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.

“We Like to See You Smile:” The Story of Hook’s Drug Stores

 

Terre Haute Tribune, November 6, 1958. Newspapers.com.

This splashy 1958 advertisement printed in the pages of the Terre Haute Tribune speaks to public health issues that remain relevant today, as shown by philanthropic entrepreneur Mark Cuban’s new Cost Plus Drugs company. When John A Hook established his first drug store in 1900, he “felt a need for a drugstore to fill the medical needs of his community at fair prices, [and] he put his integrity into the filling of his prescriptions.” Over five decades later, as John Hook’s small chain of stores expanded into a statewide brand, the company’s commitment to “filling the medical needs of the community” never wavered. In addition to offering affordable health care, the company advanced racial equality and worked to prevent drug abuse, proving that Hook’s was more than just a pharmacy.

Origins

While Hook’s was a state-wide brand by the 1950s, its beginnings in the German American community of Indianapolis were far humbler. John August Hook was born on December 17, 1880, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His parents, August J. Hook and Margaret Hook, were both German immigrants who came to the United States in 1869, looking for a better life. His father was a beer brewer, who first laid down roots in Cincinnati before moving the family to Indianapolis by 1891. At the age of 19, John A. Hook knew exactly what his profession would be—pharmaceuticals. He graduated from the Cincinnati College of Pharmacy on June 9, 1900, the Indianapolis News reported. There, he earned three medals for his academic work, including “a gold medal for highest general average, a gold medal for highest materia medica, and silver medal for chemistry.” As a wunderkind of pharmacological science, Hook was eager to start serving his adopted community of Indianapolis.

John A. Hook in 1926. Indiana Album.

Shortly after graduating, Hook purchased a “Deutsche Apotheke” at 1101 South East Street from Louis Mattill, according to the Indiana Tribüne. Mattill had established the apothecary with his brother John as early as 1890 and nine years later John A. Hook bought out the company. As the son of German immigrants, Hook saw it as vital that he serve that community, which had greatly expanded in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis, a part of the over 19,000 immigrants in the city by 1890.

Indianapolis Times, October 24, 1940. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While formative years at South East Street were successful, it wasn’t until he partnered with the enterprising Edward F. Roesch, who he hired in 1905 to manage a second store, that Hook’s business spread across Indianapolis.

Edward F. Roesch. Newspapers.com.

The Early Years

Within 20 years, Hook and Roesch grew their drug store chain to over fourteen locations, and by the end of the 1920s, to forty-one. One essential component of this growth was prioritizing the design of new stores. It was here that Hook and Roesch partnered up with another legendary Indianapolis business, the architectural firm of Vonnegut, Bohn, & Mueller. Architects Kurt Vonnegut, Sr. (the father of acclaimed author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.), Arthur Bohn, and Otto N. Mueller designed numerous drug stores for the company, either with completely new buildings or remodels of buildings that Hook’s Drugs previously purchased.

Hook’s Drugs at the Occidental Building, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1929. Indiana Album.

This partnership started as early as 1920, when Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller redesigned a saloon into a Hook’s drug store at Washington and Senate in Indianapolis. The next year, the firm remodeled a former storeroom at Pennsylvania and Washington.

Hook’s Drug Store in Illinois Building, Indianapolis, Indiana, circa 1935. Indiana Album.

Despite the upheaval of the Great Depression in the 1930s, Hook’s continued to expand, with the help of Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller. The Indianapolis Star reported on April 15, 1935 that the architectural firm was “making alterations to the new Hook drug store at the southeast corner of Illinois and Ohio streets. In addition, this company is preparing plans for alterations to the Hook Drug Company store to be located at the northwest corner of Illinois and Market streets.” The Star in its October 24, 1937 edition ran an extensive article on Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller’s plans for a Hook drug store in the Broad Ripple section of Indianapolis. “Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller are the architects and have given every thought and consideration to the comfort of the customer,” wrote the Star, “such as soundproof ceiling, lighting, and attractive floor design.” In 1939, Hook’s commissioned Vonnegut & Bohn to a store at the northwest corner of Meridian and 22nd Street, which John Hook told the Times would be “one of our most outstanding stores and will be the last word in store design and equipment.” The thriving partnership between Hook’s and Vonnegut, Bohn, and Mueller lasted for nearly 20 years, with the latter’s innovative and attractive designs aiding the growth of the drug store chain.

Astounding Growth

With John Hook’s death in 1943 and Edward F. Roesch’s subsequent death in a car accident, their sons, August F. “Bud” Hook and Edward J. F. Roesch, took over the family business, as president and vice president, respectively. Their combined leadership led to a profound expansion of the business. As the Indianapolis Star wrote, “under the joint leadership of the two men the chain grew from an Indianapolis operation to a state-wide chain of stores.” In 1958, Hook’s operated 50-plus stores throughout Indiana with more than 1,000 employees. The company expanded its stores to “80 communities” by 1973, according to the Nappanee Advance-News.

August F. “Bud” Hook, President of Hook Drugs, Inc., 1964. Indiana Memory.

This growth was not without its controversies. The employees of the Hook’s store in the Marwood neighborhood of Indianapolis ran a paid editorial in the Jewish Post on January 16, 1976, criticizing the company’s labor practices and its attempts to block unionization efforts. One hundred and fifty salesclerks of Hook’s “mann[ed] picket lines at many of the stores throughout Marion and Johnson Counties,” the editorial noted. It alleged that workers voted to be represented by the Retail Clerk’s Union-Local 725, and despite this vote’s certification by the local labor board, Hook’s “ignored this vote and refused to bargain” with them. It also accused Hook’s of hiring replacement labor and launching a public relations campaign against the strikers. The editorial declared “We ask that we be treated fairly and with respect by the Hook’s Drug Company . . . and that negotiations in good faith begin at once.” It is unclear whether the unionization effort was successful.

Hook’s Drugs at the Project A Shopping Center, Indianapolis, c. 1960. Indiana Memory.

Despite these issues, Hook’s established itself by 1982 as one of the nation’s oldest chain drug store corporations, ranking 14th nationally in number of sales units and exceeding $260 million annually. The Illinoisan also noted that 30% of the firm’s business came from the prescription department, which was “nearly twice the national average.” With over 260 stores in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio (its expansion outside of Indiana a result of the merger with SupeRx in 1986), Hook’s had become one of the largest drug store chains in the Midwest by the time it celebrated its 90th year of business in 1990.

A woman in front of Hook’s Drugs at New Castle Plaza, New Castle, Indiana, 1974. Wikimedia Commons.

The Innovative Community Leader

While labor disputes occurred during the company’s history, Hook’s nevertheless demonstrated a commitment to equal rights in Indianapolis. The firm desegregated its lunch counters at all locations in 1947, years before the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder carried coverage of Hook Drugs’ desegregation of their lunch counters, which the Indianapolis Civil Rights Committee fought tirelessly to achieve. As the Recorder noted, “committee members will continue going into various Hook’s stores in order to make certain that the new policy is put into practice.” Alongside equal access to its stores, the company promoted equal employment opportunities. In 1965, the Recorder wrote that Hook’s President Bud Hook served on a committee modeled after California’s Chamber of Commerce for Employment Opportunity. The committee’s goals included ensuring maximum employment of minority groups, improving communication “to make known employment need and opportunities,” and assisting other organizations in improving their minority employment programs.

Indianapolis Recorder, February 15, 1947. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By 1969, Hook’s put these recommendations into practice in Indianapolis, increasing minority management to 10%. This had a direct impact on the community, as Black manager W. Howard Bell implemented the innovative “Santa Claus Comes to the Ghetto” sales initiative, which “aimed at giving customers a chance to obtain some items at reduced cost without waiting for the after-Christmas discount.” By 1972, Bell would own four drugstores of his own. Hook’s also promoted Black staff to corporate positions. In 1973, the firm appointed Ray Crowe, acclaimed athlete, coach, and politician, to store employment supervisor in the personnel department, as noted by the Indianapolis Recorder.

