On May 21, 1950, a group of African American Studebaker workers and their wives formed a building cooperative in South Bend, Indiana called “Better Homes of South Bend.” Like other building cooperatives, the group appointed officers and a lawyer, drew up incorporation papers, and set times for regular meetings. Unlike other organizations, members decided their cooperative’s activities had to be kept secret to succeed. The cooperative’s first meeting minutes even stressed “no information is to be given out.”
Better Homes of South Bend members had good reason to be cautious. Discrimination in the local housing market had long limited African Americans to dwellings in the southwest part of South Bend, near the Studebaker Factory. Many members were part of the Great Migration of millions of African Americans from the South to the North for war industry jobs in the 1940s. Many had hoped to escape segregation and Jim Crow policies.
However, those with sufficient finances to make down payments found virtually no homes available to them and no banks willing to loan them money. Many of the city’s landlords would not rent to black residents. Real estate agents refused to show black home buyers houses in all-white neighborhoods and developments. White homeowners who tried to sell to black buyers risked physical threats and vandalism. Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough notes that the housing situation in South Bend was so dire for African Americans in the 1940s that many black families were forced to crowd into one or two bedroom units in substandard buildings.
Alan Pinado, one of the only black real estate agents in South Bend in the postwar era, noted in an oral history of the Civil Rights Heritage Center that:
There were no first quality homes being built for middle class, middle income blacks in South Bend . . . The federal government was part and parcel of the segregated housing pattern. It was legally mandated that new communities be kept segregated.
Before the federal government stepped in, few became home owners. Banks spread mortgages only over three to five years. These mortgages required large payments that few could afford, especially during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, the government introduced the long-term, low-interest, self-amortizing mortgages most homeowners are familiar with today. Since these mortgages required smaller payments, home ownership became more economically feasible. Additionally, the federal government insured these loans through the FHA, making them an incredibly low risk for banks.
The government developed appraisal schemes to determine eligibility for these new loans. They adopted guidelines real estate associations had developed in the 1910s and 1920s to keep neighborhoods segregated. These associations erroneously decreed that the introduction of a non-white family into an all-white neighborhood would decrease surrounding property values. This policy kept many African Americans in poor neighborhoods, despite their income. For example, HOLC created survey maps of neighborhoods in 239 cities that color coded risk. Neighborhoods were coded into four groups, A-D. Only the best rated neighborhoods, marked A and B, would receive long-term loans. One criteria to receive an A or B rating included that the home in question sat in an all-white neighborhood.
Similarly, the FHA Underwriting Manual, written in 1936, told appraisers to investigate areas surrounding a house for sale to “determine whether or not incompatible racial and social groups are present” because “if a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” The manual further encouraged the use of local zoning and deed restrictions, like racially restrictive covenants that prevented potential black buyers from purchasing a home from a white homeowner.
By the time Better Homes of South Bend was established, the FHA insured 1 in 3 mortgages for new construction. However, the appraisal practices described above became standard practice and permeated the entire housing market. Though the Supreme Court ruled these practices unconstitutional in Shelly v. Kraemer in 1948, FHA did not stop publicly endorsing such actions until 1950 and prejudice in the housing market continued well after. Even in 1961, the United States Commission on Civil Rights admitted that housing still:
seems to be the one commodity in the American market that is not freely available on equal terms to everyone who can afford to pay.
Better Homes of South Bend members formed their building cooperative to combat this prejudiced housing market in 1950. According to scholar Jessica Gordon Nembhard, African Americans have established co-ops since the Civil War help fight economic racism. Cooperatives, or “companies owned by people who use their services,” work by pooling resources to satisfy an economic need created by a marketplace failure.
The first large African American housing co-operatives began in Harlem in the late 1920s. Many early African American co-ops in Indiana were markets or grocery stores, formed in the 1930s or 1940s. Better Homes of South Bend was likely one of the first successful African American building co-ops in the state. Only one other similar co-op, an apartment co-op in Indianapolis started by M.W. Jones in 1950, described in the Indianapolis Recorder as the “first Negro co-op Apartments in the city and the State,” is known to have existed.
At the first meeting, Better Homes members elected officers to run the group: Lureatha Allen as President, Earl Thompson as Vice President, Louise Taylor as secretary, Ruby Paige as assistant secretary, and Bland Jackson as treasurer. Eventually, twenty-two couples joined the group. Many members were neighbors along Prairie Avenue or Western Avenue. Eighteen of the twenty-two male members worked at Studebaker. Most of the women stayed home to take care of children. Since many of the women had more flexible schedules than their husbands, they often took on leadership roles in the cooperative.
After incorporating, Better Homes members had to find land to build their homes. Their lawyer, J. Chester Allen, secured twenty-six lots on the northwest edge of the city on the 1700 and 1800 blocks of North Elmer Street from his acquaintance, George Sands, a prominent white lawyer in South Bend. Only a few families, all white, lived in this relatively undeveloped area. US Census and Housing Data, which divides South Bend into six wards containing roughly five to six thousand households. The data indicates that only seven “non-white” households lived in the ward containing 1700-1800 North Elmer Street in 1950. In contrast, all Better Homes of South Bend members lived in Ward 2 or Ward 6 at the time, both of which contained 530 and 835 non-white households, respectively.
At a general meeting in September 1950, members enjoyed divvying up the lots and receiving their house numbers. The next steps involved getting loans to finance construction and a contractor to build homes on the lots. Better Homes enlisted the help of DeHart Hubbard, who worked as a race relations advisor at the FHA office in Cleveland. The FHA had finally started cracking down on racially restrictive covenants in their mortgages, after years of pressure from civil rights groups.
Through Hubbard, Better Homes got the FHA to handle their permanent mortgages and found four local banks to handle financing. Many members worried about meeting with local bank executives because they had heard bankers often denied home loans to African Americans, especially those who wanted to build outside black neighborhoods. Hubbard accompanied members to meetings with banking executives to remind the bankers that the federal government was insuring Better Homes’ loans and that members had good credit, therefore there was no reason to deny financing. In Better Homes of South Bend, member Leroy Cobb told author Gabrielle Robinson:
What I was really proud of was that here was a black man standing up to white executives and telling them that Better Homes wants to have a fair shake. It inspired me.
Better Homes also had to find a competent contractor. Member Margaret Cobb noted in an oral history for the Civil Rights Heritage Center at Indiana University South Bend, that contractors they met with “wanted to give us substandard materials,” to build their homes because members were black. Construction companies at the time often employed a double standard in building, using higher quality materials on homes for white homeowners and cheaper stock for similar African American homes. Leroy Cobb remembered in Better Homes of South Bend that one prospective contractor refused to put doors on closets in their homes. After two years, Better Homes finally found two contractors that supplied good plans at reasonable prices. All the houses were to be one-story frame construction on a concrete slab. Most floor plans contained five rooms and one bathroom.
Before construction could start, the city had to install sewer and water lines. Though the postwar building boom strained the city’s resources, negotiations between the city and Better Homes attorney J. Chester Allen stretched over years. Members suspect that the process might have taken so long because of an unwillingness for the Better Homes families to move to North Elmer Street. After two years of letters and petitions, the group finally got sewers installed and construction began.
In the late fall of 1952, the first family, Bland and Rosa Jackson, moved into their home at 1706 North Elmer Street. By the mid-1950s, all twenty-two families had moved in between 1700 and 1841 North Elmer Street. Leroy and Margaret Cobb moved in on November 1, 1953 to 1702 North Elmer Street. Leroy Cobb told Gabrielle Robinson that on move-in day, “I was elated.” Finally, he and Margaret had enough space for their family.
In August 1954, the group celebrated their new neighborhood with a picnic featuring cakes, pies, potato salad and barbecued chicken and ribs. Over the years, Better Homes members grew a vibrant community, filled with family cookouts and outdoor activities like baseball, kickball, and building snowmen. There was even an annual Elmer Street Parade.
The Indiana Historical Bureau will honor Better Homes of South Bend with a new state historical marker. The marker will be revealed at a ceremony open to the public July 1, 2017 at 1702 North Elmer Street in South Bend. Check on our Facebook page and website for upcoming details.
