How South Bend Attorneys Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen Lifted the “Heel of Oppression”

Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen, courtesy of Indianapolis Recorder, July 25, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles and South Bend Tribune, February 10, 2014, accessed SouthBendTribune.com.

*This is Part One in a series about the Allens.

Marriage is complicated enough. Add in opposing political views, routinely confronting systemic racism and sexism, and coping with the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II, and it’s even more challenging. African American attorneys Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen experienced these struggles and, while theirs was not a perfect marriage, through compromise, mutual respect, shared obstacles and goals, and love, they enjoyed 55 years together as man and wife. The South Bend couple dedicated themselves to each other and to uplifting the Black community by crafting legislation, organizing social programs, creating jobs, and demanding educational equality. The opportunities the Allens created for marginalized Hoosiers long outlived them.

On his way to Indianapolis in the late 1920s, J. Chester’s car broke down in South Bend and, after staying with a family on Linden Street, liked the city so much he decided to make it his home. Or so the story goes. Elizabeth Fletcher Allen, whom he met at Boston University and married in 1928, was likely working towards her law degree back in Massachusetts when J. Chester made that fateful trip. She would eventually join her husband in Indiana, but in the meantime J. Chester quickly got to work serving South Bend’s Black community. In 1930, J. Chester was admitted to the bar and the following year was appointed County Poor Attorney for St. Joseph County.

His arrival was perhaps serendipitous, as the Great Depression had begun rendering African Americans, who were already disenfranchised, destitute. J. Chester served as management committee chairman of the Hering House, which he described as “‘the clearing house of most of the social activities of the colored people as well as the point of contact between the white and colored groups of South Bend. . . . Its activities in the three fields of spiritual, mental and physical training make it indeed a character building institution.'” Through the organization, J. Chester helped provide 4,678 meals to unemployed African Americans, along with clothes, lodging, and medical aid to others in the Black community in 1931.

In addition to providing basic necessities during those lean years, J. Chester took on various anti-discrimination lawsuits in South Bend. In 1935, he helped prosecute a case against a white restaurant owner, who refused to serve Charles H. Wills, Justice of the Peace, in a section designated only for white patrons. That same year, J. Chester served as attorney for the Citizens Committee, formed in protest to the “unwarranted shooting” of Arthur Owens, a Black 18 year-old man, by white police officer Fred Miller. The Indianapolis Recorder, an African American newspaper, noted that eleven eyewitnesses recounted that “the youth was shot by Officer Miller as he stepped from a car with hands raised, after having been commanded by the officer and his companion, Samuel Koco Zrowski, to halt.” The officers had been pursuing the car with the belief it had been stolen.

“Public Angered at Whitewash,’” Indianapolis Recorder, June 1, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Elizabeth Allen-likely back in town temporarily-and other Black leaders organized a mass meeting to protest the “wanton, brutal and unwarranted” shooting. Despite boycotts, a benefit ball to raise prosecutorial funds, and protests by the Black community and white communists, a grand jury did not return an indictment against Officer Miller for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. This, J. Chester said, was due to “blind prejudice on the part of the prosecutor.”

Despite a disheartening outcome, J. Chester continued to lend his legal expertise to combating local discrimination. The following year, he and a team of lawyers challenged Engman Public Natatorium’s ban on African Americans from using the facilities. The team presented a petition, likely prepared by Elizabeth, to the state board of tax commission demanding Engman remove all restrictions. Allen and other NAACP representatives had tried this in 1931, arguing that the natatorium was “supported in whole or in part by taxes paid by residents of the city,” including African Americans. Without access to the pool, they would be relegated to unsafe swimming holes, one of which led to the death of a Black youth the previous summer. While they had no luck in 1931, the 1936 appeal convinced commissioners to provide African American residents access to the pool, but only on the first Monday of every month and on a segregated basis. This was just one victory in the decades-long fight to fully desegregate the natatorium.

Image caption: Photograph of Leroy Cobb and two unidentified men sitting along Pinhook Park. In the era of segregation in South Bend, with city pools like the Engman Public Natatorium barring African Americans from entry, Pinhook Park became a popular location for public swimming, ca. 1947, St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collections.

While it appears that Elizabeth lent her aid to certain events in South Bend, like protesting the shooting of Owen, it is tough to discern Elizabeth’s activities at this time. This is perhaps due to scant documentation for African Americans, particularly women, during this period. Likely, she was working towards her law degree at Boston University, despite being told by an admissions officer “there was not need to come and advised she get married.” Proving the officer wrong, Elizabeth not only got married, but gave birth to two children while pursuing her law degree. She attributed this tenacity to the confidence her father instilled in her during childhood and later said “’To be a woman lawyer you have to have the hide of a rhinoceros.’”

Her persistence paid off and after joining J. Chester in South Bend, she was admitted to the bar in 1938. Perhaps her presence inspired in him a sense of security and conviction, resulting in a run for the Indiana General Assembly. That year, voters elected J. Chester (D) the first African American to represent St. Joseph County. Rep. Allen introduced and supported bills that would eliminate racial discrimination in sports, the judicial system, and public spaces. The new lawmaker also endorsed bills that would require Indianapolis’s City Hospital to employ Black personnel and that would mandate appointing at least one African American to the State Board of Public Instruction, telling his colleagues “the legislature should see to it that these children had a spokesman of their own racial group to assure their obtaining a measure of equal accommodation and facilities in the segregated public school system” (Indianapolis Recorder, March 11, 1939). Writer L.J. Martin praised Allen’s unwavering commitment to serving Black Hoosiers while in public office, noting in the Indianapolis Recorder,

Hon. J. Chester Allen said he had stayed up late at night reading bills for such ‘racial traps.’ He found them, he eliminated them, one hotel sponsored bill in particular would have been a slap at the race. Mr. Allen astonishes me, in the forcible argument for racial progress.

J. Chester Allen (center), South Bend Tribune, November 6, 1940, 17, accessed Newspapers.com.

While J. Chester walked the halls of the statehouse, championing bills that furthered racial equality, Elizabeth was able to make a difference as a lawyer. The couple opened “Allen and Allen” in 1939—the same year she gave birth to their third child. One of the first Black female lawyers in the city, and likely state, Elizabeth quickly forged a reputation as an articulate and ambitious woman. She did not hesitate to express her convictions, not even to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Elizabeth sent her a letter expressing the need to integrate housing and provide African Americans with the same government-funded housing white Americans received. Elizabeth’s son, Dr. Irving Allen, told an interviewer that Roosevelt’s response resulted in his mother’s “angry departure” from the Democratic Party. Allegedly, Roosevelt “sent back this long-winded pretentious letter rationalizing the situation . . . that the races couldn’t live together.” Both idealistic, Dr. Allen recalled that his parents’ political discourse over the dinner table “could blow up at any time.”

Elizabeth’s editorial for the South Bend Tribune, entitled “Negro and 1940,” also provides insight into her views. She lauded the “new Negro,” who:

is fearless and motivated by confidence in his belief that he owes to his race the duty of guiding those members whose minds have not been trained to clear thinking, his knowledge that the able members of his race have always from the beginning of this country contributed to the civic upbuilding and a conviction that it is up to him to keep the gains which have been made.

Membership Card, 1944, J. Chester and Elizabeth Fletcher Allen Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, Indiana University South Bend Archives, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

By this definition, Elizabeth exemplified the “new Negro,” dedicating her life to uplifting South Bend’s Black community through her work with the NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee and by organizing drives to improve housing for minorities. According to her son, Dr. Irving Allen, Elizabeth embodied the Black empowerment she wrote about, challenging oppression and advocating for those “being cheated out of a decent life.” Dr. Allen suspected that his mother also wanted to effect change as a legislator, but sacrificed her political aspirations to support her husband’s career.

Elizabeth Allen, courtesy The History Museum Collection, accessed Roberta Heinman, “Suffragists and Activists are Among 10 Influential Women in Indiana,” South Bend Tribune, August 16, 2020.

Although Elizabeth felt she had to shelve her political aspirations, she complemented her husband’s legislative work, particularly regarding World War II defense employment. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 created an immediate need for the manufacture of ordnance. While U.S. government war contracts lifted many Americans out of the poverty wrought by the Depression, many manufacturers refused to hire African Americans. This further disenfranchised them as, according to W. Chester Hibbitt, Chairman of the Citizens’ Defense Council, an estimated 54% of African Americans living in Indiana were on relief by 1941.

