Guzzler’s Gin, Dunking Donuts, “I dood it!:” Red Skelton’s iconic characters and quips would not exist without the influence of his first wife Edna Stillwell. In fact, a Rochester, NY newspaper reported that Skelton insisted “he’d be a bum” without her Through Stillwell’s comedic and management muscle, Skelton went from an unknown circus performer to one of the most lauded comedians in television and film history.
Stillwell was born in Missouri on May 25, 1915. As a teenager she was attracted to show business and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported that she was head usherette at Pantages Theatre in Kansas City, where seventeen-year-old Skelton performed. Skelton recalled that she took an immediate disliking to him. At his next job, he served as master of ceremonies at a walkathon, where Stillwell happened to be working as cashier. He eventually convinced her to go on a date with him. Skelton cemented her affections when he chose her to kiss in a photoshoot. He recalled “‘I grabbed her and kissed her and it made me dizzy. This was it. This was love. I guess we both were dizzy. We got married.'”
The entertainer, at the time, was so poor that Stillwell had to pay for their marriage license. After the wedding she assumed the role of business manager, a duty she would continue to fill even after their 1944 divorce. According to the Democrat and Chronicle, the manager of a walkathon in St. Louis wanted to cut Skelton’s salary, prompting Stillwell to approach him and successfully demand more money. Skelton noted, “‘I told her I’d handle my own affairs. Only she shut me up with the news that I’d get $100 a week. She also tossed the boss into doing my dry cleaning.'” She eventually negotiated his walkathon pay up to $500 per week and invested his money in real estate. She also forced Skelton, a high school drop-out, to study and earn his high school degree. He admitted “‘pretty soon I didn’t feel like such a fool when I was in a room full of people talking about something besides burlesque.'”
Stillwell was just as formidable when it came to comedy writing. According to the Indianapolis Star, Skelton’s vaudeville run in Montreal was nearly cancelled after his first performance, so:
Red went back to his own individual style, which had put him over in vaudeville. And his wife in a moment of contempt for the old routines they were doing, said, ‘I could write better stuff than that,’ Red’s answer was “Why don’t you?’ also in sarcasm. But she did, and she has written his material ever since.
In a 1941 article, The Tennessean observed that “from several years of watching what tripe came down the pike on the old Pan circuit, Edna got some pretty definite ideas about what to avoid in a vaudeville skit.”
A newspaper piece by Ted Gill noted that soon after marrying, Stillwell dreamed up Skelton’s famous “Junior” character. When the couple strolled past stores Red could never “resist the urge to buy things” and if “Edna attempted to talk him out of it, he’d lie down on the sidewalk, kick his heels and make such a scene that he soon had scores of passersby in near-convulsions.” From then on Stillwell considered herself “Mommie” to his “Junior.” According to a 1942 Indianapolis Star article, Stillwell’s “Junior” sketch catapulted Skelton’s career forward and as she “schemed out that screamingly funny little boy burlesque-topped off by those three precious words, ‘I dood it!’-the name of Skelton fairly leaped from the bottom to the top of various radio comedian polls.” The article also mentioned that she helped mastermind Skelton’s “$50,000 doughnut dunking act,” after the couple dined at a Montreal cafe. The article stated that Stillwell and Skelton,
then playing together in small-time vaudeville, watched a diner as he slyly held his hat over his hand while he dunked, furtively looked around and then popped the soaked sinker into his mouth. The Skeltons doped out the outline of the act before they left the restaurant, polished it up in their hotel room that afternoon and presented it the same evening at the theater. It was an instantaneous hit and established Skelton as a top-line variety performer.
Writing material and coaching her husband from theater wings proved to be the steady hand Skelton needed to succeed in his career. Skelton’s biographer Wes Gehring contended that “Stillwell’s mid-1930s donut routine and other reality-based writing helped Skelton segue his skills into vaudeville, the next rung on the entertainment ladder.” He noted that “Working, performing, and traveling together as nomadic vaudevillians in the 1930s, the Skeltons were a team to reckon with.” By the late 1930s, the couple moved to Hollywood, where Skelton earned a notable $2,000 for appearing in the film Having Wonderful Time, alongside Ginger Rogers and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
In order to make money between films Skelton returned to the stage. Stillwell demanded he refuse any offer under $1,000, causing them to go without food for days. But staying the course paid off, as the Democrat and Chronicle reported, because Skelton “got a coast-to-coast radio program and soon he was clicking in vaudeville-and at Edna’s price.” Stillwell wrote for and appeared on Skelton’s popular radio show and had performed with him on Rudy Vallee‘s program. His national NBC show (featuring renowned radio and television pair Ozzie and Harriet Nelson), in tandem with his film Whistling in the Dark, catapulted Skelton to national fame in 1941. Gehring concluded that Stillwell also had a hand in his film success, stating that “True to Stillwell’s good instincts for her husband, she was the first to recognize just how effective he would be” in Whistling. The Indianapolis Star informed readers that year that “At his disposal at present are some 500 comedy routines all written by himself or his wife, with which he has been throwing Hollywood audiences, both on and off the screen, into hysterics.”
At the end of 1942, newspapers across the country announced that Stillwell had filed for divorce from her partner in comedy. The Dixon [Illinois] Evening Telegraph noted that she filed suit, “charging cruelty, but plans to continue to write the wit that has made his radio act famous,” which she did after the court finalized the divorce. The former couple even performed their original vaudeville routines at army camp shows in WWII to popular reception. Their professional relationship continued until 1952, one year after Skelton was given his own, groundbreaking television show. Gehring contended that their post-divorce work was “a mixed bag-a rousing success professionally, but a stressful distraction for each of their subsequent marriages.” Skelton married actress Georgia Maureen Davis and Stillwell married Hollywood film director Frank Borzage, who had directed Skelton in films like Flight Command.
Stillwell died in Los Angeles on November 15, 1982. Without “Mommie’s” aptitude and intuition, Skelton likely would never have “dood it!” Learn more about the funny man with our newest historical marker, located in Vincennes.
Spanish Influenza hit Indiana in September of 1918. While the virus killed otherwise healthy soldiers and civilians affected by WWI in other parts of the world since the spring, most Hoosiers assumed they were safe that fall. Still, newspaper headlines made people nervous and health officials suspected that the mysterious flu was on their doorstep.
In April of 1917, the United States joined the Allied effort. Residents of Indianapolis, like most Hoosiers, largely united around the war effort and organized in its support. In addition to registering for military service, the National Guard, and the Red Cross, they organized Liberty Loan drives to raise funds and knitting circles to make clothing for their soldiers. Farmers, grain dealers, and bankers met to assure adequate production and conservation of food. They improved the roads in order to mobilize goods for the war effort, including a road from Indianapolis to nearby Fort Benjamin Harrison located just nine miles northeast of downtown Indianapolis. This penchant for organization would be extremely valuable throughout the bleak coming months.
The U.S. Army constructed Fort Benjamin Harrison over a decade earlier with the intention of stationing one infantry regiment there. However, with America’s entry into the war, Fort Ben (as it was colloquially known) became an important training site for soldiers and officers. It also served as a mobilization center for both Army and National Guard units. In August 1918, just prior to the flu outbreak, the War Department announced that the majority of the fort would be converted into General Hospital 25. The Army planned for the hospital to receive soldiers native to Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois who would be returning from the front as wounded, disabled, or suffering from “shell shock.” By September, the newly established hospital was ready to receive a few hundred “wounded soldiers returning from France.” But the soldiers stationed there began to fall ill.
On September 26, 1918, the front page of the Indianapolis News announced unidentified cases of illness in training detachments stationed at the Indiana School for the Deaf, the Hotel Metropole, and Fort Benjamin Harrison. The detachment at the deaf school denied that men were infected with the deadly Spanish Influenza that was on the rise as soldiers returned to the U.S. from the front. The medical officers instead claimed “the ailment here is not as serious as that prevailing in the east.”
Despite this reassurance, the high number of cases was alarming. The major in command of the detachment issued a quarantine. The lieutenant from the hotel detachment also claimed that none of the illnesses there were caused by Spanish influenza. He referred to the cases as “stage fright,” as opposed to a full outbreak of the disease. At Fort Benjamin Harrison, sixty men suffered from influenza, but the Indianapolis News reported “none has been diagnosed as Spanish influenza and no case is regarded as serious.” The medical officers there reported “An epidemic is not feared.”
While the front page reassured the city’s residents that there was nothing to fear and that the military had everything under control, a small article tucked away on page twenty-two hinted at the magnitude of the coming pandemic. The body of twenty-seven-year-old Walter Hensley arrived in the city from a naval training detachment on the Great Lakes. He had died of Spanish Influenza. Only a few weeks later, Indianapolis would be infected with over 6,000 cases with Fort Benjamin Harrison caring for over 3,000 patients in a 300 bed facility before the end of the epidemic.
Indianapolis was not alone in its unpreparedness, as little was known about the strange flu. Influenza was certainly not uncommon, but most flu viruses killed the very young, sick, and elderly. The 1918 influenza, on the other hand, killed otherwise healthy young adults ages twenty to forty – precisely the ages of those crowded into military camps around the world. Furthermore, the disease could spread before symptoms appeared. Infected soldiers and other military personnel with no symptoms amassed in barracks and tents, on trains and ships, and in hospitals and trenches. As troops moved across the globe, so did the flu. It took on the name “Spanish influenza,” because unlike France and England, Spain did not censor reports of the outbreak.
While many modern historians and epidemiologists now believe the pandemic likely began in a crowded army camp in Fort Riley Kansas, Americans in 1918 feared its spread from Europe and took some unlikely precautions. On July 3, 1918, the South Bend News-Times assured its readers that a Spanish passenger liner that had arrived in an Atlantic port “was thoroughly fumigated and those on board subjected to thorough examination by federal and state health officers.” Such measures did little to stop the flu, however, and by September 14 the South Bend newspaper reported on several East Coast deaths from Spanish influenza. On the same day, the Indianapolis News printed a notice from the Surgeon-General Rupert Blue, head of the U.S. Public Health Service, offering advice for preventing infection. These public notices became routine over the following months of the pandemic. Among methods listed for preventing the spread of the disease, Blue recommended “rest in bed, fresh air, abundant food, with Dover’s powders for the relief of pain.” He also warned of the “danger of promiscuous coughing and spitting.”
