THH Episode 45: “I Did Not Walk Alone:” The Civil Rights Work of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Transcript for “I Did Not Walk Alone:” The Civil Rights Work of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Written and Produced by Jill Weiss Simins

[Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Selma and “How long, not long” speech at Montgomery, Alabama. Song “Avinu Malkeinu”performed by Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation Cantor Aviva Marer with organist Dave Strickland]

Justin Clark: On March 7, 1965, white state troopers violently attacked a group of peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama – an event remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” Newspapers across the country ran images of police beating and tear gassing African Americans who had been marching to protest the suppression of Black votes and the recent killing of activists. They did not finish their march that day, nor a few days later when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a group of protestors back to the bridge. They knelt in prayer but dared go no further. That night, March 9, a group of white men killed white Unitarian minister James Reeb who had traveled to Selma from Boston to join King. In response to this violence against Black protesters and their allies, protests erupted across the country.

Dr. King called for religious leaders representing all faiths to join him for a final march – to cross the bridge, journey to Montgomery, scale the steps of the Alabama capitol, and show the segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace and the world that their movement was righteous and unstoppable.

Rabbi Maurice Davis, the spiritual leader of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation and a prominent advocate for civil rights in the city, answered Dr. King’s call.

The Civil Rights Movement was a Black-led and Black-centered struggle for justice, but Jewish Americans made up a disproportionate number of the white activists who joined the campaign. Rabbi Maurice Davis stayed committed to this fight, even in the face of threats to his life. His advocacy stands as an example of how white Hoosiers can be allies for their Black neighbors as they continue the unfinished work of Dr. King and other leaders for Black equality, rights, and power.

I’m Justin Clark, and this is Talking Hoosier History.

It’s worth saying again. Black Americans led the fight for civil rights. Some Jewish Americans joined their fight. Many did not. The story of Jewish contributions to the Civil Rights Movement has sometimes been inaccurately told with a sort of “white savior” narrative. This inaccurate framing detracts from the lessons we can learn from the intersection of Black and Jewish civil rights work about allyship and about the strength of interfaith work for equality.

First of all, not all Jews are white. There is a severe lack of scholarship on how Jews of color interacted with the Civil Rights movement, but primary sources show that their struggles for rights were mainly taking place at a local level. Newspaper research shows that in the 1960s, Black Jews were struggling to be seen and accepted by the rest of their Jewish community, demanding access to the resources provided by Jewish organizations. More historical research is needed in this area.

Second, the “whiteness” of Jewish Americans, even of European descent, was conditional. They were tolerated by their white, Christian neighbors, as long as they did not draw attention to their differences or interfere with the Jim Crow social order and laws. And Jews were kept from positions of prestige or power in many cases. In the South, where they made up only one percent of the population, few Jews joined the Civil Rights movement initially. As Northern Jews increasingly spoke out against segregation in the 1950s and some Southern rabbis added their voices to the integration effort, the Ku Klux Klan retaliated. Synagogues were bombed in Atlanta, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Miami, while unexploded devices were discovered in several others.

Northern Jews had built larger communities with more secure relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors and had gained more political and economic power. Thus, they joined the movement in greater numbers. In Indianapolis, the NAACP and the Jewish Community Relations Council (or JCRC) began working together as early as 1948 to desegregate a local movie theater. By the 1950s, prominent Black leaders like Attorneys Henry Richardson and Willard Ransom called on the JCRC to join the campaign against school segregation and employment discrimination – an area where Jewish Hoosiers were also impacted, though to a significantly lesser extent. And by the late 1950s, the JCRC also joined the fight for open housing – that is, suitable housing for Black Hoosiers in non-segregated neighborhoods. Again, Black organizations like the NAACP, led these struggles, but Jewish leaders and organizations joined the fight at their behest. While there were certainly moments of tension or misunderstanding, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Black leaders called upon the Jewish community and appreciated their support – likely in part because Jewish activists deferred to Black leadership.

So why did Jews join the movement in greater numbers than other groups?

[Song “Sim Shalom” performed by IHC Cantor Aviva Marer and pianist Alex Pryrodny]

For some, the call was faith-based. The Jewish concept of tzedakah, which is Hebrew for “righteousness,” but refers to the moral obligation to helping those in need, is a central belief. So is the concept of tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for “repairing the world” and calls on Jews to work for social justice. Others became involved in the Civil Rights struggle as a natural progression of the largely liberal political ideology of many Northern Jews, who were overwhelmingly Democrat. Some became involved because they were still struggling for their own equal rights, though to a much lesser extent than Black Americans. The lessons of the Holocaust also drove home the link between intolerance and violence. Many Jews saw a general strengthening of the laws protecting minority rights as something that also protected the Jewish community. For most, it was probably a combination of these motivations.

Rabbi Maurice Davis entered the fight for civil rights by the early 1950s in Lexington, Kentucky, where he served as Rabbi of the Adath Israel Congregation. There he worked for the desegregation of schools and universities, addressing meetings and rallies, issuing public statements, and generally speaking truth to power. In 1954, he railed against segregation on public transport and in schools, as well as discrimination in employment and housing. Calling out white privilege, Rabbi Davis stated:

Rabbi Brett Krichiver: “The truth is that equality of opportunity is the inalienable right of the Negro as well as the white . . . We have perpetuated an evil in our land because certain financial advantages accrue from it.”

