The Raiderettes: The Women Who Built Evansville’s P-47 Thunderbolts

Sometimes when you think back over your old history texts, and remember that the accounts there relate the deeds of men- not women- doesn’t it give you a marvelous feeling to realize that the greatest chapter of history of mankind is being written today, and that you women are going to have your names in the headlines?

-LaVerne Heady, columnist for Republic Aviation News

Reliable, versatile, and fast, the P-47 Thunderbolt is considered one of the most important fighter-bombers in World War II. Manufactured by Republic Aviation Corporation and debuted in 1943, the P-47 served in both the European and Pacific theaters and quickly became the Allied Forces’ main workhorse. By the end of the war, Republic Aviation produced 15,683 Thunderbolts, which performed more than half a million missions, shooting down more Luftwaffe aircrafts than any other Allied fighter. What’s more impressive than its statistics, however, is the pilots’ testimonials on the durability of these planes, which quickly gained a reputation for their ability to deliver a pilot safely home after sustaining otherwise catastrophic amounts of damage.[i] One of the most dramatic examples of the Thunderbolts’ durability occurred in 1945, when the entirety of a P-47s right wing was sheared off during a bombing mission. The pilot returned to base unharmed, and the plane was reportedly repaired and flown for another 50 missions.[ii]

Headshot of Heady, Republic Aviation News, Indiana State Library.

Military history often focuses on aircraft design and the pilots who flew them. However, who built these planes is equally intriguing. Almost half of the manpower behind P-47 production were women. Known as “Raiderettes,” these women served in a wide array of positions at Republic. This piece will examine the lived experiences of the Raiderettes at the Republic plant in Evansville, Indiana and how their hard work, sacrifices, and patriotism contributed to the production of over one-third of the Thunderbolts manufactured during World War II.


ON THE ASSEMBLY LINE: WOMEN’S ROLES AT REPUBLIC AVIATION

Evansville played a major role in the home front effort throughout the war. In total, fifty different Evansville companies received over $580 million in defense contracts. This included Sunbeam, Serval Inc., Chrysler, and the Missouri Valley Bridge & Iron Co. Shipyard, which produced critical defense industry products such as ammunition, tracer rounds, and landing ship tanks. This booming industry nearly tripled Evansville’s manufacturing workforce and revitalized the previously struggling city. [iii] In 1942, Republic and the U.S. War Department announced they would build a second P-47 factory south of the Evansville Regional Airport. The first facility was located in Farmingdale, New Jersey. Construction commenced at a rapid pace and the plant was finished in August of 1943, three months ahead of schedule. However, P-47 construction was already underway before the factory was even finished, with newly hired workers manufacturing parts in garages, rented factory spaces, and other facilities. Evansville’s first P-47 dubbed “The Hoosier Spirit” flew from the plant on September 19, 1942. The Hoosier Spirit marked the first of over 6,000 Thunderbolts manufactured in Evansville during the span of three years.

Hoosier Spirit P-47 Thunderbolt, September 19, 1942, Evansville Courier and Press, accessed Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library.

From the beginning, Republic sought to hire a substantial number of women workers because men were fighting overseas. Republic recruited women through newspaper advertisements and provided free, educational opportunities. Evansville College (now the University of Evansville) partnered with Purdue University and the U.S. Department of Education to offer twenty-two-night classes in engineering, science, mathematics, aircraft drafting, and other industrial skills. Notably, the Evansville Press wrote that, for the night classes, “Women especially are urged to enroll… The War Manpower Commission estimates that at least two million more women must enter war industries this year.”[iv] Soon after night classes began, Evansville College and Purdue began to offer daytime classes as well to fulfill the needs of night shift workers at Republic and other defense companies. E. C. Surat, district manager of the Purdue war training program, told the Evansville Courier and Press that “Women with mathematical training may be placed at once” in factory positions and urged that women seeking a defense industry job “enroll in the qualifying mathematics course.”[v]

The Evansville Mechanic Arts School also recruited women for their industrial classes. Previously, the school designed courses solely for men, but, upon the outbreak of the war, opened to women “without a halt.” The school especially appealed to homemakers and unemployed women to enroll.[vi]  In her article, “Diary of a Riveter,” Raiderette Mary Ellen Ward describes the challenges of these types of training courses and adjusting to the “nerve wracking” noise as they learned drilling techniques, how to measure rivets, and built physical strength to rivet for fourteen plus hours a day.[vii]  The City of Evansville and the Republic Aviation Corporation recognized early on the integral role women would play in the home front effort and began recruiting them and providing key training and education for them to succeed in manufacturing roles.

Women from the “tri-state” area of Illinois, Kentucky, and Southern Indiana performed a diverse number of roles, including managerial positions, across the Republic plant. Raiderettes could be found working side by side with men in machining parts, welding metal, wiring electrical components, inspecting aircrafts, and transporting supplies. This makes it impossible to describe a singular, definitive experience among the Raiderettes. However, women across the plant embraced their roles, seeing it as a patriotic duty, and exceeded the expectations of the public. The Muncie Evening Press reported that, in some tasks, women workers across the country exceeded men’s production output by 10 percent or more.[viii] Day-to-day life in the plant consisted of 10 to 14-hour shifts across various departments and, for many, included long commutes of up to 80 miles away a day. Beyond production work, women actively participated in work-adjacent roles, leading the charge on key social services for all Republic employees. Given the amount of time spent at both work and Republic-related events, almost all Raiderettes experienced World War II primarily through the lens of their position at the Evansville plant, making it a key experience to analyze in order to better understand the Indiana home front during World War II.

Article showcasing “Who’s Who” among the Raiderettes and their various positions at Republic, January 29, 1943, Republic Aviation News, photo cropped by IHB, accessed via the Indiana State Library.

One Raiderette, Mildred F. Harris, participated in an oral history interview in 2002, providing key insight into the subjective experience of women at Republic. A schoolteacher, Harris entered war work when her husband was drafted in 1943, commuting 55 miles a day, six days a week from her home in Kentucky to work at the Evansville plant. Harris was placed in a supervisory role managing other aircraft inspectors and supervising factory operations. She stated that men respected her and other female inspectors’ position of authority “as long as the inspectors had this army badge on,” and that they recognized the need for women to work in factories as “they couldn’t get enough men to do it.” Despite this, Harris still experienced sexism in the workplace with some of the men calling her nicknames like “Rose,” “Buttercup,” or “Daisy,” despite her position supervising them. Harris largely ignored these nicknames and kept to herself while she performed her job. Like many women, Harris felt a duty to support both her country and male relatives who served in the war, underlining the importance of her position as an aircraft inspector and the pressures of such long days and high stakes. Her experiences also demonstrated that, simply because women now appeared in “male roles,” that sexism and gender roles still pervaded most Raiderettes experiences. [ix]

Harris in 1943, courtesy of Mildred F. Harris, courtesy The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.

Women also contributed to the company culture at Republic, actively participating in clubs, the company newspaper, and sports leagues for basketball, softball, bowling, golf, and ping pong. Republic’s clubs competed against other manufacturing companies in Evansville. In addition, women led the charge on hosting social functions like skating nights, formal dances, and even a holiday musical production called “Flying High.” A daycare service was provided for working mothers at the reduced price of 50 cents per week.[x] This proved to be critical as women often found themselves to be “two-job” workers, working at Republic for fourteen hours a day while also continuing to maintain the domestic sphere and raise children, often without the support of their spouse who may have been drafted. Women also formed the “war matrons club,” which catered specifically to older Raiderettes whose sons were serving overseas. This club tracked soldier’s birthdays, wrote to them, and provided a support system for mothers separated from their children due to the war.[xi] While easily overlooked, these services provided necessary social outlets during a period of great change and anxiety in the United States and fostered a strong sense of community for all Republic employees. They also provided workers, many of whom had family members serving overseas, with vital social connections and filled a key gap in societal recreation and relaxation.

