THH Episode 46: Giving Voice: Adrianne Slash & Aaron Welcher

Transcript for THH Episode 46: Giving Voice: Adrianne Slash & Aaron Welcher

Weiss Simins: I’m historian Jill Weiss Simins sitting in for your regular host Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice. In this episode, I speak with Indianapolis community leaders and social justice advocates Adrianne Slash and Aaron Welcher. Our conversation follows the latest episode of talking Hoosier History, which covered the civil rights work of Rabbi Maurice Davis, and considered lessons about white allyship to Black led movements for equal rights. I hope you enjoy the show.

[Music Intro]

Weiss Simins: Hi, I am Jill Weiss Simins and this is Giving Voice. For this episode of giving voice, we’ll be talking with two Indianapolis community leaders Adrianne Slash and Aaron Welcher. Adrianne is the former President of The Exchange at the Indianapolis Urban League. She writes columns for the Indianapolis Business Journal and the Indianapolis Recorder. She has served on the board of the Jewish Community Center and she currently serves on the board of the Civil Rights Commission. She’s run for public office and consistently advocated for social and economic justice and better political representation for Black Hoosiers. We are also joined by Aaron Welcher, the program and communications coordinator at the Jewish Community Relations Council in Indianapolis. Aaron works to build coalitions of Jewish, Black, LGBTQ+, and other groups and faiths to further social justice for all Hoosiers. He is passionate about ending systemic issues like anti-Semitism and racism, addressing the eviction and housing crisis, and pursuing justice for people who are immigrants and refugees. Thank you, guys, so much for being her today um, I really appreciate the work you’re doing and looking forward to hearing more about it. So, I want to hear a little bit from you both about how you landed in these leadership roles. Adrianne, let us know a little bit about your background and what you are working on now.

Slash: Thank you and thank you for having me. I am a third-generation civil rights and social justice champion. My father’s father, my father, they’ve all been in this realm spent very lofty, I would say accidental, but passionate careers in the space and I have found myself to be here as well. Um, but landed here after just trying to go to work and come home every day and realize that there is a lot more to be done. And people called me into the space and I started off in 2014 helping with the focus on youth initiative, which then we were able to use as a vehicle to launch the exchange of the Indianapolis Urban League and connect to the National Urban League and Young Professionals Network. And that’s really where it all was birthed um, had the opportunity after doing that to connect directly uh with a couple of other initiatives here in the city and in doing so I was building quite a community record and in 2015 got asked to run for office based on it. Didn’t win, but I had a mentor tell me that if you’re a good candidate you will always have stuff to do. And that was the absolute most correct advice, or statement ever made to me. The opportunities have just continued to return themselves; it’s a labor of love to continue to work in this space.

Weiss Simins: Thanks, Adrianne. Aaron how did you get to where you are now and what’s something that you are working on currently that you are excited to share?

Welcher: Yeah, so I really, I never pictured myself really working within the community relations field. Although, it seems so natural now and I love it. But I really was looking for being able to do public policy. I’d interned for uh former Senator Joe Donnelly and then when I was in that office advocating for the Jewish community, helping connect that office more to the Jewish community and through that I met my uh boss Lindsey Mintz the executive director and she asked if I wanted to apply for this role and so that’s really how I kind of got into this space and I really love it because, it’s not only the public policy, but its connecting people to genuine stories and building those genuine relationships hand in hand and one example of that, which goes with my current work uh is really working on the Equality Act right now and bringing a faith voice to that, which would allow LGBTQ+ people to be a part of this civil rights act and so that’s been very powerful to working in that sort of faith space. And connecting people to each other.

Weiss Simins: Thank you, guys. Um, so one of the reasons that your both here together is that you have worked together a couple times including with the JCRC’s Black Jewish Partnership. Um, can you tell us a little bit about how your work has intersected?

Slash: Sure, so I would go back and say 2014-15, somewhere in there uh I was volunteer at the JCCC, when we launched the unity project and got an opportunity to work directly with Lindsey and David at JCRC, and we were really looking to connecting the two communities together through arts and culture and conversation starts to form and you start to get synergies around historically our two communities working directly together. Historically, advocating for each other. Historically, helping one another. We also tiptoe around and stumble into the messy things that happened in the 60s when we somewhat separated. And so, we find ourselves here today when we’re looking for policies that still have yet to be passed, hate crimes opportunities that need to be enhanced. The opportunity to work together and advocate for one another is greater today than it’s been, and we decided to start the Black-Jewish partnership here in Indianapolis. Not just for today, not just for a group of people, but to build organic genuine natural relationships between our two communities that can transcend issues but give us places to have difficult and complex conversations.

