietzscheans — of whom there were quite a few — Stirnerites, and what later were to be called Fascists.”

“Dill Pickle Club Entrance,” photograph, n.d., Newberry Library, Dill Pickle, Box 2, Folder 32, Chicago Historical Society, accessed via Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Another inspiring haunt for Rexroth was the Dill Pickle Club, not far from Bughouse Square, where artists and writers along with socialists and anarchists gathered for social and artistic experimentation. Rexroth wrote that there were independent theater productions Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. On Sunday night, there were lectures on various topics. On Saturday nights “the chairs were cleared away and the Chicago jazzmen of the early Twenties played for a dance which lasted all night.” Rexroth remembered the actors and sets as being awful but somehow they produced plays that were “the very best.” Lectures were given by “every important scholar who came through the town, and all those who were attached to the universities.”

Most significantly, however, Rexroth gained entrée to the salon at the home of Jake Loeb, where he encountered the leaders of the local literary movement, international visitors such as D. H. Lawrence, and access to books of artists and writers who would greatly influence him, such as Gertrude Stein. In his autobiography, Rexroth referred to Loeb’s home as “a more important Middle Western cultural institution in 1923 than the University of Chicago, the Art Institute, the Symphony, and the Chicago Tribune put together.” He wrote that he met “everybody who was anybody in the Chicago of the Twenties and everybody who was anybody who was passing through town.” He continued:

“Besides the famous transients, many of whom stayed in the place, the house was full every night of the cream of Chicago’s intellectuals in the brief postwar period of Chicago’s second renaissance. It seems rather pointless even to list them — any of them — because they were all there. . . It is not that I met famous people — it is that I learned by listening to impassioned discussion among mature people, all of whom were out in the world putting their ideas into effect.”

Rexroth was also starting to put his ideas into effect. Although he had shown little academic or literary promise thus far, Rexroth became “a prolific painter and poet by age seventeen,” according to the Poetry Foundation. By this point he was running from one cultural hot-spot to another, performing the poetry to which he was being exposed. He wrote in his autobiography that if he hustled he could make over fifty dollars in a weekend. He continued, “Thus began my career as a boy soapboxer, bringing poetry to the masses.”

“Self Portrait” by Kenneth Rexroth, published in Chicago Review 55.2/¾, accessed via Chicago Review tumblr.

He began working a number of odd jobs, and in his free time, experimenting with oil paints and piano. One such job was at the Green Mask on Grand Avenue and State Street. Rexroth referred to the Green Mask as a “tearoom,” but it was probably more accurately a cabaret, and it was located in the basement of a brothel. Rexroth wrote, “The place was a hangout for bona-fide artists, writers, musicians, and people from show business.” He continued, “In the Mask there gradually formed a small, permanent family of oddities who were there every night and never paid for their coffee.” Here Rexroth was able to see and perform poetry with some of the era’s best poets and musicians, both black and white, local and national. These included the “seclusive and asocial” poet Edgar Lee Masters, local African American poet Fenton Johnson, nationally-acclaimed black poet and playwright Langston Hughes, the local jazz drummer Dave Tough (who Rexroth called Dick Rough in his autobiography), and an assortment of dancers, singers, and drag queens. This group held weekly poetry readings and lectures and jazz performances. Rexroth and others began combining jazz and poetry, a technique he would become known for by the time he headed out west and one that would greatly influence the Beat Generation. He wrote that here, at the Green Mask, “happened the first reading of poetry to jazz that I know of.” About this early Chicago jazz scene, he wrote:

“I’m afraid that I can’t provide any inside information about the formative years of jazz, for the simple reason that none of us knew that this was what was happening. We didn’t know we were making history and we didn’t think we were important. . . Jazz was pretty hot and made a lot of noise. People talked loud to be heard above it, got thirsty and drank too much and made trouble, so we tried to keep the jazz small and cool . . . I remember many nights going over to the piano and saying, ‘For Christ’s sake, cool it or you’ll get us all busted!'”

Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1923, 1, accessed Chicago Tribune Archives.

As he predicted, the Green Mask did get busted. In 1923, the Chicago Tribune reported that thirty-five “Bohemians” were arrested in a raid at the Green Mask. The Tribune article stated: “The police entered the place after standing outside for some time listening to what they say was the reading of indecent poetry by George Lexington.” The owner was booked as “keeper of a disorderly house.” Rexroth was also arrested because he was considered part owner for investing some small amount of money into the place. He was sentenced to a year in jail.

