At the Indiana Historical Bureau, we routinely get requests from researchers for assistance. Some of these are fairly simple, like helping with someone’s family history or determining the age of an antique they just bought. However, every once in a while, we get queries so interesting that they require a whole lot more research, and you never know what you might turn up.
Back in March, I received an email from a gentleman in California who recently found a unique item while metal-detecting on the beach. He needed help figuring out what it was and how old it might be. It was a weathered, rusted emblem with two elephants on the front and a name, “Rub-No-More.” On the back, it said, “some worry about wash day; others use Rub-No-More.” He also knew it had an Indiana connection, as a quick internet search determined that the Rub-No-More brand was based out of Fort Wayne.
It turns out that the item he found was a Rub-No-More watch fob, likely made sometime between 1905-1920. A watch fob was a decorative piece that accompanied a pocket watch, and helped keep the watch in a wearer’s pocket. A fob exactly like this one was recently sold at auction. Chicago’s F.H. Noble & Company, whose long history includes making trophies and urns for cremated remains, manufactured the fob. But what about the history of the company who commissioned it, the Rub-No-More Company? In learning more about this small, weathered piece of advertising, I discovered a history of one of Indiana’s most successful businesses at the turn of the twentieth century.
While its origins go back at least to 1880, the Summit City Soap Works of Fort Wayne (the Rub-No-More Company’s original name) was formally incorporated in May of 1885, with a capital stock of $25,000 for “manufactur[ing] laundry and other soaps,” according to the Indianapolis Sentinel. Their penchant for lavishing gifts on customers goes back almost to its founding. As the Wabash Express reported on May 27, 1886, Harry Mayel of the Summit City Soap Works came to Terre Haute and provided “over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in beautiful and valuable presents” to purchasers of the company’s Ceylon Red Letter Soap. While this was a great deal for consumers, it appears it wasn’t as good for the company. By 1888, the Summit City Soap Works was insolvent, with $18,000 in debt and only $14,000 in assets, and a court-ordered receiver came in to clean up the mess. The difficulties didn’t end there. Two years later, as mentioned by the Crawfordsville Daily Journal, the company’s facilities on Glasgow Avenue burned to the ground, an estimated loss of $6,000. The company, sadly, had no insurance to cover these damages.
Clearly, it was time for new leadership, and it came in the form of the highly successful Berghoff family, German immigrants who became a mainstay of Fort Wayne’s business community. The Berghoffs ran a profitable brewery in the city, most known for its “Dortmunder Beer” brand. They parlayed this success into other ventures, including the Summit City Soap Works. Gustave A. Berghoff, a traveling salesman for the brewery, purchased the soap manufacturer in 1892, likely from his own brother, Hubert. The latter had purchased the firm a year earlier for a measly $5,000, and intended to revive the soap maker to “run day and night,” according to the Fort Wayne Sentinel.
Gustave Berghoff and his team wasted no time getting the company back on its feet and profitable, betting its success on a brand new product, Rub-No-More. Introduced in 1895, Rub-No-More was a “labor saving compound” that “clean[ed] the working clothes of a mechanic as well as the finest linen of the household, without much rubbing,” the Fort Wayne News wrote in its May 30th issue. To kick off the new product, the company launched a massive advertising campaign that provided free samples of Rub-No-More to every family in Fort Wayne. Summit City Soap Works then sold it at five cents, in a package that would cover five washing weeks. Rub-No-More became a hit, greatly benefiting Berghoff and his company. As such, they continued their tradition of giveaways. For example, in 1898, Summit City Soap Works offered its customers a free children’s book or wall calendar in exchange for saved Rub-No-More coupons and Globe Soap wrappers.
The company completely reorganized in 1903, including a new incorporation and expansion of its facilities. After eighteen years as an incorporated company, the Summit City Soap Works saw its capital stock increase four fold, to $100,000. Its executive staff also evolved, with Gustave Berghoff retaining his position as president but appointing his brothers, Henry and Hubert Berghoff, along with J. W. Roach and Albert J. Jauch, to the board of directors. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette reported that Berghoff was “having built a large addition to his factory, which will double the plant’s capacity.” The paper also commented on the company’s success, writing that “the business has grown from a small beginning to large proportions, and the institution is now known all over the United States, and the output is used almost universally in this country.”
The company also expanded its marketing, filing for multiple trademarks in 1905. The first filing, from April 17, 1905, included its new logo for Rub-No-More as well as an emblem, one so iconic to the company that it inspired my research: the two elephants logo. Used for decades as the symbol of Rub-No-More, the trademark displays an adult elephant dressed as a washerwoman washing a child elephant with its trunk. The second filing, dated September 19, 1905, includes both the new logo for the company’s name as well as the two elephants symbol. These became the company’s go-to branding for both its products and promotional materials, and it served them well. Grocers at Kendallville purchased 14,000 pounds of soap from the company in April of 1909, as noted by the Fort Wayne Sentinel, which traveled “in a single shipment over the [city’s] interurban.” That year, the Summit City Soap Works continued its tradition of promotional giveaways. An advertisement in the Dayton Herald offered customers free gifts in exchange for some of their products’ packaging trademarks. They offered girls an embroidery set and boys a “very interesting game” suitable for thirteen people.
