Lucinda Burbank Morton and the Establishment of the U.S. Sanitary Commission in Indiana

This blog post has been adapted from a paper submission for the 2019 Bennett-Tinsley Undergraduate History Research and Writing Competition. For further analysis of Camp Morton and Civil War politics, see Dr. James Fuller’s Oliver P. Morton and Civil War Politics in Indiana.

History has a tendency to exclude women who were just as imperative—if not more so—than their male counterparts, like Edna Stillwell, the wife of Red Skelton, and Susan Wallace, the wife of Lew Wallace. This is the case with Lucinda Burbank Morton, a woman of “rare intelligence and refinement,” known most commonly as the wife of Oliver P. Morton, the 14th Governor of Indiana. Yet she served an influential role in the Midwest abolition movement and relief efforts for the American Civil War, especially in her work with the Ladies Patriotic Association and the Indiana division of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. She worked diligently to help develop the young City of Indianapolis and push Indiana through its early years of statehood. Despite her tremendous contributions, Lucinda’s place in history is mostly marked by her marriage to Governor Morton. Although the role of First Lady is significant, what she gave to her state and, consequently, country, goes beyond this title.

The moment the news of Fort Sumter reached Indianapolis, Governor Morton delegated Adjutant General, Lew Wallace, to oversee the creation of a camp for mustering and training Union volunteers. Wallace turned the fairgrounds in Indianapolis into “Camp Morton,” named after the wartime governor himself. In 1862, it was converted into a POW camp. The North and South were warring after decades of unrelenting tension over slavery, and, as a central location, Indianapolis would need to be ready for enemies captured by Union forces. Even though Confederate troops were going to be imprisoned here, Lucinda saw soldiers as people first, no matter their affiliation. She realized that it would take an army to, quite literally, feed an army, and quickly took over the role of organizing and managing necessities for Camp Morton. Headed by Lucinda, the Ladies Patriotic Association (LPA), thus, began providing for those imprisoned in the camp in the latter half of 1862.

The Indianapolis News, 29 July 1907.

The LPA consisted of Hoosier women of political and/or social prominence. The organization served as one of the first major philanthropic endeavors of Lucinda Burbank Morton, perhaps the most ambitious effort yet. The women of the association often met in the Governor’s Mansion to strategize and, depending on what the Camp Morton prisoners needed at that time, collect and craft donations for the camp. For example, at one particular meeting, the Ladies sewed and knitted over $200 worth of flannel hats, scarves, and mittens for Confederate prisoners in preparation for the upcoming harsh, Indiana winter. The Ladies hand-stitched so many pieces of clothing that Governor Morton had to step in and politely decline any more donations of the sort for the time being.

As Spring transitioned into Summer the following year, an outbreak of measles plagued the camp. Lucinda Burbank Morton and her fellow Ladies banded together to help replace blankets, pillows, and towels. Their polite prodding of Hoosiers across the state invoked donations of salt, pork, beer, candles, soap, and dried fruits. In the early days of Camp Morton, jokes circulated that the prisoners had to be reminded that they were, indeed, still prisoners because of how comfortably they lived as a result of the generous donations from the Ladies Patriotic Association.

Camp Morton, ca. 1863, courtesy of the Indiana State Archives.

Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln continued to seek relief for Army camps from across the Union. A wave of patriotism swept over the daughters, wives, and mothers of Union soldiers as more and more troops were sent off to war against the Confederacy. On April 25, 1861, these women met in New York to better organize the relief efforts of the Union. The roots of the Women’s Central Association of Relief (WCAR) were established at this meeting. Members learned about the WCAR through friends and family members, and others belonged to the same sewing circle or taught alongside each other at primary schools. They all had the same goal in mind—to contribute as much, if not more, to the war effort as their male counterparts.

U.S. legislators responded to the needs identified by the Women’s Central Association of Relief with the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC). As a private relief agency, the USSC supported Union soldiers during the American Civil War. It operated across the North, raising nearly $25 million in supplies and monetary funds to help support Union forces during the war. The government could only do so much in providing for its troops; the USSC allowed concerned civilians to make up for any administrative shortcomings.

Oliver P. Morton, ca. 1860, Indiana Civil War Visual Collection, Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections.

With the establishment of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, individual states began to create their own divisions to meet the need for infantry relief. Governor Morton ordered the Indiana division of the Sanitary Commission to be constructed in 1862. The commission helped to balance out the hardships of war for many Hoosier troops. The Indiana division spoke to the idea of Hoosier Hospitality, providing rather comfortable amenities and ample resources for POWs.

The Indiana Sanitary Commission officially began implementing aid and relief after the Battle of Fort Donaldson in February of 1862. From that year to December of 1864, the Indiana homefront put forth approximately $97,000 in cash contributions. Over $300,000 worth of goods and supplies were donated, totaling nearly $469,000 in overall aid. The Office of the Indiana Sanitary Commission wrote of these contributions in a report to the governor:

The people of Indiana read in this report not of what we [the government], but they have done. We point to the commission as work of their hands, assured that the increasing demands steadily made upon it will be abundantly supplied by the same generous hearts to which it owes its origins and growth, all of which is respectfully submitted.