Photograph, 1922, in G. A. Claussenius, The House of Correction of the City of Chicago : a retrospect covering a half century of endeavor from the founding of the institution to the present time, 1871-1921 (City of Chicago, 1922), 7, accessed via Internet Archive.

He described the conditions on his arrival to the Chicago House of Corrections, or the “Bandhouse” as it was called:

This was quite a place. It had been built back in the Seventies or Eighties, with long, narrow windows like the archers’ slots in medieval castles, and a warped and muddy stone floor where the water oozed up in winter between the paving blocks. This was the only running water in the place. Each cell was given a one-gallon pail of water once a day and provided with a battered old bucket for a privy. It was a cage-type cell house. The cells were all in the center about thirty feet away from the walls, so the only view was through the heavy iron grilles and door which looked out on brick walls and filthy windows through which it was impossible to see anything. The inner cells looked out on the tier opposite. The whole thing was built of iron, and any movement in it resounded as though it had happened inside a bell; any cough or groan or cry was magnified as if by an immense megaphone. In each cell there were four iron-slatted bunks that folded up against the wall. There were no mattresses, and each fish [inmate] was provided, along with his slops, with a filthy khaki Army blanket full of holes.

Rexroth spent the winter in these circumstances and explained that he “got a little closer to the underworld.” When he got out of the Bandhouse, he spent most of his time pursuing various young women, two of whom lived in the same building, and writing them poetry. He became more involved in local theater productions and continued pursuing radical social theories and chasing down works of avant-garde literature. He began reading more spiritual works and even spent a few months in a monastery. He also began a period of traveling and recording his observations of nature in his poetry – something else he would become known as a master of in later life.

Photo accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.

In late December 1926, Rexroth met the artist Andrée Schafer through friends, just briefly outside their door. When his friends asked him what he thought about her, Rexroth replied, “I intend to marry her.” They began working on paintings together, both of them working on the same canvas, “like one person,” according to Rexroth. They married a few weeks later in January 1927 and left for a new life on the West Coast that spring. In San Francisco, instead of experiencing a cultural Renaissance, Rexroth would create one.

Check back next week for more about this Hoosier rebel in part two of this story: Kenneth Rexroth: Poet, Pacifist, Radical, and Reluctant Father of the Beat Generation

For more information:

Kenneth Rexroth, An Autobiographical Novel (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966).

Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).

Marches, Gas Masks, and Trash Sculptures: The First Hoosier Earth Day

Centerville High School students marching in Centerville, Indiana to demonstrate against automobile pollution for Earth Day, Palladium-Item, April 22, 1970, accessed newspapers.com.

Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar proclaimed April 22, 1970 as “a day for contemplation, conversation, and action to halt and reverse the impending crisis of the decay of man’s environment.” Throughout Indiana, Hoosiers acted to raise awareness about the imminent pollution crisis.  In addition to general clean up campaigns, panel discussions, and seminars, students built monuments made of trash and participated in marches. Some even donned gas masks or abandoned their cars, all to dramatize the need for citizens to “Give Earth a Chance.”

This was the first Earth Day. Historian Adam Rome describes the day as “the most famous little-known event in modern U.S. history.” He notes it was “bigger by far than any civil rights march or antiwar demonstration or woman’s liberation protest in the 1960s.” A whopping 22 million Americans took part in the first Earth Day. About 1,500 colleges and 10,000 schools, in addition to numerous churches, temples, city parks, and lawns in front of various government and corporate buildings hosted Earth Day activities. The event was so popular that Congress even shut down on Earth Day. About two-thirds of congressmen, both Democrats and Republicans, returned home to speak to their constituents at Earth Day rallies. President Richard Nixon, one of the only major politicians not to make a public speech on Earth Day, even admitted in a press release that he felt “the activities show the concern of people of all walks of life over the dangers to our environment.”