And while the federal government complained of a labor shortage, J. Chester contended that “Negro workers, skilled and semi-skilled, by the thousands are walking the streets or working on W. P. A. projects, because they happen to have been endowed with a dark skin by the Creator of all men'” (“The Story of House Bill No. 445, p.15). He argued that it was the responsibility of lawmakers to prohibit employment discrimination, not only to eliminate poverty, but to safeguard democracy. Echoing the Double V campaign, Rep. Allen stated that “our first line of defense should be the preservation of the belief in the hearts of all men, black and white alike, that Democracy exists for all of us; that we are all entitled to a home, a job and the expectancy of better things to come for our children.” The continued denial of American minorities’ rights undermined the fight for freedom abroad.

Elected to a second term in 1940, J. Chester led the call for anti-discrimination legislation. Months before President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, Rep. Allen and Rep. Evans introduced House Bill No. 445. If enacted, it would make it illegal for Indiana companies benefiting from federal defense contracts “to discriminate against employing any person on account of race, color or creed.” So popular was the bill that after the Indiana Senate passed it, delegations of African Americans and their children filled statehouse corridors and galleries, carrying “placards advocating passage of the bill, describing the measure as the only thing necessary to provide Negroes with jobs” (“The Story of House Bill No. 445”, p.7).

The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Story of House Bill No. 445 . . . A Bill That Failed to Pass,” (Indianapolis, 1941?), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

Despite the bill’s promising fate, on the last day of session the House kicked it over to the Committee on Military Affairs, where it essentially died. In an article for the Indianapolis Recorder, J. Chester noted that although the bill was defeated,

such state-wide attention had been drawn to the sad economic plight of the Negro workers of Indiana and its attendant dangers that people of both races agreed that the alleviation of the Negro unemployment problem was the number one job of the preparations for war of Indiana and proceeded in for right home-rule manner to do something about it.

On June 1, 1941, Governor Schricker answered the call to “do something about it,” appointing J. Chester the Coordinator of Negro Affairs to the Indiana State Council of Defense. As part of the Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation, Allen traveled throughout the state, appealing to groups like the A.F.L., C.I.O., and the Indiana State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association, which all formally pledged to employ African Americans. Through intensive groundwork, Allen established bi-racial committees in at least twenty Indiana cities.

Based on the “mutual cooperation between the employer, labor and the Negro,” the Recorder reported that these local committees would “go into action whenever and wherever Negro industrial employment presents a problem.” Although his persuasive skills often convinced employers to hire Black employees, historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that “Allen sometimes invoked Order 8802 and threats of federal investigation to persuade management to employ and upgrade black workers.”

The Indiana State Defense Council and The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “’Job Opportunities for Negroes:’ The Goal of Indiana’s Bi-Racial Cooperation Plan,” Pamphlet No. 4 (January 1943), accessed Hathitrust.

Allen and the bi-racial committees also served as a sort of “middlemen” for white employers who wanted to hire African Americans, but were unsure how to recruit those best-suited for the job. Allen and the committees distributed “mimieographed questionnaires,” which provided” more valuable information with respect to Negro labor supplies, skills, etc. This information was then used with great effect in the mobilization and cataloguing of types of dependable Negro workers for local defense industries.”

Under Allen’s leadership, the Indiana Plan proved incredibly successful, providing employment to those, in Allen’s words, “whose record of loyalty and services dates in an unbroken chain back to the year 1620” (“The Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation,” p.5). According to the “Job Opportunities for Negroes” pamphlet, between July 1, 1941 and July 1, 1942, there “was a net increase of 82% Negro employment, most of which was in manufacturing. . . . working conditions also improved” (p.2). (It should be noted that employers continued to deny African Americans jobs in “skilled capacities.”) In fact, Indiana was awarded the “Citation of Merit” by the National Director of Civilian Defense for “outstanding work in the field of race relations.” So efficiently organized and implemented, other states used the plan as a model to bring African Americans into the workforce.

Indiana State Defense Council, The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, and Governor Schricker’s Negro Employment Committee, “What is the Truth About Job Opportunities for Negroes in Indiana?,” (August 1942), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

The Bi-Racial Cooperation Plan’s significance endured long after World War II ended. White employers could no longer claim that Black Hoosiers lacked the skills or competence required of the workplace or that it was “unnatural” for white and Black employees to work alongside each other. Reflecting on the program, Allen wrote in 1945, “Time was when a Negro interested in securing better employment opportunities for his people could not even obtain an audience with those able to grant such favors.” But the Bi-Racial Cooperation plan “has accomplished more for the Negro’s permanent economic improvement than had been done in the preceding history of the state.”

While African Americans were often the first to be let go from defense jobs with the conclusion of war, Allen’s work permanently wedged the door open to employment for Black Hoosiers. Allen, perhaps at the encouragement of Elizabeth, emphasized the importance of creating job opportunities for Black women and in his 1945 article noted that thousands of female laborers “have been upgraded from traditional domestic jobs, to which all colored women had previously been assigned irrespective of training or ability, to defense plants as receptionists, power-sewing machine operators, line operators and other better paying positions where their training can be utilized.”

Elizabeth Allen front left, J. Chester Allen back of the table, Ca. 1944, J. Chester and Elizabeth Fletcher Allen Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, Indiana University South Bend Archives, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

Like her husband, Elizabeth refused to accept that Black Hoosiers would be excluded from the economic boon created by defense jobs. In the early 1940s, she established a nurse’s aid training and placement program for Black women in St. Joseph County. Of her WWII work, Elizabeth’s son said that she opened professional doors for Black women and that she saw herself as helping people who were oppressed. Like J. Chester, Elizabeth helped select local men for placement in defense jobs and, according to an October 11, 1941 Indianapolis Recorder article

used the utmost care in selecting the men to go into the factory realizing that future opportunities were dependent upon the foundation which these pioneers laid both in building good will among the fellow employes, and proving to the management that colored are reliable, trustworthy, hard-working and capable of advancing.

While J. Chester traveled the state, Elizabeth tended to the needs of the local community, chairing a drive in 1942 at Hering House for “community betterment in housing[,] social and industrial fields.” In the 1940s, Elizabeth organized various meetings to improve local housing for the Black community, emphasizing the link between substandard residences and crime rates, delinquency, and health. Deeply committed to ensuring quality education for African American children, Elizabeth founded Educational Service, Inc. in 1943, which encouraged youth to pursue social and economic advancement, provided financial aid to “worthy” students, offered individual counseling, and fostered good citizens. All of this while caring for three young children and likely manning the couple’s law office, as J. Chester fulfilled his duties with the Indiana State Council of Defense. Fortunately, Elizabeth later told the South Bend Tribune, “I want to keep busy constantly. I have to be about something all the time.”

When the war clouds cleared, the Allens achieved many of their professional and philanthropic goals. But they also experienced immense personal loss that appeared to test their marriage. Their post-war journey will be explored in a follow-up blog post.

 

Sources:

The majority of this post is based on state historical marker notes, in addition to the following:

“11,605 Helped by Hering House,” South Bend Tribune, April 22, 1931, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

“11 Witnesses Charge Police Shot too Soon,” South Bend Tribune, April 10, 1935, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Seek to Avenge Youth’s Death,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 25, 1935, 1, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“Public Angered at Whitewash,’” Indianapolis Recorder, June 1, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Elizabeth F. Allen, “Negro and 1940,” South Bend Tribune, October 1, 1939, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Story of House Bill No. 445 . . . A Bill That Failed to Pass,” (Indianapolis, 1941?), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

The Indiana State Defense Council and The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation,” Pamphlet No. 3, (April 1942), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

Mary Butler, “Mrs. Elizabeth Allen Lays Down Law to Family,” South Bend Tribune, July 30, 1950, 39, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Adult Award Winner,” South Bend Urban League and Hering House, Annual Report, 1960, p. 5, accessed Michiana Memory.

“Area Women Lawyers Tell It ‘Like It Is,’” South Bend Tribune, March 9, 1975, 69, accessed Newspapers.com.

Marilyn Klimek, “Couple Led in Area Racial Integration,” South Bend Tribune, November 30, 1997, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 207.