After a period of hitchhiking their way towards the West Coast, camping, and living on cold food, the twenty two-year-old burgeoning poet Kenneth Rexroth and his new artist wife Andrée, arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1927. Rexroth biographer, Linda Hamalian, referred to them as “forerunners of the flower children who flocked to Northern California during the fifties and sixties.” In San Francisco they found exactly what they had been hoping for: a rich cultural environment without the pretense they sensed in the East Coast artistic community.
They quickly met other artists and writers and found jobs painting furniture. They moved into an apartment on the Montgomery Block, often called the Monkey Block, that had long housed artists and writers, including the Hoosier author Ambrose Bierce. Rexroth wrote that they had little money, but “limited needs” and were able to live “the kind of life that I’ve lived almost always since, a sort of semi-monastic life devoted to writing and painting.”
The young couple also spent time enjoying the lush and varied natural environment surrounding San Francisco which Rexroth wrote “kept me in California all these years.” They swam and hiked and noted the unique flora and fauna. This love for nature deeply influenced Rexroth’s writing and he worried about destruction of the natural world by developers. In later years, he described himself as a sort of early environmentalist writer:
My poetry and philosophy of life became what it’s now fashionable to call ecological. I came to think of myself as a microcosm in a macrocosm, related to chipmunks and bears and pine trees and stars and nebulae and rocks and fossils, as part of an infinitely interrelated complex of being. This I have retained.
By the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Rexroth was employed by the Work’s Progress Administration (WPA) contributing to the “American Guide” series of handbooks for each state. Rexroth and several other local poets and writers created the California guide and were able to inject information on natural conservation and into the otherwise standard guidebook.
While he had contributed scattered “cubist poetry” to what Hamalain described as “ephemeral publications” upon his arrival in San Fransisco, by the 1930s he was regularly writing and publishing work in journals and small volumes of poetry. Much of this poetry combined natural imagery with his radical leftist political beliefs and strong anti-war sentiment. For example, his poem “At Lake Desolation,” published in the magazine The New Republic in 1935, contrasted the stillness of nature with the horrors of war. The poem begins:
The sun is about to come up and the regiments lie
scattered in the furrow their large eyes
wet in the pale light and their throats cut
He explored similar themes in his poetry throughout the 1930s and became a staunch pacifist. In 1937, the New Republic journal published Rexroth’s poem “Requiem for the Dead in Spain,” lamenting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. He began the work by describing his walk through the beautiful Sierra Mountains under the stars, the tone changes as he suddenly feels sick thinking about the war. He laments:
I see the unwritten books, the unrecorded experiments,
The unpainted pictures, the interrupted lives,
Lowered into the graves with the red flags over them.
I see the quick gray brains broken and clotted with blood,
Lowered each in its own darkness, useless in the earth.
Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco suddenly
I am caught in a nightmare, the dead flesh
Mounting over half the world presses against me.
That same year, the influential independent publisher James Laughlin included Rexroth’s work in his second annual New Directions in Poetry and Prose, a publication the Academy of American Poets referred to as “pivotal.” In 1940, Macmillan published Rexroth’s first major collection, In What Hour. The work was considered wholly original and cemented his place at the forefront of the San Francisco literary movement. A reviewer for the Oakland Tribune wrote: “Rexroth is wholly and essentially a poet in the new manner. Usually a poet’s first work, and this is Rexroth’s first book, enables the acute reader to name his literary progenitors. But Rexroth’s poetical parents, if he has any, are not known.” The critic continued, “Despite this break with tradition, or it may be, as the apostles of the modern poetry claim, because of this independence, Rexroth’s book is important and tremendously interesting.” Hamalain wrote that the poems that make up In What Hour “demonstrate his remarkable ability to render plausible the possibility of spiritual presence and a sense of unity in the natural world” despite the threats of the modern age.
While his writing career was taking off, his marriage was dissolving. Rexroth moved out and began a relationship with Marie Kass, a “whipsmart” nurse, who would become his second wife in 1941. While he was happy with Marie, he was devastated when Andrée died October 17, 1940 from a seizure. He wrote of Andrée in a poem published in The Phoenix and the Tortoise:
I know that spring again is splendid
As ever, the hidden thrush
As sweetly tongued, the sun as vital —
But these are the forest trails we walked together,
These paths, ten years together.
We thought the years would last forever,
They are all gone now, the days
We thought would not come for us are here.
This idea, that love and nature could serve as spiritual refuge in troubled times, became even more significant with the outbreak of World War II and the entry of the United States into the conflict in 1941. Rexroth maintained his pacifist stance and applied for conscientious objector status February 19, 1943. Throughout the war, Rexroth worked with pacifist organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, and the local branch of the National Committee for Conscientious Objectors. He wrote that at one point he received a notice from his draft board that his status had been changed from 4-E, conscientious objector to 1-A, available for armed service. He wrote, “I immediately appealed. The process dragged on for over a year while the FBI investigated the claim as by law they were required to do . . . There was no question that I was a bona-fide Conscientious Objector.”
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, some Americans began questioning the loyalty of Japanese Americans, a large number of whom lived on the West Coast. In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which relocated Japanese Americans, including native born citizens, inland, away from the coast (which had been identified as the Pacific military zone) and confined them to internment camps. Thousands were forced to leave their homes and businesses. However, some Americans, including Rexroth, opposed internment as racist and unconstitutional.
Rexroth wrote in his autobiography that even before the U.S. declared war on Japan, that he worried Japanese Americans would face persecution. He wrote a letter and sent it to various pacifist groups and religious groups, stating that when war was declared, “the persecution of Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry, because they are marked by their color and features, will be worse than that of the German-Americans of the First World War.” He wrote in his autobiography, “I managed to persuade them to set up a committee with the absurd title of the American Committee to Protect the Rights of Americans of Oriental Ancestry.” When Rexroth and other members of the Friends Service Committee got word from a “contact in the White House” about the order for internment, they “immediately got on the phones,” and urged each person they called to call five more people. They also called university and political contacts and civil liberties organizations. While perhaps an aggrandizement, Rexroth credited this work with mobilizing opinion in the Bay Area against internment.
Rexroth took more direct action as well. Again according to his autobiography, Rexroth explained a scheme that saved several Japanese-Americans, including a personal friend, from internment. He contacted the Midwest Art Academy in Chicago, which he called a “phony correspondence school” that advertised scholarships “in cheap pulp magazines” for classes on “photo retouching, art, dress design, and knitting.” He convinced the school to sign registration papers for Japanese American students for a fee. He then contacted the “colonel in charge” of evacuation in San Francisco who agreed to provide educational passes for such students despite the school’s organization being “kind of a racket.” He located funding through Jewish residents of San Francisco and worked with Quakers to “set up a student relocation program.” In this way, Rexroth wrote, “we started shoveling people our of the West Coast on educational passes.” The poet Robert Duncan wrote that both Kenneth and Marie were also “working in the camps . . . taking messages back and forth.”
Rexroth’s practice of Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga also influenced his pacifist views and actions. He incorporated this worldview, along with a belief of the transcendental power of love, into his writing. In 1944, New Directions Press published Rexroth’s The Phoenix and the Tortoise, a rumination on history and humanity’s major failings: war and its threat to the natural landscape. In this lengthy poem, there is still hope for humanity in nature and through love. While the tortoise represented the earthly and the mortal, the phoenix represented the transcendent, sublime, and immortal power of love. Likewise, the ocean symbolized nature’s power to transform and serve as sanctuary in a world threatened by war. Literary critic John Palattella explained, “Nature’s indifference to human death is not a threat but a source of consolation, since the ocean’s one unchanging characteristic is that it changes everything.”
While Rexroth and a small number of avante-garde writers flourished in the San Francisco area for several years, the end of the war in 1945 saw an influx of new artists and writers. Many of these new voices were drawn to the area because they had read Rexroth’s works and heard about the creative coterie he had organized: a group of rebellious writers who were exploring anti-establishment and far left politics in their literature along with other cultural critiques. Rexroth believed it was the war itself that created this cultural climate. He wrote in SanFrancisco Magazine:
Just as London under the buzz bombs enjoyed a literary renaissance and a profound change of social relationships . . . so San Francisco during the War woke up from a long provincial sleep and became culturally a world capital.