Clark: Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1921, Rabbi Davis earned his Master of Hebrew Letters from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and served as a student rabbi, before accepting the Lexington appointment in 1951. During this tenure, he rose to prominent positions in regional and national Jewish organizations such as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, making him an ideal leader for a large synagogue like the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, or IHC.

In March, 1956, Rabbi Maurice Davis became the spiritual leader of the IHC, arriving in time to celebrate the centennial of its founding in 1856. Over 600 families made up the congregation, which was in the process of planning its new temple at 64th and Meridian, still the location of the IHC today. As the new IHC Rabbi, Davis would continue to advance the forward-thinking Reform Judaism of his predecessors.

While the IHC welcomed Rabbi Davis, other Hoosiers made the Davis family feel [quote] “something less than welcome.” In 1959, the Jewish Post reported that his son Jay was denied entry to the Riviera Club‘s swimming pool on North Illinois Street. The Rabbi told his congregation that Jay unfortunately learned first about the club’s “wonderful slide” and then its anti-Semitic policies. Jay summarized the situation as only a child could, stating: “Gee whiz, dad, it isn’t fair.” The Rabbi then had to explain the difference between legal segregation and social segregation to his son.

Rabbi Davis responded to discrimination not only when it was personal. He believed that it was his duty, and that of all religious leaders, to work for moral justice. Not all of his Jewish colleagues agreed. Two of Indianapolis’s leading rabbis told the Jewish Post that clergy should keep out of politics. Rabbi Davis, on the other hand, said it was the responsibility of leadership to help inform members on political issues, to encourage them to be active participants in government, and to [quote] “speak up whenever morality or ethics are involved in politics.”

In 1959, Rabbi Davis helped revitalize the Indianapolis Human Relations Council, made up of interfaith religious leaders and representatives from the NAACP, Indiana Civil Liberties Union, local philanthropic groups, and government agencies. Their agenda included addressing discrimination in housing, education, employment, law enforcement, and health care. He soon became the council president and focused much of his work on ending racist mortgage and loan policies that denied fair housing to African Americans and helped create segregated neighborhoods.

In 1960, the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP named Davis “honorary chairman,” a leadership position serving under the African American NAACP president, Rev H. L. Burton. The Indianapolis Recorder reported regularly on Rabbi Davis’s efforts to fight segregation and inequality through these organizations.

By 1962, he had a regular Jewish Post newspaper column in which he shared his views on issues of the day and advocated for civil rights. His columns were often fiery calls to action. He told his readers:

Krichiver: “ . . . this land of ours is the land of all of ours. It does not belong first of all, or most of all, to any special segment of the population. It is not the private domain of any group by right of inheritance, or color of skin, or ‘manifest destiny.’ America is a multi-racial, multi-religious nation, and we Jews above all others ought to know this, applaud this, support this, and defend this.”

Clark: In September 1963, he used his column to respond to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Alabama where four African American children were killed “while putting on their choir robes.” Rabbi Davis, however, blamed not just the bomber and not just the racism and negligence of the governor and police chief, but [quote] “every American citizen who participates in prejudice or fails to oppose it.” His powerful argument against injustice was shaped by the legacy of the Holocaust. He continued:

Krichiver: “Segregation and discrimination lead to bombing and lynching as surely as anti-Semitism leads to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. And any man who walks that path, has not the right to be amazed where it leads. We who know the end of the road, must say this openly, and believe this implicitly, and practice it publicly. And privately. And always.”

Clark: Not long after his article on the bombing, Rabbi Maurice Davis would receive a bomb threat of his own.

By 1965, the Civil Rights movement had reached its “political and emotional peak” with the police attacks on peaceful Black protestors. That “Bloody Sunday” in Selma included the brutal beating of civil rights leader, and future U.S. Representative John Lewis. When Dr. King issued his call to religious leaders to join him for a march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965, Rabbi Maurice Davis answered.

When David H. Goldstein of the Indianapolis JCRC and Rabbi Davis arrived in Selma, Alabama, they joined thousands of other activists at Brown Chapel AME Church for a ceremony before the march. Davis described their arrival:

Krichiver: “As we approached Selma we saw the Army begin to position itself. Jeeps and trucks filled with soldiers, hospital units, and communications experts clustered along the way . . . The road leading to the church was lined with National Guardsmen, recently federalized.”

Clark: While President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered National Guard protection for the marchers to avoid a repeat of “Bloody Sunday” and its ensuing protests, the atmosphere was still tense. Goldstein and Rabbi Davis met with rabbis and Jewish leaders who had arrived before them. These rabbis explained that they had been unable to buy a meal or place to stay  . . . because Black Selma residents insisted on giving the Jewish activists whatever they needed.

Goldstein and Rabbi Davis also looked to find out from these rabbis where they could get kippahs or yarmulkes, a traditional Jewish head covering and religious symbol. A shipment was supposed to have recently arrived for the Jewish activists to wear during the march. Organizers wanted Jewish demonstrators from all branches of the faith to be clearly visible as a show of support and numbers. They told them, “It is our answer to the clerical collar.” However, Goldstein and Rabbi Davis had trouble finding one. They soon learned why.

Two days earlier, five rabbis were jailed for taking part in demonstrations. After holding Shabbat services behind bars on Friday, they announced they would hold another service in front of the Brown Chapel after their release on Saturday. According to the Jewish Post, [quote] “Over 600 Negroes and whites, Jewish and non-Jews joined in the impromptu Havdalah services for one of the most unique of its kind in history.”