Oral History Interview with Dr. Irving Allen, conducted by Dr. Les Lamon, IU South Bend Professor Emeritus, David Healey, and John Charles Bryant, Part 1 and Part 2, August 11, 2004, Civil Rights Heritage Center, courtesy of St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

THH Episode 42: Giving Voice: Dr. James Madison

Jump to Show Notes

Transcript for Giving Voice: Dr. James Madison

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.

On this installment of Giving Voice, I talk with Dr. James Madison, whose new book, Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland explores what the Klan of the 1920s in Indiana looked like, how they amassed and wielded their power, and how their legacy continues to be seen in the state today. If you haven’t listened to our latest episode, which covers the story of how the University of Notre Dame harnessed the popularity of their football program to combat a smear campaign carried out by the Klan, I encourage you to do so as it elaborates on some of the aspects we touch on in this conversation.

And now, Giving Voice.

I’m here today with Dr. James Madison, Emeritus Professor of History at Indiana University and the author of the new book, Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland. Thank you, Dr. Madison for being here with me today it’s a real pleasure speaking with you.

Madison: Well, thank you Lindsey. I’m always happy to talk history and I’m especially happy to be on this Indiana Historical Bureau program. So, thank you.

Beckley: So, I thought we’d start out with a simple question that might not have a simple answer. Who joined the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana in the 1920s? And why did they join?

Madison: That’s a very important question, Lindsey, and we are now able to answer that question. Thirty or 40 years ago, we couldn’t, but there’s been a lot of good scholarship on that and there’s more coming out in the future. White, native born Protestants is the answer to your question.

And that’s very important because the myth that prevails – the wrong headed assumption – that has been hailed for nearly 100 years was that members of the Klan in Indiana in the 1920s were, as the great journalist Elmer Davis called them, the “great unteachable’s.” That they were sort of a lower order, even ne’er do wells. We now know that’s not true. They were good Hoosiers. They were good citizens. Respectable people, for the most part. But they were all in their self-definition, 100% American – that is white, native born, Protestants.

Beckley: And why did they join this fraternal organization? What did they see in it that enticed them to join?

Madison: Here too there is a myth. That the Hoosiers that joined the Klan were manipulated by snake oil salesman like DC Stevenson, the grand dragon. That they were not very sophisticated and that they did not understand what the Klan was about. I think that’s simply not true. The evidence is overwhelming that most of the people who joined the Klan truly believed in the values, the goals of the Ku Klux Klan. That is, to redeem America, to return America to its greatness – return America to a place where the enemies were held in secondary status so that good, 100% Americans could really, really run the nation.

Lindsey: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Because I do think that a lot of people still have those ideas and their head that people were duped into joining the Klan or that it was a bunch of ne’er do wells, as you say, that joined. Whereas it was ordinary citizens going in with eyes wide open.

What conditions here in the state preceded the Klan’s arrival that kind of paved the way for them to gain such massive power in such a short amount of time?

Madison Well, there are deep traditions in Indiana history and in American history that were essential to the success of the Ku Klux Klan. And those include fear and hatred of immigrants an outsiders. Fear and hatred among Protestants of Catholics. Among Christians of Jews. All sorts of prejudices and divisions including prejudices against African Americans in particular. All of these ways of dividing Hoosiers and Americans into us and them had persisted in Indiana from the very beginning. So that’s one essential part of the Klan story in the 1920s.

More immediately, there’s World War One. And World War One was a horrible war in so many ways, including its domestic consequences because it exacerbated – it let forth all sorts of prejudices against them, against people who were others. And that persisted into the 1920s.

And then I’d say also that the decade of the 1920s was an unusual time where Indiana had a particularly mediocre political leadership. There were no men – and we’re talking almost entirely about men here in the 1920s – there were no men in political positions of leadership who had what we might call character or even charisma. They were mediocre. And they were mostly, in fact almost entirely, interested in getting reelected. So, policy issues, questions of central importance to our government and our state were not on their agenda. And when the Klan came along so very, very many of them, especially in the Republican Party, saw the Klan as a vehicle to increase their political power. To get reelected. To be more important in running national politics. So, all of those conditions created an atmosphere that was very, very ripe for the Klan to rise to power in Indiana in the early 1920s.

Beckley: So, that last point that you brought up about politics being more about being reelected than actually getting any agenda achieved, kind of flows well into my next question. Which is, it’s interesting to me that the Klan worked like a well-oiled machine to get sympathetic representatives elected to the General Assembly but then once they were actually there, they didn’t seem to get much actual policy or Klan-proposed policy achieved. Maybe one or two things, but it wasn’t quite the powerhouse that I think that they were intending. What do you think stopped them from achieving more in their short time in power?

Madison: That’s a very good point, and a very important part of this story because – let me speak just quickly to the first part, and that is that the Klan was often assumed to be a bunch of bumblers and not really knowing quite what they were doing. But that’s not true. The Klan was a very sophisticated organization. Hierarchal. Able to recruit large numbers of members. Able to bring in millions of dollars to its treasury. So, it’s a very sophisticated, powerful, well run organization by early 1924. So powerful that the Klan candidates sweep into office in the fall elections in 1924.

The General Assembly that sits in early 1925 is composed mostly of Klan members or supporters of the Klan. The governor of Indiana, Ed Jackson, far and away the worst governor in our history, was very very sympathetic to the Klan. So, a very powerful organization. And yet, as you say, Lindsey, in the General Assembly they proved to be a bunch of ineffectual’s, in particular because they started to fight among themselves. One of the blessings of this kind of movement often is that they are so selfish and power hungry that factions develop. That they split apart in their quest for power. And that’s exactly what happened in the late fall and early spring of 1925, particularly in the statehouse, because there are all sorts of factions and they just sort of fight each other. They were more interested in winning power than they were and passing Klan reform programs.

Beckley: It’s just so interesting how they worked so hard and just kind of slid into power there and then kind of fell apart at the most critical junction. Lucky for Indiana, of course.

Madison: Very, very lucky. Because the Klan program – the Klan legislative program – was serious and had they passed it then come back again in the following General Assembly, who knows what they would have put into the force of law and policy. It’s a dreadful, dreadful thing to contemplate.

Beckley: One quote from your book really jumped out at me and it is that, “Klan women and men saw themselves not as bigoted extremists but as good Christians and good Patriots joining proudly in a moral crusade.” Today, we see those same people as members of a terrorist organization. How did most Americans who weren’t part of the Klan but also weren’t part of the organized resistance, how did they view the Klan from the outside looking in?

Madison: That’s a hard question to answer because it’s very hard to find the primary sources that give voice to that. I think that it’s quite likely that many, many Hoosiers did not oppose the Klan and did not join the Klan. Perhaps a majority of Hoosiers were in that category. And within that category of not opposing and not joining or supporting, there are all ranges of possibilities, some were very, very unhappy about the Klan but unwilling to step up. And I think that’s a large number of Hoosiers. They were unwilling to stand up against the Klan. There were very few profiles in courage in this group. They were fearful because the Klan had such immense power. The Klan had the power to intimidate, to threaten, to make your life difficult if they chose to. But also, I think even those who did not join the Klan tended to think that, “well they’re sort of right. There’s really nothing wrong with this organization. We’re not going to pay our dues and march in a parade, but they are OK. They are normal.” And that’s a very important part of the Klan story in the 1920s. The Klan worked hard to be respected to be a normal part of America. And in the eyes of their members and supporters, they were exactly that. They were not on the margins. They were not a bunch of fools. They were normal, good, respectable Americans. And that’s a very hard thing for us to understand today because all sorts of myths and stories get in the way of that. But that is essential to understanding the Klan in Indiana in the 20s. Normal, respectable, Hoosiers.

Beckley: I think that a lot of people, when they’re thinking about the Klan, their ideas about the organization are kind of clouded by the Klan of the Reconstruction Era and then of the 1960s when it is much more violent and, in the case of the 60s, fragmented and kind of – it is those bumbling people, or at least it was closer to that. So, I think that we are thinking about it and we aren’t – a lot of folks aren’t separating out the three distinct versions of the Klan and the 1920s. It’s so hard to wrap your head around just because they were so respectable. And reading the first part of your book, it almost sounded like frivolous. The people were going to parades and having picnics and even cross burnings were a celebration. It wasn’t necessarily seen by them as a source of terror whereas it would have been seen by their victims as a source of terror, but something as iconic as a cross burning can be seen by members of the Klan as a festival almost. It’s just very hard to comprehend, I think.

