THH Episode 35: Indiana Women’s Suffrage: The New Day Comes Slowly

Transcript for Indiana Women’s Suffrage: The New Day Comes Slowly

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Crouch: The new day comes slowly, it is true, but none can fail to see that it approaches . . . the women who are asking for political liberty want it chiefly because it will enable them to get certain things . . . When enough women awake to the necessity of these things, then the battle will be won . . . We must reach the ‘women of the long gray streets,’ as well as . . . women of wealth and leisure. This will take time, patience, and tireless effort. A great responsibility rests upon those of us who have heard the call and have taken the yoke upon us. We have the consolation of knowing that ours is perhaps the greatest cause that has ever engaged the attention of the world – it is the cause of human liberty, which will not be attained until woman is recognized as joint partner with man in all the affairs of life.

Beckley: That was Indiana’s Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch reading from a speech given in 1911 by Hoosier suffragist Grace Julian Clarke.

By 1911, Indiana suffragists crackled with energy, hope, anxiety, and intention. They were a new generation of young activists determined to be the last struggling for the vote. They were peaceful, but radical, both in their demands and the innovative techniques used to gain support for their cause. They were, according to the Indianapolis News, “engaged in warfare—moral warfare—an assault on prejudice and ignorance.”

In this episode, we’ll meet the diverse suffragists who led Hoosier women’s fight for the vote during the re-invigoration of the movement starting around 1911. We’ll follow them as they organize, educate, lobby, protest, and march in the streets. And as we commemorate 100 years of women’s suffrage, we can learn from their struggle. After all, women are still fighting for equality, from equal pay to equal representation in government. And while it may be disheartening that women still haven’t secured an Equal Rights Amendment after generations of work, today’s activists can take some solace in looking to the generations that came before. Suffragists have taught the next generation to organize, agitate, lobby, and most importantly, in the words of Terre Haute suffragist Mabel Curry, they taught us: “We must be fearless.”

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

Since 1851, Hoosiers from all backgrounds had been clearly, loudly, and bravely demanding the vote. That year, a small group of men and women held Indiana’s first Woman’s Rights Convention in Dublin, Wayne County. There, they passed resolutions that seem surprisingly modern – equal access to employment and education, equal pay for equal work, and the abolishment of laws which discriminated against women. Most importantly, they demanded “the same rights of citizenship with man,” or, simply put, they demanded suffrage.The following year they established the Indiana Woman’s Rights Association (IWRA).

Shrewd leaders emerged. In 1859, Dr. Mary Thomas became the first woman to address the Indiana General Assembly, pointing out the injustice that

Ellis reading Thomas: the law, with its ruthless hand, undertakes to ‘settle her business for her,’ when she had no voice in making that law.

Beckley: Just how frustrating that would be – working to change the laws denying your rights, but being stymied at every turn because you don’t have those very rights you’re working towards.

The Civil War gave Hoosier suffragists hope that they would finally gain their rights. They believed that their work nursing soldiers, running the farms, and raising funds for the war would force lawmakers to recognize their citizenship. They even put their suffrage work on hold to serve their country, proving their dedication to the nation. When the war ended and they were not rewarded with suffrage, they resumed the fight.

The first IWRA meeting after the Civil War, held in 1869, was also the first time historians have been able to document African American women’s participation in the state’s suffrage organizations. At the meeting one woman demanded assurance that Black voices would be included as well. The IWRA agreed. Black women would remain an essential part of the fight for suffrage, especially in Indianapolis. When Black men gained suffrage with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 and women were still left without the vote, disappointed Hoosier women were determined to work more directly for change.

By the 1880s, they shifted their approach to directly lobbying their representatives. Historian Anita Morgan explained that by this point, women recognized that “the path to success for suffrage was persistence and continuous pressure.” But they couldn’t have known just how long it would take to travel that path.

In 1881, it looked like all of their work lobbying and delivering impassioned speeches before the Indiana General Assembly had paid off. A women’s suffrage bill passed both the House and the Senate. Only one, seemingly small technicality stood between Hoosier women and the ballot box. At that time, bills for constitutional amendments had to pass two legislative sessions, so it would have to be brought up for another vote in 1883. Again, Indiana women wrote letters, signed petitions, delivered speeches, and lobbied their representatives, and hundreds of suffragists, both Black and white, gathered at a mass meeting in Indianapolis to make their voices heard. Despite all of this, the suffrage bill wouldn’t even get a hearing in 1883.

In what Dr. Morgan called “a clear case of political chicanery,” suffrage opponents brushed off a dusty rule that stated pending legislation must be printed in full in the House and Senate Journals before it could be voted on in the following session. The suffrage bill somehow-mysteriously-wasn’t printed in 1881 and thus couldn’t be considered in 1883. To get so close to the vote only to be unjustly thwarted was a huge blow to the movement.

