Fort Wayne’s Charles Allen: Theatrical Ingenue & “Unsung Gay Hero”

Courtesy of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, caption: Pianist Charles Allen, left, and singer Steve Black were part of the entertainment scene in the late ’60s, when bars replaced coffeehouses as the centers of musical activity.

Legendary choreographer and “unsung gay hero” Charles Allen sat with a tape recorder in his Fort Wayne house, a veritable art museum awaiting curation. Sipping gin and orange juice from an empty peanut butter jar, he began to document his life. Notorious for self-mythologizing—once claiming to have killed a man using “voodoo and black magic”—some of the anecdotes he fed the tape no doubt were embellished.[1] These would prove unnecessary, however, as his legacy speaks for itself. Not only did Allen give “birth to generations of dancers and . . . change the way people looked at the world around him,” but he inspired and empowered LGBTQ+ Hoosiers, perhaps unintentionally. Upon Allen’s 1980 death, Jerry Jokay wrote in TROIS, Fort Wayne’s gay newsletter, that “Although he probably wouldn’t have seen it this way, one of his greatest contributions was that he was a gay hero. And he is a gay hero simply because his gayness was a trivial issue in his life even in spite of the oppression it caused him.”[2] Allen, on the other hand, would probably consider his greatest contributions to be advancing performing arts and instilling a love of storytelling and self-expression in Hoosiers.

Gene Stratton Porter, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum, courtesy of KPC News.

Born in 1912, Allen was likely raised by his aunt and uncle in Mongo, Indiana. Depictions of Allen’s childhood are characteristically colorful and include a traipse through Tamarack Swamp with famed author and naturalist Gene Stratton Porter in search of insects and plant specimens.[3] Allen “recalled dyeing his hair pinkish-brown as a child, catching blue racer snakes, putting them around his neck, and startling passersby on highway 20 near his home. A barefoot, innocent, wild-haired child of the swamp.”[4]  The spirited child attended school in Kendallville and spent free time in LaGrange, where he learned to play piano at Wigdon Theater. Fully enamored with artistic expression, he devoured performances delivered by a travelling company. The News-Sentinel reported “there was a troupe of four or five men, who did a two-reel silent movie, and set up an impromptu stage with an indian scene. There was singing, and two of the men did female impersonations. When he left the show, his life had changed. . . . He’d fallen in love.”

The production continued to call to him, long after the caravans departed. He left school, took a train to northern Michigan, where the travelling company had migrated, and became its new pianist. As despair deepened during the Great Depression, the public increasingly took solace in travelling shows. These provided Allen with opportunities to try his theatrical hand and hone his skills as a performer. The News-Sentinel noted, “People were doing almost anything for money. He fell in with a freak show,” dubbed the Palace of Wonders, for which he mesmerized crowds as the Human Pin Cushion. During this period, Allen learned how to perform the “half-man, half-woman” act, styling his feminine half after screen siren Marlene Dietrich. When he returned to Fort Wayne, he would perform this routine at local tavern, Henry’s, and played piano at bars like This Old House, Trolly Bar, and the Caboose.[5] Allen insisted that friends stay at his house once the bars closed down for the night, hating solitude.[6]

The eclectic career he had forged for himself was abruptly derailed by the conformist ethos of the 1940s. At a time of global upheaval, Americans held evermore sacrosanct heteronormativity. The News-Sentinel reported that during this “less enlightened age,” a judge sentenced Allen to six years in a Michigan City Prison after “an affair with a soldier led to a charge of sodomy.”[7] Allen recalled in the Fort Wayne Free Press that the judge declared ironically “we’re going to send you where you’ll be happy; locked up with a lot of men!”[8] This prediction proved correct, as he spent time with paramours in a makeshift room fashioned out of old pianos and curtains. On weekends, he played piano for the men waiting in line to watch a movie. While it played, a band mate would take his place at the piano, so that he could go hold hands with his companion. During his few years in prison, Allen made friends, assembled a band—for which he played the sousaphone—and learned how to dance.[9]

A sketch of Etheridge Knight in prison by Terrance Hayes, accessed

The News-Sentinel noted that in prison Allen “kept following his insatible [sic] desire to learn. Where he could find no one else to teach him, he taught himself. The creativity could never let him rest. It would be that way to the end of his life.”[10] This cultivation of self-expression paralleled the journey of African American poet, Etheridge Knight. While serving eight years at the Indiana State Prison in the 1960s, he discovered the restorative power of writing, culminating in his revolutionary Poems from Prison. Knight later stated that “Poetry and a few people in there trying to stay human saved me . . . I knew that I couldn’t just deaden all my feeling the way some people did.”[11]

So, too, did music and dance sustain Allen during his incarceration. Upon release, he returned to Fort Wayne, opening the Charles Allen Dance Studio.[12] According to the Journal-Gazette, he was the city’s only choreographer and, through his trips to New York and Chicago, “single-handedly” invigorated the city’s theater scene. Something of a cultural conduit, Allen traveled to Vera Cruz, Mexico to research indigenous dances. He studied dance at the University of Guatemala and the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico, imbuing midwestern students with unique material and perspectives.[13]

In life and work, Allen gravitated towards those on the fringes, perhaps identifying with their struggles or the stigmatization they endured. He reportedly taught exotic dancers how to improve their performances and played piano at “houses of ill repute.”[14]  In his TROIS article, Springer wrote that Allen played piano and felt a “kinship” with Black Americans because “like him, they were among the outsiders of society.”[15] Though he was exacting and sometimes cruel, the News Sentinel reported that “he would work with beginners no one else had time for, work tirelessly because he felt a love of what he was doing.”[16] Janice Dyson recalled this experience, after her mom “scrimped grocery money to help pay” for lessons for her and her sister, Bernice. She recalled that Allen “was a real taskmaster. . . . Bernice was intimidated by him and quit after about a year. I wasn’t afraid of him, but I learned pretty quickly that when he said practice or else, he meant it.”[17] Perhaps he hoped to provoke the same grit he’d developed through surmounting the many hardships imposed by society.

While he worked with Fort Wayne performers, Allen reportedly knew the jazz greats, like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, and one friend noted that “a lot of famous people used to come here and have him fix their acts. Polish the acts. Reblock them or rechoreograph them.'”[18] Legend has it that one winter Allen sold his horse to pay the train fare to see Holiday perform in New York City. Due to a snow storm, he was the only person to show up at the theater. The usher relayed his presence to Holiday, who performed only for him, after which they went out for a drink. She reportedly drove him to the train station and ran alongside the cars, waving as the train departed. Allen was so moved by the experience that he wept while watching the train station scene in “The Lady Sings the Blues.”[19]

Family Theatre Festival (1975-1976), OnStage On Campus Collection, mDON: mastodon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Purdue University Fort Wayne (PUFW) recognized the ingenue’s talent, hiring Allen to teach courses like Stage Movement.[20] He felt immense pride about being self-taught. A man who embodied resistance towards oppression and convention, his influence intersected fortuitously with the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s. Friends and colleagues seem to agree that he was not an activist in the traditional sense, but he always answered when called to provide insight about homosexuality or the burgeoning “homophile” movement. He recognized that, as one of few men in the area living openly, if he did not engage in public discourse that no one one would. When asked by WANE-TV to serve as one of five panelists about homosexuality Allen agreed, saying “‘I’m all right here, I don’t have any problems because I’m not scared. But a lot of people are scared; they’re scared they’ll get arrested.”[21] He appealed to dozens of people to serve as panelists, but only two agreed. Those who declined feared that their parents would disown them or that they would lose their job, as had one of Allen’s friends who served in World War II. Others claimed the panel was unnecessary or worried that it would upset the “status quo,” which had provided a modicum of safety. To this reasoning, Allen said, “‘I thought if everything is so fine, why can’t they get on the air and say it’s fine. It’s because it isn’t fine.”[22]

Allen spoke about homosexuality at PUFW campus teach-ins and college classes, and wrote editorials for the student paper, The Fort Wayne Free Press, under the pseudonym “Claude Hawk.”[23] He wanted audiences to understand that sexuality was not a choice, noting that “My own doctor tells me that one gene or chromosome determines sexual preference—not butchness, effeminancy, athleticism, not militancy, but whom you want to go to bed with.”[24] He added that this knowledge, while “comforting,” doesn’t help if you get fired or the “bartender breaks your glass after each drink, etc., etc.” His efforts shifted the perspectives of students like Linda Lamirand and Katharine Stout, who attended a teach-in with the “brave man” who “sat up there and told it like it is.”[25] The authors were enlightened by Allen’s revelations that he knew he was gay at the age of four and that scientific studies suggested that biology dictated sexual preference.

Courtesy of The Fort Wayne Free Press, 3, iss. 16 (July 27, 1972): 9, accessed mDON: mastadon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

In one Free Press editorial, Allen addressed those who had come to terms with their sexuality, but faced the question “where do you go?” to meet someone. Of the dilemma, he wrote:

You can’t find someone at an office party or at a neighborhood bar because someone would ‘find out’. So you experiment. You drink too much or get so horny that, without experience, you get your teeth bashed in saying something dumb to to the wrong person; or the right-wrong person who relieves you of your watch, wallet, and rings. Or sometimes you are picked up by a nicelooking, intelligent, young man with long hair and bare feet, who turns out to be fuzz and you are entrapped, fined, and-or jailed.[26]

He advised readers to find a “gentle, gay” friend, who can help navigate the covert social world, or a relatively tolerant restaurant or bar. A “third salvation,” Allen noted, was to “know an art or theater crowd who don’t give a damn. Not about you, but about it.” The theater provided a world in which he did not have to explain himself or act as a local spokesperson for homosexuality. He wrote that the “freedom, acceptance, and love” afforded by the theater community created “a place to breathe in this pollution of brotherhood. Since one doesn’t have to hide, or lose his job in these fields, these are the more obvious” ones in which to work.[27] In fact, Allen noted that living as a gay man paralleled life in the performing arts, writing:

“You are forced to think and live like a male and play the game so well that you are never uncovered. And this becomes an art, gives you a facility for understanding objectively what’s going on. It’s like a play, and while others are doing it naturally you’re listening for clues, and if well rehearsed, arrive at a happy ending.”[28] 

The Fort Wayne Free Press 4, iss. 3 (January 25, 1973): 6, accessed mDON: mastadon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

While TROIS writer Jerry Jokay considered Allen “Fort Wayne’s unsung gay hero,” he noted that “his fortitude laid in the fact that he didn’t dwell upon his difference . . . Allen was preoccupied with being so much more, as his best friends attest.”[29] Preoccupied, he was. Allen informed Free Press readers about his life, writing in 1971 that “I ran my own school, taught at Purdue, played piano in bars, was connected with Ft. Wayne Civic Theater, Kenosha Little Theater, Theater Alanta, had choreographed a Broadway show, was a Japanese paper folder, an Arabian knot tier.”[30] He had traveled the globe in search of inspiration and imbued new generations of performers with it. The News-Sentinel wrote that “he became unique, in a world of his own creation. His art became his life, his life his art.”[31]

His life, his art. Perhaps it was his cancer diagnosis that inspired him to detail them on tape, stories that writer Dan Luzadder suggested “may have been plucked from the intensity of his nether world.”[32] We don’t know what stories he told, as he ran out of time to complete the recordings,* but perhaps he described the demands of caring for his pet python or recited original sonnets, haikus, and Limericks, “both clean and questionable.”[33] We can be certain that his life and art profoundly influenced those around him. This is evidenced by the obituaries written upon his death in 1980 at the age of 68. Luzadder wrote in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel:

There was loneliness and insecurity. There were things that drove him. And there was tremendous courage to live through the times of his life, to aspire to art, to survive with nothing more than intelligence and faith in himself, to go hungry, to be alone, to see the world in its intolerance and still love it.[34]

Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

On March 21, hundreds of people from all walks of life—including actors, dancers, bartenders, city officials, and editors—stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the Performing Arts Center to pay their respects to the man “whose life had taught them the meaning of art.”[35] His memorial served as a final standing ovation, with Civic Director Richard Casey reading from “Hamlet,” poets performing spoken word, and dancers delivering a finale performance of “Mr. Bojangles.”[36]

Allen provides us with a window into the experiences of those who lived openly in Indiana prior to the liberating events of the 1980s and 1990s. Before a sense of community was fostered by the formation of groups like Fort Wayne Gay and Lesbian Organization (GLO), Pride Week celebrations, and the publication of gay newsletters, Allen drew upon a deep reservoir of self-assurance and creative impulse to fashion a fulfilling life.[37] In his 1980 tribute, Steve Springer described Allen as “an individualist. Society had its standards of behavior and Allen had his own.” And although he had suffered because of these standards, Springer insisted that “Long after Anita Bryant and her hordes of intolerants are forgotten, the legend of Charles Allen will live on.”[38]

* The author has been unable to locate these recordings. If you know of their location please contact npoletika


All issues of The Fort Wayne Free Press were accessed via mDON Mastodon Digital Object Network, Helmke Library, Purdue University Fort Wayne.

[1] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, Indiana State Library (ISL) microfilm.

[2] Jerry Jokay, “Who Was Charles Allen?,” TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (March 1983), Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[3] “Arts Center Site for Allen Service,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 20, 1980, ISL microfilm.

[4] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[5] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[6] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Claude Hawk, “Boys Will Be Girls!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 1 (January 1, 1971): 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[11] Nicole Poletika, “Etheridge Knight: ‘can there anything good come out of prison,'” May 3, 2017, accessed Indiana History Blog.

[12] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[13] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[14] Ibid.; Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[15] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[16] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[17] Janice Dyson, “Studio Marks 65 Years of Dancing,” KPC News, December 28, 2017, accessed

[18] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[19] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[20] “Family Festival Slated,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, April 28, 1976, 6C.

[21] “It Isn’t Fine,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, no. 17 (September 9-23, 1971).

[22] Ibid.

[23] Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.; Claude Hawk, “Out of the Closet,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 11 (November 2-18, 1970): 3, 6.; “It Isn’t Fine,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, no. 17 (September 9-23, 1971).

[24] Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.

[25] Linda Lamirand and Katharine Stout, “Dear Freep,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 7 (April 22-May 6, 1971): 10.

[26] Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Claude Hawk, “God Love Us All,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 8 (May 6, 1971): 9.

[29] Jerry Jokay, “Who Was Charles Allen?,” TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (March 1983), Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[30] Bob Ihrie and Charles Allen, “Holiday on Ice,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 2 (January 18-February 2, 1971): 3.

[31] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.

[34] Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.

[35] Dell Ford, “Funeral Celebrates Dance, Poetry, Drama, Music,” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, March 22, 1980, C1, ISL microfilm.; Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

[36] Dell Ford, “Funeral Celebrates Dance, Poetry, Drama, Music,” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, March 22, 1980, C1, ISL microfilm.

[37] Nicole Poletika, “From ‘Gay Knights’ to Celebration on the Circle: A History of Pride in Indianapolis,” October 5, 2021, accessed Indiana History Blog.

[38] Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.

From “Gay Knights” to Celebration on the Circle: A History of Pride in Indianapolis

The New Works (August 1990): 15, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

* A note on terminology: We recognize that terminology referring to this marginalized community will continue to evolve. We have chosen to use “LGBTQ+” and “queer” after consulting with Indy Pride board members, historians specializing in the field, and new scholarship. We are cognizant that the community is not monolithic and that some individuals may not identify with these terms. It is also important to note that the mainstream civil rights movement excluded people of color, those living in poverty, and transgender individuals. 

