Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage, 1945-1987

Photograph from Nancy Poling’s personal collection.
  •  Out of courtesy to their descendants, the names of the Richmond couple have been changed.

Twenty-two years before Loving v. Virginia, Anna Harley, a white woman, and Daniel Winters, an African American man, sacrificed family, friends, and even country, to live together as husband and wife. In 1986, the Winters allowed me to interview them at their Mexico City home. It took me nearly 30 years to write Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987). As the trust between us developed and they shared a part of their life they’d intended not to speak of, theirs became a more difficult narrative to put to paper. Looking back on their forty-two-year marriage—a tape recorder between them on their green sofa—they reflected on their relationship with startling honesty.*

On February 2, 1945, the Richmond, Indiana couple drove to Chicago, where they could legally marry. In Indiana “marriage between a white person and a person with one-eighth or more Negro blood” was a felony, punishable by a heavy fine, imprisonment, and the voiding of the marriage. Not until two years later, when Daniel’s mother, in Richmond, became ill, did the couple return to Indiana. During the eleven years they lived there, they were never prosecuted, but faced persecution.

Daniel was born in Richmond in 1908. The town he remembered was as segregated as most southern cities, with restaurants, beaches, and hotels off-limits to the city’s black population. When African American celebrities like Louis Armstrong, Joe Lewis, and Marian Anderson, visited the Indiana city they had to spend the night with a local widow, who rented out rooms.

A precocious child and an outstanding athlete, Daniel wasn’t bothered by the community’s discrimination until he was old enough to participate in team sports at school. A particularly painful memory included a frigid evening in which he had to change into his basketball uniform outside in the shadows of the YMCA building, because the association prohibited him from using its locker room. Although he took all of the advanced classes in high school, his white teachers never encouraged him to attend college. Yet in 1933, during the Great Depression, he graduated from Earlham College with a teaching degree in Spanish. While at the school, President William Cullen Dennis’s office chided Daniel for walking into town with groups of white women on his way home from classes. Daniel could not participate in Earlham’s social events that took place at the YMCA or Richmond hotels. After a long period of working menial jobs, he was able to teach Spanish in the federally-funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) program.

The Richmond Item, August 30, 1935, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

Anna, born near Lima, Ohio, was seven when her mother died. Six years later her father took off to California without her. Abandoned, she went to live with her older sister, Violet, in Brookville, Ohio, near Dayton. She grew up independent and with an adventuresome spirit. Following her 1938 graduation from Manchester College, in Indiana, she became a social worker.

Daniel and Anna met in Richmond. The WPA office he worked out of was located in the same building as the Unemployment Relief Agency, which Anna supervised. A gregarious man, Daniel went downstairs to visit the young women who worked there. He and Anna began meeting at night in the privacy of her car, where they talked, kissed, and held each other. When Anna was transferred to northern Indiana and attended meetings in Indianapolis, Daniel rode there by bus. Indianapolis was large enough for them to appear in public and maintain anonymity. Yet people stared when they walked arm in arm along the sidewalk. Men sneered, “whore” in passing.

Only one of Anna’s friends, Inez, met Daniel before the marriage. Inez was quickly drawn to his charm and urbane demeanor, but she warned in letters that Anna should follow her head instead of her heart. A daughter of Anna’s sister, Violet, later said, “Mom practically had a nervous breakdown,” upon learning of the approaching marriage.

Daniel working at International Harvester, courtesy of Nancy Poling’s personal collection.

With World War II boosting production, International Harvester hired Daniel as a janitor at its Richmond plant- some company leaders were convinced that African Americans lacked the intelligence to operate machinery. The labor union, however, valued his education and elected him to leadership positions. During the McCarthy era, like other union activists, he was labeled a communist and intimidated by the FBI.

When Harvester closed its Richmond plant in 1957, no one in town would hire the “n— commie troublemaker.” By now the family included two school-age daughters. A move to Mexico offered Daniel the opportunity to practice the profession he’d been trained for and their daughters a chance to grow up free of racial prejudice.

But the move put new stressors on the couple’s relationship. Daniel, who taught English at a prestigious boys’ school, was soon saying he felt “as Mexican as chili verde.” Anna, a reserved, blond woman, felt at odds with the effusive culture whose language she never fully mastered. Daniel resented her not being outgoing; she resented his making little effort to help her adjust.

While personal in nature, Daniel’s and Anna’s story is also cultural. It speaks to the discriminatory attitudes resulting from the Ku Klux Klan’s influence during the 1920s and of McCarthyism in the 1950s. It is not the happily-ever-after story I anticipated, but an honest portrayal of the love and hurt any two people, not just a biracial couple, can encounter in an intimate relationship.

Learn more about the struggles Daniel and Anna faced as a biracial couple in Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987), available wherever books are sold.

* Daniel died five months after the interview; Anna is also deceased.

Charles Gordone: Finding His Place to Be Somebody

Charles Gordone
Charles Gordone, accessed Blackpast.org.

The unified efforts of the Civil Rights Movement began to fracture when in 1966 a new strategy and ideology emerged, known as the Black Power Movement.  This new movement also influenced the development of the Black Arts Movement.  According to historian Ann Chambers, the Black Arts Movement did not speak for the entire black community; however, the movement gave a “new sense of racial pride to many young African-American artists.” One African-American writer and actor who opposed the Black Arts Movement was Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Charles Gordone.

Gordone was born Charles Fleming in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 12, 1925.  In 1927, his mother moved with her children to Elkhart, Indiana.  By 1931, she married, changing Charles Fleming’s name to Charles Gordon.  He attended Elkhart High School and, although popular at school, faced racial discrimination while living in Indiana because of the divide between white and African-American children.  According to Gordon, both races rejected him.  White children avoided him because he was black, and the town’s African-American community shunned him because his family “lived on the other side of the tracks and . . . thought we [the Gordons] were trying to be white.”

After serving in the US Army Air Corps, he enrolled in Los Angeles City College, and graduated in 1952. Gordon stated that he majored in performing arts because “I couldn’t keep myself away from the drama department.”  His experiences in college influenced his outlook on race in America.  Gordon stated “I was always cast in subservient or stereotypical roles,” and he began wondering why he was not given prominent parts in Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello plays. After graduation, Gordon moved to New York City. Once on the east-coast, Charles Gordon added an “e” to the end of his name, and became Charles Gordone when he joined Actor’s Equity Association; a labor union for theater actors and stage managers.

Supporters of the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers picketing a theater in New York City, 1962, courtesy of gettyimages.co.uk.

Two months after Gordone’s arrival in New York, he performed in Moss Hart’s Broadway play, The Climate of Eden, the “first of many Broadway and off-Broadway productions” for Gordone. He soon realized that black actors had a hard time earning a living in the entertainment business, and he claimed he “began to get really intense” about the lack of acting jobs for African Americans.  He started conversing with many “young black actors,” and soon started picketing theaters on Broadway for better job opportunities. Similarly, fellow Hoosier actor William Walker, who portrayed Reverend Sykes in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, became a fierce civil rights advocate in Hollywood after being relegated to roles as a domestic servant because of his race. Walker worked with actor and future president Ronald Reagan to obtain more roles for African Americans.

Around 1963, Gordone became the chairman of the Committee for Employment of Negro Performers (CENP). Gordone claimed in 1962 and 1963 that television producers feared the withdrawal of corporate sponsorship if they “put Negroes in their shows” and that “discrimination took more forms in the entertainment field than in any other industry.”

Although the Civil Rights Movement had made extensive strides toward improving equality among the races, civil rights laws did not deter de facto segregation, or forms of segregation not “codified in law but practiced through unwritten custom.” In most of America, social norms excluded African Americans from decent schools, exclusive clubs, suburban housing divisions, and “all but the most menial jobs.”  Federal laws also did not address the various factors causing urban black poverty. As racial tension mounted throughout the United States, Gordone struggled to survive in New York City.  During the last half of the 1950s, out of work and broke, Gordone took a job as a waiter for Johnny Romero in the first African-American owned bar in Greenwich Village.  His experiences there inspired his play No Place to Be Somebody, which he began scripting in 1960.

During the next seven years writing his play, Gordone sporadically worked in the theater industry.  He was an original member of the cast for Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show.  The playwright, a white man, intended the play for an all African-American cast and a white audience.  He states in his script that “One evening an actor asked me to write a play for an all-black cast.  But what exactly is a black?  First of all, what’s his color?”

In The Blacks: A Clown Show, African Americans wage war against the “white power structure,” and the oppressed evolve into the oppressor. Warner noted that Genet’s play put Gordone “in touch with his black anger.”  In 1969, Gordone claimed that his experience as part of the cast changed his life because the play dealt with problems about race, enabled him to confront the “hatred and fear I [Gordone] had inside me about being black,” and introduced a talented group of African-American actors to the entertainment media including James Earl Jones and Maya Angelou.

1970 play bill, accessed hollywoodmemorabilia.com

Gordone finished his own play, No Place to Be Somebody, in 1967. The plot of the play revolves around an African-American bar owner named Johnny Williams.  Other characters include a mixed-race actor, a black homosexual dancer, a Jewish strumpet, a black prostitute, an Irish hipster, an aging black hustler, a member of the Italian mafia, an influential white judge, and the judge’s idealistic daughter. Johnny Williams, is a tavern-owner, pimp and wannabe racketeer.  His foil, Gabriel, also an African-American, is an intellectual struggling to be accepted as a legitimate actor.

According to a New York Times reviewer, the characters are forced to try and survive in a society controlled by white standards.  Johnny Williams possesses a desire to become “somebody” in Italian-run organized crime; Gabriel fails in his attempts to be cast in African American roles because he is light-skinned. The characters’ actions in No Place to Be Somebody are influenced by racial and cultural pressures directed towards characters of opposing races.  According to Gordone, “It [the play] is the story of power, about somebody who is stifled who was born in a subculture and feels the only out is through the subculture.”  By the end of the play, most of the characters fail in obtaining their goals because they have all set their “ambitions in excess of their immediate limitations.”

Gordone originally offered the play to the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC); an acting group rooted in the Black Arts Movement. He claimed the co-founder, Robert Hooks, turned it down because the NEC did not allow white actors in their theater troupe. Gordone and Warner produced a “showcase version” of the play at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in 1967, but “the response wasn’t too good.”  Gordone and Warner lost all their money in the venture. But in 1969, the play was accepted for the “Other Stage Workshop,” in Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, at the New York Shakespeare Festival.

Charles Gordone
Gordone directing his Pulitzer Prize-winning play at Joe Papp’s Public Theatre in New York, courtesy of Ebony.com.

No Place to Be Somebody opened on May 4, 1969 to mixed reviews.  New York Times reviewer, Walter Kerr, compared Gordone’s work to Edward Albee’s masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Other reviews called the play “engrossing,” “powerful,” and hailed it as one of the “unique” plays of 1969.  On the contrary, influential African-American critic, Clayton Riley, blasted the play’s poor production and directorial choices.  Riley also questioned Gordone’s “incomprehensible” dialogue, depiction of “self-hatred,” “contempt for Black people,” and his “desire to say too much.”  Yet, Riley did state that Gordone possessed “splendid talents.”  According to Gordone, Riley’s review “hurt Riley more than me [Gordone] … brother Clayton is uptight.  He can’t face it that The [white] Man is helping one of his brothers.”

Headline from The [Arkansas] Hope Star, May 6, 1970, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.
After the play’s opening, No Place to Be Somebody quickly moved to the Anspacher Theater for an extended period of time and opened for a limited run on Broadway in the ANTA Theater. Exactly one year after the play opened at the Shakespeare Festival, May 4, 1970, Gordone won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  The play was the first off-Broadway winner, and Gordone became known as the first African-American playwright to win the award.  Yet he did not appreciate being categorized as a member of “black theater” or the Black Arts Movement, unlike Indianapolis poet Etheridge Knight.

According to a 1982 interview, Gordone’s views on race “alienated many blacks.” Gordone argued, in a 1970 New York Times editorial piece, that writers like LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) should write about more than “how badly the black man is treated and how angry he is.”  Gordone believed such theater intensified the split amongst the races, and he questioned “Is black really ‘beautiful’?  Or is that beauty always hidden underneath the anger and resentment?”  According to Gordone, Jones’ writing was “egotistical, smug, angry (never violent), frightened, and damning of every white man in the world,” and Gordone took offense that Jones was “attempting to speak for all people of color in this country.”

According to Mance Williams, Gordone opposed the Black Arts Movement’s notion that the “Black Experience is a singular and unique phenomenon.”  Gordone believed that African-American culture was one part of the larger American Culture, reasoning that without the “white experience,” there cannot be a “black experience.” Williams states that Gordone believed the races were interrelated, and helped create the unique qualities that defined the “white” and “black” races. In a 1992 interview, Gordone said “We need to redefine multiculturalism.  There’s only one culture—the American culture, and we have many ethnic groups who contribute.”

