Marion’s Allen Temple and the Importance of Black Spaces

Slave Registry, Indiana Territory, Knox County, 1805-1807, Early Vincennes Collection, Knox County Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

Black Hoosiers helped shape Indiana by establishing early farming communities, preserving the Union through service in the Civil War, gaining suffrage for women in the 1920s, defending democracy in WWI and WWII, and expanding equality and political power throughout the Civil Rights Era and beyond. But Black Hoosiers also suffered enslavement in Indiana, violent persecution, discrimination in jobs and housing, Jim Crow laws, and lynching.

Many Black Hoosiers and Black Americans continue to feel the stress imposed both by the continued disproportionate violence against people of color as well as the inherited traumas of the past. Already facing entrenched and systemic racism in American culture, people of color have additional burden of social media and news outlets filled with images of violence, sometimes fatal, against Black people. These images only reinforce the brutal American legacy of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow.[1]

This racial trauma impacts mental health, sleep patterns, appetite, fertility, and susceptibility to disease, among other detriments. According to Safe Black Space, a community organization promoting healing, people of color “are experiencing trauma related to systemic racism and are feeling the impact of our humanity not being valued.” Their statement continues:

Some of us avoid our feelings or numb out. Some of us experience fear that something bad is going to happen to us or to our loved ones. Some of us are struggling with rage and frustration. It can be overwhelming.[2]

“Trinity United Methodist Church (Muncie),” photograph, 1948, Other Side of Middletown Photographs, Ball State University Digital Media Repository, accessed Indiana Memory.

But sacred Black spaces have been and continue to be essential to healing from this trauma, feeling safe, breathing deeply, and reclaiming health. The history of overt racism and violence inflicted on Black Hoosiers by their white neighbors makes clear just how important Indiana’s African American churches were to Black Hoosiers in centuries past. Since at least the early 19th century, Black Hoosiers gathered in small churches across the state to worship, celebrate, and socialize – but also to organize opposition to voter suppression and the Klan, to form local NAACP and Urban League branches, and organize protests and rallies that furthered civil rights.

Local history can show us the extraordinary in the ordinary, the bravery of average folks, and the work of a community to make the world just a little better. Allen Temple in Marion, Indiana was not unlike other Black churches in the Midwest or even others in Grant County. And yet, Allen Temple pastors and members pushed their community to desegregate, to increase rights of African Americans, and to stop violence against Black Marion residents. And those feats are no less remarkable for being reflected by other churches. The Civil Rights Movement and the gains it brought Black Americans was not an inevitable wave of progress. This wave was made up of individual droplets of hard work and bravery by small groups of people like those who found a home at Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Family of Joseph and Martha Pettiford at Weaver Settlement, n.d., accessed Free African Americans.

Allen Temple’s history is rooted in Weaver Settlement. Black pioneers fleeing threats to their freedom in southern slave states founded this nearby Grant County community by the 1840s. Weaver grew over the decades as the pioneers were joined by other free and formerly enslaved families. These hardworking Black settlers established productive farms and the settlement grew to over 3000 acres by 1860. As the self-sustaining community thrived, residents built schools, churches, and stores, and male residents participated in the political process. But farmers could only divide their land between so many children before the plot would no longer be able to sustain a family. One or two children would inherit the farm, while others would have to find work elsewhere. By the 1880s, the descendants of the settler-farmers were looking to Marion for employment opportunities.[3]

“Weaver,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 25, 1899, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

As more African Americans moved to Marion, the Rev. G. W. Shelton, who served as pastor of Hill’s Chapel at Weaver Settlement, began organizing a new A.M.E. church in South Marion. Marion residents had already established an A.M.E church on 5th Street in the city’s downtown, but Weaver residents settling on the southside needed both a religious and civic center in that area. Rev. Shelton completed the organization of the as-yet-unnamed church in September 1900. Church and county histories report that the congregation first gathered in a private home. By November 1901, the congregation purchased the church building at Washington and Thirty-Fifth Streets from a Protestant congregation.[4]

