Monster Meetings at the Senate Avenue YMCA

Senate Avenue YMCA membership drive. Photo from “The Senate Avenue YMCA for African American Men and Boys.”

Two or three black men brought segregation of Indianapolis’s YMCA into sharp focus in 1888, when they attempted to join the organization. Although the YMCA lacked an official policy mandating segregation, they denied the black mens’ applications. Two years later, a group of African American men formed a Young Men’s Prayer Band in Indianapolis. By 1902, this band merged into a “colored Y.M.C.A.”

The Y opened at the tail end of a major influx of African Americans to the city following the Civil War and Reconstruction. In the forty years between 1860 and 1900, the African American population of Indianapolis grew 3,000 percent. Many white residents did not welcome these newcomers. Oftentimes, African Americans were relegated to segregated areas of the city due to housing discrimination and exclusion from facilities. Indiana Avenue was at the center of the largest African American community in the city, with 30,000 black residents living within a ten mile radius of the Avenue by the 1950s.

The establishment of this YMCA provided facilities for those men who had been excluded from the central organization. In an Indiana Magazine of History article, Dr. Stanley Warren points out that:

the necessity of finding a way to survive within a limiting system driven by segregationist tendencies has been the base from which many great African-American traditions and organizations have begun.

In the capital city, the organization then called “The Indianapolis Colored YMCA” served as an example of these great African-American traditions. Emerging out of the discriminatory practices of Indianapolis, this branch of the “Y” grew into one of the largest and most influential black YMCAs in the country.

Senate Avenue YMCA Building Circa 1920-1940. Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Libraries, Kautz Family YMCA Archives.

Before that could happen though, they needed a building able to accommodate their rapidly growing membership. By 1911, just nine years after its formation, the YMCA outgrew its building located at California and North Streets in the city. To remedy this, they proposed the construction of a new building. The building cost an estimated $100,000, a figure that seemed unobtainable to many in the community, where even the working professionals barely got by due to the limited job opportunities available to them.

Fortunately, just as the YMCA members began to plan their fundraising strategy, they gained a rather unlikely ally in a white, Jewish, Chicago businessman. Julius Rosenwald, part-owner of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, announced that he would give $25,000 to any community able to rise $75,000 towards the construction of a Colored Young Men’s Christian Association. With this support, members of the Indianapolis Colored YMCA joined forces with the white members of the Central YMCA for an incredible fundraising push. Two teams formed, one for the white members and one for the black members, and they set out on their mission. In just ten days, they surpassed their $75,000 goal. African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker was one of the largest contributors to the YMCA’s Building Campaign Fund.

Dedication of the Senate Avenue YMCA. This group includes: “George Knox, publisher of the Indianapolis Freeman; Madam Walker; behind her F.B. Ransom, attorney for the Walker Company; next to Madam is Walker Booker T. Washington; Alexander Manning, editor of Colored World; behind him wearing a light colored suit Dr. Joseph H. Ward; Charles H. Bullock, Secretary Louisville YMCA; and Thomas Taylor, Senate Avenue YMCA Secretary,” image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Digital Images Collection.

On July 28, 1912, with a crowd of over 5,000 people in attendance YMCA committee men broke ground on the site of the new building. Three months later another celebration with thousands of spectators was held for the laying of the cornerstone. Workers completed construction on the building, located at the corner of Michigan Street and Senate Avenue in downtown Indianapolis, in July 1913.

Booker T. Washington, 1903. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

YMCA members held a week of festivities and ceremonies in celebration of the opening of the new Senate Avenue Y, as it was called. Celebrations-attended by both black and white residents-included a ladies night, fraternal night, and athletic night. The highlight of the week, though, was Tuesday July 8 – the official dedication, which featured an address by Booker T. Washington, civil rights activist and founder of Tuskegee institute.In his address, Washington commended the citizens of the city, black and white, for banding together to make the Senate Avenue Y a reality. Then, he said:

I am proud of being a member of the Negro race and never
more so than tonight. I spurn the men who sympathize with me because I am a member of the Negro race. We have work to do and difficulties to overcome . . . Let the white people know about the good deeds in our race. In too many cases white people hear only of crime. They do not hear about the hard-working, industrious, sober colored men, and Indianapolis has many of the latter class.

In many cases, African American churches were the heart of the black community. The Indianapolis Colored YMCA, itself a Christian organization, became another center of the African American community in Indianapolis. Majority black neighborhoods such as this did not have access to the same social, recreational, and charitable organizations as the white communities. Because of these segregationist policies, black communities had long provided these facilities for themselves, often led by their churches. This is where the Senate Avenue Y stepped in, building on and expanding the work of African American churches.  The Senate Avenue Y was located in the heart of the Indiana Avenue African American community and offered adult education classes, held bible studies, provided meeting space for a variety of organizations, and even established an amateur basketball team.

Dance at the Senate Avenue Y, no date, courtesy of IUPUI University Library.

According to historians, these Senate Avenue programs:

fostered self-respect and self-reliance and tried to provide young men with proper role models and male companionship . . . [they] served as sanctuaries which preserved African American Masculinity and prepared black men and boys for their leadership role in the struggle for equality that lay ahead.

In order to reach more and more young men and boys, the Y held annual membership drives. These campaigns borrowed military organizational structures, dividing members into divisions of “enlisted men.” These men worked hard to recruit as many new members as possible. Those groups that enlisted the most new members were inducted into the Society of High Producers and The Royal Order of the Spizzerinktum, meaning “the will to succeed.” These tactics worked fabulously; membership jumped from just fifty-two in 1903 to over 5,000 by 1930.

Senate Avenue YMCA welcome ceremony. Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota Libraries, Kautz Family YMCA.

These wildly successful membership drives turned the Senate Avenue Y into one of the largest African American YMCA branches in the country. But being large does not necessarily make an organization important or influential. To understand the influence of the Y, we need to go right back to the very beginning of the branch, to the establishment of Monster Meetings.

The roots of the Senate Avenue YMCA Monster Meetings can be traced to the very early years of the Indianapolis Colored YMCA, and executive secretary Thomas Taylor. He instituted public forums where men, and later women, could gather on Sunday afternoons between November and March to listen to lectures on a wide variety of topics. Originally, Taylor wanted to call the forums “Big Meetings” but the proposal was rejected by the Central YMCA board because their annual meeting was already being called the Big Meeting. So, Taylor one-upped them and labeled his forum series the “Monster Meetings.” Taylor could not have known how fitting that name would become.

In the Taylor years, the meetings featured local religious leaders speaking almost exclusively on religious matters, but in 1916 a new executive secretary took the meetings to a new level. That executive secretary was Faburn Defrantz. (In 1947, he successfully spearheaded the effort to convince IU to allow African American basketball player Bill Garrett to play for the school’s varsity team. A “gentleman’s agreement” had barred African Americans from playing in the Big Ten).

Faburn DeFrantz in his Senate Avenue YMCA office. Photo from “The Senate Avenue YMCA for African American Men and Boys.”

During DeFrantz’s tenure, Monster Meetings continued to feature local ministers delivering religious messages. But they soon expanded to include some of the most well-known African American leaders in the nation, speaking on a variety of hot-button issues. In his seminal article “The Monster Meetings at the Negro YMCA in Indianapolis,” Dr. Stanley Warren provided a list that sampled some of the hundreds of speakers and topics featured at Monster Meetings during the DeFrantz years. These included authors, NAACP leaders like Walter White, professors, university presidents, politicians like Governor Paul V. McNutt, newspapermen, famous athletes such as Olympic gold medalist track star Jesse Owens, religious leaders, and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Unfortunately, I have not located a collection or archive containing the speeches given at these Monster Meetings. Luckily, some snippets of some of the lectures are preserved in the pages of newspapers like the Indianapolis Recorder.

The lectures bespoke major events and concerns of the period. In 1930, months after the 1929 stock market crash, Freeman B. Ransom, attorney for the Madam C. J. Walker Company, discussed “Unemployment and How to Solve It.” In 1931, during the Prohibition Era, Reverend Charles H. Winders and Boyd Gurley debated the question “Prohibition: Shall Indiana Stay Dry?” Dr. George Washington Carver, Director of agricultural research and professor of chemistry at Tuskegee University, asked in 1932 “Great Creator, What Is a Peanut, Why Did You Make It?”

In 1940, as World War II raged in Europe, Dr. Max Yergan spoke on “Democracy: A Goal to Defend.” After U.S. entry into World War II, Dr. Lorenzo Greene spoke on “The Negro in National Defense,” Phillip Randolph lectured about “The Negro in War and Peace,” and William Hastie discussed “The Fight Against Discrimination in the Armed Forces.”

In 1947, one year after the Froebel School Board in Gary, Indiana voted for desegregation after hundreds of white students staged a walk out in protest of integration, Joseph Chapman spoke on “Democracy in Gary Schools.” In the early Cold War era, Former Crispus Attucks teacher and the first African American woman to study at the University of Oxford spoke about “Education and International Good Will” in 1952. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spoke to a desegregated audience at the Murat Temple about “International Human Rights” in 1953.

And finally, leading up to and during the Civil Rights Movement, speeches such as “Integrated Society or a Segregated Society,” “The Civil Rights Crisis and American Democracy,” and “The Civil Rights Resolution in America” demonstrated that the black citizens of Indianapolis’s discussed and debated the same issues as those around the nation. The following details some of the most prolific speakers at the Monster Meetings:

Dr. Mordecai Johnson. Photo courtesy of The Atlantic.