The fabric of America has always been comprised of LGBTQ+ individuals, but due to social stigmas, legal discrimination, and the perpetuation of violence, many of these individuals lived quietly. While the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City proved to be a watershed moment in the national fight for equality, those in the conservative state of Indiana continued to socialize privately, for the most part. In 1976, the first “Gay Pride Week” was held in Indianapolis, hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) and the Gay Peoples Union. Rather than celebrate publicly, attendees were invited to attend a picnic at Sugar Creek Park, donate blood at MCC, participate in a “Youth Kamp Disco,” and attend workshops entitled “Do I Tell My Parents?,” “Christian and Gay,” “Lifestyles in the ‘70s,” and “Gays and Government.” MCC pastor Rev. James Hill said the purpose of the week was “to make society aware of our presence and as a self-affirming thing for gay people as well—affirming they have the right to be.’”

Program, 4th Annual Gay Pride Week Brunch, June 24, 1984, Jeffrey L. Huntington Collection, L198, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

According to an article The Works, when Pride plans failed to materialize in 1980, activists gathered at the Ramada Inn and formed a Pride Week Committee, which sponsored the 1981 Pride Week Brunch at Essex Hotel House. The Indianapolis Star noted in 1982 that celebrations continued in an insular manner, writing that individuals celebrated “Indiana style—without marches or noisy rallies.” Instead, they raised funds for various causes, donated food to the needy, and “tried quietly to let others know they are here.” Celebrants in 1984 continued the tradition of picnics, in addition to raising funds for AIDS research. The summer of that year, hundreds of LGBTQ+ Hoosiers met at Monument Circle to socialize, listen to local activists, learn about their rights, and register to vote.

The Works (September 1984): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

While organizers were careful to note that this was not a protest or demonstration, it was the first large public gathering of queer individuals in the state. Their goal was to increase visibility for the community, hoping the show of solidarity would lead to a decrease in police harassment and increased commitment to solving the murders of LGBTQ+ individuals. Mayor Bill Hudnut reluctantly issued a letter that was read at one of the gatherings, declaring a commitment to “an absence of anti-gay bias in all police matters.” According to a June 1985 The Works article, this marked “the first time any Mayor of Indianapolis has made any positive public pronouncement on gays in Indianapolis.” Although relations between police and elected officials and queer Hoosiers would remain relatively fraught, the Works considered the 1984 gatherings a success, writing that the events:

will go down in the gay history of Indiana as the first time gays in this state have exercised their Constitutional right to freedom of public assembly. Gays and lesbians exercised this Constitutional right in no less a place than the Monument Circle area of Indianapolis in full view of many Indianapolis citizens who came to see what gays had to say.

The Works (September 1984): 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

After the 1984 gatherings, which some dubbed “Gay Knights on the Circle,” Pride Week celebrations remained relatively private until 1990. That year, the twentieth anniversary of NYC’s first Pride Week, Indiana activists felt ready to celebrate publicly. Organized primarily by Justice, Inc.’s Ruth Peters, the New Works News noted that the June event would “provide an opportunity for gays and lesbians to increase their political and community awareness and visibility. Having the event on the Circle will provide both an educational and enjoyable atmosphere for the Indianapolis community at large to enjoy the speakers and entertainers.”

Some Hoosiers, like Drew Carey, feared making themselves vulnerable by attending the state’s first large outdoor Pride event. Nevertheless, he felt his presence was important, writing in an editorial reprinted in the New Works June 1990 issue:

I can’t tell you how much this intimidates me. I have never made such an open stand. But I’m going to be there, stomach in knots and all, because there is nothing so vitally important. . . . If we make excuses for not going, we manifest the internalized homophobia that will continue to keep us on the fringe, where society need not even recognize that we exist. We say to ourselves, to friends, to family, and to society, ‘I’m ashamed; I’m embarrassed about what I am. Your stereotypes about gays and lesbians are right.’

Those who turned out for the unprecedented event enjoyed entertainment like drag shows, learned about gay rights legislation, listened to AIDS activists, and interacted with those manning booths for the Indiana Youth Group, Damien Center, Act-Up Indy, Marion County Health Department Condom Contest, and Indiana Pro-Choice Action League.

“Circle Celebration Pics,” The New Works, 15, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

Despite the presence of protesters, the event empowered attendees, challenged social stigmas, and welcomed a range of sexual and gender expressions. The New Works News editor reflected in August, “As I looked around me . . .  I had but one thought: this is what a city is supposed to be like-alive, vibrant, filled with productive, enjoyable activity.” Carmen Kruer had a similar sentiment, writing in an editorial for the same issue that for the first time the community could:

socialize publicly with minimal fear of harassment and was also able to feel the strength that its numbers can provide. I was very proud to be a part of the lesbian and gay community as it drew together to support one goal – the attainment of a safe environment for all persons regardless of their sexual orientation, race, creed, or gender. I will always remember this day as I anticipate the next public celebration in Indiana.

“3000 Attend ‘Circle Celebration,'” The New Works, 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

With the event’s success, organizations like Justice, Inc. pushed to keep the momentum going through donations and activism. One writer for the New Works News wrote in July that the “Celebration on the Circle” was only the beginning, contending that “The Gay Civil Rights movement is at a critical point in its development. Much has been accomplished, but there is still much of a negative nature which must be overcome both within ourselves and in the public in general. . . . It’s up to us.”

In the ensuing years, Justice, Inc. and Indy Pride helped grow the event and by 2012 an estimated 80,000 people and 300 vendor booths attended the celebration. According to Indy Pride, the Cadillac Barbie Pride Parade “featured a float, an antique truck, a few drag queens, some antique cars, and several walking groups,” becoming a cornerstone of celebrations. Of the annual event’s significance, Indy Pride noted “In the years since Pride first ‘came out of the closet,’ the exposure has created a massive change in the society of the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana. The battle is not won until everyone is equal but the Indy Pride Festival and the Indy Pride Parade are Indiana’s symbol of a growing acceptance in our cultures.”

Indy Pride celebrant, Mark A. Lee LGBT Photo Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Society.

As with most efforts to secure civil rights, progress for the queer community in the city known for its “Polite Protest” and “Hoosier Hospitality” occurred in fits and spurts. The 2014 legalization of gay marriage and the 2015 enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act exemplifies this duality. As of 2021, organizations like the Indiana Youth Group and Indy Pride continue to provide resources and press for equal protection under the law.

* Sources used to write this post can be found here.

Learn about the following Indiana LGBTQ+ history topics:

“’Actually, Genuinely Welcomed:’ How North Meadow Circle of Friends Embraced and Wed LGBTQ Individuals”

“Gloria Frankel & The Seahorse: The South Bend LGBT Club’s Fight for Gay Rights”

“How Indy’s Queer Community Challenged Police Harassment in the 1980s”

“The Debate over ‘Decency:’ How Hoosiers Challenged Anita Bryant’s Anti-Gay Rights Crusade”

“’Walk a Mile in Their Pumps:’ Combating Discrimination within Indy’s Queer Community”

“’We Had Sung Them Off the Monument Steps:’ Pride, Protest, and Patriotism in Indianapolis”

Indianapolis’s Foreign House: “A Mixture of Protection and Coercion”

Indianapolis News, March 3, 1917, 28, accessed

As John H. Holliday strolled through Indianapolis’s Hungarian Quarter, he observed windows caked with grime, street corners lined with rubbish, and the toothy grin of fences whose boards had been pried off and used for fuel. While reporting on the nearby “Kingan District,” Holliday watched plumes of smoke cling to the meat packing plant, for which the area was named. The philanthropist and businessman noted that in the district “boards take the place of window-panes, doors are without knobs and locks, large holes are in the floors, and the filthy walls are minus much of the plastering.”[1] Houses swollen with residents threatened outbreaks of typhoid fever and tuberculosis.

Those unfortunate enough to live in these conditions were primarily men from Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, and Hungary who hoped to provide a better life for family still living in the “Old World.”[2] Alarmed by what he witnessed, Holliday published his report “The Life of Our Foreign Population” around 1908. He hoped to raise awareness about the neighborhoods’ dilapidation, which, in his opinion, had been wrought by landlords’ rent gouging, the city’s failure to provide sanitation and plumbing, and immigrants’ inherent slovenliness (a common prejudice at the time). Holliday feared that disease and overcrowding in immigrant neighborhoods could spill into other Indianapolis communities.[3] Perhaps a bigger threat to contain was the immigrants’ susceptibility to political radicalism, given the squalor in which they had been reduced to living. Holliday wrote, “If permitted to live in the present manner, they will be bad citizens.”[4] 

Dan and Mary Simon’s Romanian parents settled in Indiana Harbor, ca 1915, Jane Ammeson Collection, Indiana Album.

Motivated by a desire to both aid and control immigrants, a coalition of local businessmen-including Holliday-philanthropists, and city officials formed the Immigrant Aid Association in 1911.[5] Later that year, the association established the Foreign House on 617 West Pearl Street, which provided newcomers with social services like child care and communal baths, but also worked to assimilate and “Americanize” them. The Foreign House reflected the dual purposes of immigrant settlements in this period: what historian Ruth Hutchinson Crocker called “a mixture of protection and coercion.”

The first week of April 1908 was one of discord for northern Indiana. Hundreds of immigrant laborers stormed the Lake County Superior Court, “crying for bread” after the closing of Calumet Region mills. In Hammond, armed immigrants drilled together, causing police to fear the emergence of a riot. In neighboring Indiana Harbor, masses of desperate immigrants, many living in destitution, thronged the streets in search of employment. Blood spilled in Syracuse, when Hungarian laborers stabbed Sandusky Portland Cement Co. employee Bert Cripe. Apparently this was retribution for local employers’ refusal to hire Romanians, Hungarians, and “other laborers of the same class.” The stabbing set off a sequence of street fights between immigrants and locals, and resulted in the bombing of a hotel where laborers stayed. The Indianapolis News reported that the explosion “wrecked a portion of the building, shattered many windows, and not only terrified the occupants, but also the citizens of the town and country.”[6]

These alarming events made an impression on a nameless employee at Indianapolis’s Foreign House, who referenced the Indianapolis News article in the margin of a ledger three years after the foment.[7] The employee seemed acutely aware of the potential for unrest if the basic needs of Indianapolis’s estimated 20,000 immigrants went unmet.[8]

South Bend Tribune, January 5, 1911, 3, accessed

According to Crocker, by 1910, 80% of Indianapolis’s newcomers had originated from Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia. Many of those who had recently settled in the Hoosier capital had migrated from Detroit, Kentucky, and Chicago, in search of jobs.[9] Many Americans viewed such immigrants with derision, believing, as Holliday did, that they “‘differ greatly in enterprise and intelligence from the average American citizen. They possess little pride in their personal appearance and live in dirt and squalor.'”[10] The 1911 Dillingham Commission Reports, funded by Congress to justify restrictive immigration policies, was designed to validate these beliefs. Using various studies and eugenics reports, the commission “scientifically” concluded that Eastern and Southern Europeans were incapable of assimilating and thereby diluted American society.[11] 

Reflecting the Report’s conclusions, a 1911 South Bend Tribune piece noted urgently, “A big portion of the immigrants are undesirable—very undesirable. . . . Mark this. If we don’t begin to really exclude undesirable immigration, the Anglo-Saxon in this Government will be submerged.” Its author continued that these “undesirables” would “soon become voters. Men who need votes see to that.”[12] The founders of Indianapolis’s Foreign House hoped to bring together various nationalities, as their isolation made them a “political and cultural menace.”[13]

Indianapolis Star, December 15, 1929, 75.

In fact, the House’s very foundations belied the American ideals of business philanthropy and civic volunteerism. Kingan & Co. essentially donated the settlement’s structure, the local community funded citizenship classes, and work was furnished partly through “personal subscriptions and the assistance of teachers who have volunteered their services.”[14] The settlement house would be modeled after YMCAs, offering baths, “reading and smoking rooms,” a health clinic, and night classes in which patrons could learn English.[15] Additionally, civics courses and an information bureau, where “all the dialects of the foreign population will be spoken,” helped immigrants understand American laws and navigate the citizenship process.

These classes were crucial, as ignorance about American customs resulted in many newcomers placing their money and trust in corner saloons, whose owners often mismanaged or pocketed the funds.  Immigrant Aid Association officers hoped that “opportunities for grafting and theft among the gullible class of foreigners will be reduced when the settlement house is in working order.”[16] An understanding of the English language and the legal system could also help challenge the stereotype that immigrants were criminals because most offenses were committed due to their “ignorance of the law.”[17]  Furthermore, the Star noted in 1914 that, according to those in charge, classes about American government “have given the students an increased earning capacity and have been of great benefit in fitting them for work in this country.”[18]

Questions about their intellectual aptitude persisted, as noted by the Indianapolis Star‘s 1915 observation of immigrants in night school: “It is an interesting sight to watch the swarthy men bending over their books and making awkward attempts to follow the pronunciation of their teachers.” Despite such evaluations, it is clear than many immigrants were grateful for the quality of education afforded in America. As relayed by an interpreter and printed pejoratively in the Indianapolis Star, a young Macedonian man who had recently arrived to Indianapolis “says he thankful most for the education he is gettin’ in America. He wants to bring father and mother here to free country.”[19]

Indianapolis News, February 21, 1916, 16, accessed

While the Foreign House introduced men to American cultural and political norms through these courses, immigrant women were indoctrinated through home visits by Foreign House staff.[20]  Ellen Hanes, resident secretary of the organization, made 2,714 trips to women’s homes in 1913, “teaching the care of children and teaching domestic economy as practiced by American housewives.”[21] Historian Ruth Hutchinson Crocker contended that such services:

were the medium for teaching ‘correct’ ideas about a variety of subjects, from the meaning of citizenship to the best way to cook potatoes; thus they always involved the abandonment by immigrant women of traditional ways of doing things.[22]

Indianapolis News, March 3, 1915, 3, accessed

In addition to providing instruction about American customs, the House offered a space for fellowship and recreation. Likely feeling isolated in their new country, immigrants could socialize there and enjoy musical programs, as well as literary clubs with fellow newcomers. They could don costumes from their homeland, often “rich and heavy with gold and embroidery,” and perform folk dances and native music. Conversely, much of the entertainment centered around American patriotism, like a program for George Washington’s birthday, in which men dressed like the first president and women the first lady. The Indianapolis Star noted, “Probably at no place in Indianapolis are holidays celebrated more earnestly.”[23] Crocker contended that this blended programming “showed the settlement in the dual role of Americanizer and preserver of immigrant culture.”[24]

Recreational opportunities also lowered the possibility that immigrants would become a societal “liability.” One man who dropped by the house said, “‘We used play poker and go saloon and dance when we come Indianapolis. . . but now we read home books in our library, read English, do athletes, play music and do like Americans.'”[25]

Sidney Joseph Greene, Newman Library, CUNY, accessed Wikipedia.

America’s entry into World War I in 1917 intensified suspicion of immigrants and spurred questions about their loyalty. This hostility impacted foreign institutions like Indianapolis’s German-language paper, the Täglicher Telegraph und Tribüne, which, despite trying to present balanced war coverage, ceased publication by 1918. In the years following World War I, the Foreign House was “practically abandoned,” perhaps another victim of xenophobia surfacing from the war’s wake. The emerging nationalist impulse likely accounted for the organization’s name change.[26] The Foreign House became the American Settlement House in 1923, when the organization merged with the Cosmopolitan Mission and moved to 511 Maryland Street (where the Indiana Convention Center now sits).[27]

Post-war labor strikes, anarchists’ bombing of American leaders, and fears that Eastern European immigrants would replicate the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution increased suspicion of and reduced support for immigrants. It also helped inspire the 1924 Immigration Act, which set an annual immigrant quota of 150,000 and drastically curtailed admittance of people from “undesirable” countries.[28]  A sense of isolation must have intensified for Indianapolis’s immigrants, now deprived of the settlement house’s resources and contending with renewed nativism. That is until Mary Rigg, a young, idealistic social worker was put in command of the American Settlement House in 1923. While conducting research for her thesis about the settlement, Rigg developed an affinity and deep empathy for its visitors. She began to envision a robust image of their future. With the assistance of the House, immigrant neighborhoods blossomed with colorful flowerbeds, giggling children shimmied up gleaming jungle gyms, and neighbors shared the bounties of a communal garden.