Members of the War Matrons Club, June 18, 1943, Republic Aviation News, accessed the Indiana State Library.

Republic Aviation News. v. 6 n. 3-v. 11 (1944-1945): 3, accessed Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library Digital Archive.

While women were praised for their patriotism and largely welcomed into the plant, gender roles still defined the Raiderettes’ wartime experiences. Often, the work of women was more heavily scrutinized than men’s and feminine traits characterized as a detriment to wartime production. This can be seen in Republic Aviation News through warnings against “super-sensitiveness” in the workplace and constant reminders that a woman must uphold or surpass the standards of the men who worked alongside them.[xii] Additionally, extra emphasis was placed on women’s fashion and social life with an entire column called Strictly Feminine. The column reported on social news, like who danced with whom at the canteen, what women were wearing to social functions, and other, non-work related, news. Women were often expected to meet their position’s expectations and perform social and emotional labor while doing so. Republic Aviation News paints a more nuanced picture than that of the one-dimensional and patriotic “Rosie the Riveter,” who flawlessly steps into a traditionally male position just as a man would. Women’s positions and experiences in home front factories were distinct and laced with gender roles and bias as they were expected to do a “man’s job” but in a traditionally feminine manner.

A major point of friction between women and men in the factory was whether women would continue working after the war concluded or if their jobs ought to be relinquished back to male workers. Inspector Harris, upon reflecting on the closure of the plant, stated “Now, what they [the male factory workers] expected them to do, what they wanted them to do when the war was over, [was] to go back home and wash dishes like they had been doing.”[xiii] This attitude is reflected in the fact that, after the government cancelled their wartime contracts with Republic, women disproportionately lost their jobs compared to male workers.[xiv] While it is debated whether women truly desired to return home or sought to continue working in the factories- likely a mix of both- they unilaterally faced unfair obstacles in remaining in the workforce post-war.

Pictured is restricted radio operator Naomi Johnson, September 3, 1943, Republic Aviation News, accessed the Indiana State Library.

Despite the continued presence of gender bias in the factory, Raiderettes pushed against and broke the glass ceiling in various ways. For example, Naomi Johnson was notable for being the first woman restricted radio operator- a position that allows users to utilize advanced aircraft radios to communicate and direct pilots- in the region. Originally from Marion, Kentucky, Johnson moved to Evansville in 1937 and earned her operator license in 1940 from the Federal Communications Commission. Johnson originally tested police radios in cars but, upon the outbreak of the war, transitioned to Republic Aviation. She began working on electrical equipment but, after nine months, was transferred to a radio control board, where she communicated with pilots flying and landing P-47s at the Evansville Regional Airport. Due to her strong interest in and advanced knowledge of aviation, she was made an honorary member of the Civil Air Patrol. When interviewed by Republic Aviation News, Johnson expressed her strong passion for her work, stating, “The thing I like best about radio work is the fact that it’s something you can never learn enough about. You can just keep studying and studying. But I wouldn’t mind being called a book-worm if I could read about radio.”[xv]

Reclamation agent Eunice Hall, January 7, 1944, Republic Aviation News, accessed the Indiana State Library.

Another woman, Eunice Hall of Newburgh, Indiana, became the first “reclamation agent” at the Evansville plant, a new position that encouraged the conservation of factory materials to reduce waste in the various plant divisions. Working with the Utility Shop division, Hall also served as the division’s Safety Council representative. While Republic Aviation News minimized her position by comparing it to a “housekeeping” role, Hall excelled at leadership by defining this new company role and taking the lead on both shop safety and material conservation, a key aspect of the home front’s defense industry economy.[xvi]

Other women broke into aviation and flew P-47s domestically. The Women Airforce Service Pilots, (WASPs) were elite civilian pilots who supported the war effort by ferrying, testing, and transporting planes. Described as “polished” and having perfect uniforms, the WASPs visited the Evansville plant numerous times to transport Thunderbolts to military bases.[xvii] On October 10, 1943, Theresa James and Betty Gillies landed in Evansville to deliver two Thunderbolts and transport two others. Gillies is notable as the first ever woman to fly a P-47 aircraft.[xviii] In 1944, WASPs regularly began transporting P-47s from the Evansville plant, with Republic Aviation News stating that 85 women would participate and, each month, 16 of them would fly to the Evansville plant to ferry completed planes to military bases.[xix]  While the activities of the WASPs generated much interest both in the news and amongst factory workers, it is reported that the WASPs largely stayed separated from the rest of the factory and focused on their positions.[xx]

Raiderettes continue to work after the announcement of V-E Day, Republic Aviation News, accessed Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library Digital Archive.

As evidenced by the previous examples, women held diverse roles within Republic Aviation and navigated their new, public-facing roles in a variety of ways. Some women, like those in the War Matrons club or Eunice Hall, embraced social responsibilities at the plant by serving on committees and clubs and embracing a more “traditionally feminine” role at Republic. Meanwhile, others, such as the WASPs or Harris, were more reserved in their roles and attempted to ignore or minimize gender roles and bias. However, the common thread of all of these women is that they collaborated with both male workers and one another, pushing against traditional gender roles to best serve the United States during World War II. Their sacrifices were largely recognized and praised by the public. However, it was also expected that they would revert to traditional roles upon the end of the war which, generally, is what occurred. Despite this, these women successfully navigated a challenging period in American history to provide a vital service on the home front and ought to be remembered for their work.


Republic Aviation News. v. 6 n. 3-v. 11 (1944-1945): 6, accessed Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library Digital Archive.

On August 21, 1945, Republic Aviation announced they would be ending all production at Evansville and the plant was soon listed for sale. Upon its closure, the plant had produced over one-third of all the P-47 Thunderbolts in the world, hired thousands of employees, and infused millions of dollars into the local economy. In addition, the plant had gained national recognition, earning three Army-Navy E awards for “excellence in production.”[xxi] This prestigious award was granted to 5% of all eligible plants and represented the top echelon of home front production.[xxii] The plant’s production was considered so outstanding, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt even visited the plant on April 27, 1943 as part of a 17-day, 20-state tour of America’s defense industry, presenting awards to multiple employees.[xxiii]

Without the thousands of women who worked at the Republic plant, these national honors would not have been achieved. Similarly, the quality and reliability of the P-47, which is world-renowned and contributed to Allied Forces’ air superiority during WWII, would not have been possible without the dedicated hands that constructed the planes at an unprecedented pace. While the lives and roles of the Raiderettes at the Republic factory did not ascribe to the simplified “Rosie the Riveter” archetype, they were critical to the defense effort nonetheless, and ought to be commemorated as both Indiana and national heroes.

 

Notes:

[i] “Republic P-47 Thunderbolt,” National Museum of World War II Aviation, accessed https://www.worldwariiaviation.org/aircraft/republic-p47-thunderbolt; National Air and Space Museum, “Republic P-47D-30-RA Thunderbolt,” Smithsonian Institution, n.d., accessed https://www.si.edu/object/republic-p-47d-30-ra-thunderbolt%3Anasm_A19600306000.