Dr. Mordecai Johnson was a fixture of the Monster Meeting schedule, opening the meeting season for over forty consecutive years. He got involved with the YMCA in 1916, when he served as a student secretary and became a life-long supporter of the association. In 1926, Dr. Johnson became the first African American president of Howard University, one of the nation’s historically black universities. He served in that capacity until 1960. During his decades speaking at Monster Meetings, he covered a wide range of topics, including:

  • “Anti-Semitism and the Negro Ministry”
  • “Civilization’s Civil War”
  • “Implications of the Atomic Bomb”
  • “Ghandi and the Liberation of India”
  • “Segregation is Suicide”

Described as a man who “made people listen even when they did not believe,” Johnson was a powerful speaker and he lent his skill to important topics. As Cold War tensions mounted, he spoke of the dangers American segregation posed to the nation. He said:

“Through our nation’s moral weakness caused by segregation, we are committing scientific and technical suicide. We are five years behind militarily due to this moral weakness. Oh my brothers, let us pray it is not too late – only Almighty God knows whether it is not too late already…”

He went on to address the recent affirmation of Brown Vs. Board of Education, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional.

“It is my judgement that the death knell of segregation has been sounded. I see no disposition on the part of the Supreme Court to yield to the opponents of integration. The Court is informed by a sense of world duty which is inexorable.”

A. Phillip Randolph. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

Another name that appears more than once in the list of prominent figures featured at Monster Meetings is that of A. Philip Randolph. In 1925, Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first labor union comprised principally of African American workers. A major civil rights activist, he played a large part in pressuring President Franklin Roosevelt to issue an Executive Order that banned discrimination in World War II defense industries. He also pressured President Harry Truman to issue an Executive Order that ended segregation in the armed forces. (The 1945 Freeman Field uprising in Seymour, Indiana, where Tuskegee Airmen protested illegally-segregated officers’ clubs by forcibly entering the white officers’ club, also played a large part in Truman’s Executive Order). Randolph was not satisfied with those successes, though. In 1955, he stood in the Senate Avenue YMCA and declared:

“Negroes are yet second class citizens. Civil revolution was never completed, free public schools were never established, Negroes cannot buy property where they wish, nor can they enter certain businesses. They cannot join all the various unions. The Negroes cannot vote in some parts of this county; therefore they are not yet free.”

Later, in 1963, Randolph organized the March on Washington, where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, which highlighted the injustice of many of the same racist, segregationist policies Randolph underscored in his Monster Meeting lecture.

Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder.

In 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. himself, made an appearance on the YMCA Monster Meeting roster with a speech entitled “Remaining Awake through a Revolution.” Due to intense interest in King’s lecture, organizers moved the event to Cadle Tabernacle, which could accommodate a larger audience. In one of his first public appearances since he suffered a brutal attack at a book signing that year, the Baptist minister maintained his message of nonviolence, urging the use of love in the face of violence. He proclaimed:

“A new age of justice is challenging us to love our oppressors . . . We must not assume this new freedom with attitudes of bitterness and recrimination, for, if we do, the new age will be nothing but a duplicate of the old one . . . A new world is being born, and the old world will die. We must be prepared for the new world to come. Segregation is nothing but slavery covered up with certain niceties and complexities. If our democracy is to live, segregation must die . . . Use love. Love is a sure winner. Remember that as Christians we are working with god. If we do it the way God wants us to do it, we will be able to sing with pride, ‘My Country ‘tis of thee’ for Freedom must ring from every mountainside.”

The Senate Avenue YMCA Monster Meetings played a central role in not only educating members about topics of local, national, and international importance, but also in galvanizing the community into action. According to Dr. Warren, “As the popularity and importance of these mass education meetings grew, both the public and YMCA members exhibited a higher level of community activism.” For those who regularly attended Monster Meetings, the YMCA became a foundation for the changes that they worked towards in the coming decades. The meetings were a place where, in the words of Dr. Mordecai Johnson, “The redcap and the lawyer, the laborer and the doctor, seek together to find answers to social and political questions.”

*Interested in the Civil Rights Movement in Indiana? Check out this post about the 1972 National Political Black Convention, which drew over 10,000 black Americans to Gary. Influential leaders, such as Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, Revered Jesse Jackson, and Coretta Scott King, lent their support in creating a cohesive political strategy for black Americans.

2018 Marker Madness

WHAT: Marker Madness Social Media Campaign       WHEN: March 1, 2018 – March 31, 2018                           DOWNLOAD PRINTABLE BRACKETS HERE

During the month of March, the Indiana Historical Bureau will be pitting potential historical marker topics against each other in a single elimination tournament. The 32 topics will go head-to-head and YOU get to decide who will move forward.

Each day, there will be a featured match up from one of the four divisions: Politics & Military, Economy & Technology, Culture & Arts, and Community & Society. Voting for the featured match will start at 5:00 am and close at 5:00 the next morning. You can vote on Facebook and Twitter so follow us on both to participate! Check back here to see the results and the updated bracket. Below are the results of the first round matchups that have come in so far- print your own bracket and pick your winners here!

 

 

 

The Fort Wayne Colored Giants

Larry Rubama, “Missing History Postcard Spurs Search For Forgotten Team,” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, September 20, 1998, 1, courtesy of Perspectives.

The Fort Wayne Colored Giants was the only black baseball team to represent the city of Fort Wayne for forty-two years, from 1907 to 1949. In that time period, baseball was a segregated team sport, with black athletes playing only on all black teams. The Colored Giants team was one of the premier black teams in northeast Indiana in that period. Other black Fort Wayne teams included the Black Diamonds (1916-1917), Dupee’s All-Nations (1919), Riddle’s All- Stars (1920-1922), the Cadillac Colored Giants (1921-1922), and the Fort Wayne Colored Pirates (1926-30s). Indiana had over thirty-seven traveling black teams, extending from West Baden in the south to South Bend in the north, and Evansville in the west to Fort Wayne in the east.

Young men with outstanding baseball skills comprised the Fort Wayne Colored Giants. These young men developed their baseball prowess playing sandlot, church ball, “pickup” baseball, and community ball. Young men would come play baseball from as far away as Marion and other black communities in northeast Indiana.  Fort Wayne newspapers advertised player recruitment and notices for team competitions. It also provided notification of both games and team and league scores.

Cities large and small adopted black baseball teams when they could find players and afford to do so. The teams vitalized and energized their communities, both black and white.  The teams were self-sufficient and team members were paid scanty sums. Community teams typically passed a hat around during the game where patrons would contribute whatever they could to help defray costs. Teams struggled to maintain their budgets and keep their key players. Some teams were very wealthy, such as the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the National Negro League. Others just made ends meet and vanished after a season or two. The Fort Wayne Colored Giants did manage to provide a stipend for their players.

African-American Historical Society in Fort Wayne, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Baseball was the cornerstone of many communities, both large and small. This was the heyday for black businesses and the black community.  Life revolved about church, neighborhoods, clubs, and organizations like the Phyllis Wheatly House, the former community center, which is now home to the Fort Wayne African African-American Museum.

The Giants’ home field was located in southeast Fort Wayne, where home and exhibition games took place. The team also played at Fort Wayne’s League Park, which was constructed in 1883, and in 1922 renamed Lincoln Life Field. The Fort Wayne Colored Giants played black teams such as the Toledo Mud Hens, the Indianapolis ABCs, the Chicago Giants, Saint Louis Stars, the Evansville White Sox, and Pittsburgh Homestead Grays of the Negro National League. The Giants team played ‘out of local area’ Indiana teams, including those from Lagrange, Decatur, Geneva, Uniondale, Marion, Huntertown, Evansville, La Otto, Ligonier, Hudson and North Manchester. They also played teams from Hicksville, Antwerp, Convoy, and Van Wert, Ohio.

The Colored Giants had standing rivalries with area white teams, such as the Fort Wayne Lincoln Lifers, the Columbia City Grays, the Roanoke Independents, the New Haven Visible Pumps, the Kendallville Reds, the Garrett K of Cs, and the Auburn Athletics.

Fort Wayne Sentinel, May 29, 1923, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Colored Giants team had multiple owners and managers over the years and these include: (1909) Mr. Harry Ellis, both owner and manager; (1916) Mr. L.B. Dupee, owner and Mr. George Wilson, manager; (1919) Mr. Bob Jones bought out Mr. L.B. Dupee and retained Mr. George Wilson as manager; (1920-1921) Mr. Bob Jones, owner and Mr. Johnson, manager; (1921- 1922) Mr. Bob Jones, owner and Mr. T.E. Lewis, manager; (1923-192) Mr. Moses Taylor, owner manager; and (1930-1949) no information on owners or managers was available.  The information presented was obtained from Fort Wayne newspaper articles of the period.

Very little is known about the team’s owners and managers, but the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette Newspaper did feature one. That was Moses Taylor, the longest serving owner and manager of the Colored Giants (1923 to 1929). The story of black baseball in Fort Wayne is a story of a family involved in the community and in baseball.  It is a story of a man, a visionary and an entrepreneur, who became the catalyst for the creation of a strong baseball team. His dream generated passion within a community and among a group of young black men. He set the stage for solid baseball play with major teams, both semi pro and local.

After a team bus broke down in 1929 in Pittsburgh, Mr. Taylor stayed and found a job.  He moved the rest of his family to Pittsburgh around 1930. Mr. Taylor utilized his experience with the Fort Wayne Colored Giants to form the Pittsburgh Mystics, as reported by his daughter Mrs. Lucille Taylor Wooden of Cleveland, Ohio.  This team played against the Pittsburgh Homestead Grays of the National Negro League.