Mary Rigg, courtesy of the Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center, accessed Encyclopedia of Indianapolis.

The goal would not simply be to help newcomers find employment, obtain citizenship papers, or avoid disease, but to experience, as Rigg stated, “true neighborliness,” where they “could play the game of daily living together in peace and harmony.” Rigg would be chief architect of this idyllic vision, in which immigrants could taste the fruits of capitalism, while embracing their native customs, language, and dress. After all, she believed that living “in a country in which we have the privilege of climbing higher” applied to its immigrants and that it was the settlement’s responsibility to help them ascend its steps. [29] 

* Read Part II to learn how “Mother” Mary helped engineer a vibrant urban community and hear from those who thrived in it.


*All newspapers were accessed via

[1] Sarah Wagner, “From Settlement House to Slum Clearance: Social Reform in an Immigrant Neighborhood,” 1-4 in 1911-2001: Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center, 90 Years of Service, given to the author by Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center staff.

[2] Ruth Hutchinson Crocker, Social Work and Social Order: The Settlement Movement in Two Industrial Cities, 1889-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 47.

[3] Wagner, 2-6.

[4] Crocker, 49.

[5] “Foreign Quarters in City to be Improved,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1911, 16.

[6] “Foreigners Clamoring for Something to Eat,” Indianapolis News, April 8, 1908, 8.; “Riot at Syracuse Ends without Loss of Life,” Indianapolis News, April 8, 1908, 8.

[7] Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center Records, 1911-1979, L130, Indiana State Library.

[8] Foreign population estimate is from “Library Orders Foreign Works,” Indianapolis Star, April 19, 1914, 51.

[9] Crocker, 14, 47.

[10] Wagner, 5-6.

[11] “Dillingham Commission Reports (1911),” accessed

[12] “The Latin Will Overcome the Anglo-Saxon in this Country in a Few Year,” South Bend Tribune, January 5, 1911, 3.

[13] Crocker, 48.

[14] Wagner, 6.; Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1915, 3.; “Library Orders Foreign Works,” Indianapolis Star, April 19, 1914, 51.; Quotation from “Members of Civic League Criticise [sic] School Board in Not Giving Assistance,” Indianapolis Star, January 7, 1913, 9.

[15] “Foreign Quarters in City to be Improved,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1911, 16.

[16] “Advise Foreigners to Avoid Saloons,” Indianapolis Star, October 7, 1911, 7.; “Foreign Quarters in City to be Improved,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1911, 16.; “Members of Civic League Criticise [sic] School Board in Not Giving Assistance,” Indianapolis Star, January 7, 1913, 9.

[17] “Advise Foreigners to Avoid Saloons,” Indianapolis Star, October 7, 1911, 7.

[18] “Scope of Night Schools for Foreigners Broadened,” Indianapolis Star, August 13, 1914, 16.

[19] “Thankful to be Free,” Indianapolis Star, December 1, 1911, 8.; Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1915, 3.

[20] “Advise Foreigners to Avoid Saloons,” Indianapolis Star, October 7, 1911, 7.

[21] Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.

[22] Crocker, 59.

[23] Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1915, 3.; “School Popular with Foreigners,” Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.

[24] Crocker, 58.

[25] Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.; “School Popular with Foreigners,” Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.

[26] Crocker, 60.; German Newspapers’ Demise historical marker, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.; “Xenophobia: Closing the Door,” The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, accessed

[27] Crocker, 60-61.; Wagner, 7-8.

[28] “Sacco & Vanzetti: The Red Scare of 1919-1920,” accessed; “The Immigration Act of 1924,” Historical Highlights, History, Art & Archives: United States House of Representatives, accessed; David E. Hamilton, “The Red Scare and Civil Liberties,” accessed Bill of Rights Institute.

[29] Crocker, 60-65.; Master’s thesis, Mary Rigg, A.B., “A Survey of the Foreigners in the American Settlement District of Indianapolis,” (Indiana University, 1925), Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center Records.;  Bertha Scott, “Mary Rigg Busier Since ‘Retirement,'” Indianapolis News, November 3, 1961, 22.; Laura A. Smith, “Garden and Home First Wish of New Americans,” Indianapolis Star, July 6, 1924, 36.;  Letter, Mary Rigg, Executive Director, Southwest Social Centre to Mr. Joseph Bright, President, City Council, May 15, 1953,  Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center Records.

How IU’s Thomas Atkins Proved that “Power is Colorless”

Thomas Atkins, 1961, Arbutus yearbook, accessed Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

Residents at Smithwood Hall, a racially-integrated women’s dormitory at Indiana University, pelted objects from their windows on April 8, 1960. This did little to drive away the students who surrounded the building, singing segregation songs with lyrics like “Glory, glory Governor Faubus, the South shall rise again” and “Let’s all go to n****r haven.” Not until campus police arrived did the emboldened protesters finally disperse. The reason for their ire? The university had just elected its first African American student body president, Elkhart native Thomas I. Atkins. In fact, he was the first Black student to serve as president of a Big Ten school.

Protesters apparently targeted the dorm “commonly regarded as the key housing unit in campus elections” because residents voted narrowly in favor of Atkins, 388-372. As Thursday night crept into Friday morning, sisters at Alpha Phi discovered a burning cross—a signature of the Ku Klux Klan—on the white sorority’s lawn. It was rumored that some felt the sisters’ voting apathy resulted in Atkin’s victory. Under the cloak of darkness, approximately 400 students congregated at the center of campus, some waving Confederate flags and others shouting that “a bunch of beatniks” had engineered the victory. Before they could hang an effigy of Atkins, campus police broke up the protesters. The hate-filled demonstrations resumed Friday evening, when another fiery cross was found near housing for married students. Leo Downing, dean of students, noted wryly, “‘Our so-called ‘Klan element’ was really stymied in this election. . . . They either had to vote for Atkins, who is a Negro, or for [Mike] Dann, who is Jewish.'”

Campaign poster, 1960, accessed accessed Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

Atkins, described by the Indianapolis Recorder as a “mild-mannered honor student and speaker pro tem of the student senate,” responded graciously, stating he would ignore the protests as “‘not representing the Indiana University student body.'”[1] The backlash he experienced would follow him throughout his prolific civil rights law career, but his time in Bloomington helped him learn how to withstand it.

No stranger to adversity, Atkins recalled that after contracting polio at the age of five, doctors told him he would need to use crutches his entire life. Three years later, he was walking unassisted and in 1982 told the Boston Globe “‘One thing [polio] did was convince me that nothing was impossible.'” Developing tenacity at a young age served him well when Elkhart’s elementary schools “accidentally” integrated after the Black school collapsed and the town could not afford to rebuild it. Fearing for his safety, the third grader lined his pockets with rocks the first days he attended the desegregated elementary school.  As a teenager at Elkhart High School, he accomplished what he would at IU: being elected as the school’s first Black student body president.

* * *

The backlash at Indiana University failed to tamp Atkins’s ambitions and the following month, the Muncie Evening Press announced he was the school’s first student to receive the U.S. Experiment in International Living grant. This allowed him to temporarily live in Turkey, where he gained insights for his thesis, “The Role of the Military in Turkish Society.” The Senior, who stayed with an Istanbul family of three, returned home in October and concluded that Turks “cannot see how the United States can propose to lead the free world and still have racial prejudice at home.” The following month he was one of three IU students nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, which would fund three years of study at England’s Oxford University. So esteemed was Atkins that he was selected as one of twelve Board of Aeons students to advise university president Herman B Wells. In one instance, President Wells called upon him to convince discriminatory Bloomington barbers to cut Black students’ hair. Wells and Atkins convened a meeting with the barbers and, through compromise, got the barbers to agree to cut students’ hair regardless of their race.[2]

While setting himself up for professional success, Atkins made a significant and controversial decision in his personal life. Seven years before the landmark Loving v. Virginia case, in which the Supreme Court ended bans on interracial marriage, Atkins married white South Bend native Sharon Soash. Reportedly, the couple met playing with the Indiana all-state high school orchestra, and in college carpooled to the South Bend-Elkhart area from Bloomington during holiday breaks. Soash had served as Atkins’s student body campaign manger and recently graduated from IU with a history major.

“Parents Against Mixed Marriage,” Terre Haute Tribune, January 1, 1961, accessed

So taboo was their romance, that  just before the wedding one photographer staked out at Thomas’s mother’s house in an attempt to snap a picture of the couple; he was quickly rebuffed. While Soash’s father considered Atkins to be a gentleman, he tried to talk her out of the marriage. Unable to be dissuaded, they tied the knot in Cassopolis, Michigan because, according to the Boston Globe, interracial marriage was illegal in Indiana. The newlyweds planned to return to Bloomington and live in a married housing unit, where they no doubt experienced their share of harassment. Now with a spouse to consider, Atkins decided to withdraw from the Rhodes scholarship nomination process.

The South Bend Tribune reported that both Atkins planned to pursue careers in national diplomacy, a field undoubtedly in-demand during the early Cold War years.[3] Thomas was well on his way to this goal after earning a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which enabled him to pursue graduate studies at Harvard University. While there, a Ford Foundation fellowship allowed him to train in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies and earn his Masters in 1963. In fact, the Indianapolis Star reported that Atkins earned an astonishing twelve educational fellowships, five of which were from Harvard. Despite his international ambitions, he ultimately chose to fight on the “homefront” while working towards his law degree at the Ivy League school.

That homefront was Boston, where Black parents’ charges of de facto segregation in its public school system had routinely fallen on deaf ears. Atkins turned up the volume as the local NAACP branch’s executive secretary. His knowledge of the law, appreciation of educational opportunities, and ability to withstand racially-charged backlash, made the 25-year-old an ideal advocate for the city’s Black youth. Atkins and other NAACP leaders organized a series of protests beginning in the spring of 1963, like the June 18 “Stay Out for Freedom.” In lieu of school, approximately 8,000 junior and high school students met at ten designated “Freedom Centers,” like St. Mark’s Social Center, where they discussed the Black liberation movement and learned about citizenship. The organizers’ goal was simple: get the Boston School Committee to admit that de facto segregation was present in the district. Atkins summarized “We have not asked the committee to sign away its soul in blood, but merely admit that such a condition exists.” However, the committee refused to concede this fact—and would continue to do so for years.

The assassination of Medgar Evers, a Black WWII veteran and Mississippi NAACP Field Secretary, just days prior to the “Stay Out for Freedom” event underlined the need to fight for racial equality. Atkins served as master of ceremonies at a June 26th memorial service for the slain activist at Parkman Bandstand. Over 15,000 Bostonians turned out to pay their respects and march against injustice. Recognizing that protest must be coupled with policy in order to be effective, Atkins and other leaders hosted a voter registration drive at the memorial service.

Boston Globe, July 29, 1963, 6, accessed

Adding to their tactical repertoire, on July 29 Atkins and other activists blocked School Committee members from entering committee headquarters, threatening to do so every day until members agree to meet with NAACP’s Education Committee. Picketers handed out pamphlets to passersby about the “deplorable conditions of the Roxbury schools” and marched carrying signs that read:

“Stop Jim Crow Teacher Assignments”
“Why No Negro Principals?”
“Would You be Patient?”
“Don’t Shoot Us in the Back”

The battle lines firmly drawn, Chairman of the School Committee Louise Day Hicks responded that “Parades, demonstrations and sit-ins may appeal to the exhibitions, but they will not help the Negro school child who everybody admits does need help.”

Fed up with being stonewalled, Atkins, on behalf of the NAACP,  issued an ultimatum to the School Committee the following day, stating it had until August 2 to meet or face bigger demonstrations. Atkins wrote, “It is launched with utmost regret, for the Branch would by far prefer the relatively quiescent atmosphere of the bargaining table to the commotion and clamor surrounding a picket line.” In issuing the ultimatum, Atkins advised the School Committee to consider:

Whether they are willing to accept the moral responsibility for this demonstration and as to whether they are willing to accept the political responsibility of having another debit chalked up on an accounting sheet which already show many more debits than credits in the areas of civil rights.

When that meeting did take place, School Committee members refused to discuss segregation. The longer the dispute went on, the more entrenched both sides grew. Although critical city officials categorized the conflict as a battle of semantics, Atkins and other leaders refused to move the goal post: without addressing segregation’s existence, equality would be impossible. Local reformer Susan Batson explained that de facto “was the most evil kind” of segregation because “no one is responsible and some say it doesn’t exist.”

Boston Globe, September 6, 1963, 1, accessed

Surely, the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August—at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech—further empowered Boston leaders, who organized a “sleep-in” at School Committee headquarters. Such demonstrations drew the ire of committee member Joseph Lee, who called NAACP protesters “frauds, mountebanks, and charlatans.” Further, he contended:

they are clearly doing all in their power to obstruct the education of the Negro-American school child in Boston, so that they can perpetually pose as a potential Moses to lead the deprived pupil out of such imposed intellectual bondage–and at the same time pose as saviors to gull [sic?] a handsome living out of white dupers.

To these allegations, Atkins responded as he did to the IU demonstrations, with measured aplomb, stating, “I think it’s amusing.” He suggested that white residents and school committee members were shaken because “The Negro wasn’t proud of being a Negro before. Now he is. There isn’t a Negro Problem in Boston—there is a Boston problem.” But when it became clear that the committee would not recognize segregation, Atkins focused on leveraging the Black vote.  If activists couldn’t get committee members to change their minds, they would change committee members.

“6000 March for Rights in Boston,” Boston Globe, September 23, 1963, 1, accessed

That summer, Atkins arranged for mobile registration booths to sweep the city in preparation for the elections. Before an audience of 6,000, gathered at the dilapidated Sherwin School on September 23, he urged, “Don’t complain-vote!,” foreshadowing the pleas of President Obama in 2016. Atkins framed voting as a form of self-help; to not do so would allow the school system to continue to “insult” and “ignore us.” He reminded the crowd that “Abraham Lincoln didn’t free you! He issued a document that has been studiously ignored for 100 years!” While Black and white children played on the playground, their parents sang emancipation anthems like “We Shall Overcome.” The audience also participated in a moment of silence to honor of the victims of the Birmingham bombing that took place just days earlier, another somber reminder of the injustices Black Americans faced.[4]

“Playground Integrated,” Boston Globe, September 23, 1963, 5, accessed

With all hands on deck, the NAACP branch set out to collect voters’ signatures, registering 600 new voters in the predominantly-Black Ward #12 by the time polls closed on November 2. This was double the number of new Ward 12 voters registered in 1959. Now all that was left to do was wait as the election results rolled in.

Despite all their picketing, press conferences, and political campaigning, Atkins and fellow activists were dealt a blow when voters reelected each of the School Committee members. In fact, chairman Louise Day Hicks received more votes than even the mayor. Bostonians all but confirmed they agreed with the policy of “separate but equal.” But Atkins’s ability to mobilize Black voters helped sow the seeds of enduring political activism. According to the NAACP, 80% of eligible voters in Black wards turned out to cast their ballots, a percentage staggeringly higher than the 58% turnout in Boston’s other wards.

