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.

A Challenge to Integration: The Froebel School Strikes of 1945

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, 1. See Hoosier State Chronicles for complete article.

On September 18, 1945, hundreds of white students at Froebel School walked out of their classes to protest African American students at the institution. According to the Gary Post-Tribune, the striking students “urged that Froebel school be reserved for whites only” or that they be transferred to other schools themselves.

While the conflict between segregation and integration was far from new, the student strike in Gary would call into question the very values the United States fought to uphold during World War II, which had formally ended just two weeks before the “hate strike.” The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, composed of black ministers, made this point clear when it issued its “appeal to reason” to the citizens of Gary, Indiana:

It is indeed regrettable to note that after the nation has spent approximately 190 billion dollars, the colored citizens of Gary have sent about 4,000 of their sons, brothers, and husbands to battlefields around the world and have supported every war effort that our government has called upon us to support, in a united effort to destroy nazism and to banish from the face of the earth all that Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo stood for; to find in our midst those who are endeavoring to spread disunity, race-hatred, and Hitlerism in our community.

Gary Post-Tribune, September 20, 1945, 3

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, sec. 2, p. 2.

Integration was not a recent development at Froebel when much of the white student body went on strike in the fall of 1945. In fact, Froebel was Gary’s only “integrated” school throughout the first half of the 20th century, though the term warrants further explanation. When the K-12 school opened in 1912, Gary school officials recognized that African American students should not be denied the opportunities available to white students at the new school and established two separate rooms at Froebel for black students. By 1914, a report published by the United States Bureau of Education indicated that there were approximately seventy black students attending the school, but that “the other patrons of the school, most of whom are foreigners, strenuously object to mixing colored children with the others; so they are placed in separate classes in charge of two colored teachers. . .” Thus, despite integration, Froebel remained internally segregated.

Image courtesy of Randolph S. Bourne, The Gary Schools (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1916), accessed Archive.org.

A 1944 study conducted by the National Urban League showed that Froebel’s black students were “welcomed as athletes, but not as participants in cultural and social affairs.” They could not use the swimming pools on the same days as white students, were barred from the school band, and were discriminated against in many other extracurricular activities.

Conditions at Froebel improved slightly during the 1940s, due in part to Principal Richard Nuzum. He created a biracial Parent-Teachers’ Association, integrated the student council and boys’ swimming pool, and enabled black students to try out for the orchestra. Unfortunately, his efforts towards further integration angered many of Froebel’s white students and their parents, who would later criticize Nuzum of giving preferential treatment to African American students. These feelings, paired with a rising fear among many of Gary’s white, foreign-born inhabitants about increases in the black population in the city, largely contributed to the 1945 school strike.

Table courtesy of the “Report of Technical Advisers to the Special Investigating Committee Appointed by the Gary Board of Education,” October 21, 1945, 7.

Newspapers across the state covered the strike(s) extensively throughout the fall, and the story quickly made national headlines. By September 20, the strike spread to Gary’s Tolleston School, where approximately 200 additional students skipped classes. On September 21, 1945, the Gary Post-Tribune reported that between the two schools, well over 1,000 students had participated in the walkouts up to this point.

Eager to see an end to the strike, to avoid potential violence, and to get students back to school, Superintendent Charles D. Lutz and the board of education issued a formal statement on Friday, September 21, demanding that students return to classes on Monday. The school board threatened to take legal action against parents of students under age sixteen if they continued to strike, while those over age sixteen risked expulsion.

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The school board was not alone in its hopes of ending the strike. Gary Mayor Joseph E. Finerty, the Gary Council of Churches, and the school PTA all issued appeals hoping to bring an end to the walkouts. Other opponents of the strike included the NAACP and CIO United Steel Workers Union. Many blamed parents of the striking students for the racial tension existent in the school, stating that racial hatred was not inherent, but learned at home. A September 26, 1945 editorial in the Gary Post-Tribune also noted:

Fundamentally this is not a school problem. It has developed out of the changing population in the Froebel area. . . As a result of this influx of Negro families some white property owners feel their homes and churches have depreciated in value.

While students at Tolleston agreed to return to classes by the school board’s stated deadline, those leading the strike at Froebel refused to return until Wednesday, and only on the condition that the school board meet with them beforehand and comply with their demands.

These demands, which the Gary Post-Tribune published on September 21, were three-fold: 1) the removal of all 800 black students from Froebel; 2) the ousting of Principal Richard Nuzum, whom they believed gave preferential treatment to black students; and 3) that school officials stop using Froebel students as “guinea pigs” in race relation experiments (Froebel was the only high school in Gary with a racially mixed attendance at the time).

Horace Manual, Horace Mann High School Yearbook, 1942. Courtesy of Ancestry.com

The Gary school board met with the striking committee on September 25, and when it refused to give in to the students’ demands, the strike continued. Leonard Levenda, spokesman for the striking committee, was quoted in the Gary Post-Tribune on September 26, stating that the walkout was the result of “a long series of episodes provoked by the behavior of Negro students.” Levenda continued by blaming Nuzum for not taking action against African American students after these reported “episodes.” The strike continued until October 1, when students finally returned to classes after the school board agreed to formally investigate the charges against Principal Nuzum.

Walter White to Charles Lutz, letter, September 24, 1945, Papers of the NAACP.

In response to the incidents at Froebel, Mayor Finerty urged the formation of an inter-organization racial unity committee to help improve race relations in the “Steel City.” Finerty, as quoted in the Indianapolis Recorder on October 20, stated “we in Gary must take positive steps in learning to live together in unity in our own city. Now, more than ever, there is need for unity within our city and the nation.”

Another article in the Recorder that day examined the reaction of white leaders in Chicago, who did little to conceal their disgust for the strike and criticism of the strikers:

These racist demonstrations have been an insult to democracy and to the hundreds of thousands of whites and Negroes who deplore this American form of Hitlerism. . .  We further pledge not to walk out on democracy and on this problem which has its roots principally in the attitude and actions of the white man, not the colored.

In early October, the Gary school board appointed a special investigating committee and temporarily relieved Nuzum of his duties as principal. By October 21, the investigation came to a close and a report regarding conditions at Froebel was issued. Nuzum was exonerated and returned as principal and the report called for the school to return to the status it had before the strike. Angered by these results, students staged another walkout on October 29. Levenda and other striking students argued that they were not going on strike, but rather “being forced out by the actions of Mr. Nuzum.”

Chicago Tribune, November 1, 1945, 31, accessed Newspapers.com

Searching for a way to bring a final end to the strike, Anselm Forum, a Gary-based community organization dedicated to social harmony, helped bring Frank Sinatra to the school to perform and talk with the students about racial tension in the city. While many students appeared attentive and understanding of Sinatra’s calls for peace and an end to racial discrimination, the striking committee refused to back down.