Poet Amiri Baraka, a major figure in the Black Arts Movement, courtesy of Amherstmedia.org.

One possible explanation for Gordone’s belief in multiculturalism is the fact that he claimed his ancestral makeup consisted of “part Indian, part French, part Irish, and part nigger,” and he jokingly called himself “a North American mestizo.” Williams claims the playwright deemed the “color problem” could only be resolved through cooperation between the races, and that is why Gordone shied away from any radical political movements that could further divide the races.  However, according to Gordone, his exclusion from the Black Arts Movement left him “Dazed, hurt, confused, and filled with self-pity.”

Gordone claimed his professional success put tremendous pressure on him. Winning the Pulitzer Prize made Gordone unhappy because he was acclaimed as a writer, rather than a director. According to Gordone, “every time you sit down at a typewriter, you’re writing a Pulitzer Prize. You’re always competing with yourself and you have to write something that’s as good or better.” In 1969, he began drinking heavily, hoping “get the muse out of the bottle” after the “long struggle.” During Gordone’s battle with alcoholism, he still worked in the theater industry.  He got involved with a group called Cell Block Theater, which used theater as therapy as part of an inmate rehabilitation program.

In 1981, Gordone met Susan Kouyomjian and in 1982 they founded The American Stage, an organization devoted to casting minorities into non-traditional roles, in Berkeley, California.  The American Stage productions included A Streetcar Named Desire with a Creole actor playing Stanley; Of Mice and Men with two Mexican-American actors playing George and Lenny; and The Night of the Iguana with an African American actor in the lead role of Shannon.  According to Gordone, he and Kouyomjian never overtly wanted to provide more opportunities for “black, Hispanic and Asian actors,” but Gordone said “it is now very much my thing.”  Their goal was to logically cast actors “so that you don’t insult the work’s integrity.”  Gordone believed “innovative casting enhances the plays,” and makes them so exciting that “it’s almost like you’re seeing them for the first time.”

Charles Gordone, photo by Susan Kouyomjian Gordone, accessed African American Registry.

In a 1988 interview, Gordone continued commenting about the portrayal of race in contemporary literature and theater.  Susan Harris Smith asked if theater critics viewed Gordone as “black first and a writer second?”  He replied “Yes” and commented the practice was “racist.”  He claimed he was a playwright trying to “write about all people . . . and to say I [Gordone] have a black point of view is putting me in a corner.” He believed African-American critics finally reached a “significant realization” about the theme of No Place to Be Somebody, that “if blacks walk willingly into the mainstream without scrutiny their identity will die or they will go mad.”

In 1987, Texas A&M University hired Gordone to teach in the English and Speech Communications Department. There, Gordone began embracing the American-western lifestyle or “cowboy culture.”  The playwright stated, “The West had always represented a welcoming place for those in search of a new life,” and he found a “spirit of newfound personal freedom” within the American West.  Gordone remained in Texas until his death on November 16, 1995.  Friends and family scattered his ashes in a “traditional cowboy ceremony, with a riderless horse” near Spring Creek Ranch, Texas.

Learn more about Gordone via the Indiana Historical Bureau’s historical marker.

The Indiana General Assembly (1850-1865): A New Constitution and the Civil War

 

Accessed The Indiana Historian.

* See Part Two: Surveying, the First Statehouse, and Financial Collapse (1826-1846)

The New State Constitution of 1851

After years of political and budgetary turmoil, the Indiana General Assembly and the general public agreed that it was time for an improved state constitution. The failures of the Mammoth Internal Improvements Act in the 1830s and 1840s precipitated a need for more safeguards against “special legislation,” or local legislation that served special interests.[1] The election of state delegates, many from within the General Assembly, ensured that state debt would be contained and allowed for only special defense purposes. For example, delegate Schulyer Colfax (future vice-president under Ulysses S. Grant) wanted the language on debt to be so clear that, “no more State debt shall hereafter be created upon any pretext whatever. . .”[2] The limitations enacted against the General Assembly created a rigid political system that neglected the promise of debt remuneration for at least three decades, especially during the disastrous effects of the Civil War.

The delegates, however, did create more effective organizational tools for the legislature. The General Assembly was provided with biennial sessions with sixty-one days of legislative time, and a two-year term for representatives and a four-year term for senators were also established. Furthermore, the House and Senate were limited to only 100 and fifty members, respectively. These same provisions continue today, with the notable exception that the General Assembly now meets every year. The delegates also made some social progress, instituting a stronger push for public schools and easier access to citizenship for immigrants.[3] Yet, there was one particular provision of the new state constitution that created widespread animosity up through the Civil War.

Indiana and Race: The Antebellum Years

When the state constitution was ratified by the public in February 1851, it institutionalized its own version of racism. Article 13 stated that, “No negro or mulatto shall come into or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.”[4] Even though Indiana was a Free State, a strong antagonism towards African-Americans lingered. As historian David G. Vanderstel noted, Article 13 “demonstrated the strength of the exclusion and colonization movements, which sought to remove blacks to Africa.”[5] Voting rights for the already 11,000 African-American citizens was also prohibited by the 1851 constitution, and African-American marriages were also left unrecognized.[6] Many of these egregious policies were slowly reversed after the Civil War, but discrimination and legal obfuscations continued well into the mid-twentieth century.

Indiana and the Civil War

The Civil War permanently altered the course of the United States, and Indiana’s unique role in the conflict underscored these drastic changes. Indiana ranked second among the Union in the amount of troops, just over 197,000, and suffered over 25,000 casualties.[7] While personal sacrifices occurred on the battlefield, an internal civil war erupted between the governor and the Indiana General Assembly. The eye of this political hurricane was Governor Oliver P. Morton, often cited as Indiana’s most influential Governor. Elected as Lieutenant Governor under Henry Smith Lane, Morton assumed the governorship after Lane went the U.S. Senate.[8] From 1861 to 1867, Morton made his presence felt throughout the state, often in controversial ways.

Indiana’s war-time Governor. His policies led to a fierce internal civil war with the General Assembly, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Morton’s leadership exacerbated the political divisions within the Indiana General Assembly. Some Democratic legislators scrambled to remain relevant, supporting the aims of the Union but not the executive power grabs of Morton or President Lincoln. Others were fierce “Peace Democrats,” which the Morton administration targeted as “Copperheads” and “traitors.”[9] The same divide pervaded the Republicans as well, but their leadership often bowed to Morton’s forceful demands. But by 1862, the barrage of military failures and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had angered the Indiana public enough to ensure a Democratic sweep in the mid-term elections.

James F. D. Lanier. Sketch of the Life of J. F. D. Lanier (self published, 1877).

Once the Democrats had control of the state’s legislature and finances, the legislative progress of Indiana stagnated for over two years. When the General Assembly tried to pass a law that truncated the Governor’s war-time powers, the Republicans, “bolted, fleeing Indianapolis in order not to be forced to provide a legislative quorum.”[10] The finances of the state become so dire that Governor Morton, along with a consortium of bankers united by fellow Hoosier James Lanier, financed the state government by fiat, without legislative approval. At one point, Morton doled out funds from a safe in his office, virtually circumventing the General Assembly.[11] By 1864, Morton was essentially a dictator, but the cause of the Union, at least in his perspective, was larger than the need of constant legislative approval. The Indiana public largely agreed. The 1864 elections swept a wave of Republicans into the legislature, reelected Morton, and helped calm some of the storm that was Indiana’s government.

Once the war was over, Morton finished out his term and became a United States Senator. The Indiana General Assembly, by 1869, was flooded with Radical Republicans, ensuring that at least some of Reconstruction’s policies were carried out. Nonetheless, the Civil War divided the Hoosier state in ways not felt since, and Morton’s tempestuous relationship with the General Assembly certainly motivated those divisions.

Notable Legislators

  • Horace Heffren
    • The Civil War era was full of cantankerous characters, and State Representative Horace Heffren was no exception. In 1861, Heffren, a Democratic representative from Washington County, was accused of treason by Republican lawmaker Gideon C. Moody. Tensions grew so quickly that on February 11, 1861, Moody challenged Heffren to a duel in Campbell County, Kentucky. A Sheriff stopped them just before fatal shots could be fired and the Indiana General Assembly took no recourse against them.[12] After the attempted duel, Heffren was again tried for treason in 1864, but to no avail. Heffren was lambasted by Republicans as, “one of the most loudmouthed, rampant, bitter, boisterous, violent, venomous, poisonous copperheads that could be found on the face of the footstool.”[13] Whether or not Heffren was actually a traitor is lost to history, but the level of animus against him shows the bitter divisions within the Indiana General Assembly during the Civil War.
  • Alexander J. Douglas
    • The arrest and trial of Indiana State Senator Alexander J. Douglas provides us with a glimpse into the intense and polarizing era of the Civil War. Douglas, born in Ohio in 1827, practiced law and served as Whitley County prosecutor from 1859 until his election to the Indiana General Assembly in 1862.[14] With a voting public disgruntled from the heavy-handed policies of Morton, Douglas benefited from wave of votes for Democrats in the mid-term elections. As a fierce opponent of the policies of Lincoln and Governor Oliver P. Morton, Douglas used his new-found influence in the Senate to denounce Unionist policies and their “centralization” of state of power.[15] These tensions accelerated after the arrest of noted anti-war Democrat Clement Vallandigham, whose speech in Columbus, OH chastised the dissent-snuffing policies of General Ambrose Burnside. Douglas came to Vallandigham’s defense in a series of speeches denouncing the use of military arrest on civilians. Douglas was then arrested by General William Tecumseh Sherman and put on trial through a military tribunal.[16] Even though he was found not guilty of treason, Douglas’s trial illustrated the deep ideological and political divisions at the heart of Indiana during the Civil War.

See Part Four

[1] Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987), 179.

[2] Donald F. Carmony, “Historical Background of the Restrictions Against State Debt in the Indiana Constitution of 1851,” Indiana Magazine of History 47, no. 2 (June 1951): 129, 140.

[3] James H. Madison, The Indiana Way: A State History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 138-140.

[4] Charles Kettlebrough, Constitution Making In Indiana, 3 vols. (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Commission, 1916, 1930 [reprint edition], Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1971), 1: 360.

[5] David G. Vanderstel, “The 1851 Indiana Constitution,” Indiana Historical Bureau, accessed November 12, 2014, http://www.in.gov/history/2689.htm.

[6] Madison, The Indiana Way, 169-170.

[7] Ibid, 197.

[8] Ibid, 198.

[9] John D. Barnhart, “The Impact of the Civil War in Indiana,” Indiana Magazine of History 57, no. 3 (September 1961): 187.

[10] Madison, The Indiana Way, 203.

[11] Ibid, 203.

[12] Walsh, Centennial History, 189.

[13] Ibid, 190-191.

[14] Stephen Towne, “Worse than Vallandigham: Governor Oliver P. Morton, Lambdin P. Milligan, and the Military Arrest and Trial of Indiana State Senator Alexander J. Douglas during the Civil War,” Indiana Magazine of History 106 (March 2010): 6-8.

[15] Ibid, 10.

[16] Ibid, 32.

The Indiana General Assembly (1815-1825): Statehood, Slavery, and Constitution-Drafting

The first Indiana Statehouse in Corydon, used from 1816-1825.
  • World Events

During the early nineteenth century, the end of the Napoleonic Wars shaped the direction of the western world. After Napoleon’s defeat in the Cossacks (Russia) in 1814, the western powers reshaped the international order. To this end, the European powers that defeated Napoleon’s imperial ambitions (Russia, Great Britain, Prussia, and Austria) met in 1814-1815 in Vienna to create a new system of alliances that would keep the peace in Europe for the next 100 years. Called the Congress of Vienna, these meetings built a new international order based on the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, creating a “balance of power” system throughout the region.[1] This framework of negotiations continued to meet annually until 1822, when meetings met more sporadically. The Congress of Vienna was the first attempt by nation states in the modern period to create a system of peace that would be long-lasting, internally strong (which would be problematic due to the exclusion of the Ottoman Empire), and fair.[2]

  • National Events

The “Era of Good Feeling,” embodied by the Presidency of James Monroe (1817-1825), defined the decade. The Democratic-Republicans, a party solidified under President Thomas Jefferson, became the dominant party in the United States. The War of 1812, bitterly fought between the United States and Great Britain, had strained the young republic, especially for a young territory-turned-state like Indiana. As historian Logan Esarey notes, “the first results of the War of 1812 were disastrous. The inroads of the Indians broke up many settlements.”[3] The election of 1820 saw President Monroe reelected to the Presidency with all electoral votes except one. This sweeping mandate reaffirmed the public’s trust in the Democratic-Republicans and Monroe’s vision for the United States.[4]

Yet the era was not without controversy. The hotly debated Missouri Compromise of 1820 created a balance of power between the slave states of the south and the free states of the north. The law called for Missouri’s admittance as a slave state and Maine as a free state, and prohibited slavery from the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line.[5] This was a compromise created out of various bills passed by both the House and the Senate who could not agree on whether to admit Missouri as a slave or free state. The law would remain in effect until the Kansas-Nebraska was passed in 1854. The debate about slavery was an instrumental part of Indiana’s own founding, with factions on every side.