One incident in 1911 showed how Rub-No-More soap could lead to more than just fun giveaways. A young woman named Bessie Lauer, an employee of the Summit City Soap Works, wrote her name on the inside of a soap bar’s packaging. It made its way out west, where a “wealthy California orange grower” found it and sought out a courtship, perhaps even marriage. She turned down his offer, but the publicity it garnered led to a Hanford, California Sentinel article describing the whole affair. Apparently embarrassed by the incident, Lauer told the Sentinel that “this is the first time she has ever written her name on a soap wrapper, and she fervently states that it will be her last.”
After decades of operation under the Summit City Soap Works moniker, the company formally changed its name in 1912 to the Rub-No-More Company, solidifying the importance of their branded soap to the entire enterprise. (A notification of the name change was published in the January 18, 1912 issue of the Fort Wayne Daily News, but it wasn’t official until April 12, 1912, when articles of incorporation were filed, according to the Indianapolis News. Advertisements in newspapers as early as June of that year indicated the name change). Around this time, Gustave Berghoff, the company’s president, began serving on the board of directors of the German-American National Bank based in Fort Wayne, greatly increasing his stature within the local business community.
By 1917, sales of the Rub-No-More Company topped $3,000,000 a year, as referenced in a profile in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette celebrating its 25th anniversary under the ownership of Berghoff. The article noted the expansion of its production facilities, from “the old days [when the plant was] comprised [of] but a few shacks” with “equipment consisting mostly of crude apparatus[es],” to a plant comprising “thousands of square feet.” This machinery was “of the most modern design . . . the value of which totals near a million dollars.” Within two decades, Rub-No-More, the company’s flagship product, became a mainstay product for consumers, with “circulars, wrappers, etc. . . . reproduced 200,000,000 times a year,” bringing “both the institution and the city continually before the minds of millions of people residing in this and foreign countries.”
An interesting modern parallel, the Rub-No-More Company encouraged sterilizing face masks during the influenza pandemic of 1918. A notice printed in the November 22, 1918 issue of the Indianapolis News instructed readers to “sterilize flu masks” by “thoroughly dissolv[ing] two tablespoonsful [sic] of Rub-No-More soap chips in one quart of boiling water” to “carefully wash masks.” As with today’s COVID-19 pandemic, soap companies have used their advertising to encourage people to wear masks and to keep them clean, something the Rub-No-More company did over 100 years ago.
Despite the Rub-No-More Company having a mostly positive reputation, it wasn’t without controversy. In 1918, the Indianapolis Star reported that the Rub-No-More Company was one of several companies charged with violating the federal child labor law. In a grand jury indictment against them, it was alleged that “three children were required to work ten and one-half hours a day” at their plant. Another issue the company faced came from its manufacturing process— one of “obnoxious odors.” The Indianapolis Times wrote in 1923 that the City of Fort Wayne was seeking a “permanent injunction” requiring the Rub-No-More Company to reconfigure their production process to alleviate the harsh smells that bothered the city’s east side residents. It is unclear what the outcomes of these situations were, but violations of child labor laws and air quality, somewhat new to American industry in 1918, represented some of the lesser angels of industrialization.
After 35 years of success at the helm, Gustave Berghoff sold the Rub-No-More Company to Procter & Gamble and retired from the company in 1927. The company’s roughly 140 employees were transferred to other Procter & Gamble plants after a transitional period where Rub-No-More Company’s manufacturing stock was used. The Rub-No-More brand continued for many years under the Procter & Gamble umbrella, with advertisements for the product appearing in newspapers well into the early 1950s. Gustave Berghoff, the company’s former president, died on January 25, 1940 at the age of 76. He is buried in Catholic Cemetery in Fort Wayne.
The Rub-No-More Company exists in history as something of a Horatio Alger tale. A German immigrant, helped by his family, purchased a failing firm and turned it into one of the most successful soap companies of the early 20th century. Additionally, its innovative approach to marketing, promotions, and branding ensured its dominance in the marketplace. This story is also about how even a simple item, like a watch fob washing up on the beach in California, can lead to an understanding of one of northern Indiana’s industrial giants at the beginning of the American Century.
Marino: And this is Giving Voice. For today’s episode we’ll be talking with Cheryl Cooky, a professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Purdue University. Dr. Cooky teaches courses in the American Studies Program and the Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, on topics of sport, American culture, and feminism. She earned her doctorate degree from the University of Southern California in Sociology and is the co-author of the 2018 book No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport, and the Unevenness of Social Change.