Frank Sinatra meets with members of Anselm Youth Forum, Gary ROTC, and Froebel students, 1945. Photo courtesy of Associated Press, via Hoboken Historical Museum Online Collections Database.

It was not until November 12, when State Superintendent of Public Instruction Clement T. Malan agreed to study conditions at Froebel that the striking students returned to classes. Even then, some mothers of the parents’ committee continued to oppose the students’ return.

Racial tension continued even after the strikes ended in November 1945. By the spring of 1946, students at Froebel threatened to go on strike again, but were stopped by the Gary school board and Froebel student council. Newspapers reported that the leaders of the previous strikes, in union with Froebel’s black students, issued an anti-strike statement in March 1946. In this statement, they encouraged the Gary school board to issue a policy to end discrimination in all of Gary’s public schools.

Due in large part to the “hate strikes” at Froebel, the Gary Board of Education adopted a policy on August 27, 1946, to end segregation and discrimination in the city’s public schools. Scheduled to go into full effect by September 1, 1947, the policy read:

Children under the jurisdiction of the Gary public schools shall not be discriminated against in the school districts in which they live, or within the school which they attend, because of race, color or religion.

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society

In accordance with the policy, Gary’s public schoolchildren would attend the school nearest them and would be given equal opportunity “in the classroom and in all other school activities.” According to historian Ronald Cohen, the decision made Gary “one of the first northern cities to officially integrate its schools.” In 1949, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law to abolish segregation in the state’s public schools. The law required that schools discontinue enrollment on the basis of race, creed, or color of students.

Despite these measures however, discrimination in the Gary public school system did not disappear. Because of segregated residential patterns, few black students transferred to previously all-white institutions. The 1950s saw a resurgence in de facto segregation in the city as the black population there continued to grow and fill already overcrowded black schools.

Froebel School state historical marker. Installed in Gary in 2014 at 15th Avenue and Madison St.

Inequality Remade: Residential Segregation, Indianapolis Public Schools, and Forced Busing

In 1971, the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) system was brought to court and found guilty of practicing de jure segregation or racial separation enforced by law. This lesser-known story of desegregation in Indianapolis’s schools reveals a community deeply divided over race and offers one local response to an important national conversation.

Indianapolis had been racially segregated long before the 1970s. In particular, residential segregation coupled with a practice called redlining reinforced boundaries between the city’s white and African American populations. Redlining is denying services to people based on race: in this case, financial services. In response to the Great Depression, between 1934 and 1968 the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) used the National Housing Act to make housing more affordable. In practice, the Act only made home ownership easily accessible to white people by guaranteeing their loans. It explicitly denied to back loans for black people or even residents of majority black neighborhoods.

Aerial View of Indianapolis, 1938, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Appraisers ranked residential areas on a grading scale from A (green) to D (red). These color-coded maps, created by lenders, developers, and real estate appraisers for the FHA and HOLC, dictated how easy or difficult mortgage companies would make it for residents to secure loans in different areas. The appraisal process proved damning to areas where African Americans lived. An A-grade area, as one appraiser said, would not include “a single foreigner or Negro.” The lowest D-grade, red areas included “detrimental influences in a pronounced degree” with “undesirable population or infiltration of it.” Since the appraisers purposefully graded areas where African Americans lived poorly, redlining made it impossible for African Americans to benefit from residential mobility and reinforced racial segregation in the city.

In Indianapolis, A-grade areas were mainly located in the suburbs while C- and D-grade neighborhoods were located in the inner-city – where 98 percent of the African American population lived. One Indianapolis neighborhood on the Old Northwest Central side of the city, where African Americans made up 90 percent of the population, was catalogued as D-25. The appraiser who surveyed the area in 1937 gave it a D-grade for being “blighted” and “almost solid negro.” Even areas described as having “better class” African Americans were still classified as D-grade. In contrast, desirable Grade-A locations, like A-1 near Butler University, boasted “[n]ative white; executive and other white-collar type” residents with “nominal” foreign-born and no black residents.

Courtesy of Mapping Inequality, Richmond.edu.

Explore the redlining map of Indianapolis.

These residential patterns made it easy for IPS to uphold segregation in the school system as the School Board would zone, or divide, different residential areas to feed into different schools. As such, racially segregated housing generated racially segregated schools. A deeply divided school system had been in place in the city since 1927 when the Ku Klux Klan pressured the Board of School Commissioners to build what became Crispus Attucks High School for African American students. IHB’s historical marker observes the school’s history.

Indiana Historical Bureau marker.

Although school segregation was outlawed in Indiana in 1949, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) reestablished the elementary school boundaries in 1953 to ensure that the school system remained racially divided. The boundaries were so clearly racially-motivated that “[i]n some instances the lines drawn . . . ignored natural boundaries, requiring students to cross a canal, railroad track” or busy street “to get to their assigned school where no impediment stood between the student and an adjoining school.” An African American child tragically died after being struck by a train in 1952 because of these boundaries.

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

In 1968, a group of African American parents of children who attended IPS schools requested that the US Justice Department file a suit in the federal district court to charge IPS with unconstitutional segregation. The case, United States v. Board of School Commissioners, was tried in Indianapolis in July of 1971. The verdict, given on August 18, 1971, found “a purposeful pattern of racial discrimination based on the aggregate of many decisions of the Board and its agents.” IPS was guilty of de jure segregation, including racist “gerrymandering of school attendance zones, the segregation of faculty, the use of optional attendance zones among the schools, and the pattern of school construction and placement.” The court believed that “complete desegregation within IPS boundaries would encourage ‘white flight’ and lead to rapid resegregation” of IPS. To address this, the State of Indiana was added to the suit so that the township schools within Marion County would have to racially integrate with IPS.

In 1973, IPS having taken no significant steps towards desegregation, the district court asserted jurisdiction over the issue. Judge Dillin of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana ordered a one-way busing system to force IPS and the township schools to integrate.

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

Many Indianapolis parents, both black and white, were nervous for this transition the preceding summer of the 1973 school year. Meridian-Kessler, located on the north side of the downtown, had only recently become multi-racial at the time, and the neighborhood’s August/September newsletter carried a somewhat anxious tone. The front page read:

Uppermost in the minds of most Indy residents this fall is the unsettled school situation . . . There are three grade schools within our boundaries, and our children attend two nearby high schools. All of these schools will be involved in the desegregation plan eventually due to the changing racial balance in this area.