  • State Events & Legislative Responses

Indiana officially became a state on December 11, 1816, but the push for statehood traces back to before the War of 1812. Due to battles between British-leaning Native Americans and the United States, the Indiana Territory did not have the 60,000-residents status until after the conflict. Nevertheless, on April 19, 1816, the United States Congress passed the Enabling Act, which allowed for Indiana to petition for statehood.[6] Delegates met in Corydon in the summer of 1816, and on June 29, they signed the newly-drafted constitution. This new constitution created a General Assembly, comprised of a House of Representatives and a Senate, with members serving one and three years, respectively.[7] The state constitution also authorized the General Assembly to create a primary and secondary public education system, which included Indiana University[8]

Constitutional elm in Corydon, under which constitutional delegates reportedly met during the convention, courtesy of Allen County Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

During its first ten years, the General Assembly faced many challenges, but the issue that divided its legislators the most was slavery. Admitted to the union in 1816 as a free state, Indiana nonetheless was politically fragmented on the issue. Indiana’s first Governor, Jonathan Jennings, led a wing of fiercely anti-slavery Democratic-Republicans (the only party of consequence in Indiana at the time). On the other side, the James Noble faction was pro slavery and the William Hendricks faction was neutral on the conflict.[9] To settle these divisions, the General Assembly passed a measure in 1816 that outlawed “man-stealing,” which authorized indentured servitude only if the claimant could substantiate his case in court, otherwise it was considered slavery and illegal under the Indiana Constitution.[10] This ensured a compromise that kept all parties happy but allowed some forms of slavery in Indiana well into the 1830s.[11]

Other pressing matters in the first ten years of Indiana’s statehood included funding, construction of infrastructure, and selecting a new state capital. An Ohio Falls Canal, along the Ohio River, was proposed with financial allotments enacted by the General Assembly in 1818. However, by 1825, the canal project collapsed; poor management of its finances and Kentucky’s finished Ohio River Canal destroyed any chances of Ohio Falls Canal’s completion.[12] Yet, these setbacks only served as a catalyst for future internal improvements. In 1820 and 1823, the General Assembly passed roadway legislation that, “provided for twenty-five roads along definite routes through various counties, including five that were to be routed to the site of the new seat of government [Indianapolis].”[13] Costing over $100,000, these new roadway systems began the layout of Indiana’s infrastructure.

Courtesy of the Indiana State Library, Indiana Division, accessed The Indiana Historian.

While Corydon served the state well as its first capital, northern migration facilitated the need for a more centralized seat of government by 1820. Named “Indianapolis” by state Representative Jeremiah Sullivan, the new state capital was surveyed by Alexander Ralston and Elias P. Fordham. Ralston, a surveyor and city planner who had worked in Washington, D.C., surveyed plats for Indianapolis in a similar design to the nation’s capital. In 1822, the General Assembly approved a law authorizing plat sales to facilitate the transfer of government and the construction of a Marion County Courthouse. In the 9th session of the General Assembly in 1824, Indianapolis was made the legal capital of the State of Indiana and chose Samuel Merrill, the State Treasurer, to oversee the arduous task of moving the government. It took eleven days to trek the 125 miles to the new capital, but Merrill and the Indiana General Assembly had finally arrived at their permanent home.[14]

  • Notable Legislators
Thomas Hendricks, Governors’ Portrait, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.
  • Thomas Hendricks was a State Representative and State Senator from 1823-1831 and 1831-1834, respectively. He represented Decatur, Henry, Rush, and Shelby Counties. Wearing many hats, Hendricks served as a school superintendent, surveyor for Decatur County, and a Colonel of the Indiana militia in 1822. He was the first in the long and illustrious Hendricks family line to be in Indiana public service. His brother, John Hendricks, also served in the Indiana General Assembly and his nephew Thomas A. Hendricks later became the twenty-first Vice President of the United States.[15] 

 

  • Justice Isaac Blackford, courtesy of Courts in the Classroom.

    Isaac Newton Blackford was the first Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, serving in the role from 1816-1817. Born in New Jersey and a graduate of Princeton, Blackford began his life in the Hoosier state as the Washington County Recorder. After a stint in the Indiana House of Representatives as its first Speaker, he went on to become an Indiana Supreme Court Justice, a role he filled until 1853. While never elected to higher office, he was appointed the United States Court of Claims in 1853, adjudicating cases until his death in 1859. Blackford is notable for his deep involvement in both the legislative and judicial branches of Indiana government, a role he pioneered and would have many follow in his footsteps.[16] 

    * See Part Two: Surveying, the First Statehouse, and Financial Collapse (1826-1846)

  • Session Dates and Locations, Number of Legislators, Number of Constituents[17]
    • 1st General Assembly: November 4, 1816-January 3, 1817. 10 Senators and 30 Representatives. Roughly 6,390 constituents per Senator and 2130 constituents per Representative.
    • 2nd General Assembly: December 1, 1817-January 29, 1818. 10 Senators and 29 Representatives. Roughly 6,390 constituents per Senator and 2,203 constituents per Representative.
    • 3rd General Assembly: December 7, 1818-January 2, 1819. 10 Senators and 28 Representatives. Roughly 6,390 constituents per Senator and 2,282 constituents per Representative.
    • 4th General Assembly: December 6, 1819-January 22, 1820. 10 Senators and 29 Representatives. Roughly 6,390 constituents per Senator and 2,203 constituents per Representative.
    • 5th General Assembly: November 27, 1820-January 9, 1821. 10 Senators and 29 Representatives. Roughly 14,171 constituents per Senator and 5,075 constituents per Representative.
    • 6th General Assembly: November 19, 1821-January 3, 1822. 16 Senators and 44 Representatives. Roughly 9,199 constituents per Senator and 3,345 constituents per Representative.
    • 7th General Assembly: December 2, 1822-January 11, 1823. 16 Senators and 44 Representatives. Roughly 9,199 constituents per Senator and 3,345 constituents per Representative.
    • 8th General Assembly: December 1, 1823-January 31, 1824. 16 Senators and 46 Representatives. Roughly 9,199 constituents per Senator and 3,200 constituents per Representative.
    • 9th General Assembly: January 10, 1825-February 12, 1825. 17 Senators and 46 Representatives. Roughly 8658 constituents per Senator and 3,200 constituents per Representative.
    • The 1st-8th General Assemblies met in Corydon, IN and the 9th was the first General Assembly that met in the new capital of Indianapolis.

[1] Stella Ghervas, “The Congress of Vienna: A Peace for the Strong.” History Today, last modified 2014, accessed September 11, 2014, http://www.historytoday.com/stella-ghervas/congress-vienna-peace-strong.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Logan Esarey, History of Indiana (Bloomington: Hoosier Heritage Press, 1969), 209.

[4] For an overview of this period, see “American Political History: “Era of Good Feeling.” Eagleton Institute of Politics: Rutgers University, last modified 2014, accessed September 4, 2014, http://www.eagleton.rutgers.edu/research/

americanhistory/ap_goodfeeling.php.

[5] “Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 16th Congress, 1st Session, Pages 1587 & 1588 of 2628.” A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875: Library of Congress, last modified July 30, 2010, accessed September 4, 2014, http://memory.loc.gov/cgibin/ampage?collId=llac&fileName=036/llac036.db&recNum=155.

[6] James H. Madison, The Indiana Way: A State History (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986), 50.

[7] Ibid, 53.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jacob Piatt Dunn , Indiana and Indianans. (New York and Chicago: American Historical Society, 1919), 334

[10] Ibid, 341.

[11] James H. Madison, The Indiana Way, 54.

[12] Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987), 24.

[13] Ibid, 26, f.117.

[14] Ibid, 14-16.

[15] Charles W. Calhoun, Alan F. January, Elizabeth Shanahan-Shoemaker and Rebecca Shepherd, A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly, Volume 1: 1816-1899 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1980), 178.

[16] Minde C., Richard Humphrey, and Bruce Kleinschmidt, “Biographical Sketches of Indiana Supreme Court Justices,” Indiana Law Review 30, no. 1 (1997): 333.

[17] This data is compiled from two major sources: Charles W. Calhoun, Alan F. January, Elizabeth Shanahan-Shoemaker and Rebecca Shepherd, A Biographical Directory of the Indiana General Assembly, Volume 1: 1816-1899 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1980), 437-446 and James H. Madison, The Indiana Way, 50, 59, 325.

Thomas A. Hendricks: “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was”

Governor Thomas Andrew Hendricks, Governors’ Portrait Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

Thomas A. Hendricks (1819-1885), an attorney from Shelbyville and, later, Indianapolis, became the most prominent Democrat in Indiana during the Civil War era. As such, he articulated the conservative Democratic position most forcefully and memorably. This stance can be summed up in the words, “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was.” Hendricks was also known for his outspoken white supremacist, but antislavery, views.  His frequently quoted remark, uttered on the floor of the U.S. Senate, reveals this attitude: “This is the white man’s Government, made by the white man, for the white man.”

In a storied career that included single terms as senator, governor, and election in 1884 to the vice presidency of the United States, Hendricks spent nearly four decades in public life.  First elected to the Indiana House of Representatives in the late 1840s and then to Congress in 1851, he was appointed by President Franklin Pierce (and later reappointed by President James Buchanan) to lead the extremely busy General Land Office during a period of numerous and generous land grants.  Increasingly out of step with Buchanan’s proslavery and anti-homestead bill policies, Hendricks resigned his Washington position in 1859.

Governor Oliver P. Morton, Governors’ Portraits Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

He returned to Indiana, and almost immediately found himself at the head of the Democratic Party ticket as it attempted to retain control of the state’s reins of power. However, although 1860 was a Republican year, Hendricks fared better against his gubernatorial opponent, Henry S. Lane, than did the rest of the Democratic ticket.  Then, according to a pre-arranged agreement, Governor Lane was chosen by the Republican-controlled General Assembly to become Indiana’s new United States senator.  The energetic and ambitious lieutenant governor, Oliver P. Morton, then became governor and served throughout the Civil War.

It was a different story in the off-year elections of 1862, when the unpopularity of the war and many of President Abraham Lincoln’s policies—especially his emancipation plan—resulted in a Democratic sweep of state offices, including control of the Indiana General Assembly.  When this body elected another new senator, the popular Hendricks was chosen.  In office from 1863 to 1869, Senator Hendricks was involved with the final years of the Civil War and the first years of Reconstruction. Initially, he stoutly supported the Union’s war effort, but not the plans for the emancipation of African American slaves. After the war, he spoke out against (and voted against) the three so-called Civil War Amendments (the 13th, 14th and 15th) to the federal Constitution.  In his view, the impassioned feelings of the immediate postwar era and the absence of representatives in Congress from eleven states, made the times “unpropitious” for making basic constitutional changes.

Governor Conrad Baker, Governors’ Portraits Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

Obviously, Hendricks’s views resonated with his fellow Hoosier Democrats, and while still a senator he was nominated to run again for governor in 1868.  Hendricks was narrowly defeated by the incumbent governor, Conrad Baker, who had succeeded Morton when he went to the U. S. Senate in 1867. Hendricks retained his personal popularity and ran a third time, successfully, for the governor’s seat in 1872, serving from 1873 to 1877.  Still not done with electoral politics, the charismatic governor was Samuel J. Tilden’s running mate in the famous “disputed election of 1876,” in which the Democratic team received more votes than did their opponents, but a partisan Electoral Commission awarded the victory to Republicans Rutherford B. Hayes and William A. Wheeler.

Campaign poster for Grover Cleveland and Thomas A. Hendricks, 1884, courtesy of PBS Learning Media.

Hendricks’ final campaign came in 1884 when he reluctantly, for health reasons, agreed to join Grover Cleveland at the head of the Democratic Party ticket. Successful this time, Hendricks’ service as vice president was destined to be short.  Inaugurated in March 1885, the Hoosier politician died at his home in Indianapolis in November 1885.

Regarding Hendricks’ Civil War years in Indiana, there is no evidence that he was a member of any “dark lantern” society, the Knights of the Golden Circle, the Sons of Liberty, or the Order of American Knights; nor was he a Copperhead, if one defines that term as a Northerner who supported the South during the war.  If, however, one defines the term more broadly to include those who opposed the Lincoln administration and, following Lincoln’s death, the Radical Republican agenda, then, of course, Hendricks certainly belongs in that category.