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The citizens of Indiana and their government, alike, were keenly aware of the contributions they were making to the war effort. The report to Governor Morton also included lists of influential members of the Commission, including special sanitary agents, collection agents, special surgeons, and female nurses. Of these notable entries, nurses accounted for the majority of names compiled. Twenty-five of them operated from Indiana to Nashville, Tennessee and beyond for the Union Army. One such woman, Mrs. E. E. George worked alongside General William Tecumseh Sherman and his troops during the March to the Sea. She worked chiefly with the 15th Army Corps Hospital from Indiana to Atlanta; her fellow male soldiers later described Mrs. George as being “always on duty, a mother to all, and universally beloved, as an earnest, useful Christian Lady.”

Indiana’s Superintendent of Female Nurses, Miss C. Annette Buckel, brought over thirty-five nurses to work in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky hospitals. Her demeanor, dedication, and administrative qualities were spoken of in the Commission Report to the Governor, citing that Buckel deserves “the utmost praise.” Additionally, Hoosier nurses Hannah Powell and Arsinoe Martin of Goshen, Indiana gave their lives serving in the Union Hospital of Memphis, Tennessee in 1863. The women known for their humanitarian contributions and patriotic sacrifices were pronounced as:

Highly valued in the family and in society, they were not less loved and appreciated in their patient unobtrusive usefulness among the brave men, for whose service, in sickness and wounds, they had sacrificed so much. Lives so occupied, accord the highest assurance of peaceful and happy death; and they died triumphing in the faith of their Redeemer, exulting and grateful that they had devoted themselves to their suffering countrymen. Their memories, precious to every generous soul, will be long cherished by many a brave man and their example of self-denial and patriotic love and kindness, will be echoed in the lives of others who shall tread the same path.

Jeffersonville Jefferson General Hospital, 1865, Camp Joe Holt and Jefferson General Hospital Photographs, Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections.

Lovina McCarthy Streight was another prominent woman from Indiana who served the Union during the Civil War. Her husband, Abel, was the commander of the 51st Indiana Volunteer Infantry, and when he and his troops were sent off to war, Streight and the couple’s 5-year-old son went along with the regiment. Streight nursed wounded men with dedication and compassion, earning her the title of “The Mother of the 51st.” Confederate troops captured Streight three times; wherever her husband and his men went, she went, too, right into battles deep within Southern territory. She was exchanged for Confederate Prisoners of War the first two times she was captured, but, on the third time, Streight pulled a gun out of her petticoat. She consequently escaped her captor and made her way back to her husband and son as well as the rest of the 51st Indiana Volunteer Infantry. In 1910, Streight passed away and received full military honors at her funeral in Crown Hill Cemetery which was attended by approximately 5,000 people, including 64 survivors of the 51st Volunteer Infantry.

As the Civil War progressed, Lucinda Burbank Morton stood at the center of the Hoosier state’s philanthropic relief efforts. But Governor Morton and his controversial administration placed unspoken pressure upon Lucinda  to be all the more pleasant and amicable yet just as determined with her outreach endeavors. Indiana historian Kenneth Stampp described Governor Morton as:

. . . an extremely capable executive, but he [Morton] was blunt, pugnacious, ruthless, and completely lacking in a sense of humor. He refused to tolerate opposition, and he often harassed his critics to complete distraction. The men associated with him ranked only as subordinates in his entourage.

Nevertheless, Lucinda acted as a cogent leader for women not just in Indiana, but across the Union, and even opened her own home to ensure the success of such efforts. Lucinda’s work spiraled into something much bigger in terms of the health and wellness of the men fighting the war that divided her beloved country.

The efforts of Morton and her fellow Union women marked one of the first times in the history of the United States where women were collectively seen as more than just mothers and wives, however important such roles might be; they were strong, they were competent, and they contributed in ways that matched the efforts of Union men. However forgotten the women who helped preserve the Union might be, their dedication and tenacity shed new light on women’s organizational capabilities during the Civil War.

 

Sources Used:

W.R. Holloway, “Report of the Indiana Sanitary Commission Made to the Governor, January 2, 1865” (Indiana Sanitary Commission: Indianapolis, 1865).

“Proceedings of the Indiana Sanitary Convention: Held in Indianapolis, Indiana, March 2, 1864” (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Journal Co. Printers, 1864).

Jane McGrath, “How Ladies Aid Associations Worked,” How Stuff Works, June 04, 2009.

Mary Jane Meeker, “Lovina Streight Research Files,” 1988, William H. Smith Memorial Library, Indiana Historical Society.

Dawn Mitchell, “Hoosier Women Aided Civil War Soldiers,” The Indianapolis Star, March 23, 2015.

Sheila Reed, “Oliver P. Morton, Indiana’s Civil War Governor,” 2016, University of Southern Indiana, USI Publication Archives, 2016.