Atkins’s campaign to desegregate the school district—an effort that would require years of agitation—served another purpose, the Boston Globe noted. The city no longer looked to the South for news of the “Negro revolution.” Chants of liberation resounded in Boston’s streets, and the Globe reported civil rights is now “on the lips of cab drivers and politicians, housewives and factory workers.” The Globe added that the Civil Rights Movement is not an “accidental ripple of the national wave of protest. It is well-planned and seriously developed by a small, devoted band of persons,” Atkins, being one of them. He “has been instrumental in the carrying out of the vigorous, new approach” of the NAACP. The Boston transplant helped inspire a new militancy in the fight for Black liberation, which would culminate later in the decade with the Black Power Movement.[5]

Thomas Atkins, as NAACP executive secretary, leading a beach-in at Carson Beach to advocate for open public facilities in 1975, Boston Globe, June 29, 2008, 16, accessed

The 1963 electoral defeat hardly took the wind out of Atkins’s sails. He worked for educational and employment equality when elected Boston’s first Black city councilman in 1967.  Richard Hatcher’s election in Gary, Indiana—making him one of the first Black mayors of a large US city—that same year spoke to incremental gains in political representation for African Americans. In the tumultuous year of 1969, Atkins earned his law degree and went on to become a nationally-renowned civil rights lawyer. He continued to  work with the NAACP to fight for Boston’s Black students in the 1970s and 1980s, overseeing the safe implementation of busing as a means of integration. In trying to mitigate the harassment and violence directed at Black children bused to new schools, he perhaps recalled his own childhood fears of attending Elkhart’s newly-desegregated school.

An NAACP survey inquiring about the challenges South Boston High School students faced in the 1970s confirmed the inadequacy of the education they had received. Atkins recalled:

I was sitting in my office one night, and I reached into my briefcase and here were these forms. So I took them out, and I began sort of absently to read through them. As I read through one after another of these forms, what I saw was that these kids couldn’t spell. They could not write a simple declaratory sentence. And as I read these forms, none of which were grammatically correct or spelling proper, I just started to cry. It was impossible to explain the feeling of pain on the one hand, but on the other hand, I knew we were right.

Indianapolis News, November 9, 1967, 6, accessed

Anguish spurred action and Atkins became what The Times, of Munster, Indiana, described as “one of the most active and successful civil rights lawyers in the nation.” He filed segregation suits against school systems in Hammond and Indianapolis, Indiana; Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Benton Harbor and Detroit, Michigan; and San Francisco. One activist noted “There’s no place where Tom Atkins wasn’t influential.” According to his son, this prolific work made him a target of death threats and ultimately he left his Roxbury home for the protection of his family. His son described Atkins “running chicken wire over windows to block Molotov cocktails and installing spigots throughout  the seven-bedroom house to connect the hoses for fighting fires.” [6]

* * *

In 1994, Atkins returned to his alma mater for the dedication of IU’s new Thomas I. Atkins Living/Learning Center. On a campus once pockmarked with fiery crosses, stood a residence hall that focused on “academic excellence and cultural awareness-specifically, the culture and history of African and African-Americans.” While social progress had been made since the 1960s, racial issues persisted. The dormitory hoped to change that by facilitating discussions among various races and improve how students related to one another. With the new center, the campus also hoped to attract more Black students, an issue Atkins addressed at his 1994 visit. He said “Leadership is not made of being the first follower. . . . IU needs to get out in front and I don’t think the university has done that sufficiently. I hope IU accepts the challenge to get it done.” After all, “without education, the door is locked” to American minorities.

Times-Mail (Bedford), November 20, 1994, 25, accessed

In his 50s, doctors diagnosed Atkins with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was determined to overcome it through grit and hard work, as he had when afflicted with polio, stating “I believe miracles are usually man-made.” As the disease progressed, the Boston Globe noted he “continued to assist on cases even after he needed his son to translate his slurred speech and a special computer arm to help him peck out sentences.” The indomitable Atkins succumbed to the disease in June 2008, just months before voters elected Barack Obama the nation’s first African American president. His historic election came on the heels of work done by fearless leaders like Atkins, who the Boston Globe described as a “humanist” with a “steely resolve.”  His time in Elkhart and Bloomington helped cultivate this unique blend of empathy and empowerment, best summarized by one of Atkins’s favorite sayings: “Power is colorless. . . . It’s like water. You can drink it or you can drown in it.” [7]


[1] “Another Cross Burned After Negro’s Win,” The Times (Munster), April 10, 1960, 6, accessed; “Campus Demonstration Follows Election of I.U. Negro Student,” Rushville Republican, April 8, 1960, 1, accessed; “Segregation Demonstration Held at I.U.,” Anderson Herald, April 10, 1960, 18, accessed; “Whites Attempt to ‘Hang’ in Effigy, Negro Prexy [sic?] at IU,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 16, 1960, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[2] “3 Seek Rhodes Scholarship,” Indianapolis Star, November 6, 1960, 18, accessed; “Foreign Study Grant to Indiana Studied,” Muncie Evening Press, May 27, 1960, 7, accessed; “Thomas I. Atkins, Rights Champion and City Councilor, Dies,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2018, 16, accessed; “Turks Believe Race Prejudice Moral Question,” Indianapolis Star, October 3, 1960, 22, accessed; Andrew Welsh-Huggins, “Atkins a Campus Activist since 1960,” Times-Mail (Bedford), November 20, 1994, 25, accessed

[3] Erin Moskowitz and Mark Feeney, “Civil Rights Trailblazer Atkins Dies at 69,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2008, accessed; John H. Gamble, “Atkins and Bride Look to Career,” South Bend Tribune, January 1, 1961, accessed; “Parents Against Mixed Marriage,” Terre Haute Tribune, January 1, 1961, 1, accessed; “Student Leaders in Interracial Nuptials in Mich.,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 7, 1961, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.; “Thomas I. Atkins, Rights Champion and City Councilor, Dies,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2018, 16, accessed; “White Girl Marries Negro I.U. Leader,” South Bend Tribune, December 31, 1960, 1, accessed

[4] “14 Get Wilson Grants at N.D.,” South Bend Tribune, March 13, 1961, 16, accessed; “15,000 to Mourn Evers Here,” Boston Globe, June 26, 1963, 7, accessed; “Atkins Named Director of Federal Bank,” South Bend Tribune, January 9, 1980, 16, accessed; Boston Globe, July 29, 1963, 1, 6, accessed; Boston Globe, June 17, 1963, 1, 3, accessed; “Elkhart Native Seeks Boston Mayoral Bid,” Indianapolis Star, May 13, 1971, 13, accessed; “Fellowship to Elkhartan,” South Bend Tribune, June 1, 1962, 20, accessed; Ian Forman, “De Facto Sleeping Giant in Mrs. Hicks’ Smash Win,” Boston Globe, November 6, 1963, 1, 29, accessed; “Hub School Boycott Planned by Negroes,”1963 Year of Ferment for Negroes in Boston,” Boston Globe, December 25, 1963, 43, accessed; Boston Globe, June 13, 1963, 12, accessed; Robert L. Levey, “Does Bias Win Votes in the Hub?,” Boston Globe, August 20, 1963, 11, accessed; Robert L. Levey, “‘Don’t Complain-Vote,’ Atkins Urges Negroes,” Boston Globe, September 23, 1963, 1, accessed; Robert L. Levey, “How Hub Negro Protest Gains,” Boston Globe, December 8, 1963, 75, accessed; “Mrs. Hicks Asks Brooke Help Halt School Boycott,” Boston Globe, June 14, 1963, 1, accessed; Richard J. Connolly, “New Demonstrations Due: Hot Words Fly in Sit-In Fight,” Boston Globe, September 8, 1963, 1, 22-25, accessed; “Some 3,000 Boston Negro Pupils Boycott Classes in Mass Protest,” North Adams Transcript (Massachusetts), June 18, 1963, 1, accessed; “Text of a Statement Read by Thomas Atkins, Executive Secretary of the Boston Branch NAACP, Concerning Direct Action to Be Taken Against the Boston School Committee,” July 30, 1963, Boston Public Schools Desegregation Project, Northeastern University Library Digital Repository Service.

[5] Robert L. Levey, “How Hub Negro Protest Gains,” Boston Globe, December 8, 1963, 75, accessed; “N.A.A.C.P.: Vote on ‘Racial Basis,” Boston Globe, November 6, 1963, 29, accessed; “Political ‘Consciousness’ is Sweeping Negroes,” Pittsburgh Courier, November 2, 1963, 5, accessed

[6] Associated Press, “Negroes Win Many Races,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, November 8, 1967, accessed Google News.;”Discrimination Charges Aired,” The Times (Munster, IN), August 8, 1978, 17, accessed; “Education for Blacks is Issue–Not Busing,” Palladium-Item (Richmond, IN), September 9, 1981, 9, accessed; Felicia Gayle, “Integration Suit Begins,” The Times (Munster, IN), July 27, 1979, 1, accessed; Steven Hansen, “Activist Profiled,” The Times (Munster, IN), August 24, 1978, 11, accessed; Eric Moskowitz and Mark Feeney, “Civil Rights Trailblazer Atkins Dies at 69,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2008, B3, accessed; “NAACP Lawyer Faces Arrest,” South Bend Tribune, July 26, 1978, 3, accessed; “New Boston Councilman,” Indianapolis News, November 9, 1967, 6, accessed; David M. Rosen, “Boston May Call in U.S. Marshals,” The Republic (Columbus, IN), October 8, 1974, 13, accessed; Howard M. Smulevitz, “IPS Desegregation Plan Calls for Busing of 41,000 Pupils,” Indianapolis Star, November 14, 1978, 2, accessed; Howard M. Smulevitz, “Ohio Decisions Seen Lending Weight to Dillin’s Busing Stand,” Indianapolis Star, July 3, 1979, 9, accessed; Transcript, “The Keys to the Kingdom (1974-1980),” Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1985, accessed

[7] “A Boston Pioneer and his Mark,” Boston Globe, July 1, 2008, 10, accessed; Lejene Breckenridge, “Achievements of Ex-Elkhartan Honored at I.U.,” South Bend Tribune, January 3, 1995, 1, accessed; Lauren Fagan, “Civil Rights Attorney, Elkhart Native Atkins Dies,” South Bend Tribune, July 2, 2008, B3, accessed; Eric Moskowitz and Mark Feeney, “Civil Rights Trailblazer Atkins Dies at 69,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2008, B3, accessed; Andrew Welsh-Huggins, “Exploring the Culture of Color,” and “Atkins a Campus Activist since 1960,” Times-Mail (Bedford), November 20, 1994, 25, accessed

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

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

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

[Music Intro]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slash: Thanks for having us.

Welcher: Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Bend Tribune, January 9, 1962, 23, accessed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oral History Interview with Dr. Irving Allen, conducted by Dr. Les Lamon, IU South Bend Professor Emeritus, David Healey, and John Charles Bryant, Part 1 and Part 2, August 11, 2004, Civil Rights Heritage Center, courtesy of St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

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

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

THH Episode 45: “I Did Not Walk Alone:” The Civil Rights Work of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Transcript for “I Did Not Walk Alone:” The Civil Rights Work of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Written and Produced by Jill Weiss Simins

[Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Selma and “How long, not long” speech at Montgomery, Alabama. Song “Avinu Malkeinu”performed by Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation Cantor Aviva Marer with organist Dave Strickland]

Justin Clark: On March 7, 1965, white state troopers violently attacked a group of peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama – an event remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” Newspapers across the country ran images of police beating and tear gassing African Americans who had been marching to protest the suppression of Black votes and the recent killing of activists. They did not finish their march that day, nor a few days later when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a group of protestors back to the bridge. They knelt in prayer but dared go no further. That night, March 9, a group of white men killed white Unitarian minister James Reeb who had traveled to Selma from Boston to join King. In response to this violence against Black protesters and their allies, protests erupted across the country.

Dr. King called for religious leaders representing all faiths to join him for a final march – to cross the bridge, journey to Montgomery, scale the steps of the Alabama capitol, and show the segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace and the world that their movement was righteous and unstoppable.

Rabbi Maurice Davis, the spiritual leader of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation and a prominent advocate for civil rights in the city, answered Dr. King’s call.

The Civil Rights Movement was a Black-led and Black-centered struggle for justice, but Jewish Americans made up a disproportionate number of the white activists who joined the campaign. Rabbi Maurice Davis stayed committed to this fight, even in the face of threats to his life. His advocacy stands as an example of how white Hoosiers can be allies for their Black neighbors as they continue the unfinished work of Dr. King and other leaders for Black equality, rights, and power.

I’m Justin Clark, and this is Talking Hoosier History.

It’s worth saying again. Black Americans led the fight for civil rights. Some Jewish Americans joined their fight. Many did not. The story of Jewish contributions to the Civil Rights Movement has sometimes been inaccurately told with a sort of “white savior” narrative. This inaccurate framing detracts from the lessons we can learn from the intersection of Black and Jewish civil rights work about allyship and about the strength of interfaith work for equality.

First of all, not all Jews are white. There is a severe lack of scholarship on how Jews of color interacted with the Civil Rights movement, but primary sources show that their struggles for rights were mainly taking place at a local level. Newspaper research shows that in the 1960s, Black Jews were struggling to be seen and accepted by the rest of their Jewish community, demanding access to the resources provided by Jewish organizations. More historical research is needed in this area.

Second, the “whiteness” of Jewish Americans, even of European descent, was conditional. They were tolerated by their white, Christian neighbors, as long as they did not draw attention to their differences or interfere with the Jim Crow social order and laws. And Jews were kept from positions of prestige or power in many cases. In the South, where they made up only one percent of the population, few Jews joined the Civil Rights movement initially. As Northern Jews increasingly spoke out against segregation in the 1950s and some Southern rabbis added their voices to the integration effort, the Ku Klux Klan retaliated. Synagogues were bombed in Atlanta, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Miami, while unexploded devices were discovered in several others.

Northern Jews had built larger communities with more secure relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors and had gained more political and economic power. Thus, they joined the movement in greater numbers. In Indianapolis, the NAACP and the Jewish Community Relations Council (or JCRC) began working together as early as 1948 to desegregate a local movie theater. By the 1950s, prominent Black leaders like Attorneys Henry Richardson and Willard Ransom called on the JCRC to join the campaign against school segregation and employment discrimination – an area where Jewish Hoosiers were also impacted, though to a significantly lesser extent. And by the late 1950s, the JCRC also joined the fight for open housing – that is, suitable housing for Black Hoosiers in non-segregated neighborhoods. Again, Black organizations like the NAACP, led these struggles, but Jewish leaders and organizations joined the fight at their behest. While there were certainly moments of tension or misunderstanding, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Black leaders called upon the Jewish community and appreciated their support – likely in part because Jewish activists deferred to Black leadership.

So why did Jews join the movement in greater numbers than other groups?

[Song “Sim Shalom” performed by IHC Cantor Aviva Marer and pianist Alex Pryrodny]

For some, the call was faith-based. The Jewish concept of tzedakah, which is Hebrew for “righteousness,” but refers to the moral obligation to helping those in need, is a central belief. So is the concept of tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for “repairing the world” and calls on Jews to work for social justice. Others became involved in the Civil Rights struggle as a natural progression of the largely liberal political ideology of many Northern Jews, who were overwhelmingly Democrat. Some became involved because they were still struggling for their own equal rights, though to a much lesser extent than Black Americans. The lessons of the Holocaust also drove home the link between intolerance and violence. Many Jews saw a general strengthening of the laws protecting minority rights as something that also protected the Jewish community. For most, it was probably a combination of these motivations.

Rabbi Maurice Davis entered the fight for civil rights by the early 1950s in Lexington, Kentucky, where he served as Rabbi of the Adath Israel Congregation. There he worked for the desegregation of schools and universities, addressing meetings and rallies, issuing public statements, and generally speaking truth to power. In 1954, he railed against segregation on public transport and in schools, as well as discrimination in employment and housing. Calling out white privilege, Rabbi Davis stated:

Rabbi Brett Krichiver: “The truth is that equality of opportunity is the inalienable right of the Negro as well as the white . . . We have perpetuated an evil in our land because certain financial advantages accrue from it.”