Pfeiffer: Dr. Cooky has written numerous book chapters, has been published in a wide array of academic journals and is frequently quoted in both national and international news media outlets. She is the past President of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport and a member of the National Policy Advisory Board for the Women’s Sports Foundation. We’re so excited to speak with you today, Dr. Cooky. Thank you so much for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about how and why you began studying uh gender and sports?
Cooky: Yeah, thank you. That’s a tough question to answer, because how I got into studying gender and sport isn’t really uh a linear narrative that I can tell, which I think will be probably a theme for this conversation today. But long story short, um I was uh undergraduate at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, had aspirations to go to medical school. Um and didn’t quite do as well as you needed to do in some of those courses, uh and realized that maybe that wasn’t the the pathway for me. Uh however, I really found myself interested in studying human movements, I thought maybe physical therapy would be a track for me. Um and over the course of my education, I came to take courses in um various disciplines related to, you know kind of sport, uh motor development, and sports psychology. Anyway, I graduate with a degree, I don’t really have uh sort of conventional career path, but I knew I loved studying. I knew I loved being a student. I knew I loved doing research, I had some opportunities to work as an assistant in some of the lab’s um at uh Illinois. And, thought maybe graduate school, might be a good route for me. And I had never really taken a class on women’s studies. I hadn’t really um thought that much about gender and gender issues, until it was uh a couple of classes that I took in my master’s program at Miami, Ohio that really got me, thinking about sport and its role in our culture and really um for me quite different ways. Um then I had either thought about before or even been socialized to think about and, you know I grew up playing sports. Um I loved being physically active. Uh my parents weren’t really that involved so I didn’t have you know the helicopter parents on the sideline going to all of my games. Um, I also grew up in a time, in uh place where um you know girls participation in sports wasn’t really valued um in the culture and in the community and in my peer group. And so, I received these very subtle messages that you know while I wasn’t necessarily being told I couldn’t play sport. I was certainly getting messages that it really didn’t matter. And so, I found myself, freshman year of high school um dropping out of sport and joining then what was then called the pom pom squad, essentially the dance team. Um, and it became sort of a supporter of men’s sports, rather than an athlete in it of my own right. And so that experience, really kind of informs um the way I think about sports, um the kinds of topics that I seek out. I’ve done some research looking at girls’ experiences in sport to see if, you know to what extent things have changed over time. To look at the ways in which kind of culture uh sends messages about women’s sports and female athleticism. And so, I think you know again, and not a nice, neat narrative, but uh sort of uh this is where I am today, I guess, you know the rest is history as we would say.
Marino: Well, that sort of segues nicely into talking about our most recent Talking Hoosier History episode, which featured the history of the South Bend Blue Sox, which was a women’s professional baseball team in the 1940s and 50s. Um, the Blue Sox were one of four original teams in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and this was obviously several decades before the passage of Title IX. Um can you speak a little on the status of women’s sports generally in the early to mid-20th century? You know, what opportunities were there for girls and women to compete?
Cooky: I that’s uh an important question to ask and I hope to communicate to the listeners that I think there’s a way in which, for those of us who don’t study history, and I’m not a historian by training, uh but certainly I think that the kind of narratives we tell around women’s sports or the stories we tell around women’s sports, are really informed by a kind of um historical lens, such that we tend to see women’s sports in uh kind of linear trajectory and sort of a progressive development of change overtime. In other words, you know I hear this all the time from my students, like oh well you know back in whenever it is were talking about right. At the turn of the 19th or 20th century or during World War II, or you know before Title IX girls and women didn’t play sports, girls and women didn’t have opportunities and they certainly did. Not to the extent which they do today, but I think that when we look at the turn of the 20th century and up and through World War II, certainly girls and women were playing sports. The kinds of opportunities that they had really varied though, with respect to race, social class, the sports itself, and so um, if we look at higher education for example. Women had opportunities to participate in either competitive or non-competitive sports opportunities were happening in that space, certainly I think for women of color, black women in particular, there were different kinds of opportunities to participate in sports. Women were participating in the Olympics, although the events they participated in were certainly shaped by gender and gender ideologies. So, I think when we are looking at…Oh and I should say to, you know social class right. Women of more affluent means were uh able to participate in leisure activities like lawn sports, golf, tennis, so I think that there’s really important distinctions that we need to make when we are talking about women. Uh and scholars use the term intersectionality. Some people may have seen that in uh popular culture and media, but it’s really kind of thinking about the ways in which gender and how gender is shaping our experiences, is also informed by these other social identities and social locations.
Pfeiffer: You talking about um, you know Olympic participation and it being shaped by gender ideology and you know this certain sports that women could participate in. I mean, were there certain ones that were more acceptable for women to play or conversely sports that were highly discouraged at the time?
Cooky: The sports that uh allowed for a kind of performative adherence to conventional femininity right, so when we think about tennis, uh when we think about gymnastics for example those are that we tend to…figure skating, right. Those are sports that we tend to associate more with the kind of ascetic dimensions, which really sort of then plays into our cultural notions of femininity and feminine value being really rooted in appearance right. And that’s particularly so for white affluent women who are able to, you know achieve and uphold right those conventional notions of femininity. Basketball was a sport that was quite popular at the time um, I think that it is one of the first sports that women really kind of gained a foothold in. Certainly, the way that basketball was played at the turn of the 20th century and you know kind of up and through the mid-20th century, is much different than how the game is played today um we hear stories about the different rules that were implemented to take out the contact elements in the sport. So that’s the other part, right. So, one is kind of sports that emphasize the ascetics. The other piece are sports that are perceived to be not contact sports, right and so those are might be more individual sports or even team sports that are played individually. Sports like track and field for example. Um or sports that were popular at the time. This is probably the case today, but certainly scholars have written about the ways in which gridiron American football is highly gendered as masculine, although there are and have been women’s professional football leagues. Certainly, they don’t reach the sort of status or cultural uh level that the National Football League does, right but I think football is one of those sports that have really been resistant to any of the broader changes in our culture with respect to um increasing uh acceptance of female athleticism and women’s sports participation.
Marino: There’s a lot of things I’d like to talk about that you just said in there, but particularly you know you just used that word acceptance and there is this misconception that women you know haven’t been playing sports through much of the you know late 19th and 20th century. And of course, as you note that’s not the case um sports were in fact modified for women or were sort of channeled into appropriate sports for women, um but often time when we’re talking about women’s sports of course you always hear about Title IX and that being sort of this landmark or watershed moment for women’s sports. So, I was wondering if you could just tell us a little bit about what Title IX was and how it alters the landscape for women’s athletics.
Cooky: So, Title IX is federal legislation that was passed in 1972 that essentially says that any educational institution that receives federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of sex. So, often we associate Title IX with athletics and certainly the legislation had a really visible impact in terms of as you said kind of shifting the landscape for women’s sports and women’s sports participation, but Title IX itself doesn’t specify or isn’t exclusive to athletics and in fact pertains to any um educational opportunity that is apart of uh higher education or part of the high school educational experience right. So, that you can’t um you can’t have a club that would not allow girls or women to be members of that club. I think Title IX over time has expanded um into thinking about the ways in which things like sexual harassment and sexual assault can impact educational experiences, but really Title IX is about expanding opportunities for um for the underrepresented sex and in this case girls and women right. So, what Title IX did within the scope of athletics was to dramatically expand opportunities, such that the year prior to Title IX’s passage 1 out of every 27 girls participated in high school sports. Today, its I think its 1 out of ever 2.5 girls are participating in high school sports. Uh, its certainly had a significant impact in terms of expanding participation opportunities at the collegiate level as well. Title IX also applied to things like uh resources um and the quality of opportunity so its not just about giving girls and women a spot on a team, but its also about ensuring that that team has the resources to…you know access to practice fields, it has a team bus. It has um uh coach, the coach is paid. If it’s a scholarship sport, that the athletes are getting proportional amounts of scholarships and so on. So, I think for me what Title IX did was twofold, one was to expand opportunities right and that was really the intent of the law and then we had this sort of corresponding change that happened along with that when you get girls and women, now having the legal right to access to opportunities that comes with a sort of shift and change in the culture and so on a mass level, what we saw was an increasing acceptance of girls and women in sport and female athleticism. This didn’t happen overnight, it didn’t happen whole sale um its certainly an issue that we’re confronting, even today, but it definitely shifted the landscape so that the idea that girls and women shouldn’t be playing sport was really challenged in very powerful ways.
Pfeiffer: Yeah, I think that that is a great way to phrase it and you know I think we can all agree that obviously there’s been so much forward progress uh, so many gains made in women’s sport um, since Title IX passed in 1972, uh but their still is a lot of discussion, you know particularly through the end of the 20th century around this idea of apologetic or compensatory behavior for women athletes. Can you explain a little bit what that means for women athletes and how they’ve had to navigate social expectations surrounding athletics even in this post Title IX period?