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, those in attendance, regardless of their faith, donned yarmulkes “in respectful emulation of rabbis who participated in demonstrations.” In Selma, they became known as “freedom caps.” Davis reported:

Krichiver: All the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them . . . That is where all the yarmelkes went!”

[Song “Sim Shalom”]

Clark: Dr. King entered the chapel at 10:45 a.m. Sunday. Rabbi Davis was asked if he would represent the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. When he agreed, he was pulled up onto the platform next to King during the reverend’s sermon. He explained:

Krichiver: “Nothing but the word ‘magic’ can quite describe what it is he does to so many. When King speaks, you are not an audience. You are participants. And when he finished we were ready to march.”

Clark: The thousands of demonstrators were organized into rows, with the first three rows chosen by Dr. King. Rabbi Davis stated:

Krichiver: “Before the march began a list of 20 names were read to accompany Rev. King in the first three rows, and my name was one of them. I marched proudly at the front . . .”

Clark: A now-famous picture captured this moment. Wearing garlands of flowers and linking arms, Dr. King, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunch, and Civil Rights activist and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Heschel make up the center group of the front row with Rabbi Davis’s smiling face just behind Dr. King in the second row. He described the scene:

Krichiver: “On the street we formed three rows of eight, locked our arms together, and started to march. Behind us the thousands began to follow.”

Clark: When they arrived at the infamous bridge, they paused to remember those who came before them and had been attacked by the state police. The interfaith march continued onto the highway. The road was lined with armed National Guardsmen, and five helicopters circled the group. State troopers took pictures of the marchers. Rabbi Davis explained:

Krichiver: “This is an Alabama form of intimidation. I kept remembering that these were the same state troopers who two weeks earlier had ridden mercilessly into a defenseless mass of people . . . We kept on marching.”

Clark: The marchers passed people who “waved, wept, prayed, and shouted out words of encouragement” and others, “whites who taunted, jeered, cursed” or “stood with stark amazement at this incredible sight.” At one point they passed a car painted with hateful signs “taunting even the death of Reverend Reeb.” Other signs read “Dirty communist clergy go home” and “Integrationist scum stay away.”

Rabbi Davis marched for twelve hours without sitting down or eating. Unfortunately, he did not get to finish the march. Instead, he was called to fly to Cincinnati that night to be with his father-in-law who had been admitted to the hospital with a serious illness. When Rabbi Davis finally returned to Indianapolis, he was welcomed with a threatening phone call.

When he answered his phone Monday night at 11:00, an anonymous man asked if he was “the rabbi who went to Selma.” When Rabbi Davis answered affirmatively, the voice continued: “Let me check this list again . . . You are No. 2 in Indianapolis.” The implication was that Rabbi Davis was the second on a hit list of activists. He told the caller he was contacting the police, but the man replied: “It won’t do any good to call the police . . . it’ll be too late when it goes off.”

Police searched the house and found no explosives.  But the calls continued. On Tuesday, Rabbi Davis took the phone off the hook at 2 A.M. so the family could sleep. Letters arrived as well, full of “unbelievable filth, ugly statements,” and intimate knowledge of his larger civil rights work.

Rabbi Davis stated vaguely that he was required to take “protective measures” to ensure his family’s safety. The rabbi did not expound at the time, but later his children recalled that they had a so-called “babysitter” who carried a .45-caliber revolver under his jacket. From his statements to the press, it seemed the Rabbi was most hurt that the threats were likely coming from fellow Hoosiers. He told the Jewish Post:

Krichiver: “Monday night my life was threatened. Not in Selma. Not in Montgomery. Not in Atlanta. In Indianapolis.”

Clark: Like Dr. King, Rabbi Davis did not dwell on the darkness of humanity but used it as a chance to shine a light of hope on the potential of his fellow man. Just days after the threats on his family, the Jewish Post published a section of a sermon in which Davis explained why he felt called to join King in Selma. Davis stated that many people had asked him why he went. And he had trouble at first finding the right words. He liked the Christian term of “witnessing,” that is, seeing God in an event. He also liked the Hebrew term that Rabbi Abraham Heschel used: “kiddush ha-Shem,” that is, sanctifying God’s name. But in his personable manner, he ended up giving a simpler explanation to the Post:

Krichiver: “I know now what I was doing in Selma, Alabama. I was worshiping God. I was doing it on U.S. 80, along with 6,000 others who were doing precisely the same thing, in 6,000 different ways.”

Clark: He stated humbly:

Krichiver: “Last Sunday I went for a walk . . . I did not walk alone.”

He called others to join him in the larger march for civil rights. He referred to injustices that needed to still be righted in order to unite all of humanity as a “brotherhood postponed” and tasked his followers with making sure that while such unity is delayed, it is not destroyed. The way to achieve justice was not only to pray, but to act. He wrote:

 Krichiver: “Brotherhood postponed. The time has come, and it has been a long time coming. The time has come to worship with our lives as with our lips, in the streets as in the sanctuaries. And we who dare to call God, God, must begin to learn the challenge which that word contains. ‘One God over all’ has to mean ‘one brotherhood over all.’”

Clark: Rabbi Davis continued to work for civil rights in Indianapolis. He held leadership positions with the NAACP, the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights, Community Action Against Poverty, and the Indianapolis Council of Human Relations.