Nevertheless, they persisted. Over the following decades, Indiana’s suffragists used political and legal strategies to further their cause. Hoosier women solidified partnerships with national suffrage organizations and spoke before the U.S. Congress. In 1894, Indiana women attempted to vote without a suffrage law, knowing they would be denied, in order to sue for their rights through the court system. Helen Gougar of Lafayette took her case all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court. Despite her argument for the “Constitutional Right[s] of the Women of Indiana,” in which she declared that a “right withheld is a wrong inflicted,”  her appeal failed.

As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, the women’s club movement helped make suffrage more mainstream. It became increasingly clear to the highly educated clubwomen who were interested in political reform that only the vote would allow them to completely achieve their goals.

However, despite being a more mainstream idea, by the turn of the 20th century, after more than fifty years of struggle, the Indiana suffrage movement itself had stagnated. It’s not surprising that after half a century of work, some women were beginning to feel apathetic by the slow pace of change. But that wasn’t the only reason for this stagnation – the movement was also divided along ideological lines and  by the strong personalities of its leaders, who clashed over goals and the methods for achieving them.

Some believed prohibition went hand in hand with suffrage in protecting women from abusive situations and loss of property. Others, including the large number of German immigrants whose cultural celebrations included beer, believed prohibition would drive many away from the cause. Some suffrage supporters thought women should first work for partial suffrage – or the right to vote in limited, local elections. Others believed full suffrage was their natural right and they would settle for nothing less. Some wanted to work for suffrage at the local and state level; others thought only an amendment to the U.S. constitution would guarantee the vote.

It’s really no surprise their views were diverse because so were suffragists. The heroes of Indiana’s suffrage movement were immigrants, African Americans, and union members. They were rich women, poor women, working women – Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Prohibitionists, and Socialists. They were Quakers, Jews, Protestants, and Catholics. Indiana’s movement included everyone who believed that women who paid taxes, contributed to their communities, and aided in war efforts when called – women who had proved their worth as citizens time and again – deserved a say in who represented their interests.

After years of stagnation, and with a richly diverse pool of potential supporters, Indianapolis firebrands Grace Julian Clarke and Dr. Amelia Keller put a defibrillator on the weakly-beating heart of Indiana’s suffrage movement in 1911. After lobbyists failed to convince the legislature to pass partial or municipal suffrage bills, the two women recognized the need to overcome apathy and seriously mobilize, forming the Indiana Woman’s Franchise League (WFL). At the same time, Indiana’s Equal Suffrage Association (ESA) ramped up efforts to gain support for women’s enfranchisement. While the groups shared the same underlying goals,  the Equal Suffrage Association embraced different tactics and audiences. Unlike the WFL, it welcomed men. It also worked more closely with labor unions and African American women, especially early in its history. Within the reinvigorated movement emerged new leaders from both groups, who embraced savvy political and promotional tactics. Suffragists, long familiar with statehouse chambers, increasingly spread their message to public squares, street corners and even the skies.

Long maligned as being militant or overbearing, the suffragists decided to generate public interest with a variety of innovative approaches throughout 1912. Among these, there were a few stand outs. The spring brought a “Funfest,” which featured peanuts, a fortune teller, and a satirical “opray,” which had even anti-suffragists laughing against their will. More importantly, it provided an influx of much-needed funding. In June, suffragists led by Grace Julian Clarke, undertook an automobile tour of Hamilton County, distributing flyers and spreading information about suffrage with fantastic results. Perhaps most innovative of all, suffragists took to the skies in May and June, flying over events in hot air balloons showering spectators with “votes for women” buttons and circulars reading,

Ellis reading circular: Women of Indiana . . . come and show that you are no longer satisfied to be ignored and that you insist in having a voice in this government.

As these tactics helped the movement grow, Hoosier reformers recognized the need to be more representative as many of Indiana’s suffragists were white and financially well-off. The Equal Suffrage Association sought new partners in the historic fight for equal rights, with association president Dr. Hannah Graham speaking to working women around the city about how the vote could help the labor cause.  The diversity of the ESA was even more obvious at a meeting held in Indianapolis in the summer of 1912. There, members of over a dozen unions, representatives of Black organizations, members of various political parties, and Indianapolis Mayor Lew Shank converged to hear speeches and debate about suffrage. The argument made by African American civil rights leader Freeman Ransom, that without the ballot women were forced to pay taxes without representation, was one of the most applauded speeches of the day.

But the ESA wasn’t alone in diversifying their membership. The Woman’s Franchise League also made laboring classes a priority at its 1913 state convention. At the convention, there was the following reading of Luluabelle Kern’s “Factory Meetings and the Working Woman,” :

Ellis reading Kern: The answer is that the working woman must study the Constitution of the United States and see just where she stands. Working women are in the majority and we must get them interested in suffrage. We cannot gain the ballot without them.

Later that year, WFL member Harriet Noble spoke before attendees of the Central Labor Union’s meeting in Indianapolis. There, she implored working women to support the movement, saying that it was them who would benefit the most from the vote if it were secured.