Earth Day participants blocked Fifth Avenue in New York, front page of The New York Times, April 23, 1970, accessed Project for Public Spaces.
Senator Gaylord Nelson, accessed Congress.gov

Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, conceived Earth Day in 1969. After the Santa Barbara oil spill in January and February of that year, Nelson decided to ignite a mass protest in support of increased environmental action. He had crafted environmental legislation throughout the 1960s, including efforts to ban harmful chemical products, like the pesticide DDT and non-biodegradable detergents. He found few supporters for his initiatives in Congress. However, he surmised many citizens, worried about radioactive fallout, suburban sprawl, and smog, would care. Inspired by anti-war teach-ins in the 1960s, Nelson envisioned a nationwide teach-in event to educate people about pollution and encourage them to take action. If constituents supported environmental regulation, it was reasoned, politicians would follow.

Judy Hoody working at Environmental Teach-In Inc, 1970, Associated Press, accessed USATODAY.

Though Nelson came up with the general premise of Earth Day, he knew the movement would not flourish if he dictated the event. Instead, he announced plans for the teach-in in September 1969 and enlisted the help of Pete McCloskey, a Republican, as co-chair. Soon, individuals all over the country called Nelson’s office, asking for more information. To handle all the activity, Nelson set up a separate organization, Environmental Teach-In Inc., in December 1969. A small staff of twenty-somethings ran the organization. Though Nelson originally created the organization to help local organizers implement ideas and make contacts, Environmental Teach-In mainly became a publicity hub. Community organizers, which often included housewives, students, and scientists started planning Earth Day events before the organization opened.

Thus, the national office spent most of their time fielding calls from journalists to inform them about Earth Day plans in locales across the nation. Organizers planned programs to explore a variety of topics including population growth, pesticide use, nuclear fallout, waste disposal, suburban sprawl, in addition to mainstays like air, water, and land pollution.

Back in the Hoosier state, Governor Whitcomb issued an executive order endorsing Earth Day activities in Indiana. He wrote “I urge all of our citizens to act responsibly to alleviate the pollution menace to the environment.” In particular, Whitcomb noted:

Our educational institutions have the expertise and capability both to inform us of present dangers resulting from the ways we use our natural resources and to define and develop new technologies and systems needed to abate the pollution problem.

Whitcomb’s emphasis on educational institutions highlighted the primary role students played in Indiana Earth Day. Most of these activities took place at universities, colleges, and schools, which were all open to broader community members. However, it was mostly students, rather than faculty that organized the day’s events. Elizabeth Young, a sophomore at St.-Mary-of-the-Woods College near Terre Haute summarized why young Hoosiers rallied around Earth Day. She told the Indianapolis Star “if the kids our age don’t do something, we won’t live to be the age of our professors.”

LS Ayres sponsored Earth Day ad, Indianapolis Star, April 19, 1970 accessed newspapers.com.

Though most activities took place on April 22, students and community members often could attend ecological events at their local university or college throughout the week. Almost all the major secondary education institutions in Indiana sponsored panels, lectures and discussions featuring a variety of speakers, including politicians, scientists, and industry representatives. Senator Nelson even spoke at rallies at IU Bloomington and Notre Dame. Most of the Indiana congressional delegation returned from Washington, D.C. to speak to their constituents. At Purdue, industry representatives from Inland Steel, Eli Lilly, and General Motors participated in a panel discussion. Each talked about the measures their company was taking to abate pollution and answered questions from audience members. Many universities organized tree planting ceremonies or litter clean-up operations along Indiana waterways.

A student adding cans to the non-disposable monument in front of the Arts Terrance; Daily News, April 23, 1970, 4 accessed Ball State University Archives and Special Collections.

A few students staged more dramatic events to draw attention to environmentalism. At Ball State University, students constructed a pile of cans and bottles they collected from Muncie residents and created a “non-disposable, non-returnable monument” on the terrace of the Art Building. The monument symbolized junk, which students perceived as one of America’s primary pollution problems. At Purdue, students picked up litter along the Wabash River and displayed it all in front of the Lafayette courthouse for the public and local government representatives to see. DePauw students sponsored bus tours for community members to take throughout Greencastle, which would showcase Putnam County’s dirtiest and cleanest spots, including a junkyard, a pig feed next to a stream, homes designed specially to preserve the terrain, and an industrial plant featuring the latest pollution control measures. Others specifically tackled air pollution issues. Tri-State College in Angola (now Trine University), initiated a campaign urging students and faculty to leave their cars at home and walk to campus. One DePauw student rode a horse to campus bearing the sign “Ban the automobile.” DePauw also put an electric car on display.