Indianapolis Recorder, December 20, 1969. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, December 8, 1973. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hook’s also promoted broader public health initiatives. Starting in the late 1960s, Hook’s implemented a protected packaging program, developing a child-proof, lock-on cap and amber colored bottles that protected medicine from sunlight. Both were offered to customers at no extra charge. Hook’s advertisements in newspapers, including the Rushville Republican, Alexandria Times-Tribune, and the Indianapolis Star, attest to the “protection in packaging” program. Additionally, Hook’s provided a “poison counterdose chart” that “could prevent serious injury or even save a life should accidental poisoning occur in your home,” as printed in the Indianapolis Star.

Rushville Republican, May 20, 1969. Newspapers.com.

Alongside drug safety, Hook’s was active in drug misuse/abuse prevention and education, which is more crucial than ever as drug abuse is at epidemic levels. Pharmacists routinely spoke to community organizations and received training from the Pharmacists Against Drug Abuse Foundation and the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. As the Indianapolis Star reported in 1971, “Many Hook’s pharmacists serving in stores and in administrative positions have given countless talks to schools, churches, and other social action groups” about drug abuse and its prevention.

Indianapolis Star, January 10, 1971. Newspapers.com.

In 1980, Hook’s sponsored a state-wide poison control initiative that “include[d] a $40,000 grant. . . to establish a statewide network of regional hospital emergency treatment centers to provide close at hand emergency treatment throughout the state,” as noted in the Nappanee Advance-News. The next year, Hook’s co-sponsored a 10-week “anti-drug abuse public service campaign” entitled “It Takes Guts to Say No.” Hook’s Executive Vice President Newell Hall said of the initiative to the Indianapolis Recorder, “as a corporation we are committed to providing professional prescription service to our communities and feel it is our duty to inform the public about the hazards of substance abuse.”

Nappanee Advance-News, March 26, 1980. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hook’s also distributed informative brochures to customers about symptoms of drug abuse and what parents can do if they suspect their children of abusing drugs. James M. Rogers, Hook’s vice president of public relations, told the Banner, “Our brochure offers facts and common-sense information for parents and children alike. If prevention doesn’t work, early detection is critical.” Hook’s “Parent Guide to Drug Abuse” pamphlets were available for free in all their stores.

Knightstown Banner, August 22, 1984. Newspapers.com.

While not always progressive on labor issues, Hook’s advancements of civil rights, innovative packaging programs, and drug abuse and prevention initiatives solidified the company as a trusted community leader for decades.

Hook’s Legacy

The end of Hook’s Drugs came like the end of so many businesses during the 1980s and 1990s: through corporate mergers. In 1985, Hook Drugs, Inc. merged with the Cincinnati, Ohio-based grocery chain Kroger, which was the “second largest supermarket chain,” according to the Nappanee Advance-News. This merger would end in 1986, when Hook’s and the SupeRx drug store chain, both owned by Kroger, split off into their own firm, Hook-SupeRx, Inc.

A Hook’s Drugs location in Indianapolis, 1990s. Indiana Historical Society.

On April 4, 1994, Revco, a drugstore chain based out of Twinsburg, Ohio, announced its plan to buy Hook-SupeRx, Inc. for an estimated $600 million. The merger was finalized in July of that year. Unfortunately, this consolidation came with job cuts and store closures.

Richmond Palladium-Item, August 24, 1994. Newspapers.com.

Less than three years later, on February 7, 1997, Rhode-Island based CVS purchased Revco at a cost at $2.8 billion, according to the Indianapolis News, and with it, phased out the use of the Hook’s brand. While the legendary name is gone, many former Hook’s locations still operate today under the CVS banner.

Indianapolis News, February 7, 1997. Newspapers.com.

Although no longer being in business, the company’s history is tangible at the Hook’s Drug Store Museum, which opened at the 1966 Indiana State Fair. Originally a three-month exhibition, it eventually became a permanent attraction. The museum recreates what a Hook’s drug store was like in the early 1900s and remains in operation today at its original location at the fairgrounds. Reflecting on its success years later, journalist Judy observed, “the Hook’s Historical Drugstore and Pharmacy Museum has become a national acclaimed tourist attraction. It has garnered many awards from both pharmaceutical and historical organizations, and millions of individuals have visited from every state and many foreign countries.”

Hook’s Historical Drug Store and Pharmacy Museum, Indiana State Fairgrounds, Indianapolis, Indiana. Indiana Memory.

In its 90-plus years, Hook’s Drugs went from one building in Fountain Square to one of the largest drug store chains in the United States, with over 380 locations and millions in sales. While the company faltered on labor issues, Hook’s commitment to civil rights and drug abuse prevention made the brand synonymous with fairness, kindness, and the personal touch. As the collective memory of Hook’s fades, it is important to recognize its special place in the history of Indiana businesses. Also, we must remember its motto from years ago, words that rang through its many ads and embodied its ethos— “We like to see you smile!”

Fletcher’s Swamp and Bacon’s Swamp

Man and woman canoeing on the swamp behind Fredericks’ Island and Camp Comfort. Syracuse-Wawasee Digital Archives, Indiana Memory.

You might never guess that several parts of Indianapolis lying well inside the city limits are built on old swamp lands. Turn back the clock to the 1940s and new homes and roads in southeast Broad Ripple are literally sinking into the earth. Turn it back another century still, and the hoot-owls and swamp creatures who easily outnumber humans in Marion County are living practically downtown.  (In fact, the whole county was named for Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox” of Revolutionary South Carolina.)

Two old wetlands, sometimes called bogs or sloughs, played a fascinating part in the capitol city’s history.

Fletcher’s Swamp is long gone but used to sit just east of the Old North Side, between Cottage Home and Martindale-Brightwood.  A couple of hundred acres in size, the swamp occupied an area more or less centered around the future I-65/I-70 interchange.  Pogue’s Run flowed just to the south.

An article in the Indianapolis Journal on December 15, 1889, describes the setting.  The author, probably the young journalist and historian Jacob Piatt Dunn, writes about an area northeast of Ninth Street and College Avenue:

To the boys of twenty-five years ago [circa 1864] this area was known as Fletcher’s swamp, and was a famous place for black and red haws, fox grapes and other wild fruits that only a youngster would think of eating.  Fifty years ago [the 1830’s] this place was a verible [sic] dismal swamp, impenetrable even to the hunter except in the coldest winter, for it was a rare thing for the frost to penetrate the thick layer of moss and fallen leaves that covered the accumulated mass of centuries, and which was constantly warmed by the living springs beneath.

Today the old swamp area is within easy walking distance of Massachusetts Avenue, but you won’t find a trace of it.  “About on a line with Twelfth Street” near the center of the swamp “was an acre, more or less, of high land,” a spot “lifted about the surrounding morass.”  The writer — again, likely J.P. Dunn — thought that this high, dry spot had once been a “sanctuary” for “desperadoes and thieves who preyed upon the early settlers.”  (Northern Indiana swamps, like the one around Bogus Island in Newton County, were notorious hideouts for counterfeiters and horse thieves. Elaborate hidden causeways were said to give entrance to remote islands on the edge of the vast Kankakee Swamp, the “Everglades of the North.”)