Over the next few days, newspapers reported that the nation’s training camps were infected. On September 17, the Richmond Palladium and the Indianapolis News reported “approximately four thousand men are in quarantine today as the result of Spanish influenza breaking out in the aviation camp of the naval training station” on the Great Lakes in Illinois. The following day, the South Bend News-Times reported that “Spanish influenza now has become epidemic in three army camps” with 1,500 cases in Massachusetts, 1,000 in Virginia, and 350 in New York. The military scrambled to meet the needs of the infected and anxious citizens awaited a response from the government’s health services.
On September 19, 1918, Surgeon-General Blue sent a telegraph to the head health officer of each state requesting they immediately conduct a survey to determine the prevalence of influenza. In response, Dr. John Hurty, Indiana’s Secretary of the Board of Health, telephoned the local health officials in each city requesting a report. Hurty warned that the flu was “highly contagious,” but stated that “quarantine is impractical,” according to the Indianapolis News. Instead, he offered Hoosiers this advice:
Avoid crowds . . . until the danger of this thing is past. The germs lurk in crowded street cars, motion picture houses and everywhere there is a crowd. They float on dust, and therefore avoid dust. The best thing to do is to keep your body in a splendid condition and let it do its own fighting after you exercise the proper caution of exposure.
One week later, hundreds of men were sick with influenza in Indiana training camps. Again Hurty offered the best advice that he could while advising citizens to remain calm. However, he had to admit: “It has invaded several of our training camps and will doubtless become an epidemic in civil life.” He advised:
If all spitting would immediately cease, and if all coughers and sneezers would hold a cloth or paper handkerchief over their noses and mouths when coughing or sneezing, then influenza and coughs and colds would almost disappear. We also must not forget to tone up our physical health, for even a few and weak microbes may find lodgment in low toned bodies. To gain high physical tone, get plenty of sleep in a well ventilated bedroom. Don’t worry, don’t feast, don’t hurry, don’t fret. Look carefully after elimination. Eat only plain foods. Avoid riotous eating of flesh. Go slow on coffee and tea. Avoid alcohol in every form. Cut out all drugs and dopes . . . Frown on public spitters and those who cough and sneeze in public without taking all precautions.
Most notably, in this same September 26 front page article in the Indianapolis News, Hurty stated that Indiana had “only mild cases . . . and not deaths.” This would soon change.
Despite these public reassurances, Hurty and other Indianapolis civic leaders knew they needed to do more to prepare. Since little was known about how the flu spread, these men tried to keep the city safe using their intuition. A clean city seemed like a safer city, so they organized a massive clean up. On September 27, the Indianapolis News reported:
To prevent a Spanish Influenza epidemic in Indianapolis, Mayor Charles W. Jewett today directed Dr. Herman G. Morgan, secretary of the city board of health, to order all public places – hotel lobbies, theaters, railway stations and street cars – placed at once in thorough sanitary condition by fumigation and cleansing.
The article noted that in other cities local officials had been unable to prevent widespread infection and that Indianapolis should learn from their failures and “get busy now with every preventative measures that can be put in operation to make conditions sanitary so that infection will not spread.”
By the end of the month, influenza had reached the civilian population. Officials continued to discourage people from gathering in crowds and encouraged anyone with a cough or cold to stay home. The News reported that Indianapolis movie houses had begun showing films on screens in front of the buildings instead of inside the theaters.
Meanwhile, the numbers of infected men at Fort Benjamin Harrison rose. By the end of September, officers in charge of the base hospital reported that there were “about 500 cases of respiratory disease” at the camp. Although newspapers still reported that it was unclear whether these illness were indeed Spanish influenza, it was clear that the situation was growing dire. Because so many nurses believed Indiana was safe from the pandemic and volunteered to work out east to fight the virus, the fort’s hospital only had twenty trained nurses to care for the hundreds of sick men. The Indianapolis News reported that enlisted soldiers were “being employed as nurses” and that one battalion of engineers had been completely quarantined. Meanwhile, notices of soldiers dying from influenza and related pneumonia began to fill the papers of Indianapolis newspapers.
By October 1, the number of sick men at Fort Benjamin Harrison rose to 650 cases. The Indianapolis News reported, “No new troops are arriving at the engineer camp,” and “fifty engineers were lent to the base camp hospital yesterday to act as orderlies and clerks and to release medical corps for service as nurses.” The article concluded, “The hospital needs a number of trained nurses.” While the bodies of Hoosier soldiers stationed at camps around the country arrived in the city, Fort Benjamin Harrison had yet to lose one of its own. Less than a week later, that changed.
On Sunday night, October 6, 1918, ten soldiers died in the fort’s hospital bringing the total for the week to forty-one deceased soldiers. Four civilians died from influenza and six more from the ensuing pneumonia. At the fort, officials reported 172 new cases of influenza (bringing the total to 1,653 sick soldiers). Of these, the base hospital was attempting to care for 1,300 men.
In response, Dr. Morgan announced “a sweeping order prohibiting gatherings of five or more persons.” The front page of the News read, “PUBLIC MEETINGS ARE FORBIDDEN,” and noted that all churches, schools, and theaters were closed until further notice. Only gatherings related to the war effort were exempt, such as work at manufacturing plants and Liberty loan committee meetings. The prominent doctor even discouraged people from gathering at the growing numbers of funerals, encouraging only close family to attend. In October of 1918, Indianapolis must have looked like a ghost town.
The sick desperately needed nurses and nowhere more than at Fort Benjamin Harrison. Two front page Indianapolis News headlines for October 7 read, “Ft. Harrison Soldiers in Dire Need of Nurses,” and “Graduate Nurses Are Needed for Soldiers.” The News reported that at Fort Ben “soldier boys are dying for lack of trained help” and that the “few nurses in service are worn to the point of exhaustion.” Officers of the local Red Cross worked to redirect nurses who were awaiting transport overseas to the local effort against influenza, while the women of the motor corps of the Indianapolis Red Cross were busy transporting needed supplies by automobiles.
The rest of the newspaper that day was filled with reports on school closings, cancelled meetings, the numbers of sick in various counties, and funerals. The plague was peaking and Fort Benjamin Harrison suffered the most. While most residents of Indiana stayed far away from the infected camp, the brave women of Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne took their nursing skills into the heart of the epidemic. The Fort Wayne Sentinel reported on October 7, the same day the Red Cross called urgently for nurses, “10 Local Nurses Respond.” The paper continued:
Willing to risk their lives in the nation’s service in helping combat the ravages of Spanish influenza, ten Lutheran hospital nurses left the city . . . for Fort Benjamin Harrison, near Indianapolis, Ind., where they will enter service in the military base hospital, which is very urgently in need of qualified nurses to aid in fighting the epidemic.
The following day, the Sentinel published a picture of the brave nurses and the local paper praised their “patriotic devotion to place their training at the disposal of their government even at the risk of their lives.”
The same day, a medical officer from the fort hospital told the Indianapolis Star that several trained nurses had reported for duty “within the last few hours to relieve the situation” and that “everything that can be done for the boys is being done.” The Star reported that the officer was responding to “wild rumors” that the soldiers were not getting adequate care. However, the Indiana Red Cross and Board of Health knew that more nurses were needed. On October 11, the Fort Wayne Sentinel shared Dr. Hurty’s report that “during last night thirty soldiers had succumbed to the ravages of the epidemic at Fort Harrison, some of them expiring before their uniforms could be removed from them.” One of the men was Captain C. C. Turner of the medical reserve who had been sent to the fort from another camp only a few days before to help combat the influenza outbreak. His records had not even arrived yet and his relatives could not be contacted.
The situation at the fort prompted Dr. Morgan and several other leading doctors of the city to issue a statement. The doctors praised the efforts of the hospital staff and volunteers. They stated:
The medical staff of Camp Benjamin Harrison has succeeded in fourteen days in expanding a hospital of about 250 beds to one of 1,700 beds by occupying the well-built brick structures formerly used as barracks. These they were able to equip adequately with the assistance of the American Red Cross which . . . proved itself able to supply every demand made by the army on the same day the request was made.
The doctors reported that the hospital had treated 2,500 patients in the previous two weeks. Despite their heroic efforts, the epidemic persisted.
The city also bolstered its efforts as the number of infected rose to 1,536 civilians. On October 11, the Indianapolis News reported 441 new cases of influenza in a twenty-four hour period. In response, Dr. Morgan announced that the city board of health “enlarged the order against public gatherings of every description” and that the Indianapolis police department would enforce the order. “Dry beer saloons,” which were prohibition era gathering places, were closed. Department stores were prohibited from having sales and would be closed completely if found too crowded. Finally, the board of health directed its officers to post cards reading “Quarantine, Influenza,” on houses containing a sick person. The next twenty-four hours brought the city 250 new cases and the fort 47 new cases of Spanish flu. In that same period, twenty four young men died at Fort Benjamin Harrison. The epidemic was peaking.
A week later there was some evidence that the virus began to relax its grip on the fort, if not the city. The Indianapolis News reported that while the previous twenty-four hours had brought twenty-eight deaths to the city, the fort suffered only four. And while the city reported 252 new civilian cases, the fort reported only twelve new cases. Since the fort was struck by influenza before the city, civilians must have seen this decrease at the fort as a good sign. The plague had almost run its course.
On October 30, Dr. Hurty announced that the closing ban would be lifted in Indianapolis. Newspapers reported the lowest number of new cases since the start of the deadly month and Fort Harrison reported that not one person had died in the previous twenty-four hours. Schools could reopen Monday, November 4 and people with no cold symptoms could ride street cars and attend movie theaters. Through the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919, there were small resurgences of the epidemic. Morgan ordered the wearing of gauze masks in public and discouraged gatherings. However, the worst had passed, and the war had ended.