Cooky: Sure, so the female apologetic is a term that was coined I believe by uh uh a historian um in the early 1970s to describe the ways in which, girl and women athletes have to sort of um navigate the gendered expectations of sport, with the gendered, broader gendered expectations of the culture. So, one of the really important things to understand about sport when were talking about gender and sport, um gender and history and sport, is that sport in the United States in terms of its modern development in the 20th century, was really uh uh, served a really important cultural function of socializing, young men and and boys and young men into what scholars call hegemonic masculinity or dominant forms of masculinity. So that during the great social upheavals, at the turn of the 20th century increased urbanization, industrialization, the expansion of education, all of these really fundamental social changes that were happening, were accompanied with a kind of so called crisis of masculinity, right, and so you know sort of long story short, sport is an institutional space by which our culture invests in the sort of maintenance of masculinity that’s kind of built on physicality, dominance, competitiveness, aggression, assertiveness, and so on. We know though that sort of broadly speaking those qualities and characteristics which are essentially human characteristics are highly gendered and gendered as masculine. So you take this institutional and cultural space of sport, which is really sort of steeped in these hegemonic understandings of masculinity and you put girls and women into that space. Right, and so there is this kind of conflicting message between the expectations that are required of girls and women on the playing field and the expectations for girls and women off the field and those expectations are not incongruence, as is the case with male athletes right, there’s actually a conflict. And so, the female apologetic, describes the ways that girls and women navigate those right and so there’s this cultural pressure, whether sort of real or perceived for girls and women to then really emphasize and highlight femininity. Right, so it’s through clothing, it’s through playing style, it’s through appearance and sort of portrayals um the roles that girls and women play on the field and off the field that then, sort of say I might be really tough and competitive and aggressive when I’m on the field, um but I’m gonna wear my hair in a ponytail. I’m gonna have long fingernails, I’m gonna wear uh you know are uniforms are gonna be such that they show that we are women or girls on the field. Were gonna have short skirts, were gonna have tight fitted jerseys, were gonna have short shorts, right to kind of show off our our bodies in ways that appeal to compulsory heterosexuality. And then off the field, I’m going to appear seminude in a photoshoot in a magazine. I’m gonna be, you know make sure I go out with my boyfriend or my husband, I’m gonna highlight in kind of the media things that I do. I’m gonna highlight that I’m a mother that I have children right and the media kind of plays into that. And that’s really, I think, sort of encapsulates the female apologetic. I think what’s important here though for me as a sociologist is to sort of think about agency. And so, its not that you know, that there are these cultural pressures, but certainly individual athletes have agency to either conform to those cultural pressures or resist those cultural pressures. So, I think female athletes particularly in this moment are much more able and willing to assert their own agency and to construct a kind of public image that may in fact actually run counter to what we would associate with conventional femininity or or the female apologetic and the increased visibility of lesbian athletes, I think is a great example of that. The increased visibility of athletes who are um embracing kind of more what we would call androgenous modes of appearance, I think is another way in which female athletes, women athletes are kind of resisting the hyper sexualization in sports. Um, we just saw that with the German gymnastics team, you know sort of resistant to wearing leotards and wearing the unitard instead. And so, I think that’s um, a really important point to acknowledge that those cultural pressures might exist, but athletes themselves have agency to either conform or resist.
Marino: Well, that’s really interesting because I mean I think, in a lot of ways this female apologetic, or this apologetic behavior has been going on even pre-Title IX of course as we saw in our episode with the South Bend Blue Sox, but you know continued at least through my time playing sports in the 90s and 2000s and I think you still do see it somewhat in sport today, but as you note, you know individual players and athletes do have that agency to make that decision and I think in some ways, you know are supported when they resist and pushback against that too. So, I think our final question here is what else needs to be done to sort of level the playing field for female athletes?
Cooky: Oh my gosh, so much work needs to be done (Laughs). That could be a whole other episode in it of itself, but I know we don’t have a whole lot of time. You know I think what’s important that I would want to communicate is, I think that there are ways in which many of the issues and problems and challenges that girls and women face at the beginning of the 20th century are not that different than the issues that girls and women face at the beginning of the 21st century. Certainly, there’s been a tremendous amount of change over that time frame, but there’s ways in which women I think still occupy a second-class status in sport. And so, you know I could talk more about the really important gains that we’ve made and the changes that we’ve seen and we talked a little bit about that with Title IX, but I think certainly the distribution of resources, um weather those are economic resources, whether that is cultural resources in the form of media attention and media coverage that is certainly an area that needs to be addressed. We talked about Title IX earlier and Title IX is important and has expanded opportunities, but when we look at all those resources and the quality of opportunities. What we find is that most institutions in higher education and in high schools as well do not comply with Title IX. In the sense of those resources, so certainly I think um expanding the investment uh economic investment and girls and women’s sports is important and I think the other piece that I’ll say here that I also think needs to be addressed and your podcast is helping to do that right, is to you know increase visibility of girls and women’s sports, within sort of the cultural discourse and within media spaces and so you know having the opportunity to learn about women’s sports um and to do so in consistent ways, I think is gonna go a long way in terms of hopefully seeing some real shifts and changes uh in the culture over the next 100 years. I think the other piece that I also want to say here, you know we needed to think about changing the way we think about gender in our society. Um, and I think that the issue of trans athlete participation um is really going to bring forward a number of really important conversations around the sex segregated nature of sports. Um and I think that’s uh really important space and potential for change uh as well.
Pfeiffer: Excellent, well this has been fantastic I think it’s a great follow up to our um most recent episode of Talking Hoosier History and I feel like what you said in terms of just sharing this information. Women have been participating in sports for well over 100 years and they will continue to participate in finding those opportunities for them too, uh whether it is, you know in terms of access, just making sure that those gains continue to be made, but really appreciate you sharing your insight with us today and really taking the time to talk with us.
Cooky: Thank you so much for having me its been a pleasure.
Marino: Yeah, thank you Cheryl. We appreciate it.