He never forgot his march with Dr. King. In 1986, he reflected in the pages of the Jewish Post about a first for the country, the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day – a new federal holiday incidentally created through a bill authored by Black Indiana legislator Katie Hall. Rabbi Davis recalled:

Krichiver: “The first national observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. I hear them say the words, pronounce the name, and in the twinkling of an eye I am suddenly in Selma, Alabama with some 80,000 other people; Jews, and Protestants, and Catholics, and atheists, and agnostics . . . We were there because of a man whom we admired as much as we loved, and whom we loved as much as we admired. We were there because he was there. And he was there because it was right.”

Clark: Today, of course, Dr. King’s work for equal rights for Black Americans remains unfinished. Over the past year, many white Americans woke up to the violent realities of being Black in the United States and added their voices to the recent protest movements. Advocates such as Dr. Uzodinma Iweala, author and CEO of the Africa Center in Brookyln, stress the crucial role of white allies, as long as the work remains centered on “the importance of respecting and supporting Black people.” White privilege gives white Americans the ability to enter spaces of power and decision-making that are closed to Black Americans. Therefore, advocates stress that white individuals have a responsibility to recognize that privilege and use it to demand equality for their Black neighbors. Silence is complicity.

Writing for The Root, Janée Woods Weber, a social justice advocate and host of the podcast Driving the Green Book, explains that there are right and wrong ways to be a white ally to Black equality movements.  Woods explains that to become an effective white ally, you should first research the history of Black oppression in your community. Know the stories of anti-Black violence and the link between economic disparity and prejudice. Do the work to educate yourself on the issues. Do not put the onerous on Black educators, friends, or colleagues who have known about and experienced prejudice their entire lives. Woods explains:

“People of color cannot and should not shoulder the burden for dismantling the racist, white-supremacist system that devalues and criminalizes black life without the all-in support, blood, sweat and tears of white people. If you are not already a white ally, now is the time to become one.”

Potential allies can look to the lessons left to us by Rabbi Davis and other white Americans who effectively served the civil rights cause. Rabbi Davis demanded accountability from his own community and called on other white Jews to join the effort – making them see social justice as a core part of being Jewish. Rabbi Davis also deferred to Black leaders and their goals, putting his efforts where Black leaders identified problems and answering Dr. King’s call for aid from white allies. Most important, Rabbi Davis not only spoke against racism and discrimination; he took action. He was even willing to risk his life – something Black activists did every time they marched.

Today, much of the work for social justice and advocacy in the Jewish community is being led by Jews of Color. During a webinar organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which can be accessed through the Jews of Color Initiative website, teacher, writer, nonprofit CEO, and advocate Yavilah McCoy calls on white allies to ask themselves: “What am I willing to give up? What am I able to learn, and what am I willing to contribute to halt the perpetuation of racism and white supremacy in this country?” She and other Jews of Color are asking white allies, especially white Jewish allies, to be a part of doing the work to “reallocate and reapportion” power, privilege, and resources to create equality. White allies can look to such voices in their community telling them how to help.  And like Rabbi Davis found, if you’re willing to go for that walk, you will not walk alone.

[End of “Avinu Malkeinu”]

Once again, I’m Justin Clark and this has been Talking Hoosier History.

Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. To view the historical sources, a full transcript, and links to the websites and articles mentioned in this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top.

This episode of Talking Hoosier History was researched and written by IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins. Production and sound engineering also by Jill Weiss Simins. A special thanks to Rabbi Brett Krichiver, senior rabbi at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, for bringing the words of his predecessor to life. You may have noticed that two songs performed in Hebrew stand out in this episode. Both were sung by talented IHC Cantor Aviva Marer. The first, Avinu Malkeinu, was written by Max Janowski. Cantor Aviva recorded at Central Synagogue in NYC with organist and music director Dave Strickland. The second, an arrangement of a traditional folk song called Sim Shalom, was arranged by Bonia Shur and the cantor was accompanied by pianist Alex Pryrodny.

We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice. 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.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes

Jill Weiss Simins, “Walking with Dr. King: The Civil Rights Legacy of Rabbi Maurice Davis, accessed Indiana History Blog.

Krista Kinslow, “The Road to Freedom Is Long and Winding: Jewish Involvement in the Indianapolis Civil Rights Movement,” Indiana Magazine of History 108, No. 1 (March 2012): 1-34, accessed JSTOR.

Howard Sachar, “Jews in the Civil Rights Movement,” A History of Jews in America, accessed  My Jewish Learning.

“Jewish Views on Civil Rights,” accessed Reform Judaism.

Janée Woods Weber, “12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People,” The Root, August 19, 2014, accessed https://www.theroot.com/12-ways-to-be-a-white-ally-to-black-people-1790876784.

Scott Simon Interview with Uzodinma Iweala, “How White People Can Advocate for the Black Lives Matter Movement,” Weekend Edition, July 11, 2020, accessed npr.org.

Music Credits

Re-centering the Potawatomi at Sycamore Row Part One

Photograph by Chris Light, accessed Wikipedia.

This is Part One of a two-part post. Part One examines why IHB and local partners chose to refocus the text of a new historical marker to Sycamore Row in Carroll County that replaces a damaged 1963 marker. Instead of focusing on the unverifiable legends surrounding the row of sycamores lining the Old Michigan Road, this new marker centers the persecution and removal of the Potawatomi to make way for that road and further white settlement. Part Two will look in depth at the persecution of the this indigenous group by the U.S. government as well as the resistance and continued “survivance” of the Potawatomi people.*

What’s in a Legend?