Along with members of organized labor, suffrage groups also sought to work with those members of Indiana’s African American community who supported the cause.  With these relationships forged, Dr. Graham, along with Black leaders like Freeman Ransom, helped found Indianapolis’s African American branch of the ESA, No. 7, in 1912. None other than revered Black entrepreneur, Madame C.J. Walker, hosted the branch’s first meeting at her home, where public school teacher Carrie Barnes was elected president. Of the branch’s work, Barnes proclaimed

Ellis reading Barnes: We all feel that colored women have need for the ballot that white women have, and a great many needs that they have not.

Beckley: Black suffragists hosted debates at the Senate Avenue YMCA and local African American churches and worked with white ESA branches and trade unions to forward women’s right to vote. While historians are still working to discover more about Black suffragists and their role in the movement, it’s clear that their work led to greater citizenship for women. The unlikely collaboration of Indiana’s privileged white women, laboring classes, and African American community—one which was uncommon in other Midwestern states—would help lead to the ratification of women’s suffrage.

These coalitions were needed more than ever when in 1913 Governor Thomas Marshall proposed a new, increasingly restrictive state constitution that would further cement women’s disenfranchisement.

Suffragists needed to convince the General Assembly to create equal suffrage legislation before it was too late. Despite the shared goals of the ESA and the WFL, the two groups took opposing positions during a January discussion before a legislative committee weighing a partial suffrage bill. The debate at this commission meeting was simple: should suffragists support this limited suffrage bill in hopes it would lead to more rights in the future or should they hold out for full suffrage? The ESA supported the former solution, while the WFL insisted on the latter.

This division grew fierce. ESA leader Dr. Hannah Graham was an outspoken proponent of full suffrage, but put her ideological stance aside. She felt like Hoosier women couldn’t miss the opportunity that this bill afforded. According to the Indianapolis Star, ESA members voted to support the partial suffrage bill because “such franchise is as much as can be expected at this time.” Simply put, a little suffrage was better than none and may help in winning full suffrage down the road.

WFL leaders vehemently disagreed. Digne Miller noted first that the bill would only grant this partial suffrage to women in Indianapolis and Terre Haute – more a fractional suffrage bill than a partial one. Dr. Amelia Keller expressed her fear that the bill could actually hurt the larger movement. Before the legislative committee, Dr. Keller argued:

Ellis reading Keller: If that bill goes through it will be immediately sent into the courts on protest of being unconstitutional and then when the vote for full suffrage really comes we will receive our answer, ‘O that question is now in court. Wait until that is settled and we’ll see about it then.’

Beckley: Even members of the same organization voiced their disagreement during the meeting. Prominent WFL member Belle Tutewiler broke with her WFL colleagues to support the bill. Her argument in favor of partial suffrage was to use this limited franchise to pry open the door of full suffrage. Her point may have been overshadowed by her fiery language. She called the league’s opposition “childish” and stated:

Ellis readiness Tuttewiler: It is mere child’s play to say that if we can not get all, we will take nothing. I think it would be better to take school suffrage now and use that as an entering wedge for full suffrage later.

Beckley: As the debate continued, the women’s language grew more contentious. In the midst of the discussion, Elizabeth Stanley of Liberty threw open a suitcase “scattering yards and yards of cards bearing a petition for full suffrage” and “ridiculed the idea of using school suffrage as a wedge.”

The women exchanged more heated words before the ineffective meeting was adjourned and the partial suffrage bill abandoned.

Public clashes such as these weren’t great press, and the WFL and ESA knew it. The organizations, both experienced in publicity, realized they needed to present a united front before the General Assembly. After all, both groups supported a proposed amendment to the constitution that would remove the word “male” as criteria to vote.  The WFL and ESA would march to the Indiana statehouse on March 3, 1913, the same day 5,000 suffragists paraded through the nation’s capital. Five hundred Hoosier suffragists from across the state walked into the statehouse that Monday afternoon.  As historian Jill Weiss Simins points out, this was not a celebratory parade, nor was it a raucous demonstration.  It was a protest. The suffrage bills being considered by the General Assembly were unlikely to pass and the Senate had already rejected at least one of the pending propositions earlier in the day. The suffragists were there not because they thought any “immediate good” would come from the day’s session. Rather, hundreds of women marched into their capitol that day to make their collective power felt.

In fact, even in the unlikely event that one of the measures were to pass on that day, it had to be approved again at the next session in 1915, and then voted on in a statewide referendum in 1916 at the earliest. Hoosier suffragists had lost this battle before, celebrating the passage of suffrage bills at one session, just to be disappointed at the next. The women marching in the Indiana statehouse that day would have, if anything, been cautiously hopeful, rather than celebratory if the bill passed, because they knew passage of a bill didn’t always lead to a change in law. Their spirit would have been somber and determined.

The women were there to “work on the legislature,” to show them that suffrage was not a fringe movement, that a large number of Hoosier women demanded the vote. Decked in yellow “Votes for Women” lapel ribbons, the women walked through the statehouse, stopping to pin ribbons on a few willing lawmakers, like Governor Samuel Ralston. Most Indiana lawmakers didn’t take a ribbon, and pages mocked the women’s efforts.