The city had reason to be nervous. Forced busing schemes in other cities like Detroit and Boston made headlines for the violence they incited. Indianapolis residents associated with the Ku Klux Klan became a common presence at anti-busing protest events. On the morning of September 27, 1971, Sgt. J. Adamson of the Indianapolis Police Department (IPD), was assigned to cover an anti-busing demonstration at the Indiana Statehouse. He identified “[a] group of approximately twenty (20) mixed men, women and male teenagers…under the name of ‘Americans for America’,” noting, “[t]his organization has strong Klan affiliation.” Three days later, September 30, 1971, the IPD deployed their Special Investigation unit to cover another meeting: The Citizens Against Busing at the Indianapolis Baptist Temple. Again, many involved were members of the KKK-affiliated group “Americans for America.” Meetings like these were not uncommon.

“Blacks Hurt in Boston Busing Protest,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 13, 1974, front page, accessed Newspapers.com.

In Indianapolis, the first buses of black students began commuting to white schools in 1973. Not all schools responded to the desegregation order immediately. Some townships, including Perry, Decatur, Franklin, and Lawrence only began accepting IPS students bused to their schools in 1981. That year, when her bus, coming from Indianapolis’s east side, pulled into Perry Meridian High School, LaTonya Kirkland was terrified. She “remembers a dozen of her white classmates approaching the bus, their hands slapping against the yellow metal side panels . . . the bus started to rock as the white students slammed against the bus” before throwing an egg at the window. Police had to escort her and her fellow black classmates into the school.

Perry Meridian High School was the site for many violent racial altercations. The burden of reversing segregation, a problem instigated by the white population, fell heavily on the shoulders of black teenagers. The letters “KKK” were found painted on the school building, and there were rumors of black students coming to school with weapons to protect themselves. Only one African American girl was actually caught with such a weapon. She was concealing a meat cleaver. The situation at Perry Meridian High School had escalated so much that in 1981 the FBI came to investigate.

The interconnected stories of redlining and the desegregation of IPS reveal a city deeply divided, struggling with issues of race and equality. In the end, busing briefly achieved what it was meant to do. The court order created schools which appeared racially balanced and integrated on paper, but were often still segregated and hostile. Indianapolis began to phase out forced busing in 1998, ending the court-ordered desegregation era with LaTonya Kirkland’s daughter LaShawn’s graduating class in the 2015-2016 school year.

Before Rosa Parks: Laura Fisher’s 1927 Fight Against “Jim Crowism”

Greyhound Bus, 1929, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection.

On November 19, 1927 Laura Fisher boarded a Greyhound Bus at a station in Richmond, Indiana. The African American passenger, destined for her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, felt ill and took a seat at the front of the bus where it was warmest. This infuriated the Cincinnati bus driver Glen Branoski, described in the newspapers as “of foreign descent,” who demanded Fisher sit in the back of the bus in the section he had designated as “negro.” After refusing to move, Branoski ejected Fisher from the bus. According to a November 29, 1927 article in the Richmond Item, Fisher re-entered the bus, which prompted Branoski to call police headquarters. The Richmond Palladium [originally the Palladium and Sun-Telegram] noted that he demanded that the police remove her, citing that “Jim Crow rule” was “provided by the [bus] company.” Even though Greyhound was headquartered in Duluth, Minnesota, the growing interstate bus line needed to be mindful of the regional laws regarding segregation.

Jim Crow laws “came to mean any state law passed in the South that established different rules for blacks and whites. Jim Crow laws were based on the theory of white supremacy and were a reaction to [Civil War] Reconstruction.” Historian Richard B. Pierce noted that Indiana “did not have as complete a system of Jim Crow” as southern states, although it “did have its own unique brand of discrimination.” In Fisher’s case, the police station cited that “state laws did not legalize such discrimination and the police department had no authority to help” Branoski enforce the bus line policy.

Palladium and Sun-Telegram (Richmond), November 21, 1927, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Richmond Item reported that following this refusal, Branoski ejected Fisher a second time “with such violence that she was painfully injured” and then he tore up her ticket. The paper noted, “A considerable crowd collected and trouble threatened for a time, Mrs. Fisher becoming almost hysterical from fright.” Had police officers not arrived in a timely manner, the newspaper predicted, there would likely have been a riot. This unlawful attempt to enforce of Jim Crow segregation led to Branoski’s arrest the day following the incident. An Item article reported that on November 21 he plead “not guilty” to assault and battery and was released on bond, ordered to report to city court the following Monday for trial.

“Local Conditions,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 18, 1926, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Several local newspapers noted that this “Jim Crow” trial was the first racial discrimination case Richmond had encountered in many years. However, Fisher’s experience typified increasing segregation in Indiana during the mid and late 1920s. According to Emma Lou Thornbrough’s Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century, in 1927 a wave of racial discrimination led to the authorization or opening of segregated Indiana schools, including Indianapolis’s Crispus Attucks High School, Gary’s Roosevelt School, and Evansville’s Lincoln School. Each of these were barred from membership in the Indiana High School Athletic Association, on the grounds that the schools were not “publicly open to all” (the rule also barred parochial schools from IHSAA membership by the same rationale).  The rule was in effect until 1942, and prohibited all-black squads from competing against white teams.

Segregation also extended to recreation, housing, and medical care. According to historian James Madison, nearly every facet of Hoosier life in the post-WWI era was segregated or exclusionary, including “theaters, public parks, cemeteries, restaurants, hotels, beaches, swimming pools, orphans’ homes, hospitals, newspaper society columns, the state militia . . .” A March 15, 1927 article in the Huntington Herald demonstrates the attitudes of those Hoosiers calling for segregation, alleging “the average negro, given an inch will take a mile” and therefore “it is the negro’s mode of living that has resulted in the passage of all Jim Crow laws.”

Accessed via Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Madison noted that “Indiana blacks did not accept discrimination and segregation without protest,” evinced by Laura Fisher’s case. On November 28, Branoski reported for trial at the city court, where he gave no testimony and plead guilty to assault and battery (Richmond Palladium). He was fined $50, plus costs, and 20 days in county jail. The bus company, which fired Branoski but paid his fines, settled out of court with Fisher and paid her $500 to sign a “release from a damage action which had been threatened.” According to the November 29 Richmond Item article, Fisher took Branoski to court with the purpose of obtaining racial justice, rather than financial settlement. One of her lawyers stated that:

‘Negro residents of the community were not asking for the imposition of any severe penalty upon Branoski, merely a vindication of equal rights of Negro passengers with white passengers on public transportation conveyances. He several times asked Branoski’s jail sentence be reduced to 10 days.’

Greyhound Bus Station in Indianapolis, 1943, courtesy of loc.gov, accessed iupui.edu, Indiana Farm Security Photographs.