Clark: Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1921, Rabbi Davis earned his Master of Hebrew Letters from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and served as a student rabbi, before accepting the Lexington appointment in 1951. During this tenure, he rose to prominent positions in regional and national Jewish organizations such as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, making him an ideal leader for a large synagogue like the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, or IHC.

In March, 1956, Rabbi Maurice Davis became the spiritual leader of the IHC, arriving in time to celebrate the centennial of its founding in 1856. Over 600 families made up the congregation, which was in the process of planning its new temple at 64th and Meridian, still the location of the IHC today. As the new IHC Rabbi, Davis would continue to advance the forward-thinking Reform Judaism of his predecessors.

While the IHC welcomed Rabbi Davis, other Hoosiers made the Davis family feel [quote] “something less than welcome.” In 1959, the Jewish Post reported that his son Jay was denied entry to the Riviera Club‘s swimming pool on North Illinois Street. The Rabbi told his congregation that Jay unfortunately learned first about the club’s “wonderful slide” and then its anti-Semitic policies. Jay summarized the situation as only a child could, stating: “Gee whiz, dad, it isn’t fair.” The Rabbi then had to explain the difference between legal segregation and social segregation to his son.

Rabbi Davis responded to discrimination not only when it was personal. He believed that it was his duty, and that of all religious leaders, to work for moral justice. Not all of his Jewish colleagues agreed. Two of Indianapolis’s leading rabbis told the Jewish Post that clergy should keep out of politics. Rabbi Davis, on the other hand, said it was the responsibility of leadership to help inform members on political issues, to encourage them to be active participants in government, and to [quote] “speak up whenever morality or ethics are involved in politics.”

In 1959, Rabbi Davis helped revitalize the Indianapolis Human Relations Council, made up of interfaith religious leaders and representatives from the NAACP, Indiana Civil Liberties Union, local philanthropic groups, and government agencies. Their agenda included addressing discrimination in housing, education, employment, law enforcement, and health care. He soon became the council president and focused much of his work on ending racist mortgage and loan policies that denied fair housing to African Americans and helped create segregated neighborhoods.

In 1960, the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP named Davis “honorary chairman,” a leadership position serving under the African American NAACP president, Rev H. L. Burton. The Indianapolis Recorder reported regularly on Rabbi Davis’s efforts to fight segregation and inequality through these organizations.

By 1962, he had a regular Jewish Post newspaper column in which he shared his views on issues of the day and advocated for civil rights. His columns were often fiery calls to action. He told his readers:

Krichiver: “ . . . this land of ours is the land of all of ours. It does not belong first of all, or most of all, to any special segment of the population. It is not the private domain of any group by right of inheritance, or color of skin, or ‘manifest destiny.’ America is a multi-racial, multi-religious nation, and we Jews above all others ought to know this, applaud this, support this, and defend this.”

Clark: In September 1963, he used his column to respond to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Alabama where four African American children were killed “while putting on their choir robes.” Rabbi Davis, however, blamed not just the bomber and not just the racism and negligence of the governor and police chief, but [quote] “every American citizen who participates in prejudice or fails to oppose it.” His powerful argument against injustice was shaped by the legacy of the Holocaust. He continued:

Krichiver: “Segregation and discrimination lead to bombing and lynching as surely as anti-Semitism leads to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. And any man who walks that path, has not the right to be amazed where it leads. We who know the end of the road, must say this openly, and believe this implicitly, and practice it publicly. And privately. And always.”

Clark: Not long after his article on the bombing, Rabbi Maurice Davis would receive a bomb threat of his own.

By 1965, the Civil Rights movement had reached its “political and emotional peak” with the police attacks on peaceful Black protestors. That “Bloody Sunday” in Selma included the brutal beating of civil rights leader, and future U.S. Representative John Lewis. When Dr. King issued his call to religious leaders to join him for a march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965, Rabbi Maurice Davis answered.

When David H. Goldstein of the Indianapolis JCRC and Rabbi Davis arrived in Selma, Alabama, they joined thousands of other activists at Brown Chapel AME Church for a ceremony before the march. Davis described their arrival:

Krichiver: “As we approached Selma we saw the Army begin to position itself. Jeeps and trucks filled with soldiers, hospital units, and communications experts clustered along the way . . . The road leading to the church was lined with National Guardsmen, recently federalized.”

Clark: While President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered National Guard protection for the marchers to avoid a repeat of “Bloody Sunday” and its ensuing protests, the atmosphere was still tense. Goldstein and Rabbi Davis met with rabbis and Jewish leaders who had arrived before them. These rabbis explained that they had been unable to buy a meal or place to stay  . . . because Black Selma residents insisted on giving the Jewish activists whatever they needed.

Goldstein and Rabbi Davis also looked to find out from these rabbis where they could get kippahs or yarmulkes, a traditional Jewish head covering and religious symbol. A shipment was supposed to have recently arrived for the Jewish activists to wear during the march. Organizers wanted Jewish demonstrators from all branches of the faith to be clearly visible as a show of support and numbers. They told them, “It is our answer to the clerical collar.” However, Goldstein and Rabbi Davis had trouble finding one. They soon learned why.

Two days earlier, five rabbis were jailed for taking part in demonstrations. After holding Shabbat services behind bars on Friday, they announced they would hold another service in front of the Brown Chapel after their release on Saturday. According to the Jewish Post, [quote] “Over 600 Negroes and whites, Jewish and non-Jews joined in the impromptu Havdalah services for one of the most unique of its kind in history.”

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, those in attendance, regardless of their faith, donned yarmulkes “in respectful emulation of rabbis who participated in demonstrations.” In Selma, they became known as “freedom caps.” Davis reported:

Krichiver: All the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them . . . That is where all the yarmelkes went!”

[Song “Sim Shalom”]

Clark: Dr. King entered the chapel at 10:45 a.m. Sunday. Rabbi Davis was asked if he would represent the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. When he agreed, he was pulled up onto the platform next to King during the reverend’s sermon. He explained:

Krichiver: “Nothing but the word ‘magic’ can quite describe what it is he does to so many. When King speaks, you are not an audience. You are participants. And when he finished we were ready to march.”

Clark: The thousands of demonstrators were organized into rows, with the first three rows chosen by Dr. King. Rabbi Davis stated:

Krichiver: “Before the march began a list of 20 names were read to accompany Rev. King in the first three rows, and my name was one of them. I marched proudly at the front . . .”

Clark: A now-famous picture captured this moment. Wearing garlands of flowers and linking arms, Dr. King, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunch, and Civil Rights activist and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Heschel make up the center group of the front row with Rabbi Davis’s smiling face just behind Dr. King in the second row. He described the scene:

Krichiver: “On the street we formed three rows of eight, locked our arms together, and started to march. Behind us the thousands began to follow.”

Clark: When they arrived at the infamous bridge, they paused to remember those who came before them and had been attacked by the state police. The interfaith march continued onto the highway. The road was lined with armed National Guardsmen, and five helicopters circled the group. State troopers took pictures of the marchers. Rabbi Davis explained:

Krichiver: “This is an Alabama form of intimidation. I kept remembering that these were the same state troopers who two weeks earlier had ridden mercilessly into a defenseless mass of people . . . We kept on marching.”

Clark: The marchers passed people who “waved, wept, prayed, and shouted out words of encouragement” and others, “whites who taunted, jeered, cursed” or “stood with stark amazement at this incredible sight.” At one point they passed a car painted with hateful signs “taunting even the death of Reverend Reeb.” Other signs read “Dirty communist clergy go home” and “Integrationist scum stay away.”

Rabbi Davis marched for twelve hours without sitting down or eating. Unfortunately, he did not get to finish the march. Instead, he was called to fly to Cincinnati that night to be with his father-in-law who had been admitted to the hospital with a serious illness. When Rabbi Davis finally returned to Indianapolis, he was welcomed with a threatening phone call.

When he answered his phone Monday night at 11:00, an anonymous man asked if he was “the rabbi who went to Selma.” When Rabbi Davis answered affirmatively, the voice continued: “Let me check this list again . . . You are No. 2 in Indianapolis.” The implication was that Rabbi Davis was the second on a hit list of activists. He told the caller he was contacting the police, but the man replied: “It won’t do any good to call the police . . . it’ll be too late when it goes off.”

Police searched the house and found no explosives.  But the calls continued. On Tuesday, Rabbi Davis took the phone off the hook at 2 A.M. so the family could sleep. Letters arrived as well, full of “unbelievable filth, ugly statements,” and intimate knowledge of his larger civil rights work.

Rabbi Davis stated vaguely that he was required to take “protective measures” to ensure his family’s safety. The rabbi did not expound at the time, but later his children recalled that they had a so-called “babysitter” who carried a .45-caliber revolver under his jacket. From his statements to the press, it seemed the Rabbi was most hurt that the threats were likely coming from fellow Hoosiers. He told the Jewish Post:

Krichiver: “Monday night my life was threatened. Not in Selma. Not in Montgomery. Not in Atlanta. In Indianapolis.”

Clark: Like Dr. King, Rabbi Davis did not dwell on the darkness of humanity but used it as a chance to shine a light of hope on the potential of his fellow man. Just days after the threats on his family, the Jewish Post published a section of a sermon in which Davis explained why he felt called to join King in Selma. Davis stated that many people had asked him why he went. And he had trouble at first finding the right words. He liked the Christian term of “witnessing,” that is, seeing God in an event. He also liked the Hebrew term that Rabbi Abraham Heschel used: “kiddush ha-Shem,” that is, sanctifying God’s name. But in his personable manner, he ended up giving a simpler explanation to the Post:

Krichiver: “I know now what I was doing in Selma, Alabama. I was worshiping God. I was doing it on U.S. 80, along with 6,000 others who were doing precisely the same thing, in 6,000 different ways.”

Clark: He stated humbly:

Krichiver: “Last Sunday I went for a walk . . . I did not walk alone.”

He called others to join him in the larger march for civil rights. He referred to injustices that needed to still be righted in order to unite all of humanity as a “brotherhood postponed” and tasked his followers with making sure that while such unity is delayed, it is not destroyed. The way to achieve justice was not only to pray, but to act. He wrote:

 Krichiver: “Brotherhood postponed. The time has come, and it has been a long time coming. The time has come to worship with our lives as with our lips, in the streets as in the sanctuaries. And we who dare to call God, God, must begin to learn the challenge which that word contains. ‘One God over all’ has to mean ‘one brotherhood over all.’”

Clark: Rabbi Davis continued to work for civil rights in Indianapolis. He held leadership positions with the NAACP, the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights, Community Action Against Poverty, and the Indianapolis Council of Human Relations.

He never forgot his march with Dr. King. In 1986, he reflected in the pages of the Jewish Post about a first for the country, the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day – a new federal holiday incidentally created through a bill authored by Black Indiana legislator Katie Hall. Rabbi Davis recalled:

Krichiver: “The first national observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. I hear them say the words, pronounce the name, and in the twinkling of an eye I am suddenly in Selma, Alabama with some 80,000 other people; Jews, and Protestants, and Catholics, and atheists, and agnostics . . . We were there because of a man whom we admired as much as we loved, and whom we loved as much as we admired. We were there because he was there. And he was there because it was right.”

Clark: Today, of course, Dr. King’s work for equal rights for Black Americans remains unfinished. Over the past year, many white Americans woke up to the violent realities of being Black in the United States and added their voices to the recent protest movements. Advocates such as Dr. Uzodinma Iweala, author and CEO of the Africa Center in Brookyln, stress the crucial role of white allies, as long as the work remains centered on “the importance of respecting and supporting Black people.” White privilege gives white Americans the ability to enter spaces of power and decision-making that are closed to Black Americans. Therefore, advocates stress that white individuals have a responsibility to recognize that privilege and use it to demand equality for their Black neighbors. Silence is complicity.

Writing for The Root, Janée Woods Weber, a social justice advocate and host of the podcast Driving the Green Book, explains that there are right and wrong ways to be a white ally to Black equality movements.  Woods explains that to become an effective white ally, you should first research the history of Black oppression in your community. Know the stories of anti-Black violence and the link between economic disparity and prejudice. Do the work to educate yourself on the issues. Do not put the onerous on Black educators, friends, or colleagues who have known about and experienced prejudice their entire lives. Woods explains:

“People of color cannot and should not shoulder the burden for dismantling the racist, white-supremacist system that devalues and criminalizes black life without the all-in support, blood, sweat and tears of white people. If you are not already a white ally, now is the time to become one.”

Potential allies can look to the lessons left to us by Rabbi Davis and other white Americans who effectively served the civil rights cause. Rabbi Davis demanded accountability from his own community and called on other white Jews to join the effort – making them see social justice as a core part of being Jewish. Rabbi Davis also deferred to Black leaders and their goals, putting his efforts where Black leaders identified problems and answering Dr. King’s call for aid from white allies. Most important, Rabbi Davis not only spoke against racism and discrimination; he took action. He was even willing to risk his life – something Black activists did every time they marched.

Today, much of the work for social justice and advocacy in the Jewish community is being led by Jews of Color. During a webinar organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which can be accessed through the Jews of Color Initiative website, teacher, writer, nonprofit CEO, and advocate Yavilah McCoy calls on white allies to ask themselves: “What am I willing to give up? What am I able to learn, and what am I willing to contribute to halt the perpetuation of racism and white supremacy in this country?” She and other Jews of Color are asking white allies, especially white Jewish allies, to be a part of doing the work to “reallocate and reapportion” power, privilege, and resources to create equality. White allies can look to such voices in their community telling them how to help.  And like Rabbi Davis found, if you’re willing to go for that walk, you will not walk alone.

[End of “Avinu Malkeinu”]

Once again, I’m Justin Clark and this has been Talking Hoosier History.

Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. To view the historical sources, a full transcript, and links to the websites and articles mentioned in this episode, visit and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top.

This episode of Talking Hoosier History was researched and written by IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins. Production and sound engineering also by Jill Weiss Simins. A special thanks to Rabbi Brett Krichiver, senior rabbi at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, for bringing the words of his predecessor to life. You may have noticed that two songs performed in Hebrew stand out in this episode. Both were sung by talented IHC Cantor Aviva Marer. The first, Avinu Malkeinu, was written by Max Janowski. Cantor Aviva recorded at Central Synagogue in NYC with organist and music director Dave Strickland. The second, an arrangement of a traditional folk song called Sim Shalom, was arranged by Bonia Shur and the cantor was accompanied by pianist Alex Pryrodny.

We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes

Jill Weiss Simins, “Walking with Dr. King: The Civil Rights Legacy of Rabbi Maurice Davis, accessed Indiana History Blog.

Krista Kinslow, “The Road to Freedom Is Long and Winding: Jewish Involvement in the Indianapolis Civil Rights Movement,” Indiana Magazine of History 108, No. 1 (March 2012): 1-34, accessed JSTOR.

Howard Sachar, “Jews in the Civil Rights Movement,” A History of Jews in America, accessed  My Jewish Learning.

“Jewish Views on Civil Rights,” accessed Reform Judaism.

Janée Woods Weber, “12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People,” The Root, August 19, 2014, accessed

Scott Simon Interview with Uzodinma Iweala, “How White People Can Advocate for the Black Lives Matter Movement,” Weekend Edition, July 11, 2020, accessed

Music Credits

THH Episode 44: Giving Voice: Karen Freeman-Wilson

* Transcribed by Benjamin Baumann

Nicole Poletika: I’m Nicole Poletika filling in for host Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.