Because their march was a protest, they chose to silently file first into the House and then to the Senate. Lawmakers would have to face legions of the state’s most upstanding Hoosiers before voting to continue to deny them their right as citizens. As predicted, the suffragists didn’t achieve their legislative aims, but they didaccomplish their goal in marching: they presented a united front. Even in the face of this success, suffragists were mocked as ignorant women with the Indianapolis News writing,

Clark reading from Newspaper: Although hundreds of suffragists were jammed in the senate when Senator Grube introduced to the state Constitution to allow women suffrage, no one of them seemed to realize what ‘was doing.’ No demonstrations of any sort took place.

Beckley: This claim that the women didn’t realize what was happening is preposterous. Many of these women had dedicated their life to the cause – does it seem likely that they would have been ignorant of any upcoming legislation that would lead to victory? Of course not. What’s more, the leaders of the WFL and ESA had been working with members of the General Assembly on the legislation in question. But this protest wasn’t about legislation. It was about perseverance. And they would need that perseverance. Hoosier suffragists had a long road ahead of them.

If anything, this legislative defeat galvanized the suffragists and weeks after the march, Dr. Keller stated:

Ellis reading Keller: Against this new spirit of women nothing can stand. The wave of their determination cannot be stayed by any legislature bidding it make no further progress. It will come on and on, sweeping all obstacles which attempt to bar its path.

Beckley: Once the women made their presence known in the statehouse, they were determined to make it felt constantly. In 1914, Grace Julian Clarke formed a lobbying group, the Legislative Council of Indiana Women. The council held lawmakers’ feet to the fire regarding women’s rights bills and represented 50,000 Hoosier women from various and diverse groups. Securing an office in the statehouse, suffragists worked alongside AP statehouse reporters.

Suffragists also worked to keep the issue in front of the public. Between Illinois Street and Monument Circle a bugle sounded in the spring of 1914, summoning 300 men and women. They listened, some on foot and others in cars, as Luella McWhirter read the Woman’s Declaration of Independence and the Anthony Amendment (what would become the 19th Amendment). Suffragists like Clarke used the power of the press to inform the public about women’s right to vote. Others continued to court the laboring classes, slipping pro-suffrage literature into the hands of reform-minded celebrants at Fountain Square’s May Day festivities.In 1915, Anna Dunn Noland secured the endorsement of 1,600 miners at a national convention in Indianapolis. Support for the cause seemed to be increasing daily.

In working for the right  vote, women in Indiana and across the nation found their civic and political voice as never before. Decades of winning and then losing the right to vote didn’t quell their determination. It gave them a chance to hone their organizational skills, articulate the many rationales for women’s enfranchisement, and learn how to weather criticism. In the reinvigorated movement of the early 20th century empowered Hoosier suffragists enrolled in public speaking courses and hosted citizenship classes in their homes. Surely, as the audacious women pressed forward, the fear that the ballot would always be just out of reach lingered. But on the horizon was an event that would change the course of history, and the fortunes of suffragists: World War I.

In the next episode, we’ll discuss how Hoosier women clenched the long-awaited vote, in part, by leveraging war relief work.

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is produced by the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. I’d like to thank Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch and the director of the Propylaeum Liz Ellis for lending their voices to the show. This episode was written by Nicole Politika and Jill Weiss Simins. Sound engineering by Justin Clark and production by Jill Weiss Simins. We’ll be back in two weeks with another installment of Giving Voice. Until then, find us on Faceook and twitter as the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to like, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening.

Show Notes for Indiana Women’s Suffrage: The New Day Comes Slowly

Music:

If you’re interested in the story of Indiana’s Suffrage Movement, we highly suggest reading Dr. Anita Morgan’s book, We Must Be Fearless.

Read more about the suffrage movement in Indiana with the Indiana History Blog.

Newspapers

Indianapolis News, June 10, 1913, 5.

Indianapolis News, May 2, 1913, 23.

Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1914, 5.

Blog Posts

Jill Weiss Simins, “A Silent Roar: Indiana Suffragists’ 1913 March to the Statehouse,” Indiana History Blog.

Jill Weiss Simins, ”Suffrage Up in the Air:” The Equal Suffrage Association’s 1912 Publicity Campaign,” Indiana History Blog.

Books

Anita Morgan, We Must Be Fearless”: The Woman Suffrage Movement in Indiana, IHS Press, Indianapolis, Indiana, 2020.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Brownell Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, History of Woman Suffrage, Volume 6, Susan B. Anthony, 1922.