Welcher: Yeah, I think what was beautiful…I didn’t get to go to this part uh of The Black Jewish Partnership, but it really culminated in a trip to Washington D.C., where the group visited the Holocaust Museum and the uh African American History Museum to and really get to know one another’s history, but from what I have gathered from the participants, one of the things that was really impactful was the having someone who was standing there next to you and being able to unpack that in a way that really built understanding and empathy and friendship from it. I think that it was really building uh basis of friendship that still is a lot of the connections that are still going on today and I know that uh, a lot of the members who have kids, their kids are friends now and do Shabbat dinners and things like that and so, it was a really meaningful part of the Black Jewish Partnership and I think now and that where we’re at now is really how do we grow it and keep doing successful programming around it and having these conversations, because they really are so foundational to understanding both our communities and then…and the intersection of our two communities too that there are Jews who are Black also and so that inherit intersection that exists within our communities.

Slash: Yeah, I think that the…I think Aaron hit the nail on the head. The most impactful part of the trip was going through the museum and I think we all opened and made the choice to be vulnerable with that person we were partnered with, but not necessarily because we wanted to, but because you can’t help but see the humanity in someone and in the artifacts in a museum, when you are with someone who is directly impacted by what you are looking at. And so I really do believe that it is the foundation, but it is also the reason why you know in a pandemic world we can hop on a Zoom and look at something that has happened in the news that is ridiculously controversial, uh involving both of our communities and have a space where we can actually talk it out, understand each person, not even each sides, but each person’s viewpoint and empathize with one another in the same way that we did inside of that museum. And if there’s ever been anything needed more today its people who can have crucial, hard conversations about issues that are happening in the world.

Weiss Simins: It seems like understanding uh the other group’s history has been an important part of what you are saying. I’m glad you brought it back to the relevancy of history, as you guys know the…this interview will be on the heels of our most recent Talking Hoosier History episode about the civil rights work of Rabbi Maurice Davis in the 1960s, especially his march with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. And one of the things that really struck me in that research is Rabbi Davis as a real historical example of how white Hoosiers can be allies for Black neighbors and one of the things that he did was really educate himself on history and to get that empathy and then defer to Black leadership. So, I was just wondering “what does this look like today?” How do white Hoosiers be successful allies in current movements for Black justice and power, in what ways can they be helpful and what ways harmful if you feel like speaking to that as well.

Slash: I think that what you just said has so many important factors to it, so the biggest part for me is um, it’s always important to know that you don’t always have to be the messenger. You don’t have to be the spokesperson. You don’t have to be the featured photo. It’s okay to elevate the voices of they that are carrying the banner right. It’s okay. To get it out of the way and I even say that in the Black community we have, we have been through it in the past 365 days and I wouldn’t say that’s just us and not others right. So, there’s a lot of that but it’s okay to provide air support. So, I am not a frontline protestor, but I know I was invited to a lot of meetings to talk about frontline protestors and my biggest role there is to amplify their messages. To make the connections back to them. To make sure they understand do not quote Adrianne go back to the frontlines and quote the person who is out their making the demands, their demands are appropriate. Their demands are necessary and it’s important that you hear that I stand with them. Right, and so I think that it becomes a really hard space because when it comes to community leadership sometimes ego happens. Right, but when it comes to being an ally we ask that people not only amplify the messages, but when people don’t want to hear them or are asking for a better spokesperson that we double down and really amplify the messages and get out of the way and I think that the movement of today is very different from the previous movement, because it doesn’t have one spokesperson. Today’s movement has many and it’s important to give all of them their voice.