On today’s installment of Giving Voice, I have the pleasure of speaking with Karen Freeman-Wilson, who served as Mayor of Gary, Indiana from 2012 to 2019. And is currently President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. A Harvard Law School Graduate, Freeman-Wilson has had a prolific career, which includes serving as Indiana Attorney General. She has sought to advance social justice, as a Chairperson of the Criminal and Social Justice Committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and as Director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. If you haven’t already listened to our latest episode, which covered the 1972 National Black Political Convention, I suggest you do so now, as we reference it during our conversation.

In this episode we discuss how the 1972 Convention impacted Freeman-Wilson, as well as Gary’s legacy of black political empowerment, modern activism, and how black women can get a seat at the political table.

And now, Giving Voice.

Poletika: Well, I’m here today with Karen Freeman-Wilson former Mayor of Gary, Indiana and current President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. Um, were really excited to have you here Karen, thank you so much for joining us.

Karen Freeman-Wilson: I’m excited to join you.

Poletika: So I know you grew up in Gary and as a small child you recall uh Richard Hatcher’s exciting mayoral election in 1967, and you remember the 1972 National Black Political Convention. So I know the historical record is missing recollections from local residents of the convention, so I was hoping you could tell us what you remember from the convention and how it shaped your personally or professionally or both.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely, I was 12 at the time and it was exciting to know that a National Convention was coming to Gary, Indiana. It was the talk of the town, uh people had a sense of pride that not only it was a national convening, but it was a convening of black people and because Gary only had one hotel at the time, a number of the people stayed in the homes of Gary residents. And we were able to host someone in our home. So, what I recall was the fact that they were convening to talk about an agenda and it seems odd for a 12 year old to remember that, but because I was an only child I found myself in a lot of rooms where adults were. And so, you know of course you just pay attention to what they are talking about and they were talking about black political agenda. Westside was a newly built school at that time and so it was a source of pride as well and so the fact that they were going to Westside, I remember seeing the signs from each state. So, you saw that people from all over the country were in the Westside gymnasium. There were people that you saw on television, of course Shirley Chisholm was there and she was someone that everyone took pride in. We knew that she was someone running for um President…John Conyers at that time was the Congressman from Detroit and you would occasionally see him on television, and one of the figures that everyone knew, even though he was just over in Chicago was uh Reverend Jesse Jackson. So, with all of those folks coming to Gary, talking about a Black agenda and really engendering a sense of pride in Gary residents that this subject matter, which was very important that was very weighty, and was all being led by our mayor, Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher. Who was of course a source of pride for us locally and nationally, uh it was a big deal.

Poletika: Yeah, um and I remember he said that like you mentioned there was only one hotel so people stayed with residents, um and he said that some of the locals actually made life long friendships with the people that came in from outta town. Did you have that experience with the people that you hosted?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, to be honest my mom and dad had most of the interaction with them. So, I can’t even…I remember they were from Detroit, but beyond that I don’t remember much about them. I do know that there was at least one or two times because we were regular travelers to Detroit, because of relatives that my mom communicated with them. So, yes um there were friendships that came out of that and even from folks who were younger and who were activists, they were able to come together around subsequent convenings not the magnitude of that, but certainly subsequent convenings. And an interesting thing happened when we had sort of this convening, I believed it was back in 17 the 45th anniversary I believe. And people who had been here came back and they talked about it so that was uh real source of pride and interest for Gary residents who had gotten older, but who still remembered.

Poletika: Right, and you would have been mayor at that time.

Freeman-Wilson: Yes, I was the mayor at that time.

Poletika: Wow, that’s full circle.

Freeman-Wilson: It was.

Poletika: When the convention was here, were you in close proximity to the delegates? Did you get to actually observe any of the caucuses, in there kind of brainstorming?

Freeman-Wilson: I did not. Again, I went to Westside during the convention once to kind of see the general session, but I never had an opportunity to share with the caucuses at that time.

Poletika: You got to kind of be around the thinking though and.

Freeman-Wilson: Yeah, it was uh…you know it was a lot of energy in the room. Of course, um there were a lot of people there and they were sharing their ideas. I heard the speeches. Uh I remember, hearing Jesse Jackson speech, he was young so as a 12-year-old, you’re always gravitating around those folks who were closer to your age and that was always something that was exciting to see and hear from him.

Poletika: I bet and I know um, some people have kind of said that he was made in the convention with that speech so.

Freeman-Wilson: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. You know of course he was a um, an associate of Dr. King and after Dr. King’s passing. He was known because of operation breadbasket in Chicago, but I think he took the national stage in a significant way during that convention.

Poletika: So you, are a trail blazer yourself, um having been elected Gary’s first female mayor in 2012. And I know that black women were largely excluded from organizing the uh ’72 convention and um we had just talked about Shirley Chisholm. Uh I know some African Americans just refused to endorse her, because she was a woman.

Freeman-Wilson: Yes, that is correct.

Poletika: And it can be argued that women have more political influence than ever before, but in your opinion what uh obstacles do black women still face and how can they get a seat at the table?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, you know that’s an interesting question about the political influence of black women, because you’re right to the extent that we constitute the um workers and campaigns, and we are certainly reliable in terms of a source of a voting block and to ensure that people go to the poles. Uh when it comes to thinking about who will run for office, who will be the representative, even though black women are more than capable uh we often are looked over or are pushed aside. In favor of black men. And um, I don’t think its either or, it has to be both and, but very often there is more sexism in politics than there is racism.

Poletika: Interesting, yeah and I think Stacey Abrams is a good example of that and she came so close to holding office but didn’t quite get there.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely.

Poletika: Do you have any advice for those wanting to get a seat at the table?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I certainly uh would encourage folks to continue to be engaged and be involved and you should not concede the fact that you won’t get a seat at the table, you can take a seat at the table. You have to work a little harder, fight a little harder, and push and be aggressive, but don’t mistake being emphatic and uh being focused, with being uh aggressive or pushy, which is something they always want to hang on women. But, I think that people need our representation, they need our voice. And certainly, the folks that we are representing need to have us in that room. So, its important that we, ensure that we get a seat at the table.

Poletika: Dr. Peniel Joseph described the convention as quote: “The most important political, cultural, and intellectual gathering of the black power era.” And it seems to me that Gary’s legacy of this black political empowerment is often kind of dropped from the narrative, which is unfortunate. So how do you envision Gary’s future in terms of political or socio-economic parody for black residents?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I think that it is important to remember Gary’s role in the black power movement. In the narrative of that day about self-determination, as a result of the Gary convention you got Maynard Jackson in Atlanta. You got Wellington Webb in Denver, Colorado. You got uh, so many black mayors who were the first black mayors in their communities. And that led to economic empowerment in those communities. I think the challenge for Gary was that there was so much pushback on the political power that was gained by Mayor Hatcher and that was in many parts because Indiana had such a history of segregation and racism that people immediately reacted to his election in Gary in a negative way. Before he had an opportunity to lead and to govern there were folks who were making plans to not only leave town, but incorporate a city that was indirect contradiction of the existing Indiana law and that was Merrillville on the Gary border. And so, incorporate a town, because there was a law at the time that said that no town could be incorporated within 3 miles of a second-class city. There was a buffer zone. And uh not withstanding that fact you had legislation that was passed in the general assembly ironically in uh 1972 that allowed Merrillville to incorporate and as a result you saw growth in Merrillville, because that accelerated white flight. And so, as a result of that occurrence, Gary’s economic downturn was accelerated and that became Gary’s legacy unfortunately. I think now, there’s an opportunity to develop and create a new narrative uh from Gary because of the partnership that we were able to develop with the existing governor in Indianapolis and that Mayor Prince is continuing. I think there is also an opportunity because we were able to lay groundwork under the Obama Administration that can now be continued under the Biden Administration.

Poletika: Hmm, interesting point. And I know uh Mayor Hatcher had a city council that was in opposition to him and kind of blocked him.

Freeman-Wilson: Early on he did. Uh by the 2nd or 3rd term he was able to get things done. A lot of the development infrastructure, when you look at the Genesis Convention center that was built then. When you look at the Adam Benjamin Transportation Center that was built under his tenure. The Hudson Campbell Center, the Sheraton hotel that was ultimately torn down because everything has a lifespan right, but all of those things were accomplished under his tenure. The um housing…the affordable housing that was created during his time here all of those things occur.

Poletika: So, I have one last question for you. Based on your experiences as mayor and director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, and your various other leadership roles. What’s your advice for black activists and political hopefuls about how to make systemic change? Is it through the ballot, is it through public demonstrations, a combination?

Freeman-Wilson: I think it’s all of the above. There can’t be any one methodology. And I think that one of the things that is important to understand and that demonstrations will get you in the door to a table, but once you get to the table you have to have a negotiation strategy that will create long term systemic change. And so often people understand and are engaged at the protest, but they forget the strategy that has to be employed to create the systemic change and it’s not just uh from a political standpoint, but it has to be from an economic standpoint.

Poletika: Yeah, I know that there’s the Black Lives Matter organization and there’s the Black Votes Matter organization, seems like there working together.

Freeman-Wilson: Yeah, because the two aren’t mutually exclusive and there has to be a Black Economics Matter, as well.

Poletika: How do you think that you would leverage economic change?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I think you leverage economic change in working with city and state government. Later today, I’m gonna be on uh panel with the State of Illinois where there gonna be talking about goals for black businesses. That’s important and so when you uh look at cities, when you look at states who will do business with black folks that ultimately allows them to employ black people in many instances and to transfer wealth in the black community. Because what we are seeing is an increasing gap and uh and many refer to it as uh racial wealth gap. How do you amass wealth uh, you amass wealth through business and you amass wealth through home ownership and so there has to be a focus on both of those mechanisms, along with the education that typically leads to wealth accumulation in those areas. So that you can ultimately ensure that you’re reducing the racial wealth gap. And government has a role to play in home ownership, in doing business with black folks and encouraging others, because you can’t just gain wealth by doing business with uh state government or the federal government. You have to do it with the private sector, because even when government turn downs occur private sectors uh, businesses will continue to procure goods and services.

Poletika: Right, and that’s why representation I am sure is so important. People like you being at the table and fighting for those measures.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely, that’s been one of our major areas of focus at the Chicago Urban League.

Poletika: Well, I can’t wait to learn more about your uh work with the Urban League, um how can people learn more about you and your work?

Freeman-Wilson: By looking at our website, by following me @karenaboutgary and certainly on Twitter.

Poletika: Alright, well thank you so much for speaking with us, it was a real pleasure to talk with you.

Freeman-Wilson: Thank you so much.

Poletika: If you are interested in learning more about the National Black Political Convention check out our post at and check out Dr. Leonard Moore’s book The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972. Please follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana History, subscribe, rate, and review talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.

THH Episode 43: “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

Transcript for “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

Written by Nicole Poletika and produced by Jill Weiss Simins.

Justin Clark: Leaders mounted the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to counter systemic oppression, which kept many African Americans in poverty, subpar housing complexes, and inferior schools, while keeping them out of voting booths, political office, and good paying jobs. Public demonstrations like the Selma-to-Montgomery March, the Watts Uprising, and Poor People’s Campaign drew widespread attention to the plight of African Americans. And the Black Power Movement, which produced African art and Black studies courses, strengthened “black consciousness” and bolstered racial pride.

But, Black activism and uplift was often met with violence and North Carolina minister Benjamin Chavis recalled that:

Olon Dotson: “I had gotten tired of going to funerals. . . . so much of the Movement had been tragic. You know. And I have to emphasize King’s assassination was a tragic blow to the Movement.”

Clark: For the most part, by the end of the decade, those in power continued to resist institutional change that would, in Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher’s words, grant Black Americans “’their fair share of the pie.’” So, Black leaders embraced a different strategy: channeling collective outrage into political reform, transforming the Black Power Movement into the Black Political Power Movement. The site of this “political experiment” for Black liberation? Gary, Indiana.

I’m Justin Clark, filling in for host Lindsey Beckley, and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Forging a new Black political strategy would prove challenging, as Martin Luther King’s death created a leadership void, in which differences grew between the two major ideological factions: integrationists and Nationalists. Integrationists, like Congressional Black Caucus and NAACP members, sought to work within the two-party system, pressuring elected officials to meet the needs of Black Americans. They also sought to elect more Black leaders at the local and federal level. Let’s take a quick detour to discuss the complexities of the Nationalist faction.

Nationalists generally sought to establish a self-governing nation, in which Black institutions oversaw Black communities. However, historian Leonard Moore noted that Nationalists were not monolithic. Some sought to replace U.S. capitalism with socialism, by violent means if necessary. Others, Dr. Moore wrote, believed that “the key to black liberation” depended on “the reclaiming of African values and culture.” Territorial nationalists, like members of the Nation of Islam and Republic of New Afrika, called for a separate “geographical home” for Black Americans. While the Nation of Islam imbued many African Americans with a sense of identity and empowerment, it operated as an extremist group that espoused Black superiority and directed hateful ideals at LGBTQ+ and Jewish Americans. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Nation of Islam has “maintained a consistent record of anti-Semitism and racism since its founding in the 1930s” and grown more extreme under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan. It is important to address the organization’s problematic aspects, but also to clarify that not all Nationalists belonged to the Nation of Islam or espoused its rhetoric.

Nationalist leader, poet, and founder of the Congress of African Peoples, Amiri Baraka began prioritizing political activism by the early 1970s. He increasingly recognized that the resources and connections of political office holders were necessary to make enduring change. Baraka sought to establish some form of collaboration, or what he called “unity without conformity,” through a National Black Political Convention in 1972.

Gary, Indiana, a city literally built along racial lines, would be the unlikely site of this historic gathering. U.S. Steel Corporation gave birth to the city in 1906, converting acres of swampland and sand dunes into what would become an industrial mecca. Gary’s expanding steel market shaped the city’s built environment and encouraged population growth. Between 1906 and 1930, increasing numbers of European immigrants, Black Southerners, Mexicans, and white migrants flocked to the region looking for work in the steel industry.

Businessmen and steel mill managers settled North of the Wabash Railroad tracks, in Gary Land Company’s subdivisions. The cost to live in this area excluded many newcomers—primarily African Americans and immigrants—from its paved streets and lush rows of trees. Instead, minorities lived on the Southside—an area neglected by the Gary Land Company—often in tarpaper shacks, tents, and barracks that lacked ventilation. The city’s social construction ultimately resulted in its implosion. Beginning in the 1950s, waves of white residents fled from the city’s growing Black population to the suburbs, taking their businesses with them. This retreat robbed the city of tax dollars and residents of employment opportunities.

Gary’s 1967 mayoral election represented a longing for change in the majority-Black city. Thirty-four-year-old African American lawyer and Democratic candidate, Richard Hatcher, would respond to this call. The Michigan City native earned his law degree in 1959, which he quickly put to work as Lake County prosecutor. He also served as a private practice attorney, representing plaintiffs in school segregation lawsuits. According to historian Leonard Moore, Hatcher used his expertise to challenge police brutality and founded Muigwithania, a group of young black professionals “dedicated to black liberation.” It was this leadership prowess and social activism that made him an ideal mayoral candidate.

Since 1938, Gary’s mayors had belonged to the Democratic Party. And yet, the party supported Hatcher’s Republican opponent in the 1967 election. Although lacking funding and partisan support, Hatcher’s message of equality and racial uplift resonated with Gary’s disenfranchised voters. The leader made history on November 7, when he was elected one of the first African American mayors of a large city, along with Carl Stokes, who was elected Mayor of Cleveland just hours after Hatcher.

Mayor Hatcher quickly got to work meeting the demands of his African American constituents, establishing new low-income housing developments, diversifying the city council, and granting minority businesses government contracts. Given this progressive record, Gary soon made the list of National Black Political Convention hosts. Ultimately, planners selected the Steel City because it symbolized Black political empowerment and because other cities had reservations about accommodating so many African Americans.

On March 10, 1972, approximately 3,000 state delegates and 7,000 attendees from across the country poured into Gary for the weekend. Many of them marveled at the city’s helpful police force and congenial atmosphere. North Carolina delegate Benjamin Chavis recalled:

Dotson: “when we first saw the sign saying ‘Welcome to Gary’ and we got [to] downtown Gary, I mean, we thought we were in a different country. I mean . . . to see a city in the United States, given the backdrop now of all this Nixon repression going on, all this sense of disillusionment in some quarters of the nation, to drive into Gary, Indiana, and see streamers, red, black and green.”

Clark: The convention’s significance stemmed partly from the fact that those asked to help draw up the blueprint for equality came from all walks of life. Its architects would not solely be appointed leaders or office holders, but Black Panthers, feminists, college students, pastors, labor leaders, Nation of Islam members, and Marxists.

Because Gary had only one hotel, many attendees stayed in Chicago, IU Northwest dorms, or with Gary residents, some of whom they forged lifelong friendships with. That Friday afternoon, a collective sense of pride spread through West Side High School as delegates headed towards the gym, a packet in hand advertising local black-owned businesses. Music thrummed, vendors sold Afro combs, books about leaders like Marcus Garvey, and soul food like chitterlings, while others recited poetry on the sidewalk about the long struggle for their human rights.  Nationalist Queen Mother Moore, in her colorful headwrap, handed out pamphlets and made the case for reparations. Boxer-turned-activist Muhammad Ali served as sergeant-at-arms, joining police and civil defense personnel. The extra security proved necessary after a bomb threat was reportedly called into the Holiday Inn, the convention headquarters.

The convention kicked off with a press conference before state caucuses began developing resolutions to be debated over the course of the weekend. And were treated to a performance by “Godfather of Soul” James Brown that evening. The following day, after a late start, the convention resumed with an address by Mayor Hatcher. In his black rimmed glasses and striped suitcoat, he approached the podium, greeted by a standing ovation. An ideal host for his ability to mediate between Nationalists and integrationists, it was fitting that he delivered the opening address. Hatcher began his speech by invoking the “spirit of triumph and determinism” of W.E.B. DuBois. Warmly welcoming the attendees, which included entertainer Harry Belafonte and Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale, he stated the goal of the 1972 convention was the creation of a National Black Political Agenda that would serve as a “dynamic program for black liberation.”

While the “foment” and demonstrations of the 1960s served a purpose, it was time for African Americans to wield political power, to not only advise on legislation but to help create it. He told the rapt audience:

Dotson: “In our infinite patience, we have tried year after year, election after election to work with the two major political parties. We believed the pledges, believed the platforms, believed the promises, each time hoping they would come true. Hoping we would not again be sold out.”

Clark: But no longer. African Americans would pick political candidates to represent them, not the party. And the chosen party must address the “inhumanity” faced daily by every Black American. In addressing indignities, the party must work from the bottom up. National decisions, Hatcher argued:

Dotson: “must be discussed in every nook and cranny of this country, from the tar paper shacks in the Mississippi Delta, to the pine hovels of the Appalachian Hills, from the rank and fetid basement apartments of the 47th Street to the barios of Spanish Harlem.”

Clark: Black Americans must demand that legislators end employment discrimination and meager wages. They must demand a decent public school system and the replacement of inferior houses with those that do “not affront the eyes nor offend the nostrils.” Quality health care must be provided, regardless of one’s means to pay for it. Like in white suburbia, the heroin epidemic should not be allowed to ravage Black youth. Should the government fail to meet these demands, they would lose the support of Black voters, who could “conceivably turn to fearsome tactics” or form a third political party. Mayor Hatcher concluded the rousing speech by asking:

Dotson: “Will we walk in unity or disperse in a thousand different directions?”

“Will we act like free black men or timid shivering chattels?”

“Will we do what must be done?”

“History will be our judge.”

Clark: Lauded by Dr. Moore as a “work of art,” Hatcher’s speech set the tone for the convention. It blended the urgent tone of Nationalists and the pragmatism of the Congressional Black Caucus. But if his speech was a work of art, Jesse Jackson’s was the Louvre. The young preacher and P.U.S.H. founder, wearing an MLK medallion and wide-collared shirt, was met by applause as he took the stage. He began:

Dotson: “‘Brother Hatcher came up North and got a new house in Gary and said to all the scattered tribes around the nation come home. I know my home is too small but come home. We could’ve went to New York City or L.A. But we didn’t have a home there. Come home. Over in this smoke-filled city called Gary one of our Black brothers said ‘Tribe’ come home.’”

Clark: Invoking Nationalist rhetoric, he asked:

Dotson: “Brothers and Sisters, what time is it?”

Clark: To which the crowd cried:

Dotson: “Nationtime.”

“For 7.5 million registered Black voters and 6 million unregistered Black voters, what time is it?”


“For Black democrats, Black republicans, Black panthers, Black Muslims, Black independents, Black businessmen, Black professionals, Black mothers on welfare, what time is it?”


Clark: Jackson called for African Americans to unlearn white superiority, to create a third party in order to represent their own interests. This required ego, which he argued they lacked after enduring decades of abuse and oppression. He proclaimed:

Dotson: “when you sit here with your healthy Black body and developed Black mind and put your confidence, creativity, and belief in somebody else who is less intelligent than you, to represent you, your ego has been castrated.”

Clark: Holding the audience in the cusp of his hands, Jackson bellowed:

Dotson: “What time is it?”

“Nationtime!,” the audience chanted, now on their feet, fists in the air.

“When we respect each other, what time is it?”


“When we get ourselves confident, what time is it?”


“When we form our own political party, what time is it?”


Clark: With his electrifying speech, he stepped into the leadership void left by MLK. In the words of attendee Byron Lewis, Jackson “was born in that convention.” Fellow preacher, Ben Chavis, recalled the poignant moment:

Dotson: “everybody raised their fists and stood up, literally, and repeated over and over again, ‘It’s Nation-time. It’s Nation-time.’ . . . Jesse Jackson became the keynoter in terms of lifting the emotional level of the crowd to an all-time high with the call for Nation-time. But it was just not a hollow call. It was just not a rhetorical call . . . I mean, you could hear it . . . reverberating Marcus Garvey. You could hear it reverberating all those prize struggles from the forties, and the thirties, and the fifties and the sixties. I mean, it came to be fulfilled in that moment, of crying that it’s Nation-time, not next year, not next century, but now. In 1972. In Gary, Indiana.”

Clark: To Chavis, “Nationtime” meant unity of purpose. This would be needed when the delegates, energized by the speeches, debated potential resolutions for the Black Agenda. Illinois delegates proposed prison terms and fines for employers guilty of discrimination, as well as employment priority for Black veterans. North Carolina proposed a prisoners’ bill of rights. Indiana was among those delegations that demanded an end to the Vietnam War. California and Oklahoma proposed harsher consequences for hard drug dealers. Discussion and, at times tense debate, centered around topics like forced busing, foreign policy, and whether or not to endorse African American Democratic presidential candidate, Shirley Chisholm.

Given the number of issues demanding attention, and the varied backgrounds and beliefs of delegates, some degree of discord was inevitable. But on Sunday, proceedings nearly fell apart. Baraka, clad in a black dashiki, presided over the stage, lined with leaders like Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz. He introduced a draft of the National Black Agenda, incorporating the suggested resolutions. To many delegates, the Agenda disproportionately represented Nationalist objectives, such as opposition to forced busing, which integrationists favored as a means to provide African American students with better education. Some delegates alleged that the Agenda failed to offer strategies for implementing resolutions, many of which they deemed unrealistic. Michigan delegation leader, Coleman Young, vocalized these concerns, as well as his discomfort about ratifying the Agenda before having a chance to digest it or give local activists an opportunity to provide feedback.

Coleman felt that the “Black Magna Carta,” as he dubbed it, was contradictory, with some resolutions supporting separatist ideals and others political integration. The Michigan delegation quickly composed a statement opposing ratification at the convention and read it to the crowd. They then filed out of the gymnasium, with Illinois’s delegation on the verge of following suit. Baraka pleaded with them not to leave, fearful that the disunity would entirely derail the convention. When his armed aids intercepted the Michigan delegates, Young recalled “’We were strapped down pretty well and showed them enough artillery to make it out of there.’” On the precipice of disbanding at best and violence at worst, the anxious crowd was ecstatic to realize that part of Michigan’s delegation had indeed remained. Shouts of “Nationtime!” soon resounded.

Delegates who had traveled across the country would not have to return home without hope or direction. By Sunday’s end, a draft of the National Black Political Agenda had been adopted, and tenuous compromise forged. Conveners founded the National Black Political Assembly, which would meet regularly to follow through on the plans made at the convention. Convention planners tweaked the Agenda in the following weeks, trying to address the concerns of delegates, and publicly released the 68-page document on May 19th, Malcolm X’s birthday. With the national elections approaching, the Agenda would be taken to the Democratic Party Convention and the candidate who prioritized its resolutions would gain the support of Black voters. These included:

  • proportional representation in Congress and local government
  • creating a National Black Development Agency to spur economic development
  • ending the exploitation of Third World Countries
  • ensuring a minimum income of $6,500 for a Black family of four

The document didn’t go so far as to endorse the creation of an independent party, but argued that “Social transformation or social destruction . . . are our only real choices.”

While many delegates felt uncomfortable with some of the resolutions, like its stance on busing, Pittsburgh Courier columnist Ethyl Payne wrote that the convention was successful in that “It was a political experiment in political participation. They now know what it means to be a part of the elective process.” The delegates and attendees returned home energized, committed to political engagement. Chavis said that, despite disputes:

Dotson: “I felt like I had been to a revival. . . . But not just a revival on the spiritual plane. Although that’s significant. But it was a revival on the political plane. It was a revival on the psychological plane. It was a revival on the cultural plane.”

Clark: The exhilarating event planted the seeds of political empowerment for young observers, some of whom served as delegates’ pages. Gary resident Wayne A. Young recalled that, when he was 12, he accidentally walked into the convention lobby and picked up literature, which:

Doston: “inspired dreams for my city and my country.” . . . “It was sweet to see so many budding and established activists, from Max Robinson to Rosa Parks to Ron Dellums all sitting in the Cougar Den.”

Clark: Although the National Black Political Assembly fractured over the following years, momentum generated at the convention increased voter participation. Black elected officials grew from 1,469 in 1970 to 4,890 by 1980. Dr. Moore poignantly concluded:

Dotson: “Despite the collapse of the National Black Political Convention, it galvanized entire communities around the possibilities of black political power and ‘people went back home, rolled up their sleeves and ran for public office in a way that Blacks had never thought about running for public office before.’ Thus, the presidential victories of Barack Hussein Obama can trace their lineage to Gary West Side High School, where black folk met in 1972 under the banner of the National Black Political Convention.”

Clark: While President Obama’s election was historic, institutional change has been slow to come and Black Americans continue to fight for their “’fair share of the pie.’” They are still disproportionately affected by issues like mass incarceration, unemployment, and barriers to health care. The death of Black Americans at the hands of police and the resurgence of white supremacist groups have generated a new collective outrage. Like the late 1960s and early 1970s, activists are grappling with how to transform this outrage into cohesive strategy.

Attention again turned to the ballot as a means for change with the 2020 U.S. election. Through increased grassroots mobilization and voter participation—goals outlined at the 1972 convention— Black turnout swung election results in favor of Democrat Joe Biden. In fact, AP News reported that Black voters transformed Georgia into a new battleground state, “potentially remaking presidential politics for years to come.” By leveraging social media and tirelessly knocking on doors, groups like Black Voters Matter imparted the relevance of voting to quality of life. Their work helped elect Kamala Harris, the country’s first woman and person of color to serve as Vice President. Black constituents again flexed their political muscle during the Georgia Senate runoffs on January 6, 2021, helping to elect Jon Ossof, the state’s first Jewish U.S. senator, and Reverend Raphael Warnock, the state’s first Black U.S. senator. These voters also helped flip the U.S. Senate from a Republican majority to a Democratic majority. Combined with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and presidential administration, this could fundamentally alter federal legislation. It remains to be seen whether the high rate of Black political participation will be sustained and if elected officials respond to the demands of those who helped put them in office. But recent elections and the boldness of organizers like Stacey Abrams have made clear how profoundly Black Americans, once lynched for attempting to cast their ballot, can influence democracy.

Listeners, we would love to hear from those who attended or organized the convention, especially those from The Region. Please see the show notes for her contact information.  

Once again, I’m Justin Clark and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see the sources for this episode, visit and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes.

This episode of Talking Hoosier History was researched and written by IHB historian Nicole Poletika. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Our guest voice for this episode is Dr. Olon Dotson [Gary native and Ball State University professor]. We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice [with former mayor of Gary, Karen Freeman-Wilson]. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thank you for listening!

Show Notes for “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

If you organized or attended the convention, and would like to share your experience, please contact IHB historian Nicole Poletika at or 317-232-2536.


“Black Convention at Showdown Stages,” Vidette-Messenger of Porter County, March 11, 1972, 1, accessed

“Black Political Movement Born in Gary,” Journal and Courier (Lafayette), March 13, 1972, 1, accessed

Oral History Interview, Benjamin Chavis, April 18, 1989, Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection, accessed Eyes on the Prize II Interviews.

Gwendolyn Cherry, House of Representatives, “Cherry Notes from Florida,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 2, 4, accessed

“Chisholm Candidacy Faces Black Debate,” Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, 1, 10, accessed

Jay Harris, “Black Political Agenda Hit on Busing, Israel,” News Journal (Wilmington, DE), May 19, 1972, 10, accessed

Erik Johnson, “Remembering Mayor Richard G. Hatcher,” Chicago Crusader, Special Tribute Edition, December 20, 2019, accessed

Sam Levine, “’They Always Put Other Barriers in Place:’ How Georgia Activists Fought Off Voter Suppression,” The Guardian, January 13, 2021, accessed

Leonard N. Moore, The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018), 2, 64-65, 96-102, 105-108, 112, 130-131, 149, 152.

“The NAACP and the Black Political Convention,” The Crisis 79, no. 7 (August-September 1972): 229-230, accessed Google Books.

Documentary, NATIONTIME-GARY, directed by William Greaves, screened at AFI DOCS 2020.

James Parker, “Blacks Marching to Different Drums,” The Times (Munster), March 12, 1972, 1A, 12A, accessed

Ethel L. Payne, “After Gary, What?,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 5, accessed

Nicole Poletika, “City Church: Spirituality and Segregation in Gary,” Indiana History Blog, May 13, 2019, accessed

Nicole Poletika, “‘Tired of Going to Funerals:’ The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary,” Belt Magazine (January 2019), accessed

“Race and Voting,” Constitutional Rights Foundation, accessed

Jesus Rodriguez, “BLM Organizers See the 1972 National Black Political Convention as a Model. What Can They Learn from It?,” Politico Magazine, August 28, 2020, accessed

Kat Stafford, Aaron Morrison, Angeliki Kastanis, “’This is Proof’: Biden’s Win Reveals Power of Black Voters,” Associated Press, November 9, 2020, accessed

“’…We Must Pave the Way so that Others May Follow,’” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 10, accessed

Ross Williams, “Record Turnout among Black Voters Could Help Georgia Reshape the Nation,” Georgia Public Broadcasting, January 11, 2021, accessed

Wayne A. Young, “A Gary Native Reflects on What ‘Nationtime’ Means Today,” Chicago Crusader, November 24, 2020, accessed

How South Bend Attorneys Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen Lifted the “Heel of Oppression”

Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen, courtesy of Indianapolis Recorder, July 25, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles and South Bend Tribune, February 10, 2014, accessed

*This is Part One in a series about the Allens.

Marriage is complicated enough. Add in opposing political views, routinely confronting systemic racism and sexism, and coping with the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II, and it’s even more challenging. African American attorneys Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen experienced these struggles and, while theirs was not a perfect marriage, through compromise, mutual respect, shared obstacles and goals, and love, they enjoyed 55 years together as man and wife. The South Bend couple dedicated themselves to each other and to uplifting the Black community by crafting legislation, organizing social programs, creating jobs, and demanding educational equality. The opportunities the Allens created for marginalized Hoosiers long outlived them.

On his way to Indianapolis in the late 1920s, J. Chester’s car broke down in South Bend and, after staying with a family on Linden Street, liked the city so much he decided to make it his home. Or so the story goes. Elizabeth Fletcher Allen, whom he met at Boston University and married in 1928, was likely working towards her law degree back in Massachusetts when J. Chester made that fateful trip. She would eventually join her husband in Indiana, but in the meantime J. Chester quickly got to work serving South Bend’s Black community. In 1930, J. Chester was admitted to the bar and the following year was appointed County Poor Attorney for St. Joseph County.

His arrival was perhaps serendipitous, as the Great Depression had begun rendering African Americans, who were already disenfranchised, destitute. J. Chester served as management committee chairman of the Hering House, which he described as “‘the clearing house of most of the social activities of the colored people as well as the point of contact between the white and colored groups of South Bend. . . . Its activities in the three fields of spiritual, mental and physical training make it indeed a character building institution.'” Through the organization, J. Chester helped provide 4,678 meals to unemployed African Americans, along with clothes, lodging, and medical aid to others in the Black community in 1931.

In addition to providing basic necessities during those lean years, J. Chester took on various anti-discrimination lawsuits in South Bend. In 1935, he helped prosecute a case against a white restaurant owner, who refused to serve Charles H. Wills, Justice of the Peace, in a section designated only for white patrons. That same year, J. Chester served as attorney for the Citizens Committee, formed in protest to the “unwarranted shooting” of Arthur Owens, a Black 18 year-old man, by white police officer Fred Miller. The Indianapolis Recorder, an African American newspaper, noted that eleven eyewitnesses recounted that “the youth was shot by Officer Miller as he stepped from a car with hands raised, after having been commanded by the officer and his companion, Samuel Koco Zrowski, to halt.” The officers had been pursuing the car with the belief it had been stolen.

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

Elizabeth Allen-likely back in town temporarily-and other Black leaders organized a mass meeting to protest the “wanton, brutal and unwarranted” shooting. Despite boycotts, a benefit ball to raise prosecutorial funds, and protests by the Black community and white communists, a grand jury did not return an indictment against Officer Miller for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. This, J. Chester said, was due to “blind prejudice on the part of the prosecutor.”

Despite a disheartening outcome, J. Chester continued to lend his legal expertise to combating local discrimination. The following year, he and a team of lawyers challenged Engman Public Natatorium’s ban on African Americans from using the facilities. The team presented a petition, likely prepared by Elizabeth, to the state board of tax commission demanding Engman remove all restrictions. Allen and other NAACP representatives had tried this in 1931, arguing that the natatorium was “supported in whole or in part by taxes paid by residents of the city,” including African Americans. Without access to the pool, they would be relegated to unsafe swimming holes, one of which led to the death of a Black youth the previous summer. While they had no luck in 1931, the 1936 appeal convinced commissioners to provide African American residents access to the pool, but only on the first Monday of every month and on a segregated basis. This was just one victory in the decades-long fight to fully desegregate the natatorium.

Image caption: Photograph of Leroy Cobb and two unidentified men sitting along Pinhook Park. In the era of segregation in South Bend, with city pools like the Engman Public Natatorium barring African Americans from entry, Pinhook Park became a popular location for public swimming, ca. 1947, St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collections.

While it appears that Elizabeth lent her aid to certain events in South Bend, like protesting the shooting of Owen, it is tough to discern Elizabeth’s activities at this time. This is perhaps due to scant documentation for African Americans, particularly women, during this period. Likely, she was working towards her law degree at Boston University, despite being told by an admissions officer “there was not need to come and advised she get married.” Proving the officer wrong, Elizabeth not only got married, but gave birth to two children while pursuing her law degree. She attributed this tenacity to the confidence her father instilled in her during childhood and later said “’To be a woman lawyer you have to have the hide of a rhinoceros.’”

Her persistence paid off and after joining J. Chester in South Bend, she was admitted to the bar in 1938. Perhaps her presence inspired in him a sense of security and conviction, resulting in a run for the Indiana General Assembly. That year, voters elected J. Chester (D) the first African American to represent St. Joseph County. Rep. Allen introduced and supported bills that would eliminate racial discrimination in sports, the judicial system, and public spaces. The new lawmaker also endorsed bills that would require Indianapolis’s City Hospital to employ Black personnel and that would mandate appointing at least one African American to the State Board of Public Instruction, telling his colleagues “the legislature should see to it that these children had a spokesman of their own racial group to assure their obtaining a measure of equal accommodation and facilities in the segregated public school system” (Indianapolis Recorder, March 11, 1939). Writer L.J. Martin praised Allen’s unwavering commitment to serving Black Hoosiers while in public office, noting in the Indianapolis Recorder,

Hon. J. Chester Allen said he had stayed up late at night reading bills for such ‘racial traps.’ He found them, he eliminated them, one hotel sponsored bill in particular would have been a slap at the race. Mr. Allen astonishes me, in the forcible argument for racial progress.

J. Chester Allen (center), South Bend Tribune, November 6, 1940, 17, accessed

While J. Chester walked the halls of the statehouse, championing bills that furthered racial equality, Elizabeth was able to make a difference as a lawyer. The couple opened “Allen and Allen” in 1939—the same year she gave birth to their third child. One of the first Black female lawyers in the city, and likely state, Elizabeth quickly forged a reputation as an articulate and ambitious woman. She did not hesitate to express her convictions, not even to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Elizabeth sent her a letter expressing the need to integrate housing and provide African Americans with the same government-funded housing white Americans received. Elizabeth’s son, Dr. Irving Allen, told an interviewer that Roosevelt’s response resulted in his mother’s “angry departure” from the Democratic Party. Allegedly, Roosevelt “sent back this long-winded pretentious letter rationalizing the situation . . . that the races couldn’t live together.” Both idealistic, Dr. Allen recalled that his parents’ political discourse over the dinner table “could blow up at any time.”

Elizabeth’s editorial for the South Bend Tribune, entitled “Negro and 1940,” also provides insight into her views. She lauded the “new Negro,” who:

is fearless and motivated by confidence in his belief that he owes to his race the duty of guiding those members whose minds have not been trained to clear thinking, his knowledge that the able members of his race have always from the beginning of this country contributed to the civic upbuilding and a conviction that it is up to him to keep the gains which have been made.

Membership Card, 1944, J. Chester and Elizabeth Fletcher Allen Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, Indiana University South Bend Archives, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

By this definition, Elizabeth exemplified the “new Negro,” dedicating her life to uplifting South Bend’s Black community through her work with the NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee and by organizing drives to improve housing for minorities. According to her son, Dr. Irving Allen, Elizabeth embodied the Black empowerment she wrote about, challenging oppression and advocating for those “being cheated out of a decent life.” Dr. Allen suspected that his mother also wanted to effect change as a legislator, but sacrificed her political aspirations to support her husband’s career.

Elizabeth Allen, courtesy The History Museum Collection, accessed Roberta Heinman, “Suffragists and Activists are Among 10 Influential Women in Indiana,” South Bend Tribune, August 16, 2020.

Although Elizabeth felt she had to shelve her political aspirations, she complemented her husband’s legislative work, particularly regarding World War II defense employment. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 created an immediate need for the manufacture of ordnance. While U.S. government war contracts lifted many Americans out of the poverty wrought by the Depression, many manufacturers refused to hire African Americans. This further disenfranchised them as, according to W. Chester Hibbitt, Chairman of the Citizens’ Defense Council, an estimated 54% of African Americans living in Indiana were on relief by 1941.

And while the federal government complained of a labor shortage, J. Chester contended that “Negro workers, skilled and semi-skilled, by the thousands are walking the streets or working on W. P. A. projects, because they happen to have been endowed with a dark skin by the Creator of all men'” (“The Story of House Bill No. 445, p.15). He argued that it was the responsibility of lawmakers to prohibit employment discrimination, not only to eliminate poverty, but to safeguard democracy. Echoing the Double V campaign, Rep. Allen stated that “our first line of defense should be the preservation of the belief in the hearts of all men, black and white alike, that Democracy exists for all of us; that we are all entitled to a home, a job and the expectancy of better things to come for our children.” The continued denial of American minorities’ rights undermined the fight for freedom abroad.

Elected to a second term in 1940, J. Chester led the call for anti-discrimination legislation. Months before President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, Rep. Allen and Rep. Evans introduced House Bill No. 445. If enacted, it would make it illegal for Indiana companies benefiting from federal defense contracts “to discriminate against employing any person on account of race, color or creed.” So popular was the bill that after the Indiana Senate passed it, delegations of African Americans and their children filled statehouse corridors and galleries, carrying “placards advocating passage of the bill, describing the measure as the only thing necessary to provide Negroes with jobs” (“The Story of House Bill No. 445”, p.7).

The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Story of House Bill No. 445 . . . A Bill That Failed to Pass,” (Indianapolis, 1941?), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

Despite the bill’s promising fate, on the last day of session the House kicked it over to the Committee on Military Affairs, where it essentially died. In an article for the Indianapolis Recorder, J. Chester noted that although the bill was defeated,

such state-wide attention had been drawn to the sad economic plight of the Negro workers of Indiana and its attendant dangers that people of both races agreed that the alleviation of the Negro unemployment problem was the number one job of the preparations for war of Indiana and proceeded in for right home-rule manner to do something about it.

On June 1, 1941, Governor Schricker answered the call to “do something about it,” appointing J. Chester the Coordinator of Negro Affairs to the Indiana State Council of Defense. As part of the Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation, Allen traveled throughout the state, appealing to groups like the A.F.L., C.I.O., and the Indiana State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association, which all formally pledged to employ African Americans. Through intensive groundwork, Allen established bi-racial committees in at least twenty Indiana cities.

Based on the “mutual cooperation between the employer, labor and the Negro,” the Recorder reported that these local committees would “go into action whenever and wherever Negro industrial employment presents a problem.” Although his persuasive skills often convinced employers to hire Black employees, historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that “Allen sometimes invoked Order 8802 and threats of federal investigation to persuade management to employ and upgrade black workers.”

The Indiana State Defense Council and The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “’Job Opportunities for Negroes:’ The Goal of Indiana’s Bi-Racial Cooperation Plan,” Pamphlet No. 4 (January 1943), accessed Hathitrust.

Allen and the bi-racial committees also served as a sort of “middlemen” for white employers who wanted to hire African Americans, but were unsure how to recruit those best-suited for the job. Allen and the committees distributed “mimieographed questionnaires,” which provided” more valuable information with respect to Negro labor supplies, skills, etc. This information was then used with great effect in the mobilization and cataloguing of types of dependable Negro workers for local defense industries.”

Under Allen’s leadership, the Indiana Plan proved incredibly successful, providing employment to those, in Allen’s words, “whose record of loyalty and services dates in an unbroken chain back to the year 1620” (“The Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation,” p.5). According to the “Job Opportunities for Negroes” pamphlet, between July 1, 1941 and July 1, 1942, there “was a net increase of 82% Negro employment, most of which was in manufacturing. . . . working conditions also improved” (p.2). (It should be noted that employers continued to deny African Americans jobs in “skilled capacities.”) In fact, Indiana was awarded the “Citation of Merit” by the National Director of Civilian Defense for “outstanding work in the field of race relations.” So efficiently organized and implemented, other states used the plan as a model to bring African Americans into the workforce.

Indiana State Defense Council, The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, and Governor Schricker’s Negro Employment Committee, “What is the Truth About Job Opportunities for Negroes in Indiana?,” (August 1942), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

The Bi-Racial Cooperation Plan’s significance endured long after World War II ended. White employers could no longer claim that Black Hoosiers lacked the skills or competence required of the workplace or that it was “unnatural” for white and Black employees to work alongside each other. Reflecting on the program, Allen wrote in 1945, “Time was when a Negro interested in securing better employment opportunities for his people could not even obtain an audience with those able to grant such favors.” But the Bi-Racial Cooperation plan “has accomplished more for the Negro’s permanent economic improvement than had been done in the preceding history of the state.”

While African Americans were often the first to be let go from defense jobs with the conclusion of war, Allen’s work permanently wedged the door open to employment for Black Hoosiers. Allen, perhaps at the encouragement of Elizabeth, emphasized the importance of creating job opportunities for Black women and in his 1945 article noted that thousands of female laborers “have been upgraded from traditional domestic jobs, to which all colored women had previously been assigned irrespective of training or ability, to defense plants as receptionists, power-sewing machine operators, line operators and other better paying positions where their training can be utilized.”

Elizabeth Allen front left, J. Chester Allen back of the table, Ca. 1944, J. Chester and Elizabeth Fletcher Allen Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, Indiana University South Bend Archives, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

Like her husband, Elizabeth refused to accept that Black Hoosiers would be excluded from the economic boon created by defense jobs. In the early 1940s, she established a nurse’s aid training and placement program for Black women in St. Joseph County. Of her WWII work, Elizabeth’s son said that she opened professional doors for Black women and that she saw herself as helping people who were oppressed. Like J. Chester, Elizabeth helped select local men for placement in defense jobs and, according to an October 11, 1941 Indianapolis Recorder article

used the utmost care in selecting the men to go into the factory realizing that future opportunities were dependent upon the foundation which these pioneers laid both in building good will among the fellow employes, and proving to the management that colored are reliable, trustworthy, hard-working and capable of advancing.

While J. Chester traveled the state, Elizabeth tended to the needs of the local community, chairing a drive in 1942 at Hering House for “community betterment in housing[,] social and industrial fields.” In the 1940s, Elizabeth organized various meetings to improve local housing for the Black community, emphasizing the link between substandard residences and crime rates, delinquency, and health. Deeply committed to ensuring quality education for African American children, Elizabeth founded Educational Service, Inc. in 1943, which encouraged youth to pursue social and economic advancement, provided financial aid to “worthy” students, offered individual counseling, and fostered good citizens. All of this while caring for three young children and likely manning the couple’s law office, as J. Chester fulfilled his duties with the Indiana State Council of Defense. Fortunately, Elizabeth later told the South Bend Tribune, “I want to keep busy constantly. I have to be about something all the time.”

When the war clouds cleared, the Allens achieved many of their professional and philanthropic goals. But they also experienced immense personal loss that appeared to test their marriage. Their post-war journey is explored in Part II.



The majority of this post is based on state historical marker notes, in addition to the following:

“11,605 Helped by Hering House,” South Bend Tribune, April 22, 1931, 5, accessed

“11 Witnesses Charge Police Shot too Soon,” South Bend Tribune, April 10, 1935, 1, accessed

“Seek to Avenge Youth’s Death,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 25, 1935, 1, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

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

Elizabeth F. Allen, “Negro and 1940,” South Bend Tribune, October 1, 1939, 5, accessed

The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Story of House Bill No. 445 . . . A Bill That Failed to Pass,” (Indianapolis, 1941?), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

The Indiana State Defense Council and The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation,” Pamphlet No. 3, (April 1942), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

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

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

“Area Women Lawyers Tell It ‘Like It Is,’” South Bend Tribune, March 9, 1975, 69, accessed

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

Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 207.

Oral History Interview with Dr. Irving Allen, conducted by Dr. Les Lamon, IU South Bend Professor Emeritus, David Healey, and John Charles Bryant, Part 1 and Part 2, August 11, 2004, Civil Rights Heritage Center, courtesy of St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.