Show Notes for Giving Voice: Cheryl Cooky
Learn more about Dr. Cooky’s work here: https://cla.purdue.edu/directory/profiles/cheryl-cooky.html
See more of Dr. Cooky’s work here: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=kw2zExYAAAAJ&hl=en
View a Ted Talk about women’s sports here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPS2YoXWMSs
Residents at Smithwood Hall, a racially-integrated women’s dormitory at Indiana University, pelted objects from their windows on April 8, 1960. This did little to drive away the students who surrounded the building, singing segregation songs with lyrics like “Glory, glory Governor Faubus, the South shall rise again” and “Let’s all go to n****r haven.” Not until campus police arrived did the emboldened protesters finally disperse. The reason for their ire? The university had just elected its first African American student body president, Elkhart native Thomas I. Atkins. In fact, he was the first Black student to serve as president of a Big Ten school.
Protesters apparently targeted the dorm “commonly regarded as the key housing unit in campus elections” because residents voted narrowly in favor of Atkins, 388-372. As Thursday night crept into Friday morning, sisters at Alpha Phi discovered a burning cross—a signature of the Ku Klux Klan—on the white sorority’s lawn. It was rumored that some felt the sisters’ voting apathy resulted in Atkin’s victory. Under the cloak of darkness, approximately 400 students congregated at the center of campus, some waving Confederate flags and others shouting that “a bunch of beatniks” had engineered the victory. Before they could hang an effigy of Atkins, campus police broke up the protesters. The hate-filled demonstrations resumed Friday evening, when another fiery cross was found near housing for married students. Leo Downing, dean of students, noted wryly, “‘Our so-called ‘Klan element’ was really stymied in this election. . . . They either had to vote for Atkins, who is a Negro, or for [Mike] Dann, who is Jewish.'”
Atkins, described by the Indianapolis Recorder as a “mild-mannered honor student and speaker pro tem of the student senate,” responded graciously, stating he would ignore the protests as “‘not representing the Indiana University student body.'” The backlash he experienced would follow him throughout his prolific civil rights law career, but his time in Bloomington helped him learn how to withstand it.
No stranger to adversity, Atkins recalled that after contracting polio at the age of five, doctors told him he would need to use crutches his entire life. Three years later, he was walking unassisted and in 1982 told the Boston Globe “‘One thing [polio] did was convince me that nothing was impossible.'” Developing tenacity at a young age served him well when Elkhart’s elementary schools “accidentally” integrated after the Black school collapsed and the town could not afford to rebuild it. Fearing for his safety, the third grader lined his pockets with rocks the first days he attended the desegregated elementary school. As a teenager at Elkhart High School, he accomplished what he would at IU: being elected as the school’s first Black student body president.
* * *
The backlash at Indiana University failed to tamp Atkins’s ambitions and the following month, the Muncie Evening Press announced he was the school’s first student to receive the U.S. Experiment in International Living grant. This allowed him to temporarily live in Turkey, where he gained insights for his thesis, “The Role of the Military in Turkish Society.” The Senior, who stayed with an Istanbul family of three, returned home in October and concluded that Turks “cannot see how the United States can propose to lead the free world and still have racial prejudice at home.” The following month he was one of three IU students nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, which would fund three years of study at England’s Oxford University. So esteemed was Atkins that he was selected as one of twelve Board of Aeons students to advise university president Herman B Wells. In one instance, President Wells called upon him to convince discriminatory Bloomington barbers to cut Black students’ hair. Wells and Atkins convened a meeting with the barbers and, through compromise, got the barbers to agree to cut students’ hair regardless of their race.
While setting himself up for professional success, Atkins made a significant and controversial decision in his personal life. Seven years before the landmark Loving v. Virginia case, in which the Supreme Court ended bans on interracial marriage, Atkins married white South Bend native Sharon Soash. Reportedly, the couple met playing with the Indiana all-state high school orchestra, and in college carpooled to the South Bend-Elkhart area from Bloomington during holiday breaks. Soash had served as Atkins’s student body campaign manger and recently graduated from IU with a history major.
So taboo was their romance, that just before the wedding one photographer staked out at Thomas’s mother’s house in an attempt to snap a picture of the couple; he was quickly rebuffed. While Soash’s father considered Atkins to be a gentleman, he tried to talk her out of the marriage. Unable to be dissuaded, they tied the knot in Cassopolis, Michigan because, according to the Boston Globe, interracial marriage was illegal in Indiana. The newlyweds planned to return to Bloomington and live in a married housing unit, where they no doubt experienced their share of harassment. Now with a spouse to consider, Atkins decided to withdraw from the Rhodes scholarship nomination process.
The South Bend Tribune reported that both Atkins planned to pursue careers in national diplomacy, a field undoubtedly in-demand during the early Cold War years. Thomas was well on his way to this goal after earning a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which enabled him to pursue graduate studies at Harvard University. While there, a Ford Foundation fellowship allowed him to train in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies and earn his Masters in 1963. In fact, the Indianapolis Star reported that Atkins earned an astonishing twelve educational fellowships, five of which were from Harvard. Despite his international ambitions, he ultimately chose to fight on the “homefront” while working towards his law degree at the Ivy League school.