Fort Wayne Sentinel, September 3, 1920, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Fort Wayne Colored Giants infused and energized the black community of Fort Wayne. The team established its mark in the city and in baseball.  The Fort Wayne Tincaps are the legacy of the Fort Wayne Colored Giants and the many white league teams of the era.  They all contributed to baseball history in Fort Wayne.  The Giants are one of the few Fort Wayne baseball teams, black or white, from that era (1907-1949) to be recognized in the 21st century via news media and with a plaque at Parkview Field.  They assume their proper place in the history of Fort Wayne as true contributors to the development of sports history in the Summit City.

“Tired of Going to Funerals:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary

Delegates, including Reverend Jesse Jackson, marching into the National Black Political Convention, courtesy of Gene Pesek/Chicago Sun-Times, accessed wbez.org.

They agreed that black prisoners should receive fair trials, that black Americans should not die years earlier than white counterparts, that black workers should be afforded a living wage, and that black candidates should be given opportunities to craft legislation that affected their communities. They shared a collective outrage. In 1972, organizers asked them – Americans of color affiliated with Socialists, Democrats, Republicans, Nationalists, and the Black Panthers- if they could overcome differing ideologies to channel this outrage into political action at the National Black Political Convention (NBPC) held in Gary, Indiana. Black poet and activist Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) advocated for the gathering to practice “unity without conformity.”

According to an essay in Major Problems in African American History, the Gary convention was the culmination of a series of uprisings in protest of discrimination, which historians refer to collectively as the Black Revolt. Black Americans were emboldened by tragic events, such as the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, as well as legislative progress, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  In an interview, North Carolina convention delegate Ben Chavis recalled:

I had gotten tired of going to funerals. . . . so much of the Movement had been tragic. You know. And I have to emphasize [Rev. Martin Luther] King’s assassination was a tragic blow to the Movement. And so four years later, March of ’72, for us to be gathering up our wherewithal to go to Gary, Indiana–hey, that was a good shot in the arm for the Movement.

Historian Stephen Grant Meyer identified 1968, when King was assassinated, as the year in which the modern civil rights movement began to diverge. No longer was integration the primary means to make political and economic gains.  This fracture gave rise to a Nationalist faction, which sought to promote black identity and improve living conditions through a separate black nation. The polarization was reminiscent of the late-19th and early-20th century debates between reformer Booker T. Washington and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, who both worked to ease the economic and social plight of African Americans. Washington believed this was best achieved by earning the respect of white citizens through hard work and self-help. Du Bois, on the other hand, believed white oppression should be cast off by protests and political activism, in large part through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization he co-founded.

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. According to the NWI Times, he declared “all black people, involved in any way with survival programs for the black community, [to be] revolutionaries at the National Black Political Convention,” AP Photo, courtesy of the NWI Times.
NBPC organizers, who had begun planning the conference in 1970, struggled to find a city willing to accommodate an influx of politically-engaged black Americans. Gary Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, an advocate of civil rights and minorities and one of the first African American mayors of a major U.S. city, volunteered his predominantly black city. Not since the 1930s, with the first meeting of the National Negros Congress in Chicago, had such a massive and diverse gathering of people of color convened to advance their rights. Approximately 3,000 official delegates and 7,000 attendees from across the United States met at Gary’s West Side High School from March 10 to March 12. The attendees included a prolific group of black leaders, such as Reverend Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, U.S. presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, Amiri Baraka, Muslim leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, Black Panthther co-founder Bobby Seale, and Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz. Organizers sought to create a cohesive political strategy for black Americans by the convention’s end.

Television crews waiting for convention to start, courtesy of the NWI Times.

A bomb threat was called into convention headquarters at the Holiday Inn and a local gang reportedly deposited guns in school lockers. These threats to disrupt the convention necessitated additional security. Uniformed and plainclothes policemen reinforced the northwestern Indiana city. Armed civil defense personnel supplemented the police presence and boxer-turned-activist Muhammad Ali served as sergeant-at-arms.

The high school, decorated with red, white, and blue bunting, thrummed with activity. As vendors sold books, banners, and souvenirs, a band prompted snapping and feet-tapping with “gutsy,” drum-driven music. The Munster Times reported “Two or three white reporters, their faces split with grins, were lost somewhere with the music. A policeman absentmindedly slapped the butt of his pistol to the beat.” Delegates ranging from “pinstripe-suited conservatives to youngsters in colorful flowing robe-type shirts [dashikis] and mod fashions to the black-uniformed para-military” milled about the gym waiting for the delayed convention to finally start. Organizers scrambled to respond to complaints that the elevated platform for journalists blocked the stage.

Welcome poster, courtesy of the NWI Times.

Entertainers like James Brown and Harry Belafonte lent their support to the convention by performing. Comic and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, weighing 90 pounds as a result of fasting to protest the Vietnam War, addressed the audience about issues of policing and drug access and asked, “‘[H]ow can a black kid in Harlem find a heroin pusher and the FBI can’t?'”

State delegations, national organizations, and individuals proposed resolutions in the creation of “A National Black Agenda” (Muncie Evening Press). This agenda would extend the movement beyond the convention. As convention attendee and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York Dr. Ron Daniels noted, the Black Agenda was “integral to holding candidates, who would seek Black votes, accountable to the interests and aspirations of Black people.”

Delegates from Illinois suggested fines and prison sentences for businessmen found guilty of discriminatory practices. North Carolina attendees proposed a bill of prisoners’ rights that included humane treatment and fair trials. Delegates from Indiana and other states demanded that the U.S. dedicate resources to the plight of black Americans rather than the Vietnam War and end the conflict immediately. North Carolina representatives also urged that black men receive Social Security benefits earlier than white men since their life expectancy was eight years shorter. The Muncie Evening Press noted that “Politicking was intense . . . as state delegations tried to compromise their own views with positions they felt other delegations could support.” Tensions ran so high that part of the Michigan delegation walked out of the convention.

Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Keynote speakers Reverend Jackson, executive director of P.U.S.H. and Operation Breadbasket, and Mayor Hatcher ignited the crowd and “stoked rhetorical fires aimed at molding the diverse black communities represented here into a solid unit that can tip the political balance this presidential election year and from now on” (Munster Times).

While similar in many aspects, the men’s speeches hinted at the divergence in philosophies pervading the convention. Hatcher believed change could come from within the existing two-party system, so long as the parties responded to the needs of African Americans. However, if legislators continued to neglect black constituents, black Americans would create a third party and, he told attendees, “we shall take with us the best of White America . . . many a white youth nauseated by the corrupt values rotting the innards of this society . . . many of the white poor . . . many a White G.I. . . . and many of the white working class, too.” The party would also welcome “chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Indians [and] Orientals” (Indianapolis Recorder).

However, Jackson, appealing to Nationalists, urged the immediate formation of a black party, potentially called the “Liberation Party.” He asserted “‘Without the option of a black political party, we are doomed to remain in the hip pocket of the Democratic party and in the rumble seat of the Republican party'” (Kokomo Tribune). Jackson also called for the establishment of black institutions to oversee black educational, economic, and judicial matters. He asked the crowd “what time is it?” and the audience, electrified, shouted “It’s Nation Time!”

Harry Williams, “Convention Raps Busing,” The Republic (Columbus, Indiana), March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Jackson’s proposal drew criticism from some black organizations, like the NAACP, which believed that continued segregation, albeit black-led, would impede progress. According to Major Problems in African American History, the NAACP circulated a memo at the convention denouncing the proposal of a separate nationhood for African Americans and criticizing the rhetoric for being “‘that of revolution rather than of reform.'” An Indianapolis Recorder editorial articulated this point, noting “The only road to nationwide achievement by a minority is through cooperation with the majority.”

Presidential campaign poster courtesy of the Library of Congress, accessed BBC.com.

Another contentious issue in the 1970s: school desegregation through the forced busing of black children to white schools. The Jackson faction opposed busing and defined successful black education not as being able to attend white schools, but rather as children attending black-led schools. The endorsement of the presidential candidate that would best represent black interests also generated conflict at the convention. Some delegations supported Democrat Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black Congresswoman, while many Nationalists wanted a leader from a black party.

After intense debate, a steering committee tentatively adopted a National Black Agenda. The committee officially published the 68-page document on May 19, Malcolm X’s birthday. The resolutions included black representation in Congress proportionate to the U.S. black population, a guaranteed minimum income of $6,500 for four-person households, a 50% cut in the defense and space budgets, and an end to national trade with countries that supplied the U.S. drug market. The resolutions, designed to move black Americans towards “self-determination and true independence,” represented major, yet tenuous compromise among the black community.

Image courtesy of NWI Times.

The steering committee also formed the National Black Political Assembly, a body tasked with implementing the Black Agenda. Dr. Daniels noted that, although many of the agenda’s resolutions never materialized, “thousands of Black people left Gary energized and committed to making electoral politics a more relevant/meaningful exercise to promote Black interests.” He attributed the quadrupling of elected black officials by the end of the 1970s, in large part, to the Gary convention and the “audacity of Black people to . . .  defend black interests.” The NBPC was notable too for its inclusion of black Americans from all walks of life, rather than just prominent black figures, in formulating how to ease the struggles of the black community. The Recorder also noted that Mayor Hatcher’s reputation “has been considerably burnished in the white community as well as the black by the success of the historic event” (Indianapolis Recorder).