Overcoming South Bend’s Influenza Outbreak to Enumerate the 1920 Census

This year, the federal government undertook the all-encompassing task of completing the U.S. Census, a project instituted every ten years. The census is a national count of everyone living in the United States, providing policymakers with essential demographic information that they use to map congressional districts and allocate federal funds. However, the COVID-19 pandemic created difficulties for its completion, specifically in counting those who did not complete the census form by mail or online. As the New York Times reported earlier this year:

 Already, a multi-day nationwide count of roughly a half-million homeless people has been put off. Processing of mailed-in census forms has slowed because the bureau shaved its staff at regional centers in Jeffersonville, Ind., and Tucson, Ariz. And social-distancing cuts in the bureau’s call center work force have slowed down responses to people who want to complete the census by phone or need other kinds of help.

2020 Census materials in Detroit. Brittany Greeson, New York Times.

These kinds of obstacles are not new to census-takers. In fact, a similar problem occurred in South Bend during the 1920 Census, where a small, but powerful Influenza epidemic stunted the city’s completion of the census.

In South Bend, the work of the 14th decennial census started on January 3, 1920, with seventy-one initial enumerators (census takers) tasked with counting the city’s population. Initially, weather proved a more formidable foe. “The enumerators were somewhat handicapped owing to the severe weather encountered on the first day,” the South Bend News-Times noted. Despite the weather slowing down progress, enumerators succeeded in getting citizens to cooperate and answer all their questions. Inspector for the local district, attorney Edwin H. Sommerer, anticipated a count of the city population in fifteen days and the rural population in thirty.

South Bend News-Times, January 3, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Within a few weeks, this task was complicated by an outbreak of Influenza, a lingering problem possibly stemming from the widespread Spanish Influenza epidemic a year prior. The city downplayed the outbreak’s potential to become another epidemic on January 16, when Dr. Emil G. Freyermuth, secretary of the city’s board of health, reported that no cases had been noted by physicians and that a chance of an epidemic was an “exaggeration,” as recounted in the News-Times. Freyermuth seemed to be contradicted by the South Bend News-Times itself, which published a notice in the January 17 edition that “the ranks of the [paper] carriers are sorely depleted at the present time on account of the mild form of influenza prevalent in the city.”

South Bend News-Times, January 17, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By January 20, the outbreak had worsened, leaving factories in South Bend short on labor as a result. Four were reported dead the next day, including a student at Notre Dame, and the illness reached epidemic proportions at local Army camps. Despite continued assurances about the mildness of this outbreak by Dr. Freyermuth, the situation worsened to such an extent that the Salvation Army volunteered to assist in combating it.

On January 26, the South Bend News-Times officially declared an epidemic, after 1,800 cases were reported around the city (250 at Notre Dame alone) and twenty-two deaths over the prior weekend. Dr. M. V. Ziegler of the State Board of Health confirmed these numbers, but Notre Dame physician, Dr. F. J. Powers, denied the high level of cases, “stating that the majority was afflicted with colds and la-grippe [another name for the flu].” Regardless of the disputes, the city reeled from the disease.

South Bend News-Times, January 26, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The epidemic devastated census-taking, incapacitating forty-five of the eighty-five-member staff and crippling those still healthy enough to continue. Census district chief Edwin H. Sommerer told the News-Times, “the enumerators working find it difficult to complete their task because of the sickness in the homes.” The News-Times doesn’t mention whether enumerators took any preventative precautions to avoid infection, other than just staying home. By contrast, mail carriers only experienced a loss of five workers during the outbreak, which was attributed to them being more acclimated to the intense winter weather.

By January 27, the epidemic began to subside, with only one death reported on the Monday after the weekend in which twenty-two people died. Employees in factories, stores, and offices also started returning to work. Even though this news was positive, the News-Times encouraged its readers to remain vigilant, noting “This marked decline does not mean, however, that all danger is past . . . the public is warned by the health department to exercise the greatest precaution in avoiding colds.”

South Bend News-Times, January 27, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Despite delays, South Bend’s census enumeration continued, with some staff returning to duty starting on Wednesday, January 28 and over the subsequent days. By the end of January, the team completed half of the districts, most of which were cities, but still needed to complete the rural populations. On April 9, the News-Times reported that Sommerer and his team finished South Bend’s census, with only one-hundred names not accounted for. The city’s final count was sent to LaPorte for a larger district tabulation and then on to Washington, D.C. for inclusion in the federal count. In all, South Bend’s population increased by 32.2%, from 53,684 in the 1910 Census to 70,983 people in the 1920 Census. As the The city’s population increase “can be credited almost entirely to the industrial development of South Bend,” the News-Times wrote.  Additionally, residents’ land valuation almost doubled, from $26,000,000 in 1910 to $43,000,000 in 1920. Months of bad weather, a flu outbreak, and some uncooperative citizens never stopped Sommerer and his crew of enumerators from obtaining the final figures and providing a demographic portrait of South Bend.

South Bend News-Times, July 28, 1920. Hoosier State Chronicles.

South Bend’s 1920 Census, and the flu outbreak that nearly derailed it, can inform modern census analysis. The COVID-19 pandemic has already affected the completion of the 2020 Census, with the deadline to to be counted extended to October 31. However, if Indiana’s enumerators are as dedicated to their roles as Sommerer’s team was 100 years ago, there is no doubt that an accurate count of our state will be completed.