Madison: Well, yes. And that’s the way in which the Klan was normal. Because, well the Klan had a very very straightforward purpose: to make America for 100% Americans. And to keep the enemies in their place. But at the same time, these were people who wanted to have a good time, who wanted to be with other like-minded people. It was a very social organization. They had picnics and all kinds of events. They got together in their weekly or semi-weekly Klavern meetings. There were Klavern’s in all 92 counties. They got together, they had a social program, they sang hymns, they had good conversation, they always had food – you know Hoosiers always have food at social events like that especially in the 1920s – so they had good food, good picnics, good times. They had fun and many of them joined in part because of that. But that wasn’t the only reason, or the major reason, that they joined. The idea of good Hoosiers enjoying life as members of the Ku Klux Klan is another one that is hard for us to understand. Because what gets in the way, as you said, was the Klan of the post-Civil War era which was a terrorist organization and the Klan of the 1960s, or that began in the 1960s and continued for decades afterwards, which was a horrible organization of white supremacists and getting towards acts of violence. But the Indiana Klan is not that way. Again, respectable and normal. They were not interested in violence. They were much more interested in having a parade, or a cross burning. Certainly those things intimidate people. It tells them that this is a very powerful organization. You see hundreds of robed people walking down Main Street and around the courthouse square in Indiana – that sends a message. You see a cross burning or several cross burnings on a hill outside of town or at the State Fairgrounds – that sends a message. And the Klan was very sophisticated and sending these kinds of messages. “We are powerful. Don’t cross us. Support us we are the good people and you better stay in your place if you are not one of us and not cause trouble.” So again, a sophisticated organization. A normal organization in Indiana in the 1920s. Not later on in the late 20th century not in the South after the Civil War. But in the 20s in Indiana? Absolutely.

Beckley: So, to close out the discussion today, I have another quote from your book. “The Klan was history. The legacy remains.” That’s a powerful quote and I was hoping that you could talk a little bit more about those legacies that you see remaining from the Klan.

Madison: Well, that’s another one of the many complexities of the Klan, because in some ways, I’ve argued, the Klan by 1930 was dead in Indiana. The Klan that we know in the 20s no longer existed. What happened was, as the Civil Rights movement began to grow in Indiana and in America in the late 50s and especially in the early 60s, it produced a space. It produced opposition. It produced blow back from some white Hoosiers and white Americans who said woah, woah, woah this Civil Rights movement has gone too far. These African Americans have gotten out of their place. They’re asking too much. And George Wallace came to Indiana in 1924 – the segregationist governor from Indiana* – and campaigned on that platform and got about 1/3 of the white vote. Horrible example of the responses to the idea that the Civil Rights went too far, as some whites in America an Indiana would claim. And that cleared a space for a revival, a renewal, of the Ku Klux Klan. Small groups mostly scattered across the state with some self-proclaimed Grand Dragons got a lot of publicity in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. They held rallies and parades in many places including Indianapolis in Kokomo and Madison, Indiana. Always at these rallies in the late 20th century, there were more opponents than supporters of the Klan. Far, far more people came out to protest. So that Klan that revived in the late 20th century really is a bunch of unteachable ne’er do wells. Really white supremacists par excellence. That was their reason for being. White supremacy. That Klan today has very little influence, very little presence. It can still intimidate us. A robe and mask of a burning cross can still cause us to fear. And African American families have stories handed down over the generations with that kind of terror, that kind of fear. But the real problem today I think is not in men and women who Don robes and hoods.

The issue today is respectable Americans, men and women and dark suits and silk blouses who say things that are on the outside may not look so horrible, but if you think a little bit, if you understand America and if you understand our past and our present, what they’re doing is using dog whistles. Coded language to say things that today are very similar to what the Klan said, much more explicitly, in the 1920s. The bigotry, prejudice, the notion that there are 100 percent Americans – that it’s US versus them – is still a notion that flourishes today in America and especially in the last four years. So, in the last four years we’ve seen an intensification of this kind of prejudice, this kind of bigotry, this kind of homophobia and xenophobia all of the things that contradict American ideals. It’s come from the White House, it is come from leaders in our political parties, especially one party in particular. And it has been the most significant attack to fundamental American values in my lifetime.

So, I think that we have in America a challenge of education. A challenge that requires that we understand our history from the very beginning to the present. Not a patriotic history. Not bedtime stories for children. Not myths. But the real history that we can now find and read not only in books but in museum exhibits and programs like this that are so very important to the future of our democracy, to our role as thinking, knowledgeable citizens.

Beckley: Yeah, we hope to always inform our listeners about their own past and how they can kind of utilized that to inform their present, so I appreciate you coming on and having this discussion today. This is such an important part of Indiana history that often gets overlooked or misunderstood. So, I’m I’m happy that we could clear some things up today.

Madison: Thank you Lindsey.

Beckley: A huge thank you, once again, to Dr. Madison. He’s one of the best Indiana historians out there and it was an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with him about such an important and prescient topic. If you’re interested in this period of Indiana history, I can’t recommend Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland highly enough – I know he did a lot of archival research in the past few years while working on it and it really shows.

This is the last episode of the year and we’ll be taking a little break over the holidays, but Talking Hoosier History will be back in February with more stories of the people, places, and events that shaped the Hoosier state. In the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana history tidbits. Subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening.

*George Wallace, the segregationist Senator, came to Indiana in 1964, rather than 1924, when he was running in the Democratic primaries. He was a Senator from Alabama, rather than Indiana.

Show Notes for Giving Voice: James Madison

Learn more about the Klan in Indiana:

Talking Hoosier History, The KKK, Political Corruption, and the Indianapolis Times, https://blog.history.in.gov/the-kkk-and-the-indianapolis-times/ 

Leonard J. Moore, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana 1921-1928, University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part One: Opposition to the Klan at Notre Dame,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-one-notre-dame-opposition-to-the-klan/ 

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Two: Notre Dame’s 1924 Football Team Battles Klan Propaganda,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-two/

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Three: The Notre Dame Publicity Campaign that Crushed the Klan,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-three-the-notre-dame-publicity-campaign-that-crushed-the-klan/

James Madison, “The Klan’s Enemies Step Up, Slowly,” Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 116, No. 2 (June 2020), p. 93-120, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/indimagahist.116.2.01?seq=1

THH Episode 41: Notre Dame Tackles the Klan

Jump to Show Notes

Transcript for Notre Dame Tackles the Klan

[Radio clips of Notre Dame football fades in and out]

Nineteen twenty-four was going to be their year. The Notre Dame football team was coming off a well-played 1923 season with just one loss, and they had their sights set on an even bigger goal that year – a perfect season. However, to get there, they faced some stiff competition – rivals like the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who had served up their only loss in 1923, loomed on the horizon. But looming even larger than rival teams was an off-the-field opponent that was in a different class altogether. That year, Notre Dame set out to defeat the Ku Klux Klan in a media crusade the likes of which had never been seen before.

[Radio clips of Notre Dame football]

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

The Ku Klux Klan arrived in the Hoosier State in 1920. By the mid-20s, more than 250,000 men had joined the organization throughout the state, and thousands of women and children had joined auxiliary clubs. While bearing the name, costume, and racist, xenophobic rhetoric of the Reconstruction Era Klan, this iteration of the terrorist organization differed in some key ways.

The Klan of the 1860s and 70s wielded clubs, guns, and nooses, while the Klan of the 1920s mostly wielded political power. The Klan of the mid-19th century terrorized the African American population of the southern United States, while that of the 20th century broadened their animus to include political radicals, feminists, intellectuals, Jews, and, most vociferously, Catholics and immigrants.

One other way in which the Klan of the 1920s differed from its predecessor, especially in Indiana, was just how interwoven it was with respectable society. Klansmen weren’t on the fringes, ostracized by their hatred. Rather, as Indiana University historian James Madison said in his new book, The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, “The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was as dark as the night and as American as apple pie.”