Rexroth also maintained what Beat scholar John Tytell called “a sort of western salon, a weekly literary gathering,” where Rexroth introduced poets to each other and hosted readings. Out of this meeting of minds came “an entirely new cultural synthesis,” which produced new movements in theater, art, and poetry. One newspaper described this literary gathering in 1948 as “the San Francisco bay area poetry forum,” but the broader movement became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Rexroth considered the combination of political discussion, poetry, and jazz to be the foundation of the movement. Over the following decade, this San Francisco Renaissance ushered in the rise of the Beat Generation. Rexroth’s role as bandleader of the San Francisco movement was responsible for his gaining the title “Father of the Beat Poets,” though he would later reject the title and the movement.
According to the Academy of American Poets, “Beat poetry evolved during the 1940s in both New York City and on the West Coast, although San Francisco became the heart of the movement in the early 1950s.” The Beat Generation rejected mainstream culture and politics and expressed themselves through new and non-conventional forms of poetry. Beat scholars point to the salon-type meetings organized by Rexroth as essential to bringing the Beats together. In the gatherings, the Beats would explore and embrace influential themes in Rexroth’s prolific writings like anarchism, pacifism, mysticism, and environmentalism. Beat scholar Ann Charters also credits Rexroth’s writings on Asian philosophy as influencing the Beat writers’ interest in “Buddha consciousness.”
Rexroth also helped establish jazz as an essential element of Beat poetry. During this period, Rexroth gained fame for combining his poetry with the music of local jazz groups. In San Francisco, he often performed at the Cellar, which became known for jazz and poetry performances and at the Blackhawk club with jazz bands like the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Two such performances were released on vinyl in 1957 and 1959.
Rexroth toured the country, performing regularly in New York City. According to the Academy of American Poets:
Rexroth was among the first twentieth-century poets to explore the prospects of poetry and jazz in tandem. He championed jazz and its musicians, publishing appreciations of players like Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, defending jazz in print against critics who deemed the music less than serious, and most importantly, he played in a jazz band himself, helping to define a role for the poet in the jazz world and a role for jazz in the poetry world.
In the liner notes for his 1959 recording Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, Rexroth wrote that jazz poetry “takes the poet out of the bookish, academic world” and returns the poetry to the realm of public entertainment. Rexroth believed that combining music and spoken word connected the audience and poet directly (as opposed to the mediation of the written word) and restored poetry to oral tradition.
Mainly, however, it was his rejection of mainstream culture that aligned Rexroth with the Beat movement early on. For example, in 1951, in a syndicated review of Rexroth’s poem “The Dragon and the Unicorn” one critic noted that these rebellious writers were reacting to the post-war period with disgust. He stated that though in their writing style, they break with tradition, but their rebellion makes them part of a long tradition of creativity.
On October 7, 1955, at a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Rexroth introduced Allen Ginsberg who read his revolutionary poem “Howl.” Scholars often point to this as the culminating event of the San Francisco Renaissance and solidification of the Beat movement. Charters described the movement as “awakening a new awareness in the audience (at the Six Gallery) of the large group of talented young poets in the city, and giving the poets themselves a new sense of belonging to a community.”
Rexroth championed many of the new writers in a 1957 article for The Nation, including high praise for Ginsberg. He described the scene at the height of the movement:
Poetry readings to large and enthusiastic audiences are at least weekly occurrences – in small galleries, city museums, community centers, church social halls, pads and joints, apartments and studios, and at the very active Poetry Center at San Francisco State College, which also imports leading poets . . . Poetry out here, more than anywhere else, has a direct, patent, measurable, social effect, immediately grasped by both poet and audience.
Rexroth argued that the Beat movement started as a radical literary movement, but quickly turned into a “hipster lifestyle,” that is, the pursuit of fashionable trends and not larger truths. He soon distanced himself from the movement because he felt the East Coast Beats, and especially Jack Kerouac, were opportunists seeking fame and mainstream acceptance. Rexroth was quoted by a reporter in 1958 as saying, “This beat thing, which is a publicity gimmick in the hands of Madison Avenue, will die away.”
Regardless, Rexroth had directly influenced the Beat movement probably more so than any other poet. In 1958, one reporter astutely wrote that Rexroth “seems to fix the entrance requirements.” Charters explained that Rexroth was one of a handful of writers who had “sown the seeds” for the flowering of the Beat movement. She refered to Rexroth as a “mentor” for the younger Beats and “the dominant force in the cultural life of San Francisco for more than half a century.”
Although the Beat movement melted into the counterculture movements of the sixties and rock and roll became the dominant outlet for rebellious youth, Rexroth remained a central figure in American literature. He continued to write poetry and extensive cultural and literary criticism. In addition to his original contributions, his translations of foreign poetry and his writings on literature such as his “Classics Revisited” column in the Saturday Review increased his importance to the literary world.
Writing for the Chicago Review, Rexroth scholar Ken Knabb looked back on the over 800 columns that Rexroth wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and San Francisco Magazine during the 1960s and 1970s. Knabb wrote in admiration of the diversity of topics that Rexroth covered: reviews of jazz and classical concerts, operas, films, Chinese theater, performances of Shakespeare; discussions of art, literature, fishing, architecture, drugs, wine, Civil Rights, war, and politics; observations from his world travels; arguments for the women’s liberation and ecological movements; and criticisms of the past cultural movements through which he lived and participated. Knabb concluded that “as an ensemble . . . they add up to a social document and critical commentary of remarkable range.”
While Rexroth had begun translating poetry from other languages in the 1950s, he dedicated more and more of his time to the task later in life. He paid special attention to translating the work of women poets starting in the 1970s in works such as The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (1972) andThe Burning Heart: The Women Poets of Japan (1977). By this point, his own work incorporated imagery and meter learned through decades of translating Chinese and Japanese poetry.
In his review of Rexroth’s collection The Morning Star (1979), critic Emiko Sakurai praised these poems especially as “extraordinary poems, rich and sensuous, always immediate, febrile and powerful” and called Rexroth “a poet of the first rank.” However, Sakurai had a hunch about Rexroth. He noted that “The Love Poems of Marichiko” were “ostensibly” written by a young Japanese woman. Indeed, they were actually written by Rexroth from this imagined perspective. Critics noted the transformative power his work as a translator had on his own original work and his ability to write convincingly from the a feminine perspective of his invented character.
Upon Rexroth’s death in 1982, the New York Times described this “poet, author, critic and translator of Chinese, Japanese and classic Greek poetry” as greatly influential on later generations of writers. The Times obituary noted that he received acclaim from both radical literary and political circles as well as “honors and awards from more orthodox literary corners,” such as Guggenheim fellowships and a prestigious grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.
Although he came to despise being called “Father of the Beats,” Rexroth created a cultural movement that influenced the voice and worldview of some of America’s best poets. Frankly, there would be no Ginsberg or Kerouac without Rexroth. However, it is his own unique voice that will forever hold his place in this country’s literary canon. Perhaps the best summary of his significance comes from poet and publisher James Laughlin, who described his friend Kenneth Rexroth aptly as “an American cultural monument.”
Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).
Ann Charters, ed., The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 1992).
On February 5, 1970, the Franklin Daily Journal in Franklin, Indiana proclaimed air pollution the “Disease of the Seventies.” It predicted that “gas masks, domed cities, special contact lenses to prevent burned eyes” would become “standard equipment if life is to exist” by 2000, unless action against widespread air pollution was taken soon.
However, it’s now 2017, no gas masks, domed cities, or protective eye wear needed. Why? You can thank Hoosier women, who fought for air pollution control measures since the 1910s.
Women first entered the fight against coal to combat air pollution. When burned, coal releases a significant amount of smoke and soot. Londoners began burning coal for fuel as early as the 1200s. Virtually every Londoner relied on coal for fuel and heat by the 1600s as England’s forests became depleted. As industries and factories powered by coal emerged across England during the Industrial Revolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, many British cities developed air pollution problems. By 1800, a chronic cloud of smoke enveloped London. Soot and smoke dusted the streets, ruined clothing, and corroded buildings.