As Indianapolis began to return to normal, the damage was assessed. On November 24, 1918, the Indianapolis Star tallied the state’s loss at 3,266 Hoosiers, mostly young men and women. This massive loss of citizens in their prime also left 3,020 children orphaned. The War Department also assessed the losses at Fort Benjamin Harrison. The Surgeon General reported that General Hospital 25 at the fort treated a total of 3,116 cases of influenza and 521 cases of related pneumonia. The hard work of the medical staff and brave volunteers transformed a fort designed to care for a few hundred injured men into a giant hospital caring for thousands.
The city also benefited from leadership of the committed men of Indianapolis and the State Board of Health, as well as cooperative citizens. According to the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine, “In the end, Indianapolis had an epidemic death rate of 290 per 100,000 people, one of the lowest in the nation.” The center attributes the city’s relative success to “how well Indianapolis as well as state officials worked together to implement community mitigation measures against influenza,” whereas in other cities “squabbling among officials and occasionally business interests hampered effective decision-making.” Indianapolis leaders presented a united front, shop and theater owners complied despite personal loss, and brave men and women volunteered their services at risk to their own lives. Somehow only one of the heroic volunteer nurses stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison lost her life.
On May 6, 1919, the Indianapolis News replaced columns of text detailing the influenza-related losses with jubilant articles about the city’s preparations for Welcome Home Day. Trains unloaded Hoosier soldiers still carrying their regimental colors. Indianapolis decked herself out in red, white, and blue. On May 7, 1919, 20,000 men and women walked in the welcome parade that stretched for 33 blocks. Many, like the men and women of Hospital No. 32, trained and mobilized at Fort Benjamin Harrison. Many had survived the Spanish Influenza, nursed the sick, or lost a friend to the pandemic. Not a single article mentioned it. The city was ready to move towards peace and healing.
In 2015, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend announced in a South Bend Tribune op-ed that he was gay, making him Indiana’s first openly gay mayor. Four decades before Buttigieg’s announcement, the city reportedly outlawed same-sex dancing. In 1974, Gloria Frankel and her gay club, The Seahorse Cabaret, withstood police harassment, challenged regulations against LGBT individuals, and endured a firebombing. In this post, we explore the fight for gay rights in the Michiana area and the intrepid woman who lead the charge.
According to Ben Wineland’s “Then and Now: The Origins and Development of the Gay Community in South Bend,” Frankel opened South Bend’s first gay club in 1971. Its opening followed the famous Stonewall Riots of 1969, in which members of New York City’s LGBT bar community responded to a police raid with a series of violent protests. The riots immediately forwarded the gay liberation movement and the fight for LGBT rights in America. LGBT individuals in smaller cities capitalized on the momentum by opening bars that fostered gay communities and provided them with a relatively safe space for entertainment, dialogue, and activism.
Frankel filled this role in South Bend with The Seahorse. She hosted shows and events, and distributed fliers for them, an act “which embodied the new kind of confidence and visibility that the Stonewall riots helped to create.” Also like those who frequented the raided Stonewall Inn, patrons of The Seahorse encountered an intimidating police presence, in which officers would “‘walk around and make people nervous. ‘Cause it was a gay bar'” (Wineland, 74). Wineland contended that The Seahorse was considered a threat by law enforcement because it “became more than just a hole in the wall, it looked to the opposition like hope; a hope for visibility, mainstream appeal, and a point of organization for the gay movement.”
According to oral history interviews with Seahorse patrons-conducted by Katie Madonna Lee, producer of a forthcoming documentary about the club-a city ordinance prohibited same sex dancing until 1974. One interviewee recalled that if men were found dancing or being affectionate they would be arrested, escorted to the police station, and charged with a lewd act. According to these interviews and Frankel’s obituary, Gloria combated this by successfully challenging the City of South Bend to allow same sex dancing. More research should be undertaken regarding her reported legal battle. The Lambda Society* of Michiana was also concerned with laws discriminating against the gay community, urging newsletter readers in 1974 and 1975 to write their legislators.
In a May 1974 newsletter, the organization noted a desire to evolve from social objectives to those also involving advocacy. It noted that the organization was founded “because gay is more than sexual preference, and because gay can be more than just an alternative life style. Lambda has struggled through nine months offering little more than social functions as an alternative to the bars, baths, and bus station.”
Newsletter articles about the 1974 Indiana Gay Awareness Conference in Bloomington, Indiana give a window into the origins of mobilized political action for Michiana’s LGBT community. One article noted that after discussing issues that gay individuals encountered with their families, police, landlords, and employers, the decision was made to “address the problem, which is not that we are criminals, but how to help others deal with their problems with homosexuality.” There was a panel discussion regarding “Gayness and the Law” and efforts were made to aid attorneys handling related cases. When discussing Indiana laws “hope was expressed that in the re-codification of our criminal code, consenting adult acts will be eliminated.” Notably,
mention was made that Illinois and Ohio have already removed consenting acts by adults from the criminal statues, that legislation is now pending in Michigan, and Kentucky is also considering some similar action, leaving Indiana ‘an island of persecution’ (perversion?).
The conference also held sessions about topics such as “Telling Your Parents,” “Professionals,” and “Racial Problems.” One newsletter author reflected candidly that “to say that this conference produced any dramatic changes or systems for dramatic changes, would be wrong.” However, it planted the seeds for unified efforts to change perspectives about homosexuals. The newsletter article noted that the conference showed “groups and individuals that there are others in our state willing to meet and try for change. As with all new associations, time and experience with each other and ourselves will cement the relationship into a working coalition for change.” The author concluded by stating “I learned more about others and my own attitutes [sic] towards homosexuals and straights. . . . we all joined hands in a circle, raised them high, singing We Shall Overcome – I was frightened – I was thrilled – I couldn’t have done that 24 hours earlier.” A 1975 newsletter illustrated some community support, printing an invitation from the Michiana Metropolitan Community Church, whose objective was to “better relationships amongst ourselves and within the community around us.”
Frankel too sought to forward the rights, identity, and well-being of the gay community. She hosted Michiana Lambda Society events and successfully grew the local LGBT community, underscored by having to open The Seahorse II to accommodate an increase in patronage. Frankel also served as an unofficial mentor to others in South Bend who established gay bars, such as Jeannie’s Tavern and Vickie’s. She advised her “bar children” and had significant input regarding their businesses.
The Seahorse suffered a blow in 1982, when it was firebombed by an unidentified arsonist at 6:30 a.m. Residents who lived in apartments above the bar fled and one was hospitalized. Although firefighters contained the flames to the front of the building, it suffered approximately $90,000 worth of smoke damage.
Though devastating, the bombing demonstrated the solidarity of the South Bend’s LGBT community. According to code, the bar would be shut down if it could not get back to standards within ten days. Members of the community rallied to repair and clean it, shocking officials by getting the club back to code and reopening within the allotted time. They celebrated by hosting their annual anniversary party.
In the mid-1980s, the city used code enforcement to stymie Seahorse operations. This included denying the routine renewal of a liquor license and challenging the acquisition of a parking lot for customers. The Seahorse perceived these actions to be discriminatory, while the city insisted they were not.
Frankel continued to serve as a pillar of South Bend’s gay community when she led the local fight against HIV/AIDS in the early 1990s, funding AIDS ministries and making The Seahorse a cite of free HIV testing. According to Wineland, she “knew that if the testing was available at her bar, a place where the LGBT community felt at home, they would be more likely to get tested and also become more educated about HIV and AIDS.”
The Seahorse continued to be foundational to South Bend’s LGBT community until 2007, when Frankel passed away. The club closed shortly thereafter and Jeannie’s Tavern became the home of Seahorse patrons and performers. However, Frankel’s pioneering efforts established South Bend’s enduring LGBT community.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this blog, citing an oral history, suggested the profession of the arsonists. Also citing the same oral history, the blogger stated that Frankel erected a wall around the bar for protection. Former employees of the bar at the time of the arson have called into question the veracity of the oral history’s claims on these two points. In an effort for us to present an accurate account of the historical events, we have edited the blog accordingly.
Conversation with Margaret Fosmoe, a South Bend Tribune reporter who graciously searched the newspaper’s archive for articles for this post.
Conversation with Katie Madonna Lee, producer of a forthcoming documentary about The Seahorse. Lee has conducted interviews and done extensive archival research about South Bend LGBTQ history.
Diane Frederick, “Homosexuality Laws Vary Widely,” Indianapolis News, August 22, 1975, 1, Indiana State Library, Clippings File-Homosexuality.
Kathy Harsh, “Arson Suspected in Tavern Fire,” South Bend Tribune, November 26, 1982, Indiana State Library, microfilm.
St. Joseph County Public Library, Michiana Memory, LGBTQ Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center.
Ben Wineland, “Then and Now: The Origins and Development of the Gay Community in South Bend,” Indiana University South Bend Undergraduate Research Journal of History, vol. VI (2016): 69-79, accessed scholarworks.iu.edu.
Susan Swain, host of C-SPAN’s special TV series from 2013-2014 on the lives and influence of the nation’s First Ladies, described Caroline Harrison as “one of the more underrated” First Ladies. Caroline Harrison, wife of Hoosier President Benjamin Harrison, served as First Lady from 1889-1892. Previously cast off as simply a tactful housekeeper, historians now recognize that Caroline did more, including using her influence to advocate for the arts, women’s interests, and the preservation of the White House.
On July 4, 1888, Caroline stood next to her husband Benjamin in the parlor of their home on North Delaware Street in Indianapolis surrounded by guests. Caroline had filled the house with patriotic decorations, including red, white, and blue flags and flowers. However, this was not a normal 4th of July celebration: at the party, Benjamin gave a speech, accepting the Republican nomination for president. For the next four months, their home became the center of Benjamin’s political campaign. Parades marched up and down the street in front of the house Benjamin gave more than 80 speeches on their front porch.