Litter along the Indianapolis Canal looking South on Vermont Street with the State Office Building in the background, Indianapolis Star, April 22, 1970, accessed newspapers.com

Numerous younger students participated as well. Schools received packets detailing available speakers, films, materials, and suggested programs and activities to coordinate for Earth Day activities. Elementary school students picked up litter and participated in art and essay contests about environmental issues. In Portland, elementary students started a “Be a Pollution Policeman” campaign and created posters advising community members to report polluters that they later put up all over town.

Christy Miller, a student at Northwestern High School in Kokomo, stands among trash picked up around the school and asks other students to sign a petition against pollution, Kokomo Tribune, April 23, 1970, accessed newspapers.com.

North Central High School students in Indianapolis hosted an Earth Day program filled with speakers, seminars, and films. Students created a pollution themed skit and a collage made with all the litter they collected in the area. Several student musicians played music alongside a slide show of photographs of local pollution. At Southport High School, a group of students all wore gasmasks to class to highlight air pollution. Logansport physics students marched through town sporting posters and signs. At Edinburgh, high school students even produced a television program “Project Earth Day,” aired on a Columbus news station that examined water, air, and land pollution in the area.

Despite the major successes of Earth Day, a lot of issues remained unsolved. Whitney M. Young Jr. addressed the major deficit of the Earth Day celebration and of the ensuing environmental movement, in the Indianapolis Recorder in 1970: Earth Day programs often failed to incorporate race or class into the problem of pollution. Though pollution was finally spreading to the suburbs, people of color had often been forced to live and work in places containing dangerous pollutants for years through zoning ordinances and prejudiced real estate practices. He noted, “I get the uneasy feeling that some people who have suddenly discovered the pollution issue embrace it because its basic concern is improving middle class life.” He concluded:

The choice isn’t between the physical environment and the human. Both go hand in hand, and the widespread concern with pollution must be joined by a similar concern for wiping out the pollutants of racism and poverty.

Earth Day did, however, inspire landmark legislation and institutions to address pollution. In later years, some environmental justice organizations tackled the issues Young brought up. Adam Rome notes Earth Day “inspired the formation of lobbying groups, recycling centers, and environmental studies programs. Earth Day also turned thousands of participants into committed environmentalists.” Before Earth Day, Americans addressed environmental issues in disjointed ways. Old conservation groups from the Progressive era focused mainly on wilderness preservation. Other groups focused on single issue campaigns, like air pollution. Earth Day pushed numerous related environmental concerns into one platform and provided a space for concerned citizens to come together and decide how America should fight the environmental crisis of the 1970s. The constituent support Earth Day garnered encouraged Congress to enact a swell of landmark environmental legislation after Earth Day, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in December 1970, the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Advertisement for Marlin McDaniel for State Senate, emphasizing his work with the environment, including checking Gary air pollution and sampling industrial pollution in the White River, Palladium-Item, May 5, 1974, 56 accessed newspapers.com.

Indiana politicians also dedicated more of their time to environmental issues after Earth Day. Governor Whitcomb started “Operation Cleansweep” in May 1970, a massive campaign to clean up polluted and littered landscapes across the state. On the first anniversary of Earth Day in 1971, Mayor Lugar launched Indianapolis’s first recycling program to collect cardboard and metal.  Indiana also became the first state in the nation to ban phosphate detergents, which scientists discovered as a major polluter of waterways, in 1971. Additionally, more Hoosiers joined or formed environmental organizations to make sure the state government stayed on top of environmental regulation. For example, the Indiana Eco-Coalition formed in 1971 to serve as an umbrella organization to represent the majority of Indiana’s environmental activist groups and provide information on impending environmental legislation.

Clearly, when people shouted “Give Earth a Chance,” it worked.

Branch McCracken: A Hoosier Hardwood Hero

Photo courtesy Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection. For more on the state historical marker dedication commemorating McCracken see the Indiana Historical Bureau’s press release.

On April 8, 2017, the Indiana Historical Bureau, working alongside historical marker applicants Tom Graham and Bob Hammel, members of the Bill Garrett family, staff from Indiana University, and a host of others, helped unveil a new state marker honoring Hoosier basketball star Bill Garrett. The timing of the dedication and commemoration of this important athlete in IU and Big Ten history was most fitting, coming just days after the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game and two weeks after Crispus Attucks won the 2017 Indiana high school basketball state tournament. It was Attucks’ first state basketball title since Garrett coached the team to victory in 1959.

Bill Garrett’s children pose with the new historical marker commemorating their father after the unveiling ceremony on April 8. Photo courtesy Bloomington Herald Times Online.

The marker celebrates Garrett’s accomplishments as a player and coach, while also commemorating some of the men who helped him break the longstanding “gentleman’s agreement,” which barred African Americans from playing on Big Ten varsity basketball teams into the late 1940s.

On April 19, 2017, IHB is honored to dedicate a new state historical marker to commemorate another Hoosier hardwood hero, IU basketball player and coach Branch McCracken, who also had the distinction of coaching Garrett at IU from 1948-1951.

Coach Branch McCracken with Bill Garrett. Photo courtesy Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

Emmett Branch McCracken was born in Monrovia in Morgan County, Indiana on June 9, 1908 to Charles and Ida McCracken. He attended Monrovia schools and became a star on his high school basketball team, leading the small town school to consecutive Tri-State Tournament championships in 1925 and 1926. The Tri-State Tournament was an annual basketball tournament played in Cincinnati between high school teams from Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. In 1925, the Muncie Star Press reported that fourteen of the fifty-three teams entered in the tournament that year were from Indiana, with Anderson, Columbus, and Logansport considered favorites. Not surprisingly, the Logansport Pharos-Tribune favored Logansport High School, coached by Cliff Wells, as “a leading contender for the title.” However, Logansport would lose in the semifinal game to Aurora High School, which McCracken’s Monrovia team would then defeat in the final, 29-21. After six consecutive victories, Monrovia had earned the title of Tri-State Tournament champion. Tournament officials selected McCracken on the mythical All Tri-State Team, a testament to the skills he exhibited during the tournament.

Logansport Pharos Tribune, February 16, 1925, accessed Newspapers.com

Monrovia returned to the tournament the following year as one of twelve Indiana teams to compete. The team won for the second year in a row, defeating Summitville High School (Indiana) in the final game, 19-17. In a December 1927 article, the Richmond Item reported that Monrovia’s high ranking during the 1926 tournament “was largely due to the playing of McCracken,” captain of Monrovia’s team. McCracken won highest individual honors for a player during the 1925 and 1926 Tri-State Tournaments when he received the medal for most valuable player both years. The Logansport Pharos-Tribune praised McCracken’s play in its February 27, 1926 issue, reporting that he had not only led the offense, but that he was also “the bulwark of the Monrovia defense.” According to the paper, “The star pivot player gave one of the best exhibitions of basketball displayed by any individual player here this season.”

Indianapolis News, March 3, 1926, accessed Newspapers.com

After completing his senior year at Monrovia, McCracken entered Indiana University in the fall of 1926. In early November 1927, the Indianapolis Star reported that he was one of the chief candidates for the center position on IU’s basketball team for the upcoming season. His position on the varsity football team prevented him from joining basketball practice though until after November 19. After just a few games, the Star reported on December 18: “The first new man to come through with promise is Branch McCracken of Monrovia.”

McCracken may not have had much Big Ten basketball experience at the time, but he was already beginning to excel under Coach Everett Dean. On New Year’s Eve 1927, IU played the University of Cincinnati and defeated them, 56-41. An article in the Cincinnati Enquirer the following day noted that McCracken “was high point man along with [Dale] Wells, the two accounting for 28 of Indiana’s points by virtue of their accurate shooting from various angles of the court.” The following game, IU defeated fellow Big Ten member the University of Chicago, 32-13. In this game, McCracken showed his true potential. According to IU yearbook, The Arbutus, he “became at once a hero and a marked man,” having scored 24 of the team’s 32 points. The Star also took note, writing: “With the Hoosier victory came a new Indiana star on the horizon in Branch McCracken . . . The Indiana sophomore scored eleven more points than the entire Chicago team.”

IU varsity basketball team, 1927-1928. Photo courtesy The Arbutus, IU Yearbook, 1928, p. 106, accessed Ancestry.com.

McCracken continued to be a strong presence on the court throughout the 1927-1928 season. Despite his youth, he was the high scorer for the Hoosiers and led the Big Ten Conference in scoring during most of the year, only losing the lead to Bennie Oosterbaan of Michigan in the last few weeks of the season. McCracken finished the season tied for second place in conference scoring. In late November, he again turned in his football jersey to join the basketball squad for the 1928-1929 season. He returned as center and continued to put up big points, again finishing second in Big Ten scoring as a sophomore.

1927-1928 scoring totals and standings. Photo courtesy The Arbutus, IU Yearbook, 1928, p. 112, accessed Ancestry.com

McCracken’s junior season in 1929-1930 would prove to be his best. According to IU’s yearbook The Arbutus:

After three years of hard struggle Capt. Branch McCracken plowed his way through the Conference foes to score a total of 147 points to top all other players and to break the all-time record set last year by [Charles ‘Stretch’] Murphy of Purdue. McCracken was one of the best pilots ever in charge of an Indiana basketball team and was named on nearly every all-conference team.

McCracken graduated from IU in 1930 and soon after accepted a position as head basketball coach at Ball State Teachers College (now Ball State University). An article in the Columbus Republic in 1938 noted that during his time coaching the Ball State Cardinals, he made them “a constant threat in Indiana collegiate conference competition,” leading them to an 86-57 record over eight seasons.

Coach Everett Dean with Joe Platt and Jim Birr, November 30, 1937. Photo courtesy Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

In late spring 1938, newspapers began reporting that IU basketball and baseball coach Everett Dean was close to accepting a basketball coaching position at Stanford University. McCracken, who had played under Dean at IU, was among those considered to replace the future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer. By June, IU hired McCracken as the school’s head basketball coach.

McCracken coached the Hoosiers to a 17-3 record in his first year with the team. It was a strong season, but one that would be eclipsed quickly the following year. McCracken’s squad finished the 1939-1940 regular season 20-3. Despite finishing second in the Big Ten, one game behind Purdue, IU was invited to represent the Midwest in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Eastern tournament. IU had won all of its non-conference games and beat Purdue twice, while the Boilermakers had lost two non-conference games, bringing their total losses to four on the season.

On March 22, IU defeated Springfield College (Massachusetts), 48-24 in the first round of the Eastern tournament. The following day, the team topped Duquesne University, 39-30, earning the opportunity to play the “Phog” Allen coached University of Kansas team for the national college basketball championship. McCracken’s Hoosiers defeated Kansas 60-42 to claim IU’s first national basketball championship. In expressing his pride and congratulations to the team, IU President Herman B Wells told the squad “the game which you played at Kansas City was to the glory of yourselves, to Indiana basketball, and to Indiana University.”

Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1940, accessed Newspapers.com

In just his second season at the helm, McCracken led IU to their first national title, setting the bar high for the seasons to come. He would not let the school nor the state down. After a three-year break (1943-1946) to serve in the United States Navy, McCracken returned to his alma mater ready to resume his coaching responsibilities and again lead the Hoosiers to victory.

After starting the 1952-1953 season with a 1-2 record, McCracken’s team would go on to win its next seventeen straight games. By mid-January the United Press board of coaches ranked them fifth in the country. On February 23, 1953, IU trampled Purdue 113-78. According to the Indianapolis Star, IU’s 113 points in the game broke the previous Big Ten record of 103 set by the University of Iowa in 1944. By March 1, the Hoosiers were guaranteed sole claim to the Big Ten title after defeating Illinois, 91-79.

Albuquerque Journal, March 3, 1953, accessed Newspapers.com.

By the end of the regular season, Indiana’s record was 19-3, with seventeen conference wins to one loss. The team defeated DePaul University, the University of Notre Dame, and Louisiana State University, in the postseason, earning the chance to play Kansas once again for the national championship on March 18. With thirty seconds remaining in the title game, Bob Leonard of the Hoosiers made his second of two free throws to give IU a 69-68 lead and their second national basketball title.

McCracken’s team won the Big Ten conference again the following year and twice more under him in 1957 and 1958. In 1960, he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player. The Indianapolis Star reported on the induction on April 27, 1960, noting that “Purdue and Indiana had hit the jackpot.” Three of the five men inducted as players were from the two universities: Charles (Stretch) Murphy and Johnny Wooden from Purdue, and McCracken from IU. Ward (Piggy) Lambert of Purdue was also one of the three coaches inducted that year.

Coach Branch McCracken celebrates with his team after winning the 1953 NCAA basketball championship. Photo courtesy Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

In 1965, after twenty-four seasons, McCracken retired as head coach of IU’s varsity basketball team. Between his thirty-two years at Ball State and IU, his teams had amassed a 450-231 record (66% win percentage), complete with two NCAA titles, and four Big Ten titles. Reflecting on his experiences as coach, McCracken stated:

I’ve never regretted my profession. Taking kids and helping to make something out of them is the most rewarding part of my job. Basketball has been good to me. It’s made me lots of friends and I owe the game more than I can ever repay.

Putting Children Back into the Story: Indenture Contracts at the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum

Indianapolis Orphans Home , 1909
Indianapolis Orphans Home postcard, postmarked 1909, accessed HistoricIndianapolis.com.

Eddie Anderson had been at the asylum for a mere fifteen days, and it already looked like he would be leaving. On September 15, 1882, a man known as Dr. Harvey brought the ten-year-old boy from Hendricks County to the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum, the city’s first and oldest orphanage. Now a Mrs. Skillman, who had traveled over seventy miles from her home in Peru, Indiana, took Eddie from the orphanage. On September 30, 1882, the president of the Board of Directors, Hannah Hadley, and Mrs. Skillman signed an indenture for Eddie Anderson, essentially agreeing that Eddie would work for Mrs. Skillman in exchange for room and board. Mrs. Skillman agreed to “carefully keep and rear” the ten-year-old boy until he reached the age of twenty-one and give him $100 at that age. After signing the contract, Mrs. Skillman left as Eddie’s new guardian.

More than twenty years later, in December 1903, Eddie wrote to the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum from Sharpe, Kansas. He received no answer. After waiting several months, he wrote again.

                                                                                                Sharpe Kansas

Mar. 23 1904

Superintendent of the Orphants [sic] Home

            Kind Sir-

            I wrote to you in Dec. 1903 and as yet I have not heard from you and fearing my letter or yours was misplaced I now write again, as I am interested to find out about my record and in what condition I was taken out of the Orphants [sic] home by mrs [sic] Skillman some 20 years ago.

Eddie begins his letter in a somewhat neutral tone but quickly becomes distressed as he recounts his experience with Mrs. Skillman.

My name… I know was Edd Anderson but they changed it to Elmer Anderson and did me other meaness [sic]. I am totally ignorant of myself. they used to pretend as though I was adopted and was to get part of their estate… [when] I was of age then they turned me off without clothes hardly good enough to wear and not a cent to go on; now please do what you can for me if you have any knowledge as where my folks are please let me know and all that is of interest to me as I have been informed that my name, age, and record you will have in your ledger. some of mrs Skillmans relatives say she had papers that I should of got concerning me and my relatives but they distroyed [sic] them so please now help me all you can…

Eddie’s letter does not reveal the story of a child who was “carefully kept and reared” and given $100 dollars when he turned twenty-one. Rather, it reveals the story of an individual searching for his past and his identity. Unfortunately, Eddie’s letter to the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum (IOA) is an exception—few children left behind written records of their indenture experiences. Nevertheless, the indenture documents contain vital information—such as demographic information and expectations for both the adults and children—that allows the historian to piece together a lost story (like Eddie’s) and refocus the narrative on the ones who were affected most by 19th-century orphanages—the children.

The Indianapolis News, March 4, 1874.

During the 19th century, indenturing children was a relatively common method to care for dependent children. At the IOA, an indenture was signed between the institution and an adult—the child, arguably the one affected most by the indenture, was not involved in that process. The Indiana Historical Society contains 152 indenture contracts (including Eddie’s) from the years 1875 to 1885 in their collections. An examination of these records reveals insight into 19th-century childcare practices in Indiana.

IOA indenture contracts began by identifying “the parties”—the institution and the adult guardian. An IOA indenture from the 1870s states “This indenture . . . witnesseth that the said parties of the first part [the IOA], in consideration of the covenants and agreements of the said party of the second part [the individual receiving the child] . . . do put and bind . . . an orphan child . . . unto the said party of the second part.”  At the very outset of the contract, it is stipulated that the child is “put and bound” to the individual and that the individual receives the child’s “service and custody during said period, which by the laws of the State a master has over an indentured apprentice.” The indenture contracts used by the IOA clearly show that children in the care of the institution were placed in homes in exchange for their labor.

1941 map shows location of the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum, courtesy of Indianapolis Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection, IUPUI, accessed HistoricIndianapolis.com.

While the indenture contracts clearly state that a child’s service is given to an adult guardian, they also identify the responsibilities of the new guardian. At least one-third of the contract stipulated requirements for the adult. The asylum required the new guardian to “covenant and agree” to “carefully keep and rear” the child; “provide for [him/her] in sickness and health”; and “supply [him/her] with suitable food and clothing.” In addition to these vital necessities, the indentured child’s new guardian was also required to “teach [him/her] to read and write the English language, and to know and practice the general rules of arithmetic, including ‘to the double rule of three inclusive.’” Thus, in addition to providing for the child’s physical needs, adult guardians had to educate an indentured child as well. In an ideal setting, the child would also learn “some useful trade or occupation,” but only if the guardian “deemed [it] best.” The IOA clearly stated its expectations of adult guardians.

In addition to providing information about the expectations regarding 19th-century indentures, the contracts reveal insight notions of gender during the era. Of the 152 IOA indentures, 91 of the children (sixty percent) were female, and 61 of the children (forty percent) were male. This number is not representative of the ratio of girls to boys at the IOA, because, during the same time frame, there were significantly more boys than girls at the asylum. Throughout the 1870s, there were on average sixteen more boys than girls per month at the IOA. In 1878, the average number of girls per month at the asylum was less than half of the number of boys.

Based on asylum admission records from the 1870s, which listed the number of boys and girls at the asylum each month.

Intriguingly, the number of boys and girls indentured does not reflect the number of boys and girls at the asylum—if anything, it is the opposite.

In 1878 for example, fifteen children were indentured with the number of boys indentured drastically lower than the number of girls. In 1878—a year when there was an average of twenty-eight more boys than girls per month (see figure 1)—four of the fifteen children indentured (twenty-seven percent) were boys. The remaining eleven children (seventy-three percent) were girls. Despite the much higher percentage of boys at the asylum, a higher number of girls were indentured.

The higher number of girls indentured could be because adult guardians had to give boys more money when they completed their indentures. With the IOA indentures, boys almost always received $100 to $150 upon completion of their indentures, while girls received $5, $10, $25, $50, or simply a bed, bedding, and two suits of clothing. Lizzie Young Conversa was one year old when she was indentured on April 12, 1876. The IOA agreed to indenture her for the next seventeen years, with only the promise of five dollars and “a good bed and bedding and two suits of suitable clothing” at the end of her indenture. According to the contracts, boys were indentured until the age of twenty-one while girls were indentured until the age of eighteen (or until they got married). This could be another reason why adult guardians preferred girls over boys—they did not have to commit to caring for a girl as long as they had to commit to caring for a boy.

The Indianapolis News, May 16, 1881.

The preference for indentured girls over boys indicates that notions of gender and masculinity limited the tasks a boy could perform. According to Birk, “While boys helped as physical laborers, farmers and their wives wanted girls who could assist with housework. Placed-out girls often performed jobs identical to those of the women of the house.” These jobs included “making breakfast before moving on to tasks such as laundry, ironing, mending, cooking, and farm chores such as milking, caring for chickens, gardening, or aiding in field work.” So, while boys only helped with farm work, girls helped with housework and farm work. Because of notions of gender responsibilities and masculinity, it is extremely unlikely that a boy would have helped with laundry, cooking, or cleaning. However, a girl could help with gardening, field work, milking, and caring for animals in addition to laundry, cooking, and cleaning. It comes as no surprise then that adult guardians preferred indentured girls over indentured boys, since they did not have to provide for girls as long; they did not have to pay girls as much (if anything); and they could use girls to work in both the house and on the farm.

Overall, the IOA indenture records tell only a small portion of a child’s story. Of the 152 children, how many fulfilled their indentures in a home-like environment? How many were treated as free labor and shown no love? How many ended up like Eddie, searching for their family, their past, and their very identity? Although these indenture contracts do not contain the answers, they do provide a means for putting children back into the story of nineteenth-century orphanage policies.