Indiana Department of Natural Resources, “Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal,” IHSSI County Survey, SHAARD Database, Indiana Historic Buildings, Bridges and Cemeteries Map, accessed arcgis.com.
“South Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 7, 1903, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Most of the information about Allen Temple’s early history comes from columns in the Indianapolis Recorder reporting on the Black communities of Weaver and Marion. For several years of the church’s early history, the newspaper referred to the church as “the South Marion Mission” or “the 35th Street A. M. E. Church.” From 1901 to 1904, church leadership organized a choir, raised funds for improvements, and established a Sabbath School. Congregants hosted social dinners, Thanksgiving suppers, and lectures by prominent religious leaders.[5]

“Pastor of the 35th Street Church,” Marion News-Tribune, July 23, 1905, 7, microfilm, Marion Public Library.

In 1905, the congregation finished remodeling the building and the church joined the Indiana A.M.E. Conference, officially making it a part of the larger A.M.E. hierarchy and organization. Finally, on July 23, 1905, the church received the name Allen Temple during a “grand rally.” More than 600 African American residents of Marion and surrounding communities attended a corner stone laying celebration. Allen Temple Rev. J. J. Evans, leading regional A.M.E. clergy, the prestigious “colored Masons,” and the Marion mayor were among those who led the ceremonies. Church leaders chose the name Allen Temple to honor Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.[6]

Over the following decades, Allen Temple hosted fundraisers and revivals, often sharing members and pastors with Hill’s Chapel, and worked to pay off its mortgage.[7] Meanwhile, Marion prospered from the gas boom and industrial  workers organized and became more political. By the end of WWI, the city boomed. According to historian James Madison, “Lining the Courthouse Square in the 1920s were banks, clothing stores, drug stores, ice cream parlors, cigar stores, and theaters, some spreading a block or so off the square.” Black Marion residents were among the city’s business owners, professionals and civic employees. But they were not welcome everywhere in their own hometown.[8]

“Washington Street, Marion, Ind.,” postcard, c. 1911, Postcards of the Jay Small Collection, Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections, accessed Indiana Memory.

Black residents did not have access to a number of Marion businesses and recreational attractions. Segregation was the rule, despite the 1885 Indiana Civil Rights Act that legally gave African Americans the right to patronize these establishments. In addition, bootleggers and gamblers brought increased crime as they flouted Prohibition. The police were reportedly apathetic at best. Most alarmingly, the Ku Klux Klan rose in power as many white Protestant Hoosiers turned their fears of crime, immigration, and increased diversity into an organized force for hate and discrimination.[9] But these forces did not go unchallenged.

Katherine “Flossie” Bailey, photograph, n.d., accessed Find-a-Grave.

When NAACP state president Katherine “Flossie” Bailey organized a Marion branch in 1918, Allen Temple Rev. W. C. Irvin signed on as a founding member.[10] Allen Temple clergy would continue to serve the NAACP at the state and local level throughout the church’s history. In September 1929, Bailey brought African American U.S. Representative Oscar DePriest to Allen Temple. Speaking to a large crowd of Black congregants and residents, DePriest called on the audience to vote and “to stand together.”[11] Again, Allen Temple was not unique as a civil rights organizational center. Black churches across the country served this role. Allen Temple was not even unique in Marion, as several other churches hosted civil rights rallies and speakers as well. But that does not make it less heroic.

“Oscar DePriest,” glass negative, 1929, National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress.

In September 1930, a white mob tore three Black teenagers, accused but not convicted of crimes against two white Marion residents, from the Marion jail. The mob then beat, mutilated, and lynched Tom Shipp and Abe Smith. The perpetrators left the young men’s bodies hanging as a message to Black residents that “they were at the mercy of white residents,” according to historian Nicole Poletika. The story of the 1930 Marion lynchings has been thoroughly and sensitively told elsewhere by other scholars, notably by James H. Madison in his 2001 monograph Lynching in the Heartland.[12] But understanding that Marion’s Black community was deeply wounded, shaken, and afraid for their lives is important to understanding the significance of the work that Marion’s Black churches accomplished in the shadow of the lynchings.