In the 1830s, Fletcher’s Swamp became one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. Calvin Fletcher, a Vermont-born lawyer and farmer whose 1,600-acre farm once included most of the Near East Side, was an active abolitionist during the days of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. For several decades, many Hoosier opponents of slavery, primarily Quakers, guided hundreds if not thousands of African American freedom seekers toward Westfield in neighboring Hamilton County.  (Westfield was a major Quaker settlement before the Civil War, and other “stations” around Indianapolis focused on getting freedom seekers there.)  Wetlands, usually hard to penetrate, were an ideal hideout, since the bloodhounds that bounty-hunters used to track freedom seekers lost their scent there. And like the counterfeiters on Bogus Island, refugees from slavery used retractable wooden “steps” across the swamp to help avoid detection.

Although not Quakers themselves, Fletcher and his family helped many African Americans travel north to Michigan and Canada.


calvin and sara fletcher
Calvin and Sara Fletcher. This daguerreotype was made at Weeks’ Daguerran Gallery at College Hall downtown, January 1856. Joan Hostettler tells the story here. Indiana Album.

Fletcher also owned the swamp the freedom seekers hid in. The Indianapolis Journal recalled one story about the place in 1889:

Calvin Fletcher, Sr., became the owner of this swamp, or the greater part of it.  Spring, summer, and autumn he was in the habit of riding horseback all around it. . .  Mr. Fletcher delighted in the study of nature, especially in birds (and in the quiet of this swamp was bird life in sufficient variety for an Audubon or a Wilson), and he knew every flier and nest on its borders.

A tenant of a cabin near this swamp told the story that his attention was often attracted to Mr. Fletcher, for the reason that he rode out that way so early, and usually with a sack thrown over the horse’s neck.  The curiosity of the dweller in the cabin was excited to that degree that, one morning, he furtively followed the solitary horseman.  It was about sunrise, and he saw Mr. Fletcher hitch his nag to a sapling, take off the sack (which for some reason the narrator supposed to contain corn-bread and bacon), walk a little way into the covert, and then give a call, as if calling cattle.  There was, in answer, a waving of elders, flags and swamp-grass, with an occasional plash in the water, and finally appeared the form of a tall, muscular negro, with shirt and breeches of coffee-sacking.  He came silently out to the dry land, took the sack from the visitor’s hand, spoke a few words inaudible to the straining ears of the listener and hastily disappeared in the recesses of the swamps.  So, after all, Mr. Fletcher’s favorite bird, and a very unpopular one in that day, too, was the blackbird.

The swamp might have had strange bedfellows during the Civil War.  The dense thickets and morasses here were an ideal hideout for Confederate POW’s who escaped from the Union Army’s Camp Morton, which sat just west of here, near the future intersection of 19th Street and Central Avenue. Calvin Fletcher’s son, Stephen Keyes Fletcher, claimed in 1892 in the Indianapolis Journal:  “During the war the swamp was this great hiding place for escaped prisoners from Camp Morton.”

The original Butler University, which sat at 13th and College until 1875, was another neighbor of Fletcher’s Swamp.  When a freedom seeker, aided by local abolitionists, escaped from the downtown jail and tried to get to the swamp on horseback, he ended up at Northwestern Christian University (as Butler was called) and was  arrested on campus.  “The capture of the negro brought on a heated battle among the students of the university, some of whom were from the South,” the Indianapolis Journal claimed in 1889.  “A pitched battle followed between them and the black Republican students, which resulted in nothing more serious than some blackened eyes and ensanguined noses. The scene of this battle is now the playground for the children of the Indianapolis Orphan Asylum.”

What happened to Fletcher’s Swamp? Stephen Fletcher, who apparently inherited the property after Calvin’s death in 1866 — he ran a nursery nearby — told some of the story using terminology not employed today:

About this same time the negroes began flocking over from Kentucky and other Southern states.  My father, being a great friend of the colored man, was inclined to provide them with homes and work as far as possible.  After filling up everything in the shape of a house, I then let them build cabins at the edge of the swamp, on high ground, just north of the Belt railroad, and about where Baltimore Avenue now runs.  I soon had quite a settlement, which was named by my brother, Dr. W.B. Fletcher, “Monkey Jungle,” and the location is known to this day [1892] by that name by those familiar with it then.

A writer for the News concurred in 1889:

The clearing of the swamp was an accident of President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation.  Hundreds of colored men, with their families, came from the South to this city.  It was a class of labor new to Indianapolis, and for a time there was a disinclination to employ them.  Mr. Fletcher, however, gave every man with a family the privilege of taking enough timber to build a cabin, and of having ground for a “truck patch,” besides paying so much a cord for wood delivered on the edge of the swamp.  Quite a number of the negroes availed themselves of this offer of work and opportunity for shelter…

Calvin Fletcher, Jr., drained what was left of his father’s swamp in the 1870s by dredging it and connecting it to the “Old State Ditch.”  Thus it shared the fate of thousands of acres of Hoosier wetlands sacrificed to agriculture and turned into conventional cropland.


bacons swamp - butler herbarium
Fern collected in Bacon’s Swamp, August 1922. Friesner Herbarium Collection, Indiana Memory.

An 1891 Journal article on the “State Ditch” calls Fletcher’s Swamp one of two “bayous” that threatened valuable property on the then-outskirts of Indianapolis.

The other “bayou” was the fascinating Bacon’s Swamp. Today, the area that used to be covered by this large Marion County bog is part of Broad Ripple. Although Google Maps still shows a lake there called Bacon’s Swamp, this is really just a pond, re-engineered out of what used to be a genuine freshwater wetland.

Like its neighbor a little to the south, Bacon’s Swamp was created by the melting Wisconsin Glacier. About 20,000 years ago, the ice left an indent on the land that filled with water. As limnologists (freshwater scientists) describe, the process of swamp formation, lakes age and die like living creatures, filling up with sediment and plant matter and gradually losing the oxygen in their depths. Bacon’s Swamp evolved into a peat bog, one of the southernmost in the United States.

Like Fletcher’s Swamp, it took its name from a prominent local farmer active as a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad.  A native of Williamstown, Massachusetts, Hiram Bacon moved to this remote spot with his wife Mary Blair in 1821.  (Bacon was 21 years old, had studied law at Williams College, but due to poor health joined a government surveying expedition to the Midwest at age 19.  He liked Indiana and stayed.) Presbyterians, the Bacons became friends with Henry Ward Beecher, brother of the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe, when he served as minister of Second Presbyterian Church downtown.  Beecher often came out to Bacon’s Swamp in the 1840s, when this was a remote part of Marion County.


Henry_Ward_Beecher_daguerreotype
This daguerreotype of abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher was probably taken in Indianapolis, where he served as a Presbyterian minister in the early 1840s. Beecher baptized Fanny Vandegrift, Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife, in the White River when she was a child growing up in the Hoosier State. Yale University.

Hiram and Mary Bacon actively helped freedom seekers escape through the area.  A 1931 article in the Indianapolis Star claimed that “The Bacon house stands on the east side of the road [now the paved Keystone Avenue], and the large barn was on the west side.  In it was a wheat bin, which could be entered only from outside by a ladder.  It was usually concealed by piles of hay.  Here and in the bin in the cider house, the fugitives were hidden and conveyed after dark to the next depot . . . The matter was never discussed in public.” At night, freedom seekers hid out in the peat bog across from the Bacon dairy farm.

The 400-acre family farm was located approximately where Glendale Mall sits today.  (Most of east Broad Ripple would have been deep in the morass back in the mid-1800s.)  Empty in the 1930s, the site of the Bacon farmhouse is occupied today by the Donut Shop at 5527 N. Keystone.


hiram bacon house
Indianapolis Star, January 18, 1931. Indiana Landmarks Wilbur D. Peat Collection, Indiana Memory.

donut shop - bacon's farm
Site of the Bacon farmhouse is occupied today by The Donut Shop at 5527 N. Keystone. Google Maps.