Kenneth M. Stampp, “Indiana Politics in the Civil War” (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1978).

H. Thompson, “U.S. Sanitary Commission: 1861,” Social Welfare History Project, April 09, 2015.

Hattie L. Winslow, “Camp Morton,” Butler University Digital Commons, April 12, 2011.

How Indy’s Queer Community Challenged Police Harassment in the 1980s

The Works, January 1985, 9, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

Heart racing, 31-year-old Steven Ott escaped the aggression of his companion, whom he met at Our Place (now Greg’s), by jumping out of the car near 34th and Georgetown Road. He fled to a nearby Taco Bell and ran towards three Indianapolis Police Department (IPD) cars parked in its lot. Ott recounted the frightening experience to the officers, who offered to call him a cab, but refused to do anything about the assault.

“Faggot,” stated one of the officers as Ott waited for his cab. Ott took down the license plate number of the offending officer only to be arrested. According to Ott, when asked why he was being arrested he never received a reply. He spent the night in Marion County’s jail and when he appeared before a judge the next morning he was told simply “that he could go—no hearing, no formal charges.” Reportedly, the officers initially charged Ott with public intoxication, although they never filed an affidavit with the court. [1] 

The Works, December 12, 1985, 9, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

Indianapolis’s LGBTQ community encountered and protested numerous challenges posed by law enforcement in the 1980s, including police surveillance of cruising sites, harassment at safe spaces, and possible prejudiced police work as homicide rates increased for gay men. Bars served as a popular safe space or third space environment where members of the queer community could socialize. But they were also the site of harassment, surveillance, and violence. Gay rights activist Mike Stotler recounted police harassment at Terre Haute’s gay bar, R-Place. [2] He reported “You can be in the bar for maybe just one hour, and be asked to present ID to a police officer four or five times. The police also routinely copy down license plate numbers in an attempt to intimidate the bar’s patrons.” Stotler also described violent harassment, stating that one man en route to R-Place alleged that two police officers picked him up, drove him from the bar, and beat and verbally assaulted him. Despite broken ribs and a hospital stay, “The victim has so far been afraid to report the crime, for fear of losing his job and coming out to his family.”

Michael Petree, courtesy of The Works, February 1983, 8, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

Mistrust of police following such encounters would stymie efforts to solve a string of murders, tracked back to 1980 but most likely earlier (either not reported by the news or not explicitly stating the victims were associated with an LGBTQ identity). There was fifteen-year-old Michael Petree, murdered in 1980 and left in a ditch in Hamilton County. [3] Then it was twenty-five-year-old Gary Davis, murdered in 1981 on the Southside of Indianapolis. [4] The following year, twenty-six-year-old Dennis Brotzge was murdered on the Northside of Indianapolis. [5] The body of Delvoyd Baker, an eighth-grader who was last seen in an area of Monument Circle known for teenage prostitution, was found in a ditch in Fishers. [6] With his death, police ramped up efforts to find the perpetrator. Police Chief Joseph G. McAtee stated, “I believe as chief of police when a 14-year-old boy gets picked up downtown and murdered, and young teen agers are getting money for prostitution on the Circle, we have an obligation not to let this happen to our young people.”

Delvoyd Baker, courtesy of The Indianapolis News, October 4, 1982, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

However, president of LGBTQ civil rights organization Justice Inc. Wally Paynter told The Indianapolis News in 1998, “‘The police put this on the back burner. They didn’t discuss it across jurisdictional lines. . . . If these had been CEOs’ bodies scattered across the community, there would have been a manhunt the likes of which you had not seen.'” Out & About Indiana author Bruce Seybert had a different take and told the News that he believed “some police officers honestly didn’t know how to plug into the gay community for help, but that they learned along the way and established longer-term contacts because of the investigation.” [7] Regardless of the extent of their efforts, police found questioning possible witnesses “extremely difficult” due to LGBTQ mistrust of the police. [8] This led the police to a new strategy—surveillance of cruising sites. Police undertook surveillance in the hopes of deterring similar crimes and catching the perpetrator, but also to “cut down prostitution, assaults and harassment of tourists.” [9]

In an era before dating apps, cruising sites provided common areas where LGBTQ members could congregate and meet other people. They tended to be associated with gay men gathering with the intention of a sexual encounter. In an article about why homosexual men took part in cruising, the New York Times quoted an anonymous participant, who stated “Society doesn’t accept us and it’s hard to meet people, sexually or socially.” In Indiana, areas like the downtown public library branch, Monument Circle, Fall Creek, and Skiles Test served as common cruising sites. In addition to surveillance, police went undercover in an attempt to arrest men for breaking “vice laws.” These efforts furthered suspicion of police motives among the queer community, especially because some officers conflated prostitution with homosexuality. With announcement of surveillance following Delvoyd Baker’s murder, the LGBTQ community expressed concerns that police would violate their rights by filming patrons frequenting gay bars, the videotapes of which police promised to make available to the public.