Welcher: And I think that’s uh beautifully said and I’m you know pull out a little bible here since its Passover, uh torah and if you know the story of Moses and his brother Aaron. Aaron actually was the spokesperson for Moses, because as we are taught in the torah that he burned his tongue as a baby so he actually had, even though he was a leader, he wasn’t necessarily the spokesperson for the community and I think that that intertwines beautifully with how to be an ally that everyone has their role to play and play to that strength, and to make sure that you are working in harmony together. And that’s how…and that’s really how the Jewish community in a lot of ways looking back on our history there, was able to be free from Egypt and so I think now bringing it to today a lot of times well-meaning full white people end up talking more than they do listening and think they get it, or trying to prove to themselves that everyone that they get it so much that then they end up being hurtful and harmful to the movement and end up silencing. And I think another thing to where it gets a little complicated with the Jewish community, is it’s a religious minority community so I think in a lot of ways it’s hard for some Jewish people to see that while yes anti-Semitism exists, yes there’s very real threats to Jews, they don’t want to see that they are also very real threats to other communities and other long histories of oppression and in this country, in this city and our neighborhoods and so I think that willingness to look and say two things can be true. Jews can be threatened today and so can Black Americans. So, I think that willingness to take that and really internalize that and then move forward and I think the other thing that people, this is kind of more coalition work, but is when you look at a coalition when you have these meanings it’s who can I ears, can I reach, how can I be that help be a messenger to the people who aren’t going to listen to the message from where its coming from. And so really making sure that you are amplifying the messages that are being shared. In rooms that people unfortunately might not have access to.

Slash: And I would also just like to kind of add on to that briefly. Don’t be a translator and you know for lack of better terms whitewash the message. Don’t make it more palatable for people the moment that you go from allyship to being an accomplice is when you are really just there to provide support to the message in its true form. I know that a lot of times, specifically when we are talking 2021 civil rights you hear a lot of people say oh gosh well where’s the…whose the real spokesperson or can you point me to a website or where’s there material or do they have a real bank account, they don’t and that’s okay they’re numerous messengers, there are numerous activists who are doing the work, they’re doing a lot of really great things. The way that you support them is giving energy to their message. And don’t water it down and don’t try to change it.

Weiss Simins: So, if you could get somebody to just start somewhere, if you could recommend to somebody to just do one thing, where should we be putting in the work to address the issues that disproportionally impact Black Hoosiers, would it be the eviction crisis, police violence, health care access, or am I just naming symptoms of a larger problem of disparity?

Slash: I would say that the disparities are deep, but the disparities are really are really steeped in you know something I think that we all know, there’s to America’s there’s the haves and there’s always going to be the have-nots and the question is what barriers did you put up to make the have-nots further away from you as a have. And so, where education is concerned, if we were able to get equitable resources into all communities to make sure that education equity was a real thing that would be a great place to start. Based off of our access to quality education that that pretty much connects to our access to quality futures whether its behind bars, whether it is in front of a fast-food counter or it’s sitting at a desk. All those things are variable based on equitable education and our ability to build pipelines into sustainable careers that can actually sustain a family, all pretty much start back at how we provide equitable educational resources. The next thing that comes after that is access to food, access to quality housing, it’s all kind of baked in at the same time and so when you are advocating for equity it is always good in my opinion to start at the most foundational thing and that’s access to equitable quality education.

Welcher: Yeah, I mean I completely echo that that was one of my policy areas I really focused on when I was in undergrad was education and our education system for a long time historically was viewed as a social service, and that changed recently, but it really wasn’t recently, but uh I think that it really started changing in the 1970s, but really even before that though the schools were providing food and showers and were a community spot for learning and then when it shifted it became this pipeline to prison and unfortunately, depending on where you live and how you look and how you’re dressed and the color of your skin and a lot of schools dictate how far you can get in life and that’s not how education was meant to be. And this is you know, were not even thinking about all…when segregation was happening the amazing, amazing, amazing education that was coming out of the Black community that unfortunately was really defunded after they started busing Black kids to white schools. And so that even the equity looking at history and current policies of okay I want this to benefit, benefit the Black community to fight racism all these things, but how, whose it benefitting and who is uncomfortable, who has to have more energy and who is losing things to make the society better. And I think that’s something that’s really hard for a lot of people to also look at is like, is that question of whose doing and who’s being harmed by it, what is supposed to be well intentioned policy.

Slash: Yep, I always say if I can teach someone the best in DEI, if I could just teach people to be advocates the question they would be asking is who does this help and who does this hurt, when they are looking at policy. And to meaningfully continue to follow the line to that question. Who does this help and who does this hurt and by you know having people? Have that conversation with you, you are humanizing the people that it’s helping and humanizing the people that it’s hurting at the same time. And a lot of times you are doing the hard part of making someone who is intentionally leaving someone out, say it and make it plain, because that way you take away the excuse of well I didn’t realize it was gonna do that.