Nativism and xenophobia were well established in the state before 1920 – Hoosiers were already asking if immigrants could really be American if they maintained traditions from their homeland. Or if Catholics could be loyal Americans while simultaneously being loyal to the Pope. These weren’t ideas introduced by the Klan, but rather they were ideas that paved the way for the Klan to quickly infiltrate society at a deep level.

Because the Klan was such an integral part of the fabric of everyday life in Indiana, there was very little widespread resistance to the organization. However, there were instances of individuals, communities, and religious groups taking a stand against the hatred. Dr. Madison explores some of these instances in his Indiana Magazine of History article titled “The Klan’s Enemies Step up, Slowly.” Various towns and cities around the state passed laws prohibiting the wearing of masks, targeting the white hood and mask worn during Klan events. They denied permits for Klan-affiliated speakers, and restricted public cross burnings and parades. Jewish Hoosiers organized a lecture series on tolerance in an area rife with Klan activity. Newspapers around the Midwest, including the Muncie Post-Democrat, the Chicago-based Tolerance and the Indianapolis Times wrote scathing editorials decrying the Klan’s practices.

It was Catholic Hoosiers who showed the most unified resistance, though – this was likely because they were the primary targets of the Klan’s intolerance. When the Tipton County Fair announced it would be hosting a “Klan Day,” Catholics boycotted the event. When the Knights of Columbus organized a protest against the Klan in Indianapolis, nearly 800 Catholic men attended. And perhaps the state’s most prominent anti-Klan demonstration took place in the town of South Bend in May 1924.

South Bend, home to Catholics of Irish, Polish, and Hungarian origin, as well as the traditionally Catholic University of Notre Dame, was one of the only major cities in Indiana without a Klan presence. The hate group was working hard to change that in the lead-up to the 1924 election using a two-pronged approach. First, Klan leaders worked to legitimize the organization through philanthropic and recreational family activities and to grow its power through infiltrating politics and local law enforcement. Second, they worked to demonize their target groups – in this case, Catholics and immigrants. To that end, the Klan published anti-Catholic, xenophobic propaganda in their widely circulated newspaper, The Fiery Cross, and, as the existing anti-Catholic sentiments of many Hoosiers were being stoked in that way, Klan leadership laid a kind of trap for the Catholic citizens of South Bend. They scheduled a mass Klan meeting, where members from the Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois Klans would gather to spread their hateful rhetoric. The hope was that Catholic students from the nearby University of Notre Dame and South Bend citizens, many of whom were of immigrant origin, would rise up in reaction to the Klan’s presence, giving the Klan the opportunity to paint them as violent, lawless, un-American immigrants in contrast to the peacefully assembled “100% American” Klansmen. The meeting was scheduled for May 17, 1924.

Fearful for the safety of their students and local residents, Notre Dame and South Bend officials worked to stop a potentially violent incident. South Bend Mayor Eli Seebirt refused to grant the Klan a parade permit, although he could not stop their peaceful assembly on public grounds. Notre Dame President Matthew Walsh issued a bulletin, imploring students to stay on campus and ignore the Klan activities in town. He wrote:

Clark reading from Walsh: Similar attempts of the Klan to flaunt its strength have resulted in riotous situations, sometimes in the loss of life. However aggravating the appearance of the Klan may be, remember that lawlessness begets lawlessness. Young blood and thoughtlessness may consider it a duty to show what a real American thinks of the Klan. There is only one duty that presents itself to Notre Dame men, under the circumstances, and that is to ignore whatever demonstration may take place today.

Beckley: Father Walsh was right. “Young blood” could not abide the humiliation of this anti-Catholic hate group taking over the town. The Fiery Cross had hurled insults and false accusations at the students for some time. The propaganda newspaper called them “hoodlums,” claimed that Notre Dame produced “nothing of value,” and blamed the students for crime in the area. As Klan members began arriving in the city on May 17, 1924, South Bend was ready to oppose them.

The South Bend Tribune reported:

Clark reading from Tribune: Trouble started early in the day when Klansmen in full regalia of hoods, masks and robes appeared on street corners in the business section, ostensibly to direct their brethren to the meeting ground, Island park, and giving South Bend its first glimpse of Klansmen in uniform.

Beckley: Not long after Klan members began arriving, young men, assumed to have been Notre Dame students, surrounded the masked intruders. The anti-Klan South Bend residents and students tore off several masks and robes, exposing the identities of “kluxers” who wished to spread their hate anonymously. The Tribune reported that some Klan members were “roughly handled.” The newspaper also reported that the anti-Klan force showed some evidence of organization. They formed a “flying column” that moved in unison “from corner to corner, wherever a white robe appeared.” By 11:30 a.m. students and residents of South Bend had purged the business district of any sign of the Klan.

Meanwhile, Klan leaders continued to lobby city officials for permission to parade, hold meetings in their downtown headquarters, and assemble en masse at Island Park. Just after noon, the group determined to protect South Bend turned their attention to Klan headquarters. This home base was the third floor of a building and was identifiable by the “fiery cross” made of red light bulbs in the window. The students and South Bend residents surrounded the building and focused on removing the glowing red symbol of hate. Several young men “hurled potatoes” at the building, breaking several windows and smashing the light bulbs in the cross. The young men then stormed up the stairs to the Klan den and were stopped by minister and Klan leader Reverend J.H. Horton with a revolver.

The students attempted to convince Klan members to agree not to parade in masks or with weapons. While convincing all parties to ditch the costumes wasn’t easy, they did eventually negotiate a truce. By 3:30 p.m., the protestors had left the headquarters and rallied at a local pool hall.  Here, a student leader spoke to the crowd and urged them to remain peaceful but vigilant in case they were needed by the local police to break up the parade. After all was said and done, despite Klan threats, the city never issued a parade license and the Klan never paraded. Looking at the outcomes of this clash, it may seem as though the Notre Dame students came out on top – they were able to clear much of the city of white-robed Klansmen, the parade had not happened, and they had faced their persecutors head-on, something that’s easy to root for. However, this show of resistance was exactly what they Klan wanted, and they ran with it, painting the students as a “reckless, fight loving gang of Hoodlums” and using the Fiery Cross to spread a narrative of law-abiding Protestant citizens being denied their right to peacefully assemble while being violently attacked by gangs of Catholics and immigrants working together.

Mixing outright lies into their media spin, the Klan newspaper claimed that the students ripped up American flags and attacked women and children. The Klan’s propaganda was picked up by many mainstream newspapers and widely reported. The Notre Dame students may have appeared to win the day, but the reputation of the University of Notre Dame, and the Catholic community as a whole, had been tarnished by the spread of Klan propaganda.

The university needed a way to combat this bad press, and luckily, they had just the thing: the wildly successful Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. Since 1921, Father John O’Hara, the prefect of religion, had been working to link the players’ Catholicism with their success on the gridiron by arranging press coverage of the players attending mass before away games, providing medals of saints for them to wear during games, and writing about “the religious component in Notre Dame’s football success.” In essence, he drew on the idea of sport as a platform for social change, an idea that continues to be used in the 21st century. O’Hara planned to take this strategy up a notch for the 1924 season in an attempt to combat the smear campaign being waged by the Klan.

In order to put this plan into action, though, the Fighting Irish would have to make an even more impressive showing than they had in the 1923 season. This was a tall order, as their only loss that season was a devastating defeat by the Nebraska Cornhuskers, a game during which the Fighting Irish were subjected to anti-Catholic insults. This would have to be a year like no other – a perfect, undefeated season.

Coach Knute Rockne had his work cut out for him, but he came to the 1924 season with a plan – instead of starting his first-string players, he would send in his second-string “shock troops” to tire out their opponents. Then he would send in his best players, still fresh and ready to make up any ground that had been lost and more. The strategy was deployed with great success in the first two games of the season – Lombard College and Wabash College were defeated with a combined score of 74 to zero. The first real test for both the team and the press strategy came on October 25, when the Fighting Irish faced one of their biggest rivals – the Army team.

[Radio coverage from Army game]

In the lead up to the game, alumni living in the city fed Notre Dame-produced press statements to New York newspapers and drummed up support for the Fighting Irish at local Catholic organizations. As 60,000 fans…

Clark with old-time radio effects:  60,000 fans have descended upon the New York City Polo Grounds to watch this match-up …

Beckley: it was clear that the good press had paid off – the New York Times reported that the crowd was the largest ever seen in the city. When the Irish pulled off a relatively tight 13-7 victory, the press raved and reporter Grantland Rice of the New York Herald Tribune delivered one of the most famous lines in sports history, writing about the Notre Dame’s backfield lineup:

Clark reading from Tribune: Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore, they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden.

Beckley: The “four horsemen” nickname immediately gained traction. Upon the team’s return, the university arranged to have a photographer shoot a picture of the “horsemen” in uniform on horseback – just another card in the media playbook

One-third of the way through their regular season, the plan was right on track – the team had won some decisive victories and the media coverage was overwhelmingly positive, despite the fact that the Fiery Cross continued to re-hash the events of May 24, smearing the Catholic and immigrant community of South Bend every chance they got. As the season continued, it became clear that this Notre Dame team was a force to be reckoned with – they emerged from their mid-season games with three more decisive victories against Princeton, Georgia Tech, and University of Wisconsin. Their next, and perhaps largest, hurdle still loomed ahead in the form of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who had delivered their only defeat of the 1923 season.

In their last match-up, the Fighting Irish had encountered prejudice and xenophobic epithets from the Nebraska fanbase. This meant that a victory against the Huskers would not only get the Irish one win closer to a perfect season, but the victory of the hardworking and stoic Irish Catholic school over a team with anti-Catholic fans would be symbolic of a larger Catholic victory over prejudice.

This game had been the focus of the entire season for Notre Dame, and when the two teams took the field in South Bend on November 15, the Fighting Irish were out for revenge…

Clark with old time radio effects: …the Fighting Irish are out for revenge. Coach Rockne may be re-thinking his shock troop tactics this game… and the Huskers advance to the four-yard line after the Irish give up a fumble … The crowd goes wild as the first stringers take the field … and the Huskers drive it in for an early touchdown, Huskers lead 6-0 at the end of the first period! The Irish come out strong in the second quarter … the Four Horsemen are putting on a fine show … and we go to the half with the Irish ahead 14-6. … The Irish Eleven are really putting on a show now … Notre Dame 21, Nebraska 6 at the end of the third period … and Layden plunges through the center for a touchdown! … 34-6. The Irish win! The Irish win!!

Beckley: Finally, they had defeated the team that had not only ruined their otherwise perfect 1923 season, but had maligned them with anti-Catholic, anti-Irish slurs as well.

With that win in the books, the Irish swept through the remaining two games on their schedule – against Northwestern and Carnegie Tech – with relative ease, achieving their goal of a perfect season. This perfect record was everything the university administration had hoped for in order to engage their publicity machine and improve the school’s unfairly marred reputation. Giving them an even better opportunity for good press, the team was invited to play in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Father O’Hara, who had orchestrated press coverage of the team throughout the season, saw this as an unprecedented public relations opportunity.

Rather than travel to California a week before the game and practice a few times on the Rose Bowl field, the team was put through a grueling three-week schedule of practices, press conferences, public appearances, and daily Mass – all while snaking their way across the country by train. At the same time, the Klan continued to churn out hateful propaganda painting Catholics and immigrants as un-American troublemakers. And major outlets had picked up the narrative, lending credibility to the slanderous claims. This was what these young men, who were already facing the biggest game of their careers, were up against. Not only did they have to be at the top of their game, they also had to be on the moral high ground – they were representatives not only of Notre Dame, but of the larger Catholic and Irish American communities.

Finally, the team arrived in Los Angeles to a train platform crowded with fans – it seemed their press tour was working.

After checking into the hotel, the team went to the Rose Bowl field for practice. Standing in the stadium, the Irish focused on their goal: a Rose Bowl championship. After one more practice, the Fighting Irish returned to their hotel to rest for the night. In the meantime, newspapers across the country reported on the practice, debated who would win the following day, and discussed just how evenly matched the two teams were. The excitement was building. The Chicago Tribune reported:

Clark reading from Tribune: Every arriving train brings more football fans, and the great majority favor Notre Dame to win. Coaches from all sections of the country are here to get a line on the Rockne style of play and see what all expect to be a great exhibition of open football.

Beckley: On the warm and sunny New Year’s Day of 1925, the team attended Mass and took Holy Communion before heading to the Rose Bowl. Over 53,000 fans filled the stands and others sat in trees outside the stadium. The game started at 2:15 p.m. As usual, Coach Rockne started his second string “shock troops…

Clark with old time radio effects: …Coach Rockne has started his second string “shock troops.” That might be a mistake with this Stanford offense … and the Cardinals score first with a field goal – score 3-0 Stanford … And the first string players enter the fray … Even the usually unstoppable Four Horsemen seem to be unable to make a drive against this Stanford line …  Oh! And the Irish get a break as Stanford flubs the punt, placing the Irish on the Stanford 32 yard-line! … The Irish drive it in for their first score of the game – Irish lead 6-3! … Notre Dame full-back Elmer Layden intercepts the pass and runs it back for a 70 yard touchdown!! … Irish lead 13-3 going into the second half!

And the Cardinals fumble the ball – Irishman Edward Huntsinger picks it up and runs it 20 yards for another touchdown!! … Stanford has the ball inside the Notre Dame 1-yard line … and they’re stopped mere inches from the endzone!! Stanford goes for a pass and it’s intercepted by Layden … he’s going, he’s going, he’s gone!!! Layden runs it back for another 70 yard touchdown … And the Irish win the Rose Bowl 27-10! What a way to top off a perfect season!!

Beckley: The season was over, but the public relations machine was still in full force. The team set off on a “victory lap” from California to Indiana on January 2, a 10-day journey where the players met adoring crowds, rubbed shoulders with celebrities, and shook hands with politicians. This was a victory lap for the Notre Dame football squad, yes, but also for Catholicism. After all, what’s more American than football? And here was a group of scholar-athletes demonstrating for the nation that their faith didn’t stand in the way of being American.

Perhaps everyone who had been discriminated against in this era of the Klan was feeling a little Irish in the wake of the Notre Dame victory. Herbert Fleishacker, a prominent Jewish San Francisco banker, wrote in a telegram to the alumni group:

Clark reading telegram: WE IRISH MUST STAND TOGETHER.

Beckley: By the time they arrived back at the university on January 12, the players were completely exhausted, but triumphant. The Fighting Irish had delivered an undefeated season and a national championship to their university. Notre Dame officials, in turn, leveraged the opportunity into a publicity spectacle. Father O’Hara’s plan to use football successes to reform the school’s reputation had worked. Notre Dame historian Robert Burns noted that:

Clark reading from Burns: By playing very hard, but always according to the rules, never complaining or making excuses, and winning, Notre Dame players would show the American public what Catholics and Catholic education was all about.

Beckley: The Klan’s Fiery Cross continued to spread lies about Catholic plots and tales of Notre Dame hoodlums, but the country had just witnessed an extended and public display of honorable play, sportsmanship, and model behavior from these young Catholic men – the American public were largely over the story.

The publicity campaign organized by the University of Notre Dame forever crushed the Klan’s plans for infiltrating South Bend and tainting the school’s reputation. South Bend refused to be baited into further physical confrontations with the Klan, school officials refused to accept the insults hurled at them through Klan propaganda, and the Fighting Irish refused to play the Klan’s game. They played football instead – just one example in a long history of sports being used as a platform for social change and social justice in America.

However, while the Klan was defeated in South Bend, they remained dominant throughout much of Indiana, and their anti-Immigrant views were popular throughout the nation. The same year that this story takes place – 1924 – the Klan’s championing of white supremacist principles yielded real world consequences in the form of the national Immigration Act of 1924, which resulted in a quota system that reduced immigration by 80%. We saw the effects of this legislation most poignantly in the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, who applied to the United States for immigration visas, were denied entry. Many of those people were later murdered in the Holocaust.

In the 1920s, the Klan claimed to be the sole proprietor of who was “American:” native born, white Protestants were, and foreign-born Catholics were not.  Although today the Klan has lost much of their power, their vision of white supremacy and exclusion still simmers right beneath the surface of American politics, and in some cases boils over. In the 1920s, we allowed hate groups to define who was and wasn’t considered American. Today, as we see hate groups on the rise, we must be vigilant not to let the mistakes of our past be repeated.