[ii] Dario Leone, “The Story of the P-47 that Safely RTB after it Had a Wing Sheared off Against a Chimney during a Strafing Run and its Tail Damaged by Spitfires that Mistook it for a German Fighter,” The Aviation Geek Club, September 20, 2023, accessed https://theaviationgeekclub.com/the-story-of-the-brazilian-p-47-that-safely-rtb-after-it-had-a-wing-sheared-off-against-a-chimney-on-a-strafing-run-and-its-tail-damaged-by-spitfires-that-mistook-it-for-a-german-fighter/.

[iii] James Lachlan MacLeod, Evansville in World War II (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015); David E. Bigham, “The Evansville Economy,” Traces of Indiana And Midwestern History 3, no. 4 (Fall 1991): 26-29, accessed https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll39/id/7111/rec/3; Hugh M. Ayer, “Hoosier Labor in the Second World War,” Indiana Magazine of History 59, no. 2 (June 1963): 95-120, accessed https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/8960/11634.

[iv] “College to give Classes in War Work,” Evansville Press, September 12, 1943, accessed Newspapers.com.

[v] “Day War Training Classes Planned,” Evansville Courier, October 15, 1943, accessed Newspapers.com.

[vi] “These Doors Never Close: Mechanic Arts School Has Prominent Part in War Work Training Program,” Evansville Courier and Press, July 2, 1942, accessed Newspapers.com.

[vii] Mary Ellen Ward, “Diary of a Riveter,” Republic Aviation News, February 12, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[viii] “Two-Job War Worker: She Does a Man-Sized Job on Production Line Plus ‘Women’s Work’ of Maintaining a Home,” Muncie Evening Press, November 5, 1942, accessed Newspapers.com.

[ix] James Russell Harris, “Rolling Bandages and Building Thunderbolts: A Woman’s Memories of the Kentucky Home Front, 1941-1945,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, (Spring 2002): 167-194, accessed JSTOR.

[x] “New Plan for Child Care Offered: Play Center Fills Need Before and After School,” Republic Aviation News, November 26, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xi] “War Mothers Organized at Republic Plant,” Evansville Press, April 29, 1943, accessed Newspapers.com.

[xii] “A Message from Ellen J. Dilger,” Republic Aviation News 100, no. 2, January 29, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xiii] Harris, “Rolling Bandages,” 182.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] “First Woman Restricted Radio Operator in This Region is Republic’s Naomi Johnson,” Republic Aviation News, September 3, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xvi] “Utility Shop Girl Becomes First Official Reclamation Agent at Indiana Division,” Republic Aviation News, January 7, 1944, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xvii] Harris, “Rolling Bandages,” 184-185.

[xviii] “First Woman Ever to Fly a Thunderbolt is One of Two Girls Landing Here in P-47s,” Republic Aviation News, October 15, 1943, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xix] “First Squadron of Girl Pilots Here to Fly P-47’s,” Republic Aviation News, August 1, 1944, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xx] Harris, “Rolling Bandages,” 184-185.

[xxi] “Raiders Win Army-Navy ‘E’ I.D. [Indiana Division] Gains Highest Production Honor,” Republic Aviation News, May 5, 1944, p. 1, accessed Indiana State Library; “Your Army-Navy ‘E,’” Republic Aviation News, May 5, 1944, p. 2, accessed Indiana State Library; “Army, Navy Honor Raiders,” Republic Aviation News, May 26, 1944, p. 1, accessed Indiana State Library; “Raiders Win 2nd ‘E’ Award: Achievement lauded by Marchev,” Republic Aviation News, November 3, 1944, p. 1, accessed Indiana State Library; “I.D. Earns 2nd Army-Navy ‘E’ for Outstanding Work,” Republic Aviation News, November 3, 1944, p. 2, accessed Indiana State Library; “Raiders Win 3rd Army-Navy “E,” Republic Aviation News, May 25, 1945, p. 1, accessed Indiana State Library.

[xxii] “Army-Navy E Award,” Naval History and Heritage Command, September 15, 2020, accessed https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/a/army-navy-e-award.html.

[xxiii] “Camera Highlights of the President’s Visit to the Indiana Division on Tuesday, April 27,” Republic Aviation News, May 21, 1943, p. 4-5, accessed Indiana State Library; “Roosevelt visits Evansville; Sees P-47 Dive at 500 M.P.H,” Indianapolis News, April 29, 1943, p. 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Evansville Aircraft Plant Receives Visit of President,” Muncie Evening Press, April 29, 1943, p. 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

Moy Kee Part II: A Royal Visit

Royal Prince Pu Lun, future emperor of China, with Mayor Holtzman’s party attending Moy Kee’s reception, May 20, 1904, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A Royal Lunch

Moy Kee was undoubtedly “One of the happiest persons in Indianapolis,” according to The Indianapolis News on May 26, 1904. It appears he was also one of the busiest. Moy Kee and his wife, Chin Fung, were preparing to host royalty. Chinese Prince Pu Lun, rumored heir to the Qing Dynasty imperial throne, was visiting America and agreed to have lunch at Moy Kee’s chop suey restaurant in Indianapolis before he departed from the city. According to news reports, Moy Kee’s house was “thrown into raptures over the honor,” as he, his wife, and servants frantically cleaned the restaurant, prepared their best ingredients, and laid out the finest decorations they had for the prince.

On May 27 at 1 o’clock the prince, Indianapolis Mayor John Holtzman, business tycoon and future Senator William Fortune, esteemed poet James Whitcomb Riley, and other notable guests bore witness to Moy Kee’s late night labors. Outside of the restaurant, traditional Chinese lamps were strung with brightly colored ribbons. The American and Chinese flag flew side by side. A May 28 Indianapolis News article described the interior of the building as:

Oriental rugs were spread from the street to a teakwood table, where were placed two beautiful inlaid chairs covered with crimson satin draperies. The carved table stood on beautiful rugs, and upon it were placed burning incense, chop suey, and Chinese wine.

The first course consisted of the restaurant’s signature chop suey paired with American beer. Ice cream and tea were served for the second course, and the luncheon ended with traditional Chinese wine. Upon departing, Chin Fung presented the prince with a hand-knitted scarf and Moy Kee gifted him a bouquet of flowers. The prince gave the Moy family a silk scarf bearing his name and, upon leaving, informed Moy Kee that he would elevate him to Mandarin of the Fifth Rank, a prestigious Chinese status that would allow Moy to entertain and be entertained by royalty, wear special regalia, and hold a certificate denoting his prestige. This honor was monumental for a Chinese immigrant like Moy and a status that many of the wealthiest men in China failed to achieve.

As discussed in part one of this series, Moy Kee was granted an American citizenship in 1897 and then rose to prominence in Indianapolis by becoming the unofficial leader for the small Chinese community in the city. Part two follows the rest of Moy’s life as he entertained Prince Pu Lun, achieved even more wealth and status in both China and America, and then struggled to retain that prominence later in life.

Royal Prince Pu Lun, future emperor of China, with Mayor Holtzman’s party attend Moy Kee’s reception, May 20, 1904, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Prince Pu Lun and the St. Louis World Exposition

During the early 1900s the Qing dynasty’s isolationist policies started thawing, and the nation began entering foreign affairs. This new administrative goal was evident when the government opted to not only participate in the St. Louis World’s Fair (China had declined to participate in the Chicago World Fair eleven years prior) but to appoint the nephew of the emperor, Prince Pu Lun, as the official fair commissioner. Pu Lun’s visit generated positive media coverage that helped warm American attitudes towards the Chinese. Domestically, Americans were fearful of “The Yellow Peril” of Chinese immigrants, whom many believed were impossible to assimilate into “The American Melting Pot.” Some accused the Chinese of flooding the labor market and stealing jobs from white Americans. Abroad, Americans believed the Chinese Empire was backwards and culturally stagnant. Rising racist attitudes towards the Chinese culminated in President Chester A. Arthur signing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

The Chinese Pavilion [large pagoda], Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, Mo., circa 1904, courtesy of The Library of Congress.
Twenty-two years after the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted, China sought to dispel these stereotypes at the World Fair and built one of the most lavish exhibits in the entire event. The government spent a reported $500,000 (approximately $14.5 million by today’s standards) on their pavilion, with its highlight being a near exact replication of Prince Pu Lun’s summer palace. This visit expanded beyond St. Louis, and during his travels the prince visited several countries and American states, including Indianapolis. While visiting, the prince strengthened Chinese diplomatic relations and learned about other systems of government, education, technology, and culture. He would bring this newfound knowledge back to China to improve their own institutions. In America, he also reviewed the welfare of Chinese immigrants and success of Chinese business. The prince may have even forged business relations between China and successful merchants like Moy Kee.

Prince Pu Lun in Indianapolis

Prince Pu Lun arrived at Union Station in Indianapolis on May 18 for a ten-day tour of the Hoosier State. His schedule moved at a breakneck pace, with the press breathlessly reporting on his every move. Some highlights of the visit include the prince visiting the Columbia Club, meeting James Whitcomb Riley, touring Purdue University, and attending a commencement at May Wright Sewall’s Classical School for Girls.  Moy Kee had been anticipating Pu Lun’s visit for months now and tried to be as involved as possible. He was among the crowd of Chinese gathered to welcome the prince at Union Station. Afterwards, Moy attended a welcome reception held at the Statehouse where he presented the prince with a bouquet. Moy Kee and Chin Fung again met with the prince two days later, this time at the Local Council of Women’s reception. Technically, only Chin Fung was invited to this reception, but Moy Kee insisted on going, stating his wife needed an “escort.” Afterwards, Moy was granted a short audience with the Pu Lun at his hotel. While the specifics of the meeting were not discussed, the prince was likely interested in seeing how Moy Kee and other immigrants were faring in Indianapolis and may have developed a business relationship with Moy Kee.

The next few days there seems to have been little interaction between Moy and Prince Pu Lun as he traveled to Lafayette to tour the campus of Purdue University. During that time, Moy lobbied for the opportunity to host Prince Pu Lun one last time before his departure. He begged William Fortune that the prince grant him one more audience and “that he might stay for five minutes, a minute, or the least fraction of a minute.”  Upon hearing the request, the prince decided to not only call upon Moy but to visit his chop suey restaurant and lunch with the Moy family.

The lunch was brief but pleasant and provided Moy with a critical opportunity to leave a lasting impression on Prince Pu Lun and his Hoosier hosts. The three-course meal combined American cuisine such as ice cream and beer with traditional Chinese chop suey and freshly brewed tea. This interesting fusion of food and drink reflected Moy’s unique background as both a Chinese and American citizen and ensured all the guests received a dish or drink that they enjoyed. When the Prince recommended Moy Kee for the fifth rank, it seems that Moy was genuinely surprised and delighted. He profusely thanked the prince for the honor and bowed multiple times to show his appreciation. After exchanging gifts and pleasantries, Prince Pu Lun departed the restaurant. He climbed the Soldiers and Sailors monument and said his goodbyes to his hosts Mayor Holtzman and William Fortune before traveling to Union Station and departing for Buffalo, New York.

Moy Kee with wife Chin Fung and two toddlers (possibly grandchildren), courtesy of The Indiana Album.
Moy Kee is Named Mayor of Indianapolis’s Chinatown

While the prince’s visit lasted only ten days, it had a great impact on the Indianapolis’ Chinese community and Moy Kee. On the prince’s return trip from New York, he briefly stopped at Union Station. Moy Kee waited for his arrival and presented him with a handcrafted emblem he had commissioned as a thank you for granting him an audience. The emblem was a jeweled American flag with a Chinese dragon styled on its face. In the dragons’ fangs, it held a three-carat diamond. All in all, the emblem was rumored to cost 700 dollars, the equivalent of nearly $20,000 today. Newspapers reported that the prince and Moy chatted like “old friends” at the station. According to the Indianapolis News, in late July, Prince Pu Lun fulfilled his promise of elevating Moy Kee to fifth rank. Moy received a blue-bordered certificate embossed with the imperial seal that read:

This is to certify that, by the order of his imperial highness, Prince Pu Lun, Moy Kee, Indianapolis, ind., U. S. A., is hereby appointed mayor of Chinese. He is directed to attend to all the business of our people truthfully, honorably and honestly. To Moy Kee is hereby given the fifth rank and right to wear the crystal button.

The certificate is the first time Moy Kee is referred to as “Mayor” of the Chinese population in Indianapolis. While the term “Mayor of the Chinese” was an unofficial title that held no political power, the Chinese government often named a prominent leader of an immigrant community as the mayor. These leaders were expected to represent the Chinese people and act as an informal liaison between the Chinese government and American government. For the Chinese people itself, it also solidified the social hierarchy to be followed. For Moy, the title “Mayor” recognized his leadership within the American community while the fifth rank designation solidified his significance within Chinese society.

From that point onward, Moy constantly referenced his ties to Prince Pu Lun and his fifth rank designation. Later that fall, Moy attended the St. Louis Fair and spoke at the China Pavilion while publicly donning the robes and regalia that denoted him as fifth rank. At home, Moy conducted pricy home renovations and began ordering lavish items to decorate his home in a fashion that “befit his gentleman rank.” In 1906, Moy Kee traveled to Washington, D.C. where he met with Indiana Senator Charles Fairbanks. He even had an audience with President Theodore Roosevelt. Without a doubt, in the immediate years after Prince Pu Lun’s visit, Moy had reached the zenith of his power. He had successfully clawed his way up the social ladder of both Chinese and American society. Now, a much more difficult task presented itself to Moy Kee, retaining his hard-earned influence and social standing.

Moy Kee’s Fall from Prominence

Moy Kee once again received an imperial letter in October of 1907, but, unlike the last imperial letter Moy received, this one contained unwelcome news. It informed Moy that he had been stripped of his rank as Mandarin of the Fifth Degree and his status as the mayor of Indianapolis’ Chinese had been revoked. The succinct announcement refused to elaborate on why Moy’s statuses had been rescinded and led to widespread speculation.  Moy believed fellow Chinese in Indianapolis engineered his downfall. This paranoia stemmed from his role in 1902 as an interpreter in the murder trial of Doc Lung, a local Chinese laundryman. Some accused Moy of siding with the police and courts over the Chinese community. Newspapers speculated that the revocation was caused by accusations that Moy had raised relief funds for Chinese earthquake victims but had never donated them. It may have also been a result of shifting political powers in an increasingly unstable Chinese royal dynasty, which would collapse in 1911. Regardless of the reason, Moy was unable to protest the Chinese delegation’s decision. He and his wife had already arranged to set sail for Canton, China on October 21st to visit family and friends in a year-long visit. They decided to proceed with their trip, but Moy publicly expressed his disappointment that he would not be returning to China with his fifth rank status.

A year later, in March of 1909, Moy Kee and Chin Fung returned to America. However, after landing in Tacoma, Washington Moy’s citizenship papers were not accepted, and the couple was taken into custody. The Moy family was arrested because the Chinese Exclusion Act forbade Chinese from entering the country and officers believed Moy’s citizenship papers were not legitimate. During questioning by immigration officers, Moy allegedly declared himself to be a “citizen of Indianapolis, the best city in the country.” The couple was detained for over a month in deplorable conditions. Several times, it seemed that they were going to be deported back to China. Multiple figures in the Indianapolis community vouched for the Moy family’s right to reenter and the Indianapolis Star published several scathing stories criticizing the Seattle immigration office for detaining him despite his citizenship. Finally, on April 18, Moy was released and allowed to return to Indiana where he resumed operation of his chop suey restaurant. The month they spent in detention was a bleak reminder that outside of Indianapolis, their family and other Chinese were not welcome in America.

The Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1909, accessed Newspapers.com.
The Indianapolis Star, April 19, 1909, accessed Newspapers.com.

More trials awaited the Moy family in 1911. This time the bearer of bad news was the federal government. On August 4, Moy was informed that a petition asking for his citizenship to be revoked by the federal courts had been filed on the basis of his naturalization being awarded “wrongfully and without right,” fourteen years prior. According to an August 5 Indianapolis Star when Moy heard this news in his restaurant, he:

Dropped a dish which he had had in his hand and stared for several moments in silence. A look of anguish clouded his customarily smiling countenance. It was one of the saddest moments of his life. It was with difficulty that he spoke. ‘It’s no use to buck Uncle Sam… I’ll not fight it. If they don’t want me to be an American… it’s no use to fight them- I haven’t enough money to do that, even if I wanted to. It’s too bad.’ Then Moy fell silent. He would say no more.

Moy Kee was over sixty-three years old and the dogged vigor and determination to retain his citizenship, something he had lobbied tirelessly for as a young man, had faded. However, the Indianapolis community still stood by the former Chinese mayor, with local newspapers universally criticizing the investigation. Mayor Samuel L. Shank even wrote a letter to President Taft imploring him to allow Moy to retain his citizenship, calling him one of Indianapolis’s finest citizens. The letter fell on deaf ears and on October 9, 1911, Moy lost his beloved American citizenship.

The Indianapolis Star, August 5, 1911, accessed Newspapers.com.

Moy was not deported by the federal government and allowed to live and work in Indianapolis. While he was generally treated the same by Indianapolis residents, he now could no longer claim equal footing with Americans and was at constant risk for deportation. Symbolically, the federal courts had sent a message that there would be no exceptions to the Chinese Exclusion Act and, subsequently, that all Chinese remained unwelcome in America. For the next three years, Moy lived his life in Indianapolis much the same as he had lived before. He operated his restaurant, threw Chinese New Year parties, and remained a cornerstone of Indianapolis’ Chinese community. Newspapers noted that Moy still viewed himself as an American and outside his restaurant still hung a Chinese and an American flag, flying side by side.

In January of 1914, while eating dinner, Moy Ah Kee suffered a sudden heart attack and died on the floor of his Washington Street restaurant, the same place where he had hosted Prince Pu Lun seven years earlier. After putting the family’s affairs in order, the widowed Chin Fung set sail to China with Moy’s body, where she intended to bury him with his ancestors and live the remainder of her life. In his obituary, The Indianapolis Star recounted his life story and noted that he was one of the most prominent businessmen in the state with an estimated fortune of $25,000 (over $722,000 in today’s currency). The Star ended a two-decade partnership with the Chinese businessman by stating: “He was regarded as the prominent local source of information on questions relating to Chinese affairs and often was consulted by officials and newspaper writers of the city, among whom he had many friends.”

Conclusion
Portrait of Moy Kee and his wife, Indianapolis, Indiana, circa 1900, courtesy of The Indiana Album.

In 1943, twenty-six years after Moy Kee’s death, the United States repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act to signify diplomatic ties between the US and China during World War Two. However, the new immigration quota enacted allowed only 105 Chinese immigrants per year. The strict immigration quotas remained in place for Chinese until 1965, when the United States enacted the Immigration and Nationality Act that ended ethnic quotas. Instead, the United States began admitting immigrants based on education, employable skill, or the need for asylum. While this prevents blanket bans against entire ethnic groups or nationalities, these new admission standards create significant barriers for working-class immigrants, and American immigration policy remains hotly debated today.

This revised protocol led to an influx of highly educated and skilled Asians and, with this new population, the stereotype of Asians as the “model minority” arose. This characterization of East Asians, which generalizes them as smart, affluent, and hard-working, would have been unrecognizable to Moy Kee and other Chinese immigrants in the 1800s. While on the surface this stereotype is complimentary, it is still a negative and egregious overgeneralization of a diverse ethnic group and masks the sordid history of discrimination against Chinese people by the United States. After a series of Asian hate crimes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation is once again grappling with the impact of both modern and historical discrimination against people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.

Moy Kee’s life serves as a staunch reminder of some of those inequities and how they consumed the entirety of America, not just the bio-coastal states, for well over a century.  An entrepreneur and businessman, Moy rose to prominence socially and fiscally in a way that was unimaginable to most immigrants. His life reached its zenith when he was granted the Chinese title of the fifth rank while also maintaining dual Chinese American citizenship. However, as Moy Kee put it himself, there was no use “fighting Uncle Sam” and he was stripped of both his fifth rank and citizenship late in life, a sad reflection of America’s political and social landscape during his life.

Ultimately, Moy Kee’s life provides an insightful window into the lives of Chinese immigrants in the Indianapolis community and showcases a story of resilience and fortitude in the face of insurmountable odds. As America continues to confront its tragic past and conflicted present regarding its treatment of Asian Americans and immigrants as whole, hopefully the national dialogue remembers the story of Moy Kee and thousands of other Chinese immigrants who were wrongly barred entry to America and denied citizenship due to their race and the prejudiced stereotypes that were perpetuated about their people.

Moy Kee Part I: The “Mayor” of Indianapolis’s Chinese Community

Moy Key, courtesy of Scott D. Seligman, “The Hoosier of Mandarin,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 23, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 48, accessed Digital Images Collection, Indiana Historical Society.
A Disturbing Question

In 1901, The San Francisco Call urged the renewal of The Chinese Exclusion Act, the only legislation in American history that wholly banned the immigration of a specific ethnic group.  The Call emphatically supported this renewal stating that America ought to be doing everything in its power to “prevent the threatened invasion of Mongol hordes.” Sentiments like this were not uncommon. Racist cartoons, articles calling for Congress to defend America from the “Yellow Peril,” and state conventions or resolutions urging the renewal of the Exclusion Act were a dime a dozen in 1901. That same year, The Indianapolis News ran a very different story. This article criticized the Exclusion Act and threw its support behind Moy Kee, a Chinese immigrant and resident of Indianapolis, as he sought a federal government job, from which Chinese immigrants had been barred. The Indianapolis News noted on March 8, 1901:

Moy Jin Kee, Chinese Merchant and caterer at 211 Indiana avenue, is about to renew with the Government a disturbing question as to the effect of the Garry alien law passed by Congress . . . He has lived in this country over forty years, speaks excellent English . . . he was brought to this country from Canton when a mere child . . . Mr. Moy is an earnest seeker after appointment.

While Moy Kee never received a federal appointment, the Indianapolis community would prove to be staunch supporters of Moy Kee. The Marion County Circuit Court granted Moy his citizenship when federal law forbade it. Newspapers sold Moy ad space for his chop suey restaurant and frequently approached him for interviews. Later, when his citizenship was challenged by the federal government, Indianapolis Mayor Samuel L. Shank personally wrote a letter to President Taft defending Moy as “universally regarded as being one of the city’s best citizens.” These actions across the Indianapolis community demonstrate the level of prominence Moy Kee had attained in Indianapolis during a time when anti-Chinese attitudes in America were at an all-time high. This blog will outline the arduous path Moy traveled to obtain his American citizenship and how he used his personal assets to carve out a place in both the Chinese immigrant and Indianapolis community.

The Indianapolis News, March 8, 1901, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Moy Kee Seeks American Citizenship

Moy Kee immigrated to the United States in the 1850’s as a young boy from Guangdong Province in China. Like many Chinese immigrants of the time, his family came to America seeking work and an escape from the political turmoil plaguing China. However, rather than wishing to build wealth and return to China in calmer times like most Chinese immigrants, Moy wanted to stay in America for the rest of his life. Not only that, but he also wanted to become an American citizen. To better assimilate with his new home, Moy converted to Christianity and attained fluency in English. In 1878 he moved to New York and ran a business selling imported Chinese goods. He also became involved in Christian ministry and began proselytizing the New York Chinese community. However, Moy was accused of stealing from one of his employers and jailed. While there are no records of a trial, Moy decided to shed his tarnished reputation by seeking a fresh start in Chicago. Critically, before Moy left New York he filed a declaration of intent to become an American citizen, the first step of the naturalization process. This would prove to be a watershed moment in Moy’s quest for citizenship because two years later the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is notably the only legislation in American history that provides an absolute ban on immigration against a specific ethnic group. It instated a ten-year ban on Chinese immigration, enacted severe restrictions on current immigrants – now at constant risk for deportation – and effectively blocked all Chinese from American citizenship. In 1892 the Exclusion Act was renewed for another decade via the Geary Act and then in 1902 it would become permanent legislation.

The Magic Washer, manufactured by Geo. Dee, Dixon, Illinois. The Chinese Must Go, printed circa 1886, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Chinese Exclusion Act and the anti-Chinese sentiments that spurred it would become a constant source of disruption and conflict in Moy Kee and thousands of other Chinese immigrants’ lives. In Chicago, Moy Kee opened a Chinese tea shop and began his protracted battle for his citizenship. In the community, he helped organize the Chicago Chinese Club, a political group aimed at bettering the lives of the Chicago Chinese and protesting the Chinese Exclusion Act. Individually, Moy spent years lobbying the local courts, arguing that because he filed his intent to become a citizen two years before the ratification of the Exclusion Act, the law did not apply to him, and therefore he was eligible for citizenship. Year after year the Chicago courts rejected his argument and Moy remained, legally at least, a stranger in his own home.

Moy’s legal luck changed in 1897 when he and his wife moved to Indianapolis, setting up a litmus test of Indiana’s proverbial “Hoosier Hospitality.” In Moy’s case at least, Hoosier Hospitality rang true and on October 18th, 1897, eighteen years after Moy had begun the naturalization process (By comparison, the naturalization process today lasts on average 12-16 months), the Marion County Court granted him his coveted American citizenship.

Moy Kee Climbs the Social Ladder in Indianapolis

While Moy Kee may have obtained his citizenship, his work to be accepted by the Indianapolis community was far from complete. Moy settled down in Indy and eventually opened a Chop Suey and Chinese restaurant at 506 East Washington Street. A sign hung outside his restaurant advertising it as “Moy Kee & Co. Chinese Restaurant,” though the papers frequently referred to it as “Mr. Moy’s Chop Suey House.” He intentionally began inserting himself into as many community functions as possible. There are news articles of Moy hosting large Chinese New Year’s parties, playing Chinese instruments at school functions, inviting local politicians to dine at his restaurant, and selling Chinese palm readings for fifty cents. He even planned to open a Chinese language school, though his idea never came to fruition. Entrepreneurial and outgoing, it seems Moy was willing to try everything at least once.

However, as diverse his activities may have seemed they always shared one common thread. All his actions served to further integrate himself into the Indianapolis community and they all hearkened back to his Chinese roots. In this way, Moy used his heritage as a source of novelty and entertainment for the community. Rather than divorce himself from his culture to “mix in” with the great American Melting Pot, he successfully mobilized his Chinese heritage as a vehicle for his accumulation of wealth and social standing in Indianapolis.

The Indianapolis Journal, March 25, 1900, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Compared to coastal states like Californian, Indianapolis had a small Chinese immigrant population. The 1910 Census estimates that only 273 Chinese lived in Indiana and, in Indianapolis specifically, the Indianapolis News, reported that the Chinese had a “local colony” of about 40 or so immigrants including Moy Kee. The miniscule population of Chinese immigrants in Indianapolis may have contributed to the city’s relative receptivity to the Chinese when compared to states with significant Chinese communities. Furthermore, the low population explains why Indianapolis never developed a centralized locale or “Chinatown” like New York or Chicago did. There simply were not enough Chinese to do so. Instead, the Chinese immigrants clustered around Indiana Avenue, a historic strip of downtown Indianapolis that was known primarily for housing a vibrant African American community. The decentralized nature of the Chinese community provided Moy Kee with the perfect opportunity to rise to power as the Chinese representative to the city and, in doing so, ensure his place in Indianapolis.

Moy Kee both stood for and apart from the Indianapolis Chinese community. This allowed him to rise to prominence in a fashion unfathomable for the average immigrant. For one, the census records list his wife Chin Fung as being the only Chinese woman to live in Indianapolis in the late 1890’s. Compared to other Chinese men who had to balance both work and domestic duties alone, Moy Kee’s wife helped him around the restaurant, entertaining guests and managing the house when Moy was away. Chin Fung’s extra support allowed Moy to be more experimental as he could divert attention to other tasks besides running his restaurant and house. Furthermore, as the only Chinese woman in the city, Chin Fung received attention from the news media, who described her as a graceful and poised woman and were fascinated by her traditionally bound feet, which caused a peculiar gait.

Second, Moy Kee separated himself from other Chinese in the community by owning a successful restaurant. He was wealthier than the average Hoosier and even employed his own servants to help run the household and restaurant. This contrasted with most Chinese men, who were stymied by language barriers and Sinophobia and, as a result, toiled in stagnant, low-level service industries such as laundry, cleaning, or construction. With paltry salaries that almost all were sent back to impoverished family in China, this left little wealth for the average Chinese immigrant and, as a result, they often lived hovering just above the poverty line. In contrast, Moy’s wealth allowed him to return home to China fairly frequently and keep in touch with relatives. He even was able to travel to China to marry Chin Fung before bringing her back to America. Moy’s wealth also enabled him to import several Chinese goods for his restaurant including traditional decorations, ebony wood, ivory China table sets, and unusual foods that attracted both Chinese and non-Chinese customers alike.

The Indianapolis Journal, September 20, 1903, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Moy’s most valuable asset in his rise to prominence was his ability to speak fluent English. This fluency cemented him as the unofficial spokesperson of the Indianapolis Chinese community, and he took full advantage of it. He spent years cultivating a positive relationship with the local newspapers by buying ad space for his restaurant and happily providing interviews and engaging stories about his many endeavors. When reporters wanted to cover a story about the Chinese community, they contacted Moy. This working relationship was a major factor in the divergent coverage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in Indianapolis compared to other cities. Most articles about Moy or the community positively portray the Chinese and avoid fear-mongering headlines about “the oriental wave,” or “yellow peril.” Indianapolis was not immune to xenophobic sentiments (Among other questionable coverage, The Indianapolis Morning Star accused Chinese royalty of visiting America to recruit American soldiers for the imperial army and The Indianapolis Journal often referred to the Chinese as “coolies”) but, compared to newspapers in California or other states, negative rhetoric was relatively muted.

Moy Kee Struggles to Balance His Ambition and the Chinese Community

In 1902, Moy Kee’s ambition to integrate with the Indianapolis community would put him at odds with the city’s Chinese population. In May, the small community would be rocked by the gruesome murder of Doc Lung, a local Chinese laundryman. The police immediately arrested Chin Hee, an immigrant who had just moved from Chicago and was employed by Doc Lung. This caused a major rift within the Chinese community, and they fragmented into two groups: Those who protested Chin Hee’s innocence and those who believed Chin Hee committed the murder. Moy Kee found himself in the crossfire of this rift when he began translating for the police and later grand jury and courts in the murder case. Many in the community felt that Moy Kee was betraying them by working as the government’s translator, the same institution that denied them citizenship and deported their people on a regular basis. The situation escalated to the point that Moy started receiving death threats attempting to coerce him into ending his translations for the government.

Despite the threats to his life, Moy Kee persisted, and the Grand Jury ultimately convicted three perpetrators, none of them Chinese, for the crime. The role he played in the court trial benefitted his relationships with the local government and police. He also received more media attention than he ever had before, further elevating his position in Indianapolis. However, this acceptance by local institutions came at the expense of Moy’s relationships with his fellow Chinese. Already separated from them due to his affluence and privileged status as an American citizen, working with the police led to some in community questioning whether Moy was loyal to the Chinese or the Americans. Rumors swirled and some whispered that E. Lung, the leader of the faction that defended Chin Hee, might be a better fit as the Chinese people’s representative. Subsequently, Moy would become increasingly paranoid about being ousted by the Chinese community as their unnamed leader. Later in life, when he was stripped of his high Chinese rank, he would immediately accuse fellow Chinese of engineering his social downfall.

Conclusion

By 1904, Moy Kee was undoubtedly the most prominent Chinese figure in Indianapolis and, despite a factionalized Chinese community, he was still recognized as the de facto leader. Better yet, Moy Kee had a home in Indianapolis that accepted him as both an American citizen and Hoosier. For a Chinese man to achieve this position was an incredible feat. Moy had hopscotched across the country, testified in multiple courts, accumulated a massive amount of wealth, and overcame duplicitous stereotypes to earn his citizenship and social standing. In many ways, it felt like Moy and his wife had achieved everything an immigrant to the United States could dream of.

However, no one could have predicted the actions of the Qing dynasty in the early 1900’s. A royal family infamous for their strict isolationism and rejection of Western diplomacy, they shocked the world by announcing that they would be participating in the 1904 St. Louis World Fair. Not only that, but they were appointing Prince Pu Lun, nephew of the emperor, as head of the Chinese fair commission. Critically for Moy, the Prince announced he would spend months before and after the fair touring America, including a ten-day visit to Indianapolis.

In the next installment, follow Prince Pu Lun’s royal visit to Indianapolis where he caused much fanfare. Additionally, we explore Moy Kee’s role in Pu Lun’s visit as he vies for an audience with the prince and eventually precipitates his “coronation” as the official Mayor of Indianapolis’ Chinese.

For further reading, see:

“Chinese,” The Polis Center, accessed May 2022, courtesy of IUPUI.edu.

Paul Mullins, “The Landscapes of Chinese Immigration in the Circle City,” October 16, 2016, accessed Invisible Indianapolis.

Scott D. Seligman, “The Hoosier of Mandarin,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 23, no. 4 (Fall 2011): 48-55, accessed Digital Images Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

“Wants a Federal Place: Moy Jin Kee Raises a Disturbing Question,” Indianapolis News, March 8, 1901, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Richard G. Lugar: Nixon’s Favorite Mayor

“A warm Hoosier welcome on a rather cold day.”

That’s how President Richard Nixon described his reception in Indianapolis on February 5th, 1970. Awaiting his arrival on the tarmac, Governor Edgar Whitcomb and Mayor Richard Lugar received the President and his federal entourage. This was the first presidential visit conducted by Nixon since his inauguration in 1969 and Indianapolis was chosen as their destination due to the new Republican leadership under Mayor Lugar. After exchanging pleasantries and traveling to City Hall, Nixon and Lugar spoke to the crowd of approximately 10,000 Hoosiers before convening for their scheduled conference on urban affairs. During the conference, President Nixon convened with nine Indiana mayors to discuss problems faced by city leadership and the federal government’s role. At 4:30 PM, President Nixon departed Indianapolis to visit Chicago. While brief, President Nixon’s visit to Indianapolis greatly influenced both Lugar’s political future and the city of Indianapolis as a whole.

President Nixon and Mayor Lugar greeting one another, 1970, courtesy of the Institute for Civic Leadership and Digital Mayoral Archives 

After Nixon’s visit, Richard Lugar would experience a meteoric rise in the political sphere, easily winning his mayoral re-election in 1972 and earning a U.S. Senate seat in 1976. Lugar served one of Indiana’s senators for 32 years, garnering a reputation as a foreign policy expert and renowned statesman. He is best known for co-authoring the acclaimed Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which led to the dismantling of thousands of Cold-War era weapons in previous USSR territory and a Nobel Peace Prize Nomination. In 2013, President Barack Obama named Lugar as a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient stating:

 “His legacy, though, is the thousands of missiles and bombers, and warheads that no longer threaten us because of his extraordinary work. And our nation and our world are safer because of this statesman.” – President Barack Obama, 2013

In examining Lugar’s towering legacy, one must ask, how does a mayor of a landlocked city in the Midwest become the leading statesman in foreign policy for over 30 years?

The answer to that question can be traced back to February 5th, 1970, and a warm handshake on a rather cold day. Lugar transformed an otherwise short and symbolic visit with Nixon into a key political moment, forging an unprecedented relationship between a city mayor and the sitting president. In a Washington Post article, Peter Braestrup aptly dubbed the young Lugar as “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor.” The name stuck, and Lugar leveraged his new title to enter national politics and foreign affairs. While Lugar’s association as “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor” was problematic immediately after the Watergate scandal, his affiliation with the President was overall more beneficial than detrimental to his political career. Ultimately Nixon’s relationship with Lugar was the catalyst for Lugar’s remarkable career in foreign affairs, elevating both Lugar and Indianapolis to national and global prominence.

Nixon’s presidency is remembered, for better or worse, as one of the most consequential administrations in American history. Globally, Nixon found success in foreign affairs, revolutionizing the Cold War by pursuing rapprochement with China. Domestically, Nixon championed New Federalism which facilitated the transfer of power from the federal government to the state level via federal block grants. Conservatives believed this policy would curb the bloated bureaucratic system. However, Democrats believed that New Federalism was an underhanded attempt to dismantle President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Frustrated by a resistant Congress, Nixon sought to prove that his philosophy of decentralization worked. In 1970, Nixon found a prime example of New Federalism in Indianapolis, lead by its newly minted Republican mayor, Richard G. Lugar.

Before Lugar’s election, Indianapolis Democrats had enjoyed a sixteen-year long monopoly on the mayoral office. However, Lugar and his campaign manager, Keith Bulen, capitalized on a rift forming within the Democratic party and, running a tight grassroots campaign, won the 1967 mayoral election. As mayor, Lugar successfully implemented Unigov, a controversial piece of legislation that folded several counties into the city of Indianapolis, increasing the city’s population by 300,000 citizens overnight. Notably, the demographic incorporated into Marion County was mainly white, conservative, suburbanites whose vote solidified the Republican party’s dominance in Indianapolis. Unigov also established Indianapolis as a leader in urban policy, successful city consolidation, and effective “home rule,” a not-so-subtle nod to Nixonian New Federalism.

A caricature of Mayor Lugar ascending into the sky on a rocket titled “Uni-Gov, ” 1971, courtesy of the Institute for Civic Leadership and Digital Mayoral Archives

By 1970, President Nixon was embroiled in the Vietnam War and public criticism of his inability to withdraw, a promise he had made on the campaign trail, mounted every day. As the war dragged on, Nixon became increasingly sequestered in the White House, failing to make a presidential visit outside of Washington D.C. for the entirety of 1969. A deeply insecure man, Nixon abhorred the idea of a presidential visit being marred by coverage of anti-war protestors and personally embarrassing him. His administration urged him to leave D.C. and eventually identified Indianapolis as a city where he would receive an enthusiastic welcome and, in turn, positive media coverage. Better yet, Mayor Lugar’s Unigov legislation offered a thriving example of New Federalism and decentralized government. The presidential visit was confirmed in January of 1970 and Mayor Lugar began preparing the local Republican party to receive the president.

The presidential visit was a rousing success with both the media and public. The Indiana GOP had extensively planned this visit, inviting positive coverage of the event and a gathering a crowd of over 1,000 people for Nixon and Lugar’s speeches alone. President Nixon was reportedly delighted by the large reception and in good humor traveling to the conference. The Urban Affairs Conference was more symbolic than practical, cementing Nixon’s commitment to New Federalist Policy. This commitment would later reach Indianapolis by way of generous block grants and federal funding. The visit drew national attention to Lugar’s successes as mayor and the media began connecting Lugar with Nixon in their headlines, eventually bestowing upon Lugar the title of “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor.”

Lugar introduces President Nixon with First Lady Pat Nixon and Governor Edgar Whitcomb prominently featured, 1970, courtesy of Indiana University Bloomington: The Richard G. Lugar Senatorial Papers

More importantly, Nixon’s visit to Indianapolis unintentionally precipitated Senator Lugar’s career as a diplomat, statesman, and foreign affairs expert. In WYFI’s documentary on Lugar, the senator reminisces on how he was invited to his first NATO conference by President Nixon. After delivering their speeches in front of City Hall, Lugar and Nixon were heading towards the conference on urban affairs and conversing during the elevator ride.

Upon passing the 25th floor, Nixon pivoted towards Lugar and said:

“Dick, I want you to go with Moynihan…to Brussels to represent the United States at a NATO conference on cities.” – President Nixon as remembered by Richard Lugar

Lugar accepted the President’s invitation. Seemingly a reward for the successful presidential visit, Lugar’s attendance Brussels NATO conference precipitated his transformation from a local, Midwestern politician to a U.S. Senator and global tour de force. During the conference, Lugar attended several diplomatic meetings and, on the second day, proposed that Indianapolis host another NATO conference in May of 1971. Talking points for this Hoosier hosted conference included urban growth, with Indianapolis being the case study, municipal affairs, and urban problems. The proposal was accepted, and Lugar was able to successfully blend his previous experience with urban affairs with his new interests in foreign policy. Both NATO conferences provided the mayor with vital connections and foreign policy experience that Lugar later leveraged to maneuver into the U.S. Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

A year after hosting the Indianapolis NATO conference, Mayor Lugar was invited to speak at the 1972 RNC where he was introduced by Governor Ronald Reagan. Reagan, in his charismatic oratory style, lauded Lugar as:

“A respected spokesman for and practitioner of the very best in workable new approaches to the urban challenge… he has represented the President not only across this country but also within the NATO Community.”- President Ronald Reagan, 1972

Lugar’s rise to national prominence experienced a major setback on August 8th, 1974, when Nixon, unable to escape the Watergate Scandal, became the first and only sitting president to resign. Suddenly the title “Nixon’s Favorite Mayor,” was a curse rather than a blessing. Despite efforts to separate himself from the disgraced president, Lugar lost the 1974 Senatorial election to Democratic incumbent Birch Bayh. However, Lugar quickly bounced back in 1976’s election and began his federal career as Indiana’s longest-serving state senator.

Ultimately, the lasting impact of Lugar’s relationship with Nixon as his “favorite mayor” was Lugar’s rapid rise in politics and critical access to foreign policy early in his career. Without Nixon’s 1972 presidential visit, Lugar would not have been able to attend the NATO conference in Brussels, host a similar conference in Indianapolis, and most likely would not have been invited to speak at the 1972 RNC. These cumulative events were significantly more impactful than Lugar’s singular 1974 election loss. Without Nixon’s mentorship, Lugar’s senatorial career would have been vastly different, and his legislation may have been limited to areas more in line with the expertise of a midwestern politician such as agriculture. Instead, Lugar was able to capitalize on the diplomatic opportunities Nixon presented him and pursue an illustrious career in foreign affairs. After losing the primary election in 2012, Lugar would continue to make speaking appearances until his passing on April 28th, 2019. The Lugar Center preserves Senator Lugar’s preeminent legacy by continuing his policies regarding nuclear weapon nonproliferation, global food security, and bipartisan governance.

Richard Nixon Shaking Hands with Mayor Lugar, unknown date, courtesy of the Institute for Civic Leadership and Digital Mayoral Archives

In January of 1994, during the 25th anniversary of Nixon’s presidential inauguration, Senator Lugar and President Nixon’s paths crossed one final time. It was another chilly day in Washington D.C., and the weather resembled that of the two statesman’s first encounter nearly 25 years prior. In those two and a half decades much had changed: the Cold War had ended, Bill Clinton was President, and the Republican Party was undergoing a major political transformation and becoming increasingly conservative. This stood in stark contrast to Nixon’s promotion of desegregation and the founding of the EPA. It was during this time that the political topography started shifting under Lugar’s feet and Lugar, once known as a solid conservative, began being known as a bipartisan negotiator or even a moderate. This new reputation would later be weaponized against him in the 2012 primary election. Regardless of the political present and future, Lugar and Nixon were gathered to recount presidential history. Lugar proclaimed to the gathered crowd, “Our prayers today are for the continuing strength and activity of President Richard Nixon,” whom he then referred to as his “foreign policy teacher and counselor.” After the celebration, Nixon, who was now in his 80’s, privately pulled Lugar aside and confided in him saying:

“You know, you really were my favorite mayor.”