Greenback bill, issued March 1863, courtesy of Museum of American Finance.

He was an outspoken critic of what he considered the excesses of Lincoln’s wartime policies, including emancipation, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, high tariffs, the issuance of “greenbacks” and other banking policies that he believed aided the New England states at the expense of western states, and many more extra-military actions by both the state and national administrations. In particular, Hendricks lambasted the Lincoln administration in a major speech in Indianapolis on January 8, 1862, during the state Democratic Party convention, which in its platform condemned the Republicans for rejecting compromises that might have averted war, and for its violations of freedom of the press and the domestic institutions of sovereign states. But Hendricks consistently supported the war to save the Union, urged compliance with the draft, and deplored armed resistance to its enforcement.

Thomas A. Hendricks monument at the Indiana State House, accessed Wikipedia.org.

In May 1863, at the time of another party gathering in Indianapolis, Hendricks was threatened by an unauthorized band of roaming soldiers when he attempted to speak.  The melee that followed led up to the events known as the “Battle of Pogue’s Run.”  Hendricks was also at the center of a volatile situation when he joined Governor Morton on the steps of the state house in eulogizing the assassinated president; Morton’s stern demeanor quieted the protesters, following cries of “Hang him” aimed at Hendricks, and the Democrat was able to continue his remarks. Ironically, this episode occurred near the site on the current State House grounds where a tall monument with a larger than life-size statue of Hendricks was erected in 1890 and still stands.

Bibliography

Gray, Ralph D. “Thomas A. Hendricks:  Spokesman for the Democracy,” in Gray, ed., Gentlemen from Indiana: National Party Candidates, 1836-1940. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1977.

Holcombe, John W., and Hubert M. Skinner. Life and Public Services of Thomas A. Hendricks with Selected Speeches and Writings. Indianapolis: Carlon and Hollenbeck, 1886.

Neely, Jr., Mark E., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Stampp, Kenneth M.  Indiana Politics during the Civil War. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1949.

Tredway, G. R. Democratic Opposition to the Lincoln Administration in Indiana. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1973.

“Blacks Must Wage Two Wars:” The Freeman Field Uprising & WWII Desegregation

Registration at Freeman Field in 1944, courtesy of the Indiana State Archives.

In 1945, at Freeman Field officers of the African American 477th Bombardment Group challenged the unlawful exclusion of blacks from officers’ club, resulting in their arrest. The uprising immediately gained the attention of the War Department, NAACP, and lawmakers such as Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg. The refusal of more than 100 black officer’s to comply with “Jim Crow” policies underlined the broader push for civil rights in the World War II era.

America’s involvement in WWII exposed the great disparity between the fight for freedom abroad and the treatment of African Americans at home. In 1945, The Pittsburgh Courier alleged that it was difficult to understand how President Harry S. Truman’s administration “can claim to be prosecuting a war to bring democracy to all of the world when it will not enforce its own orders supposedly establishing democracy in its own country.” Similarly, Hoosier businessman and Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie expressed concern with the treatment of African Americans in the Armed Forces. In his 1944 article “Citizens of Negro Blood” for Collier’s Magazine, Willkie stated that World War II “has made us conscious of the contradictions between our treatment of our Negro minority and the ideals for which we are fighting. The equitable treatment of racial minorities in America is basic to our chance for a just and lasting peace.” Roberta West Nicholson, Indiana state legislator and daughter-in-law of Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson, worked with the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center during WWII and observed the same type of discrimination at Camp Atterbury. She successfully fought for black servicemen’s rights to utilize the exact same amenities and recreational facilities as their white counterparts, lamenting “It’s difficult to believe, but this is true; because the Army itself was segregated.”

Indianapolis Recorder, April 7, 1945, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Discrimination forced African Americans to fight to even be admitted to the Army Air Corps, which was an exclusively white organization until the late 1930s. According to James Allison’s “Mutiny at Freeman Field,” with the outbreak of global war, the Army revised its policy and recruited black units, but kept them segregated from white counterparts. The Air Corps sponsored flight schools for African Americans due to pressure from Congress and NAACP leaders, but accepted none of their graduates, despite exemplary records. Allison noted that “Countervailing pressures from politicians seeking the black vote and enterprising blacks who threatened to sue resulted in an Air Corps decision to form an African American fighter squadron” in 1941. The squadron, designated the “Tuskegee Airmen,” was trained at Alabama’s Tuskegee Field and produced a formidable combat record.

Unlike the Tuskegee squadron, the 477th Bombardment Group was trained at a base in Seymour, Indiana that included white servicemen. The group was first established at Selfridge Field near Detroit, under the command of white officer Colonel Robert W. Selway. The group was transferred to Kentucky’s Godman Field as the result of racial tension and protest similar to that which later occurred at Freeman Field. The 477th was then moved to the Freeman Field air base in March 1945 to train with better facilities. The Indianapolis Recorder noted in April that:

Arrival of the group here stimulated open hostility on the part of tradesmen in the nearby town of Seymour . . . Most of the trades people announced they would furnish no service or sell commodities to the new arrivals at Freeman Field. Negro residents of Seymour, less than 100 in number, are striving valiantly to meet the needs of the soldiers.

Freeman Field Airport and Industrial Field, 1947, Indiana Historical Society, Digital Images Collection.

These men, many of whom were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart, encountered racial discrimination from white servicemen at Freeman Field. Little had changed regarding their treatment since WWI, during which African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker and her sales agents wrote a letter to President Woodrow Wilson officially condemning the mistreatment of black troops. According to the Recorder, African American officers at Freeman were denied entry into the air base’s tennis courts, swimming pool, and “swanky” officer’s club after 5 p.m. by Officer Selway, who created a “superficial classification that prevented their enjoyment of facilities established for commissioned personnel.” This classification violated Army Regulation 210-10, which prohibited the racial segregation of officers at army camps. According to Allison, black officers mobilized to challenge the discriminatory action, meeting in hangars to plan a peaceful protest.

On April 5, 1945, Selway learned of the plan and ordered a provost marshal to guard the club and turn away black servicemen. At the end of the night, 61 officers were arrested for attempting to enter the club, three of whom faced a jury in July for “jostling a provost marshall [sic].” On the 7th and 8th, more officers were arrested for attempted entry of the club. In a move that could further institutionalize segregation, Selway pressured black officers to “sign a statement that attested to their understanding of the order that had established one club for trainees and the other for supervisory personnel” (Allison). Officers were read an Article of War threatening death for failure to obey command and then issued a direct order to sign. Undeterred, 101 officers refused to sign and were subsequently arrested and sent back to Godman Field. According to Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough, a commander of a local black American Legion Post asserted “Blacks must wage two wars-one against the Axis powers, the other for full citizenship at home.” The Freeman Field officers did just that.

Officers, Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, circa March 1945, Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 3, Folder 68, Indiana Historical Society.

First Lieutenant Quentin P. Smith was among those who refused to sign and recalled “‘I thought, ‘Oh my God this can’t be happening . . . He had given me a direct order to sign. I had finished college and all I had to do was just stay alive and I’ll be a general. I had no voice then'” (1992, Merrillville Times). After refusing to sign, he was escorted to his barracks at gunpoint and held under arrest for twelve days. In a document endorsed by Smith on April 25, he contended “The cited regulation appeared and still appears to be a ‘Jim Crow’ regulation” and that he:

could not, and cannot understand how Medical Officers, qualified as Flight Surgeons and having completed all required Army medical training and having completed years of private medical practice could have been classified as ‘trainee’ personnel unless the distinction were solely one of color.

He added he wished to indicate “his unshakeable belief that racial bias is Fascistic, un-American, and directly contrary to the ideas for which he is willing to fight and die.”

Quentin P. Smith (center) with honor graduates of Class 45-A, Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, circa March 1945, Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 3, Folder 68, Indiana Historical Society.

The Recorder reported that “The mass arrest which is believed unprecedented in the history of the Army has this post in an uproar and has disrupted the entire training program of the 477th Bombardment group.” By the 26th, it appeared that the uprising was beginning to influence Army policy, as the newspaper noted that “Officials of the Public Regulations Bureau of the department in Washington admitted momentous changes are being considered as result of an investigation of conditions surrounding” the incident. On April 28, The Pittsburgh Courier called for the immediate release and “return to duty” of the arrested men and that “Anything less will be a travesty on justice.”

Administrative reprimand of Smith by Selway, courtesy of Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 38, Folder 3, Indiana Historical Society.
Roger C. Terry, courtesy of indianamilitary.org

Following public outcry and the efforts of the NAACP, all were released and served with an administrative reprimand, with the exception of three men. The Recorder noted on June 30, that Selway had been replaced with African American Colonel B.O. Davis Jr. However, the three men arrested for “jostling” an officer continued to be confined and were prohibited from obtaining counsel. In July, a jury acquitted Lt. Marsden A. Thompson and Lt. Shirley R. Clinton of “disobedience of a direct order,” along with Lt. Roger C. Terry, although he was found guilty of “jostling” an officer and forced to pay $150. In 1995, the Air Force set aside Terry’s conviction. In an Indianapolis Star article, Terry declared that this removed the weight he had been carrying since the ordeal and that “What came off my back was that all my hatred went away. All of it.”

Although their military records remained tarnished until the 1990s, non-violent protests, as well as the violence against returning black servicemen, likely influenced President Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces on July 26, 1948. In negating Terry’s conviction, former assistant secretary of the Air Force concluded that the Freeman mutiny was crucial to military integration and a “‘giant step for equality.'”

Henry S. Lane: Architect of Indiana’s Republican Party

Henry S. Lane was the consummate politician for the turbulent times that spurred him into action. He regularly put party before personal ambition and was modest enough to affect change from behind the scenes with little glory. He was, perhaps more than any of the other political players involved, the prescient architect responsible for creating the Indiana Republican Party in the 1850s. But he is often overlooked and overshadowed by more dramatic characters. He did not make bold and controversial decisions like Oliver P. Morton. He did not bravely stand in opposition to slavery like George Washington Julian. Instead, he was a discerning compromiser and a shrewd political operative, essential qualities in a period marked by division and the gathering clouds of Civil War. Perhaps no man except Lane could have united the disparate factions squabbling over an array of issues to create a stalwart party able to challenge the Southern-sympathizing Indiana Democrats.

Henry S. Lane, circa 1850. Image accessed from Crawfordsville District Public Library Image Database, Montgomery Count Historical Society Collection.

From such a grand description, one might picture Lane as a stately figure in the vein of peers such as Thomas A. Hendricks or Schuyler Colfax. However, Lane’s outward appearance did not reflect his astute political brain. He was tall, skinny, and pale. He was missing his front teeth and, in donning a blue denim suit, he did nothing to craft the appearance of a statesman. On top of everything, he chewed tobacco, a custom associated with the antebellum South.

Geo. A. Ogle & Co., Standard Atlas of Montgomery County, Indiana, 1917, Indiana Historic Atlases Collection, Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

This seemingly unimpressive figure, however, delivered some of the finest speeches ever orated by a Hoosier politician. For example, the Fort Wayne Standard described his 1854 keynote address at the People’s Party Convention as “soul-stirring and eloquent” and lamented their inability to describe his language sufficiently. His political savvy and oratory skills played no small part during one of the most exciting and tempestuous periods of Indiana political history.

Henry Smith Lane was born February 24, 1811 in Kentucky. By 1834, he settled in Crawfordsville, Montgomery County, Indiana, where he would maintain his permanent residence for the rest of his life. He quickly rose to prominence in Crawfordsville. He gained admission to the Indiana bar soon after arriving in the community. In 1837, at the age of twenty-six, he won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives as a member of the Whig Party.

“Henry Clay”  New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed June 2, 2017. digitalcollections.nypl.org

On August 3, 1840, as the result of a special election, Lane won an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In Congress, he caucused with fellow Whigs such as former President John Quincy Adams, future president Millard Fillmore, fellow Hoosiers Richard W. Thompson, and ex-governor David Wallace. Lane won re-election to a full term on May 3, 1841 and served until August 6, 1843. Historian Walter Rice Sharp described Lane’s time in the U.S. House: “He delivered few speeches and introduced no measures of his own. But upon occasion he would launch forth with an impromptu outburst of feeling which indicated a depth of conviction.” Apparently, Lane’s limited but impassioned participation was enough to earn the respect of his idol and Whig Party leader Henry Clay.