The sycamore trees lining the Old Michigan Road have long been the subject of much curiosity and folklore in Carroll County. But there is a story here of even greater historical significance – the removal and resistance of the Potawatomi. While the trees will likely continue to be the subject that brings people to this marker, IHB hopes to recenter the Potawatomi in the story. (To skip right to the story of the Potawatomi, go to Part Two of this post, available April 2021).

Folklore is a tricky area for historians. The sources for these stories are often lost, making it difficult to determine the historical accuracy of the tale. But historians shouldn’t ignore folklore either. Local stories of unknown origin can point to greater truths about a community. It becomes less important to know exactly if something really happened and more significant to know why the community remembers that it did.

Folklore is both a mirror and a tool. It can reflect the values of the community and serve to effect change. Folklore surrounding “Sycamore Row” in Carroll County does both of these things. Continuing local investment in this row of trees reflects a community that values its early history. At the same time, these trees have served as a preservation tool bringing this community together time and time again for the sake of saving a small piece of Indiana’s story.

These are the big ideas around folklore, but what about searching for the facts behind the stories? In the case of Sycamore Row, digging into the events that we can document only makes the story more interesting and inclusive. And it gives us the opportunity to reexamine the central role of the Potawatomi in this history and return it to the landscape in a small way.

Sycamore Row

Sycamore Row Historical Marker, Indiana Historical Bureau, accessed Carroll County Indiana.

In 1963, the Indiana Historical Bureau placed a marker for “Sycamore Row” on State Road 29, formerly the Old Michigan Road. The 1963 marker read:

This row of sycamores sprouted from freshly cut logs used in the 1830’s to corduroy a swampy section of the historic Michigan Road, the first state road in Indiana, running from Madison to Michigan City.

IHB historians of the 1960s presented this theory on the origin of the sycamores as fact. Today, IHB requires primary documentation for all marker statements. While there are secondary sources (sources created after the event in question), there are no reliable primary sources for this statement. In fact, we don’t know where the trees came from. Local legend purports that saplings sprang from the logs used to lay the “corduroy” base when the dirt road was planked in the 1850s. There is evidence that sycamores were used on this section of the road. During road construction in the 1930s, the Logansport Press reported that workers discovered sycamore logs under the road near the famous Fouts farm. And it is possible that some saplings could have grown on their own, though it’s unlikely they sprouted from the logs. Local historian Bonnie Maxwell asked several experts for their take. One Indiana forester wrote that it was more likely that the trees sprouted from seeds that took root in the freshly dug furrows next to the road. Others noted that even if the trees sprouted as the legend claims, they would not be the same trees we see today, as they are not large enough have sprouted in the early 19th century. Other theories have been posited as well, including one from a 1921 Logansport-Pharos article claiming that the trees were planted to protect the creek bank during road construction in the 1870s. Regardless, we know from Carroll County residents that there have been sycamores along that stretch of road for as long as anyone can remember. It matters less to know where the trees came from and more to know why they have been preserved in memory and in the landscape. [1]

Preservation and Community Building

The ongoing preservation and stewardship of Sycamore Row tells us that local residents care about the history of their community. The trees provide a tangible way of caring for that history. To that end, Carroll County residents have joined together many times over the years to protect the sycamores.

In the 1920s, the Michigan Road section at Sycamore Row became State Road 29 and some of the trees were removed during paving. Starting in the 1930s, road improvements planned by the state highway department threatened the sycamores again, but this time local residents acted quickly. In November 1939, the Logansport Pharos-Tribune reported that Second District American Legion commander Louis Kern organized opposition to a state highway department plan to remove 19 sycamores in order to widen the road. Local residents joined the protest and the state highway commission agreed to spare all but five of the 127 sycamore trees during the highway expansion. [2]

By the 1940s, newspapers reported on the dangerous and narrow stretch of road between the sycamores where several accidents had occurred. By the 1960s, local school officials worried about school busses safely passing other cars and trucks on the stretch and proposed cutting down the trees to widen the road. In 1963, Governor Matthew Walsh issued an order to halt the planned removal of sixty-six of the sycamores and the state highway department planted twenty new trees. Many still called for a safer, wider road and the local controversy continued. [3]

In 1969, officials from the school board and the Carroll County Historical Society (CCHS) met to discuss options for improving driving conditions, weighing this need against the historical significance of the sycamores. Meanwhile, the state highway department continued planning to widen the road, a plan that would have required cutting down the trees. The CCHS staunchly opposed removing the sycamores and organized support for its efforts. The organization worked for over a decade to save Sycamore Row, petitioning lawmakers and gaining the support of Governor Edgar Whitcomb. Carroll County residents signed petitions and spoke out at public meetings with the state highways commission. Ultimately, in 1983, the state highway department announced its plan to reroute SR 29 around the sycamores. This grass roots effort, focused on preserving local history, had prevailed even over the needs of modernization. Construction on the new route began in 1987. The Logansport Pharos-Tribune reported that residents then began using the section of the Old Michigan Road to go down to the bank of the creek and fish. [4]

“Friends of CC Parks Plant Sycamore Trees,” Carroll County Comet, January 4, 2021, accessed Carroll County Comet.