“Grant Sherriff’s Ousting Is Asked,” Indianapolis Star, August 21, 1930, 9, Newspapers.com.

In the face of this horror and fear, some local Black leaders still found the courage to speak out and call for action. Rev. Hillard D. Saunders, who had only recently been appointed pastor of Allen Temple, joined Bailey and others in demanding legal justice in the wake of the lynchings. They presented the Indiana governor with a petition calling for the removal of the sheriff who failed to protect Smith and Shipp. [13] While Bailey deserves the credit for ultimately leveraging the heinous crimes into anti-lynching legislation, the united support of the local NAACP leaders, Marion clergy, and the courage of every day Black residents demanded the attention of the Indiana General Assembly and governor. [14]

“John Campbell Dancy,” photograph, n.d., accessed Victoria W. Wolcott, “John Campbell Dancy Jr.,” January 19, 2007, BlackPast.org.

Allen Temple members and clergy continued to humbly push Marion towards greater inclusion and equality. In 1945, the church hosted John C. Dancy, executive secretary of Detroit Urban league.[15] Dancy had helped desegregate industrial businesses in Michigan, opening skilled positions to African Americans. He likely spoke to Marion residents on peaceful desegregation tactics.[16] By 1947, Allen Temple hosted regular meetings of the Marion Urban League, which was incorporated in 1942 with a much-needed mission of working “to secure equal Opportunities in all sectors of our society for Black and other minorities.”[17] In May 1949, Allen Temple pastor C. T. H. Watkins joined speakers from Marion College and the Indiana Jewish Community Relations Council at an “interracial fellowship dinner.”[18] By November 1949, the Marion Urban League boasted a membership of 350 African Americans, almost 15% of the city’s Black population.[19]

Yet Marion remained segregated. In 1954, the Marion Urban League and the local NAACP successfully worked to desegregate the public pool, a highly visible symbol of inequality in the city. White and Black Marion residents pushed for increased hiring of Black teachers and police officers throughout the 1950s and 60s, making small but regular gains.[20]

Indianapolis Recorder, August 25, 1951, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In 1961, A.M.E. leadership appointed the “dynamic” Rev. Dr. Ford Gibson to serve as pastor of Allen Temple. An Indianapolis native and former school teacher with a Ph.D. in sociology, Rev. Gibson had recently served as the president of the Indianapolis NAACP. In 1957 and 1958, Rev. Gibson led “the epic struggle for fair employment” at local supermarkets.[21] Unsurprisingly, when he arrived at Allen Temple, Rev. Gibson invested himself in the fight for greater equality in Marion.

In the summer of 1962, Rev. Gibson and Rev. B. A. Foley of Bethel AME led a campaign demanding an “immediate investigation and the removal” of Marion Postmaster Charles R. Kilgour.[22] The pastors charged that Kilgour, as president of the Francis Marion Hotel, which “allegedly refused to accommodate Negroes,” should be removed from his position as postmaster.[23] Foley and Gibson publicly called on U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to act. Rev. Gibson, who had also served as president of the Indiana chapter of the NAACP, addressed a crowd of 300 people at a mass meeting. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, the pastor stated that the Black residents of Marion “will not stop until segregation is dead and buried and never to rise again.”[24]

“Rev. Ford Gibson Re-Elected NAACP President for Year,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 27, 1958, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

While Kilgour kept his job, Rev. Gibson continued his calling. Rev. Gibson went on to serve the NAACP as the president of the Indiana Conference of Branches and president of Region 11, which included eight state organizations. He also joined the 1964 March on Washington and worked for the passage of the Civil Rights Act.[25] While Black Americans continued to make progress toward equality,  Marion still had a long way to go.