In announcing the verdict, Richmond police judge Fred Pickett stated that “The Indiana law on racial discrimination is clear. It does not tolerate discrimination” (Palladium, November 29). He added “Ignoring the fact that one of the principals in this case is a white man and the other a negro woman it must be viewed solely as an aggravated, unprovoked attack by a strong man upon a woman who was both weak and ill. She was both injured and humiliated.” Judge Pickett made his opinion clear, stating “I want it to be a matter of public record that this court regards an attack made by a man upon a woman a serious offense not to be lightly condoned.”

The Richmond Item, November 29, 1927, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Although his statements seem to emphasize injustice based on gender, rather than race, the Freeport Journal-Standard of Illinois noted “that Indiana does not recognize a ‘Jim Crow’ rule was emphasized by police judge, Fred Pickett.”

Muncie Evening Press, December 9, 1927, accessed Newspapers.com.

While research efforts to locate articles about the fates of Fisher or Branoski following the trial were unfruitful, the case was referenced in a similar bus incident occurring on November 23, just four days after Fisher’s ordeal. According to a December 17, 1927 article in the Indianapolis Recorder, prominent African American business woman Helen M. Dorsey filed suit against the Blue Goose Bus Line when a driver refused to let her board the bus. Unable to make it to a conference in Kentucky on time, she “arrived too late to take care of the matters.” She therefor sought $500 in damages, the amount offered to “a passenger, Mrs. Laura Fisher, at Richmond, Ind. a few weeks ago.” These 1927 cases highlighted Indiana’s increasing segregation and the daily battles African Americans waged-and sometimes won-to obtain equal privileges.

Check back February 16 to learn about Indianapolis Public Schools, residential segregation, and forced busing in the 1970s.

Roberta West Nicholson: “Without a Scintilla of Prejudice”

See Part I to learn about Roberta West Nicholson’s efforts to educate the public about sexual health, her Anti-Heart Balm Bill, and the sexism she faced as the only woman legislator in the 1935-1936 Indiana General Assembly.

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Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from Nicholson’s six-part interview with the Indiana State Library.

At the conclusion of Nicholson’s term in the Indiana House of Representatives, the country was still in the grip of the Great Depression. Nicholson recalled witnessing a woman standing atop the Governor Oliver P. Morton Statue at the Statehouse to rally Hoosiers from across the state to press Governor Paul McNutt for jobs. She was struck by the fact that the woman was wearing a flour sack as a dress, on which the Acme Evans label was still visible.

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Oliver P. Morton Statue at the Statehouse, courtesy of Waymarking.com.

To see for herself if conditions were as dire as she’d heard-despite some local newspapers denying the extent of the poverty-Nicholson took a job at a canning factory. There she learned that the “economic condition was as bad or worse than I had feared.” She hoped to ease this struggle as the Marion County Director of Women’s and Professional Work for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, January 3, 1937, accessed Newspapers.com.

As Director, she got further confirmation about the impoverished conditions of Hoosiers during a visit to a transient shelter on Capitol Avenue. She reported:

I couldn’t tell you the dimensions of it, but there were fifteen hundred men on the move that were in this one room and there wasn’t room for them to sit down, much less lie down. They stood all night. They just were in out of the weather. You see, these men were on the move because one of the things about that Depression was that there was lack of real communication, and rumors would go around for blue collar work and they’d say, “They’re hiring in St. Louis,” which proved to be incorrect.

In her role at the Indiana WPA, Nicholson managed all jobs undertaken by women and professionals, which included bookbinding and sewing. She also helped supervise the WPA’s Writer’s Project, consisting of a group of ex-teachers and writers who compiled an Indiana history and traveler’s guide. This project was led by Ross Lockridge Sr., historian and father of famous Raintree County author, Ross Lockridge Jr. Nicholson noted that Lockridge Jr.’s book “had more to do with making me fall in love with my adopted state than anything I can tell you.”

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WPA project for the blind, young woman operating braille machine at the Indiana State Library, Indianapolis, courtesy of the National Archives.

One of Nicholson’s largest tasks involved instructing WPA seamstresses to turn out thousands of garments for victims of the Ohio River Flood in 1937. The workers were headquartered at the State Fair Grounds, where the flood victims were also transported by the Red Cross during the disaster. Nicholson noted that many of the women of the sewing project worked because their husbands had left the family as “hobos,” traveling across the country to look for work; in order to support their families the women made clothes for the “next lower strata of society.”

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Jeffersonville Station submerged by the 1937 flood, image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, Bass Photo Collection.
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WPA workers, “Flood Control,” Indianapolis, courtesy of the National Archives.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited their WPA Project, headquartered at the RCA building. The 1500 women continued their work as though nothing were different. Mrs. Roosevelt’s approval seemed to validate the project, especially since the women “were constantly being made fun of for boondoggling and not really doing any work and just drawing down fifty dollars a month.” Nicholson spoke with the First Lady throughout day, concluding “I’ll never forget what a natural, lovely and simple person she was, as I guess all real people are. I was pretty young and it seemed marvelous to me that the president’s wife could be just so easy and talk like anybody else.”

In the early 1940s, Governor Henry F. Schricker appointed Nicholson to a commission on Indianapolis housing conditions. The reformer, who grew up “without a scintilla of prejudice,” concluded that the real estate lobby was at the center of the disenfranchisement of African Americans. As she saw it in 1977, the lobby prevented:

[W]hat we now call ‘upward mobility’ of blacks. I don’t think we would have this school problem in Indianapolis we have now if the emerging class of blacks with education and with decent jobs had not been thwarted in their attempts to live other than in the ghetto. They were thwarted by the real estate laws.

She added that black residents were essentially prohibited to live “anyplace but in the circumscribed areas which the real estate lobby approved . . . And now we have school problems and I think it’s a crying shame that we put the burden for directing past injustices on the backs of little children.”

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, December 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

While World War II lifted the country out of the Depression, it magnified discrimination against African Americans. After passage of the Selective Service Act, the City of Indianapolis hoped to provide recreation for servicemen, creating the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center, on which Nicholson served. She noted that they were able to readily procure facilities for white regiments, such as at the Traction Terminal Building, but locating them for black troops proved a struggle.

Although a black regiment was stationed at Camp Atterbury near Edinburg, Indiana, Nicholson reported that:

The only place to go for any entertainment from Edinburg, Indiana is Indianapolis. Well, what were these black soldiers going to do? They couldn’t go to the hotels, they couldn’t go to any eating place. There was no question of integration at that point. It’s difficult to believe, but this is true; because the Army itself was segregated.