Evansville Journal, June 6, 1844, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles

When Clay won the Whig Party’s presidential nomination in 1844, Lane took to the campaign trail. Although he recently considered dropping out of politics due to a personal tragedy, Lane consented to be named as a candidate for state elector on the Whig ticket. He traveled across Indiana, and delivered public speeches in support of Clay for president. For example, the Evansville Journal reported on a June meeting to ratify Clay’s nomination at Tippecanoe Battle Ground: “Hon. Henry S. Lane of Montgomery, being loudly called for, took the stand and addressed the immense multitude in exposition of the principles and aims of the Whig party.” After Lane enthusiastically praised Clay and the party, the Indiana Whigs heartily ratified the nomination. He increased his efforts on behalf of Clay in the fall and one can follow his speaking trail through the newspapers using Hoosier State Chronicles. From August through October the (Brookville) Indiana American reported on Lane’s appearances at “Whig Mass Meetings” in Rockville, Lafayette, Logansport, Goshen, Fort Wayne, LaPorte, and Terre Haute.

The Democratic Party, however, was re-gaining dominance in Hoosier politics. The Whigs lost major ground in the 1844 state elections. In the presidential election, Hoosiers reflected the national choice of Democrat James K. Polk over Clay. Among other issues, the Whig Party failed to sense a changing economic climate. The country was in an expansionist mindset and the Democrats catered to this hunger for land and the imagined opportunities associated with it. Polk advocated for the addition of Texas and Oregon into the Union, satisfying the public’s desire for expansion, but also rocking the delicate balance of Slave and Free states that would soon lead to the Civil War. Lane had thought little about slavery thus far, and it would have been hard to imagine at this point in time, that he would one day unite the anti-slavery factions in Indiana.

Frank M. Hohenberger, “Lane Place, 212 South Water Street, Crawfordsville, Indiana,” Frank M. Hohenberger Collection, Lilly Library, Indiana University.
Mexican War Broadside,1846-1848, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution,

Clay’s defeat reinforced Lane’s earlier desire to withdraw from politics. In 1845, he re-married (after being widowed) and focused his efforts on building a large white house in Crawfordsville which he named Lane Place. It was built to last – it still stands – and to serve as a quiet retreat from the national stage. His country, however, soon needed him. According to Lane biographer Michael Hall, Lane objected to Polk’s declaration of war on Mexico in 1846 on partisan political grounds. Yet as a patriot, he felt called to serve. He organized a group of volunteers who assembled outside Lane Place in June of 1846 and left home for war.

Over a month later, Major Lane and the First Infantry Regiment of Indiana Volunteers arrived at the Texas-Mexico border. The camp they found there was “hell upon earth,” according to Lane. The regiment waited in vain for months to be ordered into battle. Meanwhile, Lane and the other officers watched as their troops contracted and succumbed to malaria, dysentery, yellow fever, and other diseases. Lane wrote in his journal, “We shall bury a great many of our best men before we leave this miserable camp.” Despite repeated requests for an active assignment, Lane (now a lieutenant colonel) and his men returned to Indiana after ten months of inaction, disillusioned by their experiences. According to Hall, this event also embittered Lane to both the Whig and Democratic parties and “the bureaucratic bungling that caused the inefficiency he witnessed and had contributed to the war’s cause.” By 1847, Henry S. Lane anticipated the need for a new political party, but the climate would not be ripe for another seven years.

Zachary Taylor was the last Whig to win the presidency when he defeated Democrat Lewis Cass in the 1848 election. The new president was also a slaveholder. Hall claims that Lane “constantly criticized” Taylor, and thus further distanced himself from the Whig Party. However, a search through Indiana newspapers using Hoosier State Chronicles shows that Lane, putting party before personal sentiment, offered half-hearted support for Taylor. For example, the Indiana State Sentinel reported in February 1848, that Lane spoke to an audience of “Taylorites” in Crawfordsville. Lane described Taylor as “an American of capacity, of honesty, and merit” and reported that he offered his support for the obscure reason that “as the people are all going for him, I wish to keep out of the crowd.” However, Lane seemed more enthusiastic about his party that fall. The (Brookville) Indiana American reported on a gathering of many leading Midwestern Whigs and a large audience “who had left their shops, farms, and daily occupations to spend a day of two in honor of Zachary Taylor – the people’s candidate for the Presidency.” The paper described Lane, one of the main speakers at the event: “[T]hat gallant Whig champion and eloquent orator of our own State, Henry S. Lane, of Montgomery [County], was called for, and mounting a table at the door, he poured forth a flood of political truths which elicited shouts of applause! The old Whig fire seemed to be rekindled anew upon every altar, and not until a late hour, was he permitted to leave the stand.”

“Fort Harrison Meeting,” (Brookville) Indiana American, September 15, 1848, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Political defeat, however, soon doused Lane’s fire. His 1848 loss to Joseph E. McDonald for the U.S. House of Representatives made clear that, much like the Whig Party itself, his political and moral stances were in flux. He was a Whig “in name only,” according Hall, but newspapers such as the Indiana State Sentinel recognized him as “the most prominent member of that body.” More importantly, he had yet to take a clear position on slavery. While the Montgomery (County) Journal called him a “champion of human rights and freedom” who would check the expansion of slavery, the Sentinel noted that he had made no anti-slavery promises on the campaign trail. The paper reported that they hoped he would “define his position . . . and . . . openly declare whether he will support Taylor’s bidding or not.” Lane lost the election, and by this point in history, Indiana was solidly Democratic.

Clay Defending the Compromise of 1850, New York Public Library Digital Collections. 

Lane’s response to the Compromise of 1850 epitomized his ambivalent stance on slavery. Like most Whigs, Lane supported this set of bills that temporarily eased tensions between pro and anti-slavery interests at the expense of actually solving the problem of slavery. Like Clay, Lane was morally opposed to the institution of slavery but politically only opposed the extension of slavery into new U.S. states and territories. (This is a marked contrast to George Washington Julian, for example, a staunch abolitionist who fought to rid the nation of slavery completely.) Also like Clay, Lane did not imagine the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which put limits on slavery’s expansion in the U.S. Territories, would ever be repealed. All Whigs, however, did not see the issues the same way as Lane and Clay. The Compromise of 1850 highlighted the sectional divisions in the Whig Party, while at the same time creating an uneasy peace. Henry Clay’s death in 1852 served as a harbinger of the Whig Party’s fate. A few short years thereafter, the party membership fractured over a piece of legislation that destroyed the tentative sectional truce.

 

“A New Map of Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, and Indian Territories,” 1856, Digital Commonwealth Massachusetts Collections Online.

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act which repealed the Missouri Compromise. The bill was sponsored by Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas (who would later run for president against Abraham Lincoln) and signed into law by Democratic President Franklin Pierce. While initially a huge setback for the anti-slavery movement, opposition to this law and to the Democratic administration worked to mobilize disparate political groups against a common cause. This was the perfect climate to organize the new party that Lane and others had envisioned years earlier.

Among those Americans who were united against the extension of slavery into new territories their opinions on slavery itself varied widely. Many anti-slavery adherents opposed the western spread of slavery, but had little interest in the fate of enslaved peoples in the South. Whites who worked in agriculture and industry opposed slavery’s expansion because they did not want to compete with slave labor in the North or in new territories. For the anti-slavery politicians and electorate who favored emancipation, there were debates on how to accomplish this. Some groups favored emancipation only over an extended period of time. Even within this “gradual emancipation” position there were debates as to whether or not slaveholders should be compensated or not as a result of their loss of “property.” Even if an anti-slavery faction favored emancipation they often advocated that the freed African Americans should be removed from America and colonized in Africa. Only a small percentage of anti-slavery supporters abhorred the institution as an affront to God and labored for its immediate abolition and citizenship rights for African Americans. Despite these sometimes vastly different positions, the desire to stop slavery’s spread was a unifying aim, and in July 1854, former Whigs, anti-slavery Democrats, Free Soilers, and others organized to form a new national party: the Republican Party.

“The People’s Convention,” Indiana Journal, reprinted in Evansville Daily Journal, July 15, 1854, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

In Indiana, Lane and other prominent ex-Whigs called for a state convention to be held July 13, 1854 for the purpose of organizing a new party. Historian Walter Sharp wrote that “Lane, with his wealth of persuasive eloquence and his unblemished character, was clearly the prime mover of this inner council.” That day, ten thousand people reportedly rallied at Indianapolis to protest the Kansas-Nebraska Act. These included Hoosiers favoring political issues that ranged from alcohol-adverse temperance advocates to anti-Catholic, xenophobic Know-Nothings to defecting Democrats to staunch abolitionists. It was clear to Lane that the new party must include all of these diverse political voices, and unite them against slavery’s expansion. Thus, Indiana’s arm of what would in ensuing years become the Republican Party, had to be more moderate in order to be more inclusive. Lane and other leaders chose to call it the People’s Party. They reasoned that by avoiding the name “Republican” they could avoid the association with the eastern abolition movement that many Hoosiers saw as too radical.

“Preliminary Meeting of the Great Mongrel Convention,” (Indianapolis) Indiana State Sentinel, July 15, 1854, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Democratic newspapers had their own, more colorful names, for the new party. The Indiana State Sentinel referred to the July meeting as the “Isms Convention” and the “Great Mongrel Convention,” criticizing the sheer number of different ideologies that the party was attempting to reconcile. Another Democratic paper, the Worcester (Massachusetts) Transcript, called it “a Free Soil Convention in disguise.” The Sentinel also hyperbolized, calling the People’s Party the “Abolition Free Soil Party” in an attempt to scare off the conservative Know-Nothings and defecting Democrats.

Despite the efforts of detractors, the convention was a success. This was due in large part to Lane’s unifying speech where he outlined the platform of the new party. He appeased the prohibitionists by calling for a liquor ban and the Know-Nothings by calling for a “lengthy citizenship” process, all without offending the German immigrant members in their midst. Mostly, however, he set the party in opposition to the detested Kansas-Nebraska Act and the expansion of slavery into the territories. Lane biographer Hall explained that his speech, “Molded the various confederations of political doctrine into one shaky, but significant movement.” The (Huntington) Indiana Herald praised Lane’s speech and delighted over his criticism of Democratic U.S. Senator John Pettit who recently spoke in Indianapolis in support of the reviled Kansas-Nebraska Act and famously stated during the Senate debate on the act that Jefferson’s statement included in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” was “a self-evident lie.” The paper reported:

[Lane’s] address was of the most soul-stirring and eloquent character. We cannot pretend to give his language, and if we could, no one, unless they heard him, could form an idea of his style oratory. His defense of the glorious Declaration of Independence from the foul aspirations of Petit [sic], was the finest specimen of terrible denunciations that we have listened to for many years. Had that individual been present, as brazenfaced as he is, he must have wilted down under the Atlas load of scorn piled upon him by the eloquent Lane.

Of course, the Democratic Indiana State Sentinel had a different view of Lane’s speech. The paper complained that Lane’s stance was simply to oppose anything the Democrats advocated. The Sentinel also made fun of Lane’s folksy, rustic manner of speaking:

If a set of Democratic resolutions were to embody the Ten Commandments, Henry S. Lane would be “agin ’em”. . . If he knows which side the Democrats are on, he is always on the other side, and his only guide has ever been opposition to Democracy.

“Preliminary Meeting of the Great Mongrel Convention,” (Indianapolis) Indiana State Sentinel, July 15, 1854, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

In a way, the Sentinel was right. Lane knew that perhaps the only thing this heterogeneous group of Hoosiers had in common, was opposition to the Democratic Party and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The official platform set forth by the People’s Party was simple. First, they opposed the extension of slavery. Second, they advocated for laws to “suppress the traffic in ardent spirits as a beverage.” And third, they opposed everything laid out by the Indiana Democratic Party during their recent convention. One example of the platform’s moderation was seen when the abolitionist George Washington Julian introduced a minority report calling for a stronger stance against slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. The convention quickly tabled Julian’s request. Nonetheless, the Indiana People’s Party rode their non-traditional platform to success in the 1854 elections statewide; they took nine out of eleven congressional races and gained a majority in the lower house of the Indiana General Assembly.

“Hon. Henry S. Lane,” Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, National Archives.

Lane exerted great influential in steering the new party toward a moderate stance on slavery. He recognized that most of Indiana’s electorate saw the abolition movement as too radical. At this delicate time, he was careful to speak only against the extension of slavery, and did not advocate for its abolition. In 1855, he wrote to Indiana Congressman Schuyler Colfax, “We must resist the encroachment of Slavery, if we would preserve the rights of Freedom.” Despite his moderation, Democratic papers charged Lane with being an abolitionist. While Lane was certainly not an abolitionist, his views on slavery were shifting towards opposing the institution itself, not just its extension.