On Election Day, the Harrison family waited anxiously for a telegraph operator set up temporarily in a nearby bay window for election results. The next morning, Caroline and Benjamin discovered they had won. The Harrison family was moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Though the Harrisons had lived in Indianapolis since 1854, the couple’s story began in Ohio. Benjamin had been a student of Caroline’s father at the Farmer’s College in Pleasant Hill, Ohio. Benjamin followed Caroline to Oxford, Ohio. She enrolled in the Oxford Female Institute and he attended Miami University. Soon after they earned degrees, the two got married and moved to Indianapolis.
As Benjamin built up his law practice, Caroline became an integral part of Indianapolis’ charity network. Through membership at the Presbyterian Church, Benjamin and Caroline became active in the Indianapolis Benevolent Society, one of the city’s earliest charity organizations. Members were assigned their own district in the city, serving as “donors, fundraisers, friendly visitors and distributors of aid” in their assigned area. During the Civil War, Caroline expanded her efforts, volunteering with various women’s organizations that aided the war effort, like the Ladies Patriotic Association and the Ladies Sanitary Committee. She also started her 30 year long career with the Indianapolis Orphans Asylum, joining the board of managers in 1862. After the war, she became involved with a new charity, the Home for Friendless Women, created to care for an influx of widowed and transient women who flocked to the city after the war. The home operated until 2003, most recently under the name Indianapolis Retirement Home.
Throughout the 1870s, Caroline’s reputation as a capable organizer for charities grew. She sat on the board of many temporary relief funds and charitable events. When Benjamin served as Senator, she added a number of Washington, D.C. charities to her roster, including the Washington City Orphans Asylum and the Ladies Aid Society for Garfield Hospital. An avid painter, she also found time to make pieces to display at early exhibits for the Indianapolis Art Association, which pioneered formal art education in Indiana and influenced the development of fine arts in the state.
When the Harrisons moved to Washington, D.C. for the Presidency, Caroline worked hard to have impact as a First Lady. Though her predecessor, the young and fashionable Frances Cleveland made Harrison look old and dowdy by comparison in the press, Harrison became a more publicly active figure than Cleveland had by advocating for the arts, women’s interests, and the preservation of the White House.
Four generations of relatives moved into the White House when Benjamin took office, which brought the household total up to 12. After the whole family crowded into the White House, Caroline became “concerned over the condition of the house provided for the Chief Executive and his family.” The private spaces for the family amounted to five bedrooms, one bathroom, and a hallway. The rest of the building was reserved for offices and public functions. In addition to the lack of space, the White House had fallen into disrepair. The threadbare carpets, shabby furniture, unwelcome presence of vermin made the White House unsatisfactory to say the least. Caroline reached out to former First Ladies and discovered that previous administrations had struggled with coming up with enough space to entertain and host important foreign leaders and dignitaries. There had been an embarrassing situation during the Buchanan administration where the Prince of Wales and the rest of the royal family could not all be accommodated because of the lack of space.
Caroline began lobbying for congressional funds to refurbish and expand the White House. She gave interviews with journalists and took Senators and Representatives on personal tours of the White House to plead her case. She told reporters,
We are here four years. I do not look beyond that, as many things occur in that time, but I am anxious to see the family of the President provided for properly, and while I am here I hope to get the present building into good condition.
A few Representatives on the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds had already kicked around the idea of expanding the White House. The building had remained largely unchanged since its completion in 1800 (though it was rebuilt after the War of 1812 after the British set fire to it). These Representatives had voiced a number of plans, including adding another story to the White House or constructing an exact replica of the building across the lawn. Some even wondered if an entirely new mansion for the President should be built. Caroline, however, recognized the historical significance of the mansion and articulated a new plan that would preserve the structure. Architect Frederick D. Owen drew up her ideas, which included adding wings to either side of the White House. The press widely circulated her plans, which Owen even titled “Mrs. Harrison’s Suggestion for the Extension of the Executive Mansion.”
Despite Caroline’s lobbying, her bill to provide funding to expand the White House did not pass. Though it went through the Senate, it failed in the House because President Harrison had ignored the Speaker of the House’s choice for collectorship of Portland, Maine. However, she did receive approximately $60,000 in appropriations to redecorate and renovate the interior and add the first electric lighting. Throughout her First Ladyship, Harrison directed painting, installing additional private bathrooms, renovating the kitchen, replacing all the dirty and moldy floors, rebuilding the old conservatory, adding greenhouses, and redecorating many of the public parlors.
During the renovations, Caroline had the entire contents of the White House inventoried. The Cleveland Leader reported,
Even the old bits stored away in the attic are to be listed, for Mrs. Harrison is anxious that pieces which have historic value or connection with presidential families of the past shall be preserved.
She stopped the old practice of selling off furniture, china, and silver at the end of each president’s administration, not only to save money, but so the historic mansion would maintain pieces from past presidents. Through this process, Harrison laid the foundation for the celebrated White House China Collection. Harrison’s acquaintance, Harriet Foster wrote “she immediately began a valuable collection to be preserved, in cabinets, of the scattered remnants of the china of former Presidents.” She even designed the Harrison china set, which featured corn ears, stocks, and tassels.
Harrison didn’t stop at the White House, but took on additional causes. As First Lady, Harrison advocated the federal government place more emphasis on fine art. She told the Evening Star,
this government has reached that point where it should give more attention to the fine arts—that is, a judicious expenditure for works of merit.
She made sure to include a large gallery of historical paintings in her plans for the White House expansion and supported the addition of paintings to the White House’s fine arts collection, including the first example of a non-portrait piece purchased for the mansion with federal funds. Her plans and actions set precedent for the introduction of a professional curator to care for the White House’s art collection, a position filled during the Kennedy Administration seventy years later. Lastly, in 1892 she became Honorary President of the National Art Association, joining forces with prominent artists like William Merritt Chase and Albert Bierdstadt, to lobby to exempt imported works of art from taxation. The tariff was eventually lifted.
Harrison lent her name to other organizations that promoted women’s interests. She agreed to head a local Washington, D.C. committee of women dedicated to securing women’s admission to the new Johns Hopkins Medical School. Johns Hopkins trustees promised five Baltimore women connected to the institution if they raised $100,000 (later increased to $500,000), the school would accept women on the same terms as male applicants. These women began recruiting prominent women across the nation to raise money in their own locales. According to historian Kathleen Waters Sanders, Caroline’s agreement to help the cause “was important, lending the campaign credibility and national visibility.” Due to women’s work, the medical school opened in 1893 as the first coeducational, graduate-level medical school in the nation.
Harrison also agreed to become the first President General of a new organization, the Daughters of the American Revolution. The organization formed in 1890 after the Sons of the American Revolution refused to accept female applicants. The DAR’s goals were “the securing and preserving of the historical spots of America and the erection thereon of suitable monuments to perpetuate the memories of the heroic deeds of the men and women who aided the revolution and created constitutional government in America.”
The founders of the organization asked Harrison to lead, hoping her status as First Lady would elevate the DAR, give it credibility, and attract more members. Though she delegated day-to-day operations to other DAR board members, Harrison helped guide the fledgling organization through its early years and helped it become a political force. In 1892, the DAR had grown from a handful to over 1,300 members. Since 1890, the DAR has accepted over 950,000 members and served as an important political lobbying group. It has also restored and maintained numerous historic sites and preserved countless genealogical records and artifacts.
Unfortunately, Caroline’s career as First Lady was cut short. She died in the White House from tuberculosis October 25, 1892. Benjamin lost reelection soon after. However, a new historical marker at the Benjamin Harrison house in downtown Indianapolis will honor Caroline Harrison’s achievements, both in Indiana and as First Lady. Please check our website and Facebook page for more information about the marker dedication ceremony, scheduled to take place in October.
On December 5th 1868, a home gas stove explosion nearly killed and “terribly burned” longtime Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad (CC&C) president, Leander M. Hubby. For more than a decade Hubby had led this regional powerhouse as it solidified its financial grip on the Bee Line component railroads. Along the way, he earned an almost patriarchal reputation among officers and men of the road’s operating corps.
In May 1868 Hubby had assumed the presidency of the successor railroad that, for the first time, combined the Bee Line components roads into a single legal entity: the Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and Indianapolis Railway(CCC&I). Unfortunately, his near-death experience effectively sidelined Hubby until he officially resigned his role in September 1870.
Into this leadership vacuum stepped a new duo of recently ensconced Bee Line board members. Oscar Townsend’s board appointment in September 1868 closely followed Hinman B. Hurlbut’s similar election at the formation of the CCC&I that May. Then, following Hubby’s unfortunate accident and subsequent resignation in 1870, the Townsend/Hurlbut duo formally assumed their heretofore-tacit responsibilities as president and vice president. They could not have written a more perfect script.
Hurlbut had joined the Bellefontaine Railway’s board and finance committee at its formation in 1864. His Cleveland-centric banking business included numerous Cleveland Clique clients. Soon he was part of the group. Hurlbut had purchased the charter of Cleveland’s Bank of Commerce in the 1850s and reorganized it as the Second National Bank.
Oscar Townsend began his career with the CC&C as a laborer in 1848. Between 1856 and 1862 he advanced through the ranks of its Cleveland freight office. Townsend shifted to Hurlbut’s Second National Bank in 1862, learning his banking skills at Hurlbut’s knee.
The CC&C’s longstanding general ticket agent S. F. Pierson reported, in an exposé on the demise of the railroad, that Hurlbut had tapped the bank of its financial strength by the time he left it in 1865. While one flattering biographer characterized Hurlbut’s exit as due to “the arduous labors and close application necessitated by these and other financial tasks he had undertaken,” Pierson had a different take.
From Pierson’s perspective, Hurlbut “retired, consequent upon the destruction of more than its [the Second National Bank’s] entire surplus, and some of the securities and private deposits of the Bank. These…had been abstracted, and the money lost in speculation. The cashier had ended his own life in a painfully tragic manner, and Mr. Hurlbut was permitted to retire.”