From Strange Fruit to Seeds of Change?: The Aftermath of the Marion Lynching

A crowd at the Marion courthouse looks on following the lynching of Shipp and Smith, courtesy of the Organization of American Historians.

Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of young Black men swinging from a tree as a white crowd looks on in satisfaction lingers in our collective memory. In fact, the local photographer’s snapshot inspired Abel Meeropol’s poem “Strange Fruit,” which continues to resonate with activists, as well as artists like Nina Simone and John Legend. But what happened after the bodies of Tom Shipp and Abe Smith were removed from the tree hours later—when tensions remained so high? And can anything be learned by examining the immediate aftermath of the 1930 Marion lynching?

On August 7, African American teenagers Shipp, Smith, and James Cameron were held in the Marion jail for the murder of Claude Deeter and rape of Mary Ball. Before the young men could stand trial, a mob comprised of white residents tore the young men from their cells, brutally beat and mutilated them before hanging Shipp and Smith from a tree on the courthouse lawn. Cameron narrowly escaped the fate of his friends. The mob intended to send a message to the African American community that they were at the mercy of white residents, despite the courageous efforts of Marion NAACP leader Katherine “Flossie” Bailey to prevent the tragedy. Read more about her efforts here.

After the lynching, the crowd lingered to prevent the coroner from removing the bodies, insistent that the message be received. This was the same crowd that had left the jail “ravaged,” with “gaping holes in the walls” and the “twisted remains of broken locks.” The Indianapolis Recorder, an African American newspaper, reported that after Shipp and Smith had been robbed of their lives, the perpetrators drove past the victims’ houses, shouting at their parents, “‘we have lynched your sons, now cry your eyes out.'”[1]

Untitled (Lynching Scene), illustration 17, in the book Wild Pilgrimage by Lynd Kendall Ward (New York: Harrison Smith & Robert Haas, 1932), accessed On the Arts of Africa and African Diaspora Blog.

Reportedly by midnight, an “indignation meeting” formed in Johnstown, the Marion neighborhood where African Americans lived. Hundreds of shaken Black residents listened to speeches condemning the sheriff’s unwillingness to order officers to shoot at the mob. Munster newspaper The Times reported on the August 9 gathering, noting that although police dispersed the gatherers, “Negro leaders told officials trouble was brewing and might flare up at any moment.” Out of fear of escalating violence, about 200 Black residents fled Marion for Weaver, a historic Black community in Grant County.

Amid the maelstrom of fury and fear, Shipp’s and Smith’s bodies were taken to Shaffer Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Muncie because Marion lacked a black mortician. Before the Black community could grieve, reports spread that a white mob was traveling to Muncie to light the victims’ bodies on fire. According to historian Hurley C. Goodall’s A Time of Terror: The Lynching of Two Young Black Men in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930, Muncie’s African American community was determined to protect the victims’ bodies from further violence, and “for the first time they armed and organized themselves using Shaffer Chapel A.M.E. Church as their headquarters and command post to ward off any mob.” In an oral history interview for the Black Muncie History Project, Thomas Wesley Hall, an African American resident of Muncie at the time of the lynching, confirmed that Muncie citizens gathered to protect the young men’s bodies from further desecration.

After the mortician embalmed Shipp and Smith, National Guardsmen escorted the bodies back to Marion, where “two grief-stricken mothers . . . bemoaned the unjust fate of their boys.”[2] Friends gathered at the victims’ homes to hear final rites and tried to console their mothers, able only to mumble “‘it’s too bad, it’s too bad.'”[3] The Guardsmen “paced back and forth in front of these humble homes to defy with gunfire, if necessary the sworn threat of mob leaders, to burn their bodies.”[4] A “dead line” had been set, around which no white person was to pass. Although they did not attempt to set fire, white people drove past the line to “satisfy their morbid fancies” and revel that a “‘job had been done well.'”[5]

Smith was buried in Weaver, the settlement where African Americans had fled following the lynching. The Recorder marveled poetically, “Strangely enough, Weaver was a station on the ‘underground railroad’ by which slaves, who escaped the South, found a new freedom in the North.”[6] Shipp was buried in a small cemetery in Marion. A combination of the National Guard and Muncie’s Black community allowed Thomas Shipp and Abe Smith to be peacefully laid to rest. In fact, the Recorder reported “Citizens here, both white and Colored are loud in their praise of the splendid conduct of the members of the National Guard which made it unnecessary for anyone to turn his back upon his home.”[7]


Cameron, at about 14, with his school class in Marion, courtesy of the Cameron family, accessed BuzzFeed News.

Once the young men were laid to rest, the Black community was left to cope with unfathomable grief. How did the victims’ friends and family process their trauma and sorrow? For James Cameron, survivor of the lynching, it meant confronting local racism through threat of lawsuits and, later, by educating the nation about racial injustice by founding America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee.