During the 1856 election year Lane remained a key figure in the Indiana party and began making waves nationally as well. In 1856, Lane chaired the People’s Party Convention in Indianapolis and the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia that nominated John C. Frémont for president (and had the crafty campaign slogan: “Free labor, free soil, free men, Frémont”). In his 1856, Lane addressed the Republican National Convention, and reiterated that the party opposed only extension of slavery, not its abolition, but added that he believed the Declaration of Independence to be “an anti-slavery document.” He described the Republican Party as representing “every shade of Anti-slavery sentiment in the United States” and that the party hoped to see a time when God would “look upon no slave North or South.” He continued:

Freedom is national. Freedom is the general rule. Slavery is the exception. It exists by sufferance. Where it does exist under the sanction of the law, we make no war upon it. Does that constitute us Abolitionists, simply because we are opposed to the extension of slavery? If that makes an Abolitionist, write ‘Abolitionist’ all over me.

The Crawfordsville Journal reprinted Lane’s speech. The only editorial comment the Journal provided was this: “We give it to our readers without note of comment, as it was reported for that paper. We consider it, however, a master stroke of Western eloquence. Let everybody read it.”

“Col. H. S. Lane’s Speech at the Philadelphia Convention,” Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, July 3, 1856, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Back home in Indiana, Lane again demonstrated his political savvy and ability to put party before personal ambitions in an attempt to strengthen it for the 1856 election. Lane was the preferred pick for gubernatorial nominee among some party leaders for his skill, experience, and unifying effect. However, Lane knew Oliver P. Morton would be the candidate with a better chance of winning. Morton had been a Democrat until just before the People’s Party’s organization and had no record of anti-slavery rhetoric. A former Democrat was likely to draw the support moderate and disillusioned Democrats as well as former Know-Nothings, who were not thrilled with the participation of Lane and others in the Republican National Convention (as they still considered the national party too radical). Despite this creative maneuver, Morton lost the election. Democrats won the state and the national election making James Buchanan, supporter of strict fugitive slave laws and the rights of states to decide the slavery issue, the leader of a divided nation.

Over the next four years, the People’s Party aligned itself with the national platform and adopted the name “Republican.” As the Indiana party looked toward the 1860 election year, Lane looked toward Washington and a Senate seat. He also applied what he knew about offering the voters moderate candidates who could appeal to various factions. He used this knowledge when he threw the Indiana delegation’s support behind Abraham Lincoln’s nomination at the 1860 Republican National Convention. Check back for a second post on Lane and his role in Lincoln’s 1860 presidential nomination and scheme to win both the governorship and a Senate seat for his party.

For more information see:

Michael Hall, The Road to Washington: Henry S. Lane, The Rise of an Indiana Politician, 1842-1860 (Crawfordsville: Montgomery County Historical Society, 1990).

Walter Rice Sharp, “Henry S. Lane and the Formation of the Republican Party in Indiana,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 7:2 (September 1920): 93-112.

The Underground Railroad in Montgomery County: An Annotated Letter

Researching the Underground Railroad (UGRR) is a difficult task. One must remember that the activities of UGRR participants was illegal according to Section 7 of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Consequently, primary source evidence of UGRRs is often scarce. In rare instances, someone like prominent Hoosier abolitionist Levi Coffin might leave a record of their involvement. Some times there may be court cases that document UGRR activity. Yet, in most cases, knowledge of UGRR participation passes into memory and tradition, which is less reliable than contemporary documentary records.

The Indiana Historical Bureau placed the Speed Cabin marker in Crawfordsville in 1995. Due to the tenuous nature of finding primary source evidence of Underground Railroad activity, the marker text is qualified with the word “reputed.”

In 1958, Wabash College history professor and Montgomery County, Indiana historian Theodore G. Gronert made the following assessment of the historical records:

The Wabash Valley members of the Underground left no detailed records such as those made by . . . the Whitewater Valley antislavery group. When participants and observers, some years after the event, told the story of the Underground Railroad, there was a natural tendency to embroider the story with fanciful details or even to recall events that never happened. . . . Unfortunately our source material for the contribution of Montgomery County to the Underground Railroad is limited. Only a few scattered reminiscences, some vague references in contemporary newspapers . . . are available to those who desire a record of the county’s part in this dramatic episode in the nation’s history.

In the late nineteenth century, Ohio State University professor Wilbur H. Siebert embarked on a remarkable project to collect reminiscences of UGRR activity from a decreasing pool of living participants and their descendants. He wrote to residents all over the county in an attempt to document UGRR routes, participants, and incidents. When he identified informants who could give him first or second-hand information, he mailed questionnaires asking seven basic questions regarding: 1) the route through the area; 2) the years of activity; 3) the system of communication between conductors; 4) memorable incidents; 5) the informant’s personal connection with the UGRR; 6) names and addresses of any potential additional informants; 7) a biographical sketch of the correspondent or the chief UGRR participant in the area.

Accessed archive.org.

Siebert’s research culminated in The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom published in 1898. Among the thousands of letters he collected, he deemed one incident that occurred in Montgomery County, Indiana to be especially noteworthy, and he included an extract of the letter in his book. The critical reader is always interested in an author’s sources. Fortunately, Siebert’s research archive survives today at the Ohio History Connection. Within that archive is a typescript of the entire letter that Siebert quoted in his book. Written by Sidney Speed in 1896, the letter is the most interesting, detailed, and closest thing to an extant primary source concerning UGRR activity in Montgomery County. A transcript of the letter with added annotations and commentary is below.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As a word of caution to readers, Speed uses a racial slur to describe African Americans several times in his letter. While the Indiana Historical Bureau does not condone the use of this word, it is part of the historical record.

Sidney Speed. Image from Crawfordsville District Public Library Reference Department’s Image Database of Montgomery County.

Letter from Sidney Speed[1] to Wilbur H. Siebert

Crawfordsville, Ind. March 6, 1896

W. H. Siebert

Cambridge, Mass.

Dear Sir:

Replying to your circular[2] of March 1. The old time abolitionists of this section are now all, or nearly all, dead.  Twenty years ago it would have been easy to gather the information you want, but now I am afraid you are everlastingly too late.  I was only a boy and do not remember much of interest.

Map used as an illustration in Siebert’s Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898)

The route traveled by the fugitive slaves and those conducting them was from Annapolis (now Bloomingdale), a Quaker settlement in the north western part of Parke Co. to this place and for sometime [sic] this place was the terminus of the Underground proper, as at this place the fugitives were supplied with money, and put on board the car of the old L. N.A. & C. road[3] (now the “Monon”)[4] whose Management was then friendly, and were safely run through to Detroit,[5] and over the river.[6]  Afterward however the conditions were much changed on account of the great number of spies and nigger catchers that sprung up for the rewards to be earned.  Then the line of the Underground railroad was extended from this place through the Quaker settlement near Thorntown, Boone Co., and had its terminus at or near Noblesville in Hamilton Co. and it may have been extended farther than that afterward.[7]  But of that I do not know.

Crawfordsville’s Democrat newspaper, the Review, regularly took aim at Fisher Doherty’s political stances, as exemplified by this statement in the January 23, 1858 issue.

The main men connected with the road here [in Crawfordsville] was Mr. Fisher Doherty,[8] and my father John Speed.[9]  They were often assisted financially and personally by others who were never known as abolitionists.  Notable among these was Major I. C. Elston[10] a banker of this place and a staunch and life long democrat who always contributed something and would say “I don’t want to know what you are doing” “go away.”  An old Virginia slave named Patterson[11] was also of great service.  His wife[12] had bought him in Virginia.  She was born free, and I remember that when she would become angry at “old Pat” as we all called him, she would threaten to take him back south and sell him.  Calling him at the same time her “old pumpkin colored nigger.”  She was black herself. [13]  I think he was used as a guide, and watchman.

Nelson Patterson, junior, and his wife, Mariah, both registered in Montgomery County’s Register of Negroes and Mulattoes in 1853. According to Indiana’s Constitution of 1851, which prohibited African American immigration into the state, blacks who were Indiana residents before the Constitution went into effect had to appear before the county circuit court clerks to verify their pre-1851 residency in the state, usually with the help of a white witness. Search and view the entire Montgomery County register at the Crawfordsville District Public Library’s Local History Database.

Sometimes the fugitive negroes were brought to this place, in the night generally, by a man named Elmore, who lived between this place and Annapolis – (near Alamo this county) [14]  and sometimes Mr. Doherty or my father would go and bring them.  Sometimes Mr. Doherty or my father would go on from here to the next stopping place with them, but often an old Quaker named Emmons[15] who lived six or eight miles north east of here would come after them.  I remember yet his kind old solemn face, and his old farm wagon covered with black oil cloth with some old hickory bottomed chairs, and pots tied on the feed box behind, and a brindle bull dog under the wagon, just behind the driver’s seat a sheet was drawn across and in the interior was seats down the sides that would accommodate [sic] ten or twelve nicely.  He usually came to our house soon after dark, and at once taking in his cargo sometimes from the house, and sometimes from the cornfields or woods, he would start out for the next station. Somewhere near Thorntown, which he would reach and return to his own home before daylight.[16]

In 1844, the Sugar River Monthly Meeting of Friends, where Joseph Emmons belonged, censured him for co-publishing an article that the meeting deemed excited “disunity and discord.”  In the article, he and his co-authors criticized Friends (Quakers) who by “recognizing and supporting those political movements [which support or legislate slavery] and laws , they are actively countenancing and supporting Slave-holders, Slave-holding and Slavery.” Image from Indiana Yearly Meeting Minutes. Earlham College Friends Collection & College Archives, Richmond, Indiana, accessed via Ancestry.com.
The fugitives were not always attended.  They would sometimes come in singly or two or three together on foot traveling generally by night and being safely hidden during the day.[17]  These were sometimes accompanied by one of their own race, who had gone over the rout [sic] before.  The fugitives were usualy [sic] men in the prime of life there were exceptions however.

  1. My recollections of the period of activity of the road was from about 1854, when I was eight years old to 1863,[18] when I was sixteen years old, and enlisted in the 18th Ind. Battery.[19]
  2. I have no knowledge of the system of communication between members.[20]
  3. At one time in 1858, or 1859, a mulatto girl, about eighteen or twenty years old, and very good looking and with some education had reached our house, when the nigger catcher became so watchful that she could not be moved for several days.[21] In fact for some days some of them were nearly always at the house either on some pretended business or making social visits.  I do not think that the house was searched, or they would surely have found her, as during all this time she remained in the garret over the old log kitchen, where the fugitives were usually kept, if there
    The Speed’s home was located on the southwest corner lot of North Street and West Street (today Grant Street) in Crawfordsville. Although the home no longer stands, the log kitchen that Sidney Speed describes is on the right end of the photo. The Speed Cabin, as the kitchen portion is known today in Crawfordsville, is preserved on the grounds of the Montgomery County Historical Society’s Lane Place. Image from Crawfordsville District Public Library Reference Department Image Database.

    was danger.  Her owner, a man from New Orleans, had just bought her in Louisville, and he had traced her surely to this place she had not struck the Underground before, but had made her way alone this far, and as they got no trace of her beyond here they returned here and doubled the watches on Doherty and my father, but at length a day came, or a night rather, when she was gotten safely and through the gardens to Nigger Patterson.  Then she was rigged out in as fine a costume of silk and ribbons as it was possible to procure at that time, and was furnished with a white baby borrowed for the occasion, and accompanied by one of the Patterson girls (Mariah I think was her name)[22] as a servant and nurse, she boldly boarded the train at the station and got safely through to Detroit.  But what must her feeling have been when she board the train to find that her master or owner had already got on the same car.  However she kept her courage and [he] did not discover her identity until the gang plank of the ferry boat at Detroit was being hauled aboard, and the Patterson girl with the borrowed baby had returned to the shore when she removed her veil that he might see her and bade her owner goodbye.  That this parting was affecting you can imagine.  He tried to wreck his vengeance on the Patterson girl, but was restrained by strong hands.  There were usually plenty at Detroit.

  4. My own connection with the Underground Railroad consisted in trying in common with the other members of the family to get enough victuals into the house to feed the hungry without creating suspicion.[23]

    Indiana Centennial Celebration Pageant in 1916 in Montgomery County where the citizens re-enacted the incident with Allred the butcher. Photo from Crawfordsville District Public Library Reference Department.
  5. Mr. T. D. Brown[24] of this place, who was a contributor to the cause can tell you a good story of how the Allens of Browns Valley,[25] once caught a fugitive slave and brought him to town for identification, and stopping in front of the hotel, they went in to examine the “runaway nigger notices” leaving the negro holding the horse, and how old man Alred,[26] who had a butcher shop next door, picked up a dornick[27] or two from the street and ordered the nigger to “git.” (and he got, and to a place of safety too) and how Alred threw a rock into the hotel after the Allens and following it in himself was soon in a fine quarrel with them, which continued only until the nigger was safe.[28] (Make Brown tell you the story.)