Major American cities did not escape the smoky air that plagued the Brits. European settlers cleared much of America’s forests for firewood, construction materials, and to make room for crops and cities. As the Industrial Revolution began on the East Coast at the end of the 18th century, industries, homes, and businesses began to rely on coal for heat and power. Dirty air followed throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Dark smoke palls drifted through many urban areas at noon that reduced visibility to less than a block. The dirty, dark atmosphere caused traffic accidents, injuries, and even death. Doctors increasingly linked the drab, polluted air to depression and tuberculosis.
Indianapolis was no exception. The Indianapolis News reported on February 11, 1904 that “for a year or more, the smoke cloud has constantly been increasing until during the last two or three months, the city has taken a place among the smoke cities of the country and by some visitors is credited with being as dirty as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, or St. Louis.” That summer, the News described “dense volumes of black soot and smoke” blowing through business and residential districts across the city. A journalist wrote “Eyes and lungs are filled and as for wearing clean linen any length of time, that is one of the impossibilities.” The journalist noted that the smoke damaged goods in downtown shops and observed “every article in them to be thickly dotted with soot.”
Despite these issues, fighting smoke pollution in Indiana would be hard. Coal is one of Indiana’s natural resources and became a mainstay of the Hoosier economy during the early 20th century. It was discovered along the Wabash River in 1736. Organized coal production began in the 1830s and after World War I, production exceeded 30 million tons. Furthermore, coal and the smoke it produced became a symbol for economic prosperity nationwide. Often, postcards and promotional imagery for cities featured pictures of smokestacks emitting billowing, black clouds of smoke across the urban landscape. A writer for the Indianapolis News in defense of coal wrote in 1906, “But if the coal smokes, let it smoke . . . Wherever there is smoke there is fire, and the flames that make coal smoke brighten the world of industry and bring comfort to the untold hundreds of thousands of toilers. Let it smoke. The clouds of smoke that ascend to heaven are the pennants of prosperity.”
Indiana produces bituminous coal, a soft coal that often creates a lot of smoke when burned. Many cities had begun to abate smoke pollution simply by requiring residents and industry to burn anthracite coal, a harder coal that burned cleaner. Since bituminous coal was a major source of wealth for Indiana, many Indianapolis residents and businessmen did not want to take this course of action, even though they did support cleaner air for the city.
One method to abate smoke, but still burn Indiana bituminous coal was to install automatic stoking devices in factories and homes. These devices distributed the coal in furnaces more evenly so it produced less smoke. In 1904, the American Brewing Company on Ohio Street downtown installed one of these devices. According to the Indianapolis News, this device allowed the company to burn just as much bituminous Indiana coal as it had last year, but produce far less smoke: the journalist described the company’s smokestacks as “practically smokeless.”
However, few businesses followed in the American Brewing Company’s footsteps. In 1910, Indianapolis women formed the Smoke Abatement Association operating under the slogan “Better and Cleaner Indianapolis” to try to get housewives and manufacturers to stop burning bituminous coal. These women became part of a nationwide movement of middle and upper class housewives practicing “Civic Motherhood” or “Municipal Housekeeping” that drew on women’s traditional roles as protectors of the home. These women reformers argued they could use their skills as household managers to improve the health of the communities their families lived in and thus began to participate in political discussions surrounding health, pollution, and sanitation, like air pollution.
The group first asked women to reduce smoke produced in their homes by installing smoke control devices. The group offered demonstrations for proper coal firing and issued reports on local residences and factories that issued a lot of smoke. In 1913, the group succeeded in getting a city ordinance passed which banned burning bituminous coal in a downtown district bordered by Maryland Street, East Street, New York Street, and Capitol Avenue. To honor Indiana’s coal production industry, bituminous coal could be burned if a smoke prevention device was installed. It was hoped this ordinance would create a clean, smoke free section of the city to improve health and help merchants preserve goods otherwise ruined by the sooty air.
Though the Smoke Abatement Association remained active throughout the 1910s, US entry into World War I reverted smoke pollution’s image. Black and gray smoke churning out of smokestacks once again became symbolic of progress, this time in support of the war effort. Throughout the 1920s until the 1950s, air pollution remained regulated at the local level; state and federal governments largely remained aloof of the issue.
However, a more complex air pollution emerged in the 1940s that became a struggle for locals to solve on their own. In the summer of 1940, a thick eye-stinging, tear-producing, throat-irritating haze never before experienced enveloped Los Angeles. Though it eventually cleared, episodes continued as America entered World War II: the effects on health were so irritating, some Los Angelinos speculated it was a chemical attack from the Japanese. The problem persisted into 1943: various industries were suspected of causing the issue, but when they were shut down, the harmful air remained. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, this phenomenon, known increasingly as “smog,” afflicted almost every major urban area in the United States.
This was a complex type of pollution: growth in industry during World War II and the postwar era increased the amounts of emissions released into the air from factories as they burned oil and coal to create goods for the war effort, and later refrigerators, household appliances, and other consumer goods. During this time, the development of new chemicals, drugs, pesticides, food additives, and plastics also proliferated the consumer market. When manufactured, these products released a number of synthetic chemicals into the atmosphere that decomposed much more slowly than those emitted by older industries and remained hazardous longer. Lastly, the rise in population and expansion of the suburbs increased the use of automobiles. Cars blew out gasoline vapor that became a major ingredient in smog formation. All these combined emissions created a much more complex air pollution that was much harder to get rid of that would require cooperation from consumers, industry, and government regulation at all levels.
This type of pollution first appeared in Indianapolis in the mid-1940s, but did not become much of a chronic problem until the late 1960s. The pollution became so bad that it stained and eroded the limestone on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument downtown, as well as the façade of the Statehouse. It also became tied to increased rates of emphysema, lung cancer, and other serious diseases. Again, Hoosier women stepped up to try to improve the air in their neighborhoods, communities, and the state at large. They became part of a larger movement of women concerned with air pollution across the country and helped make it a national issue during the 1970s.
Many women fought air pollution through the League of Women Voters. League members traditionally conducted extensive research on political issues, conducted educational campaigns, and lobbied local, state and federal governments to make sure appropriate regulation was enacted. League of Women Voters members in Indianapolis, Richmond, and Seymour branches attended and testified at local air quality hearings, wrote to representatives urging more stringent air quality regulations, and sponsored programs and produced literature to teach the public about air pollution, current regulations, and what they could do to improve the solution. For example, these methods encouraged people to stop open burning of waste and carpool, bike, or walk to reduce automobile emissions.
Other women’s groups in the state took similar action. Housewives Effort for Local Progress, or HELP, a women’s group in Terre Haute dedicated to improving the city, took on air pollution as one of its major agendas. They lobbied local commissioners and educated the public on air pollution. The Richmond Women’s Club organized funds to purchase educational materials on air pollution to distribute to local students. Other women joined ecology groups, such as the Environmental Coalition of Metropolitan Indianapolis and fought for the passage of many regulations to control harmful gasses emitted by industry, such as Sulphur oxides. Chairwoman Elaine Fisher summarized the important role of the public in abating pollution: “Industry is pressuring . . . on one side. The only hope is for the public to give equal pressure on the other side.”
These women’s groups, and others across the nation, raised awareness of air pollution and made it a national issue. Most groups encouraged the federal government to get involved with air pollution. Since air pollution spreads across local and state boundaries, it made sense for increased federal oversight to control the issue. It is not a surprise that women’s fight against air pollution coincided with the passage of key federal environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970, which gave federal officials authority over reducing air pollution throughout the nation and the power to set federal emissions states have to comply with. The Clean Air Act has produced purer air for all Americans: since 1970 its regulations reduced the levels of common pollutants, and thus prevented deaths from disease and cancer and decreased damage to plants, crops, and forests previously caused by air pollution. Thank you, Hoosier women.
On September 18, 1945, hundreds of white students at Froebel School walked out of their classes to protest African American students at the institution. According to the Gary Post-Tribune, the striking students “urged that Froebel school be reserved for whites only” or that they be transferred to other schools themselves.