The Works, March 1983, 30, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

In 1983, at the initiative of the queer community, leaders of the Indianapolis Gay/Lesbian Coalition (IGLC)—comprised of fourteen educational, religious, political, business, and social organizations—met with police officials to volunteer their help in solving the murders and improve relations with the IPD. They also made seven recommendations to police, including establishing a liaison to communicate with the homosexual community; cease video surveillance; train officers to be more sensitive in their interactions with the LGBTQ community; and educate the police force about homosexuality. Public Safety Director Richard Blankenship noted that the meeting “‘opened the door to better communication between gays and the Department of Public Safety. . . . We feel we can resolve our problems much quicker and more effectively than we have in the past.'” [10]

IGLC made progress in opening a line of communication between law enforcement and the queer community, which in turn may have improved efforts to solve gay-related homicides. This progress was intermittent however, and Stan Berg reminded readers of The Works “We must remember the conservative political and sexual climate of Indiana.” [11] In 1984, plainclothes policemen wrongly accused gay men of prostitution, an incident IPD officials described as “well-motivated but unfortunate.” [12] Three LGBTQ organizations in Indianapolis, as well as those in Muncie, Columbus, and Bloomington, either attended or endorsed a press conference denouncing harassment and the resumption of video surveillance.  Twenty-three individuals issued harassment complaints with the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. One of these was David Molden, who claimed officers choked and slapped him during his arrest for using false identification. [13]

The Works, August 1984, 8, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

The New Works News noted in 1988 that, again at the initiative of the queer community rather than police officials, the IPD and LGBTQ community came together regarding a string of robberies of Indianapolis gay bars. Detective Don Wright invited representatives from all of the affected bars, as well as victims and witnesses. The New Works News described the meeting’s turnout as “heartening” and that “Each of the victims present at the meeting was asked to tell their version of the incident in which they were involved. All did so in detail and apparently in all of the incidents the attitude and discretion of the responding officers was exemplary, with one exception.” [14]

Detectives at the meeting pledged to dispatch more plainclothes officers at the affected businesses to deter future robberies. The LGBTQ community’s earlier efforts to help the IPD solve LGBTQ-related murders resulted in this more collaborative spirit. It is unclear if their assistance helped the police investigation, as some of the murders were not solved until 1998 with the discovery of Westfield serial killer Herbert Baumeister. In the case of some victims, police never identified the perpetrator. However, the murders resulted into closer communication between the queer community and the IPD.

As with most efforts to secure civil rights, progress for the queer community in the city known for its “Polite Protest” and “Hoosier Hospitality” occurred in fits and spurts. Indiana’s 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act signaled that the struggle for LGBTQ rights in the U.S. endured into the 21st Century. However, the efforts of the IGLC and the Indiana Civil Liberties Union in the 1980s removed some of the stigma in seeking recourse against discrimination.

The Works, January 1985, 22, Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

A note on sources:

This piece used materials gathered by Indiana Landmarks’ Central Indiana LGBTQ Historic Structures & Sites Survey, a project to compile information associated with Indianapolis-area queer history, architecture, and places. The research materials have been provided to the City’s Historic Preservation Commission for incorporation into new local historic district neighborhood plans.  Additional sources include the following. All newspaper sources can be accessed via Newspapers.com.

[1] “More Police Harassment,” The Works, November 1985, p. 11, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[2] “Trouble in Terre Haute,” The Works, December 1982, p. 12, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[3] Susan M. Anderson, “Officials Identify Dead Boy,” The Indianapolis Star, June 24, 1980, 17.

[4] “Friends Questioned About Davis Slaying,” The Indianapolis News, August 13, 1981, 39.

[5] “Cause of the Brotzge Death Unknown,” The Indianapolis News, June 2, 1982, 49.

[6] Wanda Bryant-Wills, “Leads Come Slowly in Homosexual Killings,” The Indianapolis News.

[7] David Remondini, “Police Start Using Cameras to Help Cut Midtown Crime,” The Indianapolis Star, October 20, 1982, 51.

[8] George Stuteville, “‘Gay’ Area Probed for Clues to Youth’s Death,” The Indianapolis Star, October 5, 1982, 1.

[9] The Indianapolis Star, October 20, 1982, 51.

[10] The Indianapolis News and The Indianapolis Star, January 11, 1983.

[11] “Second IGLC/Police Meeting Yields Few Results,” The Works, May 1983, p. 12, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

[12] George Stuteville, “Harassment Charges Worry Some Police as well as ICLU,” The Indianapolis Star, June 30, 1984.

[13] “Gay/Lesbian Groups Blast ‘Harassment’ on Circle,” The Indianapolis News, July 12, 1984, 12.

[14] E. Rumbarger, “IPD Holds Meeting to Investigate Gay Bar Robberies,” The New Works News, January 1988, p. 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

Overcoming Stigma: Ryan White’s AIDS Education Advocacy

Show Notes Coming Soon!