According to Syreeta McFadden’s “What Do You Do After Surviving Your Own Lynching?,” when the white crowd stormed the jail Black prisoners tried to defend Cameron, the youngest of the three accused. Cameron recalled that the prisoners “had become too angry to remember their own fear — if they had any. But they were helpless and powerless to offer any kind of resistance to the mob. They stood with me.”[8] But they couldn’t stop Cameron from being dragged outside, where a noose was thrown around his neck. An anonymous bystander shouted that Cameron had not been involved in the crime, causing the throng to fall silent.

James Cameron revisiting the jail cell in Marion, Indiana, from which he was dragged by a mob, Johnson Publishing Co., accessed America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

Cameron described the surreal moment saying, “I looked at the mob round me I thought I was in a room, a large room where a photographer had strips of film negatives hanging from the walls to dry. . . . they were simply mobsters captured on film surrounding me everywhere I looked.” He recalled:

‘Brutally faced with death, I understood, fully, what it meant to be a black person in the United States of America.’[9]

His life improbably spared, Cameron was taken to Anderson and in 1931 sentenced to twenty-one years for accessory before the fact of voluntary manslaughter. Again in a prison cell and surely reliving his trauma, Cameron began penning a book about his experiences entitled A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story, which he later took out a second mortgage to self-publish. Upon his 1935 release from prison, he vowed to “‘to pick up the loose threads of [his] life, weave them into something beautiful, worthwhile and God-like.’”[10]

Cameron with his children in Anderson, (L to R) Virgil, Herbert, Dolores, David, and Walter, courtesy of America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

Cameron had to navigate a new life in the midst of the Great Depression. He decided to move to Detroit, where he married a nurse and had children. In order to be closer to relatives, the young family moved to Anderson in the 1940s, where Cameron worked for Delco Remy and opened small businesses. Ironically, while Anderson was segregated, the trauma he endured shielded his family from discrimination. According to McFadden, the family went to a local theater, where a white manager intervened when a colleague tried to force the family into balcony seating, stating “‘Those are the Camerons . . . Leave them alone.'” Despite a degree of deference shown to him, Cameron was determined to stamp out Jim Crowism and challenged the theater’s policies, which integrated rather than face litigation.

In gratitude for his life being spared, Cameron worked to eliminate prejudice against Black Hoosiers. He founded four Indiana NAACP branches and investigated civil rights violations as the state director of civil liberties.[11] This work led to threats from white residents, which he endured before moving to Milwaukee in 1950. A student of history, Cameron poured himself into learning about African Americans’ past, undertaking research trips to the Library of Congress. After a trip to Yad Vashem, a Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem, he connected the atrocities of the Holocaust with those perpetrated against African slaves and their ancestors in America. The revelation inspired him to establish a museum that would “‘show what happened to us black folks and the freedom-loving white people who’ve been trying to help us.’”[12]

Cameron opened America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in 1988 to “commemorate and reconcile America’s dark history.” As visitors took in an enlarged copy of the photograph of Shipp and Smith, Cameron informed them that a third man was nearly lynched that night. That man would then describe his experience, channeling his trauma into education.

Cameron at his pardon ceremony in Marion, 1993, courtesy of Jet Magazine, Johnson Publishing Company, accessed America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

In 1993, Indiana Governor Evan Bayh formally pardoned Cameron for his conviction. In fact, according to the Indianapolis Recorder, Mary Ball’s relatives stated that Shipp and Smith were not the perpetrators of either crime. Claude Deeter is said to have confirmed this at hospital before he died. Cameron passed away in 2006, leaving behind a trove of published works, several of which McFadden noted “protested many of the same issues being challenged today by the Black Lives Matter movement.” This included his “Police Community Relations Among Blacks in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”[13] Cameron wrote that law enforcement officials “have been enemies of us black people since in [sic] their organization in the early 19th Century.”

That being said, he added:

They can do nothing to alarm or silence me beyond murdering me. Even at that, they may rest assured that I protest it — even in the grave. I have been initiated since my time of terror at the age of 16. I am 72 years old now and destined, like all other nonwhites, to experience a time of terror to the grave.[14]

Like many modern Black victims of police brutality, McFadden notes, the lives of lynching victims are often overshadowed by their deaths. ABHM strives to restore victims’ agency and give visitors a sense of who they were before their lives were taken from them. The Great Recession forced the museum to shutter its doors in 2008, and it became a virtual museum, which focused on remembrance, resistance, redemption, and reconciliation. An anonymous donation in 2017 allowed the museum to break ground at a new location, which will re-open once the Coronavirus pandemic subsides.

James Cameron in the America’s Black Holocaust Museum, Morry Gash/AP, courtesy of Buzzfeed News.

NAACP leader Flossie Bailey, who had tried desperately to stop the lynching and bring the perpetrators to justice despite threats on her life, resolved to turn her lamentation into legislative change. In 1931, Bailey organized statewide meetings, and convinced African Americans to contact their legislators to support an anti-lynching bill introduced by House Democrats. Her legwork paid off. Governor Leslie signed the bill into law in March, which allowed for the dismissal of sheriffs whose prisoners were lynched. The law also permitted the families of lynching victims to sue for damages.

Of its enactment, the Indianapolis Recorder wrote “Indiana has automatically retrieved its high status as a safe place to live.” It added that without the law, Indiana “would be a hellish state of insecurity to our group, which is on record as the most susceptible victims of mob violence.” Although the newspaper praised Governor Leslie, it credited a “small group which stood by until the bill became a law.” In addition to legislation, the NAACP tried to effect change by placing postcards with the image of the lynching in local drugstores “as a visible example of what the colored people confront.”[20] The postcards disappeared from Terre Haute drugstores after a member of the local Republican committee member bought them up.

Katherine “Flossie” Bailey, courtesy of America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

Using the state’s legislative victory, Bailey and her NAACP colleagues worked to pass a similar bill on a federal level. According to historian James Madison, she tried to change national lynching laws by publishing editorials, wiring President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and distributing educational materials to Kiwanis clubs. Ultimately these efforts were unsuccessful and, as of 2020, a federal anti-lynching bill has yet to be enacted. Despite this legislative defeat, Bailey fought for the rights and safety of African American citizens until her death in 1952, challenging discrimination at IU’s Robert W. Long Hospital, speaking against school segregation, and suing a Marion theater for denying Bailey and her husband admittance based on their race.

It is important to note that trauma manifests differently for everyone and not all victims are capable of transforming grief into activism. In fact, the Violence Policy Center’s “The Relationship Between Community Violence and Trauma,” report concluded:

Individuals who suffer from PTSD may manifest a dangerous combination of hyper-vigilance with an impaired ability to regulate their behavior, resulting in explosive behavior and overreactions to perceived threats. In this way, the cycle of violence becomes clear – acts of violence create behavior in individuals who then beget violent acts.

This was likely the case for James Cameron’s stepfather, Hezekiah Burden. The Indianapolis Recorder noted that in the weeks after the lynching Burden was “said to have been morose and in a threatening mood.”[15] In October 1930, under the influence of alcohol, he opened fire at his wife, Vera, and stepdaughter, Marie. He then shot two police officers, likely because they belonged to law enforcement, which had failed to protect his stepson. The Indianapolis Times reported that the “Efforts of Mrs. Burden, wife of the gunman, to aid her son [James] . . . is said to have cause[d] an argument with her husband,” before he started shooting.[16] A group of armed locals exchanged fire with Burden, ultimately injuring him, which allowed police to take him into custody. The Times noted that he was moved to Pendleton State reformatory to “avoid a possible repetition of the trouble which resulted in the lynching of two Negro youth here.”[17]

Lee Jay Martin, “Cruising Around,” Indianapolis Recorder, August 23, 1930, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Reportedly Burden had stated his intention “to avenge ‘himself on a couple of cops,'” the judicial system having made clear there would be no justice for his stepson’s friends.[18] In December, Burden plead guilty and was sentenced to one to ten years in a state prison on three indictments related to intent to murder.[19] Neither Marion’s Sheriff Campbell nor any members of the lynching mob were sentenced for the murder of Shipp and Smith.


From the Marion lynching, we are reminded that reform stemming from tragedy often emerges slowly and in piecemeal fashion. And, like the newly-proposed police reform bills introduced in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, it emerges because of passionate individuals who will not let up the pressure for legislative change, despite threats to their own lives. We learn that the judicial system’s refusal to hold certain perpetrators accountable begets further brutality, as in the case of Hezekiah Burden. Conversely, when groups imbued with authority like the National Guard follow through on the promise to protect and serve, tensions often de-escalate. While acts of violence and systemic suppression imprint trauma upon generations, they also awaken the revolutionary spirit. This spirit often furthers the “arc of the moral universe,” which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded listeners in a 1968 speech, is long, but “bends towards justice.”

Sources:

Syreeta McFadden’s “What Do You Do After Surviving Your Own Lyching?”

Dani Pfaff’s and Jill Weiss-Simins’ historical marker review

Nicole Poletika’s “Strange Fruit: The 1930 Marion Lynching and the Woman Who Tried to Prevent It”

Notes:

[1] “State Militia Stands Guard as Funeral Rites for Lynched Marion Youths are Held,” Indianapolis Recorder, August 16, 1930, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Syreeta McFadden, “What Do You Do After Surviving Your Own Lyching?,” BuzzFeed News, June 23, 2016.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Marion Now Calm After Gun Battle,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 11, 1930, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] “Fire of Posse Member Brings Down Gunman,” The Indianapolis Times, October 6, 1930, 9, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Marion Now Calm After Gun Battle,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 11, 1930, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[19] “Hears Sentence as He Lays Upon Stretcher,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 13, 1930, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.

[20] “Lynching Pictures Taken Off Market,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 27, 1930, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.