In 2012 the Friends of Carroll County Parks took over stewardship of Sycamore Row and began planting new sycamore saplings the following year. In 2020 they planted even larger sycamores to preserve the legacy for future generations. They also took over the care of the 1963 historical marker, repainting it for the bicentennial. In late 2020, the marker was damaged beyond repair and had to be removed. This opened up an opportunity for IHB, the Friends, and the CCHS to place a new two-sided historical marker. The marker process  is driven by applicants, either individuals or community organizations, and then IHB works with those partners, providing primary research to help tell their stories. We work together, sharing authority. These Carroll County organizations still want to tell the story of the sycamores, but recognize that there is complex history beyond the legends.

Re-centering the Potawatomi

IHB and local partners are using the extra space on the double-sided marker to include the Potawatomi in the story of Sycamore Row. While there is no way we can give the history of these indigenous peoples in all its complexity in the short space provided on a marker, we can make sure it is more central. After all, the story of the genocide, removal, and resistance of the Potawatomi to settler colonialism is part of the story of Indiana.

Some people have a negative view of this kind of reevaluation of sources and apply the label “revisionist” to historians updating the interpretation of an old story. However, “historians view the constant search for new perspectives as the lifeblood of historical understanding,” according to author, historian, and Columbia professor Eric Foner. [5] As we find new sources and include more diverse views, our interpretation changes. It becomes more complex, but also more accurate. And while there is a temptation to view history as a set of facts, or just as “what happened,” it is always interpretive. For instance, the act of deciding what story does or does not make it onto a historical marker is an act of interpretation. When IHB omits the Native American perspective from a historical marker we present a version of history that begins with white settlement. It might be simpler but its not accurate. There were already people on this land, people with a deep and impactful history. When historians and communities include indigenous stories, they present a version of Indiana history that is more complex and has a darker side. This inclusion reminds us that Indiana was settled not only through the efforts and perseverance of the Black and white settlers who cleared the forests, established farms, and cut roads through the landscape. It was also settled through the removal and genocide of native peoples. Both things are true. Both are Indiana history.

With this in mind, the new two-sided marker at Sycamore Row will read:

The sycamores here line the sides of the Michigan Road, which connected the Ohio River with Lake Michigan and further opened Indiana for white settlement and trade. Under intense military and economic pressure, Potawatomi leaders ceded the land for the road in 1826. John Tipton, one of the U.S. agents who negotiated this treaty, purchased the land here in 1831. 

The state began work on the road in the 1830s. While there are several theories on how the trees came to be here, their origin is uncertain. By the 1930s, road improvements threatened the trees, but residents organized to preserve them over the following decades. In 1983, the Carroll County Historical Society petitioned to reroute the highway and saved Sycamore Row. 

Of course, this does little more than hint at the complex history of the Potawatomi. Markers can only serve as the starting point for any story, and so, IHB uses our website, blog, and podcast to explore further. In Part Two of this post, we will take an in-depth look at the persecution of the Potawatomi to make way for the Michigan Road, their resistance to unjust treaty-making, their removal and genocide as perpetuated by the U.S. government, and the continued “survivance” of the Potawatomi people today in the face of all of this injustice.

*”Survivance” is a term coined by White Earth Ojibwe scholar Gerald Vizenor to explain that indigenous people survived and resisted white colonization and genocide and continue as a people to this day. Theirs is not a history of decline. Their work preserving and forwarding their culture, traditions, language, religions, and struggle for rights and land continues.

Notes

Special thanks to Bonnie Maxwell of the Friends of Carroll County Parks for sharing her newspaper research. Newspaper articles cited here are courtesy of Maxwell unless otherwise noted. Copies are available in the IHB marker file.

[1] “Trees Half Century Old Still Stand,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, May 14, 1921.; “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 8, 1939.; “Deer Creek Road Corduroy Found at Taylor Fouts Place,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, September 1, 1939.; Correspondence between Bonnie Maxwell, Joe O’Donnell, Tim Eizinger, and Lenny Farlee, submitted to IHB December 28, 2020, copy in IHB file.

[2] “Second State Road to Come in for Paving,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, November 13, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 8, 1939.

[3] “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 8, 1939.; “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared by State,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 16, 1939.; “Halt Cutting of Sycamores Along Route 29,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, March 18, 1963.; “Governor Save 66 Sycamores,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, March 19, 1963.; “Sycamores to Get Historical Marker,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, April 4, 1963.; “Plant More Sycamores on Road 29,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, April 4, 1963.

[4] “Historical Society Hears Research Report,” Hoosier Democrat, December 3, 1970.; Letter to the Editor, Hoosier Democrat, November 25, 1971.; Carroll County Comet, November 7, 1979.; Dennis McCouch, “Save the Sycamores” Carroll County Comet, November 7, 1979.; “Sycamore Row Petitions,” Carroll County Comet, January 16, 1980.; Von Roebuck, “Carroll County Landmarks to Remain Intact,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 1, 1983.; “Bridge Work to Cause Deer Creek Detour,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, June 7, 1987.

[5] Eric Foner, Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), xvi.

THH Episode 44: Giving Voice: Karen Freeman-Wilson

* Transcribed by Benjamin Baumann

Nicole Poletika: I’m Nicole Poletika filling in for host Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.