It was about this time that Oscar Townsend also left the bank and segued to a superintendent’s role overseeing the Western Department of the Empire Transportation Company. Such businesses were immensely profitable and important extensions of the railroads they served in the post-Civil War era. Responsible for developing relationships with key shippers, businesses such as the Empire Line “fast freight” often decided which railroads would transport the huge amounts of freight under their control.
At the same time, nearly all railroad presidents quizzed by an 1867 Ohio Special Legislative Committee confessed they had been offered fast freight line stock “on favorable terms, or as a gratuity.” Enticed railroad directors began to work in concert with the “fast freights” to direct high-value freight traffic over their favored “fast freight”. This left only bulkier and less profitable local freight for the railroads themselves.
Inasmuch as the CCC&I started life in 1868 as a “financiers” railroad, Townsend and Hurlbut fit right in. By the time of Hubby’s retirement in 1870, they took control.
In the Bee Line’s new form, an old and wily politician to handle the Hoosier “good old boy” network was no longer needed. The long railroad career of David Kilgore came to an end in February 1870. And with his departure went the last vestige of the Hoosier Partisans.
Only one significant transregional railroad would be constructed during the Civil War. The amalgam of railroads that became known as The Atlantic and Great Western Railway Company (A&GW) would stand by itself. With huge capital infusions from London and Continental investors, the road opened for business in August 1865 along its entire 388 mile route from Salamanca in Upstate New York to Dayton Ohio.
Nefarious London rail broker-cum-financier James McHenry had cajoled voracious English and European investors to fund the improbable A&GW project. Exploiting his role as proxy for these complacent capitalists, McHenry seized control of the road Ohioan Marvin Kent had brought to life in the 1850s. And by the early 1870s, he also commandeered the board of the Eastern trunk line intersecting with the A&GW at Salamanca: The Erie Railway. Now, he needed an outlet to St. Louis to complete his domination of railroads extending from New York City to the West.
James McHenry’s financial flimflam with A&GW’s European investors always left free cash with which to subsidize his own schemes. He had used some of those funds to insert Peter H. Watson as president of the Erie Railway in 1872. Watson became McHenry’s conduit to Hinman B. Hurlbut and the Bee Line. McHenry would sprinkle a substantial amount of cash on Hurlbut, and their subterfuge to assume control of the CCC&I.
Within weeks of Watson’s elevation to Erie’s presidency, he penned a letter to McHenry:
I opened negotiations with the parties controlling this road [CCC&I], and my success was greater and more rapid than I could have hoped. The result is embraced in the conditional agreement made by you with Mr. Hurlbut.
Hurlbut convinced members of the Cleveland Clique to sell their shares before word of an impending takeover became public. He then conveyed the acquired shares, and others from the Bee Line treasury, to McHenry. As S. F. Pierson noted:
…several members [of the CCC&I board] were …retired from active pursuits, and not disposed to take much trouble in the matter; and of the balance, one portion used the Vice-President [Hurlbut] to further some scheme of their own, and the other hoped he might want to use them.
When the A&GW’s plans for the CCC&I became public in early 1873, members of the Cleveland business establishment and other New York investors were completely flummoxed. After all, the A&GW showed assets of less than $40 million while reporting liabilities of more than $120 million. By comparison, the CCC&I was of robust but declining financial health. S. F. Pierson was stunned, noting, “Vice President [Hurlbut] has unbolted our doors from within.”
John H. Devereux, soon to become a key player in the final destiny of the Bee Line, painted a more colorful picture. He characterized the possibility as “an attempt to chain a living man to a dead corpse.” Before long, as orchestrated by James McHenry, Devereux would become President of both the Bee Line and the A&GW, and vice president at the Erie – all at the same time!!
McHenry had arranged for Devereux’s CCC&I presidential appointment as soon as the A&GW assumed financial and board control of it in April 1873. Devereux’s installation quelled some of the Bee Line stockholders’ angst, given his upstanding reputation as a railroad executive. But when Ohio’s legislature blocked McHenry’s plan to lease the CCC&I to the anemic A&GW, the Bee Line shareholders’ attitude shifted.
Still seeking to run the A&GW and CCC&I as a single entity in spite of his failed leasing scheme, McHenry orchestrated Devereux’s appointment as general manager at the A&GW. By January 1874 he was bumped up a notch to president – while still heading the rival Bee Line!
The Bee Line shareholders had had enough. In an effort to oust McHenry’s A&GW and Erie board proxies, they orchestrated a massive CCC&I shareholder turnout for the March 1874 annual meeting. The opposition candidate slate included several former Cleveland Clique members, New York investors, and one Hoosier: David Kilgore.
And in an interesting twist, deposed CCC&I president Oscar Townsend headed the opposition – until Hinman Hurlbut brought to light Townsend’s involvement in a freight payola ring. The revelation tipped the balance. The opposition suffered a narrow defeat. There would be no Hoosier Partisan revival.
Longer term, James McHenry’s self-induced financial problems would only mount. His tenuous grip on the A&GW and CCC&I slipped away at the hands of Peter Watson’s 1874 Erie Railway successor: Hugh H. Jewett. Jewett would extricate the Erie from McHenry’s grasp, and push him to near-bankruptcy.
In making this decision Devereux, in his role as president of the NYPA&O, effectively parted ways with a livid Hugh Jewett and the Erie. A week later Devereux resigned. Soon, the Erie would subsume the NYPA&O.
The die was now cast for the future of the Bee Line as well. Its destiny would lie with Vanderbilt’s New York Central.
It had been a long journey since 1848, when Oliver H. Smith challenged the citizens of east central Indiana to avoid being bypassed by the technological marvel of the age. They would heed his warning by their investment in the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine Railroad – the Bee Line’s Indiana segment.
Smith’s prescient vision proved to be uncannily accurate. It was if he had penned Indiana’s state motto: “the Crossroads of America.” But for the Bee Line, it might never have come to pass.
As the United States exited the Gay Nineties and entered the 20th century, an increased concern for better systems of disease control and education swept the nation. As industry boomed, more and more people crowded into cities, both large and small. With crowds came germs and disease. Soon tuberculosis ranked as the leading cause of death in the country.
In Muncie, Indiana anxiety over bacterial diseases loomed just as large as in major cities like New York and Chicago. To combat these and other public health issues of the time, individuals stepped up to the plate and played vital roles in getting new organizations off the ground.
By the early 1900s the term “Ball jar” had become a household phrase, and Ball Brothers Manufacturing Company distinguished themselves as the largest producer of canning jars in the world. In addition to the successful business bearing their name, the Ball family also left their mark on Muncie through civic work and philanthropy. During the first decades of the 20th century two notable women of the Ball family worked to improve public health in their region, and personally invested time and energy into advancing sanitation, hygiene, and medical access.
Bertha Crosley Ball was the wife of Edmund Burke Ball – the middle son of the Ball brothers. Born in 1875 in Terre Haute, she was the daughter of a well-known Universalist minister and had familial roots stretching back to the American Revolution. Her advantaged upbringing left her wanting for very little in her youth. After graduating high school she began her collegial studies at Vassar College where she received a degree in Social Work in 1898.
After completing her studies, Bertha moved with her parents to Indianapolis where her father served as state superintendent of the Universalist Church of Indiana. Shortly after, Bertha made a visit to her friend Bessie Ball in Muncie. There, Bertha was introduced to Bessie’s brother-in-law, Edmund. Despite a twenty year age difference the two hit it off right away and in 1903 the couple married. Edmund’s distinction as the wealthiest man in Indiana, led to many headlines stretching from Indianapolis to Muncie, and even into Cincinnati.
Contrasted with Bertha’s advantaged upbringing is that of her sister-in-law, Sarah Rogers Ball. Nearly twenty years older than Bertha, Sarah married Edmund’s older brother, Dr. Lucius Ball in 1893. Born in upstate New York, Sarah was the daughter of immigrants. With six siblings, Sarah’s childhood home grew crowded and did not come with many opportunities. By the age of 16 she had moved into the home of her older sister and brother-in-law. For Sarah this move opened up doors that had been previously closed. Her brother-in-law, himself the son of immigrants, made a name as a ship captain and built up a very profitable shipping fleet. When Sarah began studies at the Buffalo General Hospital School of Nursing in 1885 her sister and brother-in-law likely paid the tuition.
While Bertha and Sarah could not be more different on the surface, their interest in public health and service to their community tied them together. In the 1880s the discovery of natural gas created a boom of industry in the Muncie area. This development led to a period of growth and an expanding population that required social amenities and services, such as health care. Over the next few decades small hospitals came and went until Ball Memorial Hospital opened its modern facility in 1929. In the meantime, it became obvious that the industrial town not only needed reliable hospitals, but also advocates for improving the overall public health of the community.
Formed in 1916, the Visiting Nurses Association existed “for the benefit and assistance of those otherwise unable to secure skilled assistance in times of illness; to promote cleanliness and prevent sickness by the teaching of hygiene, sanitation and the science of domestic management.” To accomplish these feats they provided general nursing, maternity service, child welfare service, nurses training, and a mental hygiene program.
Among those involved with the organization of the association was Sarah. As a former nurse it comes as no surprise that she had an interest in seeing the group established. When living in Buffalo, she had been involved in organizing a local Visiting Nurses Association as well.
While Sarah’s role with the Visiting Nurses was low-profile, Bertha’s involvement was not. At the time of the group’s founding, the organization elected Bertha to serve as second vice president and she continued to actively serve on the board of directors into the mid-1930s; serving as president in the 1920s. Between 1922 and 1932 the association experienced rapid growth. Under Bertha’s leadership nursing staff expanded, the numbers of patients served grew, and community health rapidly improved.
Three years after the founding of the Visiting Nurses, the Delaware County Tuberculosis Association began to develop. With tuberculosis-related deaths on the rise, the group hoped to spread knowledge concerning the disease’s cause and treatment, and to take steps towards preventing its spread. Through lectures, anti-spitting campaigns, advertisements, tuberculin testing of cattle, and instructive visits from nurses, the association tackled its goals head on. Over time their work paid off and by the 1940s tuberculosis-related deaths in the county had almost completely disappeared.