She recalled that her task was so difficult because “There was nowhere near the openness and generosity toward the black soldier that there was toward the white, although they were wearing the same uniform and facing the same kind of dangers.” Lynn W. Turner‘s 1956 “Indiana in World War II-A Progress Report,” reiterated this, describing:

[T]he shameful reluctance of either the USO or the nearby local communities to provide adequate recreational opportunities for Negro troops stationed at Camps Atterbury and Breckenridge and at George and Freeman Air Fields.

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Recorder, December 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Upon this observation, Nicholson fought for black servicemen to be able to utilize the exact same amenities as their white counterparts. One of her tasks included providing troops with a dormitory in the city because “there was no place where these young black men could sleep.” After being turned away by various building owners, Nicholson was allowed to rent a building with “money from bigoted people,” but then came the “job of furnishing it.” With wartime shortages, this proved exceptionally difficult. Nicholson approached the department store L. S. Ayres, demanding bed sheets for the black servicemen. According to Nicholson, some of the Ayres personnel did not understand why the black troops needed sheets if they had blankets. She contended “the white ones had sheets and I didn’t see why the black ones should be denied any of the amenities that the white ones were getting.” Nicholson succeeded in procuring the sheets and a recreation facility at Camp Atterbury for African American soldiers.

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African American Army anti-aircraft regiment, Indianapolis Recorder, September 12, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Never one to bend to societal, political, or ideological pressure, Nicholson encountered vicious resistance in her support of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), a national network advocating for the education, safety, and health of children through programming and legislation. She noted that support of the organization was frowned upon in the state because:

[T]hese were the witch-hunting years, you know, and anything that came out of the federal government was bad, and in Indiana that feeling was rife. It was a matter of federal aid education and in Indiana there was a great deal of militant resentment of that federal aid education.

According to Nicholson, a coalition of institutions like the Chamber of Commerce and the Indianapolis Star, along with “some very rich, very ambitious women who wanted to get into the public eye” aligned to destroy the PTA in Indiana. Nicholson recalled that her support of the PTA on one occasion caused a woman to approach her and spit in her face. Ultimately, Nicholson’s opposition won, and defeated the PTA. Nicholson noted that as a result Indiana’s organizations were called “PTOs and they have no connection with the national.” At the time of her ISL interview, she lamented that “without that program for schools where disadvantaged children go, a lot of the schools just simply couldn’t function.”

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Image courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, February 16, 1951, accessed Newspapers.com.

Nicholson also described a brush with the Red Scare of the 1950s. In a series of articles, an Indianapolis Star journalist accused the State Welfare Department of “being riddled with communism and so forth.” Knowing she was affiliated with one of the women in the department, Governor Schricker summoned Nicholson to his office about the allegations. She noted that while the accused woman was “kinda kooky,” Nicholson was able to assure from “my own knowledge that these two women were possibly off in left field, but that I thought the whole operation was just as clean as anything in the world could be.”

In 1952, desiring respite from the city, the tireless reformer and her husband bought a broken down house in Brown County to fix up for weekend visits. After suffering from ulcers, likely from over-exertion, Nicholson officially retired as the first director of the Indianapolis Social Hygiene Association on December 31, 1960 (serving since 1943). Nicholson passed away in 1987, leaving a positive and enduring imprint on the city’s marginalized population.

Regarding her career, Nicholson combated allegations that she only did what she did because she wanted to be around men. Perhaps an apt summation of her life, Nicholson noted “My way was sort of greased-had a good name and had done some things. I had a reputation for being able to get things done.”

James Overall: Indiana Free Person of Color and the “Natural Rights of Man”

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Prior to the Civil War, Indiana experienced a swell in its African American population due to the migration of free persons of color from other states. The arrival of recently emancipated people and freedom seekers also contributed to the growth in Indiana’s black population. As population increased, so did discrimination against African Americans. The Indiana General Assembly passed laws requiring African Americans to register with county authorities and pay a bond as guarantee of good behavior. They were also prohibited from voting, serving in the state militia, testifying in court cases against white persons, and their children were banned from attending public schools.

Certificate of Purchase, image courtesy of the Indiana Archives and Records Administration.

Land ownership offered African Americans the opportunity to circumvent this oppression. James Overall, a free black man, purchased land in Corydon, Indiana as early as 1817 before moving and acquiring land in Indianapolis in 1830. The ownership of land afforded him prominence in his community, as did his work as a trustee for the African Methodist Episcopal church.

Overall was also notable for his efforts to aid escaping slaves. One such slave from Tennessee, Jermain Loguen, was told to seek the help of “Mr. Overrals of Indianapolis.” After escaping slavery, Loguen became a well-known New York Underground Railroad activist. He described Overall as “an educated man, and had a large character and acquaintance among colored people; and was much respected by white ones, for his probity, industry and good sense. He received and befriended the fugitives, as was his custom with all other who came to him.”

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Jermain Wesley Loguen, image courtesy of Documenting the American South.

Indianapolis in the 1830s was a violent place, as described by early Indianapolis historian Ignatius Brown:

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

The events of the night of March 18, 1836 reflected the tense atmosphere. According to Overall, David Leach and other members of a white gang came to Overall’s door carrying arms and fence rails, trying to break into the home and threatening to kill Overall and his family. Overall defended his property and family by shooting the white gang member. White allies came to Overall’s aid and his testimony was corroborated by prominent white Indianapolis citizen Calvin Fletcher.

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Transcription of Surety of Peace document, courtesy of the Indiana Archives and Records Administration.

Despite an 1831 Indiana law that barred black testimony against whites in court, Overall sought legal protection from further attack. His affidavit of the attack put Leach in jail for a short time. He was released on bond, pending a hearing in Marion County Circuit Court. On the first day of the Term, May 2, 1836, Overall declined to proceed with his complaint against Leach. However, public outcry about whether Overall, a black man, could “make an oath against Leach, a white man,” prompted Marion County Circuit Court Judge William W. Wick to write a lengthy statement that was printed May 7, 1836 on the front page of the Indianapolis Journal.

The judge’s opinion affirmed Overall’s “natural rights” to defend his family and property from attack. He wrote:

The sages who formed our constitution did not leave those rights undefined. On the contrary they have declared them in language so clear as to set at defiance the mystification of sophistry, and all perversions, but the blind misapprehensions of visionary philosophy, stupid bigotry, or mistaken violence. The rights thus secured are, 1st. The defence of life and liberty. 2d. The acquisition, possession and protection of property; and 3d. The pursuit and obtention of happiness and safety.

However, Judge Wick’s interpretation of an Indiana law in 1836 did not affect any change in the actual law. African Americans in Indiana continued to be without legal recourse in causes where only black testimony was available against a white party.

*This post is based on research conducted by IHB historian Dani Pfaff for a historical marker commemorating Overall, and can be found here.