In 2012, Gary hosted the 40th anniversary of the National Black Political Convention. Speakers discussed the issues that had prevailed into the 21st century, such as a disparity in prison sentencing and poverty. One speaker remarked that without Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black president Barack Obama would not have occupied the White House. Another speaker, who ran for mayor of Baltimore, lamented that forty years after the convention “we’re still asking what to do instead of how to do it.” When asked if it was still “nation time” one speaker responded “it’s muted nation time.” Black Americans, they agreed, needed to “have the audacity.”

Contact: npoletika@history.in.gov

 

SOURCES USED:

“Black Convention Split Over Separation,” Terre Haute Tribune, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Black Meet Without Incident Bodyguards, Police Vigilant,” Munster Times, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Black Political Movement Born in Gary,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Creation of ‘The National Assembly’ Concludes Black Political Convention,” Kokomo Tribune, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Dr. Ron Daniels, “It’s Nation Time: The 40th Anniversary of the Gary National Black Political Convention,” Institute of the Black World 21st Century, March 28, 2012.

Harry Williams, “Convention Raps Busing,” Columbus Republic, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Hatcher to Keynote Black Convention,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 11, 1972, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Jay Harris, “Black Political Agenda Hit on Busing, Israel,” Wilmington (DE) Evening Journal, May 19, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

John Hopkins, “Leaders Mold Black Power: Warn Parties” and James Parker, “Blacks Marching to Different Drums,” Munster Times, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Keeping Watch,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, March 10, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Major Problems in African American History: Documents and Essays, Second Edition, eds. Barbara Krauthamer, Chad Williams, and Thomas G. Paterson (Cengage Learning, 2016): 510-515.

“National Black Agenda Calls for Permanent Political Movement,” Kokomo Tribune, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Plans Span Wide Range of Opinion,” Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Wants Changes,” Valparaiso Vidette-Messenger, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Forgotten Hoosier Hero Samuel Woodfill

Portrait of Woodfill by Joseph Cummings Chase, 1919. Image courtesy Lowell Thomas, Woodfill of the Regulars, 1929.

Perhaps one of the most heroic soldiers of World War I, Samuel Woodfill is largely forgotten today. He would have preferred it that way. Modest and a skilled marksman, Woodfill was born in Jefferson County, near Madison, in January 1883.  Growing up, he watched his father and older brothers use guns to hunt, observing how they shot. By the age of ten, he was secretly taking a gun out to hunt squirrels and telling his mother the squirrels were from a neighbor. When he was caught, his veteran father (John Woodfill served in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War), was so impressed with Woodfill’s marksmanship he was allowed to take the gun whenever he pleased.

At 15, Woodfill tried to enlist during the Spanish-American War. He was turned down, but enlisted in 1901 at the age of 18. He served in the Philippines until 1904, and returned home for only a few months before he volunteered to be stationed at Fort Egbert in Alaska. It was in Alaska that Woodfill worked on his marksmanship, hunting caribou, moose, and brown bears in the snowy landscape of the Last Frontier until 1912. Upon his return to Fort Thomas, Kentucky, Woodfill was promoted to sergeant due to his impeccable record. In 1914, he was sent to defend the Mexican border until his return to Fort Thomas in 1917. While Woodfill showed great discipline and marksmanship as a soldier, World War I would prove how exceptional he really was.

Woodfill (left) and his comrades in Alaska. Image courtesy Lowell Thomas, Woodfill of the Regulars, 1929.

In April 1917, Woodfill was promoted to Second Lieutenant and he prepared to go to Europe to fight on the front. Before leaving, he married his longtime sweetheart, Lorena “Blossom” Wiltshire, of Covington, Kentucky. Woodfill was part of the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.), Company M, 60th Infantry, 5th Division and was promoted to First Lieutenant while in Europe.

“Lieut. Woodfill used his rifle as a club.” New Castle Herald (New Castle, Pennsylvania), April 5, 1919, accessed Newspapers.com

Woodfill’s most defining moment, and one that brought him international fame, occurred on October 12, 1918 near Cunel, France during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Leading his men through enemy territory, Woodfill’s company was attacked by German soldiers. Not wanting to put any of his men in danger, Woodfill proceeded ahead alone to face the enemy. Using his marksman skills, he identified the probable locations for German nests, and took out several snipers and their replacements. As he moved forward, his men managed to keep up with him and together they braced themselves for the shelling that would continue throughout the afternoon. When it finally stopped, Woodfill went back to retrieve the pack he had left behind, discovering that the jar of strawberry jam he had been saving was gone. Hearing Woodfill grumble about the “yellow-bellied son of a sea cook” who stole it, the company cook gave Woodfill a fresh apple pie. Remembering the pie years later, Woodfill said “I don’t think any medal I ever got pleased me half as much as that apple pie.” Woodfill spent ten weeks in the hospital, recovering from the mustard gas he breathed in while taking out the German snipers.

Woodfill received the Medal of Honor for his actions in January 1919 before returning home to Kentucky. Several other medals followed, including the Croix de Guerre with palm (France, 1919), and the Croce di Guerra (Italy, 1921).

Samuel Woodfill. Image courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society

He left the Army in November 1919, but quickly realized that after such a long time in the forces, finding a job would be difficult. Three weeks later, he reenlisted as a sergeant, losing his rank of captain he had achieved during the war. But as long as Woodfill was in the Army and living a quiet life, he was happy. Soon, his heroic actions during the war were forgotten by the public. This changed in 1921 when Woodfill was chosen to be a pallbearer to the Unknown Soldier by General Pershing. Upon seeing Woodfill’s name on the list to choose from, he exclaimed,

“Why, I have already picked that man as the greatest single hero in the American forces.”

Interest in Woodfill and his story gained popularity, and the fact that he had lost his rank as captain bothered many. Appeals as to his rank would appear in the Senate, but proved fruitless. Woodfill’s rank did not bother him, but the pay did. He wanted to provide for anything his wife wanted, and could not do that on a sergeant’s pay. In 1922, he took a three months’ leave from the Army and worked as a carpenter on a dam in Silver Grove to make enough money to pay the mortgage. By 1923, Woodfill was able to retire from the Army with a pension. Author Lowell Thomas took an interest in Woodfill and published a biography titled Woodfill of the Regulars in 1929 in an attempt to help Woodfill pay his mortgage. Framed as Woodfill telling the story of his life, Thomas had to add an epilogue to include the prestigious honors he received because Woodfill only included the Medal of Honor.

Woodfill on the rifle range at Fort Benning, Georgia, 1942. Image courtesy The Cincinnati Enquirer, via newspapers.com

In 1942, the War Department reenlisted Woodfill and Sergeant Alvin York, another WWI hero. Having lost his wife a few months earlier, Woodfill sold everything he owned and went off to serve in WWII. Woodfill passed most of the entrance exams, but had to be given special clearance because he did not have the minimum number of teeth required to serve. (Check back to learn about Hoosier dentist Dr. Otto U. King, who, through the National Council of Defense, mobilized dentists to treat military recruits rejected due to dental issues during World War I). At 59 years old, Woodfill was still an excellent marksman, hitting “bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye” on a rifle range in Fort Benning, Georgia. He did not serve long, as he hit the mandatory retirement age of 60 in 1943.

Rather than returning to Kentucky, Woodfill settled in an apartment in Vevay, Indiana. He spent his remaining years in solitude, enjoying the anonymity that he had craved throughout his career. He died on August 10, 1951 and was buried in a cemetery between Madison and Vevay. In 1955, Woodfill’s story resurfaced and a push to honor the WWI hero resulted in Woodfill’s body moving to Arlington National Cemetery. He was buried near General Pershing with full military honors in October 1955.

Woodfill did not enjoy the spotlight, but after taking on the enemy singlehandedly in the midst of a battle, he deserved it. He worked hard throughout his life with little expectation of recognition for his great accomplishments.

Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage, 1945-1987

Photograph from Nancy Poling’s personal collection.
  •  Out of courtesy to their descendants, the names of the Richmond couple have been changed.

Twenty-two years before Loving v. Virginia, Anna Harley, a white woman, and Daniel Winters, an African American man, sacrificed family, friends, and even country, to live together as husband and wife. In 1986, the Winters allowed me to interview them at their Mexico City home. It took me nearly 30 years to write Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987). As the trust between us developed and they shared a part of their life they’d intended not to speak of, theirs became a more difficult narrative to put to paper. Looking back on their forty-two-year marriage—a tape recorder between them on their green sofa—they reflected on their relationship with startling honesty.*

On February 2, 1945, the Richmond, Indiana couple drove to Chicago, where they could legally marry. In Indiana “marriage between a white person and a person with one-eighth or more Negro blood” was a felony, punishable by a heavy fine, imprisonment, and the voiding of the marriage. Not until two years later, when Daniel’s mother, in Richmond, became ill, did the couple return to Indiana. During the eleven years they lived there, they were never prosecuted, but faced persecution.

Daniel was born in Richmond in 1908. The town he remembered was as segregated as most southern cities, with restaurants, beaches, and hotels off-limits to the city’s black population. When African American celebrities like Louis Armstrong, Joe Lewis, and Marian Anderson, visited the Indiana city they had to spend the night with a local widow, who rented out rooms.