Around 1900, this area, now considered part of Broad Ripple, was called Malott Park.  Not to be confused with today’s Marott Park, Malott Park was a small railroad town later annexed by Indianapolis.  Barely a century ago, it was one of the last stops on a railroad line that connected northern Marion County with the Circle downtown.  Until World War II, Glendale was a far-flung place out in the country.

Walter C. Kiplinger, a chemistry teacher and tree doctor for Indianapolis public schools, wrote a fascinating article about the peat bog for the Indianapolis News in 1916.  The part of the bog he described was about a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, near 50th Street and Arsenal Park.  Now a major residential neighborhood, a hundred years ago it sounds like GPS coordinates were the only thing we’d recognize about the place:

You can reach it very easily if you have a machine [car] by taking the White River road to Malott Park, but when the spring rambling fever comes it is much more easy to go cross-country.  It is just a pleasant afternoon’s hike there and back. . . If common courtesy is observed in closing gates and keeping off fields where the crops might be injured, the owners of the farm lands usually do not enforce their trespass notices. . .

How much peat there is in Bacon’s slough or how thick the bed is, no one seems to know. . . Whatever the average depth, it is as truly a peat bog as any in Ireland.

Serious proposals to harvest peat in Indianapolis were mentioned in the press from 1905 until the 1920’s, when the idea was apparently dropped.  Other parts of Indiana, especially up north, also explored the possibility of using peat as a substitute for coal.  During World War I, the U.S. and Canada exported sphagnum moss from North American peat bogs to Europe, where a cotton shortage had led army doctors to experiment with peat bandages on the Western Front.  The moss served as a kind of natural antibiotic and was a success when used to dress wounds.  (The story made it into the South Bend News-Times in 1918.)


peat - south bend news times 1918
South Bend News-Times, November 15, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Use of peat has always been widespread in Europe.  Not a fossil fuel, it emits an odorless, smokeless heat and an “incredible ambiance.”  For millennia, it has served as a cheap heat source in rural Ireland and Britain (where it also gives the “smoky” flavor to Scotch whisky.)  The Indianapolis News ran an article about “inexhaustible” Irish peat in 1916, informing Hoosiers that “Mixed with crude molasses from sugar mills it is also used as a forage for cattle, while semi-successful efforts have been made to convert the vegetable fibers into a cheap grade of paper.”  In 1929, a massive 40% of the Soviet Union’s energy came from peat, but today, large-scale industrial harvesting is only common in Ireland and Finland.


Peat stacks and cutting Yorkshire 1905
Peat stacks and cutting, Yorkshire, England, 1905. Alexander Eric Hasse, photographer. Wikimedia Commons.

peat indianapolis 1905 2
Indianapolis News, August 19, 1905. Newspapers.com.

As an alternative fuel source, peat nearly became a reality in central Indiana in the early 1900s.  E.H. Collins, a “scientific” farmer from Hamilton County, touted that the “earth that would burn” in the summer of 1905.

Collins owned a farm a mile north of the State Fairgrounds, in the vicinity of Bacon’s Swamp.  An article on August 19 in the Indianapolis News refers to the 30-acre peat bog he “discovered” as the “Collins Bog.”  The farmer estimated that it held about 400,000 tons of the fuzzy stuff.

The 1905 article in the Indianapolis News is a strange flashback, envisioning a grand future that never really came about.

The announcement that a good fuel deposit has been found at the city limits and can be drawn on in case Indianapolis gets into a fuel pinch is of great importance to a city that, thus far, has been left out of practically every fuel belt in Indiana in recent years — in fact, since she was the very center of the stove wood belt.  Too far west to be in the gas belt, too far east to be in the coal fields and outside of the oil territory, Indianapolis, since the old cordwood days, has been a negative quantity in the state’s fuel supply. . .

The discovery of good peat deposits around Indianapolis calls attention to the fact that Indiana sooner or later is to come to the front as a peat-producing state.

Obviously, this never happened.  Peat was briefly harvested in Bacon’s Swamp in the mid-20th century, as it was in a few other spots throughout northern Indiana, but the resource was mostly used for gardening, not as a rival to coal.

As Indianapolis’ economic downturn and “white flight” led to the explosion of Broad Ripple as a suburb in the 1950s, the swamp was more and more threatened.  Conservationists were mostly ignored when they argued that the swamp protected creatures who keep insect populations in check and therefore help farmers and gardeners.  In February 1956, three children drowned trying to save a puppy who had fallen through the ice in one of the lakes here, prompting residents in the area to push for “condemning” and obliterating the “deadly swamp.”

While the squishy, “bottomless” ground was a constant problem for developers — devouring roads in 1914 and 1937 — gradually only a tiny remnant pond was left, just west of Keystone Ave and a block south of Bishop Chatard High School. Yet the tree doctor Walter Kiplinger did remember one man who kept himself warm with a satisfying peat fire in Indianapolis back in the day.

“There used to be one from the ‘ould sod’ [Ireland] who lived in a shack near the hog pens east of the slough,” Walter C. Kiplinger remembered during World War I in the Indianapolis News:

His name was Michael O’Something-or-other, I’m not certain what, but he was a gentleman in the highest sense of the word.  There was nothing hyphenated about his Americanism, but is a man any the worse American for having a bit of sentimental feeling for the old country in his makeup?  Surely when one has a bit of Ireland’s own bog land in his own back yard, you might say, he has a perfect right to dig and use the peat for fuel. . .

Bacon’s Slough will probably go the way of similar places;  but one should not be too pessimistic.  The Irish may mobilize some St. Patrick’s Day, and go out and save it just for the sake of that peat bog.  You can never tell.


Indianapolis News, March 1, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Contact:  staylor336 [at] gmail.com

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.

Ku Klux U: How the Klan Almost Bought a University

Hagerstown Exponent, October 4, 1923
Hagerstown Exponent, October 4, 1923. Newspapers.com.

When the Hagerstown Exponent published this headline in October 1923, the editor had slightly exaggerated. The Ku Klux Klan’s powerful “Indiana Realm” had not literally bought itself a venerable institution of higher learning that summer– but it had come close. For a few weeks, Valparaiso University — sixty miles from downtown Chicago and formerly one of the largest private schools in the U.S. — teetered on the brink of becoming a “Ku Klux Kollege.” Once praised as the “Poor Man’s Harvard,” in 1923, many feared the university was about to become a “hooded Harvard.”

“Valpo” is a thriving university today, with some of the best programs in Indiana — and has no connections whatsoever to the KKK.  Yet, a century ago, after its rapid rise to national fame, the highly-respected school experienced hard times that took many alumni and faculty by surprise.

Founded by Methodists in 1859, the original school — Valparaiso Male and Female College — took in students of all levels, from elementary to college age.  The pioneer school was also one of the few co-educational institutions in America before the Civil War. That war wreaked havoc on enrollment, leading the college to close its doors in 1871.  Two years later, it reopened as a teacher’s college. Until 1900, the school went by the name Northern Indiana Normal School and Business Institute.

Renowned for its economical tuition and low cost of living — as well as for admitting women and students from overseas — by 1905 “Old Valpo” enjoyed one of the highest enrollments of any private university in the U.S.  With over 5,000 students that year, the school ranked just behind Harvard.  Its affordability to working-class Americans led many to praise it as the aforementioned “Poor Man’s Harvard.”


Valparaiso University circa 1915
Valparaiso University, circa 1915. Flickr.com.

Students from all over the U.S. and the world trained to be public school teachers there. Some were later busy teaching English to immigrants employed at Gary’s new steel mills.  Valpo’s programs in law, engineering, medicine, and dentistry were well-regarded. Its College of Medicine and Surgery had been brought over from Northwestern University in Chicago.  When the college moved back to the Windy City in 1926, it formed the nucleus of Loyola’s medical program.