Mr. Doherty’s wife Isabel Doherty is living,[29] and could likely help you [with more information].

John and Margaret Speed. Photo published in the Crawfordsville Journal and Review, October 21, 1931.
  1. My father John Speed was born in 1801. He was the twelfth and youngest child of his father’s family who was a small land owner and miller in Perthshire, Scotland.  My father came to America in 1823, and was employed at his trade, Stone cutter and Mason in building dry docks, and other government work at or near Washington D. C.  He came to Indiana with a contract to build the first state house at Indianapolis, Ind.,[30] but subsequently threw up the contract because the commissioners would not use stone that he thought suitable, but persisted in using a species of shale, which is abundant there, and which soon giving way caused no end of trouble[31] until the building was finally replaced by our present Magnificent structure.[32] He shortly after this contracted to build the part of the National Wagon road from Indianapolis to St. Louis.[33] During the building of the road [P]resident Jackson “busted the banks”[34] and the contract fell through, and “busted father” because the government had no money with which to either pay or continue.  He then returned to the east on foot, going by the way of Cumberland Gap – leaving his family here.  He built the present State House at Raleigh North Carolina[35] – returning here he ended his days living true to his conception of right.  He was elected twice Mayor of this place,[36] and died in 1873 universally respected for his honesty and integrity.

Hoping that you may find something in this that may assist you, but fearing that it will all be useless I am.

Yours Very Truly

Sidney Speed.

 

[1] Sidney Allen Speed (1846-1923) was the son of John and Margaret Speed. He attended Wabash College for a few years before the Civil War, served in the 18th Indiana Artillery, and later became a stone mason. Some of his stonework includes Lew Wallace’s  grave obelisk, which measures 30 feet in height, located in Oak Hill Cemetery North in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

[2] The circular is in reference to Siebert’s seven-question survey.

[3] The Louisville, New Albany, & Chicago Railroad originally started as the New Albany and Salem in 1847. By 1854, the line extended from the Ohio River to Lake Michigan and Chicago.

[4] The railway became popularly known as the Monon after the L. N. A. & C. consolidated with Chicago and Indianapolis Airline Railroad Company in 1881. The junction of these two routes in White County was near two creeks named the Big Monon and the Little Monon. The extant town at the junction, New Bradford or Bradford, was renamed Monon.

[5] The Monon did not run to Detroit, so freedom seekers would need to transfer at some point in northern Indiana or go into southern Michigan.

[6] The Detroit River which is part of the border between the United States and Canada.

[7] The map published in Siebert’s Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom differs from Speed’s recollection the Wabash Valley route heading northwest from Thorntown to Lafayette and northerly from there. The map traces a central route through Indiana from Madison to Columbus to Indianapolis through Westfield in Hamilton County, and through Noblesville and points north.

[8] Fisher Doherty (1817-1890) according to his obituary in the Crawfordsville Weekly Journal settled in Crawfordsville in 1844. He is listed in the 1850 U.S. Census as a carpenter, and in the censuses thereafter as a wagon or carriage maker. His obituary stated, “He was one of the original and most uncompromising Abolitionists all over the State. Crawfordsville became one of the main stations of the underground railway and Mr. Daugherty’s [sic] house was the stopping place of all runaway slaves struggling toward Canada. He is said to have assisted hundreds on their way and spent much time and money most cheerfully in this manner.”

[9] John Speed (1801-1873) was a native of Scotland and a stone mason by profession. He served as mayor of Crawfordsville from 1868-1870. Sidney Speed gives a fuller biography of his father later in this letter.

[10] Isaac Compton Elston (1794-1867) was a merchant and banker. He was by most accounts the wealthiest man in Crawfordsville. He had a large family, and his daughter Joanna and Susan were married to U.S. Senator Henry S. Lane and Ben-Hur author Lew Wallace, respectively.

[11] Based upon Speed’s description, this was Nelson Patterson, senior. Patterson (1786/90-?) was born in Virginia. The 1850 U.S. Census recorded him as a laborer, and the 1860 census listed him as a brewer. The Patterson family is listed in the 1850 census as living next to the Speeds. Among the seven children listed with him in the 1850 U.S. Census was a son also named Nelson (circa 1828-1873). The son served in the 28th U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.

[12] Martha Patterson is listed in the 1850 and 1860 censuses as being born in either 1797 or 1790. Her place of birth is recorded as Virginia.

[13] Both the 1850 and 1860 censuses described Nelson Patterson as a mulatto. Martha Patterson is described as black in the 1850 census.

[14] According to the 1903 book, Twenty-five Years in Jackville: A Romance in the Days of the Golden Circle by James Buchanan Elmore, the author identifies Thomas Elmore as being involved in Underground Railroad activities in and around Alamo. Thomas was the uncle of the book’s author. Thomas Elmore (1816-1879) was an Ohio-born farmer. In 1856, he served on a Ripley Township Republican committee in Alamo that called slavery “the greatest evil of the nation.” The committee also resolved to make no compromises with the South on the slavery question.

Although Twenty-five Years in Jackville contains some historical and factual errors, James B. Elmore does list several other UGRR operatives in and around Alamo and Ripley Township. Among the names he associates with UGRR activity are: Hiram Powell, Joab Elliott, William Gilkey, Dr. Iral Brown, and Abijah O’Neall at Yountsville.

[15] Joseph Emmons (1812-1880) was a physician, and an active member of the Sugar River Monthly Friends Meeting. He lived in rural Montgomery County near Binford, which is currently the unincorporated community of Garfield.

Emmons’ involvement in the UGRR was also attested to by Siebert correspondents in Bloomingdale and Darlington, which were on both ends of the line through Montgomery County. Because Emmons’ involvement in the UGRR was so widely acknowledged by Siebert’s informants in the area, it suggests that he was a central actor in ferrying African Americans through Montgomery County.

[16] In 1896, long-time Darlington physician Isaac E. G. Naylor wrote to Siebert that “Alexander Hoover a Methodist, Joseph Emmons and Hudson Middleton – Quakers” were the principal “superintendents” along the branch passing through Franklin Township area including Binford, Darlington, and through to Thorntown.

Emmons’ medical profession could have presumably given him a plausible pretense for traveling at dusk or night if stopped by authorities or bounty hunters.

[17] As for contemporary evidence of African American freedom seekers traveling through the county solo: On August 16, 1855, the Crawfordsville Journal reported on an incident when a couple of hunters stumbled across a black man along a creek in the southern part of the county. After questioning the man, the hunters threatened to apprehend him as a fugitive. The man tried to escape, but ended up drowning.

[18] This statement is in response to Siebert’s second question on the questionnaire regarding the period of activity.

[19] The 18th Indiana Battery of Light Artillery was also known as Lilly’s Battery after their commanding officer Eli Lilly, who later founded a pharmaceutical company. The battery participated in battles at Hoover’s Gap, Chickamauga, and General William T. Sherman’s campaign against Atlanta.

[20] This statement is in response to Siebert’s third question about how Underground Railroad conductors communicated with each other.

[21] Here Speed related this memorable incident in response to another Siebert query.

[22] Mariah is likely one of two people. The Pattersons’ daughter, Almira, would have been in her late-teens or early twenties around this time. Another possibility is Mariah Patterson, who was married to Nelson Patterson, junior. Mariah would have been about twenty-seven or twenty-eight at the time, but she also had several young children, which makes her participation in the escape less likely.

[23] In a biographical sketch about John Speed, presumably provided by Sidney or another child, printed in Hiram Beckwith’s History of Montgomery County offers a few more details regarding this activity: “At one time the garret [of the house] was so full [of freedom seekers] that to prevent suspicion that he [John Speed] was harboring anyone he bought twenty-five cents’ worth of bread, then required his children to purchase a like amount each, until he obtained sufficient food for his attic visitors.”

[24] Theodore Darwin Brown (1830-1916), according to his obituary, settled in Crawfordsville in 1844, and worked for decades as a druggist. He also served as county clerk. Also according to his obituary, Brown was “an uncompromising Republican” who inherited his political views from his father, Dr. Ryland T. Brown, “one of the early abolition leaders of the state.”

[25] Enough information is not given to conclusively identify the Allens. According to the U.S. censuses, there were several Allen families residing in Brown Township in the 1850s.

[26] This probably refers to James Allred or Alred (1784-?). Allred, a native of North Carolina, appears in the 1840 and 1850 censuses as residing in Montgomery County. In the 1860 census, he is listed in Marion County.

[27] “Dornick” is an arcane word meaning a small pebble or stone.

[28] According to an 1898 article in the Crawfordsville Review the incident described took place in 1848. The article also offers some other particulars, like Allred’s first name.

[29] Whether Speed wrote the name wrong, or Siebert transcribed it incorrectly, Fisher Doherty’s wife was Sarah Owen Doherty (1820-1901). Her obituary notes Fisher Doherty as “a prominent promoter of the underground railroad, harboring many a runaway negro in his home. Mrs. Doherty was devoted to him thoroughly in his work and was a woman liberally endowed by nature of a great force of character.”

[30] Indiana’s first state house in Indianapolis opened in 1835.

[31] The construction of the building was problematic, and included the collapse of the House Chamber ceiling in 1867. A legislative committee began studying replacing the building in 1873, with a plan finalized in 1878.

[32] Construction on a new state house began in 1878, and continued until 1887/88. This building still serves the Indiana State Capitol.

[33] The National Road was the first interstate highway built with federal funds. Construction began in Cumberland, Maryland in 1811. Federal funds for the road ended in 1838 while construction was still being done in Indiana.

[34] President Andrew Jackson vetoed a bill in 1832 to re-charter the First Bank of the United States. Jackson reasoned that the Bank was not authorized by the Constitution, and “subversive to the rights of States, and dangerous to the liberties of the people.” Jackson took further steps to weaken the Bank when he decided to place federal funds on deposit in state banks. The Bank’s charter expired in 1836, and contributed to a major economic recession (some sources say depression) that lasted until the mid-1840s.

[35] The North Carolina State Capitol was completed in 1840.

[36] Speed was Crawfordsville’s second mayor. He served from 1868-1870.

“Better Homes wants to have a fair shake:” Fighting Housing Discrimination in Postwar South Bend

Better Homes of South Bend Neighborhood in South Bend, Indiana. Photo by Peter Rigenberg, accessed Better Homes of South Bend by Gabrielle Robinson, 121.

On May 21, 1950, a group of African American Studebaker workers and their wives formed a building cooperative in South Bend, Indiana called “Better Homes of South Bend.” Like other building cooperatives, the group appointed officers and a lawyer, drew up incorporation papers, and set times for regular meetings. Unlike other organizations, members decided their cooperative’s activities had to be kept secret to succeed. The cooperative’s first meeting minutes even stressed “no information is to be given out.”

1928 aerial view of Studebaker plant in South Bend, accessed Michiana Memory.

Better Homes of South Bend members had good reason to be cautious. Discrimination in the local housing market had long limited African Americans to dwellings in the southwest part of South Bend, near the Studebaker Factory. Many members were part of the Great Migration of millions of African Americans from the South to the North for war industry jobs in the 1940s. Many had hoped to escape segregation and Jim Crow policies.

However, those with sufficient finances to make down payments found virtually no homes available to them and no banks willing to loan them money. Many of the city’s landlords would not rent to black residents. Real estate agents refused to show black home buyers houses in all-white neighborhoods and developments. White homeowners who tried to sell to black buyers risked physical threats and vandalism. Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough notes that the housing situation in South Bend was so dire for African Americans in the 1940s that many black families were forced to crowd into one or two bedroom units in substandard buildings.

Transcript from a public hearing in South Bend that exposed examples of discrimination in the local housing market from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. March 19, 1963, accessed Michiana Memory.

Alan Pinado, one of the only black real estate agents in South Bend in the postwar era, noted in an oral history of the Civil Rights Heritage Center that:

There were no first quality homes being built for middle class, middle income blacks in South Bend . . . The federal government was part and parcel of the segregated housing pattern. It was legally mandated that new communities be kept segregated.

Federal housing and real estate policy strengthened prejudice in the housing market, not just in South Bend, but nationwide. The federal government first became heavily involved in the housing market in the 1930s. After the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression, the feds created several new agencies, like the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), the Federal Home Loan Bank (FHLB), and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), to try to stem the collapse of regional housing markets and bolster the failing economy.

Federal Housing Administration brochure, ca. 1935, accessed columbia.edu.

Before the federal government stepped in, few became home owners. Banks spread mortgages only over three to five years. These mortgages required large payments that few could afford, especially during the Great Depression. In the 1930s, the government introduced the long-term, low-interest, self-amortizing mortgages most homeowners are familiar with today. Since these mortgages required smaller payments, home ownership became more economically feasible. Additionally, the federal government insured these loans through the FHA, making them an incredibly low risk for banks.