Welcher: And I think to circle back to another part of the question what’s something you can do or how do we address these issues and I always go that we have to look inside our own communities to, we have to look at and be honest that there is racism within pockets of the Jewish community. There is xenophobia within pockets of the Jewish community, just as we know that there is anti-Semitism that exists in the Black community and then there’s homophobia that exists in all these communities, like all of our communities two things can be true. Again, we can…you can be oppressed and also have it within your own community too. And being open about that, being honest about that and say how can we educate and start fighting it, within our communities too. That’s how you are going to make some real change, but that means, you can’t shy away from that it happens because it makes you uncomfortable. Um, unfortunately I guess what oppression is uncomfortable and it’s uncomfortable to the people that have been living it for the hundreds of years.

Slash: Its interesting because with the Black Jewish Partnership we had some really hard conversations when we were in DC, and one of the hardest conversations that I believe that we had, we were talking about some older members of our communities and how they tend to view one another, words that they say, you know reinforcing tropes that are untrue and pushing harmful language that were common things, like specifically baby boomers in the Black community really say some harmful things that they don’t realize are harmful, they think that they’re norms. And then it turns into almost a fight, at any given time I had the pleasure of being a columnist for public publications over the years and I’ve had people ask me why are those not things that I am writing about and its interesting because one of the main reasons is because, it’s a house discussion that we’ve gotta also continue to fight internally before we can bring it out externally and fight the battle in the field, if that makes any sense. But we had this conversation within our partnership and it’s hard because when you are dealing with age and you are looking at having conversations and dealing with things with your elders, they’re saying this is true, it’s fact. And you’re like it’s actually not and its hurtful, stop saying that. And then they want to drive you down these lines and it’s a lot of work to undo, but that’s why I think it’s important that Aaron said what he said. We’ve got racism, we’ve got xenophobia, we’ve got some of the worst things that historically happened amongst our elders, because we are products of a politically correct generation and so we know better and we are trying our best to do better, but it becomes very difficult with members of your community that you A. can’t police, but B. also need to bring along on their own personal journeys, and so I think the toughest think that happened the Black Jewish Partnership was having to realize that each person is one person and they can’t speak on behalf of an entire population of people. And so that we’ve had some long out drag outs on that uh whether its Nick Cannon, whether its Tamika Mallory, we’ve had to have some conversations and I think that one of the things that we’ve agreed overtime, is I can Adrianne L. Slash, I can speak for her, I can’t speak for any other spokesperson. I don’t know where their thought processes come. I can educate everyone in my sphere and I can be responsible for dealing with my sphere that’s it.

Weiss Simins: Well, you guys are both out there doing that work. I appreciate it and want you to get back to it so I feel like I could talk to you forever, but I just wanna ask you one last thing. As younger activists, doing this work right now how are you feeling about the future? Are you hopeful? Are you frustrated? Are you exhausted? It’s been a long year tell me how are we doing with this work?

Welcher: I, you know I think I’m feeling a little of everything. I know that um, but I have a lot of hope I think that each generation…so I am a younger millennial I was born in 1995. So, I think I am on the cusp I get to see my two younger siblings and their friends and the conversations they are having and just the openness and willingness to learn, which is exciting and gives me hope that that their just running that generation is running and isn’t stopping and that’s really exciting to see. At the same time, there’s also a whole bunch of things being thrown around on social media. There is a whole generation that isn’t that is growing up with the internet at their fingertips and we’re seeing hate messages be able to be spread like that we’re seeing new tactics from white supremacists, let’s just name it who go online and create fake accounts, create memes spread them and then cause rifts between communities through online spaces or make it so that hate becomes easily digestible and you start to believe that so there’s real…its really scary actually what’s happening online and I hate being like a fear-monger, but I think that’s really going to be the new frontier of the battle against hate. I would say it’s really going to be how do we address media literacy on online and I think it’s really complicated, and I think then it’s also kind of tiring and exhausting year for me personally, because when you think about our communities and you think about all were seeing and hearing and in election year and all of that you…we called it statement fatigue you felt like we were writing a statement every other day and you wanted to call it out, and you wanted to name it and you wanted to address it, but there’s also a point where you just couldn’t, there is so much happening and so I think that really that’s been a really big growing and learning process for me. It is understanding that it’s not going to end overnight and unfortunately its going…it’s a marathon, we’re still running that marathon, so we also needed to do what’s best to make sure that we stay able to run that marathon, making sure that we check in with our friendly and friends and we’re taking care of our mental health, and we’re doing everything that we need to be healthy advocates, activists out there for a very long time.