George Washington Julian: Radical Representative of Moral Conviction

"Julian, Rep. Hon. George Washington of Indiana," glass negative, circa 1865-1880, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/brh2003001974/PP/
“Julian, Rep. Hon. George Washington of Indiana,” glass negative, circa 1865-1880, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, accessed http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/brh2003001974/PP/

George Washington Julian was a radical political leader defined by his strong moral convictions. During a period marked by slavery, Civil War, monopolies, and discrimination against African Americans, immigrants, and women, Julian tirelessly advocated for abolition, equal rights, and land reform. He served as a U.S. representative from 1849-1851, served as an attorney in several fugitive slave cases in the 1850s (one which included a daring escape plan), ran for vice president on the Free Soil ticket in 1852, and again served as a U.S. representative 1861-1871.

Julian was born 1817 in Centerville (then called Centreville), Indiana.  He resided there for most of his life and maintained a law practice. Julian was admitted to the Indiana bar in 1840 and practiced law when not serving in Congress. Julian worked within the legal system and various political parties to achieve goals shaped by his moral convictions.  His commitment to abolition and equal rights (including equality in land distribution) remained remarkably consistent for over fifty years. In order to pursue reform in those areas, Julian often changed political parties, working with whichever party would advance these goals. He explained his position repeatedly throughout his career in his letters, articles, and speeches, including a description of his conversion to these causes in the Unitarian Review.  In 1853 he wrote to fellow abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, “you will not be blinded or disheartened by the irregular ebb and flow of political currents, or by facts which drift about upon their surface, but you will penetrate beneath it, to those great moral tides, which underlie, and heave onward, the political, the religious, and the whole framework of society.”  While he modified arguments and approaches he never wavered from working toward equality.  In the introduction to a collection of his Speeches on Political Questions [1872], he wrote that “while in a few instances opinions are advanced which have since been modified, my constant and inspiring aim was to declare what I believed to be the truth.”  An examination of the table of contents to this collection of speeches shows that he constantly and consistently addressed abolition, equal rights, and land reforms, in Congress and throughout the country.  Looking back on his career to 1884, Julian wrote in his Political Recollections [1884], “My triumph had no taint of compromise in it.”

United State House of Representatives, Thirty-First Congress

Julian took office in 1849 as U.S. Representative of the Fourth Indiana Congressional District, a largely Quaker and antislavery area based around Wayne County referred to as the “Burnt District.” Julian was a Free Soil Party leader, a single-issue party dedicated to opposing slavery extension, and later the institution of slavery itself. During his term, he supported legislation providing for abolition and equal access to public lands.

Julian gave several speeches in Congress advocating for the end of slavery and the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act.  His most poignant speech was likely “The Slavery Question” which he delivered to the House in 1850.  He also frequently presented petitions from abolitionist citizens of states across the county where he spoke or attended meetings. In 1851, he presented petitions from citizens of Massachusetts for the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act.  Julian also presented a petition from Indiana Quakers “against the existence of slavery generally and particularly against the Fugitive Slave Law.” Julian then requested that the committee to which the petition was referred “report a bill for the repeal of the fugitive slave law.”

George Washington Julian, Speech of George Washington Julian, of Indiana, on the Slavery Question, Delivered in the House of Representatives, May 14, 1850 (Washington: Printed at the Congressional Globe Office, 1850, St. Joseph Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory, https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/SJCPL_p16827coll6-261
George Washington Julian, Speech of George Washington Julian, of Indiana, on the Slavery Question, Delivered in the House of Representatives, May 14, 1850 (Washington: Printed at the Congressional Globe Office, 1850, St. Joseph Public Library, accessed Indiana Memory, https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/SJCPL_p16827coll6-261

In 1851, Julian spoke to Congress about why he supported the Homestead Bill, which would distribute public land in limited quantities freely to settlers who would live on and improve their plot, or “homestead.” Julian argued that all people had an “inalienable” and “natural right” to make a home from the soil.  He argued against the contemporary practice of providing large grants to companies and speculators who then required that people work for and rent from them. He referred to land monopolies in the North as “white slavery.”   He used the opportunity to make a strong argument against slavery as well.  He argued in front of Congress that the vast plantations of rich slave owners were not as productive as they would be if they were broken into plots held by individual owners. Julian said:

“The freedom of the public lands is therefore an anti-slavery measure. It will weaken the slave power by lending the official sanction of the government to the natural right of man, as man, to a home upon the soil, and of course to the fruits of his own labor. It will weaken the system of chattel slavery, by making war upon its kindred system of wage slavery, giving homes and employment to its victims, and equalizing the condition of the people.”

The bill failed in both the House and the Senate.  According to historian James L. Roark’s 1968 article in the Indiana Magazine of History, Julian’s abolition argument may have hurt the bill’s chances of passing.  Eleven years later however, after Julian’s return to Congress, the Homestead Act was passed.

Nomination for Vice-Presidency, 1852

The 1852 presidential election was mainly a contest between Whig candidate General Winfield Scott and Democratic candidate Franklin Pierce.  The Free Soil Party, however was the strongest third party in the running, ahead of the Know-Nothings, Union, and Southern Rights parties. The Free Soil Party named founding member Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire as their candidate and chose George Washington Julian as his running mate. The Free Soilers had little hope of winning.  Most people were tired of the agitation around slavery issues and were satisfied by the Compromise of 1850, which temporarily neutralized the problem for many.  However, for those morally opposed to slavery, a compromise was unthinkable and so they continued their political agitation for free soil. Wanting to maintain unity for the Union, most people voted for those candidates who supported the Compromise. The Hale-Julian ticket received only 155,825 votes out of over three million cast and no electoral votes.  However, the Free Soil Party leaders, including Julian, went on to become essential in the establishment of the new Republican Party only two years later. After the loss, Julian returned to his law practice.

Brady's National Photographic Portrait Galleries, "George W. Julian," n.d., Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, Allen County Public Library, accessed http://contentdm.acpl.lib.in.us/cdm/ref/collection/p15155coll1/id/4755
Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries, “George W. Julian,” n.d., Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, Allen County Public Library, accessed http://contentdm.acpl.lib.in.us/cdm/ref/collection/p15155coll1/id/4755

Fugitive Slave Cases

In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act , which not only prohibited Hoosiers from aiding escaping slaves but required them to return self-emancipated African Americans to their enslavers. Many opposed the law and challenged it in the courts.  In the 1850s, Julian acted as a lawyer both for African Americans who were claimed as slaves and for those white Hoosiers who had helped slaves escape. According to Julian biographer Patrick W. Riddleberger, “after 1850 a lawyer in any of the states lying on the north shore of the Ohio River could, if he were so inclined, devote some of his practice to fugitive slave cases.”