In the association’s first years, Bertha and Sarah again found themselves highly involved. Both women helped incorporate the organization and were also among the first board members. Sarah personally offered up the use of her automobile to the organization, and Bertha regularly gave monetary gifts to the group when they struggled financially.
A scan of both organizations’ records show Bertha and Sarah’s names regularly mentioned in formative years. Through their labor, a strong foundation was established for both organizations, cooperative relationships developed between the boards, and both associations experienced rapid growth. With backgrounds in social work and nursing, Bertha and Sarah each possessed an understanding of society’s larger public needs and desired to improve the well-being of all people. Through their work, public health efforts in the Muncie area improved, leading to an established concern with human and community health that continues today.
On Wednesday September 30, 1936, The Greencastle Daily Banner heralded the announcement that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt officially started his reelection campaign the day before. On the same page came news of another federal concern, the allocation of over $800,000 to projects of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). The news was an important victory for Indiana’s rural electrification projects, which had received a boost in the previous year.
Indiana has a long history with electrical power. In March 1880, the Wabash County Courthouse installed electrically powered lamps, reportedly becoming the First Electrically Lighted City. By the late 1880s, companies were providing electrical services to Indianapolis proper. In 1887, Purdue University hired its first Head of the School of Applied Electricity, and the next year formally opened its School of Electrical Engineering. These engineers continued pursuing the development of better systems for electrical use during the era of Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla.
According to Hoosiers and the American Story (2014), in 1900 the creation of a massive electrically-powered interurban train system carried Hoosiers throughout the state, linking towns to Indianapolis and other areas with close to 400 trains running on a daily basis. In 1912, one of Edison’s former employees, Samuel Insull created the Interstate Public Service Company by combining the resources of several predecessors into a single Indianapolis-based company (the company would eventually come to be known as Duke Energy). By this time, the interurban system began to recede in light of the introduction of automobiles.
Around the same period, Purdue began doing outreach to rural communities through the Co-Operative Extension Service (Extension) first through state funding, and then as a part of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. These programs were facilitated by County Extension Agents who served as journeymen experts, arranging workshops and showcases to spread agricultural, and eventually home-economics, lessons from techniques developed at Purdue. It took until the early 1920s, though, before research literature began to tackle the question of rural electrification.
This is not to imply that efforts were not consistently underway to encourage electrical use. On the contrary, the Indiana & Michigan Electric Company hosted an Electrical Prosperity Week in November 1915; their advertisement on page four of the November 30, South Bend News-Times announced “You can spend a couple of hours most enjoyably—and very profitably—at the Electric Show, and it will cost you nothing.” Beyond the showcase, the next page announced a $10.00 prize for the best 200-word essay on the utility of electricity. The Swartz Electric Company ran a promotional train with examples of the modern conveniences provided by electricity, “under the auspices of Purdue University, with equipment suggested for modern farm homes.”
Yet, with all this promotion, the vast distances and relatively low potential for return on investment limited most electrification to cities and larger towns. As late as 1925, one researcher noted this problem in “Electrifying the Farm and Home,” stating “in order to make a profit they [power companies] have charged the farmers so high a rate that it has kept them from using the service.” Indiana had begun to reach out to their rural communities, just not with power, yet.
Historian Audra J. Wolfe’s “‘How Not to Electrocute the Farmer:’ Assessing Attitudes Towards Electrification on American Farms, 1920–1940,” tracks the process and problems of making this rollout happen. Several early research reports document the hazards of incorporating electrical equipment, particularly generators and batteries, into farming homes, as Wolfe notes, “many women avoided them [substations and gas-powered electric appliances] as they had a tendency to explode.”
On June 5, 1925, The Muncie Post-Democrat carried news of an announcement by researchers at Purdue that they would be undertaking the experimental electrification of two farms, one in northern part of the state run by the Calumet Gas & Electric Company and one in the southern part of the state run by the Interstate Public Service Company. These experiments would include checking on the efficacy of implementing electrical components into crop, animal, and household farm operations, as well as to begin developing the resources necessary for statewide electrification. Starting in January 1927, the Daily Banner announced that Purdue would be sending out a “traveling school on wheels” via the interurban system to “demonstrate the employment of electricity” and included experts in agriculture as well as presentations by a home economist, “to attract the feminine eye.” In 1933, Extension published and distributed Leaflet No. 187, “Care and Operation of Electric Household Equipment.” In it, the author outlines some of the variety of electrical appliances and tools which were becoming available to rural homemakers, and notes that “More than 30,000 Indiana farms are now using electricity . . .” Certainly, the university believed that rural electrification was a matter of probability and time, not a question of possibility.
More assistance was needed though for rural electrification to become a reality in the homes of Indiana farmers. Researchers continued to push and though it took some time, by the middle of the next decade, Hoosier lawmakers decided that the time had come to intervene. In 1935, Indiana became part of a growing number of states to enact legislation aimed at developing electrification capacity. According to statistics from the Indiana Law Journal, when Indiana passed its act allowing for the incorporation of rural electric membership corporations who could seek federal financing, almost 150,000 farm homes lacked the ability to access electric power.
On July 22, 1935, the Boone County Rural Electric Membership Corporation (REMC) became one of the first funded federal electric projects in the country, and the first in the state. On August 6, the Daily Banner announced the creation of the Indiana Statewide Rural Electric Membership Corporation. In January 1936, Boone County REMC ran its first 5 miles of power lines to the Clark Woody farm.
This legislation was given an important boost when in 1936, President Roosevelt established the REA and began allowing for distribution of public support dollars. In Indiana, the process of establishing REMCs and encouraging electrification fell to the Extension Service. Over the next four years, Extension Agents helped to form numerous REMCs across the state. In 1937, Extension began distributing Bulletin 215, “Selection, Operation, and Care of Electric Household Equipment,” an update to their 1933 publication which boasted “More than 35,000 Indiana farms are now using electricity . . .” This progress was not always consistent, but it was certainly effective. According to Dwight W. Hoover, between 1930 and 1940 electrified Hoosier farms went from 1-in-10 to 1-in-3. According to Teresa Baer, “By 1965, nearly all Hoosier farms had electricity.” Thus, it took nearly eight decades of sustained effort for most rural Hoosiers to gain access to one of the utilities that we so often take for granted today.
D.L. Marlett and W.M. Strickler, “Rural Electrification Authorities and Electric Cooperatives: State Legislation Analyzed,” Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics, 12, no. 3 (Aug. 1936), pages 287–301).
Barbara Steinson, “Rural Life in Indiana, 1800–1950,” Indiana Magazine of History, XC (1964), pages 203–250.
Audra J. Wolfe, “ ‘How Not to Electrocute the Farmer:’ Assessing Attitudes Towards Electrification on American Farms, 1920–1940,” Agricultural History, 74, no. 2 (Spring 2000), pages 515–529.
See Part II to learn about the Bee Line’s financing dilemma – the loss of control to the Cleveland Clique and Wall Street.
Gold! In January 1848 gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California. The Gold Rush had begun. And with it, the nation turned its gaze to the West.
The Bee Line and other Midwest railroads would also reset their goals – to reach Chicago or St. Louis: Gateway to the West. And for John Brough, president of the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad [M&I], the prospects were particularly tantalizing. While he had already begun to implement a strategy to extend the M&I’s control to the potentially lucrative Indianapolis and Bellefontiane Railroad [I&B] building toward the Ohio state line, the thought of constructing and controlling a line to St. Louis was pure gold.
A Cleveland Clique of connected businessmen, politicians and railroad investors had already struck gold of their own. The opening of the Midwest’s first regional railroad in 1851 between Cleveland and Columbus – the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad [CC&C] – had proved to be successful beyond their most optimistic expectations. They began to consider expanding their reach, not by building, but by buying or controlling the purse strings of other roads headed west . . . to Cincinnati, Indianapolis . . . and St. Louis.
John Brough’s strategic and financial needs were more immediate, as the M&I’s business calculus began to wane. One of Brough’s peers on the Indianapolis Union Station’s Indianapolis Union Railway board, Chauncey Rose of Terre Haute, had already assembled a circle of businessmen from Indiana’s largest town west of Indianapolis. In 1847, along with Rose’s New York-based financier brother John, they had gathered the funds necessary to construct the first leg west from Indianapolis toward St. Louis: the Terre Haute and Richmond Rail Road [TH&R]. It would be renamed the Terre Haute and Indianapolis Railroad [TH&I] by 1865, to more accurately reflect its final route.
Importantly, the Rose brothers also insured the Terre Haute circle would retain substantial financial control in spite of tapping into the newly available public markets of Wall Street. They would control their own financial destiny, unlike nearly all other Midwest railroads, until well into the 1870s. On February 14, 1852 the first train completed the entire seventy-three mile trip to Indianapolis. The line proved to be the juggernaut for rail travel to St. Louis and the West via Indianapolis.
Rose and Brough were running into obstacles, both political and economic, in organizing a rail line spanning the unpopulated expanse of Illinois to St. Louis. While Rose initially focused on indirect connections via Vincennes and the nearly complete Ohio and Mississippi Railroad [O&M] extending across the southern third of Indiana and Illinois, Brough had a different plan. He would leverage on an 1846 Illinois charter – then moribund – for a direct route between Terre Haute and St. Louis through the former state capital (1820-1840): Vandalia. In 1850 Brough teamed with Vandalia business and political leaders – as well as James F. D. Lanier’s Wall Street firm of Winslow, Lanier & Co. – to resurrect the charter as the Mississippi and Atlantic Railroad [M&A]. He soon became its president.