That homefront was Boston, where Black parents’ charges of de facto segregation in its public school system had routinely fallen on deaf ears. Atkins turned up the volume as the local NAACP branch’s executive secretary. His knowledge of the law, appreciation of educational opportunities, and ability to withstand racially-charged backlash, made the 25-year-old an ideal advocate for the city’s Black youth. Atkins and other NAACP leaders organized a series of protests beginning in the spring of 1963, like the June 18 “Stay Out for Freedom.” In lieu of school, approximately 8,000 junior and high school students met at ten designated “Freedom Centers,” like St. Mark’s Social Center, where they discussed the Black liberation movement and learned about citizenship. The organizers’ goal was simple: get the Boston School Committee to admit that de facto segregation was present in the district. Atkins summarized “We have not asked the committee to sign away its soul in blood, but merely admit that such a condition exists.” However, the committee refused to concede this fact—and would continue to do so for years.
The assassination of Medgar Evers, a Black WWII veteran and Mississippi NAACP Field Secretary, just days prior to the “Stay Out for Freedom” event underlined the need to fight for racial equality. Atkins served as master of ceremonies at a June 26th memorial service for the slain activist at Parkman Bandstand. Over 15,000 Bostonians turned out to pay their respects and march against injustice. Recognizing that protest must be coupled with policy in order to be effective, Atkins and other leaders hosted a voter registration drive at the memorial service.
Adding to their tactical repertoire, on July 29 Atkins and other activists blocked School Committee members from entering committee headquarters, threatening to do so every day until members agree to meet with NAACP’s Education Committee. Picketers handed out pamphlets to passersby about the “deplorable conditions of the Roxbury schools” and marched carrying signs that read:
“Stop Jim Crow Teacher Assignments”
“Why No Negro Principals?”
“Would You be Patient?”
“Don’t Shoot Us in the Back”
The battle lines firmly drawn, Chairman of the School Committee Louise Day Hicks responded that “Parades, demonstrations and sit-ins may appeal to the exhibitions, but they will not help the Negro school child who everybody admits does need help.”
Fed up with being stonewalled, Atkins, on behalf of the NAACP, issued an ultimatum to the School Committee the following day, stating it had until August 2 to meet or face bigger demonstrations. Atkins wrote, “It is launched with utmost regret, for the Branch would by far prefer the relatively quiescent atmosphere of the bargaining table to the commotion and clamor surrounding a picket line.” In issuing the ultimatum, Atkins advised the School Committee to consider:
Whether they are willing to accept the moral responsibility for this demonstration and as to whether they are willing to accept the political responsibility of having another debit chalked up on an accounting sheet which already show many more debits than credits in the areas of civil rights.
When that meeting did take place, School Committee members refused to discuss segregation. The longer the dispute went on, the more entrenched both sides grew. Although critical city officials categorized the conflict as a battle of semantics, Atkins and other leaders refused to move the goal post: without addressing segregation’s existence, equality would be impossible. Local reformer Susan Batson explained that de facto “was the most evil kind” of segregation because “no one is responsible and some say it doesn’t exist.”
Surely, the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August—at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech—further empowered Boston leaders, who organized a “sleep-in” at School Committee headquarters. Such demonstrations drew the ire of committee member Joseph Lee, who called NAACP protesters “frauds, mountebanks, and charlatans.” Further, he contended:
they are clearly doing all in their power to obstruct the education of the Negro-American school child in Boston, so that they can perpetually pose as a potential Moses to lead the deprived pupil out of such imposed intellectual bondage–and at the same time pose as saviors to gull [sic?] a handsome living out of white dupers.
To these allegations, Atkins responded as he did to the IU demonstrations, with measured aplomb, stating, “I think it’s amusing.” He suggested that white residents and school committee members were shaken because “The Negro wasn’t proud of being a Negro before. Now he is. There isn’t a Negro Problem in Boston—there is a Boston problem.” But when it became clear that the committee would not recognize segregation, Atkins focused on leveraging the Black vote. If activists couldn’t get committee members to change their minds, they would change committee members.
That summer, Atkins arranged for mobile registration booths to sweep the city in preparation for the elections. Before an audience of 6,000, gathered at the dilapidated Sherwin School on September 23, he urged, “Don’t complain-vote!,” foreshadowing the pleas of President Obama in 2016. Atkins framed voting as a form of self-help; to not do so would allow the school system to continue to “insult” and “ignore us.” He reminded the crowd that “Abraham Lincoln didn’t free you! He issued a document that has been studiously ignored for 100 years!” While Black and white children played on the playground, their parents sang emancipation anthems like “We Shall Overcome.” The audience also participated in a moment of silence to honor of the victims of the Birmingham bombing that took place just days earlier, another somber reminder of the injustices Black Americans faced.