Harvard and Yale might have been too good to take out ads in Chicago newspapers.  But this ad from 1905 appeared next to one for another great school on the rise, the University of Notre Dame.


The Inter Ocean, August 1, 1905
The Inter Ocean, Chicago, August 1, 1905. Newspapers.com.

Yet, once enrollment peaked in 1907, venerable Valpo plunged into an unexpected, two-decade-long decline. After accreditation of American colleges and universities began at the turn of the century  — partly driven by a desire to standardize high-school education and thereby “unify” the country — Valparaiso failed to win accreditation. Suddenly unable to transfer their credits, current and prospective students found the school a harder sell, especially as affordable new state universities, teachers’ colleges, and urban night schools entered the competition.  Valpo’s lack of a football team and Greek life were another stumbling block, though it hurriedly scraped together a football program in the early 1920s and even played Harvard.  (It lost 22-0 in its first game.)


VU
Postcard from Valparaiso University, 1911. Flickr.com.

World War I issued another blow. The famously affordable university had always attracted international students.  (One of the more unusual of them was future Soviet Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin, “Stalin’s Man in China,” who would die in a Siberian gulag in 1951.)  But after 1914, many of these students left to fight for their European homelands in WWI.  When America entered the war against Germany in 1917, student military enlistment left Valpo’s academic and residence halls almost empty.  Also, with plenty of war-related jobs now available to women, female students also tended to skip out on college for the duration of the war.


Journal Gazette (Mattoon, IL), July 17, 1923
Journal Gazette, Mattoon, IL, July 17, 1923. Newspapers.com.

In 1919, Indiana passed a new law requiring private colleges to maintain a half-million dollar endowment.  Cash-strapped Valparaiso University, burdened with a $350,000 debt (almost $5 million in today’s money) faced the real prospect of bankruptcy.  The school’s trustees even tried to sell it to the state that year for use as a public teacher’s college, but the Indiana legislature declined the offer.

Holding on by a thread — and led by controversial president Daniel Russell Hodgdon, who turned out to hold fake medical degrees — desperate trustees and the equally-desperate citizens of Valparaiso sought new owners.  That list of potential “saviors” grew to include the Presbyterian Church, the International Order of the Moose, and the owner of Cook Laboratories in Chicago, who wanted to turn the campus into a syringe factory and provide 1,000 jobs to townsfolk.


Daily Republican (Rushville, IN), August 16, 1923
Daily Republican, Rushville, Indiana, August 16, 1923. Newspapers.com.

Then, in August 1923, a new bidder expressed interest. For some residents of Valparaiso — which hosted a parade of at least 6,000 Klansmen in May 1923 that attracted 50,000 visitors from around the Midwest — the offer from the Ku Klux Klan to take over the struggling school seemed like a God-send.  Academics, alumni, and students thought differently, especially Catholics and Jews, and many were ready to pack up and leave. Yet, as far as the trustees were concerned, the question of selling Valparaiso University to the Ku Klux Klan mostly came down to whether that organization itself had the resources to made good on its own offer.

The efforts of the revived Klan proved more durable than that which had died out in the 1870s.  Klan rallies and parades occurred all over the North and West, from Chicago and L.A. to Oregon and Maine.   KKK membership in those years peaked in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, “ground zero” for some of the biggest Klan activity.  D.C. Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in 23 states, operated mostly out of his headquarters in Indianapolis, a city that was almost taken over by Klansmen and Klanswomen; It was also a city that fought a valiant battle in the press, courts, and churches to discredit the “Invisible Empire.”


KKK Members, Valparaiso, 1923
Klansmen on Franklin Street, Valparaiso, Indiana, 1923. Smithsonian Magazine (via Ancestry.com).

The Fiery Cross, May 11, 1923
Fiery Cross, May 11, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The “second wave” of the Klan defined itself as a hyper-patriotic organization of white Protestant Americans and was more mainstream than at any other point in its history. Instead of waving the Confederate flag at rallies and parades as had previous iterations of the Klan, they flew the red, white, and blue. During the 1920s, the Klan was less concerned with suppressing African Americans than with stemming the tide of new immigration coming from Southern and Eastern Europe — including to heavily-industrial towns like Gary, just thirty miles from Valparaiso.  The Klan sought to cripple an imaginary conspiracy contending that Catholics wanted to destroy American public schools and hand the U.S. government over to the Pope. It also warned of the activities of “Jewish Communists” and anarchists in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the 1919 Red Scare. Prohibition of alcohol, another cause taken up by the KKK, was a barely concealed way to crack down on immigrant culture.

Ku Klux Klan Rally in Washington, D.C. on September 13, 1926. Library of Congress.

These views were shared by thousands of Americans who didn’t belong to the Klan. The “Invisible Empire” even found strange bedfellows in the Progressive movement, including women’s suffrage advocates, who espoused some of the same “reform” ideals promoted by the Klan, albeit with different objectives. They also got involved in public health. In 1925, the organization helped fund a hospital in Logansport that catered only to Protestants. Alongside these initiatives, acquiring a university would have helped the Klan project a more legitimate image. Since Valparaiso was a teacher’s college, the Klan could also propagandize American children from within schools.


Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923
The Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923 (4)
The Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By July of 1923, the trustees of Valparaiso University and the Klan were talking. Representing the Klan was Milt Elrod, whom Stephenson had recently made editor of the Fiery Cross, the major KKK newspaper, printed at the Century Building on South Pennsylvania Street in downtown Indianapolis.

When encountering obvious concern from much of the faculty and student body, Elrod assured the press that a Ku Klux takeover of the school would change nothing except the trustee board, which was to be filled with Klan appointees.  The school would remain open to women and would be non-sectarian, Elrod insisted — though Catholic students were already beginning to drop out and enroll elsewhere.  Ludicrously, Elrod initially claimed that the Klan would admit any applicant who met the proper educational requirements, including African Americans, though he later admitted that the school would not have adequate facilities for them.  (The sad irony is that Valparaiso University did not admit African Americans even before the Klan tried to buy it.)


Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 16, 1923 (2)
Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, August 16, 1923. Newspapers.com.

Few people (trustees excepted, it seems) took Elrod at his word when he said that nothing else would change at the university, except skyrocketing enrollment and the return of its once prestigious reputation.  Yet Elrod’s enemies had already come out. In the Fiery Cross on August 24, 1923, he was busy singling out “un-American” and “alien forces” as his opponents. Elrod may have been quick to pick up on campus rumors that Catholic priests from Notre Dame had visited town, spurring the Klan to act soon and not be outbid by the “agents of Rome.”


Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923 (3)
The Fiery Cross, August 24, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Heavy opposition came from the press.  Even in Indiana, major urban newspapers tended to be anti-Klan, including the Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis News and most famously the Indianapolis Times, which won a Pulitzer for its battle against the group.  Some of the sharpest criticism, however, came from George R. Dale, the wildly colorful and energetic editor of the Muncie Post Democrat.  Dale, who endured death threats and assaults on his life and that of his family, ran a paper that was virtually one long, rambunctious op-ed piece, employing a folksy humor to give sucker-punches to the powerful “Indiana Realm.” Dale went on to become mayor of Muncie in 1930.


Muncie Post Democrat, August 3, 1923
Muncie Post Democrat, August 3, 1923. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Editors and cartoonists nationwide– including E.H. Pomeroy, an illustrator for the Valparaiso Vidette — tore into Elrod’s proposal once it came out that he might, in fact, get hold of the $350,000 in cash needed to bail the school out of debt.  (Elrod also promised that the Klan would set it up on a million-dollar endowment, twice the amount required by Indiana law.)  As the story spread across the U.S., an illustrator in the New York Call went straight for the jugular, publishing a parody of Dante’s Inferno — “Abandon All Brains Ye Who Enter Here.”  The cartoon depicts book-burning, classes in whipping and tar-and-feathering, a “Klinik” to teach “100% Americanism,” and a commencement day ceremony where students sport an unconventional new style of cap and gown.


Abandon All Brains, Ye Who Enter Here. Republished in Literary Digest, September 15, 1923. UNZ.org.

Another critical broadside came from Helena, Montana.  The writer in Helena’s Independent Record thought that a bout of education for those in the Klan might at least have a few “salutary” side-effects.


The Independent Record (Helena, Montana), August 28, 1923

The Independent Record (Helena, Montana), August 28, 1923 (2)
The Independent Record, Helena, Montana, August 28, 1923. Newspapers.com.

One editorial, “Ku Klux and Kolleges”, appeared in Robert W. Bingham’s Louisville Courier-JournalIt asks if there is no provision in the Indiana school’s original charter to prevent the sale to the Klan.  The Courier-Journal also pointed out that many teachers in Kentucky had been trained at Valparaiso in its better days, and that Kentuckians should be concerned about its ultimate fate.


Louisville Courier-Journal, July 27, 1923 (3)
Louisville Courier-Journal, July 27, 1923. Newspapers.com.

Though excitement among some Valparaiso citizens allegedly ran high, Milt Elrod was probably too quick to make blustery promises about the Klan’s own financial strength.  His proposal to buy the school wasn’t completely baseless, but Elrod was a notorious booster and propagandist.

Through the sale of thousands of robes, newspaper subscriptions, and membership fees, the leadership of the Klan had amassed huge fortunes for itself.  D.C. Stephenson had gone from being a poor coal dealer in Evansville to a wealthy man by age 33, but he squandered Klan money on liquor, women, cars, and a yacht. Even the $350,000 needed to buy the Valparaiso campus — not to mention the $1,000,000 offered as an endowment — was apparently beyond the ability of the Klan to come up with (or hang onto).

The American press and higher education breathed a sigh of relief when, after just a few weeks, Elrod feebly announced that the Klan had changed its mind due to “legal technicalities.”  Some papers reported that — true to the Louisville Courier-Journal’s suggestion — a clause in the school’s original charter had been discovered, preventing control by any “fraternal, benevolent or charitable order” (an inaccurate description of the Klan, at any rate).


Fort Wayne Daily News, September 5, 1923. Newspapers.com.

“Legal technicalities” caused by the school’s charter might have been a myth, a clever way for both the university and the Klan to save face after the embarrassing episode.  Most newspapers ran with it, but there seems to be little evidence that university trustees would have called off the sale if enough cash had been put down in front of them.


Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, September 11, 1923
Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, September 11, 1923. Newspapers.com.

Fortunately, Valparaiso University never fell into KKK hands. With the corrupt Klan itself in disarray by 1925, and with Stephenson headed to the nearby state prison at Michigan City for rape and murder, any future Klan bids were out of the question.

In the summer of 1925, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod rescued the run-down, almost abandoned school.  Lutherans at that time had several colleges and seminaries around the U.S., but no university. They announced vague plans to use it as a theology school or teachers’ college.  Securing the deal was assisted by Reverend John C. Baur, a Lutheran minister and noted opponent of the Ku Klux Klan in Fort Wayne, Indiana.


The Republic (Columbus, IN), May 18, 1925
The Republic, Columbus, Indiana, May 18, 1925. Newspapers.com.

Under Lutheran guidance, Valparaiso University’s fortunes gradually turned around, though it barely survived the Great Depression.  By the 1950s, “Old Valpo” once again ranked among Indiana’s and the nation’s best colleges, a reputation it still holds today.


Hoosier State Chronicles provides searchable access to several years of The Fiery Cross.

Other materials from the Indiana State Library on the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana can be found here.

Contact:  staylor336 [AT] gmail.com

What Pearl Bassett’s Memory Reveals About Discrimination in Marion

Image of Pearl Bassett courtesy of WRTV

*This post was written by IUPUI Public History graduate student Molly Hollcraft. 

Often, stories and memories play an important part in understanding history. They offer a human element that helps connect people to one another. W. Todd Groce wrote in an article for History News that “Memory is deeply emotional,” and when people remember something they do so because they have a connection to it. According to historian David Thelen, memory “can illuminate how individuals, ethnic groups, political parties, and cultures shape and reshape their identities.” In 2009, at the age of 98, Black activist Pearl Cannon Bassett gave an interview to a student at the University of Southern Indiana. In the interview, she recounted events related to civil rights and desegregation that she witnessed while living in Marion, Indiana. Bassett’s memories of the discrimination and Civil Rights Movement in Grant County illuminate how Black citizens in Marion shaped their identity.

Pearl Bassett and Civil Rights

Pearl Elizabeth Cannon Bassett was born April 28, 1911, in Marion, Indiana. Aside from the years she spent in Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois, Pearl Bassett, also known to many as “Ms. Pearl,” spent her life in Marion. In her oral history interview, Bassett briefly talked about her early education and her family. She recalled how her teacher lowered her grade because it was “too high.” While she was not living in Marion at the time, she recalled the impact the 1930 Marion lynching had on the local Black community. As a 19-year-old, she would have been about the same age as victims Tom Shipp and Abe Smith. In August, the young men had been jailed for the murder of Claude Deeter and rape of Mary Ball. A white mob ripped Shipp and Smith from their cells, brutally beat them, and lynched them near the Marion courthouse. Fearing for her safety, Bassett’s family told her that she should not return home yet. When the National Guard was called into action in Marion not long after the lynching, some of the soldiers were standing in her family’s yard. In remembering the lynching, she said “that was terrible because we had a lot of discrimination.” Shortly after the tragedy, she became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Through organizations like the NAACP, Bassett became an active member in the Marion community and helped fight discrimination and segregation. Her name appeared frequently in the African American newspaper The Indianapolis Recorder for these efforts. Her work included how helping the Red Cross reach its quota for war relief, serving as chairman for the war service commission, and serving as a board member for the Carver Community Center. In her interview, Bassett talked about how she helped organize the NAACP Auxiliary, Women in NAACP, and the Urban Gild, all of which would play a role in desegregation efforts throughout the city.

Matter Park, ca. 1925, courtesy of Indiana Album.

She also described the discrimination that Black citizens in Marion faced because of segregated of swimming pools, such as Matter Park. Before its 1954 integration, African Americans had to travel to Anderson to swim. When they did get to swim in the Marion pools they would be drained and refilled afterwards. While it is unclear how directly Bassett was involved in these efforts, it is certainly possible as she was a member of the Marion Urban League, one of the two civil rights organizations that worked to desegregate the swimming pool.

We do know that she participated in anti-discrimination efforts through civil disobedience, as she stated: “When we could not go into the restaurant and eat. . . we formed a committee, and we just read the civil rights law, which has always been right. . . . And if they didn’t open up the place, when they were charged $100 a person in their restaurant. So they opened it up the day we walked in there.”

Photo of Pearl Bassett with a plaque that says “Marion’s First Minority Champion.” Photo courtesy of Rawls Mortuary

She also joined an NAACP march in 1969, recalling “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.” The Ku Klux Klan tried unsuccessfully to confront them at the courthouse, but were told by the city that “they would need a permit and that they [the KKK] would have to take their hoods off.” This was not the only experience that Pearl Bassett had with the Klan. While president of one of the many organizations she was involved in, she received a call from the Klan members. She said, “Many a time they told me they were coming out and burn up my house.”

While in the NAACP, The Indianapolis Recorder reported in the 1960s that Bassett was elected secretary and chaplain for the Marion branch. Bassett was also the President of Women and “wore her tiara as the state queen of the NAACP” during a visit to Kokomo in 1982. She was also the first Black secretary of the Democratic Committee in Grant County. Pearl Bassett also received numerous awards from the NAACP and The Fort Wayne Frost Illustrated reported in 2004 that she received the Region Three Rosa Parks Women of the Year award for her work in civil rights. The Mayor of Marion made a Proclamation for Pearl Bassett Day and gave her a key to the city. In June 2021, Pearl Bassett passed away at the age of 110. Her first-hand accounts help humanize tragic events and shape the identity of Black citizens in Grant County. Her documented memories are invaluable because traditional media often mischaracterized or neglected to record minority history.

State Rep. Kevin Mahan (R-Hartford City) (left, podium) honoring Marion native Pearl Bassett (center), April 8, 2019, at the Indiana Statehouse, courtesy of the Indiana House of Representatives Republican Caucus.

Sources:

*Newspapers accessed through Hoosier State Chronicles and Newspapers.com.

W. Todd Groce, “The Value of History: When History and Memory Collide,” History News (2006): 5-6, accessed JSTOR.

David Thelen, “Memory and American History,” The Journal of American History (1989): 1117 1129, accessed JSTOR.

“Pearl Bassett,” Indiana Commission for Women: Writing her Story, 2019, accessed in.gov.

“Pearl Bassett Oral History Interview,” University of Southern Indiana, November 7, 2009, University Archives and Special Collections, David L. Rice Library, University of Southern Indiana.

Nicole Poletika, “Strange Fruit: The 1930 Marion Lynching and the Woman Who Tried to Prevent It,” Indiana History Blog, May 15, 2018, accessed The Indiana History Blog.

Death Through the (P)ages: Funeral Homes in Indiana

Muncie Funeral Parlor, 1910s. Indiana Memory.

During the month of Halloween, it seemed fitting to do a blog about the history of funeral parlors and funeral homes in Indiana. The funeral parlor, or funeral home, became a mainstay of American life in the late nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. Before that, most American families held a wake (now called a “viewing”) in their home, in a room often named the parlor. Then, they were either buried on the family homestead or in the cemetery by their church. The Civil War changed that; massive numbers of dead soldiers from across the country prompted new funerary practices, such as embalming and preserving for long trips. After the war, industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of the middle class facilitated further modernization of funerals. It was here that the funeral parlor, or funeral home, became the norm. In this blog, we will share with you how the funeral homes of Indiana’s past often advertised themselves in newspapers and how they developed into the modern, standardized industry that they are today.

Isaac Ball, the co-founder and first president of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association. Find a Grave.
Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail, May 21, 1881. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The modern Indiana funeral industry began in the 1880s, with the establishment of the Indiana Funeral Directors Association (IFDA). It was founded in 1880-81 by a group of undertakers led by funeral pioneer Isaac Ball. Ball and company wanted to modernize and standardize their practices, making it less macabre and more inviting to the public. One of the first steps that they took was a name change. No longer would leaders within the industry refer to themselves as “undertakers;” the preferred term under the IFDA was “funeral director,” hence the organization’s name. In fact, the Bloomington Progress even published as much in their June 1, 1881 issue: “An undertaker will hereafter be known as a ‘funeral director,’ at least that is the name the State organization has assumed.” Ball served as the IFDA’s first president at their first annual convention in Indianapolis. The Terre Haute Saturday Evening Mail published a short mention of the conference in their May 21 1881 issue, ironically noting that “It was an odd coincidence that the State Medical Association was in session at the capital at the same time.”

Coots and Willey’s Funeral Parlor, Jeffersonville, Indiana, 1897. Indiana Memory.

While “funeral director” became the accepted industry term, it took a few years for funeral homes around the state to use the term. Some of the earliest uses of “funeral director” found in Hoosier State Chronicles are in the Indianapolis News. Its April 21, 1899 issue printed a funeral director section on its classified page; similar funeral director sections from the classified pages can be found in 1916 and 1918, respectively. Individual funeral directors, such as Indianapolis’s Frank W. Flanner & Charles J. Buchanan, adopted the term as early as 1888.

Crawfordsville Weekly Journal , June 14 1901. Hoosier State Chronicles.

These examples are the general listings for funeral homes and funeral directors; there are also many newspaper advertisements that document the change in funeral homes over time. One of the earliest paid ads found in Hoosier State Chronicles was for the Athens Funeral Parlor, run by William D. McClelland in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1901. McClelland fully purchased the business in June of 1901 and published a formal announcement in the June 7 issue of the Crawfordsville Journal:

Having purchased the Interest of my partner, W. W. McCann, in the undertaking business, situated on south Water street, (Thomas block) I submit my services to the public of this city and county, competent in the business and profession which each and every family have to support sooner or later. My equipments [sic] are of the best, and stock first class, and at reasonable prices, and each one will be treated with only kindness and respect. Death comes to all and the great responsibility of the care is taken from the family in this sad and distressful hour. Hoping that you may feel when you place your confidence in me that it will be for carried out to the letter,

I Remain Your Friend

W. D. MCCLELLAND.

Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, May 2, 1902. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another ad ran in a 1902 issue of the Crawfordsville Journal. The later ad provided more details on the staff of the funeral parlor. Alongside McClelland’s title as “proprietor” and “licensed embalmer.” He also employed a “lady assistant” (to prepare the bodies of deceased women and girls) and a business assistant named James H. Robbins.

Indianapolis Recorder, January 12, 1907. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, February 9, 1907. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, July 11, 1914. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One demographic well documented in Hoosier State Chronicles, in regards to funeral homes and directors, is the African American community. George W. Frierson, originally from Nashville, Tennessee and then Louisville, Kentucky, established a funeral parlor at 632 Indiana Avenue (near the Walker Theatre) in 1907. The first published ad for Frierson’s funeral parlor ran in the January 12, 1907 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder. About a month later, a new ad ran in the Recorder confirming that Frierson partnered with James B. Garner, an embalmer. Frierson served as the “proprietor” and Garner as the “manager.” Like McClelland back in Crawfordsville, they also had a “lady attendant.” Frierson maintained his funeral parlor until at least 1914, at which point it was located at 642 Indiana Avenue.

W. A. Gaines Funeral Home, Evansville, Indiana, 1920. Indiana Memory.
Portrait of W. A. Gaines, 1920. Indiana Memory.
Evansville Argus, September 26, 1942. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another key African American funeral parlor owner was Wallace A. Gaines of Evansville. Gaines founded the W. A. Gaines Company in 1918 with wife Tillie Y. Gaines and Rudolph D. O’Hara and $5,000 in initial capital, according to the Indianapolis News. It ran ads in Evansville newspapers for decades, with the particular ad in the September 10, 1938 issue of the Argus being an example. Gaines died in 1940, but his funeral home operated until at least 1989, when the last mention of its operation was made in the Indianapolis Recorder. It was then run by Michael J. Bluitt, who owned the funeral home and served as one of IFDA’s presidents.

Richmond Palladium, October 26, 1914. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While funeral parlor ads generally represented newspaper coverage, pithy anecdotes also made the cut. An interesting story out of Chicago and published in the Richmond Palladium noted that “Eighty women, playing cards for a prize, adjourned their game to an undertaking room and continued playing . . . with several coffins . . . .” The ladies moved to the funeral parlor “after the police had broken up their game at the home of Mrs. Clara Dermot.” It is unclear whether or not the coffins were occupied.