Transcript for Overcoming Stigma: Ryan White’s AIDS Education Advocacy

Recording of Ryan White: It was my decision to live a normal life, go to school, be with friends, and enjoy day to day activities. It was not going to be easy. I became known as the AIDS boy.

Beckley: Thirteen year old Ryan White was diagnosed with acquired immune deficiency syndrome in December, 1984. While the presence of the new disease had been detected over 2 years earlier, it was still a terrifying enigma. Especially in the mid-west, where less than ½ of 1 percent of all national AIDS diagnoses had been made. AIDS seemed like a distant nightmare – something that happened to other people in other places. The little understood, highly deadly disease was surrounded by fear, misunderstanding, and misinformation. Stigma and discrimination almost invariably accompanied an AIDS diagnosis. On this episode, we recount the story of Indiana teenager Ryan White and Hamilton Heights High School’s campaign to use education to combat this stigma.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

AIDS is the late stage of infection of human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. HIV attacks the cells within a body that help fight infection, making the infected person more vulnerable to other infections and diseases. While the HIV virus existed in humans as early as the 1920s, it wasn’t until 1981 that the medical community began noticing a rise in rare infections and suspecting a new immune deficiency disease to be the cause. By that time, up to 300,000 people on 5 continents had already been infected.

News audio: Federal health officials consider it an epidemic, yet you never hear anything about it…national Center for Disease Control in Atlanta today release the results of . . . disease, which most affects homosexual men . . . 1/3 have died and none have been cured the best guess is that some infectious agent is causing it.

Beckley: When we think about the early years of the AIDS crisis, we often think of the catastrophic effects the disease had on the gay community of the United States, and for good reason. By 1995, a full 10% of all adult men who identified as gay in America had died from the disease, a literal decimation. Of the 125 original members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir, all but 7 died within the first decade of the epidemic. Before the term acquired immune deficiency syndrome was coined in 1982, it was referred to as “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,” by health officials or “Gay Cancer” by the media. Much of the stigma surrounding the disease came from its link with the gay community and homophobic attitudes of the government, the media, and even medical professionals during the epidemic. There was another, smaller group which was also deeply and irreversibly affected by the AIDS epidemic, though: people with hemophilia.

Hemophilia is a rare disorder in which your blood lacks something called a clotting factor, meaning that it will not clot normally on its own. This leads to uncontrollable bleeding from cuts or excessive bruising form everyday activities. Up until the late 1960s, hemophiliacs had short life expectancies due to a lack of treatments for their condition. In 1965, Dr. Judith Graham Pool of Stanford University discovered a way of isolating the clotting factor in human blood, known as Factor VIII. This innovation allowed people with hemophilia to live relatively normal lives compared to their historical counterparts.

That changed dramatically in 1982 when the first cases of AIDS in the hemophiliac community were diagnosed.

News audio: At first it seemed to only strike one segment of the population. Now, Berry Peterson tells us, this is no longer the case.

Beckley: As a blood based product, Factor VIII was susceptible to contamination by blood borne illnesses, including HIV and AIDS. As first hundreds and then thousands of Americans were infected with AIDS, the risk of receiving contaminated treatments rose dramatically. Factor VIII, which just 20 years before had been the saving grace of those living with hemophilia, was now killing those same people.

This put people living with hemophilia and their loved ones in an unimaginably difficult position. Either continue using Factor VIII and risk infection or stop using it and risk bleeding to death. Ryan White, who was diagnosed with hemophilia soon after his December 1971 birth, was one of the many Americans faced with this decision. In his autobiography, Ryan White: My Own Story, Ryan describes this time in his life.

Voice actor portraying Ryan White:  “Aids was kind of lurking around in the background for all families of hemophiliacs, but back then nobody I knew except Grandpa seemed to take it very seriously. Grandpa and I had read everything we could find about it. We heard about older hemophiliacs who had gotten AIDS from the Factor that they needed as much as I did. That upset Grandpa. He started telling Mom not to give me Factor anymore.

Beckley: Ryan’s Grandfathers misgivings, in the end, were realized. Just before Christmas 1984, Ryan was hospitalized for pneumonia and after having a lung biopsy taken, was diagnosed with pneumocystis pneumonia. This, in turn, led to the realization of his and his family’s worst nightmares – an AIDS diagnosis. But from the start, Ryan decided on a unique approach to the illness.

Audio of Ryan White: I – from the very beginning, I said I was gonna fight this disease and I was gonna win.

Beckley: He wrote about his mother, Jeanne, telling him the news.

Audio of Jeanne White: From the very first, you know, he asked me, “Am I gonna die?” and this was when he was very first diagnosed, he said “Am I gonna die?” And I thought, “Gosh, how am I gonna answer this? And I said, “We’re all gonna die someday, we just don’t know when.”

Audio of Ryan: My mother told me we’re all gonna die someday so, just to step up to it.