With all hands on deck, the NAACP branch set out to collect voters’ signatures, registering 600 new voters in the predominantly-Black Ward #12 by the time polls closed on November 2. This was double the number of new Ward 12 voters registered in 1959. Now all that was left to do was wait as the election results rolled in.
Despite all their picketing, press conferences, and political campaigning, Atkins and fellow activists were dealt a blow when voters reelected each of the School Committee members. In fact, chairman Louise Day Hicks received more votes than even the mayor. Bostonians all but confirmed they agreed with the policy of “separate but equal.” But Atkins’s ability to mobilize Black voters helped sow the seeds of enduring political activism. According to the NAACP, 80% of eligible voters in Black wards turned out to cast their ballots, a percentage staggeringly higher than the 58% turnout in Boston’s other wards.
Atkins’s campaign to desegregate the school district—an effort that would require years of agitation—served another purpose, the Boston Globe noted. The city no longer looked to the South for news of the “Negro revolution.” Chants of liberation resounded in Boston’s streets, and the Globereported civil rights is now “on the lips of cab drivers and politicians, housewives and factory workers.” The Globe added that the Civil Rights Movement is not an “accidental ripple of the national wave of protest. It is well-planned and seriously developed by a small, devoted band of persons,” Atkins, being one of them. He “has been instrumental in the carrying out of the vigorous, new approach” of the NAACP. The Boston transplant helped inspire a new militancy in the fight for Black liberation, which would culminate later in the decade with the Black Power Movement.
The 1963 electoral defeat hardly took the wind out of Atkins’s sails. He worked for educational and employment equality when elected Boston’s first Black city councilman in 1967. Richard Hatcher’s election in Gary, Indiana—making him one of the first Black mayors of a large US city—that same year spoke to incremental gains in political representation for African Americans. In the tumultuous year of 1969, Atkins earned his law degree and went on to become a nationally-renowned civil rights lawyer. He continued to work with the NAACP to fight for Boston’s Black students in the 1970s and 1980s, overseeing the safe implementation of busing as a means of integration. In trying to mitigate the harassment and violence directed at Black children bused to new schools, he perhaps recalled his own childhood fears of attending Elkhart’s newly-desegregated school.
An NAACP survey inquiring about the challenges South Boston High School students faced in the 1970s confirmed the inadequacy of the education they had received. Atkins recalled:
I was sitting in my office one night, and I reached into my briefcase and here were these forms. So I took them out, and I began sort of absently to read through them. As I read through one after another of these forms, what I saw was that these kids couldn’t spell. They could not write a simple declaratory sentence. And as I read these forms, none of which were grammatically correct or spelling proper, I just started to cry. It was impossible to explain the feeling of pain on the one hand, but on the other hand, I knew we were right.
Anguish spurred action and Atkins became what The Times, of Munster, Indiana, described as “one of the most active and successful civil rights lawyers in the nation.” He filed segregation suits against school systems in Hammond and Indianapolis, Indiana; Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Benton Harbor and Detroit, Michigan; and San Francisco. One activist noted “There’s no place where Tom Atkins wasn’t influential.” According to his son, this prolific work made him a target of death threats and ultimately he left his Roxbury home for the protection of his family. His son described Atkins “running chicken wire over windows to block Molotov cocktails and installing spigots throughout the seven-bedroom house to connect the hoses for fighting fires.” 
* * *
In 1994, Atkins returned to his alma mater for the dedication of IU’s new Thomas I. Atkins Living/Learning Center. On a campus once pockmarked with fiery crosses, stood a residence hall that focused on “academic excellence and cultural awareness-specifically, the culture and history of African and African-Americans.” While social progress had been made since the 1960s, racial issues persisted. The dormitory hoped to change that by facilitating discussions among various races and improve how students related to one another. With the new center, the campus also hoped to attract more Black students, an issue Atkins addressed at his 1994 visit. He said “Leadership is not made of being the first follower. . . . IU needs to get out in front and I don’t think the university has done that sufficiently. I hope IU accepts the challenge to get it done.” After all, “without education, the door is locked” to American minorities.
In his 50s, doctors diagnosed Atkins with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was determined to overcome it through grit and hard work, as he had when afflicted with polio, stating “I believe miracles are usually man-made.” As the disease progressed, the Boston Globe noted he “continued to assist on cases even after he needed his son to translate his slurred speech and a special computer arm to help him peck out sentences.” The indomitable Atkins succumbed to the disease in June 2008, just months before voters elected Barack Obama the nation’s first African American president. His historic election came on the heels of work done by fearless leaders like Atkins, who the Boston Globe described as a “humanist” with a “steely resolve.” His time in Elkhart and Bloomington helped cultivate this unique blend of empathy and empowerment, best summarized by one of Atkins’s favorite sayings: “Power is colorless. . . . It’s like water. You can drink it or you can drown in it.” 
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