In December 1854, Julian and E. H. Brackett acted as defense attorneys in a case against Benjamin Waterhouse, who was accused of harboring fugitive slaves named Tom and Jim.  Tom and Jim allegedly escaped from Kentucky slave master Daniel Payne and travelled through Indiana to Canada.  Waterhouse was found guilty of harboring the men while in Indiana. The law provided for a much harsher penalty, but due to Julian and Brackett’s efforts, Waterhouse served only one hour in prison and paid a $50 fine – a small success for those working to defeat the Fugitive Slave Act.

In December 1857, Julian served as an attorney in a complex set of related cases challenging the Fugitive Slave Act on behalf of an African American man, likely named West.  A Kentucky slaveholder named Austin Vallandingham claimed that West was his slave and that he had escaped into Illinois. Vallandingham sent a slavecatcher to apprehend West. When the slavecatcher took West from Illinois, intending to bring him to Kentucky, they passed through Indianapolis.  This gave Julian and other abolitionist lawyers an opportunity to challenge the Fugitive Slave Act and possibly aid West.  The abolitionists tried several different tactics, and were involved in trials at the local and federal levels.   They began by charging Vallandingham with kidnapping a free man.  Indianapolis Judge William Wallace released West but he was immediately arrested by a U.S. marshal on charges from Vallandingham of being an escaped slave.  Julian and other abolitionists now acted as West’s defense in a trial before U.S. Commissioner John H. Rea.  Vallandingham was unable to provide official documentation of ownership and gave inconsistent testimony and evidence throughout the trial.  Strangely, in an attempt to prove that West was indeed his slave, Vallandingham testified that he had cut off one of West’s finger joints — but West had no such injury. Among other tactics, the defense tried to delay the case, cited the Dred Scott Case, and argued that by bringing West into Indiana, where slavery was illegal, Vallandingham had unwittingly freed West. Despite their best efforts, the abolitionists were unable to help West. In his Political Recollections, Julian wrote, “After allowing secondary proof where the highest was attainable, and permitting hearsay evidence and mere rumor, the Commissioner [Rea] granted his certificate for the removal of the adjudged fugitive…” When the case was brought again to Judge Wallace, Julian explained that “under cover of an infamous law, and by the help of truculent officials, he [West] was remanded into slavery.”

When all hope of a fair outcome was lost, Julian and others sympathetic to West, attempted to plan his escape.  Julian recalled:

“The counsel for the negro, with a dozen or more who joined them, resolved upon one further effort to save him. The project was that two or three men selected for the purpose were to ask of the jailer the privilege of seeing him the next morning and giving him goodbye; and while one of the party engaged the jailer in conversation, the negro was to make for the door, mount a horse hitched near by, and effect his escape… unfortunately [he] mounted the wrong horse…and when he saw the jailer in pursuit, and heard the report of his revolver, he surrendered, and was at once escorted South… This is the only felony in which I was ever involved, but none of the parties has any disposition whatever to confess it at the time.”

 

United State House of Representatives, Thirty-Seventh through Forty-First Congress

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act which repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery into the U.S. Territories.  The bill was sponsored by Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen Douglass and supported and signed into law by Democratic President Franklin Pierce. Opposition to the Democratic administration and especially the extension of slavery united various disparate political groups into a new party –called the Republican Party nationally, but called the People’s Party in Indiana.  In 1854, the young Indiana party was more conservative than the national Republican Party.    The People’s Party resisted adopting the name “Republican” because of its association with the eastern abolition movement that many Hoosiers saw as too radical. Henry S. Lane was essential in organizing the People’s Party in Indiana.  Lane’s influence over the older Whigs brought most into the People’s Party, while abolitionists joined because of the anti-Kansas-Nebraska Act platform.  A dynamic and popular speaker, Lane also helped to convince many Democrats and Know-Nothings who were opposed to slavery extension to join the People’s Party.  With the goal of bringing as many people to the new party as possible, leaders maintained a moderate position in the 1850s, publicaly speaking against only the extension of slavery, not advocating for its abolition.  Julian, however, was considered a Radical Republican as he opposed the institution itself and called for abolition.

Republican Party Chart
Chart by author.

In Indiana and nationally, many Republican leaders catered to the Know-Nothing members, but Julian vehemently opposed the nativist, xenophobic party.  Julian believed that immigrants made the country stronger.  In an 1855 speech delivered in Indianapolis, Julian said of immigrants:

“Let them come. Trodden down by kingly power, and hungering and thirsting after the righteousness of our free institutions, let them have a welcome on these shores.  Their motive is a very natural and at the same time honorable one, — that of bettering their lot. They prefer our country and its government to every other. . . To proscribe him on account of his birthplace is mean and cowardly as to proscribe him for his religious faith or color of his skin. It is the rankest injustice, the most downright inhumanity”

Julian served as a delegate to the 1856 Republican National Convention, the first for the newly organized party. In 1860, Julian was again elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, this time as a Republican. The Goshen (Indiana) Times reported that Julian was elected by a “nearly 6,000 majority” and called him “one of the ablest men in the State.”  Other newspapers complained that he was too radically abolitionist and would cause discord in the tentatively united and relatively new Republican Party where many were adamantly anti-African American despite being anti-slavery.  Julian arrived in Washington D.C. February 1861, in time for the secession crisis. He opposed compromise measures that would have sacrificed the abolitionist cause to avoid secession. Julian disagreed with abolitionists who would have let the south secede, abandoning four million people into slavery.

During the Civil War, Julian served on the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War which investigated management of the war and encouraged emancipation and employment of African Americans, first as laborers, and later also as soldiers, as means of winning the war. In an 1862 congressional speech, Julian argued: “In the battles of the Revolution, and in the War of 1812, slaves and free men of color fought with a valor unexcelled by white men. Are we afraid that a like honor to the colored man would be repeated, and thus testify against his enslavement?”

Throughout the Civil War, he worked to make clear that slavery was the cause of the war and that only complete freedom for all people would justify the losses caused by that war.  In an 1862 speech to Congress printed in the Liberty (Indiana) Weekly Herald, Julian stated:

“Sir, the people of the loyal states understand . . . They know that slavery lies at the bottom of all our troubles.  They know that but for this curse this horrid revolt against liberty and law would not have occurred. They know that all the unutterable agonies of our many battlefields, all the terrible sorrows which rend so many thousands of loving hearts, all the ravages and desolation of this stupendous conflict, are to be charged to slavery.”

According to Vernon Burton’s 2001 essay in A Companion to 19th Century America, “Despite the mountains of scholarship that has been produced, no consensus exists on the causes or consequences of the war, except that all serious historians credit slavery as its underlying root.” Julian and other Radical Republicans were ahead of their time in recognizing slavery as the main cause of unrest and war.  Once abolition was achieved Julian worked toward rights for African Americans and women, especially that of suffrage. He also fought for the common person’s right to hold land, standing up to large railroad companies that were taking public lands for private use.  However, he did see a shift in attitude in his own lifetime. Julian wrote in his Political Recollections, “step by step I saw my constituents march up to my position” and accept that ending slavery was essential to moving forward as a democratic nation.

Julian argued in Congress in support of the Homestead Act in 1862 as a measure to benefit the Union. By this time, land appropriation by railroads, capitalist groups, and speculators had increased and a more effective homestead measure was called for by Republicans. Julian spoke during the debate, advocating for homesteading as the best way to bring money to the Union and repay the nation’s debt to it’s soldiers, black and white.  Lincoln signed the Homestead Act May 20, 1862. Julian stated that its passage was “a magnificent triumph of freedom and free labor over the slave power.”

Julian also supported the Second Confiscation Act of 1862 which would confiscate all property from rebels and redistribute it as homesteads for people who had aided the Union – including African American soldiers and laborers.  He championed bringing homesteading to the South to break up the plantations, thus destroying both the aristocracy and the land monopolies.  Julian furthered his ideas on abolition and land confiscation during a debate in Congress in 1862.  He stated that the war was a fight to end slavery and demanded “instant, decisive, defiant action” to emancipate enslaved people (not just a proclamation of emancipation).  His plan included: arming freedmen, confiscation of all rebel property, and redistribution of plantation land to freedmen. Redistribution of rebel lands to freedman became one of Julian’s main concerns during the war.

Julian was appointed Chairman of the Committee on Public Lands in December 1863. For the next eight years he used this office to work to combine abolition (later reconstruction) and land reform.  Julian presented a sweeping land reform bill to Congress March of 1864, that would redistribute millions of acres of southern land to soldiers and freedmen, a repeal of the joint resolution of the previous year. Julian argued for homesteads for black soldiers in Congress:

“They have enlisted in the service of their country; they are enduring all the perils and hardships of war; they are helping by their valor achieve our victories and save the nation from impending destruction; they are to-day covering themselves with glory under General Grant, in driving back General Lee and his legions . . . Why would [one] . . . refuse to grant them, at the end of the war, a home on the land of their oppressors, who have enslaved their race for more than two hundred years, and at last sought both their lives and the life of the Republic?”

The bill narrowly passed the House May 12, 1864, but before it reached the Senate, the Attorney General ended confiscation.  In 1866 Congress passed Julian’s Southern Homestead Bill which gave 50,000,000 acres of public land in the South to homesteaders.

In 1865, Julian argued for suffrage rights for southern blacks. In a speech to Congress, Julian advocated for “the immediate bestowal of the elective franchise on all loyal men of the South, irrespective of color.” According to the Union City (Indiana) Eagle, “Not alone from motive of philanthropy or of exclusive justice to the black man — by the aid of whose blood and toil the rebellion had ultimately prostrated — was this urged, but also from the consideration that the best interests of the entire country, and especially the salvation of the Sothern States, demanded it.”   The Indiana State Sentinel reported that Julian made a speech in Muncie in which he said the people of Indiana will have to decide on negro suffrage, not Congress but that he “fully committed himself to the principle of universal suffrage.” While Julian believed in universal suffrage, he worked to achieve the vote for southern blacks first as it was more likely to be granted because northerners worried about southern leaders returning to power.  Julian recalled this suffrage campaign in his Political Recollections:

“My task was an arduous one, but I found the people steadily yielding up their prejudices, and ready to lay hold of the truth when fairly and dispassionately presented… The question involved the welfare of both races … not merely the fate of the negro, but the safety of society. It was, moreover, a question of national honor and gratitude, from which no escape was morally possible.  To leave the ballot in the hands of the ex-rebels, and withhold it from these helpless millions, would be to turn them over to the unhindered tyranny and misrule of their enemies…and making the condition of the freedmen more intolerable than slavery itself through local laws and police regulations.”

According to the House Journal and Congressional Globe, Julian proposed a constitutional amendment to Congress December 8, 1868 (H.R. 371). The bill was ordered to be printed, but does not appear with the other Bills and Resolutions of the 40th Congress. According to Julian’s Political Recollections, the amendment read: “the right of suffrage in the United States shall be based on citizenship, and shall be regulated by Congress… all citizens of the United States whether native or naturalized shall enjoy this right equally, without any distinction or discrimination whatever founded on race, color or sex.”  After the resolution was voted down, Julian attempted to make further inroads for women’s suffrage by presenting more targeted bills, including House Resolution 1530 which would have given the women of the District of Columbia the right to vote, and House Resolution 1531 which would have provided women in the territories with the right to vote.  He continued this tactic for the rest of his term in the House. According to the House Journal and the Congressional Globe, Julian introduced another resolution (H. R. 15) during the 41st Congress, First Session, proposing a constitutional amendment granting universal suffrage in the next Congress, which he modeled after the recently passed Fifteenth Amendment. Women were not granted the right to vote until Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

Julian slowed the pace of his work only slightly after he left Congress in 1871. He moved from his long-time home in Centerville to Irvington (Marion County) in 1873. (Julian’s home in the Irvington Historic District still stands). By this time he had become disillusioned with the corruption of the Grant administration, and drifted from the Republican Party to a tentative commitment to the Liberal Republican movement which was working for civil service reform. Julian represented Indiana at the  Liberal Republican Convention of 1872 where the other delegates put his name forward as a vice-presidential candidate, but he did not receive the nomination.

At the 1872 Democratic Convention, Julian’s name was put forward as a congressional candidate.  While this may seem strange, there are several reason Julian would have been amenable to this proposal. Again, there was his dissatisfaction with the Republican Party, but also Julian had changed his views on southern Democrats drastically.  While he called for their punishment immediately following the war, he now felt that the 14th and 15th Amendments had settled the war and the goal should be peace, amnesty, and unity.  In many ways, he naively though that his work for equal rights for African Americans had been successful and accomplished.  The Liberal Republicans were overwhelmingly defeated in 1872 and Julian moved further toward the Democratic Party.  By 1876 he actively campaigned for the Democrats, while stressing his role as an independent voter and political parties as temporary organizations useful only as long as they work for specific goals.  Still claiming his independence, Julian campaigned for the Democrats in 1880 and 1884. In 1885 Julian took public office for the last time in his life. President Grover Cleveland appointed him Surveyor General of New Mexico as a reward for his service to the party. He served until 1889, dealing mostly with land claims.  In 1889 he moved back to Irvington where he lived relatively privately and quietly until his death in 1899.  He is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery.