On November 19, 1927 Laura Fisher boarded a Greyhound Bus at a station in Richmond, Indiana. The African American passenger, destined for her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, felt ill and took a seat at the front of the bus where it was warmest. This infuriated the Cincinnati bus driver Glen Branoski, described in the newspapers as “of foreign descent,” who demanded Fisher sit in the back of the bus in the section he had designated as “negro.” After refusing to move, Branoski ejected Fisher from the bus. According to a November 29, 1927 article in the Richmond Item, Fisher re-entered the bus, which prompted Branoski to call police headquarters. The Richmond Palladium [originally the Palladium and Sun-Telegram] noted that he demanded that the police remove her, citing that “Jim Crow rule” was “provided by the [bus] company.” Even though Greyhound was headquartered in Duluth, Minnesota, the growing interstate bus line needed to be mindful of the regional laws regarding segregation.
Jim Crow laws “came to mean any state law passed in the South that established different rules for blacks and whites. Jim Crow laws were based on the theory of white supremacy and were a reaction to [Civil War] Reconstruction.” Historian Richard B. Pierce noted that Indiana “did not have as complete a system of Jim Crow” as southern states, although it “did have its own unique brand of discrimination.” In Fisher’s case, the police station cited that “state laws did not legalize such discrimination and the police department had no authority to help” Branoski enforce the bus line policy.
The Richmond Item reported that following this refusal, Branoski ejected Fisher a second time “with such violence that she was painfully injured” and then he tore up her ticket. The paper noted, “A considerable crowd collected and trouble threatened for a time, Mrs. Fisher becoming almost hysterical from fright.” Had police officers not arrived in a timely manner, the newspaper predicted, there would likely have been a riot. This unlawful attempt to enforce of Jim Crow segregation led to Branoski’s arrest the day following the incident. An Item article reported that on November 21 he plead “not guilty” to assault and battery and was released on bond, ordered to report to city court the following Monday for trial.
Several local newspapers noted that this “Jim Crow” trial was the first racial discrimination case Richmond had encountered in many years. However, Fisher’s experience typified increasing segregation in Indiana during the mid and late 1920s. According to Emma Lou Thornbrough’s Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century, in 1927 a wave of racial discrimination led to the authorization or opening of segregated Indiana schools, including Indianapolis’s Crispus Attucks High School, Gary’s Roosevelt School, and Evansville’s Lincoln School. Each of these were barred from membership in the Indiana High School Athletic Association, on the grounds that the schools were not “publicly open to all” (the rule also barred parochial schools from IHSAA membership by the same rationale). The rule was in effect until 1942, and prohibited all-black squads from competing against white teams.
Segregation also extended to recreation, housing, and medical care. According to historian James Madison, nearly every facet of Hoosier life in the post-WWI era was segregated or exclusionary, including “theaters, public parks, cemeteries, restaurants, hotels, beaches, swimming pools, orphans’ homes, hospitals, newspaper society columns, the state militia . . .” A March 15, 1927 article in the Huntington Herald demonstrates the attitudes of those Hoosiers calling for segregation, alleging “the average negro, given an inch will take a mile” and therefore “it is the negro’s mode of living that has resulted in the passage of all Jim Crow laws.”
However, Madison noted that “Indiana blacks did not accept discrimination and segregation without protest,” evinced by Laura Fisher’s case. On November 28, Branoski reported for trial at the city court, where he gave no testimony and plead guilty to assault and battery (Richmond Palladium). He was fined $50, plus costs, and 20 days in county jail. The bus company, which fired Branoski but paid his fines, settled out of court with Fisher and paid her $500 to sign a “release from a damage action which had been threatened.” According to the November 29 Richmond Item article, Fisher took Branoski to court with the purpose of obtaining racial justice, rather than financial settlement. One of her lawyers stated that:
‘Negro residents of the community were not asking for the imposition of any severe penalty upon Branoski, merely a vindication of equal rights of Negro passengers with white passengers on public transportation conveyances. He several times asked Branoski’s jail sentence be reduced to 10 days.’
In announcing the verdict, Richmond police judge Fred Pickett stated that “The Indiana law on racial discrimination is clear. It does not tolerate discrimination” (Palladium, November 29). He added “Ignoring the fact that one of the principals in this case is a white man and the other a negro woman it must be viewed solely as an aggravated, unprovoked attack by a strong man upon a woman who was both weak and ill. She was both injured and humiliated.” Judge Pickett made his opinion clear, stating “I want it to be a matter of public record that this court regards an attack made by a man upon a woman a serious offense not to be lightly condoned.”
Although his statements seem to emphasize injustice based on gender, rather than race, the Freeport Journal-Standard of Illinois noted “that Indiana does not recognize a ‘Jim Crow’ rule was emphasized by police judge, Fred Pickett.”
While research efforts to locate articles about the fates of Fisher or Branoski following the trial were unfruitful, the case was referenced in a similar bus incident occurring on November 23, just four days after Fisher’s ordeal. According to a December 17, 1927 article in the Indianapolis Recorder, prominent African American business woman Helen M. Dorsey filed suit against the Blue Goose Bus Line when a driver refused to let her board the bus. Unable to make it to a conference in Kentucky on time, she “arrived too late to take care of the matters.” She therefor sought $500 in damages, the amount offered to “a passenger, Mrs. Laura Fisher, at Richmond, Ind. a few weeks ago.” These 1927 cases highlighted Indiana’s increasing segregation and the daily battles African Americans waged-and sometimes won-to obtain equal privileges.
Check back February 16 to learn about Indianapolis Public Schools, residential segregation, and forced busing in the 1970s.
Women have been consistently left out of the story of the Hoosier state. On paper, historians agree that including the histories of women and other marginalized groups provides a more complete understanding of the events that shaped our communities, state, and world. However, in practice, few historians are researching, publishing, or posting on women’s history. Having identified a dearth of resources on Indiana women’s history, organizers from various institutions, both public and private, came together to develop an annual conference. This conference strives to energize the discussion of Indiana women’s history and make the papers, presentations, and other resources resulting from the conference available to all Hoosiers. This year, the Indiana Historical Bureau and the Indiana State Library will host the second annual Hoosier Women at Work Conference.
This conference also aims to address and work towards correcting the pervasive lack of resources on Indiana women’s history. Even historians sensitive to the issue often follow established practices of treating the history of government and business and military as the “real” and “significant” history. However, these are areas where women have been categorically denied entrance or discriminated against directly or through lack of education or opportunities. These areas exclude women of color, poor women, and native women even more disproportionately than white women of means. To point out our own complicity, of the over 600 state historical markers created by our agency, only thirty-nine are dedicated to women’s history. Several are simply wives or mothers of influential male notable Hoosiers, some only tangentially include women, and only ten include native women or women of color. We have work to do too.
It is essential that we, as historians who want a complete picture of the history of our state, do the work – the digging through newspapers, letters, photographs, and interviews; the comparing, analyzing, interpreting, writing, posting, and publishing; and the pushing back, organizing, and speaking up – to tell these stories at the local level. These are the stories that in turn inform the national narrative of who we are as Americans and world citizens. Half the story is missing!
Write an article, make a podcast, start a blog, edit a Wikipedia page, and join us for the Hoosier Women at Work Conference to hear speakers on a myriad of women’s topics and get inspired to contribute to the Hoosier story.
The Hoosier Women at Work 2017 Conference: Science, Technology, and Medicine
On April 1, 2017, the Indiana Historical Bureau and the Indiana State Library will host a symposium on the history of Indiana women at work in the fields of science, technology, and medicine. The one-day conference aims to expand the scholarship and ignite discussion on topics as diverse as inventors/inventions; medical breakthroughs; agriculture and technology; public health; sanitation; exposure to hazardous materials in the work place; access to medical care; hospitals; women’s access to training and employment in any of these fields; and the impact of science, technology, and medicine on complicating or improving women’s lives.
The keynote speaker is Sharra Vostral, Associate Professor of History, Purdue University and author of Under Wraps: A History of Menstrual Hygiene Technology. The conference will take place at the Indiana State Library and Historical Building in downtown Indianapolis and registration is open now. Visit www.in.gov/history/hoosierwomenatwork to register and check back for updates.
On December 17, 1942, the Indianapolis Times noted that Pulitzer-Prize winning author Booth Tarkington was not only a master novelist, but a “student of human nature.” This is evident in the pieces he penned for local newspapers regarding his belief that national isolationism contributed to global war. Prior to America’s involvement in World War II, during the conflict, and following the United States use of the atomic bomb to end it, Tarkington continually plead for national engagement as a way to prevent future bloodshed.
Tarkington knew a thing or two about political activism. Born in Indianapolis in 1869, he earned widespread literary acclaim with his first novel TheGentleman from Indiana (1899). The popularity of this book and his successive Monsieur Beaucaire proved enough to win election to the Indiana House of Representatives in 1902. The Columbus Republic noted that although Tarkington “is unknown to the party workers, the fame of his stories have been sufficient to land him a nomination.” He easily won the elected office without campaigning, but served only one session after becoming completely disillusioned with politics. However, he utilized his legislative experience as material for his 1905 book, In The Arena, which was set in a fictional midwestern legislature.
Although he stepped away from the Statehouse, Tarkington’s political activism never waned, particularly regarding America’s involvement in war. Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he lent his voice to the American minority that supported engagement in the war. He traced the growing European conflict back to the United States’ decision not to join the League of Nations, an international organization proposed by President Woodrow Wilson after World World I. The League sought to prevent war by providing “a forum for resolving international disputes.” According to Tarkington, America’s retreat from the international sphere created a “pacifist nation.” He wrote, “There grew up a belief that it was a kind of a silly war, and that England led us into it. Then war was made disreputable.” This detachment, he said, led Americans to overlook legitimate national security threats.
The U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian noted that a “combination of the Great Depression and the memory of tragic losses in World War I contributed to pushing American public opinion and policy toward isolationism.” Sensitive to this, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to keep America out of the war abroad and convinced Congress to pass the Lend-Lease Bill in March 1941. The bill enabled the United States to dispatch badly-needed arms and war supplies in an attempt to the help Britain defeat Hitler’s forces and to stall its own military engagement.
Appraising the Lend-Lease Bill, Tarkington posited in April 1941 via the Indianapolis Star that simply supplying arms would likely prove too little too late, noting “Having done our best to keep out of war, we now either take another chance of getting into it or await our own turn with the Nazis, which might not mean a long waiting.” He added, “Every intelligent American knows now . . . that his country and his family and he, himself, are imperiled by Hitler’s will to ruin them for the aggrandizement of Nazi power.”
On December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor forced the United States into military involvement. Congress declared war on Japan the following day. Tarkington noted in an interview published in the Indianapolis Star in January 1942 that “the day of isolationism is past, whether you like it or not.” He conflated America’s absorption into the conflict abroad with his move from his house on Pennsylvania Street to Meridian Street in Indianapolis, stating that his old “neighborhood is almost downtown. It was considered some distance out in earlier years . . . The same thing is happening in the world today. There are more people-the world is more concentrated.”
After learning of the casualties of WWII, Tarkington suggested in December 1942, that engagement proved more necessary than ever because humans are “self-seeking” and “still pretty close to prehistoric savagery.” Unchecked, they were “‘slashing at each other’s jugular veins'” and countries had “gone back to wholesale murder.” Tarkington put his money where his mouth was, in terms of engagement, as the motorboat at his Maine home was “commandeered for an auxiliary flotilla to discourage submarines along the coast. Mr. Tarkington went out almost every day to do his bit at ‘soldiering.'”
The Hoosier author looked towards the conclusion of the war, having no doubt that the Allies would win. He again returned to the idea of the League of Nations, noting “We’re going to justify Woodrow Wilson . . . The country is ready to do that now.” Americans had been hesitant to join such a council for fear of losing autonomy, but Tarkington felt that American interests could be assured while collaborating with nations to stamp out global aggression.
A member of the Indiana Committee for Victory, Tarkington posed a question to Indiana Republican candidates for Congress on April 30, 1944. He asked, via the Indianapolis Star, “How shall the United States obtain a peace that will be permanent?” He proposed his own plan, which involved the United States passing a law to outlaw war and inviting other nations to form an organization “in which every concurring nation should have the same number of representatives.”
According to his proposal, all nations would disarm and “any country making war or preparing to make war, no matter in what cause, would bring down upon itself the overwhelming force of all the rest of the world.” Tarkington’s question became increasingly important after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In a piece for the Indianapolis News, entitled “Fools Will Burn,” Tarkington wrote “that fire flash lets us know that we are crossing a strange threshold, stumbling dazed into a new period promptly to be more dangerous to man than the Ice age or the too near approach of a comet.”
In this article, Tarkington challenged the long-held assumption that advancements in weaponry could prevent war by generating fear of increasingly-horrific repercussions. He lamented, “there were more wars; always there were governments that took the people into the new annihilation.” Tarkington considered Congress’s proposal to safeguard the process of developing an atomic bomb laughable. He lampooned this attempt at nuclear exclusivity as “comedy at its lamentable zenith and the bill should be passed by a convention of ostriches. Congress may as well pass a measure keeping electricity a secret and outlawing the use of gasoline engines in Persia.”
In Tarkington’s view, the only thing that could preclude military conflict was engaging with other nations and persuading them to outlaw war. He likened the global interdependence of the early atomic age to a “a family living in a house with walls irretrievably built of dynamite.” Family members who disliked each other had to be counted on to “walk softly” and “not to be irritating to one another.” The household, he suggested, would need an “impartial watchman” to ensure that “nobody jars the walls or has any possible chance to jar them. Disputes in the family would have to be settled without pummelings. Any physical violence at all might set off the dynamite.” This watchman, Tarkington concluded, should be the security council of the United Nations, which “must have complete control of the A-bomb.” On October 24, 1945, this council officially came into existence, when the United Nations Charter was ratified, creating an “international organization designed to end war and promote peace, justice and better living for all mankind.”
Tarkington died on May 19, 1946 in Indianapolis, shortly after the formation of the council. Tarkington’s concerns about nuclear proliferation are more relevant than ever and call to mind his 1945 assertion that “Only suicidal madmen would think A-bomb races with anybody an attractive idea. Mankind has a practical choice between suicide and peace.”
Indiana’s state flag waves from all corners of the state, from the Statehouse to a farmhouse in Selma. It has so proliferated the state’s landscape that it’s easy to assume it has flown since Indiana’s birth. However, it was not until 100 years after statehood that Indiana got a flag representative of the Hoosier people; and it was decades after that before the public recognized the design. We’ll examine why so much time elapsed before Hoosiers proudly hoisted blue and gold from their flagpoles.
We were surprised to learn that the U.S. flag was made Indiana’s official state flag by the Indiana General Assembly in 1901. This changed when, in 1914, Indiana Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) delegates Mary Stewart Carey, of Indianapolis, and Mrs. William Gaar, of Richmond, attended the 23rd Continental Congress of the National Society, DAR in Washington, D.C. At the conference they observed that the Memorial Continental Hall was decorated with state flags, but that Indiana was one of few states missing representation. The women returned to Indiana with the goal of obtaining a state banner that was representative and unique to Indiana, particularly in light of Indiana’s upcoming centennial of statehood. The Indianapolis News reported on March 11, 1916 that:
The Indiana Daughters of the American Revolution, and some other patriotic organizations, have decided that it is wholly suitable, and very desirable that the Indiana centennial observance should be lastingly marked by the creation and adoption of an Indiana state banner.
The Indiana DAR established a State Flag Committee, headed by Carey, and hosted a public competition for the design of a state banner. The Indianapolis News reported in 1916 that the DAR chapter was careful not to infringe on the existing state flag, reporting that the group:
[I]s not proposing the creation or adoption of a state flag. There is no disposition to try to share the place of the one flag, but there is a feeling that it is wholly appropriate to adopt an individual standard or banner. Other states—all of them thoroughly patriotic and loyal—have done so.
The committee offered a $100 award for the winning entry and received over 200 submissions from Hoosier men and women, as well as applicants from other states. Carey contended in a report of the State Flag Committee:
It is difficult to find a motive to be expressed on our banner, as Indiana has no mountain peak, no great lake or river exclusively its own—but it is possible to find some symbol expressive of its high character and noble history.
As the banner competition progressed, Carey urged contestants to submit simpler designs that could be “recognized at a distance, and simple enough to be printed on a small flag or stamped on a button.” She encouraged applicants to design banners “striking in symbolism” and utilize colors differing from those of the U.S. flag. Hadley’s submission met these suggestions, featuring a gold torch representing liberty atop a blue background. Radiating from the torch were thirteen stars on the outer circle to represent the thirteen original states, five stars in the inner circle to represent the states admitted before Indiana, and a larger star symbolizing the State of Indiana.
(In 1976, David Mannweiler of the Indianapolis News reported that Hadley’s additional submissions in 1916 won prizes for first, second, third and all honorable mention awards. Mannweiler noted that one of the entries included a tulip tree leaf and blossom and another featured an ear of corn with an Indian arrowhead).
After Hadley’s design was selected, it was submitted to the Indiana General Assembly in 1917 for approval and adoption as Indiana’s official state banner. The legislature ordered that the word “Indiana” be added above the star representing the state. The enacted law stated that the banner “shall be regulation, in addition to the American flag, with all of the militia forces of the State of Indiana, and in all public functions in which the state may or shall officially appear.” So as not to conflict with the 1901 legislation, the U.S. flag remained Indiana’s official state flag and Hadley’s design was referred to as the Indiana state banner. In 1955, the General Assembly approved an act making Hadley’s design the state flag of Indiana.
The flag’s designer was born August 5, 1880 in Indianapolis, but spent much of his life in Mooresville, Indiana. Hadley initially attended Indianapolis High School (later renamed Shortridge High School), but transferred to Manual Training High School to study under “Hoosier Group” artist Otto Stark. According to fine arts curator Rachel Berenson Perry, in the fall of 1900 Hadley enrolled in the Pennsylvania Museum and Industrial School of Arts in Philadelphia and studied interior decorating for two years, afterwards working as an interior decorator in Chicago.
Hadley returned to Mooresville and primarily painted watercolors of local landscapes, Some of the subjects he commonly depicted included cabins, streams, woods, outhouses, farmhouses and shrubbery. Perry reported that in 1921 Hadley’s studio in the Union Trust building in Indianapolis had become “well known among art enthusiasts.” The Indianapolis Star noted in December of that year that Hadley traveled through Italy, Switzerland, France, England and Belgium, painting water colors that he later exhibited at the Woman’s Department Club in Indianapolis. The Star article described the water colors:
Of charming quality and lovely color, a veritable delight as to design and pattern, likewise expressive of poetic feeling and an imaginative faculty that bespeaks the true artist, these pictures form an important series in the beautiful work coming from Mr. Hadley’s brush within the last few years that is indeed distinctive.
Hadley gained a reputation for his watercolors and frequently exhibited his work in Indianapolis. He participated in Indiana Artist Club exhibitions and belonged to the prestigious Portfolio Club. The Indianapolis Star Magazine and a Hoosier Salon booklet reported that Hadley received awards for his watercolors at the annual Hoosier Art Salon and Indiana State Fair. A 1922 Indianapolis Star article asserted that the winning Indiana State Fair pieces conveyed “freshness of outlook, evidence of fine color sense and a feeling for harmony and balance. His creative ability and versatility are evident in the handling of various subjects in different mediums.” That same year Hadley was invited to teach at the John Herron Art Institute, where Art Association of Indianapolis bulletins show he frequently exhibited watercolors.
Hadley joined the faculty of the John Herron Art Institute in the fall of 1922 as an interior decorating instructor. The Indianapolis Star reported in November of that year that he taught topics relating to “color design and arrangement of furniture in home interiors.”
In 1929, Hadley’s job at Herron transitioned to water-color instructor. According to The American Magazine of Art, a change in school administration in 1933 led to the dismissal of Hadley along with seven other professors, including “dean of Indiana painters” William Forsyth. Hadley transferred to the Art Institute’s museum in 1932, working as assistant curator.
An Indianapolis Star Magazine article, published in 1951, highlighted the prevalence of his work, stating that “there is a Hadley water color in most of the Indianapolis high schools, and a large one is in the John Herron Art Institute.” The article added that Hadley’s “products are in demand everywhere. Many established artists regard him as a great teacher, partially responsible for their own successes. He is regarded as one of the best water color technicians of the Middle West.” David Mannweiler noted similarly in his 1976 Indianapolis News article that Hadley is regarded as “dean of Hoosier watercolor painters.”
Hadley’s banner submission was met with some apathy, as the Attica Ledger noted in 1917 that:
there were several of the lawmakers that were not enthusiastic over the proposition for a state flag and Gov[ernor James P.] Goodrich himself thought so little of the proposition that he allowed it to become a law without his signature.
Similarly, the Hoosier public remained largely unaware of the emblem. The Ledger suggested that same year that most readers would not recognize the banner if they passed it. The Indianapolis News reported at the end of 1917 that the banner had yet to be publicly displayed (having only been exhibited at a DAR convention) until Carey presented it to the crew of the U.S.S. Indiana. Perry noted that after Carey’s gesture the banner “virtually disappeared from public consciousness for several years.” Indianapolis newspapers reported in 1920 that the public remained generally unaware of the banner’s existence. The Indianapolis News asserted that “probably not one person in a thousand knows what the state flag is.” An Indianapolis Star article lamented the banner’s lack of visibility, stating:
[I]n the four years that have elapsed since the centennial celebration, this flag has never been displayed at a public gathering with the exception of the celebration of the centennial of Indiana [U]niversity, and then, through the instrumentality of a pageant master from another state. It was not seen during the Indianapolis centennial celebration, nor during the recent encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. . . The flag is not to be found in the Statehouse . . . some one in authority should see that this flag should be manufactured and should be displayed on all suitable occasions together with the flag of the United States.
The Indianapolis News reported in 1931 that members of the Mooresville Delta Iota Chapter of Tri Kappa made state banners to sell through their sorority. Member M.E. Carlisle stated “‘We have felt that the state banner has not been receiving the proper attention in the state’” and that “‘many people do not know that we have one and some that do would not recognize it if they saw it. Our idea is to acquaint the state with its banner.’”
Visibility of the banner increased somewhat when American soldiers serving overseas in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War requested it as a symbol of home and solidarity. The Indianapolis Star reported in 1942 that:
When Hoosier soldiers gather in USO headquarters or other recreation spots, the Indiana flag of blue and gold is a symbol of home, displayed much more widely now than it was during World War No. 1. Viewing the banner prompts handclasps which are the beginning of friendships, stories of people at home, and singing of ‘On the Banks of the Wabash.’
The banner was sent to Hoosier soldier Private First Class Edman R. Camomile, serving in the Korean War, who flew it from a hilltop on the war front. He stated “‘It is the most wonderful thing that could happen to me. Just knowing the United States flag and all 48 state flags are flying high over different areas of Korea shows that they all stand for peace to all mankind.’” According to the News, an unofficial query showed that the state did not mass produce the flag and that they were made only when ordered, speaking to the continuing lack of demand for the emblem. Marine Corporal Tony Fisher, fighting in the Vietnam War, requested an Indiana flag. He flew it over his gun pit, returning it “tattered and torn and perhaps bullet nicked.”
By 1966, many Hoosiers recognized Hadley’s design because of concerted efforts by the Indiana legislature to encourage celebration of the state’s sesquicentennial. On February 24, 1965, the Indiana House of Representatives approved a resolution stating observance of the sesquicentennial “should include widespread display of the State Flag of Indiana throughout the State.” The resolution directed state-funded institutions and schools to purchase and display the flag. Additionally, the Indiana Senate approved a resolution honoring Hadley for his design, stating “in connection with the observation of the Sesquicentennial Celebration in 1966, [the Senate] does hereby honor and commend Mr. Paul Hadley, an octogenarian citizen of the State of Indiana, for his brilliant and perceptive work in designing the official flag of the State of Indiana.”
The measures were largely successful in bringing awareness to the flag. A June 2, 1966 Indianapolis News article reported “almost any school child can recite the significance of the present official flag” and that “today it is known by all public-spirited Hoosiers of all ages.” The Delphi Journal noted that the state flag, purchased by the “Sesqui” group, was on display and would be exhibited at the REMC auditorium. The Tipton Tribune informed readers that the Sesquicentennial Queen would be delivering a tribute to Hadley. The anniversary of statehood was commemorated on a national scale at the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California with a float depicting the state flag and other symbols of Indiana. The flag continues to be used publicly to represent and celebrate the Hoosier state, such as its display at the 2015 Statehood Day, an event that kicked off Indiana’s bicentennial celebration.
Check out IHB’s new historical marker and corresponding notes to learn more about the flag and its designer.
We’ve compiled our top 10 most read Blogging Hoosier History posts. We are searching for guest bloggers to kick off 2017, so check out the Guest Blogger Guidelines if you think you could be a good fit. Thank you for your readership!
During WWII at the Charlestown smokeless powder ordnance facility, women and African American employees, groups that often faced exclusion or discrimination in the workplace, contributed to the plant’s nationally-recognized production accomplishments.
Elvis Presley, known around the world as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, thrilled audiences for decades with his legendary swagger, good looks, and unique vocal stylings. Among his many concerts over the years, the one that garners much historical attention is his final performance, which occurred at Indianapolis’s Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977. His concert, to a crowd of nearly 18,000 people, inspired copious press attention.
The German-American community in Indianapolis, largely a product of mid-nineteenth century immigration, had a strong heritage of freethought (open evaluation of religion based on the use of reason). In particular, Clemens Vonnegut, the patriarch of the Vonnegut family and lifelong freethinker, openly displayed his religious dissent through writings and community activism. This, in turn, influenced his family and the literary style of his great-grandson, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, especially the younger man’s ideas concerning God, religion, science, and ethics.
Aside from two visits in 1844 and 1861, most Lincoln fans would be hard-pressed to identify the other time that Lincoln visited Indiana for political purposes. It happened on September 19, 1859 in Indianapolis, where he delivered a speech so obscure that it was largely forgotten until 1928 when a researcher rediscovered it in an issue of a short-lived Indianapolis newspaper, the Daily Evening Atlas.
William “Bill” Monroe’s Hoosier roots run deep. While Bill was born and raised in Kentucky, he moved to northwest Indiana in 1929 when was he was just eighteen years old. His brother Charlie started a job at the Sinclair Oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, and sent for Bill and their other brother, Birch. It was the start of the Great Depression, and the crowds outside the refinery of eager job seekers grew large enough that the police moved them so the street cars could get through.
As population increased, so did discrimination against African Americans in Indiana, prompting the Indiana General Assembly to pass prohibitive laws. Land ownership offered African Americans the opportunity to circumvent this oppression. James Overall, a free black man, purchased land in Corydon, Indiana as early as 1817 before moving and acquiring land in Indianapolis in 1830. The ownership of land afforded him prominence in his community, as did his work as a trustee for the African Methodist Episcopal church.
On April 30, the Lincoln funeral train passed into Indiana where Lincoln spent much of his youth (1816-1830). The War Department directed: “The route from Columbus to Indianapolis is via the Columbus and Indianapolis Railroad, and from Indianapolis to Chicago via Lafayette and Michigan Railroad. In order to guard against accidents, trains will not run faster than twenty miles per hour.” The train stopped in Richmond first, at 3 a.m., to the sound of tolling bells and a crowd of somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 people. Here, Governor Oliver P. Morton and almost 100 elected officials paid their respects. The governor and other several other high-ranking officials boarded the train for the trip to the state capital.
Long before Indiana Governor ran as vice president, another Hoosier sought the office in 1852. Centerville’s George Washington Julian was a radical political leader defined by his strong moral convictions. During a period marked by slavery, Civil War, monopolies, and discrimination against African Americans, immigrants, and women, Julian tirelessly advocated for abolition, equal rights, and land reform. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1849-1851, served as an attorney in several fugitive slave cases in the 1850s (one which included a daring escape plan), ran for vice president on the Free Soil ticket in 1852, and again served as the U.S. House from 1861-1871.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson made history when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Robinson set the precedent, and in the years following, many African American athletes would follow his lead to join professional league teams. In 1948, just one year after Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, Indiana witnessed its own trailblazer in sports, as Shelbyville’s Bill Garrett broke the ironically named “gentleman’s agreement” that had barred African Americans from playing Big Ten college basketball.
Women’s rights advocate, poet, and author of “Paddle Your Own Canoe” and “Indiana,” Sarah T. Bolton was born as Sarah Barrett in Newport, Kentucky circa 1814. Her family moved to Indiana when she was a young child, and when much of the state was still unsettled. According to the Life and Poems of Sarah T. Bolton, while growing up on her family’s farm near Vernon, she was exposed to the pioneer experience, living in a log house and clearing the fields.
Beulah Bondi’s is not a recognizable name today, but her face certainly is. You’ve likely seen it in classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The Valparaiso, Indiana native portrayed Jimmy Stewart’s mother four times on film, including Vivacious Lady and Of Human Hearts, in addition to Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith. According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, Stewart affectionately called Bondi “Mom.” By the ripe old age of 39, Bondi was cast to play characters well beyond her age and she became the equivalent of “Hollywood’s mother,” despite herself never marrying or having children.
“America’s greatest character actress,” according to United Artists, MGM, and Paramount, was born Beulah Bondy in 1888. She got her start at the age of seven as “Little Lord Fauntleroy” at Valparaiso’s Memorial Opera House. After the lead actress fell ill, she had one week to memorize 47 pages worth of lines and became hooked on acting after delivering them on the stage. The young actress was drawn to “dramatics” and the stage throughout her public education, including her time at the Convent of the Holy Name and Valparaiso University.
After graduation from university, she traveled the Midwest with a theatrical touring company. The Valparaiso Vidette Messenger reported that she changed her last name to “Bondi” at the suggestion of an Indianapolis journalist. Bondi noted, laughing, that “‘He said all of the letters in my name should be above the [credit] line.”
Following her work with an Indianapolis stock theater company, Bondi began her professional acting career in 1919. She was promptly informed by her first director that she “‘had no more talent than on the head of a pin.'” This criticism equipped her to endure even the most difficult directors of stage and film. In 1925, Bondi made her Broadway debut, beginning a prolific Broadway career that would eventually deliver her to Hollywood acclaim. According to the Valparaiso Vidette Messenger, film producer Samuel Goldwyn viewed her Broadway performance as a bigoted neighbor in the three-year run of Elmer Rice’s “Street Scene” and brought her to Hollywood.
From “dowagers to harridans,” Bondi deliberately chose character work, embodying each of the characters she played. In 1929, the Valparaiso Vidette Messenger printed excerpts of colorful New York reviews of Bondi’s portrayals:
“As a catty and scandal mongering neighbor Miss Beulah Bondi never overplays a role that would tease a lesser actress to do so.”
“Beulah Bondi who was so good in ‘Saturday’s Children’ and so amusing in ‘Cock Robin,’ turns out a gossipy busy body with remarkable detail and rare effect.”
In “Street Scene:” “the comedy relief is intrusted [sic] to the greatest character actress in America, Beulah Bondi. Hers was a magnificent performance.”
Bondi reflected in 1976 that “With each part, I ‘meet the woman’ for the first time when I read the script . . . And then I imagine her past life-what made her into the character she is.” She appeared in over 50 major films, appearing with Hollywood greats such as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyk, and of course her “son” Jimmy.
The Vidette Messenger noted that Bondi came to be greatly respected by directors because she:
“was never given ‘The Grand Build-up’ by inspired press agents. She is just one of the ‘old timers’ on the various lots, highly capable and highly dependable. Neither temperamental nor demanding, she is an actress to delight both producers and directors. She choses [sic] her parts with great discrimination, asking always the best, and always giving her best.”
Bondi received recognition and accolades for her supporting roles, receiving commendation by the New York Times for her role in the 1939 film On Borrowed Time, in which she played opposite Lionel Barrymore. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1936 for The Gorgeous Hussy and 1938 for Of Human Hearts. At the sunset of her career, Bondi received an Emmy award in 1977 for Outstanding Lead Actress for a Single Appearance in a Drama or Comedy Series for her portrayal as Aunt Martha on an episode of The Waltons.
The Vidette Messenger aptly concluded in 1976 that Bondi “deserves a place in the series of local celebrities-and unlike some who have gone off to conspicuous success in the entertainment world-she never belittled the town that was the scene of her childhood. She is a product of Valparaiso-and proud of it.” In her 80s, Bondi quipped to the newspaper that same year “‘I never played an actress my own age . . . I now play girls of 16.'” The acclaimed Hoosier passed away on January 12, 1981 in Hollywood, leaving behind a legacy of compelling silver screen characters.
In 1950, the Indianapolis Star asked its readers “Is your Christmas tree a Hoosier, too?” Turns out, there was a good chance it was. The article reported that by December 17, 1950, Indiana State Forests and private growers had already cut 100,000 pine trees for the Christmas season. How did the state get into the Christmas tree business?
German immigrants brought the Christmas tree tradition to America in the 1700s. However, the practice didn’t catch on for the rest of the nation until the mid-19th century when England’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, popularized it. In 1848, an illustration of the royal family celebrating around a Christmas tree appeared in the Illustrated London News. Eventually, putting up a Christmas tree spread from Britain to the United States as individuals sought to emulate the fashionable royal family.
By the time Christmas trees became a relatively common American tradition, American forests were dwindling, including in Indiana. European-American settlers had cleared much of Indiana’s original 20 million acres of forests for farming, fuel, and lumber by the mid-1800s. As forests disappeared, Americans began to realize the natural resources in their vast country were not inexhaustible. A new conservation ethic emerged, which championed rational use and planning of natural resources, including forests so enough lumber (and of course, Christmas trees) would be available for future generations.
For some, the new conservation ethic clashed with the Christmas tree tradition. How could conservationists approve chopping down hundreds of thousands of trees every December for the holiday festivities? According to legend, President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist, refused to have a Christmas tree in the White House because he was opposed to excessive lumbering practices. During his presidency, journalists speculated in newspapers whether the Roosevelt family would put up a tree. According to some accounts, in 1902, Roosevelt forbade his family to have a Christmas tree. In retaliation, Roosevelt’s son, Archie hid a tree in a closet, had a White House electrician hang some lights on it, and surprised his family with it on Christmas Day.
Hoosiers too were conflicted between their new commitment to conservation and love of holiday festivities. The first advertisements for Christmas trees for sale appeared in Indiana newspapers around the 1860s. At the same time, Christmas parties or festivals for children, all featuring Christmas trees and gift giving, began to be held.
On the other hand, Indiana started its state forestry program in 1901 and established the state’s first forest reservation in Clark County, later known as the Clark State Forest, in 1903. The state began experimental plantings at the state forest in 1904 to determine the trees best suited to Indiana soils and thus reforest the state.
As state foresters slowly repopulated the state with trees, Hoosiers debated whether they could be conservationists, without also being a Scrooge. James S. Whipple, state forest, fish, and game commissioner issued a statement in 1907 encouraging families to use artificial trees instead of cutting down young evergreen trees for the holidays. Whipple said “To destroy millions of these trees every year when we are in such need of more timber in this country . . . seems very wasteful.”
In 1911, the Angola Herald of Angola, Indiana printed an article titled “Sacrifice of the Christmas Trees,” complete with several photos of logging operations. One photo of a pile of freshly cut pines next to trucks laden with logs was captioned “Defacing Nature for a Night’s Pleasure.” The article asked “Will the children in 1925 have Christmas trees? . . . Indications point to the supposition that within the next 15 years the supply of the evergreen trees with which we deck our living rooms annually at the feast of St. Nicholas will be so small that folk in ordinary walks of life will not be able to afford a tree.” The article noted that trees were so scarce on the east coast and Midwest, most Christmas trees had to be imported from Canada.
Luckily, most Hoosier conservationists recognized the beloved Christmas tree could be used to advance forestry in the state. Frank N. Wallace, the state entomologist, frankly told the Indianapolis News in 1924 “Let’s have Christmas trees.” Wallace said he believed the Christmas tree custom “can be utilized as a boom to forestation, for the American Christmas traditions are built around the tree and in order that future generations may have the privileges of the present generation,” the present generation must support reforestation. The next year, esteemed botanist and state forester Charles C. Deam encouraged the local communities to begin growing enough Christmas trees to satisfy local demand. Deam noted that large waste lands unsuitable for agriculture all over Indiana could be used to grow common Christmas tree varieties, including Norway spruce, white spruce, balsam fir, and Douglas fir. Since prices on imported fir and spruce had increased that year by 30%, Christmas tree farming could be quite profitable for the Hoosier economy.
Christmas tree farms began to spread across the state, especially after World War II. State foresters provided guidance on forestry management, tree trimming and cutting. Farmers could jumpstart their Christmas tree farm by purchasing and planting pine seedlings nurtured at one of several state forests. However, farmers had to be dedicated; growing a Christmas tree was time consuming. In 1964, Outdoor Indiana featured the Bob Kern Christmas Tree Farm in Fulton County, Indiana. Kern established his farm in about 1947. He managed 400 acres of Scotch and white pine, as well as other species of spruce and fir. Kern emphasized Christmas tree growing was so difficult because farmers had to pay particular attention to cultivating richly colored, symmetrical trees that consumers would want in their homes. Weeds had to kept down and each tree pruned to its desired taper. Furthermore, a six foot tree generally took at least six years to grow. Since it took so much time to produce just one tree, seedlings had to be planted soon after a tree was cut to replace it.
While Christmas trees survived the conservation era, similar doubts arose in the 1970s during the environmental movement. Postwar affluence fueled by factories, cars, and consumer goods resulted in increasingly polluted water, air, and land. Growing numbers of people, including Hoosiers, lobbied for stronger environmental legislation and adopted new practices, like recycling, to reduce their impact on their natural surroundings. Some still worried cutting down trees for the holidays had a detrimental impact on the environment.
EJ Lott, Purdue University Extension forester assured environmentalists in 1972 that for every tree cut, two or three more were planted the next spring to replace it. He emphasized that “an acre of growing Christmas trees will produce daily oxygen requirements for 18 people.” Furthermore, tree plantations provided not only aesthetically pleasing landscapes, but quality habitats for wildlife. In reality, Christmas trees were a crop, just like soybeans or corn. As long as consumers bought trees, Christmas tree farmers would plant even more to replace those they harvested. As the Herald of Jasper Indiana noted succinctly,
If there was no market for Christmas trees, growers would not plant them. Enjoy your tree.
Environmentalists also attempted to halt the tendency to burn or throw out Christmas trees once the holidays were over. Various groups in Indiana began fitting Christmas trees into the new “reduce, reuse, recycle” attitude. In Anderson, Indiana, the League of Women Voters started a tree recycling program in 1972. Instead of throwing out old Christmas trees, they would be chopped up into chips for mulch that could be used later in landscaping and gardening. The Anderson Daily Bulletin noted that “by recycling these trees, we’re not wasting a valuable natural resource and actually are saving taxpayers’ money by not using up much-needed space in the city landfill.” To raise awareness, League of Women Voters members put tags on Christmas trees for sale that asked future owners to recycle the tree once the Christmas season was over. In 1973, the group reported that they had recycled over 700 trees. In a letter to the editor featured in the Anderson Daily Bulletin, the co-chairman of the group wrote “While other cities were still burning trees, Anderson was taking a step forward in ecology.” Other organizations encouraged the purchase of living Christmas trees that one could replant in a park or their backyard after the holiday season was over.
Some practices from the conservation era and environmental movement endure in Indiana. Today, the Indiana Christmas Tree Growers Association recommends buying a Hoosier tree to support the local economy and recycling it after the holidays. The Association lists almost 50 Hoosier Christmas tree farms on its website. It also notes Indiana ranks 11th in the nation for Christmas tree production, and produces 200,000 harvestable trees a year. Apparently, a lot of people can still say their tree is a Hoosier, too.
In May 1943, Indiana newspapers advertised a new pool of workers who could alleviate the farm labor crisis caused by World War II. Hoosier farmers just had to provide equipment, tools, materials, and transportation. The only snag? The new laborers were Italian prisoners of war that Allied troops had recently captured in North Africa. These prisoners were currently interned at Camp Atterbury, a military training camp just outside Edinburgh, Indiana. Would the enemy soon fill Hoosier fields, picking tomatoes and detasseling corn? The Franklin Evening Star speculated
It is entirely likely that more than one farmer will apply for this Italian labor. The farmers are badly behind their work…Industry and the draft have created a serious farm labor shortage at the very time most farmers are trying to increase production…for the food needed for victory.
Farmers across the nation felt the pressure of wartime demands. In addition to soldiers, an unprecedented number of workers were needed to produce food, clothing, supplies, and munitions for troops. Balancing all these demands proved difficult. The Bureau of Agriculture reported that between April 1940 and July 1942, two million men had left their agricultural jobs for employment in the military or war industries. Reports surfaced of farmers unable to get all their work done without additional help. The Tribune in Seymour Indiana reported that a Maryland farmer, “another victim of the manpower situation,” had to plow under thirty five acres of beans after his call for pickers came up empty. Hoosier farmers hoped the situation wouldn’t repeat in Indiana.
Meanwhile, the federal government emphasized farmers’ need to produce more, despite the labor shortages, to help win the war. President Roosevelt created Farm Mobilization Day on January 12, 1943. He declared “food is the life line of the forces that fight for freedom.” Soon after, the Office of War Information produced pamphlets, posters, and films filled with catchy slogans like “Food Fights for Freedom!” “Food is a Weapon-don’t waste it!” and “Raising Food is a Real Job!” The government created various labor programs, including the Women’s Land Army and the Bracero Program, to mobilize civilian women and Mexican guest workers respectively to help fill the void on the nation’s farms.
After the US entered the war in 1941, prisoner of war (POW) labor became another possible solution to the labor crisis. The first POW arrived in the country in April 1942 from the Pacific. As the war continued, up to 30,000 POWs arrived in the US each month from battlefields abroad. The War Department decided to utilize this labor force and created camps across the nation to bring POWs work sites across the nation. At the war’s end, nearly 425,000 Japanese, Italian, and German POWs were held in prisoner of war camps across 46 states.
Hoosier farmers and food processors jumped at the chance to hire the first of many POWs to arrive in Indiana, despite their enemy status. In Johnson County alone, 250 people attended a meeting on May 24, 1943 to discuss the farm labor shortage and to learn how to register for potential POW labor from Camp Atterbury. After POWs filled positions within the camp to keep it running, such as bakers and cooks, launderers, repairmen, and gardeners, the rest could be employed outside the camp at local farms and factories. To the dismay of many farmers, at first the POWs could only work within a 25 mile radius of the camp. They picked apples, beans, and tomatoes, and hoed, detasseled, and picked corn. However, since their labor became so vital, the radius was soon lifted. In the summer of 1943, some Italian POWs also worked in tomato and corn canning plants as far away as Austin and Elwood, Indiana.
POW labor came with stipulations. POWs could not engage in dangerous work or labor that directly benefited the war effort. They could also only be employed in cases where civilian labor could not be found. In addition, farmers paid the US Treasury and the War Department the standard prevailing wage in the area so POWs would not usurp local, civilian labor. In turn, those departments paid the POWs 10 cents an hour, up to 80 cents per day for their labor, which was less than the prevailing wage.
POWs did not receive cash, but scrip they could spend only at their camp’s canteen. The War Department reinvested canteen profits back into the camps, often to buy “extras” to occupy the POWs in their spare time, such as musical instruments, art supplies, sports equipment, and books. In time, the POWs organized their own choral contests, soccer and volleyball leagues, and boccie ball games.
Canteen profits may have been used to finance construction of a small chapel POWs built at Camp Atterbury in 1943. Most of the POWs at the camp were Catholic and wanted a place of their own to attend daily Mass. Prior to construction, prisoners held mass in their rec room and had an altar in an open field. POWs who were employed as skilled artisans before the war designed and built a new brick and stucco 11’x16’ foot chapel for worship. They also painted frescos inside on the ceiling and walls. The chapel still stands at Camp Atterbury.
Entertainment, rations as large as American enlisted men’s, and payment for labor sprouted media reports accusing the War Department of “coddling” the POWs. However, the War Department had logical reasons for providing proper treatment to the POWs in their care besides abiding by stipulations of the Geneva Convention, which laid out rules for proper POW care. Providing good food, leisure activities, and small payment for their work promoted internal camp security and helped sustain a more productive POW labor force. Leaders also hoped good treatment of POWs at home would encourage similar treatment of American prisoners abroad in enemy hands.
Italy’s surrender to Allied forces in the fall of 1943 threatened Hoosier food producers’ new labor supply. In February of 1944, the War Food Administration advised farmers not to count on Italian POW labor during the upcoming summer. After surrender, Italy became a “cobelligerent” nation and joined the Allied forces. The Italians at Camp Atterbury and across the nation were no longer really prisoners of war, but still were not free until the war ended. Italy’s new leader, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, encouraged all former Italian POWs to help the Allied cause and join labor battalions, called Italian Service Units. Italians were still guarded by American soldiers like other POWs, but now could perform labor that directly benefited the war effort and received other benefits, like increased wages. The War Department began to transfer Italians at Camp Atterbury in January 1944 to these units. All were gone by May 4.
Soon after, German POWs arrived and replaced the Italian POWs, just in time to help out in the fields during peak production months in the summer and fall. Several smaller, temporary camps, called “branch camps” were established at Austin, Windfall, Vincennes, Eaton, and Morristown, Indiana to bring some of the Camp Atterbury POWs closer to additional work sites across the state. By October, there were nearly 9,000 POWs in the Camp Atterbury system. Living conditions at the branch camps were less accommodating than Camp Atterbury, which contained proper barracks, a recreation room and a mess hall. Since the branch camps were temporary, POWs often lived in tents close to their work sites. At the Austin camp, prisoners lived in a fenced area behind the Morgan Packing Company where many of them worked. At Windfall, a local farm across from the town’s high school served as the branch camp’s location.
The arrival of POWs made an impact on everyday life in these Indiana towns and influenced Hoosiers’ perception of the war. Windfall only had a population of 835 in 1940. 750 German POWs and 100 American guards arrived in the town on August 24, 1944, doubling the town’s population. The POWs arrived by train late at night. Gretchen Cardwell, Windfall native, remembered nearly everyone in the area came to town to watch the POWs step off the train and march to the camp. As the train whistle sounded, she remembered
“The crowd of onlookers grew silent. It was almost as if everyone held his breath as we awaited the sight of our hated enemies. This group was quite different than we expected.”
Instead of proud, haughty, frightening enemy soldiers Gretchen recalls seeing missing buttons, tears and tatters in their uniforms and slumping shoulders. “It was hard to accept this new vision of the enemy.”
As the POWs began working in fields and factories in communities across Indiana, native Hoosiers began to identify similarities between them and the enemy. Farmers appreciated the hard work ethic many of the POWs exhibited harvesting tomatoes and detassling corn. At Windfall, POWs worked in 40 food processing plants in the area. In Morristown, 400 POWs worked at 17 canning plants. POWs peeled and packed tomatoes, canned corn and peas. At the Morgan Packing Plant in Austin, POWs stacked cans in the warehouse, cooked tomatoes before they were canned, helped run the labeling machine, and loaded canned tomatoes for shipping. When the German POWs returned to Camp Atterbury in the fall of 1944, locals at Windfall admitted they would miss the POWs, especially “the outdoor concerts of a large chorus of voices” of the prisoners singing as they worked or rested in the evening.
By the end of the war, more than half of all the prisoners of war held in the US during World War II provided essential agricultural manpower. Farmers saw POW labor as so essential, President Truman eventually gave into pressure and kept them in the states to work in farms, canneries, and food processing plants through the fall of 1945 and into 1946 before repatriation. In all, POWs saved hundreds of acres of crops from going to waste, in Indiana and the nation.
See Part I to learn about Roberta West Nicholson’s efforts to educate the public about sexual health, her Anti-Heart Balm Bill, and the sexism she faced as the only woman legislator in the 1935-1936 Indiana General Assembly.
Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from Nicholson’s six-part interview with the Indiana State Library.
At the conclusion of Nicholson’s term in the Indiana House of Representatives, the country was still in the grip of the Great Depression. Nicholson recalled witnessing a woman standing atop the Governor Oliver P. Morton Statue at the Statehouse to rally Hoosiers from across the state to press Governor Paul McNutt for jobs. She was struck by the fact that the woman was wearing a flour sack as a dress, on which the Acme Evans label was still visible.
To see for herself if conditions were as dire as she’d heard-despite some local newspapers denying the extent of the poverty-Nicholson took a job at a canning factory. There she learned that the “economic condition was as bad or worse than I had feared.” She hoped to ease this struggle as the Director of Women’s and Professional Work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
As Director, she got further confirmation about the impoverished conditions of Hoosiers during a visit to a transient shelter on Capitol Avenue. She reported:
I couldn’t tell you the dimensions of it, but there were fifteen hundred men on the move that were in this one room and there wasn’t room for them to sit down, much less lie down. They stood all night. They just were in out of the weather. You see, these men were on the move because one of the things about that Depression was that there was lack of real communication, and rumors would go around for blue collar work and they’d say, “They’re hiring in St. Louis,” which proved to be incorrect.
In her role at the Indiana WPA, Nicholson managed all jobs undertaken by women and professionals, which included bookbinding and sewing. She also helped supervise the WPA’s Writer’s Project, consisting of a group of ex-teachers and writers who compiled an Indiana history and traveler’s guide. This project was led by Ross Lockridge Sr., historian and father of famous Raintree County author, Ross Lockridge Jr. Nicholson noted that Lockridge Jr.’s book “had more to do with making me fall in love with my adopted state than anything I can tell you.”
One of Nicholson’s largest tasks involved instructing WPA seamstresses to turn out thousands of garments for victims of the Ohio River Flood in 1937. The workers were headquartered at the State Fair Grounds, where the flood victims were also transported by the Red Cross during the disaster. Nicholson noted that many of the women of the sewing project worked because their husbands had left the family as “hobos,” traveling across the country to look for work; in order to support their families the women made clothes for the “next lower strata of society.”
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited their WPA Project, headquartered at the RCA building. The 1500 women continued their work as though nothing were different. Mrs. Roosevelt’s approval seemed to validate the project, especially since the women “were constantly being made fun of for boondoggling and not really doing any work and just drawing down fifty dollars a month.” Nicholson spoke with the First Lady throughout day, concluding “I’ll never forget what a natural, lovely and simple person she was, as I guess all real people are. I was pretty young and it seemed marvelous to me that the president’s wife could be just so easy and talk like anybody else.”
In the early 1940s, Governor Henry F. Schricker appointed Nicholson to a commission on Indianapolis housing conditions. The reformer, who grew up “without a scintilla of prejudice,” concluded that the real estate lobby was at the center of the disenfranchisement of African Americans. As she saw it in 1977, the lobby prevented:
[W]hat we now call ‘upward mobility’ of blacks. I don’t think we would have this school problem in Indianapolis we have now if the emerging class of blacks with education and with decent jobs had not been thwarted in their attempts to live other than in the ghetto. They were thwarted by the real estate laws.
She added that black residents were essentially prohibited to live “anyplace but in the circumscribed areas which the real estate lobby approved . . . And now we have school problems and I think it’s a crying shame that we put the burden for directing past injustices on the backs of little children.”
While World War II lifted the country out of the Depression, it magnified discrimination against African Americans. After passage of the Selective Service Act, the City of Indianapolis hoped to provide recreation for servicemen, creating the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center, on which Nicholson served. She noted that they were able to readily procure facilities for white regiments, such as at the Traction Terminal Building, but locating them for black troops proved a struggle.
Although a black regiment was stationed at Camp Atterbury near Edinburg, Indiana, Nicholson reported that:
The only place to go for any entertainment from Edinburg, Indiana is Indianapolis. Well, what were these black soldiers going to do? They couldn’t go to the hotels, they couldn’t go to any eating place. There was no question of integration at that point. It’s difficult to believe, but this is true; because the Army itself was segregated.
She recalled that her task was so difficult because “There was nowhere near the openness and generosity toward the black soldier that there was toward the white, although they were wearing the same uniform and facing the same kind of dangers.” Lynn W. Turner‘s 1956 “Indiana in World War II-A Progress Report,” reiterated this, describing:
[T]he shameful reluctance of either the USO or the nearby local communities to provide adequate recreational opportunities for Negro troops stationed at Camps Atterbury and Breckenridge and at George and Freeman Air Fields.
Upon this observation, Nicholson fought for black servicemen to be able to utilize the exact same amenities as their white counterparts. One of her tasks included providing troops with a dormitory in the city because “there was no place where these young black men could sleep.” After being turned away by various building owners, Nicholson was allowed to rent a building with “money from bigoted people,” but then came the “job of furnishing it.” With wartime shortages, this proved exceptionally difficult. Nicholson approached the department store L. S. Ayres, demanding bed sheets for the black servicemen. According to Nicholson, some of the Ayres personnel did not understand why the black troops needed sheets if they had blankets. She contended “the white ones had sheets and I didn’t see why the black ones should be denied any of the amenities that the white ones were getting.” Nicholson succeeded in procuring the sheets and a recreation facility at Camp Atterbury for African American soldiers.
Never one to bend to societal, political, or ideological pressure, Nicholson encountered vicious resistance in her support of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), a national network advocating for the education, safety, and health of children through programming and legislation. She noted that support of the organization was frowned upon in the state because:
[T]hese were the witch-hunting years, you know, and anything that came out of the federal government was bad, and in Indiana that feeling was rife. It was a matter of federal aid education and in Indiana there was a great deal of militant resentment of that federal aid education.
According to Nicholson, a coalition of institutions like the Chamber of Commerce and the Indianapolis Star, along with “some very rich, very ambitious women who wanted to get into the public eye” aligned to destroy the PTA in Indiana. Nicholson recalled that her support of the PTA on one occasion caused a woman to approach her and spit in her face. Ultimately, Nicholson’s opposition won, and defeated the PTA. Nicholson noted that as a result Indiana’s organizations were called “PTOs and they have no connection with the national.” At the time of her ISL interview, she lamented that “without that program for schools where disadvantaged children go, a lot of the schools just simply couldn’t function.”
Nicholson also described a brush with the Red Scare of the 1950s. In a series of articles, an Indianapolis Star journalist accused the State Welfare Department of “being riddled with communism and so forth.” Knowing she was affiliated with one of the women in the department, Governor Schricker summoned Nicholson to his office about the allegations. She noted that while the accused woman was “kinda kooky,” Nicholson was able to assure from “my own knowledge that these two women were possibly off in left field, but that I thought the whole operation was just as clean as anything in the world could be.”
In 1952, desiring respite from the city, the tireless reformer and her husband bought a broken down house in Brown County to fix up for weekend visits. After suffering from ulcers, likely from over-exertion, Nicholson officially retired as the first director of the Indianapolis Social Hygiene Association on December 31, 1960 (serving since 1943). Nicholson passed away in 1987, leaving a positive and enduring imprint on the city’s marginalized population.
Regarding her career, Nicholson combated allegations that she only did what she did because she wanted to be around men. Perhaps an apt summation of her life, Nicholson noted “My way was sort of greased-had a good name and had done some things. I had a reputation for being able to get things done.”