A precocious child and an outstanding athlete, Daniel wasn’t bothered by the community’s discrimination until he was old enough to participate in team sports at school. A particularly painful memory included a frigid evening in which he had to change into his basketball uniform outside in the shadows of the YMCA building, because the association prohibited him from using its locker room. Although he took all of the advanced classes in high school, his white teachers never encouraged him to attend college. Yet in 1933, during the Great Depression, he graduated from Earlham College with a teaching degree in Spanish. While at the school, President William Cullen Dennis’s office chided Daniel for walking into town with groups of white women on his way home from classes. Daniel could not participate in Earlham’s social events that took place at the YMCA or Richmond hotels. After a long period of working menial jobs, he was able to teach Spanish in the federally-funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) program.

The Richmond Item, August 30, 1935, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

Anna, born near Lima, Ohio, was seven when her mother died. Six years later her father took off to California without her. Abandoned, she went to live with her older sister, Violet, in Brookville, Ohio, near Dayton. She grew up independent and with an adventuresome spirit. Following her 1938 graduation from Manchester College, in Indiana, she became a social worker.

Daniel and Anna met in Richmond. The WPA office he worked out of was located in the same building as the Unemployment Relief Agency, which Anna supervised. A gregarious man, Daniel went downstairs to visit the young women who worked there. He and Anna began meeting at night in the privacy of her car, where they talked, kissed, and held each other. When Anna was transferred to northern Indiana and attended meetings in Indianapolis, Daniel rode there by bus. Indianapolis was large enough for them to appear in public and maintain anonymity. Yet people stared when they walked arm in arm along the sidewalk. Men sneered, “whore” in passing.

Only one of Anna’s friends, Inez, met Daniel before the marriage. Inez was quickly drawn to his charm and urbane demeanor, but she warned in letters that Anna should follow her head instead of her heart. A daughter of Anna’s sister, Violet, later said, “Mom practically had a nervous breakdown,” upon learning of the approaching marriage.

Daniel working at International Harvester, courtesy of Nancy Poling’s personal collection.

With World War II boosting production, International Harvester hired Daniel as a janitor at its Richmond plant- some company leaders were convinced that African Americans lacked the intelligence to operate machinery. The labor union, however, valued his education and elected him to leadership positions. During the McCarthy era, like other union activists, he was labeled a communist and intimidated by the FBI.

When Harvester closed its Richmond plant in 1957, no one in town would hire the “n— commie troublemaker.” By now the family included two school-age daughters. A move to Mexico offered Daniel the opportunity to practice the profession he’d been trained for and their daughters a chance to grow up free of racial prejudice.

But the move put new stressors on the couple’s relationship. Daniel, who taught English at a prestigious boys’ school, was soon saying he felt “as Mexican as chili verde.” Anna, a reserved, blond woman, felt at odds with the effusive culture whose language she never fully mastered. Daniel resented her not being outgoing; she resented his making little effort to help her adjust.

While personal in nature, Daniel’s and Anna’s story is also cultural. It speaks to the discriminatory attitudes resulting from the Ku Klux Klan’s influence during the 1920s and of McCarthyism in the 1950s. It is not the happily-ever-after story I anticipated, but an honest portrayal of the love and hurt any two people, not just a biracial couple, can encounter in an intimate relationship.

Learn more about the struggles Daniel and Anna faced as a biracial couple in Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987), available wherever books are sold.

* Daniel died five months after the interview; Anna is also deceased.

Bertita Carla Camille Leonarz de Harding: Jewels, War, and Writing in Indianapolis

Bertita Harding
“Bertita Harding Is Satisfied With Movie Based on Her Book,” Indianapolis News, June 5, 1939, accessed Newspapers.com

Before social media instantly familiarized people with new cultures, Bertita Harding endowed Americans, and specifically Hoosiers, in the 1930s and 40s with illuminating accounts of Europe’s and South America’s rich, sometimes volatile past and present. The Hungarian author spoke five languages, interviewed dictators, and witnessed the gleam of royal jewels. Her experiences compelled her to author more than a dozen lucrative books, mostly biographies. Indianapolis firm Bobbs-Merrill published most of her books. Bertita brought a fresh approach to biography, giving depth to royal figures, illuminating their motives, and endowing them with humanity. Her life was as interesting and tragic as the royal figures about which she so aptly wrote.

The “adopted Hoosier” was born in Hungary and moved to Mexico when her father was solicited to work as an engineer in Mexico City.  As a child, she grew intrigued with the story of ill-fated Carlotta and Maximilian, Emperor and Empress of Mexico. The story is worthy of a Shakespearean quarto:

Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph accepted the offer of the Mexican throne in 1863, having been assured that the Mexican people voted for his governance. However, he was installed into power through the collusion of Mexican conservatives and the French emperor, against the wishes of many Mexicans. He and his beloved wife Carlotta traveled to Mexico, where the liberal-minded emperor tried to rule with “paternal benevolence,” working to abolish the peonage system. When French troops pulled out of Mexico, and former Mexican president Benito Juarez returned, Carlotta fled to Europe to fruitlessly plead for support of her husband. Unwilling to abandon the impoverished people he had advocated for, Maximilian refused to abdicate the throne. He was executed near Queretaro, devastating his wife who remained in Europe. She fell into a debilitating depression and never recovered, refusing to acknowledge his death.

Chapultepec castle, courtesy of the National History Museum.

Bertita’s house was adjacent to the city’s Chapultepec castle, where the royal couple lived. The Indianapolis Star noted that “Each night as she went to bed she saw from her nursery window a light gleaming on the terrace of the somber castle, and she learned that there the beautiful Empress and her imperial husband had walked on starry nights.”

In 1909, Bertita, along with her mother and two brothers, journeyed to Vienna with a “mysterious black trunk.” Emperor Maximilian’s brother Frans-Joseph received the trunk, revealing to Bertita’s mother the jewels and insignia worn by the tragic royal couple. For returning the goods to the House of Hapsburg, Frans-Joseph bestowed Bertita’s mother with the signum laudis award for service to the crown. Bertita’s brushes with royalty proved to be the inspiration for many of her works.

Bertita traveled to the United States for school, training to be a pianist at the University of Wisconsin, where she met her husband Jack Harding. The couple moved to Indianapolis, where he worked as an executive at Harding Advertising Company. Eventually, the pair applied their literary gifts to writing film scripts in Hollywood. The Indianapolis News recalled in 1957, that Bertita “espoused the role of a young Hoosier wife and blithely entered local activities . . . She had a rare gift for being folksy and fabulous, cozy and continental at the same time.” Here, they participated in the Lambs Club, Athenaeum, and Players Club.

In a 1958 Anderson Herald article, Bertita stated that after her children were killed in an accident her husband encouraged her to write, an endeavor she found more convenient than practicing the piano. She mused “‘I’ve put a cake in the oven and gone over in my desk to write. If the cake burned, the chapter turned out to be a masterpiece. If the chapter was bad, the cake was delicious. And many times both turned out just right.'”

Ill-fated royal couple Empress Carlota and Emperor Maximilian, photographic print on carte de visite mount, created ca. 1864-1880, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1934, Bobbs-Merrill published her literary jewel, Phantom Crown: The Story of Maximilian and Carlotta of Mexico. At a talk for the Women’s Club in Richmond, Indiana in 1934, Harding stated that as a little girl in Mexico City she interrogated former ladies-in-waiting for the royal couple about their fates. The adopted Hoosier added “I could visualize how they felt-transplanted Europeans, somewhat bewildered.” Harding penned the impeccably-researched biography in her Indianapolis apartment, writing methodically from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. She recalled “As I wrote the book sometimes I would laugh at my own jokes, and sometimes I would cry with sympathy for them, and I loved to think my own book could arouse such sympathy in myself.”

With the success of Phantom Crown, Harding cemented her place in the Hoosier literary canon, residing among a prolific list of Indiana poets, playwrights, novelists, travel writers, and journalists. These included novelist Booth Tarkington, author Gene Stratton-Porter, and poet James Whitcomb Riley. The book she described as “manifest destiny” created a demand for Bertita’s unique perspective. She went on the lecture circuit, speaking to clubs around the country about her experiences. The Muncie Evening Press noted in 1935 that with these lectures she took audiences on a vivid tour through Mexico and Europe, showing them “‘the small out-of-the way, pieces of art and works of beauty to be found in such travel.'” Listeners traveled down the Danube into Hungary and then Vienna, where they experienced picturesque domes and woodcarvings, before arriving at French convents. Of Germany, she remarked it “‘is too far advanced, with far too much intellect as well as sentiment, to provide the obscure forms of art . . . Their great capacity is for work.'”

Juarez promotional material, accessed IMDb.

By 1939, the story of the ill-fated lovers proved so popular that Warner Brothers adapted Harding’s book into a film called “Juarez,” starring Bette Davis. According to the Indianapolis News, Harding threatened to sue the studio for failing to give her screen credit, but the parties came to an agreement and Harding described “Juarez” as a “‘beautiful picture.'” Harding noted that the film’s theme had been adapted to “fit modern conditions” and that, during a time of Hitler-led German aggression, Warner Brothers was advocating for “America and the Constitution right now, so ‘Juarez’ just had to fit in.” Harding contended that “Juarez” was obviously made in the vein of anti-fascist film Confessions of a Nazi Spy.

Harding followed Phantom Crown with additional biographies about the House of Hapsburg, such as  Golden Fleece: The Story of Franz-Joseph and Elizabeth of Austria and Imperial Twilight: The Story of Karl and Zita of Hungary. The Indianapolis Recorder, an African-American newspaper, praised Harding’s writing, noting “Stiff, regal figures become understandable, human-beings. Royal mazes are unraveled. Motives for strange actions grow lucid.” The newspaper added that “A flawless instinct for drama makes the utmost of every event without the slightest strain.”