Brough’s venturesome efforts to reach St. Louis did not go unnoticed by the Cleveland Clique. It comported with the Clique’s and Henry B. Payne‘s (then president of the CC&C) vision for reaching and controlling lines to the West. And since Winslow, Lanier & Co. and the Cleveland Clique were already digging their financial talons into the two Bellefontaine lines that would soon carry the publicly-dubbed Bee Line moniker, the collective financial support for Brough’s effort was assured. Along with Brough’s M&I, the component Bee Line roads anted up several hundreds of thousands of dollars in spite of the tenuous financial footing of all except the CC&C – courtesy of the Clique’s urging and Lanier’s financial wizardry or skullduggery.
But Brough was having other problems. As the M&I revenue picture darkened, the I&B’s brightened. Now connected with the Bellefontaine and Indiana [B&I] and CC&C to reach Cleveland, the I&B’s passenger and freight revenue per mile spiked during the first year of through service in 1853. In addition, new traffic carried between Indianapolis and Cincinnati – via a connection at the increasingly critical junction town of Union – translated into booming business along the band of steel known as the I&B.
Even before the I&B reached Union, however, the M&I was having trouble meeting its obligations under the five year operating contract the two had inked in 1850. The M&I’s inability to supply and maintain a sufficient number of locomotives and cars capable of handling the increasing traffic across the partially completed I&B was obvious. By the summer of 1852, I&B president Oliver H. Smith had initiated a series of discussions with Brough to recast the arrangement. Brough’s stance was adamant, as Smith reported: “They [M&I] claimed by resolve to run the whole Road for the time specified.” But Brough’s ego did not reflect the reality of his situation.
At the same time, Smith approached the I&B board with specific proposals to purchase additional rolling stock and motive power equipment. He also proposed building machine shops, an engine house and depot buildings. Smith mapped out a game plan to finance the expansion. It would require selling stock and/or floating $150,000 of bonds on Wall Street. Board member Calvin Fletcher reflected the Hoosier Partisans’ growing concern about Smith: “It was doubted by myself & others whether the Embassader [sic] intended had the qualifications to act in the matter.” Newly dominant shareholders Daniel Yandes and Alfred Harrison would handle the funding question.
Things were coming to a head on many fronts. At the I&B board meeting in February 1853 a resolution was passed to terminate the M&I operating agreement effective May 1st,more than two years earlier than anticipated. The M&I and Brough were becoming an afterthought.
Then, in March, Oliver Smith challenged the I&B board to endorse his continued presidency. Given his intransigence on moving the Indianapolis depot closer to the new Union Station – for personal business reasons – Smith’s demand fell on deaf ears. Waxing eloquent, Calvin Fletcher penned a response on behalf of the Hoosier Partisans: “We have no doubt, from your standing in this country . . . that you can do for yourself and the country much better than to remain the President of the said Road.” Smith would resign the presidency on April 6th.
On hearing of the I&B’s bold move to terminate its operating contract with the M&I, Brough was beside himself. As May 1st arrived, Fletcher was concerned, noting “Did not sleep very well having been notified that the M&I would not permit the I&B to have possession & that they would defend with force & arms.” Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed during daylong meetings between Brough, Yandes, Harrison and Fletcher. The next day the operating contract was dissolved.
Adding insult to injury, Brough’s strategy to tighten the M&I’s grip on a second railroad heading north from Indianapolis – the Peru and Indianapolis [P&I] – was also in peril. While a combination with the M&I would be effected in 1853 as the Madison, Indianapolis and Peru Railroad, it unwound the next year. E. W. H. Ellis, president of the Peru and Indianapolis Railroad, lamented upon the dissolution of the combination: “It is to be regretted that, in the days of its [M&I’s] prosperity, the road, its rolling stock and machinery, were permitted to run down and that these heavy burdens are thrown upon the company.” The I&B was already wise to the M&I’s deficiencies.
Still, the prospect of Brough’s push to St. Louis seemed all but certain. Winslow, Lanier & Co. had successfully attracted adequate funds to begin letting construction contracts. The Mississippi and Atlantic Railroad [M&A] had overcome political obstacles thrown in its path by an alliance of Chicago and Mississippi River town interests. They much preferred a route to a smaller river town, on Illinois turf, just north of St. Louis. Much like Indiana’s push to establish Madison as its improbable center of commerce on the Ohio River, against all odds Illinois opted to create Alton as its alternative to St. Louis along the Mississippi River.
To the Cleveland Clique and CC&C president Henry B. Payne, Brough’s progress in establishing and constructing a direct line to St. Louis, in the form of the M&A, was a dream come true. Controlling this line as well as the Bee Line would solidify the Clique’s plan for the West. And, as his tenure at the M&I grew tenuous, Brough would find Payne’s forthcoming offer incredibly attractive.
To the shock of the Hoosier Partisans, Brough was elected president at the I&B’s annual meeting on June 30, 1853. He was now at the head of three roads simultaneously: the M&I, M&A and I&B. Fletcher’s observations on Brough’s election summed up the feelings of the Hoosier Partisans: “In order to carry out the design we had to take Mr. Brough as president who had acted for the Madison RR . . . where interest . . . adverse to the I&B created a hostility to him. But it was obvious that we had to forgo the objection & take him.” It was not an easy pill to swallow for the Hoosier Partisans.
While it may not have been obvious at that point, the Hoosier Partisans’ decision to accept funding from the CC&C and Winslow, Lanier & Co. – let alone seeking counsel from the Cleveland Clique – would be fraught with long-term consequences.
Check back for Part IV to learn more about the fate of the Mississippi and Atlantic Railroad, and the related destiny of John Brough with the Bee Line – under influence of the Cleveland Clique.
See Part I to learn about the origins of the Bee Line and the men who brought it to life.
The Bee Line Railroad almost never was. At the dawn of the Midwest railroad era Hoosiers were slow to embrace what became the technological marvel of the 19th century. Dependent on state funds or newly emerging Wall Street for cash, initial railroad financing prospects looked dim. Instead, canals were the preferred method of transportation in the mind of the public.
The State of Indiana began planning for a litany of “internal improvements” from its inception in 1816. In his 1827 message to the General Assembly, Governor James B. Ray (1825-1831) admonished the legislators, noting that railways could convey “equal burdens to any that can be transported on a Canal . . . and with double the velocity.” However, at the time, the legislature was not moved by his argument.
Finally, as interest in railroads began to percolate by 1832, legislators approved charters for eight – including the Madison, Indianapolis and Lafayette Rail-Road Company. Prominent among its board members was Madison banker James F. D. Lanier, destined to become the leading Wall Street financier of virtually all Midwest railroad era lines during the mania of the 1850s, including the Bee Line.
More than thirty Indiana railroads were chartered between 1832 and 1838. Nonetheless, attempts to lure private capital via stock subscriptions fizzled. Only a mile and a quarter of experimental track had been laid near Shelbyville by the end of the decade.
Much of the debt to fund these efforts was taken up by the financial barons and financiers of Europe. Rolling mills and metal fabricators in the United Kingdom (UK) were then seeking new markets for their locomotive and rolled rail products. American manufacturers capable of producing such articles were only just beginning, as the Industrial Revolution reached its peak in Europe a full generation before doing so in the U.S. It became a mutually dependent relationship through the 1850s: English products for American dollars.
By the early 1840s Indiana’s failed internal improvements push had become obvious. The state called on Lanier to extricate it from near financial ruin. Before Lanier sailed to Europe in 1847 to negotiate Indiana’s financial exit plan, it had already jettisoned its canal and railroad holdings.
Beyond his success ensuring the state’s survival, Lanier returned from Europe with the confidence of the barons of Continental and English finance. Since the UK was America’s primary source for finished iron rails until the Civil War, the importance of such developed trust was pivotal. These relationships became the cornerstone of Lanier’s success as the Midwest’s preeminent member of Wall Street’s new financial sector: investment banking.
As part of its privatizing move in 1842, the Indiana legislature had authorized the M&I to borrow money and issue bonds to complete the line to Indianapolis not later than 1848. In his role on the M&I’s reconstituted board, Lanier orchestrated placement of $50,000 (in 1845) and $100,000 (in 1846) of private bonds through the Wall Street firm which would soon bear his name: Winslow, Perkins & Co.
With funds in hand, the M&I finished the final fifty-six miles of track to Indianapolis by October 1847, at a cost of $628,000. Daniel Yandes, subsequently the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine Railroad’s primary stockholder, had won a bid to construct ten miles of the road. The whole task was finished nearly a year before its targeted completion date. In comparison, as a state-run company, it had taken seven years and over $1.5 million to lay the line’s first twenty-eight miles.
The M&I’s Wall Street firm of Winslow, Perkins & Co. began to weigh in on the railroad’s managerial approach after suffusing it with cash. It foretold the more active role financiers would take in operational decision-making of businesses they were funding. To that end, a new president arrived at the M&I in August 1848: John Brough of Ohio, whose life would revolve around the Bee Line railroad.
Brough had been a youthful and powerful member of Ohio’s legislature. As a freshman legislator at the age of 26, he chaired the Committee on Banks and Currency. Subsequently he was chosen the state’s auditor, a position he held until 1845. Brough had come to Madison, Indiana from Cincinnati, after a three year stint with his brother running the emerging Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper.
By the time Brough issued his first report to shareholders in January 1849, the newly christened Wall Street financial firm of Winslow, Lanier & Co. held more than $92,000 of M&I cash equivalents. Both Merssrs. Winslow and Lanier held positions on the board of directors.
Wall Street was fast becoming the financial clearinghouse for matching Eastern Seaboard and European investors with Midwest railroad securities. A new class of private bankers arose, backed by European firms, which began to serve as investment middlemen. These newly coined “investment bankers” evaluated the quality of securities, served as investment advisers to individuals with surplus capital, acted as financial agents for the railroads, and frequently took investment positions themselves. They also allocated investment capital among the many railroads seeking cash infusions.
Initially, Brough developed a strategy to build, invest in, or otherwise secure favorable operating agreements with a planned web of railroads radiating from Indianapolis. And invest he did. The M&I, Brough reasoned, would gather agricultural goods from the southern two-thirds of Indiana and funnel them via Indianapolis to Madison for transport on the Ohio River.
To assure its dominant position, Brough used his politically powerful board to block a railroad charter for a rail line headed from Indianapolis toward Cincinnati (Lawrenceburg). He also rejiggered timetables to prevent convenient connections over a newly chartered branch line extending toward Louisville (Jeffersonville) from Columbus, Indiana.
David Kilgore, director of the 1848-chartered Indianapolis and Bellefontaine Railroad [I&B] – first leg of the Bee Line extending from Indianapolis to the Ohio state line – noted Brough’s aggressive, anti-competitive tactics: “now they would put their feet upon the neck of competition . . . And why? . . . Rival interests are springing up at other points, and if they can be crippled, so much the better for this city [Indianapolis] and Madison.” It would not be long, however, before Brough would prove unable to stem the tide of competition.
Brough’s involvement planning Indianapolis’ Union Station in the early 1850s, with M&I’s investment in the Indianapolis Union Railway Company, yielded insights about the financial health and intentions of other lines terminating there. Unfortunately for him, in 1851 Indiana’s new constitution was adopted, including a mandate to craft general incorporation laws. No longer would special charters be required to form new railroads. It signaled the end of the M&I’s political agility to stifle competition.
As a result, Brough shifted strategies. He now sought to make two of the newborn and financially anemic lines dependent on the M&I. Brough would set his sights on the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine, building northeast from Indianapolis. It was already making plans to connect with roads angling to another key center of economic growth: Cleveland. And with the help of Lanier and his Wall Street firm, the lure would prove to be almost irresistible.
To the surprise of investors, as well as the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine’s board, costs of funding construction and operation of the new railroad had been grossly underestimated. Without access to substantial credit facilities, motive power equipment, rolling stock, iron rails and operating personnel, the I&B was going nowhere. There to “help” was Brough and Winslow, Lanier & Co.
The M&I, as orchestrated by Brough, guaranteed newly issued I&B bonds that Lanier had floated. Now, it could purchase the M&I’s surplus iron rails, and lease its motive power and rolling stock equipment. The basis of the bargain was a lucrative five-year operating agreement, which commenced in 1850. The M&I would not only supply all personnel, but also collect and distribute ticket and freight receipts, paying itself from the proceeds it handled.
Whose railroad was it anyway? By the time the I&B started partial service between Indianapolis and Pendleton in 1851, the railroad was the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine in name only. It was all as Brough had planned.
There was another important aspect of the new line’s financial health. By 1853, when the I&B commenced service all the way to Union, the dominant regional player – the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad[CC&C] through its president Henry B. Payne – had loaned the I&B and its sister Bellefontaine and Indiana line in Ohio a combined sum of over $100,000.
Thus, no sooner had the smaller combined Bellefontaine lines, now known collectively as the Bee Line, begun full service than they began to lose a grasp on their own destiny. Pulling the financial strings were John Brough, James F. D. Lanier, and a Cleveland Clique of businessmen and bankers headed by Henry B. Payne, then at the controls of the CC&C. The resulting tug of war between the Cleveland Clique and Hoosier Partisans for control of the Bee Line would continue throughout the 1850s.
But Henry Payne and the Cleveland Clique had other aspirations as well. Controlling rail lines all the way to St. Louis would cement its dominant role among Midwest railroads. And John Brough, recognizing the need for the M&I to control other railroads heading to more viable destinations, had – with the help of James Lanier – already turned his gaze to St. Louis.
Check back for Part III to learn more about John Brough and the Cleveland Clique’s pivotal play to reach St. Louis, as well as the resulting impact on the Bee Line and its Hoosier Partisans.
In 1971, the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) system was brought to court and found guilty of practicing de jure segregation or racial separation enforced by law. This lesser-known story of desegregation in Indianapolis’s schools reveals a community deeply divided over race and offers one local response to an important national conversation.
Indianapolis had been racially segregated long before the 1970s. In particular, residential segregation coupled with a practice called redlining reinforced boundaries between the city’s white and African American populations. Redlining is denying services to people based on race: in this case, financial services. In response to the Great Depression, between 1934 and 1968 the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) used the National Housing Act to make housing more affordable. In practice, the Act only made home ownership easily accessible to white people by guaranteeing their loans. It explicitly denied to back loans for black people or even residents of majority black neighborhoods.
Appraisers ranked residential areas on a grading scale from A (green) to D (red). These color-coded maps, created by lenders, developers, and real estate appraisers for the FHA and HOLC, dictated how easy or difficult mortgage companies would make it for residents to secure loans in different areas. The appraisal process proved damning to areas where African Americans lived. An A-grade area, as one appraiser said, would not include “a single foreigner or Negro.” The lowest D-grade, red areas included “detrimental influences in a pronounced degree” with “undesirable population or infiltration of it.” Since the appraisers purposefully graded areas where African Americans lived poorly, redlining made it impossible for African Americans to benefit from residential mobility and reinforced racial segregation in the city.
In Indianapolis, A-grade areas were mainly located in the suburbs while C- and D-grade neighborhoods were located in the inner-city – where 98 percent of the African American population lived. One Indianapolis neighborhood on the Old Northwest Central side of the city, where African Americans made up 90 percent of the population, was catalogued as D-25. The appraiser who surveyed the area in 1937 gave it a D-grade for being “blighted” and “almost solid negro.” Even areas described as having “better class” African Americans were still classified as D-grade. In contrast, desirable Grade-A locations, like A-1 near Butler University, boasted “[n]ative white; executive and other white-collar type” residents with “nominal” foreign-born and no black residents.
These residential patterns made it easy for IPS to uphold segregation in the school system as the School Board would zone, or divide, different residential areas to feed into different schools. As such, racially segregated housing generated racially segregated schools. A deeply divided school system had been in place in the city since 1927 when the Ku Klux Klan pressured the Board of School Commissioners to build what became Crispus Attucks High School for African American students. IHB’s historical marker observes the school’s history.
Although school segregation was outlawed in Indiana in 1949, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) reestablished the elementary school boundaries in 1953 to ensure that the school system remained racially divided. The boundaries were so clearly racially-motivated that “[i]n some instances the lines drawn . . . ignored natural boundaries, requiring students to cross a canal, railroad track” or busy street “to get to their assigned school where no impediment stood between the student and an adjoining school.” An African American child tragically died after being struck by a train in 1952 because of these boundaries.
In 1968, a group of African American parents of children who attended IPS schools requested that the US Justice Department file a suit in the federal district court to charge IPS with unconstitutional segregation. The case, United States v. Board of School Commissioners, was tried in Indianapolis in July of 1971. The verdict, given on August 18, 1971, found “a purposeful pattern of racial discrimination based on the aggregate of many decisions of the Board and its agents.” IPS was guilty of de jure segregation, including racist “gerrymandering of school attendance zones, the segregation of faculty, the use of optional attendance zones among the schools, and the pattern of school construction and placement.” The court believed that “complete desegregation within IPS boundaries would encourage ‘white flight’ and lead to rapid resegregation” of IPS. To address this, the State of Indiana was added to the suit so that the township schools within Marion County would have to racially integrate with IPS.
In 1973, IPS having taken no significant steps towards desegregation, the district court asserted jurisdiction over the issue. Judge Dillin of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ordered a one-way busing system to force IPS and the township schools to integrate.
Many Indianapolis parents, both black and white, were nervous for this transition the preceding summer of the 1973 school year. Meridian-Kessler, located on the north side of the downtown, had only recently become multi-racial at the time, and the neighborhood’s August/September newsletter carried a somewhat anxious tone. The front page read:
Uppermost in the minds of most Indy residents this fall is the unsettled school situation . . . There are three grade schools within our boundaries, and our children attend two nearby high schools. All of these schools will be involved in the desegregation plan eventually due to the changing racial balance in this area.
The city had reason to be nervous. Forced busing schemes in other cities like Detroit and Boston made headlines for the violence they incited. Indianapolis residents associated with the Ku Klux Klan became a common presence at anti-busing protest events. On the morning of September 27, 1971, Sgt. J. Adamson of the Indianapolis Police Department (IPD), was assigned to cover an anti-busing demonstration at the Indiana Statehouse. He identified “[a] group of approximately twenty (20) mixed men, women and male teenagers…under the name of ‘Americans for America’,” noting, “[t]his organization has strong Klan affiliation.” Three days later, September 30, 1971, the IPD deployed their Special Investigation unit to cover another meeting: The Citizens Against Busing at the Indianapolis Baptist Temple. Again, many involved were members of the KKK-affiliated group “Americans for America.” Meetings like these were not uncommon.
In Indianapolis, the first buses of black students began commuting to white schools in 1973. Not all schools responded to the desegregation order immediately. Some townships, including Perry, Decatur, Franklin, and Lawrence only began accepting IPS students bused to their schools in 1981. That year, when her bus, coming from Indianapolis’s east side, pulled into Perry Meridian High School, LaTonya Kirkland was terrified. She “remembers a dozen of her white classmates approaching the bus, their hands slapping against the yellow metal side panels . . . the bus started to rock as the white students slammed against the bus” before throwing an egg at the window. Police had to escort her and her fellow black classmates into the school.
Perry Meridian High School was the site for many violent racial altercations. The burden of reversing segregation, a problem instigated by the white population, fell heavily on the shoulders of black teenagers. The letters “KKK” were found painted on the school building, and there were rumors of black students coming to school with weapons to protect themselves. Only one African American girl was actually caught with such a weapon. She was concealing a meat cleaver. The situation at Perry Meridian High School had escalated so much that in 1981 the FBI came to investigate.
The interconnected stories of redlining and the desegregation of IPS reveal a city deeply divided, struggling with issues of race and equality. In the end, busing briefly achieved what it was meant to do. The court order created schools which appeared racially balanced and integrated on paper, but were often still segregated and hostile. Indianapolis began to phase out forced busing in 1998, ending the court-ordered desegregation era with LaTonya Kirkland’s daughter LaShawn’s graduating class in the 2015-2016 school year.