A False Promise of Freedom: The Lynching of John Tucker

According to archivist Keenan Salla, John Tucker’s property was located near the intersection of St. Clair and Delaware Streets (Out Lot 37, Lot 3). This 1880 image from a plat map was sent to author courtesy of the Indiana State Archives.

* Sources included in the historical marker application, compiled by historian Leon Bates, were foundational to this blog post.

Long before the Great Migration, Black Americans sought to make a living and secure housing in Indianapolis. The life of John Tucker affords us the opportunity to study the experiences of free people of color living in the city, when it was simply an outpost of the Western frontier. Tucker’s life also represented the many obstacles they faced in the pursuit of unequivocal freedom. In researching a new historical marker about Tucker’s violent death, I sought to uncover as many details as I could about his life, work, family, and experiences as a human. Amongst scant documentation, I gleaned that he was a farmer, who raised two children with his wife in a house near the intersection of St. Clair and Delaware Streets. Prominent orator Rev. Henry Ward Beecher noted that Tucker was “very generally respected as a peaceable, industrious, worthy man.”[1] On Independence Day of 1845, his pursuit of a life of freedom was brutally ended by white violence. Tucker’s death forced his young children into a years-long legal battle over his property and undoubtedly perpetuated generational trauma. The lynching also made overt the indignities and threats Black settlers had quietly endured.

Tucker was born into enslavement in Kentucky around 1800. It is unclear how or when he was freed, but the Indiana State Sentinel reported in 1845 that he “many years ago honorably obtained freedom.”[2] By 1830, Tucker settled in Indianapolis, which resembled “‘an almost inaccessible village,'” lacking navigable waterways and roads. As Indianapolis’s Black population increased, so did discrimination against Black Americans.[3] The Indiana General Assembly passed laws requiring them to register with county authorities and pay a bond as guarantee of good behavior.[4] Black residents were also prohibited from voting, serving in the state militia, testifying in court cases against white persons, and their children were banned from attending public schools.

Sketch of homes, including Overall’s, is courtesy of Indianapolis Remembered: Christian Schrader’s Sketches of Early Indianapolis (published 1987), p. 112.

Despite living in a “free” state, Black settlers not only experienced systemic discrimination, but were marginalized by racial violence. City historian Ignatius Brown described Indianapolis in the 1830s:

The work on the National road . . . had attracted many men of bad character and habits to this point. These, banded together under a leader of great size and strength, were long known as ‘the chain gang,’ and kept the town in a half subjugated state. Assaults were often committed, citizens threatened and insulted, and petty outrages perpetrated.[5]

James Overall, a respected free person of color, land-owner, and trustee for the African Methodist Episcopal church, would become a target of this violence in 1836. David J. Leach, a white gang member, tried to break into Overall’s home, located on Washington Street, and threatened to kill his family.[6]

Overall shot Leach in self-defense. In this tense circumstance, prominent white allies of Overall came to his aid. Despite an 1831 Indiana law that barred black testimony against whites in court, Overall gained legal protection from further attack. In his official opinion, Judge William W. Wick affirmed Overall’s “natural” right to defend his family and property. Unfortunately, Judge Wick’s interpretation of the 1836 law did not affect any change in the actual law and African Americans in Indiana continued to be without legal recourse in cases where only black testimony was available against a white party.

Historical marker installed by IHB in 2016, accessed https://www.in.gov/history/state-historical-markers/find-a-marker/find-historical-markers-by-county/indiana-historical-markers-by-county/james-overall/.

Overall’s home would again be linked to racial violence when Tucker’s body was transported to it for examination by a coroner.[7] The sequence of events resulting in Tucker’s death were generally corroborated by the testimony of approximately forty white witnesses at trial.[8] On the afternoon of July 4, 1845, Tucker was walking along Washington Street when inebriated white laborer Nicholas Wood physically assaulted him. Bewildered, and with few options for recourse because of his race, Tucker sought the intervention of city officials.[9] While Tucker headed to the Magistrate’s Office, Wood again struck him with a club. Tucker retreated up Illinois Street as Wood followed, now joined by saloon keeper William Ballenger and Edward Davis. Rev. Beecher reported that Tucker “defended himself with desperate determination” against the stones and brickbats hurled at him by the three men.[10] The “murderous affray” took place about 100 yards from Rev. Beecher’s church, and “greatly disturbed” the Independence Day celebration taking place that afternoon.[11]

A crowd surrounded Tucker on Illinois Street. Some gatherers tried to separate Tucker from his assaulters, while others encouraged the violence, chanting “kill the n****r!” Rev. Beecher reported that “the fight was at first scattering, and the mayor attempted to quell the rioters, as did several citizens,” but most “surprised at the suddenness and rapidity of the thing, stood irresolute or timid, having no courageous man among them to save the victim.”[12] Within minutes, John Tucker succumbed to his injuries near a gutter on Illinois Street. Although not the result of a hanging, his death is considered a lynching, as defined by the Equal Justice Initiative: “Lynchings were violent and public events designed to terrorize all Black people in order to re-establish white supremacy and suppress Black civil rights.”

Immediately after the lynching, Wood was brought before Mayor Levy, and “being rather uproarious with liquor, and the excitement considerable, the Mayor very properly committed the accused” to jail until the following day. Davis sustained severe injuries from Tucker’s attempts to defend himself, and had to recuperate at home before a court appearance was possible.[13] By the time Wood informed Mayor Levy about Ballenger’s involvement and a warrant was written for his arrest, Ballenger “had already secreted himself.”

Rev. Beecher described the general sentiment felt by Indianapolis’s citizens in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. He wrote, “I never saw a community more mortified and indignant at an outrage than were the sober citizens of this. Some violent haters of the blacks, the refuse of the groceries [grocery gang to which Wood belonged], and a very few hair-brained young fellows indulged in inflammatory language.”[14] Similarly, the Indiana State Sentinel wrote a few days after the lynching, “It was a horrible spectacle; doubly horrible that it should have occurred on the 4th of July, a day which of all others should be consecrated to purposes far different from a display of angry and vindictive passion and brutality.”[15] Unwilling to intervene in Tucker’s lynching, many citizens donated money to hire attorneys O.H. Smith and James Morrison, who would aid the state in prosecuting Tucker’s assailants. Prominent abolitionist and businessman Calvin Fletcher spearheaded efforts to secure counsel, writing in his diary, “as a citizen I have done all I could to see that the state should have Justice.”[16]

The Indiana State Sentinel reported that “Much difficulty presented itself in obtaining a jury in consequence of the notoriety of the case.”[17] Despite this, Edward Davis’s trial began by mid-August and several witnesses provided detailed testimony, including Tucker’s employer, City Postmaster Samuel Henderson.[18] Expert witnesses like Dr. John Evans, who helped establish the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, explained the significance of Tucker’s injuries to jury members. The Sentinel noted on August 13, “The examination of the witnesses was very laborious and great vigilance and attention given to it. The Court House was crowded to overflowing during the tedious detail.”

General Index of Estates, Marion County, courtesy of FamilySearch, sent to the author from archivist Keenan Salla, Indiana State Archives.

Despite damning testimony regarding his involvement in Tucker’s death, the jury acquitted Davis.[19] This surprised many in the community because days later the jury, hearing much the same testimony, found Nicholas Wood guilty of Tucker’s murder.[20] The Sentinel speculated on the reasoning for the differing verdicts, noting Wood was found guilty because he “commenced the affray, and followed it up to its conclusion.” Convicted of manslaughter, Wood was sentenced to three years in state prison.[21] Although a seemingly short sentence, his conviction was a rarity in an era when Black Hoosiers could not legally testify in court.


Many court records related to the case simply referred to “the Negro,” but John Tucker was a human being, whose death left his children without a father and fighting for a home. It is unclear what became of Tucker’s wife, but his 13-year-old daughter, Mary (also written as Meary), and his 10-year-old son, William, were left to grieve.[22] Because their father was only about 45 years old at the time of his murder, he was still working to pay off his property. Thus, his death pushed his family into insolvency and legal proceedings that would conclude only in 1851. Court records show that the children, appointed a guardian ad litem, were required to appear in court multiple times regarding the property at Out Lot 37, Lot 3. Ultimately, the court ruled that it be sold at a public auction held at the court house, likely leaving Mary and William penniless.

Ruling on the Estate of John Tucker, Saturday, August 23rd A.D. 1851 + 10th Day of the Term, sent to the author from archivist Keenan Salla, Indiana State Archives.

Lynchings in Indiana from the mid-1800s to 1930 intentionally terrorized Black communities and enforced white supremacy. The State Sentinel reported on August 28, 1845 “that many of the colored residents are in the habit, since the 4th of July, of carrying big clubs, &c.”[23] The article’s author admonished:

We assure them that this is wrong. It tends rather to provoke than allay ill feeling. They are as safe from harm, and as much under the protection of the laws as any member of community; and they should be extremely cautious of doing any thing having a tendency to arouse latent prejudice and hatred in the breasts of those who entertain them. Take our advice. Be quiet. Feel safe. Mind your proper business. Behave yourselves like men.

Clearly, this piece of “advice” rang hollow, as Tucker had minded his “proper business” and did nothing to provoke “ill feeling.” Indianapolis’s Black population, which had grown from 122 residents in 1840 to 405 by 1850, remained vigilant.[24] In 1851, the state furthered discrimination against the minority group when a new constitution was drafted, which prohibited migration of Black Americans into Indiana. Preeminent Indiana historian James Madison summarized the many barriers to equality for Black Hoosiers, noting that “Indiana has never been color-blind. For a long time, the state’s constitution, laws, courts, and majority white voice placed black Hoosiers in a separate and unequal place. . . . separation and discrimination, whether legal or extra-legal, were the patterns of public life for African Americans.”[25] As we continue to reckon with discrimination and racial violence, let us remember John Tucker—father, farmer, husband, and Hoosier.

 

Notes:

[1] H.W. Beecher, “Rev. H. W. Beecher—the Indianapolis Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 30, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] “Affray and Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 10, 1845, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Gayle Thornbrough and Dorothy L. Riker, eds., The Diary of Calvin Fletcher,  vol. III, 1844-1847 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1974), 164.

[3] “Marion County,” Early Black Settlements by County, Indiana Historical Society, accessed indianahistory.org; James H. Madison, Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 81, 94.

[4] Nicole Poletika, “James Overall: Indiana Free Person of Color and the ‘Natural Rights of Man,'” Indiana History Blog, July 15, 2016, accessed https://blog.history.in.gov/james-overall-indiana-free-person-of-color-and-the-natural-rights-of-man/.

[5] Ignatius Brown, Logan’s History of Indianapolis from 1818 (Indianapolis: Logan & Co., 1868), 35.

[6] Poletika, “James Overall: Indiana Free Person of Color.”

[7] State vs. Nicholas Wood, William Ballinger + Edward Davis, Box 045, Folder 081, Location 53-S-6, Accession 2007236, AAIS 116220, Reference COURT0012595, Indiana State Archives, courtesy of historian Leon Bates.

[8] “Marion Circuit Court: Criminal Cases,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 13, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; State vs. Nicholas Wood, Box 045, Folder 081, Location 53-S-6, Accession 2007236, AAIS 116220, Reference COURT0012595, Indiana State Archives, courtesy of historian Leon Bates.

[9] “Rev. H. W. Beecher,” Indiana State Sentinel; “Marion Circuit Court: Criminal Cases,” Indiana State Sentinel.

[10] “Rev. H. W. Beecher,” Indiana State Sentinel.

[11] W.R. Holloway, Indianapolis: A Historical and Statistical Sketch of the Railroad City, a Chronicle of Its Social, Municipal, Commercial and Manufacturing Progress, with Full Statistical Tables (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Journal Print., 1870), 80-81, accessed Archive.org.

[12] “Affray and Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 10, 1845, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Testimony of Enoch Pyle, State vs. Nicholas Wood, William Ballinger + Edward Davis, Box 045, Folder 081, Location 53-S-6, Accession 2007236, AAIS 116220, Reference COURT0012595, Indiana State Archives, courtesy of historian Leon Bates.

[13] “Rev. H. W. Beecher,” Indiana State Sentinel; “Marion Circuit Court,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 13, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[14] “Rev. H. W. Beecher,” Indiana State Sentinel.

[15] “Affray and Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 10, 1845, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] The Diary of Calvin Fletcher, 165.

[17] “Marion Circuit Court,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 9, 1845, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[18] “Marion Circuit Court: Criminal Cases,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 13, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[19] The Locomotive, August 16, 1845, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[20] “Marion Circuit Court,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 20, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[21] “Murder Cases at Indianapolis,” Evansville Weekly Journal, August 28, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; Indiana State Prison South, Pardon Book B, page 20, microfilm roll 1, 401-F-2, DOC000690, ICPR Digital Archives, courtesy of historian Leon Bates.

[22] “Affray and Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 10, 1845, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles, 5; “John Tucker,” General Index of Estates, No. 512, July 23, 1845, II-96, emailed to IHB by Indiana Archives and Records Administration Reference Archivist, Keenan Salla; Petition to Sell Paid Real Estate as Insolvent, John Tuckers Estate, George H.P. Henderson, Adm of the Estate of John Tucker, Deceased v.s. Mary Tucker & William Tucker, Infants, Thursday October 16th 1845, and 4th Day of Term, emailed to IHB by Indiana Archives and Records Administration Reference Archivist, Keenan Salla; George H. P. Henderson, Adm. of the Estate of John Tucker v. Elizabeth Frazee, of Full Age, & Meary Tucker and William Tucker (infants), Saturday, August 23rd, A.D., 1851 & 12th Day of the Term, emailed to IHB by Indiana Archives and Records Administration Reference Archivist, Keenan Salla.

[23] “Wrong,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 28, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[24] “Marion County,” Early Black Settlements by County, Indiana Historical Society.

[25] James H. Madison, “Race, Law, and the Burdens of Indiana History,” in The History of Indiana Law, edited by David J. Bodenhamer and Hon. Randall T. Shepard (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006), 37-59.

The Agitator: Theodore Luesse Takes On the Great Depression

Evansville Journal, July 21, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

As they awaited the fate of Minor Moon, a legion of anxious men spilled down the stairs of the municipal courtroom, prodded by a “double chain” of Indianapolis patrolmen. Judge Paul C. Wetter had decided: Moon, a Black resident, would pay $50 for trespassing—an almost unfathomable fine for November 25, 1930, especially for a man recently evicted from his home at 409 West North Street. With this sentencing, Theodore Luesse—a white strike-leader in his mid-20s—cried from the front of the court room, “Comrades are we going to stand for this miscarriage of justice?”[1]

His comrades, still lining the stairs, responded, “We want justice!” They rushed back into the courtroom, where they exchanged blows with police officers. The Lafayette Journal and Courier reported, “The raging fighters smashed through the doorways into the corridors. Clubs rose and fell and fists were swung. Everyone was yelling.”[2] Luesse’s comrades, unemployed men attracted by the promise of Communism, eventually fled, leaving Luesse and organizer R.M. Spillman among the “avalanche of blue coats.” Police swiftly escorted Luesse and Spillman to jail, where, from their cells, they cried “injustice!” and “downtrodden proletariat!”

This would be one of dozens of arrests of Luesse for his role in agitating for better living and working conditions during the Great Depression. His actions would eventually culminate in a sentence at the notorious State Penal Farm in Putnamville, known as the “Black Hole of Indiana.” From this bleak environment, Luesse ran for governor on the Communist ticket. While the gubernatorial campaign inevitably failed, calls for Luesse’s release from imprisonment, for what many decried as simply exercising his “freedom of speech,” endeared widespread public support, including from Indianapolis businessmen like Franklin Vonnegut and clergy like Dr. Frank S. C. Wicks, as well as non-partisan groups like the ACLU.[3] His sentence also, to the dismay of judicial and government officials, increased Hoosiers’ interest in Communist ideals and ignited a series of social protests.


Much of Luesse’s inimitable life can be pieced together by pairing his 1995 recollections How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story* with U.S. Census records and newspaper articles, which typically corroborate his memories. The future firebrand, born in 1905 in Batesville to German immigrants, experienced hardship nearly from birth. When his mother died shortly after his first birthday, his father, likely grief-stricken and needing to provide for the family, moved to Indianapolis, where he varnished furniture in a factory. Theodore’s sisters were sent to an orphanage, and Theodore moved in with his aunt on a Batesville farm.[4] The family reunited a few years later, when his father brought his children to the capital city. There, Theodore recalled his father returning from work “full of sweat,” having undertaken grueling labor for pennies. Young Theodore tried to supplement this income with various jobs, like delivering newspapers and selling errant pieces of iron and rags.

The Luesse family, with Theodore in his father’s arms, courtesy of How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story (Oakland, CA: Regent Press, 1995): cover.

This struggle likely informed Luesse’s later work as an organizer, as did attending local political meetings with his father. His experiences certainly cultivated in him a deep empathy for the disenfranchised, which manifested in middle school, when he protested the landing of U.S. Marines in Honduras.[5] Having exploited Honduran plantations for years, the U.S. sought to protect its profits after Hondurans denied access to them. Luesse was taught that the Marines were sent under the guise of protecting locals from “gangsters and guerrillas.” However, he challenged this narrative, telling teachers at his Catholic school that Hondurans were “fathers and mothers just like our fathers and mothers.” He recalled the nuns ridiculing his protestations. This incident, combined with their corporeal punishment, caused him to drop out of school.

In his early-teen years, Luesse found work as a messenger. He hauled boxes from “five and tens” and department stores, recalling, “Oh it was a big wagon with big horses and I was so proud of being able to drive that thing right in the heart of Indianapolis just going down the streets and hearing the automobiles and trucks and everything.”[6] According to Luesse, he then got a job at Western Union, where he led his first strike, demanding “equal work for equal pay, although we didn’t call it that.” He led fellow employees under the age of 16 to demand wages equal to that of older teenagers. Here, he demonstrated his signature mixture of intimidation and organizational prowess, threatening and sometimes employing physical harm against anyone who refused to strike. The tactic proved successful in raising wages.

He then leveraged his job as a newsboy to work for social justice in the 1920s. He and some coworkers obtained an anti-Ku Klux Klan paper published in Chicago called The Intolerance.[7] They distributed copies at  Jewish synagogues, Catholic churches, and churches in Black neighborhoods in Indianapolis, hoping to combat the rhetoric and ideals espoused in the Klan’s Fiery Cross paper. According to Luesse, publicizing information about the hate group helped pressure public officials into stemming the Klan’s influence in government.

Curtisville Bottom, Great Depression shantytown located along the west bank of the White River from Oliver Street to Washington Street, May 1935, courtesy of Indy Star, accessed Digital Encyclopedia of Indianapolis.

Around 1930, Luesse joined the Communist Party, learning about local cases of unemployment and evictions through the party’s paper. Giving up a house-painting job, Luesse focused solely on combatting the deprivations wrought by the early months of the Great Depression.[8] He organized “flying squadrons,” groups of men who traveled to welfare and unemployment offices to ensure that the agencies were meeting people’s needs. He and his comrades also distributed copies of the communist paper and delivered speeches at Indianapolis factories. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Luesse visited the Kingan meat packing plant, informing workers about evictions around the city, arguing that, “If they can throw her out, they’ll throw us out tomorrow.” Such speeches attracted a crowd of onlookers, some of whom joined organizers in a parade to houses from which residents were being evicted. They hauled furniture back into renters’ homes, relying on a “security squad” comprised of military veterans, to intimidate police if they tried to intervene.

Luesse helped organize the Communist-based Unemployment Council of Indianapolis because the jobless had received “very little help from these organizations like the Socialist Party, the Workman’s Circle, and the Death Benefit Society. They were evolutionary and we were revolutionary. The Socialist Party believed that you could get everything on a ballot.”[9] The Unemployment Council, however, embraced public demonstrations and confrontations with public officials. Luesse contended that these were necessary in early 1931, as the socioeconomic privilege of lawyers, judges, and lawmakers shielded them from the realities of daily life for the unemployed. He noted, “They didn’t know about people having to pull things out of swill cans to eat, how people had to steal food to eat or things to live, how they had to burn up furniture in order to keep warm.”[10]

Citizens tried on one of the 2,500 pairs of shoes at the Indianapolis Salvation Army, donated by the city’s children via the Circle Theater, courtesy of the Indianapolis Times, November 24, 1930, 11, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to Bradford Sample’s 2001 Indiana Magazine of History article, Hoosiers received minimal help from local and state government, relying instead on aid from civic and charitable organizations during the early years of the Depression. Espousing traditional Hoosier principles of small government and self-sufficiency, Governor Harry G. Leslie and Indianapolis Mayor Reginald Sullivan refused to authorize relief bonds.[11] In fact, the Republican governor balked at requests to call a special legislative session in March 1932, fearing an unemployment relief bill would be introduced and that it would “‘be hard for any legislator not to vote for it.'”[12] Gov. Leslie opined that “such a procedure would demoralize the relief work now being done in committees. People now giving to unemployment relief would assume that their help was not needed if the state began making donations.'” He also refused to accept federal relief funds, viewing them as “direct threats to the tradition of local autonomy for relief in Indiana,” according to preeminent Indiana historian James H. Madison.[13]


As inaction pitched Hoosiers further into destitution, their public protestations intensified. On January 6, 1931, the Indianapolis Times reported that Luesse and Council members led hundreds of unemployed men, about 60% of whom were Black, to the statehouse.[14] They failed in their attempt to meet Governor Leslie, whom they’d hoped would reconsider his stance on relief and housing. After this, Luesse led the men, desperately in need of warmth, to Tomlinson Hall. The group hoped that they could possibly find work there, as Tomlinson housed the Office of the Unemployed. Leading the delegation with Luesse was J.C. Moon (possibly a relative of Minor), dressed “fantastically in a dark blue uniform resembling that of hotel bellboys, and his head was topped by a scarlet fez hat with a flowing tassel.”[15]

Ephemera, Box 3, Folder 77, American Left Ephemera Collection, University of Pittsburgh, accessed ULS Digital Collections.

As the marchers approached the building, they sustained momentum by chanting “When we see a cop we use him for a mop.”[16] They immediately encountered a police squadron at Tomlinson Hall, which culminated in a clash like that in the municipal courtroom. Banners bearing slogans like “Deliver Us From Starvation” and “To Hell With Your Lousy Charities” soon littered Delaware and Market Streets as some marchers fled and others attempted to occupy Tomlinson.[17] According to Luesse, police officers threw him on top of the gatherers and “motioned for the streetcars and automobiles to cut through the crowd.” After sustaining a blow to the nose, police again hauled him to jail. “My twenty-eighth ride!” he proclaimed.

Such conflicts demonstrated the painful dichotomy between the urgency of citizens’ needs and the inadequacy or unwillingness of governmental and societal structures to meet them. The fraught circumstances are likely why some lawyers continued to aid Luesse and why Judge Paul Wetter was fairly lenient in his punishment of him. In a serendipitous twist, Luesse had dated Wetter’s sister, establishing a friendly rapport with the future judge.[18] During their many courtroom encounters, Luesse and Judge Wetter exchanged perspectives, both seemingly perplexed by the other’s stance. Judge Wetter wanted to know why Luesse engaged in such provocation, and Luesse asked why Judge Wetter sentenced Hoosiers the way he did. Luesse recalled telling the judge:

‘There was this here old man that stole a pig and you put him one hundred and thirty days on the rock pile [penal farm]. You didn’t ask him why he stole the pig. You didn’t ask him about anything, but because of the fact that the law says that he should go to jail for one hundred and thirty days for stealing a pig you sent him. . . Now he’s got four breadsnappers at home. . . . he stole that pig in order to feed those children.’ (p. 47)

Luesse added, “You live in a world of hypocrisy. You go to church. . . . I’m up to here with all your bullsh*t, all your people’s bullsh*t, the priest’s and bishop’s and pope’s and everybody else.'” Apparently he earned Judge Wetter’s begrudging respect because, according to Luesse, Wetter ordered the turnkey to release him.[19] Just one month later, Luesse came again before Judge Wetter for having made “inflammatory speeches to a crowd assembled at a soup kitchen.”[20] Rather than fining or sentencing Luesse, Judge Wetter ordered him to report to City Hall for work digging ditches the following day.

Picture
The Unemployed Workers’ Movement Anti-Eviction Committee protesting the eviction of a women and her family of 5 children in Norfolk St, Ponsonby, Auckland, 1931, accessed The Great Depression Riots of 1932.

Luesse employed another tactic to draw attention to the plight of Hoosier families. In How I Got Out of Jail, he described a “Mrs. Allen,” whose husband was unable to work due to tuberculosis. Having four children to care for, Mrs. Allen walked two to three miles to the welfare office for “gold soup,” so called because of the carrots that floated to the top of the broth.[21] She supplemented this paltry meal with rotten vegetables gathered from around the city. Luesse noted:

She was a fighter in every capacity and I loved that. So she was being evicted from her place and I convinced her that we were gonna get her a house. . . . We’re gonna have a big demonstration on the state house lawn and we’re going to have a house built there.

After Mrs. Allen agreed to this plan, Luesse and his comrades transported a dilapidated house to the statehouse grounds and distributed leaflets encouraging people to come “see how the unemployed has to live.” Two sides of the shanty were without walls, so for four days people observed Mrs. Allen care for her children and complete routine tasks with meager resources. Based on the publicity generated by the demonstration, Luesse was able to secure permanent housing for the Allen family.[22]

Throughout the spring, Luesse returned to jail several times for halting evictions and leading public demonstrations. His luck ran out after his thirty-fourth arrest, for which he interfered with the “eviction of a destitute Negro family,” and finally faced legal consequences. [23] Judge Frank P. Baker sentenced Luesse to one year at a penal farm in Putnamville, stating “‘no man has the right to take the law into his own hands. Any such man is a menace to society. I believe this man has tried to stir up resistance against the law and crate disrespect for it, which in turn might lead to dangerous riots.'”[24]


“Oh, Goddman, that was a hell of a place,” Luesse recalled about the jail.[25] In a sweltering quarry, he worked alongside men incarcerated for a spectrum of transgressions, including drunkenness, theft, and “social crimes”—meaning imprisonment for the crime of simply being a person of color. One man reportedly died because of the brutal work environment, a tragedy Luesse tried to expose by tying a letter to a kite.[26] For this attempt, he was placed in “the hole” for twenty days, where guards handcuffed and hung him out on a door for hours. Such allegations were confirmed by former prisoners, who presented Governor Leslie with affidavits testifying to such treatment.[27] Glenn Emmett Mulford wrote that after Luesse was released from solitary confinement, he “‘looked sick, worn-out and was bleeding from the nose.'” According to the Garrett Clipper, Governor Leslie dismissed the claims, declaring that Luesse was treated with “‘exceptional kindness.'”

The support Luesse engendered via his activism endured throughout his incarceration, as downtrodden Hoosiers continually demanded his release. In fact, the Evansville Press noted that his “case caused nationwide protests.”[28] At the end of November 1931, hunger marchers en route to Washington, D.C. stopped at the Putnamville prison farm, demanding to see Luesse.[29] Rebuffed, the automobile detachment continued on to Indianapolis, where they attempted to confront Governor Leslie about Luesse’s release and about authorizing war funds for the unemployed. By the spring of 1932, prominent Indianapolis clergymen and business leaders signed a petition for the Hoosier Communist’s release.[30] Indianapolis citizen Samuel Nathanson appealed to the governor after Luesse—who happened to be born with the unique “No. 1 count”—donated pints of blood to his sick daughter in an attempt to save her life.[31] Although Nathanson “was not in sympathy with Luesse’s political and economic beliefs,” he felt that Luesse’s punishment did not fit the crime, and that his generosity demonstrated his fitness as a citizen. He went so far as to offer Luesse a job at The Store Without a Name, for which he was manager.

“News of the Day as the Pictures Record It,” Indianapolis Star, July 20, 1932, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

After these efforts failed, local women led the charge to free Luesse. In April, they organized a protest of about one hundred supporters at the statehouse and defied police orders to relocate to Military Park. The Lake County Times reported that police had to forcefully remove a number of women “after they had climbed to the top of ornamental urns and had harangued their male companions to remain.”[32] Among the three arrested and charged with “inciting to riot and resisting arrest,” was a “Mrs. Fay Allen.” Described by the Indianapolis Star as a “mother of four children,” she was likely the same woman aided by the home demonstration organized on the statehouse grounds.[33] She appeared to take up the mantle for Luesse while he was behind bars, as she was arrested again the following month for “inciting a riot and interfering with legal process” during an eviction.[34] In July, a similar protest materialized at the statehouse, this time organized by unemployed men from The Region, who sought relief measures and the release of Luesse.[35] Hammond spokesman Wenzel Stocker told legislators that “‘mass starvation and suicide'” would occur in Gary if relief funds were not issued.

Given the apparent futility of such demonstrations, organizers hoped to effect change through electoral politics. In 1932, the Communist Party nominated Fay Allen for Secretary of State, Stocker for Lieutenant Governor, and Theodore Luesse, still serving time at the penal farm, for governor.[36] Luesse reported that some guards were sympathetic to his ideology and even supported his gubernatorial run. The candidates earned the public’s sympathy and respect, but not their electoral support, as born out by the 1932 returns. All three Communist candidates came in sixth out of seventh place, earning just over ninety votes each.[37]

Despite the loss, Luesse and his comrades increased interest among Hoosiers in the Communist Party, which as editorialist Paul B. Sallee noted in 1935, “could not develop a membership sufficient to muster a corporal’s guard.”[38] However, Luesse’s imprisonment—a veritable “miscarriage of law”—and the suppression of free speech wrought by his incarceration helped the Party grow by “leaps and bounds.” Sallee alleged that if the two major parties denied Hoosiers their “political rights and civil liberties . . . it is clear to any intelligent person that the people will throw off such restraint by any method.” While Hoosier voters did not forsake the two major parties, they did signal the desire for change by electing the state’s first Democratic governor in twenty years, Paul V. McNutt. Indiana’s new head of state had apparently been sympathetic to Luesse’s plight and in March of 1933 released him from Putnamville.[39]


Ephemera, Box 3, Folder 71, American Left Ephemera Collection, University of Pittsburgh, accessed ULS Digital Collections.

“Assured that Luesse would leave the state” upon his release, Gov. McNutt likely breathed a sigh of relief. Although progressive in his politics, McNutt surely preferred not having to contend with Luesse’s agitation.[40] But Luesse, dogmatic as ever, returned to Indianapolis the day after he left the penal farm. He stood on the courthouse steps before an audience of 200 women and men, most of whom the paper noted were African Americans, and “urged concentrated action of his followers against governmental officials to force them to favor demands of workers and the unemployed.”[41] Upon request, he made similar speeches in cities like Evansville, Munster, and Hammond in the following months.[42] According to Luesse, after his incarceration he worked with Indiana volunteers to organize a C.I.O. branch, made possible by passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act.[43] In August of 1933, while preparing to speak to a crowd of unemployed residents in Marion, he was arrested and transported to the Grant County jail, where a mob forcibly removed and lynched two young Black men in 1930.[44]

It appears that Governor McNutt could breathe a bit easier by 1935, as Luesse had transferred his organizational talent to other midwestern cities, like Belleville, Illinois.[45] Some time after leaving Indiana, Luesse assumed the alias “Jim Moore” and worked as a machinist. Shedding his association with the Hoosier state, he resided in St. Louis for a time, channeling his revolutionary spirit into protesting the Vietnam War.[46] After decades of activism, Moore joined his son, Stan, in San Francisco around 1967. They circulated 50,000 leaflets throughout the Bay Area, “telling the workers to organize stoppage of work for five minutes, ten minutes or any amount as a memorial to the people that died” in the war. After permanently relocating to the West Coast, Moore fought for equal representation in law enforcement and county government.[47] In the late 1980s, he served as a U.S. delegate to the World Peace Convention in Denmark, relying on young peers to help him travel to Copenhagen, as a lifetime of activism had worn down his body.[48]

Image of Luesse/Moore courtesy of How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story (Oakland, CA: Regent Press, 1995): inside cover.

Moore appeared to have tempered his radical impulses later in life, telling interviewer Claire Burch in 1995, “We’ve got enough anarchy! We don’t need no more anarchy. We need organization. We need discipline. We need to be moved to do things in order to be able to get legislation passed.”[49] Despite a philosophical shift, the nonagenarian continued to work for societal change.  An average weekend for Moore meant rising at 7 o’clock, getting in some light exercise (mindful of his pacemaker), and walking over to the local hospital cafeteria for breakfast before folding copies of The People’s World. He then distributed them at the University of California, Berkley and in boxes throughout the city. Some Saturdays he breakfasted with college students to “talk over what is necessary for them to do” and on Sundays attended Humanist meetings or American-Soviet Friendship Society gatherings.[50] He ran a petition drive to convince the Montgomery Ward Company to donate one of its buildings to the City of Oakland, so it could be repurposed as a trade skill training center or housing for those experiencing homelessness.[51] Moore distributed leaflets at local welfare and unemployment offices and attended Bay Area demonstrations almost until his death.[52]


With characteristic resolve, Moore achieved his goal to reach the age of 100, passing away in 2005 just two weeks after the milestone birthday. Despite playing a large role in Indiana’s labor tradition and making an indelible impact on his native state during the Depression, he has largely been forgotten. Crusaders such as himself helped centralize Indiana government and cultivate a new generation of organizers, who demanded more from their government during those tumultuous years.

While some Hoosier leaders disapproved of Luesse’s resistance, it helped catalyze necessary change during unprecedented circumstances. After all, the New Deal was not a foregone conclusion and many state lawmakers were slow to recognize the scope of constituents’ needs. Luesse’s many public protests and his vociferous criticism of Governor Leslie’s inaction infused some Hoosiers with the spirit of reform. Primed for change, voters decided not to elect Gov. Leslie to a second term, instead electing progressive candidate Paul V. McNutt in 1933. According to historian Linda C. Gugin, Gov. McNutt’s “liberal social-welfare programs . . . marked a significant shift in the direction of assistance to those in need” and created a “more centralized, modernized, and professional welfare system.”[53]

Luesse’s unflinching demand for accountability and relief measures may resonate with modern Americans, as they grapple with the current spike in inflation, swelling gas prices, the mounting student loan debt crisis, and pandemic-related housing displacement. Certainly, those who support a social safety net relate to Theodore Luesse’s belief that:

Everybody has the right to live just because they are alive, and in order to live, a person has to have food, clothing and shelter, health and education. When he doesn’t receive that by his own ingenuity it is necessary for the government to help him. That is why we have governments—to help those people who cannot help themselves, not just to make rules and regulations.[54]


* According to this publication, he eventually went by the alias “Jim Moore,” but it is unclear when or why he did so. It appears he employed this moniker after leaving Indiana, so he will be referred to as “Theodore Luesse” during the time he lived there.

Notes:

[1] “Indianapolis Police Battle Riotous Crowd of Radicals,” (Lafayette) Journal and Courier, November 25, 1930, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Governor Believes Luesse Not Ready to Obey State Laws,” (Richmond) Palladium-Item, April 7, 1932, 7, accessed Newspapers.com; “Liberties Union to Champion Prisoner,” Evansville Press, June 23, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[4] “Theodore Luesse,” 1910 United States Federal Census, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; How I Got Out of Jail and Ran for Governor of Indiana: The Jim Moore Story (Oakland, CA: Regent Press, 1995), p. 5-6.

[5] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 5-6; Obituary, “Jim Moore, Press Builder, Dies at 100,” People’s World, January 7, 2005, accessed Peoplesworld.org.

[6]  “Theodore Luesse,” Indianapolis, Indiana City Directory, 1920, U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Hayes Body Strike Ends in Wage Pact,” Indianapolis Times, April 18, 1930, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 10-11, 13, 26-34.

[7] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 106-107.

[8] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 32-34.

[9] “To Protest Eviction of Tenants,” Indianapolis News, January 5, 1931, 23, accessed Newspapers.com; Quote from How I Got Out of Jail, p. 109.

[10] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 52.

[11] Bradford Sample, “A Truly Midwestern City: Indianapolis on the Eve of the Great Depression,” Indiana Magazine of History 97, iss. 2 (June 2001), accessed IUScholarWorks Journal.

[12] United Press, “Leslie Again Blocks Session: Refuses Plea that He Call Legislature,” Evansville Press, March 26, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[13] James H. Madison, Indiana Through Tradition and Change: A History of the Hoosier State and Its People, 1920-1945 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1982), p. 109.

[14] Quote from “City Police Use Clubs to Halt Rioters,” Indianapolis Times, January 6, 1931, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Communist Agitators Arrested,” Late County Times, January 6, 1931, 17, accessed Newspapers.com.

[15] “City Police Use Clubs to Halt Rioters,” Indianapolis Times, 1.

[16] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 43-44.

[17] “City Police Use Clubs to Halt Rioters,” Indianapolis Times, 1.

[18] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 45.

[19] Ibid., p. 47.

[20] “Court Provides Jobs for Orators,” (Lafayette, IN) Journal and Courier, February 6, 1931, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

[21]  How I Got Out of Jail, p. 41-42, 156.

[22] Ibid., p. 41-42.

[23] “Alleged Red Held Again,” Indianapolis News, April 24, 1931, 37, accessed Newspapers.com; “Hunger Marchers are Home Bound,” Late County Times, May 5, 1931, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Trio Arrested at Capital Released,” (Richmond, IN) Palladium-Item, May 5, 1931, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; Quote from “Liberties Union to Champion Prisoner,” Evansville Press, June 23, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[24] “Radical Chief Gets Sentence on State Farm,” Kokomo Tribune, May 23, 1931, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[25] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 48.

[26] Ibid., p. 50-51.

[27] “Leslie Denies ‘Red’ Has Been Abused at Penal Farm,” Garrett Clipper, May 26, 1932, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[28] “Theodore Luesse Will Speak Here,” Evansville Press, March 12, 1933, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[29] “Marchers Denied Visit with Luesse at State Penal Farm by Warden,” Kokomo Tribune, November 30, 1931, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[30] “Governor Believes Luesse Not Ready to Obey State Laws,” (Richmond, IN) Palladium-Item, April 7, 1932, 7, accessed Newspapers.com; “Governor Refuses to Release Luesse,” Palladium-Item, October 4, 1932, 3, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 57.

[31] “Luesse Gave Blood for Little Girl; Father Asks Release, Promises Job,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1932, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[32] Quote from “Mob of Reds are Led by Women,” Late County Times, April 25, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[33] “2 Women, 1 Man Held as Rioters,” Indianapolis Star, April 26, 1932, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

[34] “Two Held at Eviction,” Indianapolis News, May 13, 1932, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

[35] “Jobless Army Asks Indiana Legislature for Relief Funds,” Chicago Tribune, July 20, 1932, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[36] “May Day is Celebrated at Two Meetings Here,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1932, 11, accessed Newspapers.com; “Hammond Man is Named for State Office,” Late County Times, September 21, 1932, 3, accessed Newspapers.com; “Townsend for Senate,” Indianapolis Star, September 21, 1932, 12, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 52.

[37] South Bend Tribune, November 10, 1932, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

[38] Paul B. Sallee, “The Message Center: ‘Red Scare’ Law Held Communist Aid,” Indianapolis Times, March 15, 1935, 32, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[39] “Back from State Farm, Luesse Speaks to 200,” Indianapolis Star, March 5, 1933, 9, accessed Newspapers.com; “Theodore Luesse Held at Marion,” Indianapolis News, August 5, 1933, 17, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 56-57.

[40] “Theodore Luesse Held at Marion,” Indianapolis News, August 5, 1933, 17, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 56-57.

[41] “Back from State Farm, Luesse Speaks to 200,” Indianapolis Star, 9.

[42] “Theodore Luesse Will Speak Here,” Evansville Press, March 12, 1933, 5, accessed Newspapers.com; “Prepare for Luesse Meeting,” Late County Times, March 20, 1933, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[43] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 62.

[44] “Theodore Luesse Held at Marion,” Indianapolis News, August 5, 1933, 17, accessed Newspapers.com; “Theodore Luesse Freed from Grant County Jail,” Indianapolis Star, August 8, 1933, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.

[45] “Sewage Plant and Richland Creek Project Placed on List,” Belleville [Illinois] Daily News-Democrat, February 5, 1935, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; How I Got Out of Jail, p. 72, 85.

[46] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 85, 190.

[47] Ibid., p. 151, 182.

[48] Ibid., p. 129-130.

[49] Ibid., p. 184.

[50] Ibid., p. 185.

[51] Ibid., p. 180.

[52] “Jim Moore, Press Builder, Dies at 100,” People’s World, 2005.

[53] Linda C. Gugin, “Paul V. McNutt: January 9, 1933-January 11, 1937,” in eds., Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, The Governors of Indiana (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2006), p. 296.

[54] How I Got Out of Jail, p. 146.

Cultivating a “Usable Past:” Insights from the 2022 Queer History Conference

Conference program, a preliminary list of sessions can be found here.

From June 12-14, scholars from all corners of the globe—including Cape Town, New Delhi, Toronto, Berlin, Peru, and Amsterdam—convened at San Francisco State University. Among them were Indianapolis historians Sam Opsahl (he/him), Jordan Ryan (they/them), and myself (she/her). The reason for this meeting of the minds?: the second ever Queer History Conference (QHC). Amidst the surreal beauty of the campus, lined by Muir Woods’s iconic redwood trees, we discussed universal research questions, learned about novel methodologies, and shared valuable resources. Considering how new the field of queer history is, I would be remiss not to discuss the insights gleaned at the QHC, many of which could be applied to various historical projects.

QHC attendees were a uniquely welcoming and curious bunch, although we were slightly intimidated by the number of people who decided to forgo compelling sessions like “Queering Women, Sex, and Youth in Colonial Settings” and “Legal Consciousness in Mid-Twentieth Century Queer and Trans History” in order to attend our panel. However, we felt immediately at ease presenting about those living on the margins of Indianapolis’s queer community, especially because our moderator Dr. Eric Gonzaba gave credence to Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that “wherever you go there is always a Hoosier doing something important there.”* Now an Assistant Professor of American Studies at California State University-Fullerton, Dr. Gonzaba grew up in rural southern Indiana and earned his BA from Indiana University. In his introduction, Dr. Gonzaba aptly noted that Indiana’s place in American queer history has been cemented both by the groundbreaking work of the Kinsey Institute and the controversial passage of the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Jordan Ryan, architectural historian, activist-scholar, and founder of The History Concierge, kicked off our session. Ryan adapted their presentation from their paper, co-authored with Dr. Paul Mullins for the Journal for the Anthropology of North America, entitled “Imagining Musical Place: Race, Heritage, and African American Musical Landscapes.” Ryan focused on the erasure of Black cultural sites along Indiana Avenue, including venues like the Pink Poodle (later the Famous Door) and Log Cabin, which hosted popular drag shows in the first half of the 20th century. Ryan noted that although female impersonators were popular in vaudeville revues, “moral ideologues sometimes resisted openly queer drag performances.” This was reflected in one Indianapolis Recorder editorial about a show at the Paradise that attracted an audience of 2,000. The opiner wrote that “‘fairy’ (fag) (pansy) public stage show and dance . . . was a disgrace to this community.” Ryan concluded that:

Like much of the complex expressive culture that flourished on Indiana Avenue, female impersonators have not found a place in the public memory that has been crafted by ideologues whose representations of jazz have revolved around a very narrow dimension of the Indiana Avenue musical experience.

Following Ryan’s analysis of the built environment and public memory, I presented my work about the exclusion of gender non-conforming individuals at Indianapolis gay bars and the queer community’s effort to grapple with this discrimination. (A draft of my paper can be read here). On separate occasions in 1989, Our Place refused to serve patrons Kerry Gean and Roberta Alyson, resulting in public humiliation and, in Alyson’s case, arrest. Bar employees refused service on the grounds that Gean and Alyson—members of the Indiana Crossdresser Society (IXE)—did not meet dress code and their identification did not match their female-presenting appearance. Our Place was by no means the only Indianapolis gay bar to implement these policies and soon the pages of gay newsletter The Works teemed with editorials about the conflict. The majority of them condemned this discrimination, likening it to the prohibition of Black individuals at Riverside Park, while some agreed that such policies were necessary to preserve the bars’ masculine atmosphere.

Perhaps ironically, it was Indianapolis police officer and community liaison Shirley Purvitis who facilitated a meeting to try to resolve issues between “certain segments of the gay community.” Bar owners, IXE members, IPD vice officers, and members of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and Justice, Inc. shared their experiences and discussed excise law. Although contentious, such meetings, coverage in The Works, and one-on-one meetings between IXE members and bar owners, led to the reversal of policies at many bars. The conflict illuminated the value of forums and facilitators and demonstrated how amplifying multiple perspectives resulted in greater inclusion.

Sam Opsahl, program coordinator for Indiana Humanities, concluded our panel, presenting a paper adapted from his 2020 thesis, “Circle City Strife: Gay and Lesbian Activism during the Hudnut Era.” He highlighted the work of Justice, Inc. leader Kathy Sarris, noting that she “worked to insert the queer community’s narrative into public spaces by celebrating the gay and lesbian minority in public.” Opsahl positioned Sarris at the center of the local rights movement, ensuring that she will not be forgotten, unlike many lesbian activists whose work has been overshadowed by that of white, male leaders belonging to the middle class.

In 1983, through the Indianapolis Gay/Lesbian Coalition (IGLC), Berg and Sarris secured a meeting with Mayor William Hudnut, where they presented a list of seven recommendations. This marked the first time an Indianapolis mayor met with gay individuals to discuss issues facing the greater community. While the closed door meeting did not produce the results they hoped for, Berg and Sarris left feeling that “at least a dialogue had been initiated that they would continue to pursue should Hudnut be re-elected.” Opsahl contended that:

Mayor Hudnut, Berg, and Sarris contested the space on Monument Circle via protests and community celebrations, which rendered Indianapolis’ queer community impossible to ignore. Hudnut’s visions of an entrepreneurial city were endangered by the public debacles on Monument Circle, police discrimination, and the HIV crisis. Activists established their own dreams for citywide recognition that conflicted with Hudnut’s.

In listening to my colleagues’ presentations, fielding thoughtful audience questions, and receiving feedback from Dr. Gonzaba, I gained insight about Indianapolis’s queer past in real-time. It occurred to me that each of the individuals we studied had had to navigate the internalization of white, cisgender, heteronormative ideals by the LGBTQ community. We were left to ponder questions, like “What makes Indianapolis’s community unique?” and “How do we best document and memorialize queer history in a conservative region, in which anonymity provides safety?” The examination of intersectionality, as it relates to queer history, is relatively new and we hope our panel contributed to this field of study.

With our session mercifully scheduled for the first day, I was anxious to learn about others’ research findings and methodologies for the duration of the conference. I found the “Strategies for Documenting and Memorializing Queer History” panel to be particularly enlightening, as University of Toronto Professor Elspeth Brown’s presentation made me rethink how we conduct and use oral history interviews. Dr. Brown spoke about implementing novel interview strategies, such as utilizing guided meditation in order to engage interviewee’s senses. She found that this practice allowed subjects to both reinhabit and meaningfully relay the past.

Dr. Brown and her team have also given much thought to the question of utility, asking themselves: “Is the main purpose of conducting interviews to create a primary source for future historians to draw upon? Or is their value entrenched in telling relevant stories to modern audiences?” Regarding the latter, Dr. Brown is mindful of a study that found people listen to only half of an oral history interview, regardless of whether it is one minute or three hours long. Therefore, her team tried to think creatively about how to capture listeners’ attention. They hired an illustrator and sound engineer to recreate settings described by interview subjects. Pairing the animated sequences with two minute interview segments provided a multisensory experience. Dr. Brown played one such clip for the audience and I think we were all stunned by how immersed we were in the story.

Slide from Professor Elspeth Brown’s presentation about novel oral history interviewing techniques.

While attention has certainly been paid to illuminating history through social media, San Francisco State University Master’s student Jesse Ataide’s presentation “Imagining the Queer Past on Instagram” probed issues unique to queer history. Ataide initially created his account @queer_modernisms to share interesting images he came across in his research, which focused on the period between 1890 and 1969. However, when the account rapidly grew in followers (it is now up to 26,000), he realized he needed to be more intentional about how he curated content. He became ever-mindful of the question “who and what is queer?,” noting that many images circulated online appear queer to the “contemporary eye,” but can easily be misinterpreted. These include fascist/Nazi images that glorify the male body and “same sex intimacy across different eras and cultures.” Ataide noted that the subjects of such images may have actively resisted the “queer” designation and that “unambiguous self-identification” is certainly the exception, not the norm. So, in order to avoid outing or misinterpreting someone’s sexual identity, he tries to “find mention or evidence of queerness in academic, published, or other authoritative sources before posting.”

He also discussed the importance of representation. Images of white, masculine, middleclass male subjects garner the highest rates of engagement, so he is currently strategizing how to amplify diverse content without losing his platform. Ataide left us with many insightful questions to ponder, especially about how best to create a “useable past.”

Jesse Ataide presenting issues that he grapples with regarding queer history.

My time at SFSU concluded with a roundtable comprised of both academic press editors and scholars whose work has been published by such presses. Larin McLaughlin, Editor in Chief at the University of Washington Press, emphasized the importance of vision when crafting and pitching a book idea. It is not enough that your topic has never been written about before, but you should able to articulate to a publisher how your work moves the field forward. Finding an editor that shares your set of goals is also crucial in executing your vision. McLaughlin encouraged writers to focus on interdisciplinary topics, as they appeal to audiences outside of history. Dominique J. Moore, Acquisitions Editor for the University of Illinois Press, noted that a well-executed introduction chapter goes a long way in convincing an editor to publish your work. She also advised crafting a table of contents that contains a summary of each chapter’s arguments and sources, as well as how the chapters relate to one another. When considering your audience, ask yourself, “What conference do I want to see my book at?” Write for those attendees.

Panelists also articulated the differences between trade and university presses. They noted that whereas trade presses typically have much bigger marketing budgets that can be used to quickly advertise your book to a broad network, academic presses provide longevity, as they continue to publish books long after the first printing. Similarly, trade presses sometimes present more obstacles to publication, as aspiring authors have to convince an agent who then needs to convince an editor about your work. For the self-doubting historian, their reassurance about the peer review process was liberating: ultimately, you can and should push back against critiques that you vehemently disagree with. You are the expert, after all.

Sam Opsahl, Nicole Poletika, and Jordan Ryan at Indiana’s first LGBTQ historical marker, Monument Circle, courtesy of Jordan Ryan.

In a field dominated by stories of stigma, violence, and oppression, the 2022 QHC provided a much needed opportunity to learn about LGBTQ individuals who thrived, helped build community, and furthered human rights. It was invigorating to be around scholars equally humbled and excited to be part of this nascent field. The conference also provided reassurance that I am on the right track in terms of respectfully telling balanced, accurate histories about LGBTQ Hoosiers. Likewise, it revealed to me that people genuinely are curious about queer life in the Midwest. But before delving back into the pages of The Works, this midwestern historian is closing her eyes and revisiting San Francisco’s winding roads, dotted with colorful condominiums and flanked by glimmering beaches.

* IUPUI anthropology professor Paul Mullins was originally slated to moderate our session. Although Dr. Mullins was unable to make it, he was with us in spirit and scholarship.

“A Hundred Years From Now—What?:” Mary Garrett Hay Predicts Life in 2022

San Francisco Chronicle, January 14, 1923, p. 10, accessed via Newspapers.com.

The San Francisco Chronicle asked Americans “who have a wide experience and many points of contact with 1922” to predict the trials and triumphs Americans would experience 100 years later.* Probing prominent individuals like a pastor, architect, social reformer, author, film producer, educator, and politician, the paper concluded that there are “plenty of ifs and buts, but in general the prospect for a century hence seems rosy.” As a historian at the dawn of 2022, some of the predictions seem amusingly off-base, like author and critic Henry L. Mencken’s certainty that the U.S. “will be a British colony. . . . The American who will be most agreeably discussed by Anglo-American historians in 2022 will be Woodrow Wilson, the first premier of the United American Colonies.” Notorious moving picture producer D.W. Griffith was equally shortsighted when he stated, “I do not foresee the possibility of instantaneous transmission of living action to the screen within 100 years.” (Inventor-turned reluctant Fort Wayne businessman Philo Farnsworth would transmit the first “electronic television image” just a few years later in California).

Some musings proved surprisingly prescient, like those of architect Thomas Hastings, who wondered, “Will civilization relapse, perhaps through the medium of another world war, into semi-barbarism?” The telephone was only just beginning to be used in households—World Wide What?—when Hastings urged readers to consider “the probability of revolutionizing inventions—even the discovery of forces which we know nothing about now.” Famed birth control activist Margaret Sanger—who reportedly called upon Indianapolis reformer Roberta West Nicholson to help found the city’s first Planned Parenthood clinic—was arguably correct in her belief that access to birth control would result in:

happier homes, greater mutual respect between husband and wife, honeymoons lasting two or three years before children arrive, with husband and wife thoroughly equilibrated to one another, because there has been time for mutual understanding and development before parenthood is entered upon.

The Evening World (New York, New York, February 15, 1922, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

Among the soothsayers was Mary Garrett Hay, a Charlestown, Indiana native, trailblazing suffragist, and, by 1922, head of New York City’s League of Women Voters. The accuracy of her predictions prompt a look back at her life and career, both of which were far ahead of her time, so to speak. Hay informed the San Francisco Chronicle that in 2022:

The life of even the average woman will be broader and better. Woman’s drudgery in the household will be eliminated, her care of the family will be lessened, as new inventions come in and new methods of work. Women, like men, will do the tasks for which they are best fitted by temperament, gifts and training.

Technological advancements have certainly liberated women from household drudgery. And women have increasingly stepped away from the home and into the public sphere due to a redefinition of the “tasks for which they are best fitted by temperament, gifts and training.” Hay occupied this sphere throughout her life, beginning around 1880, when as a young woman she worked as a drug clerk in Charlestown.[1] Hay later supported herself as a writer, reform speaker, and political consultant in New York City, having eschewed the institution of marriage and accompanying division of labor (Again defying gender norms, she had a long-term relationship with renowned suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt).

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 21, 1908, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.

Described as a “born executive,” Hay flexed her entrepreneurial skills when in 1908 she formed the Women’s Travel Bureau. Drawing on twenty years of navigating railroad networks across the U.S. for her suffrage campaign, Hay formed a company that appealed to the unique needs of female travelers, such as featuring safe accommodations and advertising women’s events. Hay told the New-York Tribune that since the 1893 Columbian Exposition, women increasingly used rail travel for a brief reprieve from the demands of family life. This was made possible, she said, because “‘women have for the first time in history begun to earn good salaries.'”[2] The Travel Bureau is one of many examples of Hay carving out opportunities in a male-dominated field by pairing her expertise with public demand.

While Hay’s prediction alluded to shifting gender norms, she made clear in the Buffalo Times that the shift must be more immediate, telling the paper, “‘It is the right of every human to have a career in the home and in the field-and the two are not mutually exclusive.'” She stated bluntly, “‘If men are willing to let their wives go out in quest of careers in the field as well as in the home they are reasonable husbands.'” The paper added that Hay “advocates women taking paid positions even after they are married and employing servants to do the housework far more efficiently than they could ever do it themselves.” In 1926, she argued that not only should women be allowed in the workforce, but that some were better suited for it than the home, noting:

I’ve known many women who were very inefficient mothers but excellent business women. They could manage what we call a man’s job and make a conspicuous success of it, and be absolutely beaten by housework or the rearing of their children.[3]

Of course, in order to work in the professional field, jobs needed to be available. Hay worked to create these as a member of the Committee for Extending Business Opportunities to Women, formed around 1915, because “the entrance of women into various fields of work has been effected with so much difficulty.”[4] 

The Evening World (New York, New York), August 25, 1921, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

In the second half of her prophesy for the San Francisco Chronicle, Hay predicted:

Politically, women will be powerful. They will share with men the real constructive work of government. Many will hold office. If there is not a woman President, the thought of one will shock no one. It will seem natural and proper to elevate women to whatever positions they have the ability to fill. Co-operation will be the magic word in 2022.

Confirming Hay’s point, many Americans in 2016 were shocked not that Hillary Clinton was poised to become the country’s first female president, but that she lost the election in a stunning upset—despite winning the popular vote. The glass ceiling came closer to being shattered when Kamala Harris was elected the first female U.S. Vice President in 2020 and when she briefly became the first woman imbued with presidential power in 2021 when President Joe Biden went under anesthesia for a medical procedure.

In fact, Hay’s own name had been floated as a U.S. presidential candidate in the 1910s. This was, in large part, because of her organizational and political prowess, particularly in recruiting members for the Republican Party.[5] Described as “the big boss of New York,” the G.O.P. appointed Hay to influential positions, soliciting her insight about issues important to women and strategies for mobilizing them to the polls.[6] Friend and fellow Hoosier— and Warren Harding’s presidential campaign manager—Will Hays appointed her chairman of the Republican Women’s National Executive Committee.[7] In this role, she was tasked with organizing “the women in the nation for the Republican Party as she had organized for suffrage. She was sought after at all political gatherings, and was made a delegate to every kind of convention.”[8] 

Topeka Daily State Journal, January 29, 1920, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

From lobbying for Indiana W.C.T.U. branches to heading a West Coast speaking tour organized by Susan B. Anthony to bringing to the Albany legislature “tenement house suffragists to illustrate how much women need the vote on the lower East Side,” Hay evolved from a social reformer to a political organizer.[9] She envisioned women’s influence extending beyond ratification of the 19th Amendment and viewed the political realm as a source of women’s professional fulfilment.

In her “Politics, A Profession for Women” essay for Catherine Filene’s 1920 Careers for Women, Hay wrote that politics “lacks the stultifying effect attaching to most occupations for women. Politics for women means a life of real vitality and worth.” She noted that “women who were trained by suffrage campaigns” were qualified for “good positions” within political parties. Strengths inherent to women, Hay argued, intersected well with those required of the political sector, such as the “ability to judge and handle people . . . sagacity, resourcefulness, power to discern the true from the false, common sense, imperturbability, [and] wide experience with human nature.” Having earned a reputation as an exceptional orator, Hay delivered a speech in 1926 in which she stated governmental work was tantamount to “housekeeping on a large scale.”[10] Because of these convictions, Hay used her sway within the Republican Party to bring more women into politics, although, the Times-Tribune noted, “she frequently found herself a[t] storm center by her insistence that leaders of the party permit women workers to join in the inner councils.”[11]

While she predicted that “Politically, women will be powerful,” Hay wanted not only “political equality between the sexes,” but “equality in every single thing in life.” This sentiment paralleled U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s belief that “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”[12] Hay worked for their systemic inclusion, including in higher education, law enforcement, jury duty, and prison reform.[13] 

Oakland Tribune (California), November 29, 1927, 28, accessed Newspapers.com.

In this sense, Hay’s approach to equality was unique for the period, as historian William O’Neil argued, “’the postsuffrage feminists failed to see that the woman problem was part of a larger social question involving sex roles in American society and the entire order.’” Furthermore, these reformers “’asked only for legal equality without addressing themselves to the whole range of problems facing women who tried to make a notch for themselves in a man’s world.’”[14] Hay, “one of the best known leaders in the fight for the emancipation of women,” proved the rare exception.[15]

Her 1928 death would exacerbate this void in leadership for women’s equality. But in the nearly 100 years since her passing, her vision has been realized to a meaningful extent, as women increasingly occupy significant roles in the workplace and government. Perhaps she was able to envision the ideals and gender norms that would become fairly commonplace by 2022 because she embodied them herself.

Sources:

This post draws on the research notes for the Mary Garrett Hay historical marker.

* Unless otherwise specified, all material is drawn from the San Francisco Chronicle, January 14, 1923, p. 10, accessed via Newspapers.com.

[1] “Mary G. Hay,” Clark County, Indiana, Census, 1880, accessed Ancestry Library Edition.

[2] Departure of Trains Schedule, National American Woman’s Suffrage Association, New Orleans, March 19th to 25th, 1903, Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, 1897-1911, Scrapbook 3 (1897-1904), Rare Book and Special Collections Division.; “Women Conduct Tourist Bureau,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 21, 1908, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Women Who Travel,” New-York Tribune, August 4, 1908, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[3] Cynthia Grey, “Cynthia Says Home and Country Should Be Managed Jointly,” Courier-Post (Camden, NJ), April 19, 1926, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

[4] “Mary G. Hay,” Clark County, Indiana, Census, 1880, accessed AncestryLibrary.; “Mary G. Hay,” 1910 United States Federal Census, New York, accessed AncestryLibrary.; “Women Form to Open New Fields,” Woman’s Journal and Suffrage News, January 2, 1915, accessed HeinOnline.

[5] Joan Moody, “What Will They Do With It?,” Everybody’s Magazine (November 1919): 113, accessed GoogleBooks.

[6] “Cheers Greet Women as They Enter Politics,” Indianapolis Star, April 3, 1919, 1, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.

[7] “Mary Garrett Hay’s Watchword to Women in Politics Was: ‘Be Nice to the Men’; Fought for Suffrage from Girlhood,” Brooklyn Eagle, September 2, 1928.

[8] Indianapolis Star, April 3, 1919, 1, 8.; Brooklyn Eagle, September 2, 1928.

[9] “Suffrage Leaders Get Together Now,” Star-Gazette
(Almira, NY), March 5, 1910, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[10] Cynthia Grey, “Cynthia Says Home and Country Should be Managed Jointly,” Courier-Post (Camden, NJ), April 19, 1926, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

[11] “Mary Garrett Hay,” The Times Tribune (Scranton, PA), September 1, 1928, accessed Newspaper.com.

[12] “They Will Stand on Their Rights,” Boston Globe, February 27, 1908, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

[13] “Mainly About People,” Daily News (New York), January 6, 1922, 41, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Women and the Jury System,” The Scranton Republican, February 28, 1922, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Leagued Together for Law Enforcement,” Oakland Tribune,  November 29, 1927, 28, accessed Newspapers.com.

[14] Quoted in Winifred D. Wandersee, Women’s Work and Family Values, 1920-1940 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 119-120.

[15] Buffalo Times, July 9, 1922, 52, accessed Newspapers.com.

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 theparisreview.org.

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 @library.in.gov.

Sources:

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 kpcnews.com.

[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 Crossdresser Society (IXE), 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 (August 1990): 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 Newspapers.com.

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 Newspapers.com.

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 Newspapers.com.

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 Newspapers.com.

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.

Sources:

*All newspapers were accessed via Newspapers.com.

[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 Immigrationhistory.org.

[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 pluralism.org.

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

[28] “Sacco & Vanzetti: The Red Scare of 1919-1920,” accessed Mass.gov.; “The Immigration Act of 1924,” Historical Highlights, History, Art & Archives: United States House of Representatives, accessed history.house.gov.; 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 Newspapers.com.

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 Newspapers.com.

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 Newspapers.com.

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 Newspapers.com.

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 Newspapers.com.

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 Newspapers.com.

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 Newspapers.com.

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 Newspapers.com.

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]

Sources:

[1] “Another Cross Burned After Negro’s Win,” The Times (Munster), April 10, 1960, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Campus Demonstration Follows Election of I.U. Negro Student,” Rushville Republican, April 8, 1960, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Segregation Demonstration Held at I.U.,” Anderson Herald, April 10, 1960, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.; “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 Newspapers.com.; “Foreign Study Grant to Indiana Studied,” Muncie Evening Press, May 27, 1960, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Thomas I. Atkins, Rights Champion and City Councilor, Dies,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2018, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Turks Believe Race Prejudice Moral Question,” Indianapolis Star, October 3, 1960, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.; Andrew Welsh-Huggins, “Atkins a Campus Activist since 1960,” Times-Mail (Bedford), November 20, 1994, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

[3] Erin Moskowitz and Mark Feeney, “Civil Rights Trailblazer Atkins Dies at 69,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2008, accessed Boston.com.; John H. Gamble, “Atkins and Bride Look to Career,” South Bend Tribune, January 1, 1961, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Parents Against Mixed Marriage,” Terre Haute Tribune, January 1, 1961, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “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 Newspapers.com.; “White Girl Marries Negro I.U. Leader,” South Bend Tribune, December 31, 1960, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[4] “14 Get Wilson Grants at N.D.,” South Bend Tribune, March 13, 1961, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.; “15,000 to Mourn Evers Here,” Boston Globe, June 26, 1963, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Atkins Named Director of Federal Bank,” South Bend Tribune, January 9, 1980, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.; Boston Globe, July 29, 1963, 1, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.; Boston Globe, June 17, 1963, 1, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Elkhart Native Seeks Boston Mayoral Bid,” Indianapolis Star, May 13, 1971, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Fellowship to Elkhartan,” South Bend Tribune, June 1, 1962, 20, accessed Newspapers.com.; Ian Forman, “De Facto Sleeping Giant in Mrs. Hicks’ Smash Win,” Boston Globe, November 6, 1963, 1, 29, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Hub School Boycott Planned by Negroes,”1963 Year of Ferment for Negroes in Boston,” Boston Globe, December 25, 1963, 43, accessed Newspapers.com; Boston Globe, June 13, 1963, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.; Robert L. Levey, “Does Bias Win Votes in the Hub?,” Boston Globe, August 20, 1963, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.; Robert L. Levey, “‘Don’t Complain-Vote,’ Atkins Urges Negroes,” Boston Globe, September 23, 1963, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; Robert L. Levey, “How Hub Negro Protest Gains,” Boston Globe, December 8, 1963, 75, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Mrs. Hicks Asks Brooke Help Halt School Boycott,” Boston Globe, June 14, 1963, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; Richard J. Connolly, “New Demonstrations Due: Hot Words Fly in Sit-In Fight,” Boston Globe, September 8, 1963, 1, 22-25, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Some 3,000 Boston Negro Pupils Boycott Classes in Mass Protest,” North Adams Transcript (Massachusetts), June 18, 1963, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “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 Newspapers.com.; “N.A.A.C.P.: Vote on ‘Racial Basis,” Boston Globe, November 6, 1963, 29, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Political ‘Consciousness’ is Sweeping Negroes,” Pittsburgh Courier, November 2, 1963, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

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

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

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 Newspapers.com.

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 Newspapers.com.

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

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 Newspapers.com.

Sources:

“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 Newspapers.com.

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

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

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

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

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 Newspapers.com.

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

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

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

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 Newspapers.com.

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

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

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

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

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.

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 SouthBendTribune.com.

*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 Newspapers.com.

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.

 

Sources:

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 Newspapers.com.

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

“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 Newspapers.com.

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 Newspapers.com.

“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 Newspapers.com.

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

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.