While the conflict between segregation and integration was far from new, the student strike in Gary would call into question the very values the United States fought to uphold during World War II, which had formally ended just two weeks before the “hate strike.” The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, composed of black ministers, made this point clear when it issued its “appeal to reason” to the citizens of Gary, Indiana:
It is indeed regrettable to note that after the nation has spent approximately 190 billion dollars, the colored citizens of Gary have sent about 4,000 of their sons, brothers, and husbands to battlefields around the world and have supported every war effort that our government has called upon us to support, in a united effort to destroy nazism and to banish from the face of the earth all that Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo stood for; to find in our midst those who are endeavoring to spread disunity, race-hatred, and Hitlerism in our community.
Gary Post-Tribune, September 20, 1945, 3
Integration was not a recent development at Froebel when much of the white student body went on strike in the fall of 1945. In fact, Froebel was Gary’s only “integrated” school throughout the first half of the 20th century, though the term warrants further explanation. When the K-12 school opened in 1912, Gary school officials recognized that African American students should not be denied the opportunities available to white students at the new school and established two separate rooms at Froebel for black students. By 1914, a report published by the United States Bureau of Education indicated that there were approximately seventy black students attending the school, but that “the other patrons of the school, most of whom are foreigners, strenuously object to mixing colored children with the others; so they are placed in separate classes in charge of two colored teachers. . .” Thus, despite integration, Froebel remained internally segregated.
A 1944 study conducted by the National Urban League showed that Froebel’s black students were “welcomed as athletes, but not as participants in cultural and social affairs.” They could not use the swimming pools on the same days as white students, were barred from the school band, and were discriminated against in many other extracurricular activities.
Conditions at Froebel improved slightly during the 1940s, due in part to Principal Richard Nuzum. He created a biracial Parent-Teachers’ Association, integrated the student council and boys’ swimming pool, and enabled black students to try out for the orchestra. Unfortunately, his efforts towards further integration angered many of Froebel’s white students and their parents, who would later criticize Nuzum of giving preferential treatment to African American students. These feelings, paired with a rising fear among many of Gary’s white, foreign-born inhabitants about increases in the black population in the city, largely contributed to the 1945 school strike.
Newspapers across the state covered the strike(s) extensively throughout the fall, and the story quickly made national headlines. By September 20, the strike spread to Gary’s Tolleston School, where approximately 200 additional students skipped classes. On September 21, 1945, the Gary Post-Tribune reported that between the two schools, well over 1,000 students had participated in the walkouts up to this point.
Eager to see an end to the strike, to avoid potential violence, and to get students back to school, Superintendent Charles D. Lutz and the board of education issued a formal statement on Friday, September 21, demanding that students return to classes on Monday. The school board threatened to take legal action against parents of students under age sixteen if they continued to strike, while those over age sixteen risked expulsion.
The school board was not alone in its hopes of ending the strike. Gary Mayor Joseph E. Finerty, the Gary Council of Churches, and the school PTA all issued appeals hoping to bring an end to the walkouts. Other opponents of the strike included the NAACP and CIO United Steel Workers Union. Many blamed parents of the striking students for the racial tension existent in the school, stating that racial hatred was not inherent, but learned at home. A September 26, 1945 editorial in the Gary Post-Tribune also noted:
Fundamentally this is not a school problem. It has developed out of the changing population in the Froebel area. . . As a result of this influx of Negro families some white property owners feel their homes and churches have depreciated in value.
While students at Tolleston agreed to return to classes by the school board’s stated deadline, those leading the strike at Froebel refused to return until Wednesday, and only on the condition that the school board meet with them beforehand and comply with their demands.
These demands, which the Gary Post-Tribune published on September 21, were three-fold: 1) the removal of all 800 black students from Froebel; 2) the ousting of Principal Richard Nuzum, whom they believed gave preferential treatment to black students; and 3) that school officials stop using Froebel students as “guinea pigs” in race relation experiments (Froebel was the only high school in Gary with a racially mixed attendance at the time).
The Gary school board met with the striking committee on September 25, and when it refused to give in to the students’ demands, the strike continued. Leonard Levenda, spokesman for the striking committee, was quoted in the Gary Post-Tribune on September 26, stating that the walkout was the result of “a long series of episodes provoked by the behavior of Negro students.” Levenda continued by blaming Nuzum for not taking action against African American students after these reported “episodes.” The strike continued until October 1, when students finally returned to classes after the school board agreed to formally investigate the charges against Principal Nuzum.
In response to the incidents at Froebel, Mayor Finerty urged the formation of an inter-organization racial unity committee to help improve race relations in the “Steel City.” Finerty, as quoted in the Indianapolis Recorder on October 20, stated “we in Gary must take positive steps in learning to live together in unity in our own city. Now, more than ever, there is need for unity within our city and the nation.”
Another article in the Recorder that day examined the reaction of white leaders in Chicago, who did little to conceal their disgust for the strike and criticism of the strikers:
These racist demonstrations have been an insult to democracy and to the hundreds of thousands of whites and Negroes who deplore this American form of Hitlerism. . . We further pledge not to walk out on democracy and on this problem which has its roots principally in the attitude and actions of the white man, not the colored.
In early October, the Gary school board appointed a special investigating committee and temporarily relieved Nuzum of his duties as principal. By October 21, the investigation came to a close and a report regarding conditions at Froebel was issued. Nuzum was exonerated and returned as principal and the report called for the school to return to the status it had before the strike. Angered by these results, students staged another walkout on October 29. Levenda and other striking students argued that they were not going on strike, but rather “being forced out by the actions of Mr. Nuzum.”
Searching for a way to bring a final end to the strike, Anselm Forum, a Gary-based community organization dedicated to social harmony, helped bring Frank Sinatra to the school to perform and talk with the students about racial tension in the city. While many students appeared attentive and understanding of Sinatra’s calls for peace and an end to racial discrimination, the striking committee refused to back down.
It was not until November 12, when State Superintendent of Public Instruction Clement T. Malan agreed to study conditions at Froebel that the striking students returned to classes. Even then, some mothers of the parents’ committee continued to oppose the students’ return.
Racial tension continued even after the strikes ended in November 1945. By the spring of 1946, students at Froebel threatened to go on strike again, but were stopped by the Gary school board and Froebel student council. Newspapers reported that the leaders of the previous strikes, in union with Froebel’s black students, issued an anti-strike statement in March 1946. In this statement, they encouraged the Gary school board to issue a policy to end discrimination in all of Gary’s public schools.
Due in large part to the “hate strikes” at Froebel, the Gary Board of Education adopted a policy on August 27, 1946, to end segregation and discrimination in the city’s public schools. Scheduled to go into full effect by September 1, 1947, the policy read:
Children under the jurisdiction of the Gary public schools shall not be discriminated against in the school districts in which they live, or within the school which they attend, because of race, color or religion.
In accordance with the policy, Gary’s public schoolchildren would attend the school nearest them and would be given equal opportunity “in the classroom and in all other school activities.” According to historian Ronald Cohen, the decision made Gary “one of the first northern cities to officially integrate its schools.” In 1949, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law to abolish segregation in the state’s public schools. The law required that schools discontinue enrollment on the basis of race, creed, or color of students.
Despite these measures however, discrimination in the Gary public school system did not disappear. Because of segregated residential patterns, few black students transferred to previously all-white institutions. The 1950s saw a resurgence in de facto segregation in the city as the black population there continued to grow and fill already overcrowded black schools.
Elvis Presley, known around the world as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, thrilled audiences for decades with his legendary swagger, good looks, and unique vocal stylings. Among his many concerts over the years, the one that garners much historical attention is the final one, at Indianapolis’s Market Square Arena on June 26, 1977. His final performance, to a crowd of nearly 18,000 people, inspired copious press attention.
An article in the Indianapolis News on June 25 listed it as a requisite event for music fans. The Indianapolis Star noted playfully “If you admire Elvis Presley’s back you still can buy $15 seats behind the stage for his concert at the Market Square Arena tomorrow night.” While $15 doesn’t sound like much, that’s the equivalent of nearly $60 today.
He reportedly told the audience “We’ll meet you again, God bless, adios” as he left the stage. Based on filmed footage, the crowd appeared enthusiastic about the performance; the local press, however, was a bit skeptical.