    

Harding’s life and books seemed to place her on the perimeter of political and military upheaval. In October 1940, she traveled to Brazil to gather material for a forthcoming book. By this time, Nazi Germany had captured France, and the Allied Powers feared that Brazil, which had been fairly politically neutral, could be susceptible to Nazi attack. Harding interviewed Brazilian dictator President Getulio Vargas, concluding that although Vargas was a dictator, Brazilians would never permit a European dictatorship. According to the Indianapolis Star, Harding asserted “I am convinced that, for reasons both sentimental and practical, Brazilians would resist any attempt to give either Naziism or Fascism a foothold in their country.'”

Jack Harding
Lt. Col. Jack Harding, Indianapolis News, August 10, 1944, accessed Newspapers.com.

By 1944, Bertita and her husband Lieutenant Colonel Jack Harding, an executive officer of public relations, were fully entrenched in the war effort. That year, the Indianapolis News reported on Jack’s work in England, noting that as an intelligence officer he briefed and interrogated combat crews and laid out the operational plan for air force public relations for the D-Day invasion. In a letter published by the Indianapolis News,  the lieutenant colonel illuminated for Americans the sacrifices made by soldiers in France on D-Day.

He wrote stirringly “it is still true that aircraft, artillery, warships and other auxiliary arms all radiate from a common center, one little man with one little gun. This day belongs to the infantryman, may God protect him.” Following the pivotal invasion, Jack accompanied war correspondents on a journey through France. They witnessed the fall of Cherbourg, where “Street fighting, snipers, artillery attacks, as well as a ride through crossfire, added up to part of the night’s work.” While her husband wrote about “those kids of ours,” Bertita helped sell war bonds through a literary group.

She continued to do what she did best–write about royal exiles. Harding published Lost Waltz in 1944, centering around Austria’s Leopold Salvator and his family of ten. The Indianapolis News praised her ability to “place for us these Hapsburgs in the broad movement of our own eventful times, her unusual ability to recreate past scenes and make them live again with the verve and sparkle of fiction, though she never deviates from sober fact.” Other books written by Harding after the war include Magic Fire: Scenes around Richard Wagner and The Land Columbus Loved: The Dominican Republic.

After the death of her beloved first husband, she married Count Josef Radetsky in Vienna in 1957, an ancestor of Austrian nobility. The Indianapolis News reported that the Count’s family estates had been “reduced to poverty” when Communists seized Czechoslovakia in 1948 and that he was working as a taxi driver in Vienna when he met Harding. By 1958, Bertita had made such a name for herself that the Orlando Executives Club nominated her to speak, among other nominees such as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. In 1958, her life took another somber twist when a Vienna court found Radetsky guilty of trying to defraud her, sentencing him to eighteen months in an Austrian prison.

Adamant that “age cannot wither you,” Bertita began work on a book about German musician Clara Schumann, which Bobbs-Merrill published in 1961. Bertita passed away in Mexico in 1971, having fulfilled her 1935 dictum that “‘Life comes before letters . . . If life results in writing, that is good: but writing without living is worthless.”

“A Satirist with a Heart, a Moralist with a Whoopee Cushion:” Kurt Vonnegut in Indiana

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., “The Annual,” Shortridge High School Yearbook, 1940, accessed Indy Public Library.

Indianapolis author and satirist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. would have turned 95 on November 11, 2017, just five  years shy of his centennial.  Few people on this earth have had a birthday of such significance; a World War veteran himself, Kurt was born on the 4th anniversary of Armistice Day.  The writer who was once described as “a satirist with a heart, a moralist with a whoopee cushion,” was born into an incredibly prominent Indianapolis family. His great-grandfather, Clemens Vonnegut, founded Vonnegut Hardware Store and was a major civic leader. His grandfather and father were both prominent architects, responsible for the former All Souls Unitarian Church on Alabama Street, the Athenaeum, the clock at the corner of Washington and Meridian, and many more Indianapolis landmarks. (Visit the Vonnegut Library and pick up a copy of our Vonnegut Walking Tour pamphlets).

Kurt’s childhood home in Indianapolis at 44th and Illinois streets, courtesy of Century 21 Sheetz, accessed Indianapolis Monthly.

Kurt was raised in luxury at 4401 North Illinois Street, a house designed by his father Kurt Vonnegut Sr. in 1922. According to Indianapolis Monthly, “original details like a stained-glass window with the initials ‘KV’ and Rookwood tile in the dining room” still remain. Kurt Jr. spent summer vacations at Lake Maxinkuckee, located in Culver, Marshall County. The Vonnegut family owned a cottage at the lake, where, according to the Culver-Union Township Library, Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson conceived of the idea for his The House of a Thousand Candles.

Vonnegut-Mueller cottage, pictured in an 1898 edition of the Culver City Herald, accessed Culver-Union Township Library.

Reportedly, Kurt noted in an Architectural Digest article:

“…I made my first mental maps of the world, when I was a little child in the summertime, on the shores of Lake Maxinkuckee, which is in northern Indiana, halfway between Chicago and Indianapolis, where we lived in the wintertime. Maxinkuckee is five miles long and two and a half miles across at its widest. Its shores are a closed loop. No matter where I was on its circumference, all I had to do was keep walking in one direction to find my way home again. What a confident Marco Polo I could be when setting out for a day’s adventures!”

Kurt’s parents lost a significant amount of money during the Great Depression, resulting in Kurt leaving his private gradeschool and attending James Whitcomb Riley School, named after the Hoosier poet. He received an excellent education at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis. Here, he badly played clarinet in the jazz band, served on the school newspaper and, upon graduation, was offered a job with the Indianapolis Times.  His father and brother talked him out of accepting it, saying he would never make a living as a writer.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. next to Madelyn Pugh, headwriter of I Love Lucy, “The Annual,” Shortridge High School Yearbook, 1938, accessed Indy Public Library.

According to the Indiana Historical Society, “Along with instilling Vonnegut with a strong sense of ideals and pacifism, his time in Indianapolis’s schools started him on the path to a writing career. . . . His duties with the newspaper, then one of the few daily high school newspapers in the country, offered Vonnegut a unique opportunity to write for a large audience – his fellow students. It was an experience he described as being ‘fun and easy.’” Kurt noted, “‘that I could write better than a lot of other people. Each person has something he can do easily and can’t imagine why everybody else has so much trouble doing it.’ In his case that something was writing.” He also admired Indianapolis’s system of free libraries, many established by business magnate Andrew Carnegie.

Fall out from the Dresden bombing in 1945, courtesy of Walter Hahn/Library of Congress, accessed theAtlantic.com.

Kurt ended up attending five total colleges, receiving zero degrees for the majority of his life, and ending up in World War II.  It’s no coincidence that he spent his life writing about the unintended consequences of good intentions! Captured at the Battle of the Bulge and taken to Dresden, he survived the bombing that killed (by modern day estimates) 25,000 people, while held in a meat locker called Slaughterhouse-Five.  He survived the war, though stricken with combat trauma, and returned here to marry his school sweetheart Jane Cox. After they moved to Chicago, he would not return to Indianapolis to live, although he visited with some frequency.  Suffice it to say, the Hoosier city was where he learned the arts and humanities and loved his family dearly. It was a place of tragedy as well, as his family had lost their wealth and his mother committed suicide on Mother’s Day Eve in 1944.  He had to move on.

Advertisement for book signing, Indianapolis News, May 1, 1969, accessed Newspapers.com.

Kurt spent the next twenty-four years writing what many would call one of the most significant novels of the 20th century, Slaughterhouse-Five. The semi-autobiographical satire of his experiences during World War II was released at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement. With this novel, Kurt became quite famous, at the age of 46.  His books, short stories, essays, and artwork have provided comfort to those who have grown weary of a world of war and poverty.

Kurt’s work affected me profoundly, first reading Breakfast of Champions as an undergraduate.  I continued to read Kurt Vonnegut constantly, throughout life’s trials and triumphs, always finding very coherent and succinct sentences that seemed to address exactly how I was feeling about the world at the moment. As an individual growing up in Indiana, I loved how my home state featured as a character in nearly all of his work, from the beautiful, heart wrenching final scene in the novel The Sirens of Titan, to the hilarious airplane conversation in Cat’s Cradle, to the economically downtrodden fictional town of Rosewater, Indiana in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, to the planet Tralfamadore from Slaughterhouse-Five (I personally think he took it from Trafalgar, Indiana.  While I have no proof, his father did spent the last two years of his life living in Brown County, not very far away)!

Kurt Vonnegut mural in Indianapolis, courtesy of Flickr, accessed National Endowment for the Arts.

So it was the honor of a lifetime in 2011 to join the staff of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library in downtown Indianapolis.  Throughout the years we have tirelessly drawn attention to issues Kurt Vonnegut cared about, the struggle against censorship, the war on poverty, the desire to live in a more peaceful and humane world, campaigning to help veterans heal from the wounds of war through the arts and humanities. These pursuits are inspired by a man who wrote about these issues for eighty-four years, until a fall outside his Manhattan brownstone “scrambled his precious egg,” as his son Mark Vonnegut described it. To me, Kurt Vonnegut is not gone, he is alive in the minds of our visitors, who themselves all have interesting stories about how they came to the work of Mr. Vonnegut, or are simply curious to learn more.  Time being flexible is an idea Kurt himself seemed to espouse in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

In 2017, the Year of Vonnegut, we focused on the issue of Common Decency. Our 2018 programming will focus on the theme Lonesome No More, which we took from Kurt’s criminally underrated 1976 novel Slapstick, in which he runs for President under that slogan, in attempt to defeat the disease of loneliness.  We’re going to give it our best shot, I humbly request that you join us!