On today’s installment of Giving Voice, I have the pleasure of speaking with Karen Freeman-Wilson, who served as Mayor of Gary, Indiana from 2012 to 2019. And is currently President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. A Harvard Law School Graduate, Freeman-Wilson has had a prolific career, which includes serving as Indiana Attorney General. She has sought to advance social justice, as a Chairperson of the Criminal and Social Justice Committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and as Director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. If you haven’t already listened to our latest episode, which covered the 1972 National Black Political Convention, I suggest you do so now, as we reference it during our conversation.

In this episode we discuss how the 1972 Convention impacted Freeman-Wilson, as well as Gary’s legacy of black political empowerment, modern activism, and how black women can get a seat at the political table.

And now, Giving Voice.

Poletika: Well, I’m here today with Karen Freeman-Wilson former Mayor of Gary, Indiana and current President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. Um, were really excited to have you here Karen, thank you so much for joining us.

Karen Freeman-Wilson: I’m excited to join you.

Poletika: So I know you grew up in Gary and as a small child you recall uh Richard Hatcher’s exciting mayoral election in 1967, and you remember the 1972 National Black Political Convention. So I know the historical record is missing recollections from local residents of the convention, so I was hoping you could tell us what you remember from the convention and how it shaped your personally or professionally or both.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely, I was 12 at the time and it was exciting to know that a National Convention was coming to Gary, Indiana. It was the talk of the town, uh people had a sense of pride that not only it was a national convening, but it was a convening of black people and because Gary only had one hotel at the time, a number of the people stayed in the homes of Gary residents. And we were able to host someone in our home. So, what I recall was the fact that they were convening to talk about an agenda and it seems odd for a 12 year old to remember that, but because I was an only child I found myself in a lot of rooms where adults were. And so, you know of course you just pay attention to what they are talking about and they were talking about black political agenda. Westside was a newly built school at that time and so it was a source of pride as well and so the fact that they were going to Westside, I remember seeing the signs from each state. So, you saw that people from all over the country were in the Westside gymnasium. There were people that you saw on television, of course Shirley Chisholm was there and she was someone that everyone took pride in. We knew that she was someone running for um President…John Conyers at that time was the Congressman from Detroit and you would occasionally see him on television, and one of the figures that everyone knew, even though he was just over in Chicago was uh Reverend Jesse Jackson. So, with all of those folks coming to Gary, talking about a Black agenda and really engendering a sense of pride in Gary residents that this subject matter, which was very important that was very weighty, and was all being led by our mayor, Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher. Who was of course a source of pride for us locally and nationally, uh it was a big deal.

Poletika: Yeah, um and I remember he said that like you mentioned there was only one hotel so people stayed with residents, um and he said that some of the locals actually made life long friendships with the people that came in from outta town. Did you have that experience with the people that you hosted?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, to be honest my mom and dad had most of the interaction with them. So, I can’t even…I remember they were from Detroit, but beyond that I don’t remember much about them. I do know that there was at least one or two times because we were regular travelers to Detroit, because of relatives that my mom communicated with them. So, yes um there were friendships that came out of that and even from folks who were younger and who were activists, they were able to come together around subsequent convenings not the magnitude of that, but certainly subsequent convenings. And an interesting thing happened when we had sort of this convening, I believed it was back in 17 the 45th anniversary I believe. And people who had been here came back and they talked about it so that was uh real source of pride and interest for Gary residents who had gotten older, but who still remembered.

Poletika: Right, and you would have been mayor at that time.

Freeman-Wilson: Yes, I was the mayor at that time.

Poletika: Wow, that’s full circle.

Freeman-Wilson: It was.

Poletika: When the convention was here, were you in close proximity to the delegates? Did you get to actually observe any of the caucuses, in there kind of brainstorming?

Freeman-Wilson: I did not. Again, I went to Westside during the convention once to kind of see the general session, but I never had an opportunity to share with the caucuses at that time.

Poletika: You got to kind of be around the thinking though and.

Freeman-Wilson: Yeah, it was uh…you know it was a lot of energy in the room. Of course, um there were a lot of people there and they were sharing their ideas. I heard the speeches. Uh I remember, hearing Jesse Jackson speech, he was young so as a 12-year-old, you’re always gravitating around those folks who were closer to your age and that was always something that was exciting to see and hear from him.

Poletika: I bet and I know um, some people have kind of said that he was made in the convention with that speech so.

Freeman-Wilson: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. You know of course he was a um, an associate of Dr. King and after Dr. King’s passing. He was known because of operation breadbasket in Chicago, but I think he took the national stage in a significant way during that convention.

Poletika: So you, are a trail blazer yourself, um having been elected Gary’s first female mayor in 2012. And I know that black women were largely excluded from organizing the uh ’72 convention and um we had just talked about Shirley Chisholm. Uh I know some African Americans just refused to endorse her, because she was a woman.

Freeman-Wilson: Yes, that is correct.

Poletika: And it can be argued that women have more political influence than ever before, but in your opinion what uh obstacles do black women still face and how can they get a seat at the table?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, you know that’s an interesting question about the political influence of black women, because you’re right to the extent that we constitute the um workers and campaigns, and we are certainly reliable in terms of a source of a voting block and to ensure that people go to the poles. Uh when it comes to thinking about who will run for office, who will be the representative, even though black women are more than capable uh we often are looked over or are pushed aside. In favor of black men. And um, I don’t think its either or, it has to be both and, but very often there is more sexism in politics than there is racism.

Poletika: Interesting, yeah and I think Stacey Abrams is a good example of that and she came so close to holding office but didn’t quite get there.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely.