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is 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. This episode of Talking Hoosier History was adapted from “Integrity on the Gridiron,” three original posts written by IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins for the Indiana History Blog. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thank you to Justin Clark for lending his voice to today’s episode. We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice, where I’ll be talking with Indiana University historian and author of the new book, The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, Dr. James Madison. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Show Notes for Notre Dame Tackles the Klan

Learn about the Indianapolis Times crusade against the Klan with this episode of Talking Hoosier History. 

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part One: Opposition to the Klan at Notre Dame,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-one-notre-dame-opposition-to-the-klan/ 

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Two: Notre Dame’s 1924 Football Team Battles Klan Propaganda,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-two/

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Three: The Notre Dame Publicity Campaign that Crushed the Klan,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-three-the-notre-dame-publicity-campaign-that-crushed-the-klan/

James Madison, “The Klan’s Enemies Step Up, Slowly,” Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 116, No. 2 (June 2020), p. 93-120, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/indimagahist.116.2.01?seq=1

Unlearning Ingrained Racism: Journalist Esther Griffin White’s Work to Become an Antiracist

Esther Griffin White, ca. 1915, Esther Griffin White Collection, Earlham College Archives, accessed George T. Blakey, “Esther Griffin White: An Awakener of Hoosier Potential,” Indiana Magazine of History 86, no. 3 (September 1990): 294-299, accessed scholarworks.iu.edu.

Esther Griffin White was a woman before her time—outspoken, rebellious, and willing to stake her reputation on the things that she believed in during an era when women were considered second-class citizens. Her Quaker upbringing imparted the importance of racial and gender equality, causes that she ultimately championed throughout her life. Her staunch political activism and dedication to gender equality throughout her life are, arguably, what she is most known for today. However, she also used her power, privilege, and platform as a white, middle-class, female journalist to speak out against racial injustice. Here, as we examine White’s writing, we clearly see someone trying to make sense of her own ingrained racism while at the same time standing up and speaking out against it.

Born in 1869 in Richmond, Indiana, White was a journalist, political activist, suffragist, and life-long Indiana resident. She began her writing career for the Richmond Palladium as an arts and culture critic and published her own paper (though infrequently) called The Little Paper, which she owned and operated out of her home at 110 South 9th Street. From the 1890s to 1944, she freelanced for many Richmond papers, often transferring from publication to publication as editors worried that her blunt and adversarial writing style could offend readers—likely a concern born partially out of sexism.

Clipping, Indianapolis Sun, 1913, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, If Chorus Girls Asked Men For Suffrage, They’d Get it, Box 5, Folder 4, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

White joined the Indiana Woman’s Franchise League in the early 1900s and was elected chairman of the Publicity Committee in 1916. While in the League, she began actively working towards the cause she wrote so much about; for example, she organized a suffrage street rally for several suffrage speakers in June 1916 in Richmond. This event was heralded as “one of the largest street meetings ever held in Richmond and the first suffrage meeting of its character held in eastern Indiana.”[1]

White was also a politician, running for mayor of Richmond in 1921, 1925, and again in 1938. She also ran for a Republican congressional seat in 1926, making her the first Indiana woman to seek U.S. congressional office. White ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress again in 1928, but to no avail. According to historian George T. Blakey, White was the first Hoosier woman to have her name on an official election ballot, before women even had the right to vote, when she ran for a delegate’s seat at the 1920 Republican State Convention.[2] Though White never held elected office, her ambition sent a strong message—that women could and should be recognized as political actors and that, as far as White was concerned, would no longer accept anything less.

Clipping, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, Name of Item, Box #, Folder #, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

While she is probably best known for her work to advance women’s rights, she was also a proponent of racial equality and used her journalistic platform to speak about racial issues in the town of Richmond, Indiana throughout the first half of the 1900s. An active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), White’s opinions on and support of African Americans garnered plenty of scorn and judgment in her small, rural town—especially because she was a single white woman.[3] Never one to care about others’ opinions of her, White used her talent, privilege, and position as a white female journalist to speak out against racial discrimination. Through her editorials and opinion pieces in both The Richmond Palladium and her self-published newspaper, The Little Paper, between 1910 and 1920, White condemned white supremacy and racial discrimination. Though she often wrote antiracist sentiment, on occasion her choice of words and arguments were in themselves racist—as she often touted common assimilationist and segregationist points of view. Through her published articles, we see the ways in which White grappled with her own ingrained and unconscious racism as she worked to be (what we call today) an antiracist in 20th-Century Richmond, Indiana.

Professor of history and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, explains the relationship between antiracist, assimilationist, and segregationist beliefs:

the history of the racialized world is a three-way fight between assimilationists, segregationists, and antiracists. Antiracists ideas are based in the truth that racial groups are equals in all the ways that they are different, assimilationist ideas are rooted in the notion that certain racial groups are culturally or behaviorally superior, and segregationist ideas spring from a belief in genetic racial distinction and fixed hierarchy.[4]

We find representations of each of these ideals, often within the same article, throughout White’s analysis of race. Though we understand that racial inferiority or superiority does not exist—all races are the same and race itself is a construct—we too understand that many people across time, and still today, have used pieces of assimilationist and segregationist ideas in their defense of equal treatment of the races. These racist ideas are so deeply ingrained in our societies that, although plenty of racist people have used them intentionally, plenty of others, like White, who believed in equality between the races, also sometimes unknowingly peddled racist beliefs.[5]

White was, as were some of her well-known contemporaries, engaging in the work to become an antiracist and to communicate antiracist ideas, while also at times touting assimilationist and segregationist ideas, which were prevalent views in terms of race in nineteenth and twentieth century America, and even today. However, highlighting White’s racist tendencies is not to discredit any of the antiracist beliefs she so clearly held—it is simply to be completely transparent about the reality of this type of work and the people engaged in it. She was not a perfect antiracist, but she was trying—she was standing up for what she believed in and, through her journalism, speaking on ideas of racial equality when it was not only unpopular to do so, especially for a woman, but potentially dangerous.

The last years of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century in America saw a rise in violence against African Americans by white supremacists looking to quell any power or rights the group received in the years after the Civil War.[6] The violence emerged, most horrifically, in the form of mob violence and lynchings, many of which were not hidden events done in the dark of the night, but rather public spectacles that often doubled as picnics for families and town folk.[7] Though the majority of lynchings occurred in the South, this barbaric act transcended regional lines and can be found nationwide. Mobs throughout the Hoosier state alone murdered at least sixty-six people between 1858 and 1930, eighteen of whom were African Americans.[8] Black men were not the only targets of lynchings, as Native American, Hispanic, Asian, white people, and women and children too were lynched across the United States.

Esther’s Quaker family (L to R): Winifred White Emory (sister), Mary Caroline Cotton White (mother), Esther Griffin White, undated, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, Letter From Raymond White, box 6, folder 1, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

There were no recorded lynchings in Richmond, perhaps because of its large Quaker community and the anti-slavery beliefs they held.[9] The closest recorded lynching to Richmond occurred in Blountsville, about thirty miles northwest of the city, in February of 1890.[10] However, the possibility of such violence constantly lingered in the minds of Black Americans. These conditions at the turn of the twentieth century prompted Esther Griffin White, as a white, female journalist to speak out against the unjust treatment of African Americans.