Edited and co-researched by Nicole Poletika, Research & Digital Content Editor at the Indiana Historical Bureau.

Charles Gordone: Finding His Place to Be Somebody

Charles Gordone
Charles Gordone, accessed Blackpast.org.

The unified efforts of the Civil Rights Movement began to fracture when in 1966 a new strategy and ideology emerged, known as the Black Power Movement.  This new movement also influenced the development of the Black Arts Movement.  According to historian Ann Chambers, the Black Arts Movement did not speak for the entire black community; however, the movement gave a “new sense of racial pride to many young African-American artists.” One African-American writer and actor who opposed the Black Arts Movement was Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Charles Gordone.

Gordone was born Charles Fleming in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 12, 1925.  In 1927, his mother moved with her children to Elkhart, Indiana.  By 1931, she married, changing Charles Fleming’s name to Charles Gordon.  He attended Elkhart High School and, although popular at school, faced racial discrimination while living in Indiana because of the divide between white and African-American children.  According to Gordon, both races rejected him.  White children avoided him because he was black, and the town’s African-American community shunned him because his family “lived on the other side of the tracks and . . . thought we [the Gordons] were trying to be white.”

After serving in the US Army Air Corps, he enrolled in Los Angeles City College, and graduated in 1952. Gordon stated that he majored in performing arts because “I couldn’t keep myself away from the drama department.”  His experiences in college influenced his outlook on race in America.  Gordon stated “I was always cast in subservient or stereotypical roles,” and he began wondering why he was not given prominent parts in Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello plays. After graduation, Gordon moved to New York City. Once on the east-coast, Charles Gordon added an “e” to the end of his name, and became Charles Gordone when he joined Actor’s Equity Association; a labor union for theater actors and stage managers.

Supporters of the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers picketing a theater in New York City, 1962, courtesy of gettyimages.co.uk.

Two months after Gordone’s arrival in New York, he performed in Moss Hart’s Broadway play, The Climate of Eden, the “first of many Broadway and off-Broadway productions” for Gordone. He soon realized that black actors had a hard time earning a living in the entertainment business, and he claimed he “began to get really intense” about the lack of acting jobs for African Americans.  He started conversing with many “young black actors,” and soon started picketing theaters on Broadway for better job opportunities. Similarly, fellow Hoosier actor William Walker, who portrayed Reverend Sykes in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, became a fierce civil rights advocate in Hollywood after being relegated to roles as a domestic servant because of his race. Walker worked with actor and future president Ronald Reagan to obtain more roles for African Americans.

Around 1963, Gordone became the chairman of the Committee for Employment of Negro Performers (CENP). Gordone claimed in 1962 and 1963 that television producers feared the withdrawal of corporate sponsorship if they “put Negroes in their shows” and that “discrimination took more forms in the entertainment field than in any other industry.”

Although the Civil Rights Movement had made extensive strides toward improving equality among the races, civil rights laws did not deter de facto segregation, or forms of segregation not “codified in law but practiced through unwritten custom.” In most of America, social norms excluded African Americans from decent schools, exclusive clubs, suburban housing divisions, and “all but the most menial jobs.”  Federal laws also did not address the various factors causing urban black poverty. As racial tension mounted throughout the United States, Gordone struggled to survive in New York City.  During the last half of the 1950s, out of work and broke, Gordone took a job as a waiter for Johnny Romero in the first African-American owned bar in Greenwich Village.  His experiences there inspired his play No Place to Be Somebody, which he began scripting in 1960.

During the next seven years writing his play, Gordone sporadically worked in the theater industry.  He was an original member of the cast for Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show.  The playwright, a white man, intended the play for an all African-American cast and a white audience.  He states in his script that “One evening an actor asked me to write a play for an all-black cast.  But what exactly is a black?  First of all, what’s his color?”

In The Blacks: A Clown Show, African Americans wage war against the “white power structure,” and the oppressed evolve into the oppressor. Warner noted that Genet’s play put Gordone “in touch with his black anger.”  In 1969, Gordone claimed that his experience as part of the cast changed his life because the play dealt with problems about race, enabled him to confront the “hatred and fear I [Gordone] had inside me about being black,” and introduced a talented group of African-American actors to the entertainment media including James Earl Jones and Maya Angelou.

1970 play bill, accessed hollywoodmemorabilia.com

Gordone finished his own play, No Place to Be Somebody, in 1967. The plot of the play revolves around an African-American bar owner named Johnny Williams.  Other characters include a mixed-race actor, a black homosexual dancer, a Jewish strumpet, a black prostitute, an Irish hipster, an aging black hustler, a member of the Italian mafia, an influential white judge, and the judge’s idealistic daughter. Johnny Williams, is a tavern-owner, pimp and wannabe racketeer.  His foil, Gabriel, also an African-American, is an intellectual struggling to be accepted as a legitimate actor.

According to a New York Times reviewer, the characters are forced to try and survive in a society controlled by white standards.  Johnny Williams possesses a desire to become “somebody” in Italian-run organized crime; Gabriel fails in his attempts to be cast in African American roles because he is light-skinned. The characters’ actions in No Place to Be Somebody are influenced by racial and cultural pressures directed towards characters of opposing races.  According to Gordone, “It [the play] is the story of power, about somebody who is stifled who was born in a subculture and feels the only out is through the subculture.”  By the end of the play, most of the characters fail in obtaining their goals because they have all set their “ambitions in excess of their immediate limitations.”

Gordone originally offered the play to the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC); an acting group rooted in the Black Arts Movement. He claimed the co-founder, Robert Hooks, turned it down because the NEC did not allow white actors in their theater troupe. Gordone and Warner produced a “showcase version” of the play at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in 1967, but “the response wasn’t too good.”  Gordone and Warner lost all their money in the venture. But in 1969, the play was accepted for the “Other Stage Workshop,” in Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, at the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Charles Gordone
Gordone directing his Pulitzer Prize-winning play at Joe Papp’s Public Theatre in New York, courtesy of Ebony.com.

No Place to Be Somebody opened on May 4, 1969 to mixed reviews.  New York Times reviewer, Walter Kerr, compared Gordone’s work to Edward Albee’s masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Other reviews called the play “engrossing,” “powerful,” and hailed it as one of the “unique” plays of 1969.  On the contrary, influential African-American critic, Clayton Riley, blasted the play’s poor production and directorial choices.  Riley also questioned Gordone’s “incomprehensible” dialogue, depiction of “self-hatred,” “contempt for Black people,” and his “desire to say too much.”  Yet, Riley did state that Gordone possessed “splendid talents.”  According to Gordone, Riley’s review “hurt Riley more than me [Gordone] … brother Clayton is uptight.  He can’t face it that The [white] Man is helping one of his brothers.”

Headline from The [Arkansas] Hope Star, May 6, 1970, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.
After the play’s opening, No Place to Be Somebody quickly moved to the Anspacher Theater for an extended period of time and opened for a limited run on Broadway in the ANTA Theater. Exactly one year after the play opened at the Shakespeare Festival, May 4, 1970, Gordone won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The play was the first off-Broadway winner, and Gordone became known as the first African-American playwright to win the award.  Yet he did not appreciate being categorized as a member of “black theater” or the Black Arts Movement, unlike Indianapolis poet Etheridge Knight.

According to a 1982 interview, Gordone’s views on race “alienated many blacks.” Gordone argued, in a 1970 New York Times editorial piece, that writers like LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) should write about more than “how badly the black man is treated and how angry he is.”  Gordone believed such theater intensified the split amongst the races, and he questioned “Is black really ‘beautiful’?  Or is that beauty always hidden underneath the anger and resentment?”  According to Gordone, Jones’ writing was “egotistical, smug, angry (never violent), frightened, and damning of every white man in the world,” and Gordone took offense that Jones was “attempting to speak for all people of color in this country.”

According to Mance Williams, Gordone opposed the Black Arts Movement’s notion that the “Black Experience is a singular and unique phenomenon.”  Gordone believed that African-American culture was one part of the larger American Culture, reasoning that without the “white experience,” there cannot be a “black experience.” Williams states that Gordone believed the races were interrelated, and helped create the unique qualities that defined the “white” and “black” races. In a 1992 interview, Gordone said “We need to redefine multiculturalism.  There’s only one culture—the American culture, and we have many ethnic groups who contribute.”

Poet Amiri Baraka, a major figure in the Black Arts Movement, courtesy of Amherstmedia.org.

One possible explanation for Gordone’s belief in multiculturalism is the fact that he claimed his ancestral makeup consisted of “part Indian, part French, part Irish, and part nigger,” and he jokingly called himself “a North American mestizo.” Williams claims the playwright deemed the “color problem” could only be resolved through cooperation between the races, and that is why Gordone shied away from any radical political movements that could further divide the races.  However, according to Gordone, his exclusion from the Black Arts Movement left him “Dazed, hurt, confused, and filled with self-pity.”