Poletika: Do you have any advice for those wanting to get a seat at the table?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I certainly uh would encourage folks to continue to be engaged and be involved and you should not concede the fact that you won’t get a seat at the table, you can take a seat at the table. You have to work a little harder, fight a little harder, and push and be aggressive, but don’t mistake being emphatic and uh being focused, with being uh aggressive or pushy, which is something they always want to hang on women. But, I think that people need our representation, they need our voice. And certainly, the folks that we are representing need to have us in that room. So, its important that we, ensure that we get a seat at the table.

Poletika: Dr. Peniel Joseph described the convention as quote: “The most important political, cultural, and intellectual gathering of the black power era.” And it seems to me that Gary’s legacy of this black political empowerment is often kind of dropped from the narrative, which is unfortunate. So how do you envision Gary’s future in terms of political or socio-economic parody for black residents?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I think that it is important to remember Gary’s role in the black power movement. In the narrative of that day about self-determination, as a result of the Gary convention you got Maynard Jackson in Atlanta. You got Wellington Webb in Denver, Colorado. You got uh, so many black mayors who were the first black mayors in their communities. And that led to economic empowerment in those communities. I think the challenge for Gary was that there was so much pushback on the political power that was gained by Mayor Hatcher and that was in many parts because Indiana had such a history of segregation and racism that people immediately reacted to his election in Gary in a negative way. Before he had an opportunity to lead and to govern there were folks who were making plans to not only leave town, but incorporate a city that was indirect contradiction of the existing Indiana law and that was Merrillville on the Gary border. And so, incorporate a town, because there was a law at the time that said that no town could be incorporated within 3 miles of a second-class city. There was a buffer zone. And uh not withstanding that fact you had legislation that was passed in the general assembly ironically in uh 1972 that allowed Merrillville to incorporate and as a result you saw growth in Merrillville, because that accelerated white flight. And so, as a result of that occurrence, Gary’s economic downturn was accelerated and that became Gary’s legacy unfortunately. I think now, there’s an opportunity to develop and create a new narrative uh from Gary because of the partnership that we were able to develop with the existing governor in Indianapolis and that Mayor Prince is continuing. I think there is also an opportunity because we were able to lay groundwork under the Obama Administration that can now be continued under the Biden Administration.

Poletika: Hmm, interesting point. And I know uh Mayor Hatcher had a city council that was in opposition to him and kind of blocked him.

Freeman-Wilson: Early on he did. Uh by the 2nd or 3rd term he was able to get things done. A lot of the development infrastructure, when you look at the Genesis Convention center that was built then. When you look at the Adam Benjamin Transportation Center that was built under his tenure. The Hudson Campbell Center, the Sheraton hotel that was ultimately torn down because everything has a lifespan right, but all of those things were accomplished under his tenure. The um housing…the affordable housing that was created during his time here all of those things occur.

Poletika: So, I have one last question for you. Based on your experiences as mayor and director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, and your various other leadership roles. What’s your advice for black activists and political hopefuls about how to make systemic change? Is it through the ballot, is it through public demonstrations, a combination?

Freeman-Wilson: I think it’s all of the above. There can’t be any one methodology. And I think that one of the things that is important to understand and that demonstrations will get you in the door to a table, but once you get to the table you have to have a negotiation strategy that will create long term systemic change. And so often people understand and are engaged at the protest, but they forget the strategy that has to be employed to create the systemic change and it’s not just uh from a political standpoint, but it has to be from an economic standpoint.

Poletika: Yeah, I know that there’s the Black Lives Matter organization and there’s the Black Votes Matter organization, seems like there working together.

Freeman-Wilson: Yeah, because the two aren’t mutually exclusive and there has to be a Black Economics Matter, as well.

Poletika: How do you think that you would leverage economic change?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I think you leverage economic change in working with city and state government. Later today, I’m gonna be on uh panel with the State of Illinois where there gonna be talking about goals for black businesses. That’s important and so when you uh look at cities, when you look at states who will do business with black folks that ultimately allows them to employ black people in many instances and to transfer wealth in the black community. Because what we are seeing is an increasing gap and uh and many refer to it as uh racial wealth gap. How do you amass wealth uh, you amass wealth through business and you amass wealth through home ownership and so there has to be a focus on both of those mechanisms, along with the education that typically leads to wealth accumulation in those areas. So that you can ultimately ensure that you’re reducing the racial wealth gap. And government has a role to play in home ownership, in doing business with black folks and encouraging others, because you can’t just gain wealth by doing business with uh state government or the federal government. You have to do it with the private sector, because even when government turn downs occur private sectors uh, businesses will continue to procure goods and services.

Poletika: Right, and that’s why representation I am sure is so important. People like you being at the table and fighting for those measures.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely, that’s been one of our major areas of focus at the Chicago Urban League.

Poletika: Well, I can’t wait to learn more about your uh work with the Urban League, um how can people learn more about you and your work?

Freeman-Wilson: By looking at our website chiul.org, by following me @karenaboutgary and certainly on Twitter.

Poletika: Alright, well thank you so much for speaking with us, it was a real pleasure to talk with you.

Freeman-Wilson: Thank you so much.

Poletika: If you are interested in learning more about the National Black Political Convention check out our post at blog.history.in.gov and check out Dr. Leonard Moore’s book The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972. Please follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana History, subscribe, rate, and review talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.