South Bend News-Times, January 26, 1915. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Up in the north, the city of South Bend maintained a few funeral parlors in the early 20th century. Harry L. Yerrick ran a funeral business in the 1910s in South Bend, as sort of a jack-of-all-trades with funerals. In a 1915 ad in the South Bend News-Times, Yerrick declared that “I am as near to you as your telephone” and cited multiple services, including a chapel, an ambulance, and a carriage. Yerrick died in 1920 and Clem C. Whiteman and Forest G. Hay took over the business. Whiteman owned a wholesale grocery company and Hay was the partner given “active charge of the business for the present.” In September of 1920, James H. McGann joined the business as their “licensed embalmer”, holding “one of the highest grades in the state” for his profession. Over the decades, McGann eventually created his own funeral home business while Hay’s also flourished. In 2005, after multiple generations of their respective businesses, they merged to form the McGann-Hay Company. The funeral home is now based in Granger, Indiana. What started as one guy’s profession became a decades-long, family-run business that still operates today.

Casket With the Body of a Young Woman named Clara, Spiceland, Indiana, 1900s. Indiana Memory.

By the late 1920s, newspapers published more elaborate, detailed funeral home ads to share the services they offered. John A. Patton’s Funeral Home on Boulevard Place ran an ad describing its “thoughtful service” in the February 12, 1927 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder. The ad declared:

After the last rites are said over a departed relative, and the family recalls with comforting satisfaction the smooth attentive manner in which everything was executed, then comes a realization of the assuaging helpfulness of the thoughtful funeral director.

It is this faithful service that endears the funeral director in the hearts [of] families and in such manner we have built up our business. Our desire always is to serve in a thoughtful dignified way.

Indianapolis Recorder, February 12, 1927. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The texts reads like a service itself, with keen attention paid to the grieving families and an emphasis on dignity and thoughtfulness. This wasn’t the only ad from the period like this. When Nannie Harrison reopened her late husband’s funeral parlor in 1929, she published a nearly half-page ad in the Recorder. Pitching it as the “most modern funeral parlor,” Harrison’s ad proclaimed that families “will be satisfied at so complete a service for the benefit of those who mourn the loss of their loved ones . . . .”

Knightstown Buggy Company Catalog, 1920s. Indiana Memory.
Indianapolis Recorder, January 19, 1929. Hoosier State Chronicles.

This trend continued into the 1930s. The Willis Mortuary in Indianapolis published an ad in a 1936 issue of the Recorder that called it their “honor to serve you in your hour of bereavement” and “endeavor[ed] to live up to your greatest expectations.” Nearly a decade after the illustrious grand reopening of the Harrison funeral parlor, brothers Plummer and Carey Jacobs opened up their Indianapolis Funeral Home on October 30, 1938. Two days before, they took out a whole-page ad in the Recorder to inform the public of their formal opening, including a full program of events and photographs of their new facilities. A few days later, the Recorder ran an unsolicited article about the Jacobs Brothers Funeral Home grand opening. “Marking another milestone in the increasingly brilliant parade of business activities among colored persons,” the Recorder reported, “thousands of persons swarms the new eastside funeral home of Jacobs Brothers in an unbroken stream Sunday.” They further added that the “general comment is that this is finest funeral home in the city for our people.” The Jacobs brothers had joined a long, historic line of groundbreaking, African-American funeral directors in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis Recorder, October 29, 1938. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Recorder, November 5, 1938. Hoosier State Chronicles.

As the 1940s went along, not only did funeral home ads get more detailed, but the funeral home section did as well. A 1949 issue in the Indianapolis Recorder dedicated an entire newspaper column to fully detailed and illustrated funeral home ads, for such businesses as the Willis Mortuary, King & King Funeral Home, and the aforementioned Jacobs brothers. However, some papers, like the Sullivan Daily Times, stuck to a more simple approach to funeral homes, with one, non-detailed ad for the McHugh funeral home and a smaller ad for M. J. Aikin & Son.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 26, 1949. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Speaking of the King & King funeral home, one of their more unique ads ran in the winter of 1951. King & King released a full-page ad on December 22 wishing the community a Merry Christmas. It came with a holiday message, much akin to a greeting card, and advertised the funeral home at the bottom, emphasizing their “Ambulance Service.” Now, if this strikes the reader as odd, other funeral homes engaged in this practice. As an example, a December 1963 ad in the Wolcott Beacon from the Foster Funeral Home wished readers a happy new year. They didn’t, however, advertise their ambulance service.

Indianapolis Recorder, December 22, 1951. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Wolcott Beacon, December 26, 1963. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The 1960s brought further experimentation to funeral home ads in newspapers. A rather clever ad in the Greencastle Daily Banner displayed the Whitaker Funeral home, who used their ad space to share with readers a short fable. “Experience is a bad teacher,” the story declared in its final line, “she gives the test first; the lesson afterwards.” Using ad space to share an amusing homily while advertising a funeral business appears inappropriate, but it actually elicits from readers a humble, personal connection that personifies the best in advertising.

Greencastle Daily Banner. February 19, 1968. Hoosier State Chronicles.
J. A. DeMoney & Son Funeral Parlor, Columbia City, Indiana, circa 1960. Indiana Memory.

Ads and business articles about funeral homes comprise the majority of coverage in newspapers, but occasional editorials surfaced as well. In the April 21, 1972 issue of the Jewish Post, Rabbi Maurice Davis wrote a heavily critical editorial concerning a funeral practice, not of the directors, but of the visitors. Entitled, “Visiting at Funeral Parlor as Un-Jewish as They Come,” Rabbi Davis lambasted the practice of a “wake” the night before a funeral, arguing that the “pre-funeral chapel visitation” goes against Jewish traditions of shiva (meeting with the family at their home after the funeral) and violates the mourners’ rights to privacy. “I only wish,” Rabbi Davis wrote, “that more of our people would know the origin, and move away from the practice of this distasteful custom.” The wake has continued to be a common practice at funerals since Davis’s time, but his editorial educates readers on traditional Jewish funeral practices.

Jewish Post, April 21, 1972. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Circling back to advertising, funeral homes often used their newspaper space to celebrate their anniversary as a business. The Hopkins Funeral Home put out an ad in the Greencastle Banner Graphic in 1973 celebrating their 20th anniversary. “We are proud of the reputation for dependability that we have in servicing Putnam County for 20 years. Feel confident in turning to us in your hour of need,” the full-page ad lauded.

Greencastle Banner Graphic, December 13, 1973. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Ads from the 1980s and 90s highlighted the benefits of pre-arranging funerals, an expanding practice during the last 30 years. Summers Funeral Chapels published an ad in the Indianapolis Recorder in 1989 selling the benefits of pre-arranged funerals, noting that “making arrangements ahead of time has become the smart thing to do.” The Meridian Hills Mortuary sent out an ad in a 1994 issue of the Jewish Post that also advocated for pre-arranged funerals. “Arranging a Funeral in advance of need is becoming more and more a choice of those who wish to relieve their family of the burden of making those arrangements at a time of emotional stress,” the ad stressed. This trend continued into the 2000s as well, with the Stuart Mortuary and the Washington Park North Cemetery and Funeral Center urging patrons to consider a pre-arranged funeral plan.

Indianapolis Recorder, January 14, 1989. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Jewish Post, February 9, 1994. Hoosier State Chronicles.

For over 120 years, funeral homes and funeral directors have gone from a small, burgeoning family enterprise to big business. Nevertheless, the focus on dignity, customer service, and the importance of family continued in the pages of newspaper ads. Whether it was Isaac Ball and the IFDA re-configuring an industry or modern funeral homes pitching pre-arranged funeral plans, the emphasis on being a caretaker for the bereaved has never wavered. Death is a sore topic of discussion; people fear it and often ignore it altogether. Yet, it’s as much as a part of life as a birth, a graduation, or a wedding. It also helps us understand how we live, as a culture. Funerals changed as America, and Indiana, changed; they evolved from mostly rural and familial affairs into urban and professionalized practices. In sharing this history, as it unfolds in the pages of newspapers, we understand a crucial part of Hoosier life over the last century.

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.