Gordone claimed his professional success put tremendous pressure on him. Winning the Pulitzer Prize made Gordone unhappy because he was acclaimed as a writer, rather than a director. According to Gordone, “every time you sit down at a typewriter, you’re writing a Pulitzer Prize. You’re always competing with yourself and you have to write something that’s as good or better.” In 1969, he began drinking heavily, hoping “get the muse out of the bottle” after the “long struggle.” During Gordone’s battle with alcoholism, he still worked in the theater industry.  He got involved with a group called Cell Block Theater, which used theater as therapy as part of an inmate rehabilitation program.

In 1981, Gordone met Susan Kouyomjian and in 1982 they founded The American Stage, an organization devoted to casting minorities into non-traditional roles, in Berkeley, California.  The American Stage productions included A Streetcar Named Desire with a Creole actor playing Stanley; Of Mice and Men with two Mexican-American actors playing George and Lenny; and The Night of the Iguana with an African American actor in the lead role of Shannon.  According to Gordone, he and Kouyomjian never overtly wanted to provide more opportunities for “black, Hispanic and Asian actors,” but Gordone said “it is now very much my thing.”  Their goal was to logically cast actors “so that you don’t insult the work’s integrity.”  Gordone believed “innovative casting enhances the plays,” and makes them so exciting that “it’s almost like you’re seeing them for the first time.”

Charles Gordone, photo by Susan Kouyomjian Gordone, accessed African American Registry.

In a 1988 interview, Gordone continued commenting about the portrayal of race in contemporary literature and theater.  Susan Harris Smith asked if theater critics viewed Gordone as “black first and a writer second?”  He replied “Yes” and commented the practice was “racist.”  He claimed he was a playwright trying to “write about all people . . . and to say I [Gordone] have a black point of view is putting me in a corner.” He believed African-American critics finally reached a “significant realization” about the theme of No Place to Be Somebody, that “if blacks walk willingly into the mainstream without scrutiny their identity will die or they will go mad.”

In 1987, Texas A&M University hired Gordone to teach in the English and Speech Communications Department. There, Gordone began embracing the American-western lifestyle or “cowboy culture.”  The playwright stated, “The West had always represented a welcoming place for those in search of a new life,” and he found a “spirit of newfound personal freedom” within the American West.  Gordone remained in Texas until his death on November 16, 1995.  Friends and family scattered his ashes in a “traditional cowboy ceremony, with a riderless horse” near Spring Creek Ranch, Texas.

Learn more about Gordone via the Indiana Historical Bureau’s historical marker.

Maurine Dallas Watkins: Sob Sisters, Pretty Demons, and All That Jazz

Movie poster for “Chicago” (2002), courtesy of Miramax.com.

“Yes, it was me! I shot him and I’m damned glad I did! And I’d do it again-,” cried Roxie Hart, the achingly beautiful murderess conjured up by reporter-turned-playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins. Inspired by crimes she covered for the Chicago Tribune in the 1920s, Watkin’s 1926 play “Chicago” became an instant hit and has been continuously reinterpreted, from Bob Fosse’s 1970s production to the Oscar-winning 2002 Miramax film. The Crawfordsville, Indiana native’s take on women murderers, who employed charm and theatrics to convince sympathetic male jurors of their innocence, earned the praise of critics and theater-goers. The Los Angeles Times noted that year “critics claim that the play is without a counterpart in the history of the American stage.” In an era of instant, often fleeting social media-derived celebrity, Watkins’ fame-obsessed murderesses who kept the press enraptured seem more relevant than ever.

Maurine Dallas Watkins
Maurine Watkins, News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), December 14, 1928, accessed Newspapers.com.

Born July 27, 1896 in Louisville, Kentucky, Watkins moved with her family to Indiana and attended Crawfordsville High School. According to a 1928 Indianapolis Star article, she started writing dramas from a young age. At 11-years-old, the Ladies’ Aid Society of the Crawfordsville Christian Church presented her “Hearts of Gold,” which generated $45. The St. Louis Star and Times described Watkins in 1928 as “simply dressed, with big, innocent-looking blue eyes and an exceedingly shy manner.”

After studying at Butler University in Indianapolis and Hamilton College in Lexington, Kentucky, she sought experiences about which she could write and contacted the city editor of the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper, convinced by Watkin’s zeal, hired her to write about the city’s crimes from a “woman’s angle.” Her eight month stint as a “sob sister,” or women journalists who wrote about female criminals and were often sympathetic to their crimes (although not in Watkins’ case), inspired her to write “Chicago.” She described the piece as “‘a composite of many different happenings, while Roxy the heroine, was drawn from one of our leading ‘lady murderesses’-the loveliest thing in the world, who looked like a pre-Raphaelite angel, and who shot her lover because he was leaving her'” (Ind. Star).

Beulah Annan
Beulah Annan in a Chicago jail cell immediately following her arrest for the murder of her lover, courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, April 29, 1928. Watkins covered the 1924 trial for the Chicago Tribune and served as inspired for her play, accessed Newspapers.com.

This murderess was one Mrs. Beulah Annan of Chicago, who confessed to killing her lover Harry Kalstedt. She was pronounced not guilty by a jury, swayed by her innocent persona and “man-taming eyes.” While Annan served as the inspiration for “Chicago,” the name of the play’s protagonist Roxie Hart was likely borrowed from a 1913 murder in Crawfordsville involving the lover of the deceased Walter Runyan. Like Annan, this lover was also praised for her captivating eyes and delicate features.

The St. Louis Star and Times noted that Watkins enjoyed this work for a period of time “because the psychological reactions interested her.” With literary inspiration in hand, she moved to New York and worked as a movie critic for the American Yearbook. She attended Professor George Pierce Baker’s playwriting class “47” at Yale University, drafting “A Brave Little Woman.” According to The Best Plays of 1926-27, upon completing the play Watkins, “being a thorough feminist,” approached play broker Laura Wilck, who “promptly bought it for herself and announced an intention of producing it. But before she got around to this the men interfered.” Well-known producer Sam Harris soon bought and changed the play’s name to “Chicago.” Best Plays attributed the piece’s success to Watkin’s “freshness of viewpoint,” “natural gift for writing,” and “interview with a lady murderess.” The Roaring Twenties provided the perfect canvas for Watkin’s literary skills and, as the Abilene (Texas) Reporter-News noted in 1927, “No period ever left itself wider open to lampooning than this in which the absurd antics of bootlegging, publicitizing, exploitation, crime and all the rest are commonplaces.”

Clark Gable, Chicago, Maurine Watkins
Actor Clark Gable (far left) portraying a reporter in “Chicago,” courtesy of Gable Archives, accessed Clark Gable, in Pictures: Candid Images of the Actor’s Life.

The play achieved immediate stage success. According to a 1997 Chicago Tribune article, it ran for 172 Broadway performances. Its debut generated widespread anticipation and the Los Angeles Times reported in March 1927 that preparations were being made at the city’s Music Box Theater, “with stage and screen stars, literary prominents, civic officials and society leaders in attendance, the opening promises to develop into a social event.” The showing featured an undiscovered Clark Gable (who later married Hoosier actress Carole Lombard), portraying “Jake the reporter.”

Ad, Harrisburg Sunday Courier (Pennsylvania), April 29, 1928, accessed Newspapers.com.

A review published by the Pittsburgh Daily Post noted that “Chicago’s” text was “so packed with knowledge and seasoned irony that any one could picture for himself the kind of toughened old buzzard of a sob-sister who would have knocked about enough to know how to write it.” The Arizona Republic published one of the more colorful and insightful reviews of the play’s impact on the public, noting that Watkins filled her “drama with comedy of terrific realty and, with never a word of preachment . . . and sends the audiences home converted to a skepticism that can hardly fail to have important results when enough people have seen the play.” As the scintillating third act concluded, the “audience staggers home, laughed out, yet somehow sadder and wiser, and realizing with tragic wonder that tomorrow the headlines will brazen forth some new female criminal.”

The Republic suggested that Watkin’s drama could change the public’s perception about these “pretty demons.” It added that her work was a “tremendous denunciation of the sacrilege by which the juryman, who should be the wisest and sanest of our guardians, is easily turned into a blithering come-on.” And, “best of all,” the satire was written by a woman “on the folly of men in their false homage to woman, their silly efforts to protect her while she dupes them.”

Maurine Dallas Watkins, father George
Maurine with her father on a return visit to Indiana. She stayed with her parents at their farm in Clermont, Indianapolis Star, January 6, 1928, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Indianapolis Star reported that the reverend’s daughter still considered Indiana home, despite moving to New York following the success of her play. She recalled upon a return visit “‘I love it out in the country-life’s terribly complicated! You count the rings of the telephone to see if it is your number, and you have to go and meet the postman.'” The woman who wrote about a “flashy negligee of blue Georgette with imitation lace,” kept her hair “unbobbed” due to her father’s dislike of short hair.

Following the success of “Chicago,” Watkins continued to write, but never achieved the same level of literary acclaim. She was commissioned to dramatize Samuel Hopkins Adams’ novel Revelry, about the Harding administration’s Ohio Gang, for which she conducted research at the White House. In April 1927, the newspaper hired her to cover the trial of Ruth Snyder, who murdered her husband. The paper noted that Watkins, a sobless sister, would “deal with facts, without tears, in a notable author’s inimitable way, from her place at the trial table in Queens courtroom.” She reportedly moved to Hollywood, writing screenplays and articles for Cosmopolitan magazine. The author later settled in Florida, where she died of lung cancer in 1969. Watkin’s three act play cemented her legacy among the pantheon of accomplished Hoosier writers such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Booth Tarkington, I Love Lucy‘s Madelyn Pugh Davis, and Crawfordsville colleague Lew Wallace.