In one of her most notable articles pertaining to race, written in her self-published The Little Paper, White expressed disdain for the depiction of African Americans in the blockbuster hit of the early twentieth century, The Birth of a Nation. This controversial film released on February 8, 1915 by D.W. Griffith claimed to represent the Civil War and Reconstruction in America. However, it depicted the Ku Klux Klan as the valiant saviors of the ravaged, post-war South by freed, barbaric Black people. The film was a commercial hit and helped to rekindle the once regional Ku Klux Klan founded in 1865. It depicted freed Black Americans as “uncouth, intellectually inferior and predators of white women.”[11] The Birth of a Nation prompted protests by the NAACP, but they had little impact as the films’ popularity was so wide. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson showed it at the White House, heralding it as “writing history with lightning.”[12]

"The Birth of a Nation" by Esther Griffin White
Clipping from “African American Relations” exhibit, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

While she found the musical score and the general cinematography of the film noteworthy, Esther Griffin White did not share the same fervor over the film as President Wilson and so many other white Americans. In her newspaper review of the film, titled “’The Birth of a Nation’ Insidious Appeal to Race Prejudice, An Insult to Negro Citizens,” White writes that “colored people are justified, without any shadow of doubt, in their protest against the second part of ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” She continued, “the play is merely a dramatization of a novel by a well-known fire-eating Southern writer, who has done more to rake up old scores, to intensify class hatred, to accentuate race antagonism by his lurid pictures of conditions long since passed away than any other one medium in the United States.”[13] Here, we see White expressing contempt for the bestial, racist depiction of Black Americans in the film. She also adds:

The second part of ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ if it were looked upon as picture commentary on a phase of the country’s history, might be interesting. But the presentation is not made for this reason. On the other hand neither is it made for the glorification of a lost cause. Its raison d’etre is not philanthropic nor moral nor historic. But commercial…[it] is a business proposition. To make money for its producers.[14]

White seems to clarify here that she does not believe the film to be historically accurate or looking to start a conversation about the country’s past, but rather inflammatory and insulting to African American citizens: “the Negro citizen of this country was sacrificed to  make a moving picture holiday, so to speak. The glaringness of the sop thrown to them by the scenes at the end . . . is laughable if it were not sardonic.”[15] This review of The Birth of the Nation was certainly not the first, nor the last, public condemnation White would make regarding the treatment of African American citizens in the twentieth century.

In one of her earliest political articles from December 1911 in the Richmond Palladium, White writes about the idea of brotherhood and humanity among all people, and the exclusion of African Americans from those ideals. In her article “Negroes Pay Taxes on Millions,” White writes, “take our colored friends, in instance. ‘Live and let live,’ does not apply to our [white Americans’] attitude toward them. We push them clear outside of the limits and then denounce them if they resent total excommunication.”[16] While it seems here that White is arguing for the indiscriminatory inclusion of African Americans within American society and against segregation, further on in the article she begins arguing for more Black organizations to be formed in Richmond for Black residents, like a “colored” Y.M.C.A. for the “well behaved, educated and ambitious young colored men in this city.”[17] Rather than arguing for inclusion and accessibility, it seems White instead argued for the racist separate but equal doctrine we see come to a head in the 1890s with the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case in response to African American’s push for equal treatment and opportunity under the law.

Clipping, Richmond Palladium, December 6, 1911, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

She continued, “they [Black Americans] are just as much a part of the social, economic and political life of the community as their paler-hued brothers and unless given some consideration will develop into a complicated and puzzling problem. . . . They are citizens of this country just as are the whites.”[18] This perfectly illustrates White’s struggle with the idea of dueling consciousness as it relates to assimilationist and antiracist ideas. At the end of the article, White argues that “there is no use retiring into the fastness of race prejudice and lumping all of the colored people together. There are as many grades and distinctions as there are among the white people.” This comment, as well as many of the other antiracist sentiments White expressed throughout this article, demonstrate her ability to understand and express the antiracist notion that all races are the same—it is individual distinctions that make humans different—distinctions that have nothing to do with the color of their skin. This article, as a whole, demonstrates her own dueling consciousness as a white woman trying to pursue an antiracist mindset and advocating for antiracist policies while also struggling to unlearn deeply rooted racist ideals in the early twentieth century.

The very next month, in January of 1912, White was much more explicit about her views of racism. In her article, while arguing generally for universal gender and racial equality as it pertains to voting and citizenship, White laments:

Why, in instance, “call names.” Why say “niggers,” “dagoes,” “shenies.” Why arrogate yourself a certain superiority because you have a white skin. Who made the “earth and the fullness thereof”? How do you know who got here first? Who are you, anyway? In a few years you will be turned over to the worms who make no distinction between black or white, man or woman, good or bad, educated or uneducated, yellow or red, brown or copper. Neither God nor the worms care what your color may be, your race or your previous condition of servitude. There is nothing so immoral as thinking you are better than anyone else.[19]

In this article, perhaps her most antiracist, White does not allude to any racist or assimilationist ideals. As can be noted in the excerpt above, she completely disdains any ideology that espouses the belief that one’s skin color makes them any different.

Esther Griffin White, undated, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, Esther Griffin White, Box 6, Folder 1, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

Just a few months after the above article, White wrote another piece for the Richmond Palladium titled “It Is True You Can’t Always Tell.” In this article, White builds on her antiracist views and highlights an experience she had a few weeks prior while attending a concert in Richmond. She noted how wonderful the musical act performed by a group of male musicians was and that “they were, indeed, one of the best ‘attractions’ the vaudeville theatre has ever had.” [20] She continued that many of the spectators thought them Italian, as they sang many of their songs in Italian, or perhaps Spanish, because they were dressed as troubadours, but that they were in fact African American. This, White argued, proved that “race prejudice is frequently only a matter of thinking” and that “people were delighted with [the musicians]—not because they were Italians or Spaniards, white Americans or of the Negro race, but because they were superior musicians.”[21]

Here, White is arguing that race prejudice and racism are not logical —they are both only a matter of warped thinking. The musicians were not loved and celebrated because of their prescribed race, but simply because they were talented. White continued, “it is one of life’s famed tragedies that these people should have to masquerade, after a fashion, in order to have their talents appreciated for what they really were.”[22]

Looking back at Esther Griffin White’s life reveals many things about her as a person, which can generally be boiled down to one sentiment: she was unapologetically her own person and used her power, privilege, and platform as a white, middle-class, female journalist to speak out against injustices. Through White’s articles, we clearly see someone trying to process her own ingrained racism while at the same time speaking out against it. That is essentially what happens when engaging in antiracist work. White did not always say or do the right things when it came to her antiracism work, but one can trust in her intentions and hope that she learned from her mistakes. Ultimately, her fearless condemnation of injustice in early-twentieth century Richmond should inspire us all, perhaps now more than ever, to stand up and speak out for what is right, even if it is unpopular.

Notes:

[1] “Suffrage Street Talks Draw Large Audience, Women State Their Purpose,” Richmond Palladium, June 27, 1916, 1, 11, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[2] George T. Blakey, “Esther Griffin White: An Awakener of Hoosier Potential,” Indiana Magazine of History 86, no. 3 (September 1990): 294-299, accessed scholarworks.iu.edu.

[3] Blakey, 286.

[4] Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), 31.

[5] So common was the dance between antiracist and assimilationist ideas for people that well-known Black author and activist W.E.B. Du Bois wrestled with them. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois’ 1903 essay, he expressed the dueling consciousness that demonstrates the fight between assimilationist and antiracist ideas, specifically for Black folk: “One never feels his twoness…an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”[5] Although Du Bois, as a Black man, had disproportionately different experiences than White did as a white woman, we see a similar push and pull between assimilationist and antiracist ideas in his defense of African American’s racial equality that we do in White’s writings.

[6] Michael J. Pfeiffer, Lynching Beyond Dixie: American Mob Violence Outside of the South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 1.

[7] Pfeiffer, 4. The more secretive, hidden lynchings would occur in the latter half of the twentieth century, often carried out by secretive groups like the KKK and often shrouded as “hate crimes” rather than what they were. It was middle-class southerners’ embarrassment at the newfound spotlight anti-lynching activists like Ida B. Wells were putting on the barbaric practice that drove it underground in the mid-twentieth century. In some areas, like the Midwest and West, public lynchings would continue into the mid-twentieth century.

[8] Pfeiffer, 9.

[9] “Early Black Settlements by County,” Research Materials, Indiana Historical Society, accessed indianahistory.org.

[10] Ibid., 1.

[11] Alexis Clark, “How ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Revived the Ku Klux Klan,” History Channel, accessed history.com.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Esther Griffin White, “‘The Birth of a Nation’ Insidious Appeal to Race Prejudice, An Insult to Negro Citizens,” The Little Paper, February 19, 1920, 1, accessed Earlham.edu.

[14] Ibid., 1.

[15] Ibid., 1.

[16] Esther Griffin White, “Negroes Pay Taxes on Millions,” Richmond Palladium, December 6, 1911, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[17] Ibid., 7.

[18] Ibid., 7.

[19] Esther Griffin White, “It Don’t Take Long When You’re a King,” Richmond Palladium, January 24, 1912, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[20] Esther Griffin White, “It Is True You Can’t Always Tell,” Richmond Palladium, February 21, 1912, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[21] Ibid., 6.

[22] Ibid., 6.