The government developed appraisal schemes to determine eligibility for these new loans. They adopted guidelines real estate associations had developed in the 1910s and 1920s to keep neighborhoods segregated. These associations erroneously decreed that the introduction of a non-white family into an all-white neighborhood would decrease surrounding property values. This policy kept many African Americans in poor neighborhoods, despite their income. For example, HOLC created survey maps of neighborhoods in 239 cities that color coded risk. Neighborhoods were coded into four groups, A-D. Only the best rated neighborhoods, marked A and B, would receive long-term loans. One criteria to receive an A or B rating included that the home in question sat in an all-white neighborhood.

HOLC security map for South Bend, Indiana. Accessed Mapping Inequality.

Similarly, the FHA Underwriting Manual, written in 1936, told appraisers to investigate areas surrounding a house for sale to “determine whether or not incompatible racial and social groups are present” because “if a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” The manual further encouraged the use of local zoning and deed restrictions, like racially restrictive covenants that prevented potential black buyers from purchasing a home from a white homeowner.

The JD Shelly family fought to live in this house in St. Louis, after a neighbor sued to enforce racially restrictive covenants. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Shelly family. Accessed nps.gov.

By the time Better Homes of South Bend was established, the FHA insured 1 in 3 mortgages for new construction. However, the appraisal practices described above became standard practice and permeated the entire housing market. Though the Supreme Court ruled these practices unconstitutional in Shelly v. Kraemer in 1948, FHA did not stop publicly endorsing such actions until 1950 and prejudice in the housing market continued well after. Even in 1961, the United States Commission on Civil Rights admitted that housing still:

seems to be the one commodity in the American market that is not freely available on equal terms to everyone who can afford to pay.

Better Homes of South Bend members formed their building cooperative to combat this prejudiced housing market in 1950. According to scholar Jessica Gordon Nembhard, African Americans have established co-ops since the Civil War help fight economic racism. Cooperatives, or “companies owned by people who use their services,” work by pooling resources to satisfy an economic need created by a marketplace failure.

Advertisement for M.W. Jones’s African American apartment co-op in Indianapolis. Indianapolis Recorder, November 11, 1950, 14, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The first large African American housing co-operatives began in Harlem in the late 1920s. Many early African American co-ops in Indiana were markets or grocery stores, formed in the 1930s or 1940s. Better Homes of South Bend was likely one of the first successful African American building co-ops in the state. Only one other similar co-op, an apartment co-op in Indianapolis started by M.W. Jones in 1950, described in the Indianapolis Recorder as the “first Negro co-op Apartments in the city and the State,” is known to have existed.

Better Homes of South Bend had many of their meetings at the Hering House, an African American civic center in South Bend. Accessed Michiana Memory.

At the first meeting, Better Homes members elected officers to run the group: Lureatha Allen as President, Earl Thompson as Vice President, Louise Taylor as secretary, Ruby Paige as assistant secretary, and Bland Jackson as treasurer. Eventually, twenty-two couples joined the group. Many members were neighbors along Prairie Avenue or Western Avenue. Eighteen of the twenty-two male members worked at Studebaker. Most of the women stayed home to take care of children. Since many of the women had more flexible schedules than their husbands, they often took on leadership roles in the cooperative.

Better Homes of South Bend lawyer J. Chester Allen, accessed Indiana Legal Archive

After incorporating, Better Homes members had to find land to build their homes. Their lawyer, J. Chester Allen, secured twenty-six lots on the northwest edge of the city on the 1700 and 1800 blocks of North Elmer Street from his acquaintance, George Sands, a prominent white lawyer in South Bend. Only a few families, all white, lived in this relatively undeveloped area. US Census and Housing Data, which divides South Bend into six wards containing roughly five to six thousand households. The data indicates that only seven “non-white” households lived in the ward containing 1700-1800 North Elmer Street in 1950. In contrast, all Better Homes of South Bend members lived in Ward 2 or Ward 6 at the time, both of which contained 530 and 835 non-white households, respectively.

DeHart Hubbard, accessed University of Michigan.

At a general meeting in September 1950, members enjoyed divvying up the lots and receiving their house numbers. The next steps involved getting loans to finance construction and a contractor to build homes on the lots. Better Homes enlisted the help of DeHart Hubbard, who worked as a race relations advisor at the FHA office in Cleveland. The FHA had finally started cracking down on racially restrictive covenants in their mortgages, after years of pressure from civil rights groups.

Through Hubbard, Better Homes got the FHA to handle their permanent mortgages and found four local banks to handle financing. Many members worried about meeting with local bank executives because they had heard bankers often denied home loans to African Americans, especially those who wanted to build outside black neighborhoods. Hubbard accompanied members to meetings with banking executives to remind the bankers that the federal government was insuring Better Homes’ loans and that members had good credit, therefore there was no reason to deny financing. In Better Homes of South Bend, member Leroy Cobb told author Gabrielle Robinson:

What I was really proud of was that here was a black man standing up to white executives and telling them that Better Homes wants to have a fair shake. It inspired me.

Leroy Cobb, a few years before joining Better Homes of South Bend, 1946, accessed Michiana Memory.

Better Homes also had to find a competent contractor. Member Margaret Cobb noted in an oral history for the Civil Rights Heritage Center at Indiana University South Bend, that contractors they met with “wanted to give us substandard materials,” to build their homes because members were black. Construction companies at the time often employed a double standard in building, using higher quality materials on homes for white homeowners and cheaper stock for similar African American homes. Leroy Cobb remembered in Better Homes of South Bend that one prospective contractor refused to put doors on closets in their homes. After two years, Better Homes finally found two contractors that supplied good plans at reasonable prices. All the houses were to be one-story frame construction on a concrete slab. Most floor plans contained five rooms and one bathroom.

Before construction could start, the city had to install sewer and water lines. Though the postwar building boom strained the city’s resources, negotiations between the city and Better Homes attorney J. Chester Allen stretched over years. Members suspect that the process might have taken so long because of an unwillingness for the Better Homes families to move to North Elmer Street.  After two years of letters and petitions, the group finally got sewers installed and construction began.

1700 block of North Elmer Street in 2015, the former homes of members Earl and Viro Thompson, Gus and Josie Watkins, and Bland and Rosa Jackson. Photo by Peter Rigenberg, accessed Better Homes of South Bend by Gabrielle Robinson, 86.

In the late fall of 1952, the first family, Bland and Rosa Jackson, moved into their home at 1706 North Elmer Street. By the mid-1950s, all twenty-two families had moved in between 1700 and 1841 North Elmer Street. Leroy and Margaret Cobb moved in on November 1, 1953 to 1702 North Elmer Street. Leroy Cobb told Gabrielle Robinson that on move-in day, “I was elated.” Finally, he and Margaret had enough space for their family.

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

In August 1954, the group celebrated their new neighborhood with a picnic featuring cakes, pies, potato salad and barbecued chicken and ribs. Over the years, Better Homes members grew a vibrant community, filled with family cookouts and outdoor activities like baseball, kickball, and building snowmen. There was even an annual Elmer Street Parade.

The Indiana Historical Bureau will honor Better Homes of South Bend with a new state historical marker.  The marker will be revealed at a ceremony open to the public July 1, 2017 at 1702 North Elmer Street in South Bend. Check on our Facebook page and website for upcoming details.

Better Homes of South Bend members at their celebratory picnic in August 1954. Photo courtesy Leroy Cobb, accessed Better Homes of South Bend, 91.

Etheridge Knight: “can there anything good come out of prison”

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

“I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.” This is how poet Etheridge Knight Jr. described his experience at the Indiana State Prison, where he served eight years for armed robbery. This post focuses on the years 1960-1968, in which the man “with something to say” began sharing his voice through poetry.

Born in 1931 in Corinth, Mississippi, Knight’s family moved to Paducah, Kentucky before moving to Indianapolis. He dropped out of school as a teenager and enlisted in the army in 1947. Knight served as a medical technician in the Korean War until 1950, when a serious injury would indirectly serve as a catalyst for his revolutionary Poems from Prison. His wounds proved so physically and psychologically traumatic that Knight soon developed an addiction to morphine. Or as Knight put it, “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me.” Following his army discharge, Knight supported his habit by dealing drugs and stealing, which led to his sentence in the Michigan City, Indiana prison.

Betty De Ramus wrote in the Detroit Free Press that black poets of the 1960s, including those writing behind bars, were not trying to

pass civil rights laws or integrate bathrooms or even to trouble America’s conscience. They were battling for the minds of blacks, bent on persuading them of their potential and power, trying to open them, layer by layer, to their own lost beauty.

She argued that this movement, comprised also of African American music, theater, films, and novels were black artists’ way of “lighting candles in the darkness.” Knight would become a quintessential voice of the Black Arts Movement, described by Larry Neal as “’radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Arts is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America.’”

Knight did not immediately illuminate the darkness at the Indiana State Prison, where he became embittered by “racist guards and racist parole boards.” According to a 1972 Baltimore Sun article, he began writing poetry 18 months into his sentence, inspired by other black poets like Gwendolyn Brooks (who later visited him in prison) and Langston Hughes. He recalled “I read Walt Whitman and the European poets, too . . . I could never really get to them as I got to Hughes and Brooks.”

According to the Poetry Foundation, Knight “was already an accomplished reciter of “‘toasts'” before he entered the penitentiary. These toasts were long, narrative poems spoken from memory that related to “‘sexual exploits, drug activities, and violent aggressive conflicts involving a cast of familiar folk . . . using street slang, drug and other specialized argot, and often obscenities.'” At the Indiana State Prison, he “toasted,” amidst cell doors slamming and prisoners shouting. Other times, Knight recalled, “Sometimes in the joint . . . I’d back people up against the wall and say, ‘Here, you want to hear this?’ After all budding poets do need an audience, and where better to find one with time to listen?”

Knight later stated that “Poetry and a few people in there trying to stay human saved me . . . I knew that I couldn’t just deaden all my feeling the way some people did.” This poetry explored themes like “suffering and survival, trial and tribute, loss and love.” The Richmond Palladium-Item reported that through his words he “lashed out at the power brokers in prison and in literature with equal intensity and humor.” At first the budding poet encountered no trouble mailing out his poetry in an attempt to get published. The authorities did not resist, he recalled, because they considered James Whitcomb Riley to be a poet and “they didn’t understand what I was all about.”

His first published piece, a tribute to Dinah Washington, appeared in the Negro Digest about a year after he started writing from prison. Once published, prison officials began censoring his mail and prohibited him from mailing out his poetry. Knight responded by “smuggling material out to friends . . . who worked on the outside.” This resistance to prison life manifested not only in words, but in behavior and he spent time in solitary confinement, or, as he termed it the “hole” and “on the rock.”

Courtesy of The Paris Review article “Terence Hayes Brings Etheridge Knight Into Focus”

“The more oppressive the system you live under, the louder the poets scream,” Knight contended in 1989. And scream he did. His short stories and verses written in the penitentiary, were published in periodicals, anthologies, and the Journal of Black Poetry. Most famously, he published his book Poems from Prison, which included poems like “Cell Song” and “A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison.” When he left prison in 1968 he worked as a punch press operator at a factory in Indianapolis. By 1972 his scream had been heard across the country and he had taught students creative writing at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and the University of Pittsburgh, and served as poet-in-residence at Lincoln University in Springfield, MO. He alleged that year that “There is more creativity going on in college campuses and prisons than any other places in the country.”

Knight assessed his years in prison, “My time made me see that prisons don’t rehabilitate. If you come out with any degree of sanity at all, you’re lucky. Prison is inhuman. It kills you.”

But poetry brought him back to life. Knight went on to establish Free People’s Poetry Workshops to counteract the “domination of the publishing industry by moneyed white males.” His books and spoken word garnered popular and critical acclaim and he received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, won the American Book Award, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Knight at typewriter, ca. 1960s, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

The poet, described by modern African American poet Terrence Hayes, as a “talented, ex-con, con man, blues-blooded rambling romantic” died in 1991 and is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. For an in-depth examination of Knight’s works, see thepoetryfoundation.org.

 

Material for this post was derived from:
“Poet Gains Worldwide Acclaim,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 27, 1968, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Helen Fogel, Detroit Free Press, February 22, 1969, accessed Newspapers.com.

Randi M. Pollack, “Etheridge Knight Talks on Prison,” The Baltimore Sun, February 18, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.

Mike Fitzgerald, Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana), March 18, 1984, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Etheridge Knight: Going Against Safe Literary Doctrine,” The Indianapolis Star, March 12, 1989, accessed Newspapers.com.