By July 1969, the city was on edge. The Marion NAACP reported “continued police brutality, abuse, harassment and refusal to protect young black people in that city.”[26] White residents blamed local Black youth for a series of firebombings that destroyed a lumber company and country club.[27] The Marion NAACP reported “arrests of black victims of unprovoked assaults by white hoodlums and the holding of young black people in custody and refusal of bonds on illegal grounds.”[28] At the same time, the Marion city council approved the purchase of police dogs, threatening to further escalate violence.[29]

Charles Moore, “Civil Rights Demonstrations, Birmingham Protests,” photograph,1963, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, accessed Smithsonian.

On July 19, the Indianapolis Recorder reported on the national NAACP convention where the organization addressed the escalating violence in Marion. Marion representatives reported that in only one week, seventy-five Black residents had been arrested by Marion police “in a fashion of harassment and intimidation.” Once jailed, authorities were demanding excessive bail bonds of up to $10,000. Most alarmingly, the Marion NAACP leadership, including local branch president Carlyle Gulliford, received death threats.[30]

“Marion NAACP Elects,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 25, 1956, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles. [Carlyle Gulliford pictured far right.]
In response, NAACP president Roy Wilkins called on the state NAACP organizations of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and West Virginia to descend on Marion for “a seven-state mass protest rally” on July 20.[31] The NAACP published a list of demands for Marion officials, mainly attacking segregation and job discrimination. They demanded the city hire Black firemen, policemen, and officials and called out specific companies who would not hire African Americans, including the municipal phone and light companies. The NAACP also called for fair housing and mortgage practices and for an end to segregation in recreational facilities.[32]

Indianapolis Recorder, July 26, 1969, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

An estimated 3,000 people marched in the name of these demands, including the congregants of Allen Temple. Long time member Pearl Bassett, who was also active in the Urban League and a leader within the state NAACP, remembered the march. She recalled, “We first had the walk from 26th Street to the courthouse for discrimination and equal opportunities for people and jobs. And it was a wonderful thing.”[33] Bassett told the Indianapolis Recorder, “It was so well organized and we accomplished what we set out to do.”[34] Black activists did change Marion, but it took a long time. The city’s civil rights progress trailed the nation and the state. In his book Lynching in the Heartland, Dr. James Madison presents convincing evidence that this stunting of equality was in large part a result of the lingering fear and trauma imposed on the community by the 1930 lynchings.[35]

But for centuries sacred Black spaces have served to heal some of this trauma. In these spaces, people of color can feel heard and process anxiety, engage in prayer and meditation, and become empowered through activism. Thus, these spaces are essential to creating positive change in all communities. By marking and preserving these spaces, we honor those people of color who sought refuge here throughout history- a moment to regain their strength in the face of oppression in order to continue fighting for civil rights. Each small, historically Black church across our state has a story to tell.  The Indiana Historical Bureau and the friends and family of Weaver Settlement look forward to dedicating a new state historical marker in 2022 to tell the story of Allen Temple.

Notes:

[1] “Coping with Racial Trauma,” Department of Psychology, University of Georgia, psychology.uga.edu.

[2] Akilah Cadet, “Black Health Matters: Safe Spaces to Exist and Thrive,” January 29, 2021, Healthline, healthline.com; Safe Black Space, “Historical Perspective,” www.safeblackspace.org.

[3]Indiana Historical Bureau, Weaver Settlement State Historical Marker, in.gov/history.

[4] “Weaver,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 25, 1899, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 15, 1900, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 6, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 16, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; Asenath Peters Artis, “The Negro in Grant County,” 1909, in Centennial History of Grant County, 1812-1912, edited by Ronald L. Whitson (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1914), 348-57, accessed Archive.org. Church histories produced by Allen Temple report that the congregation first met in the home of local resident Turner Wallace. IHB was unable to confirm the claim with census or newspaper research. Noted local historian Aseneth Peters Artis reported in 1909 that the congregation then purchased the building at Washington and Thirty-Fifth Streets from a Protestant congregation in 1901. This would have to have occurred in the second half of the year as the Indianapolis Recorder reported in July 1901 that the congregation was looking to build a church. By November 1901, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that “the South Marion Mission held services in the Methodist Protestant Church on 35 street.” It still took the congregation some years to pay off the mortgage.

[5] “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 6, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 16, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 16, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 16, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 23, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 23, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 15, 1902, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 15, 1902, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 15, 1902, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “South Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 27, 1902, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “South Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 7, 1903, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “South Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, June 20, 1903, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[6]“Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 8, 1905, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Conference Meets,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 22, 1905, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Pastor of the 35th Street Church,” Marion News-Tribune, July 23, 1905, 7, microfilm, Marion Public Library; “Great Event,” Marion News-Tribune, July 24, 1905, 2, Marion and Grant County File, Marion Public Library.

[7] “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 13, 1907, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 20, 1907, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 25, 1907, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 7, 1908, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “$400, Piano Free,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 28, 1908, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Richmond District of A. M. E. Conference in Good Condition,” Indianapolis Recorder, March 5, 1910, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 8, 1913, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[8] James H. Madison, A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 32.

[9] Madison, 30-42.

[10] Marion Indiana Branch National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Application for Charter, Date of Organization Meeting: November 28, 1918, NAACP Founding Documents, Library of Congress, copy available in IHB’s Allen Temple marker file.

[11] “Marion Group to Escort DePriest,” Kokomo Tribune, September 7, 1929, 11, Newspapers.com; Madison, 60.

[12] Madison, passim. 

[13] “A. M. E. Church Appointments Made Public,” Indianapolis Times, October 1, 1929, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Grant Sherriff’s Ousting Is Asked,” Indianapolis Star, August 21, 1930, 9, Newspapers.com.

[14]Nicole Poletika, “Strange Fruit: The 1930 Marion Lynching and the Woman Who Tried to Prevent It,” Indiana History Blog, May 15, 2018, blog.history.in.gov.

[15] Merle L. Thruston, “Marion, Ind.,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 24, 1945, 15, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] “John Campbell Dancy,” photograph, n.d., accessed Victoria W. Wolcott, “John Campbell Dancy Jr.,” January 19, 2007, BlackPast.org.

[17] “Urban League, Carver Center Hold Annual Meet at Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 13, 1947, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Urban League Stages Campaign; Seeks 600 Members,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 7, 1949, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[18] “Fellowship Meet Addressed by Local Cleric, at Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 14, 1949, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[19] “Marion Urban League Lauded at Meet: Work of Marion Urban League Wins Praise,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 12, 1949, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[20] Madison, 130-138.

[21] “Hoosier Minister Gets Degree in California,” Indianapolis Recorder, August 25, 1951, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Rev. Ford Gibson Re-Elected NAACP President for Year,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 27, 1958, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Ministerial Appointments Are Made at AME 123rd Meet,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 18, 1961, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[22] “Marion Hotel Owner Under ‘Bias Fire:’ Ind. Postmaster Party to Charge of Jimcrowism,” Indianapolis Recorder, June 30, 1962, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[23] Ibid.

[24] “AME Minister Scores Racial Bias at Marion, Ind,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 7, 1962, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[25] “Dr. Ford Gibson Assumes New AME Church Post,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 6, 1968, 13, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Dr. Ford Gibson to Speak Sun. at Allen Chapel AME,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 11, 1969, 7, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[26] “NAACP Protests Racial Atrocities at Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 5, 1969, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[27] “Riots Engulf Three Hoosier Cities,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 5, 1969, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[28]”NAACP Protests Racial Atrocities at Marion,” 1.

[29] Madison, 140.

[30] “Wilkins to Address Marion Rally,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 19, 1969, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[31] Ibid.

[32] “3000 Turnout for Marion Protest,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 26, 1969, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

[33] Pearl Bassett, Oral History Interview, 2009, University of Southern Indiana, University Archives and Special Collections, David L. Rice Library, University of Southern Indiana.

[34] Annette L. Anderson, “NAACP Victorious Then and Now,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 10, 1993, 11.

[35] Madison, 142-153.

Walking with Dr. King: The Civil Rights Legacy of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Last Sunday I went for a walk . . . I did not walk alone.

With these simple words Rabbi Maurice Davis described his 1965 trip to Selma to the readers of the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post. Rabbi Davis’s “walk” was a protest led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against institutional racism, voter suppression, and violence against African Americans. When King asked civil rights leaders from around the country to join him in Alabama, Davis had no question that it was his duty to join the demonstration of solidarity. Davis had long worked for civil rights through both secular and faith-based channels. He advocated for community action in his sermons to the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. He led several civic action councils that combated segregation, racist policies, and poverty. And he extended his appeal for civil rights to the entire city through a regular newspaper column and a television show. Mostly, however, Rabbi Davis marched at Selma “because it was right.”

Jewish Post, January 20, 1956, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“You Were a Spark for Us”

Maurice Davis was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1921. Census records show that his Russian-born father Jacob managed a garage while his mother Sadie cared for five children. They did well for themselves and were able to send Maurice first to Brown University in 1939 and then to the University of Cincinnati where he received his B.A. in 1945. He then received his Master of Hebrew Letters from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. After serving several different congregations as a student rabbi, he became rabbi of Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky in 1951. By this point he was already active in the local civil rights movement and joined the Kentucky Commission Against Segregation.

Sketch of current home of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation at 6501 North Meridian Street, accessed https://ihcindy.org/who_we_are/history

Rabbi Maurice Davis became the spiritual leader of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation (IHC) in March 1956, in time to celebrate the centennial of its founding in 1856. Over 600 families made up the large congregation which was in the process of planning their new temple at 64th and Meridian, which still houses the IHC today (a move from their earlier location at the Market Street Temple.) As the ninth Rabbi serving the IHC, Davis continued to advance the forward-thinking Reform Judaism of his predecessors, according to the Jewish Post. In his first year, he attracted eighty new congregants, and  temple brotherhood president Herman Logan wrote in the congregational bulletin:

You were a spark for us which turned into a flame when a new brotherhood was beginning.

It was an auspicious start for the young rabbi.

“Something Less Than Welcome”

While the IHC welcomed Rabbi Davis, his wife Marion, and their sons Jay and Michael, some other Hoosiers made the Davis family feel “something less than welcome.” In 1959, the Jewish Post reported that Rabbi Davis’s son Jay was denied entry to the Riviera Club‘s swimming pool at 5640 North Illinois Street. The Rabbi told his congregation that Jay unfortunately learned first about the club’s “wonderful slide” and then its anti-Semitic policies. Jay summarized the situation as only a child could, stating: “Gee whiz, dad, it isn’t fair.” The Rabbi then had to explain the difference between legal segregation and social segregation to his son. The rabbi told his congregation that while many people think segregation in the private sphere “has no meaning” and should be tolerated, it does have meaning to the people it affects. And in this case, the meaning was that a nine-year-old boy was made to feel inferior to his peers.

Jewish Post, January 1, 1958, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Jewish Post pursued the story, reporting on a survey of five “exclusive” Indianapolis clubs. Each club, including the Riviera Club, claimed not to discriminate against Jews. Some of the club chairmen and presidents even claimed they had Jewish members. However, when the Jewish Post interviewed the club managers, they reported that they knew of no Jewish members. Others in the club leadership claimed no Jews had applied for membership or that they did not keep track of religious affiliation. From the perspective of the Post, none gave a straight answer.

Jewish Post, July 17, 1959, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Jewish Post, July 29, 1960, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Rabbi Davis did not only respond to discrimination when it was personal. He believed that it was his responsibility, and that of all religious leaders, to work for moral justice. Not all of his Jewish colleagues agreed. In response to a 1960 Indianapolis Times poll of religious leaders (reported by the Jewish Post), two of Indianapolis’s leading rabbis (Congregation B’nai Torah and Shara Tefila) reported that clergy should keep out of politics. Rabbi Davis, on the other hand, said it was the responsibility of the synagogue to help inform members on political issues, to encourage them to be active participants in government, and “to speak up whenever morality or ethics are involved in politics.”

Jewish Post, October 13, 1961, 15, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Rabbi Davis not only advocated for equality for Jews, but all people facing oppression. He encouraged Jews to look beyond their own community and work to end discrimination everywhere. He stated, “A decent and sensitive America is good for all Americans and we must help her be so” (more here). Indianapolis’s African American community took note. In 1960, the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP named Davis its “honorary chairman” and the Indianapolis Recorder reported regularly on his efforts to fight segregation and inequality. As president of the Indianapolis Human Relations Council, Davis worked to end racist mortgage and loan policies that denied fair housing to African Americans and created segregated neighborhoods (more here). He conducted personal investigations of restaurants and other establishments which had reputations for discriminating against African Americans and reported his findings in the Jewish Post (more here). By 1962, he had a regular column giving his views on issues of the day and often advocating for civil rights.

Jewish Post, July 27, 1962, 13, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

His columns were  often fiery calls to action. For example, in September 1963, he responded to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Alabama where four African American children were killed “while putting on their choir robes.” Rabbi Davis, however, blamed not just the bomber and not just the racism and negligence of the governor and police chief, but “every American citizen who participates in prejudice or fails to oppose it.” His powerful arguments against injustice were often shaped by the legacy of the holocaust. He continued:

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

Not long after his article on the bombing, Rabbi Maurice Davis received a bomb threat of his own.

“My Name Was One of Them”

Photograph of John Lewis, Hosea William, Albert Turner and Bob Mants Leading Marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Records Group 406, accessed National Archives Catalog.

By 1965, the civil rights movement had reached its “political and emotional peak” with three marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the suppression of African American votes and the recent killing of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (more here: International Civil Rights Center and Museum). On March 7, the protesters led by John Lewis began a peaceful march, but were soon stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma by state troopers and Dallas County police who were waiting for them. In an incident remembered as “Bloody Sunday,” police violently attacked the unarmed demonstrators with clubs and tear gas. Police beat Lewis unconscious. On March 9, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. flew to Selma and called for others to join him. That day, a larger group followed King back to the bridge to kneel in prayer, but dared go no further as a federal judge had issued a restraining order against the march. Many were disappointed that King did not attempt to march on toward Montgomery. Others, however, credit his concession with expediting the passage of the Voting Rights Act.*

Hammond Times, March 8, 1965, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

The night of the second march to the bridge a group of white men killed Unitarian minister James Reeb who had traveled to Selma from Boston to join King. Related protests erupted across the country and King called for a third march. On Sunday, March 21, civil rights leaders and supporters from around the country arrived in Selma to march over the infamous bridge to Montgomery. Rabbi Maurice Davis would march in the front lines.

When the Indianapolis Star reported that Rabbi Davis and David H. Goldstein (of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council) had left for Selma, the newspaper estimated that these Hoosiers would join around 300 people. Instead, Davis reported that they joined thousands at Brown Chapel Methodist Church for a ceremony before the march. Davis described their arrival at the church:

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

While President Johnson ordered National Guard protection for the marchers to avoid a repeat of “Bloody Sunday” and its ensuing protests, the atmosphere was still tense. Davis and Goldstein met with some other rabbis after the service who had arrived before them. These rabbis told them that they were unable to buy a meal or place to stay, the reason being the Selma residents insisted on giving the activists whatever they needed.

Davis and Goldstein also looked to find out from the other rabbis where they could get yarmulkes, as a shipment was supposed to have recently arrived. Organizers wanted Jewish demonstrators from all branches of the faith to be as clearly visible as those of other faiths to show their support and numbers. They told Davis, “It is our answer to the clerical collar.” However, Davis and Goldstein had trouble finding one. They soon learned why.

Two days earlier, five rabbis were jailed for taking part in demonstrations. After holding Sabbath behind bars Friday, they announced they would hold a  service in front of the Brown Chapel after their release on Saturday. According to the Jewish Post, “Over 600 Negroes and whites, Jewish and non-Jews joined in the impromptu havdalah services for one of the most unique of its kind in history.” According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, those in attendance, regardless of their faith, donned yarmulkes “in respectful emulation of rabbis who participated in demonstrations.” In Selma, they became known as “freedom caps.” Davis reported that “all the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them . . . That is where all the yarmelkes went!”

Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Daily News Bulletin, March 23, 1965, accessed Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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

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

Photo Courtesy of the Jewish Post Archive. Rabbi Davis can be seen just behind King and to his left.

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

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

He continued:

On the street we formed three rows of 8, locked our arms together, and started to march. Behind us the thousands began to follow.

Richmond Palladium-Item, March 22, 1965, 14, accessed Newspapers.com.

When they arrived at the infamous bridge they paused to remember those who came before them and were attacked. They continued onto the highway. The road was lined with armed National Guardsmen and five helicopters circled the group. State troopers were taking pictures of the marchers. Davis explained:

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

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

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

“It’ll be too late when it goes off.”

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

Jewish Post, March 26, 1965, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Police searched the house and found nothing.  But the calls continued. On Tuesday, Davis took the phone off the hook at 2 A.M. so the family could sleep. Letters arrived as well full of “unbelievable filth, ugly statements,” and intimate knowledge of his larger civil rights work.

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

Monday night my life was threatened. Not in Selma. Not in Montgomery. Not in Atlanta. In Indianapolis.

“The Time Has Come to Worship with Our Lives”

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

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

Jewish Post, April 16, 1965, 27, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

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

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

Muncie Evening Press, April 28, 1965, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

Rabbi Davis continued to work for civil rights in Indianapolis. He was again named honorary chairman of the NAACP. He served as a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights and on the board of the United Negro College Fund. He was president of the Indianapolis Council of Human Relations and organized the Community Action Against Poverty (sponsored by the City of Indianapolis and the President’s Commission on Equal Opportunity).

Jewish Post, January 22, 1986, 14, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

He never forgot his march with King. In 1986, he reflected in the pages of the Jewish Post about a first for the country:

You hear a song, or sniff an aroma, and all of a sudden you are miles and years away . . . It happens, too, with birthdays. January 20 was a very special day. The first national observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. I hear them say the words, pronounce the name, and in the twinkling of an eye I am suddenly in Selma, Alabama with some 80,000 other people; Jews, and Protestants, and Catholics, and atheists, and agnostics . . . We were there because of a man whom we admired as much as we loved, and whom he loved as much as we admired. We were there because he was there. And he was there because it was right.

Notes:

The impetus for this story came from Jennie Cohen, Publisher, Jewish Post & Opinion.

Sources for Davis’s report of the march:

Rabbi Maurice Davis, “Rabbi Heschel Finds The Right Word For It,” (Indianapolis) Jewish Post, April 2, 1965, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Rabbi Maurice Davis, “Rabbi Davis Tells Why He Went to Selma,”(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, April 16, 1965, 22, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Other sources are linked within the text.

*For more on the disappointment of some civil rights activists with King’s role in the Selma to Montgomery marches see: Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., eds., Freedom on My Mind: A HIstory of African Americans with Documents (Boston and New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s 2013), 675-6.