Ryan White Voice Actor: I thought a minute. So what was the big deal about AIDS? I was a hemophiliac, so I already had my limits. But I’d been having an okay time, anyway. I certainly wasn’t about to die yet. Why not just get back to being a normal kid? “Tell you what, Mom,” I said. “Let’s just pretend I don’t have AIDS.”

Beckley: Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be possible. He couldn’t have known it, but he would soon be known around the world as the “poster boy for AIDS.” Making his diagnosis even more tragic, if that’s even possible, is the timing of it. Throughout 1984, scientists at the Center for Disease Control were developing a method of treating Factor VIII to kill any HIV virus lurking within. In October, two months before Ryan’s diagnosis, the method was endorsed and recommended by the CDC. The hemophilia community quickly implemented the method but, unfortunately, it was too late for Ryan – within just weeks of his diagnosis, all Factor VIII in the United States was being treated and hemophiliacs who had avoided infection thus far were spared.

For several months after his diagnosis, Ryan was too ill to return to school, but in the spring of 1985 he began voicing his desire to return to his normal life by resuming classes at Western Middle School. When his mother met with school officials to talk about this possibility, she encountered with resistance. Concerns about the health of other students, and that of Ryan himself, whose immune system had been ravaged by his illness, gave officials pause.  In one of the earliest news articles about the issue, Western School Superintendent J.O. Smith asked:

Voice actor: You tell me. What would you do? I don’t know. We’ve asked the State Board of Health, we’re expecting something from them. But nobody has anything to go by. Everybody wanted to know what they’re doing in other places. But we don’t have any precedent for this.

 

Beckley: He was right – there wasn’t much precedent for the situation they were facing. While a few schools had faced similar situations, the issues surrounding a child living with AIDS attending school – namely, the risk this posed to the other students – were far from settled. At this time, new and conflicting information came out at a dizzying pace.

News audio: . . . an epidemic of a rare form of cancer . . . a mysterious newly discovered disease . . . new deadly sexually transmitted disease . . .

Beckley: When the AIDS crisis first started, there were three risk groups identified: the gay population, intravenous drug users, and, strangely, Haitians. That based on misunderstood data indicating a higher rate of infections among Hattian Americans. Then, infants born to those with AIDS were added to the risk factor list. Next came those with Hemophilia and people who had received blood transfusions. Women with bisexual male partners were identified as a risk group in 1983. Then, women who had been artificially inseminated were being diagnosed.

Basically, the average person watching the evening news didn’t know who would be named next.

News audio: A weird, mutant virus, deadlier than the plague, suddenly appears on earth. People start dying, first by the score, then by the hundreds. Doctors are baffled. All the resources of medical science can’t help them find the cause, let alone the cure for the epidemic.

Beckley: There was fear in the air.

In 1985, when Western School Corporation was weighing its options, studies suggested that the AIDS virus may have been found in the tears and saliva of patients, which could have indicated that the virus was even more infectious than previously believed. Media reports on the studies muddied the waters further. For example, two newspaper headlines, both reporting on the same study and both published within 1 day of each other, read:

Voice actor:  “AIDS probably can’t be transmitted by saliva.”

Beckley: and

Voice actor: “AIDS virus found in saliva raises new questions.”

Beckley: With so much information—and misinformation—in the news cycle, the desire to hear from health authorities on the topic was understandable.

In July, three months after Ryan was told he could not attend school until the Indiana State Board of Health weighed in, a document titled “Guidelines for Children with AIDS Attending School” was released by the Board. Guideline number 1 read:

Voice actor: “AIDS children should be allowed to attend school as long as they behave acceptably . . . and have no uncoverable sores or skin eruptions. Routine and standard procedures should be used to clean up after a child has an accident or injury at school.”

Beckley: Despite this recommendation, Western School Corporation officials continued to deny Ryan admittance to class. Instead, they set up a remote learning system. From the confines of his bedroom, Ryan dialed into his classes via telephone and listened to his teachers lecture. He missed out on visual aids, class participation, and sometimes the lectures themselves, as the line was often garbled or disconnected.

Audio of Ryan White: I don’t want anybody else to get it. And I can see where they’re worried, but I mean, if my doctor says it’s okay to go back, I don’t see no reason why I can’t.

Beckley: A November ruling, this time by the Department of Education, confirmed the Board of Health’s assertion that Ryan should be admitted to class.

A series of rulings, appeals, and other legal filings followed, ultimately ending when the Indiana Court of Appeals declined to hear further arguments and Ryan finally got what he and his family had fought so hard for—he was allowed to return to classes on April 10, 1986. This victory was tarnished by ongoing discrimination from his classmates and other community members.

News audio: I don’t think he should be here. If people with chicken pox and measles can’t come, why should he? There’s been a lot of rumors that when he gets mad he spits on people.

Beckley: Addressing the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic in 1988, Ryan recalled some of the more poignant moments from his time in Kokomo:

Ryan white audio: They call you queer and stuff like that. Then you get people who throw away your dishes. I mean, I wouldn’t want to eat off of someone else’s dish either. I mean, it’s been washed so that’s all there is to it.