The Indianapolis press seemed divided on the quality of his performance. Rita Rose’s piece in the Indianapolis Star provided a sympathetic take of the show, even as it criticized his appearance. Rose wrote comically:
The big question was, of course, had he lost weight? His last concert here, nearly 2 years ago, found Elvis overweight, sick and prone to give a lethargic performance. As the lights in the Arena was turned down after intermission, you could feel a silent plea rippling through the audience: Please, Elvis, don’t be fat.
She assuaged readers, writing “At 42, Elvis is still carrying around some excess baggage on his midsection, but it doesn’t stop him from giving a performance in true Presley style.” She noted glowingly how well he sang some songs, including “It’s Now or Never,” and “This Time You Gave Me a Mountain.” Rose’s piece emphasized the better elements of the concert and the excitement of the crowd.
Conversely, critic Zach Dunkin’s piece in the Indianapolis Newswas the consummate bad review:
“Elvis Presley led another crowd of screamers in bananaland last night during his concert at Market Square Area and the question is why,” wrote Dunkin at the start of his piece. He added, “He obviously doesn’t need the money. He apparently doesn’t care about the way his concerts are packaged either.”
Dunkin went on to call Elvis’s mix of opening acts and his performance a “sideshow,” writing:
“It’s like waiting through the sword-swallower and the fire-eater before seeing the REAL attraction in the back room.” He also heavily criticized the “hawking” of souvenirs by vendors, who he said “came on the P.A. three times and urged the crowd to visit the souvenir stand. He even listed the prices.”
However, Dunkin’s strongest criticism was of the King himself, who he said could “sing when he tries.” His best numbers, in Dunkin’s view, were his renditions of “Hurt” and “Bridge over Troubled Water,” even though Elvis “for some reason had to read the lyrics from a sheet.” Dunkin’s lackluster impression of the King ended with this final take: “It’s time ardent Presley fans quit protecting their idol and start demanding more. They know ‘the King’ can do better.”
Sadly, Presley never got the chance to do better, for his show in Indianapolis was his last. After the concert at Market Square Arena, Elvis took a break from touring and returned home to Graceland. Nearly six weeks after his Indianapolis concert, Elvis died in his home on August 16, 1977 from heart failure, likely caused by years of prescription drug abuse.
For months afterward, Dunkin received scores of angry letters from fans of Elvis for his unfavorable review. In an interview with John Krull, Dunkin talked about the hate mail he received, particularly attacks against his personality and his supposed “envy” of Elvis. Yet, other letters (in his estimation about “20 percent”) were sympathetic, with one letter saying the King “should’ve stayed home.” Dunkin’s review still receives attention from fans of Elvis and students of music history.
Elvis Presley’s mark on American music and culture is permanently etched into stone, but his controversial final concert showed the complications and problems associated with his final years. Regardless of the quality of the concert, it will be remembered forever as the place where the King took his final bow.
In addition to Wendell Willkie, another ambitious Hoosier almost won the U.S. presidency. Paul V. McNutt, Governor of Indiana from 1933-1937, set his sights on the presidency as early as the 1920s, when he was the state and national commander of the American Legion. His advocacy of human rights, particularly of Jews during his time as Governor and High Commissioner to the Philippines, put his moral arc far beyond some of his peers. In the 1940 presidential election, McNutt was also considered a “Dark Horse” candidate on the Democratic side if Franklin Roosevelt did not run for an unprecedented third term. McNutt’s progressive, internationalist political identity squared well with the New Deal Era and growing American involvement in World War II. Yet, his chance to become President never materialized.
Born on July 19, 1891 in Franklin, Indiana, McNutt was exposed to law and politics at a young age by his father, attorney John C. McNutt. After graduating from Martinsville High School in 1909, he attended Indiana University from 1909-1913, earning a BA in English. Willkie and McNutt both attended IU at the same time and held leadership roles, with McNutt the President of the Student Union and Willkie the President of the Democratic-aligning Jackson Club. Willkie even helped McNutt win his Student Union presidency and biographer I. George Blake notes that they were “very good friends.” After his time at IU, McNutt pursued a career in law, receiving a Bachelor of Laws from Harvard University in 1916.
McNutt joined the Indiana University law school faculty in 1917, but national service disrupted his teaching. The United States formally entered into World War I in April, 1917, and within a few months, McNutt registered for military service. He spent most of the war at bases in Texas, and while he “exuded pride in his contribution,” historian Dean J. Kotlowski noted that the war’s end dashed his chance to fight in Europe. McNutt returned to the IU Law School faculty in 1919, and by 1925, he was elected Dean. Under his tenure, the Law School streamlined its administration, expanded enrollment, and oversaw the launch of the Indiana Law Journal. He held this position until he became Governor of Indiana.
During his four years as Governor, Paul McNutt achieved many of his policy proposals. According to historian Linda C. Gugin, his signature achievement during his first year of office was the Executive Reorganization Act, passed by the General Assembly on February 3, 1933. It reorganized more than 100 separate divisions of government into eight departments, directly overseen by the Governor. He also advocated fiscal discipline. While bank runs ravaged the country’s financial health, McNutt argued against a bank holiday for the state, despite states like Michigan had already passed one. This move ensured more stability to the banking system in the state. He also kept his promise on Prohibition. According to the New York Times, the General Assembly repealed the state’s prohibition law on February 25, 1933 and Governor McNutt “recommended pardons for those convicted of liquor law violations other than public intoxication and driving while intoxicated.”
Perhaps most notably, Governor McNutt proved to be an early champion of human rights for European Jews during the rule of Adolf Hitler. He gave the keynote speech at a Chicago anti-Hitler meeting on March 27, 1933, showing his opposition to the German leader’s treatment of Jewish people in Germany. In his address, as recorded by the New York Times, he stressed the need for combatting Germany’s injustice:
“… Are we to join with the traitors of brotherhood, or to enlist in the war of justice? What nation would deny its pioneers and a people who have made such contributions to culture? No government can long endure that fails to guarantee to its people the right to live as human beings. The present government of Germany thus writes its own destruction.”
Furthermore, he advocated for Americans ravaged by the Great Depression. In late 1934, McNutt gave a policy speech defending his state’s old age pension program and a national plan for old age pensions, which paralleled President Roosevelt’s Social Security proposal:
In any future program will be included three great objectives: the security of the home, the security of livelihood and the security of social insurance. Such a program would be a great step toward the goal of human happiness. The first duty of government is to protect the humanity which it serves.
After his time as Governor, McNutt served as High Commissioner to the Philippine Islands from 1937-1939, and then again from 1945-47, becoming their first Ambassador the United States after they gained independence in 1946. Much like during his governorship, McNutt’s commitment to the protection of European Jews extended to his role as High Commissioner. McNutt denounced the horrific policy of Kristallnacht (a night in the fall of 1938 where Nazi soldiers attacked Jewish homes and destroyed their belongings) and ensured the escape of “1,200 German and Austrian Jews” to the Philippine Islands in 1938-39. These policies stood as an outlier for American policy during the 1930s; entering the United States was often difficult for Europeans fleeing fascism. Nevertheless, as acts of political conscience, these policies remain one of McNutt’s most enduring legacies.
During his time as Commissioner, McNutt began being touted as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1940. Franklin Roosevelt, nearing the end of his second term as President, displayed ambivalence about a third term. This forced many within the Democratic Party to seek out a candidate, and McNutt received serious consideration. During his 1938 visit to the U.S., the Indiana Democratic Editorial Association, a meeting of 300 Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., endorsed him for President.
Two major publications profiled McNutt’s presidential ambitions. Jack Alexander’s piece in Life magazine highlighted the Indiana Democratic Party’s use of “McNutt for President Clubs,” local organizations that campaigned for the former Governor, as integral to his electoral success. Alva Johnston’s piece in the Saturday Evening Post highlighted his prominence next to Roosevelt and saw his chances of election as fairly strong. If Roosevelt did not seek a third term, McNutt believed he had the political resources to win the Democratic nomination.
However, when Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt dropped out of the race for the Democratic Nomination in the hopes that he would be considered for the Vice Presidency. When Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, became Roosevelt’s choice for the Vice Presidency, McNutt conceded again to the wishes of the President. With a nomination for the presidency or vice presidency out of his grasp, McNutt ended his ambitions for the White House and he never held another elected office. Later that year, his friend and political rival Wendell Willkie secured the Republican nomination, but would lose to Roosevelt in November.
Even though Paul V. McNutt never resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, his political life influenced the future of American politics. His commitment to human rights, political and social equality, and an internationalist view of foreign policy became the standard for the Democratic Party even to this day. To many during his time, he was seen as the heir apparent to Franklin Roosevelt. Alas, it never happened; circumstances and personal mistakes dashed his chances. McNutt’s story parallels that of Icarus, whose ambition brought his waxen wings too close to the sun, melting them, and he fell into the sea. Nevertheless, Paul V. McNutt remains one of Indiana’s most successful Governors and statesmen.
The German-American community in Indianapolis, largely a product of mid-nineteenth century immigration, had a strong heritage of freethought (open evaluation of religion based on the use of reason). In particular, Clemens Vonnegut, the patriach of the Vonnegut family and lifelong freethinker, openly displayed his religious dissent through writings and community activism. This, in turn, influenced his family and the literary style of his great-grandson, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, especially the younger man’s ideas concerning God, religion, science, and ethics. The junior Vonnegut’s own midwestern brand of freethought, in the form of what literature scholar Todd F. Davis called a “postmodern humanism,” displayed a deep sense of skepticism about the irrationalism of his time, while simultaneously championing an ethical responsibility to ourselves and each other devoid of supernatural influences. Yet, true to his form as a freethinker, Kurt forged his own humanist identity. [*]
Clemens Vonnegut was born November 20, 1824, in Münster, Westphalia. In his early years, he studied in German public schools and apprenticed as a mercantile clerk. As recorded in the Indianapolis Press, a young Vonnegut came to the United States in the early 1830s, on assignment from his employer, J. L. de Ball and Company, which sold specialty fabrics. His year in New York convinced the young Vonnegut that America would be his permanent home. He then traveled to Indianapolis with his friend Charles Volmer to start a new life.
He founded the Vonnegut Hardware Store in 1852, and was considered by the Indianapolis Star as “one of the city’s most respected citizens….” Like fellow Hoosier freethinker Hermann Lieber, he was a co-founder of the Socialer Turnverein and a forceful voice for public education. Clemens founded the German-English Independent School and served on its board for over 30 years. He also served as the first president of the Freethinker Society from 1870-1875, gave lectures to the society on occasion, and even translated the celebrated agnostic orator Robert Ingersoll’sOpen Letter to the Clergy of Indianapolisinto German for publication. His actions and beliefs heavily impacted the inception and growth of the Freethinker Society of Indianapolis.
After the end of the Freethinker Society in 1890, Clemens Vonnegut continued his activism more than any former member, mostly through writing. A Proposed Guide for Instruction of Morals, published in 1900, enunciated Vonnegut’s philosophy of freethought, both in theory and in practice. This treatise also displayed a rhetorical flourish that Kurt would later cite as an influence in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. Echoing Ingersoll and Heinzen before him, Vonnegut declared that, “No religious creed has any real proofs. It rests simply on assertions.”
However, that does not mean that humanity cannot be moral. In fact, Vonnegut argued the opposite:
True virtue is its own reward, which is not enhanced but rather misled by belief. Belief deprives us of the joys of this world by teaching us that we must detest them, and instead of them we must hope for a heaven. Belief forms the germ for persecution of those who differ from us in their religious convictions.
Vonnegut saw morality as the wellspring of the “intrinsic quality of human character which ought to be nourished and cultivated early, continually, and carefully.” In subsequent pages, Vonnegut explained how such “cultivation” is achieved. Public education, family instruction, physical fitness, and social activities presented the means by which individuals perfected a moral life without the supernatural. Like Ingersoll, Vonnegut’s morality was clear, traditional, based in the family, and demonstrated a moral life without the need of God. While Clemens Vonnegut presented his philosophy clearly, the events surrounding his death were anything but.
Clemens Vonnegut’s death in 1906 created somewhat of a mystery for his family, and later his great-grandson. It was said that he died in the snow . . . or so the story goes. Kurt Vonnegut recalls this story in his autobiographical work, Palm Sunday. In the winter of 1906, Clemens Vonnegut supposedly went for a routine stroll. Having lost his way, he wandered the streets of Indianapolis for hours before he was found dead by the side of the road by a search party. This story bewildered Kurt, whose own freethought can be traced to his great-grandfather and his own extended family. However, as with many family stories, this one stretches the truth a little.
Clemens did not die by the side of the road, but was rather found unconscious. The Indianapolis News reported that C. W. Jones, a local construction worker, found the 82-year-old Vonnegut nearly five miles from the city on Crawfordsville Pike. He sustained injuries to his head and right shoulder, but doctors feared that exposure to the elements might be his biggest challenge. After fighting for his life for five days, Clemens Vonnegut succumbed to pneumonia on January 13, 1906. His obituary cited his charity and love for knowledge, his activities within the Socialer Turnverein and the Freethinker Society, and his 27-year service for a local school board. True to his iconoclastic nature, Vonnegut wrote his own eulogy back in the 1870s and asked for its recitation when he died. As recorded in the Indianapolis Star, he railed against the creeds of Christianity:
I do not believe in the atonement to the blood of Christ or in the sin of incredulity. I do not believe in a punishment in a future life. I believe neither in a personal God nor a personal devil, but I honor the ideal which man has created as the tenor of all virtues and perfections, and has named God.
Until the very end, Clemens believed in the power of humanity to throw off the shackles of religion and embrace the values of inquiry and human-based ethics.
Nearly a century later, famed author Kurt Vonnegut (born in 1922 in Indianapolis) wrote in Palm Sunday that his great-grandfather’s freethought was his own “ancestral religion” and that he was “pigheadedly proud” of the heretical nature of his family. Kurt Vonnegut, a future honorary president of the American Humanist Association, carried the torch of freethought for his grandfather, and in some respects, introduced his ideas to a new generation.
In many of his works, Kurt would openly criticize religion, spirituality, and faith, so much so that it even contributed to the end of his first marriage. Nevertheless, echoing his grandfather in a 1980 speech at the First Parish Unitarian Church, Vonnegut declared, “Doesn’t God give dignity to everybody? No—not in my opinion. Giving dignity, the sort of dignity that is of earthly use, anyway, is something that only people do. Or fail to do.”
His most popular novel, Slaughterhouse-Five(1969), displays Kurt’s intense abhorrence of war (influenced by his own WWII POW experience) and a belief in a common humanity. Specifically, “so it goes” is a phrase that Vonnegut peppered throughout the novel, often after horrible events or even banal ones. This phrase conveys that no matter how bad things get, no matter how high one can get, the world (and indeed the universe) goes on. As an example, this passage from the novel, describing the protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s memory of a sculpture of Jesus, is fairly apt:
A military surgeon would have admired the clinical fidelity of the artist’s rendition of all Christ’s wounds—the spear wound, the thorn wounds, the holes that were made by the iron spikes. Billy’s Christ died horribly. He was pitiful.
So it goes.
“So it goes” becomes the novel’s panacea; a way for the narrator to deal with the grim realities of war without the comfort of religious beliefs. In some respects, it can be seen as a mantra for humanism.
Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism continued until the end of his life, as displayed by an address he meant to give on April 27, 2007 for Indianapolis’s “Year of Vonnegut” celebrations (he died on April 11; his son Mark gave the address in his stead). In this address, from the posthumous work Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), Kurt espoused his continued commitment to humanism. He wrote:
Am I religious? I practice a disorganized religion. I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves “Our Lady of Perpetual Consternation.” We are as celibate as fifty percent of the heterosexual Roman Catholic clergy.
Actually—and when I hold up my right hand like this, it means I’m not kidding, that I give my Word of Honor that what I’m about to say is true. So actually, I am honorary President of the American Humanist Society, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that utterly functionless capacity. We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.
This emphasis on “community” squares nicely with Clemens’s own commitments to community, both with the Freethinker Society and with his advocacy of public education. Both Vonneguts believed that the values of sociality and comradery are essential to the flourishing of a community, and you can achieve that system without a supernatural element.
Clemens Vonnegut’s humanism carried through many generations of his family and left an indelible mark on Kurt Vonnegut. The two men’s rejection of religion and the supernatural reinforced their love for humanity, their desire for community, and their commitment to the truth, no matter how horrifying it may be. Kurt’s own success as a writer and social critic would have delighted Clemens, who participated in many of the same literary pursuits and civic activities decades before Kurt was born. As such, their two lives, separated by time, nevertheless became entwined by their ideals. Their humanist legacy reinforces the diversity of intellectual and moral philosophies that embody the American Midwest throughout the 19th, 20th, and early-21st centuries.
Both Vonneguts were proud to be from Indianapolis and the city proudly remembers them.
[*] Kurt Vonnegut’s humanism may also be described as “Modern Humanism,” or “Naturalistic Humanism, Scientific Humanism, Ethical Humanism, and Democratic Humanism, [is] defined by one of its leading proponents, Corliss Lamont, as “a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human compassion.” Modern Humanism has a dual origin, both secular and religious, and these constitute its sub-categories” (Fred Edwords, “What is Humanism,” American Humanist Association, last updated 2008, accessed March 19, 2016, americanhumanist.org).
The United States faces an abundance of national security concerns in 2016, ranging from North Korean nuclear testing to Islamic State nuclear ambitions. Russia was notably absent from the 2016 Nuclear Summit, which was “aimed at locking down fissile material worldwide that could be used for doomsday weapons,” while maintaining the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. These concerns prompt a question that originated in the early Cold War period: how can a nation prevent nuclear attack?
During WWII, the U.S. detonated the first nuclear bomb over Hiroshima, Japan on August 1945, catastrophically damaging the city. The postwar 1949 explosion of a Soviet atomic bomb ignited fears of the American public about what Anne Wilson Marks dubbed in an article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a “new Pearl Harbor.”
When most think of early Cold War civil defense they recall bomb shelters and “duck and cover” drills. However, President Dwight D. Eisenhower implored Americans in a 1953 advertisement to “Wake Up! Sign Up! Look Up!” to Soviet airplanes potentially escorting an atomic bomb over the U.S. He encouraged them to do so through a collaborative program with the U.S. Air Force called the Ground Observer Corps, established in 1949.
In the GOC, civilian volunteers were encouraged to build watchtowers in backyards and community centers, and to survey skies from existing commercial structures. Utilizing a telephone, binoculars, observation manual, and log of duties, civilians searched the skies for airplanes flying lower than 6,000 feet, which could evade radar detection. At the sight of a suspicious, possibly nuclear-bomb-toting plane, civilians were to telephone their local filter center, staffed with Air Force personnel, who could then direct the plane to be intercepted or shot down.
This collaborative civil defense program involved approximately 350,000 observers, made up of families, prisoners and guards, the youth and elderly, the blind and handicapped, and naval and USAF personnel. In 1952, the Ground Observer Corps operated 24-hours each day and became known as Operation Skywatch.
Scientists estimated that Soviet aircraft would emerge over the North Pole, raising questions about Indiana’s vulnerability. Governor Henry F. Schricker warned in The Indiana Civil Defense Sentinel that “Hoosiers should be alert to protect vital Indiana war industries if hostilities should break out.” Indiana officials worried that Lake County, part of Chicago’s urban industrial area, could be a site of an enemy attack. Concerned Indiana citizen Thomas H. Roberts wrote to Gov. Schricker that his family lived in “the highly industrialized Calumet area. I am sure you are aware that this area is a likely target for enemy attack.”
According to articles and letters sent to Schricker in 1950 from other governors, GOC planning advanced more quickly and decidedly in Indiana than other participating states. Unsure as to how to proceed after a Washington planning conference, Illinois Governor and future presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson appealed to Schricker for advice. Schricker detailed Indiana’s planning process for Stevenson, stating that he would first contact every mayor, town board president and all “peace officers on every level throughout the state.” Days after the meeting, the Department of Civil Defense for Indiana compiled a list of observer posts for each county.
On March 16, 1950, a mock air attack over Indiana illustrated the shortcomings of radar, as B-26 bombers flown by members of the Air National Guard of Indiana, Missouri and Illinois proceeded “completely undetected” by radar at Fort Harrison, the state’s only warning facility. Following the alarming mock air attack, municipal and county officials named Civil Defense Directors in 51 Indiana counties, who established observer posts in the northern two-thirds of Indiana. By late 1950, as the Korean conflict grew, the Air Force had partially constructed a filter center in South Bend, Indiana.
Historian Jenny Barker-Devine wrote in 2006 that rural residents were likely not targets of atomic explosions, but that federal civil defense agencies sought their help because “rural families also served as custodians of democracy and could prevent any type of socialism or communism from taking hold in local, state, and national governments.”
Diligent rural citizens, such as Larry O’Connor of Cairo, Indiana, organized movements to establish local GOC towers. O’Connor, a World War II Navy veteran and owner of Cairo’s only store (attached to his house), designated it the small community’s initial observation site.
In an interview with the author, Cairo resident James Haan shared that the post was necessary because Cairo was located along a line of beacon lights that could guide the enemy to industrial centers in Chicago. In 1952, building began on the Cairo observation tower and the local Rural Electric Membership Cooperative (REMC) donated and set the tower poles. Local merchants from Lafayette and the town of Battle Ground donated materials, and residents in surrounding areas furnished labor. Between 90 and 120 volunteers from surrounding areas volunteered at the Cairo tower. Haan states that volunteers worked in two-hour shifts and that he and other farmers worked all day in the fields, while female family members manned the towers, and the men volunteered throughout the night.
The Lafayette Journal and Courier claimed that Cairo’s tower was one of the first freestanding towers constructed over the ground. According to O’Connor, it was “the first G.O. Post officially commissioned by the U.S.A.F. in the U.S.A.” Commanding Officer of the South Bend GOC detachment, Lieutenant Colonel Forest R. Shafer, mentioned in a letter “I can verify that the tower constructed at Cairo, Indiana was the first of its kind within my jurisdiction but cannot confirm that it was the first in the United States. However, I am certain it was among the very first, at least.”
More research should be done to verify these claims, but it is clear that the recognition of USAF personnel and public officials gave residents a sense of pride in their contributions. Haan recalled “We had some representatives down here and felt pretty good about it.” He felt that the GOC tower made “a pretty important place out of it [Cairo]. There was a lot of business up there, a lot of people coming and going and working on the tower. And there was for days and days and days a lot of people up there.”
Under O’Connor’s direction, local residents held a dedication for the tower in 1976, commissioned a moment featuring limestone volunteers, and got the tower listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The site was later commemorated with a historical marker.
The GOC is now long forgotten, as demonstrated by the Cairo tower, once so revered by the community for decades, but now in decay. As with many civil defense programs of the 1950s, the GOC has been deemed a quirky, superfluous program, constructed by an overly-paranoid people. However, the GOC established a model of national defense that solicited the participation of the general public. It served as an opportunity for families, neighbors, and community members to spend quality time together through the shared objective of improving national security.
On January 31, 1959, the Secretary of the Air Force announced the termination of the program due to the improvement of detection radar and inability of civilians to detect increasingly technical Soviet missile system. The Indiana Civil Defender almost wistfully noted that the U.S. “is geared to the substitution of machines for manpower . . . and we accept this theory of progress.” The bulletin lamented the conclusion of the program, but congratulated its participants for successfully deterring attack, going so far as to claim the GOC may have been “the one final deterrent to an attack on the country by a calculating enemy.”
As national attention returns to security concerns, the question remains: how does a country stop the detonation of a nuclear bomb? An NPR correspondent recently contacted the author about the potential for a piece about these Cold War watchtowers.
Despite precarious national security issues, IHB is pleased to report that the Cairo marker has recently been repainted. We are grateful to the Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity at Purdue University and Bruce Cole and his sons for their work to preserve the legacy of those vigilant Indiana citizens.
Learn more about the GOC and Cairo tower with the author’s master’s thesis.
Want more towers? Check out our blog posts about Hoosier surveyor Jasper Sherman Bilby, whose Bilby Tower was foundational to modern GPS.