Slash: Mhm, I think that that’s so accurate for me personally I’m extremely optimistic about Gen Z and their ability to take the movement so much further than it’s ever gone. I always ask the question with the first arrival of the civil rights movement: did we go far enough? I don’t think that we did, I we left a lot on the table and I think that a lot of stuff we left on the table is really foundational to having equitable opportunities in this country. And so I look at Gen Z and this is why I say it is important to provide air support to the messengers who are in the field, and so the work that many of our younger activists are doing is a by any means available, not just by any means necessary, but you know any means available were going to get this message out and so I’m extremely hopeful to that we,  I am an older millennial and as an older millennial we’ve had the internet for some time now, you know we were playing around in chat rooms when they first, but we weren’t doing the work that these folks are doing when you seem them on clubhouse or if you watch what they are creating inside of the different platforms in the ways that they are messaging and so I’m excited to see a generation that is using every tool available to do the work. Yes, there is some harmful stuff that does exist. I actually think that the positive activism is outweighing the negatives and it is that media literacy that’s important. I also think that generation alpha is actually really good at they read something and they’re like that’s not uh real source, because on school they are not allowed to use Wikipedia. They’re not allowed to use certain things and so they know what’s not a real source and how to find one, and so I look to our two upcoming generations at not as the savior, but I do think they are the light. And I think that we have to allow that to be a case of the downfall is baby boomers like got what they wanted out of the Civil Rights Movement and then retired. Gen X was kind of like this is all the pie that they left me so okay whatever. And then uh millennials come through and were like okay so no this isn’t okay, there are still killing us, they’re still hunting us, still using bad words and slurs, we’ve got to deal with this and then Gen Z is dealing with it and so I am extremely hopeful, but I also know that we have some older generations that will need us to move them along in order for this to work and I think a lot of this misinformation does come from those older generations that aren’t moving along. (Laughs) And so hopeful, optimistic, but there is a small place of extreme concern and and we gotta do the work to get that.

Welcher: I’m excited and we say this all the time. I am excited for when we as a Jewish community and white people, but especially as the Jewish community stop pointing at photos from the 1960s and saying we were there at the civil rights, and we can start putting photos today and yesterday and being like we were there now.

Slash: Yeah, and it’s interesting the pictures look the exact same, the fight looks the same and its okay that you got your street cred back then, but did you help get the street cred right now? Because you know we have to have that and at a lot of times that’s the uncomfortable argument that we have to have with our elders. If you don’t find the cause worthy today, but you did then, you might be the problem. Because it’s the same fight.

Weiss Simins: Wow, thank you guys. Perfectly said. I appreciate your work. I appreciate you coming on Giving Voice sharing your experience and expertise so thank you so much.

Slash: Thanks for having us.

Welcher: Thank you.

Weiss Simins: Once again, this has been Giving Voice. To learn more about the work of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council visit INDYJCRC.org. To learn more about the efforts of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission visit IN.GOV/ICRC and if you want to learn more about Rabbi Davis’ civil rights work, listen to the Talking Hoosier History episode about Rabbi Davis’ walk with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Join us next time for an episode of Talking Hoosier History about the South Bend Blue Sox and professional women’s baseball in the World War II era. Thanks for listening.

A Marriage Tested: How the Allens Overcame Personal Tragedy and Systemic Discrimination

J. Chester and Elizabeth Allen with family, courtesy Civil Rights Heritage Center, accessed Shannon Nolan, “Indiana’s First Female African American Lawyer Worked in South Bend,” abc57, February 2, 2019.

* See Part 1 to learn about the Allens’ work for equality in the judicial system and World War II employment.

When the clouds of World War II lifted, South Bend activists and attorneys J. Chester and Elizabeth Allen had achieved many of their professional and philanthropic goals. The couple, who had opened their own law firm in 1939, had uplifted the Black community by crafting legislation, organizing social programs, and creating jobs. But institutional oppression and immense personal loss that followed in the war’s wake appeared to test their marriage. In these modern times of social unrest and pandemic-related stress, we can draw strength from the Allens’ ability to not only weather personal tragedy and systemic discrimination, but serve their community.

As the early Atomic Era unfurled, J. Chester plunged back into his fight to fully desegregate South Bend’s Engman Natatorium. The effort had begun in the 1930s and resulted in the park board’s meager concession of allowing Black residents to swim a few hours per week, when white residents were not there. In 1950, J. Chester and a group of attorneys, including white lawyer Maurice Tulchinsky, appeared before the parks board to again make the case for integration. Seemingly racism cloaked in Cold War rhetoric, one board member told the men that Tulchinsky’s involvement hinted at communist impulses. J. Chester replied, “‘You don’t have to be a communist to defend equal rights, opportunities and treatment for all people under the law. The Constitution and Bill of Rights mandate it.'” Threatening to file suit unless board members agreed to end segregation entirely, the lawyers at last won their long fight for equality, likely with the aid of Elizabeth Allen.

Flyer, Ruth Tulchinsky, Voice of the People, February 13, 2009, St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collections.

Oral history interviews and secondary sources suggest that Elizabeth drew up the original complaint and advised behind the scenes, pointing out that African American taxpayers helped fund the pool and therefore deserved to use it. Her name does not appear on official documents, perhaps because she was still in law school or because the lawyers feared that her involvement as a Black woman could hurt the cause. If Tulchinsky was accused of working on behalf of the Communist Party, one can only imagine what nefarious influences board members would assign Elizabeth if she was involved in the effort publicly.

A series of interviews with the couple’s son, Dr. Irving Allen, bespeaks the constant frustration Elizabeth experienced from having to shelve her ambitions due to gender and familial norms and/or racial discrimination. In 1936, Elizabeth declared her candidacy for state representative, but withdrew, perhaps, because as interviewer David Healey suggested to Irving, she was “always overshadowed by circumstances” or “convinced that your father would have a better chance of winning.” Irving agreed that this sense of disappointment was probably compounded by the “loss and loneliness,” resulting from J. Chester’s absence while he served in the Indiana General Assembly between 1939 and 1941. Elizabeth could be “explosively judgmental” about J. Chester’s legislative efforts, accusing him of being too accommodating to white voters while campaigning. Perhaps this criticism stemmed partly from never having a chance to campaign for office herself.

International Hod Carriers and Building Laborers’ Union formal gathering, circa 1950s, Elizabeth Allen fourth from left and J. Chester Allen fifth from left, second row, Streets Family Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, Indiana University South Bend Archives, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

Irving imagined the scrutiny she experienced as a Black female lawyer in South Bend during the “Dark Ages” of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. He remembered his mother coming home and criticizing local judges “who she just despised and felt mistreated by.” This likely included Circuit Judge Dan Pyle, who in May 1952 fined her for contempt of court during a hearing in which she served as counsel. The South Bend Tribune reported that the “woman attorney” was fined for refusing to “abide by his instruction to refrain from dictating a lengthy statement for the court record.” Pyle ruled her “out of order in the request and demanded that she be quiet.” Irving recalled the incident, saying “she took it racially and cursed him out basically . . . and ended up in jail. Daddy got her out and got the whole thing, I think, squashed.”

Institutionalized discrimination and the stressors of working in the public eye seemed to breed resentment that spilled over into their marriage. The Allen household, while loving, was also highly-charged, in part because Elizabeth and J. Chester diverged sharply when it came to political allegiance and temperament. Irving recalled, “you were never sure whether the issues were where the vitriol was coming from or whether it was personal stuff that was being argued out through the politics.” But from a young age, Irving learned to tune out his parents’ disagreements. He stated there was “often too much venom involved in the . . . arguments about politics or nuances of how black folks could best be served in South Bend or the country.”

In Irving’s opinion, his parents were incapable of relaxing and resetting, prioritizing the needs of others over themselves in their work with organizations like the NAACP and Hering House. He noted that money was another source of tension for the Allens. Although they were attorneys, systemic racism affected their success and often meant they didn’t get the “big” cases. Determined that their children would get a good education, efforts to save for college proved stressful due to the lack of lucrative cases.

Elizabeth Allen serving as Judge Protem in the South Bend City Courts, submitted by state historical marker applicant.

Irving suspected that the “pressures of work had enormous bearing” on his mother’s “existence.” Of his parents, Elizabeth had a poorer “capacity to separate work from the rest of her life. . . . I would just imagine the shit she took. Must have been unimaginable . . . unimaginable. And where’s it gonna go? It’s probably gonna come home into the relationship with her husband.” It surely did not go unnoticed that newspaper articles referred to her husband as “Attorney J. Chester Allen” and her as “Mrs. J. Chester Allen,” despite being an accomplished attorney in her own right. Probably equally frustrating, Elizabeth was subjected to scrutiny about her appearance and mannerisms in a way her husband undoubtedly was not, exemplified by this 1950 South Bend Tribune description: “feminine, but brusque. She has a no-nonsense attitude that contradicts the ultra-feminine hat on her head.”

Despite the many obstacles Elizabeth had to overcome, she received public recognition in 1953, 1955, and 1960, when she served as Judge Protem, filling in on occasion when the city judge was absent. “Her Madame Honor” was likely the first woman to wield a gavel in South Bend’s courtrooms. While a temporary role, Irving believed that the appointment was symbolic, honoring her legal career. Elizabeth worked to carve out educational and career opportunities for other Black women, generally relegated to domestic service in that era. Recognizing that de facto segregation would endure despite the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, Elizabeth sprung into action, hosting an emergency meeting for the United Negro College Fund. She also worked to get Black women into her Alma Mater, Talladega College.

The Allens opened their house to Black Notre Dame students who had nowhere to stay due to discrimination and the housing shortage exasperated by World War II. Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that in the 1940s many black families were forced to crowd into one or two bedroom units in substandard buildings. Elizabeth had worked during WWII and post-war years to improve housing options and clear local slums because “delinquency and crime are resulting from sub-standard housing.” In the 1950s, J. Chester helped a group of Black Studebaker workers navigate discriminatory lending and real estate practices to form a building cooperative called “Better Homes of South Bend.”

Baton twirlers in the annual Better Homes’s Elmer Street Parade, August 1962. Photo courtesy Vicki Belcher and Brenda Wright, accessed Better Homes of South Bend, 97.

By the middle of the decade, twenty-two families of the co-op had moved in along North Elmer Street and helped build a vibrant community, filled with  activities like family cookouts, kickball, and building snowmen. Irving described a “haunting aspect of the Better Homes story.” Although they had “outstanding credentials as good citizens and an established law practice,” the Allens encountered difficulties purchasing a home of their own. Perhaps such discrimination led J. Chester to further leverage housing reform when he was elected the city’s first Black Councilman in 1959. He quickly got to work trying to prevent the displacement of Black families as new developments arose. As Councilman he also got more African American appointed in city government. One Indianapolis Recorder writer was optimistic that Allen’s “devotion to the law as the shield of liberty” would enable him to “protect the rights of minorities and at the same time guard the welfare of the majority.”

J. Chester’s and Elizabeth’s work served as a tide that lifted many boats in St. Joseph County. But the couple soon experienced a devastating personal blow. Their daughter, Sarah-whom Irving described as a “brilliant student” at Central High School-was awarded honors at Wellesley College, before attending Tennessee’s Fisk University. In 1960, the South Bend Tribune noted an “illness forced her to leave college.” She had since been working as a secretary at the family’s law practice and receiving psychiatric care in her hometown. Shortly before dinner at the Allens’ house one summer evening in 1963, the family discovered that she had died by suicide. Only 27-years-old, Sarah undoubtedly possessed the astuteness and determination of her parents, but suffered from the era’s limited treatment options for mental health issues. Days after her passing, loves ones paid their respects at the city’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. James and the city council passed a resolution expressing sympathy for the loss of Councilman Allen’s daughter.

J. Chester with daughter, Sarah, South Bend Tribune, May 6, 1959, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

One can only imagine the impact such a catastrophic event had on the family. Perhaps it contributed to the fragmentation of the Allen and Allen law firm, which Irving said “kind of came unglued” in the early part of the decade. It’s possible it was the trigger for Elizabeth’s own hospitalization in the 1960s. Surely it contributed to the 1965 South Bend Tribune announcement of the couple’s separation after 37 years of marriage. Ultimately, the Allens chose not to go through with the divorce, perhaps a testament to their tenacity and love.

Work and community uplift likely became a haven from grief for the African American couple. In the years after her daughter’s passing, Elizabeth seemed to focus on advocating for women. She served as legislative chairman of the 1964 National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, leading a workshop on “The Role of Business and Professional Women in the War on Poverty” at the organization’s annual meeting. Towards the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, Elizabeth served on the board of St. Joseph’s first Planned Parenthood clinic. According to Irving, his mother was a feminist before the term existed. She would “go to war over women divorcing or getting beaten up by their husbands,” but, being ahead of her time, she fought a war “without any constituents.” Nevertheless, she was “‘incredible example to women—black or white.'”

South Bend Tribune, January 9, 1962, 23, accessed Newspapers.com.

J. Chester poured himself into education equality as the first Black member of the South Bend school board of trustees in 1966. One editorial contended that he was an ideal representative of Black educational interests, citing his “Quick intelligence, independence of thought, hard work and a genuine affection for his home community.” He used his legal skills in 1967 to advocate for equality, appealing a verdict that ruled the Linden School building, a Black school, could safely reopen despite a classroom ceiling collapsing during the school day.

While continuing to grieve, sons Irving and J. Chester Allen, Jr. pursued their professional goals. Their parents were determined that they would attend East Coast schools because, Irving noted, Black Americans had to be “twice as good” as their white colleagues. He earned his medical degree at Boston University in 1965 and practiced psychiatry in Massachusetts. Like his parents, J. Chester Jr. beat the drum for equality, leading an NAACP march protesting the police force’s refusal to hire a Black officer. He told the South Bend Tribune, “‘Maybe we’ll fill up that jail of theirs until they get tired of seeing us in it and hire one of us to get rid of the rest of us.'”

Nancy Kavadas, “Niles Area NACP [sic] Groups Conduct Orderly Demonstration,” South Bend Tribune, February 9, 1964, 8,  accessed Newspapers.com.
“Wednesday Rites for Judge Allen,” South Bend Tribune, December 27, 1983, 28, accessed Newspapers.com.

Like his parents, J. Chester Jr. was able to break racial barriers; he was sworn in as St. Joseph County’s first Black Superior Court Judge in 1976. Three years after J. Chester Jr.’s historic achievement, his father passed away. The man who had apparently stumbled upon South Bend did much to even its playing field for minorities. Black residents were better educated, politically- and civically-empowered, financially stabler, and able to enjoy the city’s facilities because of his tireless efforts as an attorney and elected official.

Unfortunately, his son’s promising career was cut short in 1983. J. Chester Jr. died of natural causes on Christmas Day, the same day his father was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1900. Matriarch Elizabeth Allen was now a widower who had lost two children. But her life was never defined by tragedy. In disregarding an admissions officer’s advice to forgo law school in favor of marriage years before, she started down a path canopied by improbable accomplishments, bitter disappointments, professional accolades, and personal heartbreak. Her fortitude and persistence meant that future generations would endure fewer obstacles than she did.

Behind her walked another Black female attorney from Chicago married to an ambitious Black attorney: First Lady Michelle Obama. The two women experienced the highs of professional accomplishments as a minority, the frustrations of sacrificing for their husband’s ambitions, public critiques of their appearance, and allegations of being too outspoken. Unlike Michelle, Elizabeth’s story has largely yet to be told, but South Bend writer Dr. Gabrielle Robinson and IHB are changing that by installing a state historical marker in 2021. Elizabeth, largely overshadowed by her husband, will quite literally have an equal share of recognition with this marker.

“Golden Anniversary,” South Bend Tribune, March 5, 1978, 31, accessed Newspapers.com.

Sources:

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

“Jellison Takes Petition to Run for Congress,” South Bend Tribune, February 16, 1936, 23, accessed Newspapers.com.

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

“Circuit Judge Fines Lawyer for Contempt,” South Bend Tribune, May 10, 1952, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.

“First Woman Presides City Judge,” South Bend Tribune, November 19, 1953, 29, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Field Chief Will Meet Fund Group,” South Bend Tribune, March 25, 1957, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.

Program, “Leaders for Workshops on Three Areas Affecting the Urban Family,” Woman’s Council for Human Relations, [1968], accessed Michiana Memory.

“Hon. J. Chester Allen,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 2, 1960, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

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

“Sarah Allen Found Dead,” South Bend Tribune, July 25, 1963, 43, accessed Newspapers.com.

Nancy Kavadas, “Niles Area NACP [sic] Groups Conduct Orderly Demonstration,” South Bend Tribune, February 9, 1964, 8,  accessed Newspapers.com.

“Divorce Cases Filed,” South Bend Tribune, March 5, 1965, 30, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Irving Allen Wins Degree,” South Bend Tribune, June 10, 1965, 46, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ruth Copeland et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. South Bend Community School Corporation et al., Defendants-Appellees, 1967, 376 F.2d 585 (7th Cir. 1967), May 8, 1967, accessed JUSTIA US Law.

“Family Plan Unit Names Officers,” South Bend Tribune, January 26, 1968, 31, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Rites for Allen Wednesday,” South Bend Tribune, May 12, 1980, 21, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Wednesday Rites for Judge Allen,” South Bend Tribune, December 27, 1983, 28, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Allen, Former Civic Leader and Attorney, Dies at 89,” South Bend Tribune, December 28, 1994, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

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

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.

Barack Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Crown Publishing, 2020).

Email, Dr. Irving Allen to Nicole Poletika, March 19, 2021.