Ryan White Voice Actor: “I was labeled a troublemaker, my mom an unfit mother, and I was not welcome anywhere. People would get up and leave so they would not have to sit anywhere near me. Even at church, people would not shake my hand.”

Ryan White audio: They don’t know what else to do, so they’re cruel.

Beckley: Because of these experiences and his desire to escape oppressive media coverage, Ryan asked his mother if they could move out of Howard County. When the family decided to settle in Cicero, a small town about 30 miles to the south east, they couldn’t have known how drastically different their lives were about to become.

Tony Cook, the Hamilton Heights High School principal in the 1980s and now a State Representative, heard through informal channels that Ryan’s family was moving into his school district in April of 1987. The degree of media coverage surrounding Ryan’s battle to attend classes meant that Cook was well aware that his community’s reaction would be heavily scrutinized. In order to prepare his students, teachers, and neighbors for Ryan’s arrival, Cook and his staff set out on an AIDS educational crusade the likes of which had not been seen before.

With the backing of his superintendent and school board, Cook quickly made the decision that Ryan would be admitted to the school. This was really no surprise since Ryan’s cases had already set the legal precedent for children living with AIDS having the right to attend school.  What was more revolutionary was the decision that there would be no restrictions placed on what Ryan was able to do in school. During his time attending classes while in class in Western Middle School, he was not able to attend gym, used a separate restroom and water fountain, and ate off of disposable trays using plastic utensils. Cook’s decision to forgo such extreme measures signaled to the rest of the community – and to Ryan – that Ryan wasn’t some accident waiting to happen. Once that decision was made, it was time for Cook to take action.

After gathering AIDS-related materials from the Indiana State Board of Health, the Center for Disease Control, major newspapers, and scientific journals, Cook turned what was supposed to be his summer break into a months-long educational campaign.

Throughout the months that followed, Cook, armed with scientific sources, combated misinformation in his community. He spoke about AIDS at Kiwanis groups, Rotary Clubs, churches, and, really, any group that asked. He sat in living rooms and at kitchen tables throughout the community, personally addressing concerns of fellow citizens.

The school developed a collection of AIDS education materials that could be checked out. Cook contacted members of the student government, asking them to act as ambassadors, advocating on Ryan’s behalf with their fellow students and the media. School staff went through additional training to prepare them for the possibility of a blood or other biohazard spill. By the time the school year came around, Cicero, Arcadia, and the surrounding area had some of the best informed populations when it came to AIDS.

[Classroom sounds, bell ringing]

Beckley: The first few days of the 1987-1988 school year at Hamilton Heights High School were peppered with convocations in which Cook addressed each grade level to assuage any remaining concerns over sharing classrooms and hallways with Ryan. Students were encouraged to ask questions and support was provided for any feeling uncomfortable with the situation. In short, education was used to address stigma.

On Ryan’s first day of class, which was about a week after school started, the campaign seemed to have been relatively successful – all went smoothly, especially compared to the mass walk-outs and protests that had occurred when other children with AIDS began attending a new school.

Media presence, however, was a problem for the Hamilton Heights staff. Heights was an open campus, meaning students traveled between different buildings throughout the day. This would have made having members of the media on campus both distracting and potentially dangerous. But restricting access all together also wasn’t possible, as Ryan was a nationally-known figure by this time. The compromise was to have weekly press conferences during which Ryan, student ambassadors, and faculty could answer questions and update the press about the goings-on at the school.

On that first day, though, there was no formal press conference. Rather, as Ryan left the building the press surrounded him, asking how things had gone. He smiled and said:

News audio: Where you nervous at all this morning? “Oh, yea, I was terribly nervous.” What do you feel like now? I feel really good about this school. I like it a lot.

Ryan attributed his positive experiences at Hamilton Heights directly to the education campaign:

Ryan White Audio: When I went home that night, I just, I couldn’t believe they were so . . . I said, “Mom, they were really nice.” And it was all just so amazing.

Later, when speaking in front of the presidential commission on the HIV epidemic, he said:

Ryan White voice actor: I’m just one of the kids, and all because the students at Hamilton Heights High School listened to the facts, educated their parents and themselves, and believed in me . . . Hamilton Heights is proof that AIDS education in schools works.

Beckley: I had the opportunity to interview Representative Cook about his experiences during this time. During our interview, Cook spoke to the power of education to overcome even the most intense fear,

Cook:  “Yes, there were some folks that were uneasy and nervous, but we did see education overcome. And we saw a community that allowed us to do certain things, and again, they understood that we had delved into it a lot, and we had gathered stuff for them, and they trusted us to do it and carry it through.”

Beckley: That trust, built up over months of hard work, enabled the community to do what others could not – welcome Ryan and his family with open arms.

The first time Tony Cook met Ryan, Cook asked why Ryan wanted so badly to attend school. During our interview with Representative Cook, he recalled that the fifteen-year-old Ryan, who by that time had been in the middle of a media storm for nearly two years, replied

Ryan White Voice Actor: “’I just want to be a normal kid . . . I may die. So, for me, it’s important that I try to experience the high school experience as well as I can.”

Beckley: At Hamilton Heights High School, Ryan was able to do just that. He went to football games and high school dances. He had friends and a girlfriend. He was able to get his drivers license and a job working at a skate shop. In short, he was able to experience many of the same things other teenagers experienced, although his life was far from normal.

Ryan’s AIDS education advocacy had started before his move to Cicero, and it continued throughout the remainder of his life. He traveled the nation speaking in schools, on television, and before the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic. Cook also traveled, speaking to fellow educators about his experiences preparing Hamilton Heights for Ryan’s arrival. As more schools faced similar situations, Hamilton Heights High School was used as a model on which they could base their programs.

Tragically, five years after this initial diagnosis, Ryan died on April 15, 1990 after being admitted to Riley Hospital for Children with a respiratory tract infection.

News audio: Funeral services for Ryan will be held on Wednesday . . . the last five years, he lived with AIDS. He got it . . . Indiana Governor Evan Bayh has ordered the flags throughout the state to be flown at half staff . . . Ryan White attracted nation-wide attention and sympathy . . .

Beckley: Celebrities such as Sir Elton John and Michael Jackson attended his funeral, such was his impact on the nation.

Elton John audio: This one’s for Ryan.

Beckley: His legacy of AIDS advocacy lives on in the Ryan White CARE Act, which was passed just months after his death and continues to provide funding for HIV and AIDS community-based care and treatment services.

This year,  2019 the Indiana Historical Bureau dedicated a state historical marker to Ryan White’s AIDS education advocacy and to Hamilton Heights’ role in the story. Over seven hundred people attended the ceremony – the largest we’ve ever had. In that way, Ryan’s legacy is cemented in our history – people remember the courageous, well-spoken young man who faced the stigma of AIDS with equanimity.

Ryan White audio: Yea, I think a lot more people are not afraid of AIDS now, and they’re not afraid of someone who has it. And I think they’re more willing to accept people who have AIDS.

We can still learn much from his story. Between 2010 and 2015, Scott County, Indiana experienced the state’s worst HIV outbreak to date. 215 people – nearly all intravenous drug users – were diagnosed.  Despite being in Ryan White’s home state, the students at the local high school knew little about the illness. When diagnosis rates began to rise, rumors very similar to those seen in the 1980s began to swirl, rumors that you can catch AIDS from water fountains, toilet seats, and from second hand contact. This came, in part, from a lack of AIDS education. The AIDS information standard from the Indiana Department of Education reads:

Voice Actor:  “The state board shall provide information stressing the moral aspects of abstinence from sexual activity in any literature that it distributes to students and young adults concerning available methods for the prevention of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The literature must state that the best way to avoid AIDS is for young people to refrain from sexual activity until they are ready as adults to establish, in the context of marriage, a mutually faithful monogamous relationship.”

Beckley: Some schools, of course, have robust AIDS education curriculum. But it is possible, with the current standards in place, to only teach that abstinence is the best way to avoid contracting AIDS. Setting aside the controversy from the issues surrounding abstinence first sex-ed, this method is inadequate in that it ignores the various other methods of transmission, and by framing AIDS as a purely sexually transmitted disease, and linking it with morality, we further stigmatize those living with AIDS.

As the Scott County HIV/AIDS outbreak was coming to light, students at Austin High School took AIDS Education into their own hands, much as Ryan had done 25 years before. They came together and wrote a special edition of the school newspaper – the Eagle – dispelling myths about the disease. They brought health officials in to talk with students about the realities of living with HIV. They even set up a group called “Stand Up,” which focused on AIDS education. These teenagers saw a problem and they addressed it, even though it wasn’t necessarily their job to do so, much like it wasn’t necessarily Ryan White’s job to educate the nation on the same issues in the 1980s.

Over 700,000 Americans have died from AIDS related illnesses since 1981. Treatments such as highly active antiretroviral therapy and Combivir, along with the preventative medication PrEP have resulted in an 85% drop in death rates since 1995, which is considered the peak of the epidemic in the U.S. This is the story in America – each nation has its own story and is in its own stage of dealing with the HIV crisis. Today, approximately 36.9 million people are living with HIV or AIDS globally, but new breakthroughs are promising and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS has announced a targeted strategy to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.

Ryan White audio: You know, it’s given me a more positive attitude, of course. And, just to feel like you’re not fighting it alone – that you have other people fighting it with you.

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thank you to Justin Clark for voicing several parts on this episode. And a very special thanks to Ollie Banker, who gave voice to Ryan White throughout the episode. Check back in two weeks for an interview with Jeremy Turner, director of the HIV, STD, Viral Hepitius division of the Indiana State Department of Health, who will talk about the steps the state and the nation are taking to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. Find us on Facbook and Twitter as the Indiana Historical Bureau, and remember to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening.