“The Gentlest Memory of Our World”: Robert Ingersoll and the Memorialization of Abraham Lincoln

Indianapolis Journal, May 4 1893, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most written-about subjects in all of human history; thousands of books, articles, and speeches have been published about his life and legacy. As such, there is an interesting interplay between history and memory that manifests whenever the sixteenth President is discussed. Historian David Herbert Donald, one of the foremost Lincoln scholars of the 20th century, wrote in his essay, “The Folklore Lincoln,” that “the Lincoln cult is almost an American religion. It has its high priests in the Lincoln ‘authorities’ and its worshippers in the thousands of ‘fans’ who think, talk, and read Lincoln every day.” What we know about him is interpolated through decades of stories, recollections, and reflections that separate Lincoln “the man” from the Lincoln “the myth.” None of this is necessarily wrong, as all historical figures are subject to mythologizing and memorialization. The task of the historian is to identify the difference between myth and reality, but in a countervailing twist, recognize the historical importance of the development of myths.

President Abraham Lincoln, from Great Speeches of Ingersoll, Internet Archive.

One such figure who mythologized Lincoln while humanizing him was the orator Robert Green Ingersoll. Among the most sought-after public speakers and intellectuals of the late nineteenth century, Ingersoll is best remembered today for his excoriating lectures on religion. Known as the “Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll became the outstanding leader of the “Golden Age of Freethought,” the era between the Civil War and World War I which saw a groundswell of religious criticism and secular activism. But his lectures, which were attended by thousands over the decades, were not limited merely to religion. In fact, he spoke on a variety of subjects, from William Shakespeare to the history of the United States. As a veteran of the Civil War, Ingersoll’s life deeply intertwined with arguably the most important event in the history of nineteenth century America.

Robert Ingersoll, from Great Speeches of Ingersoll, Internet Archive.

His memorialization of Lincoln and the Civil War era started in earnest within a matter of years after the war ended. In September of 1876, Ingersoll delivered one of his most influential speeches in Indianapolis, referred to as the “Vision of War” speech. Introduced as “that dashing cavalry officer, that thunderbolt of war, that silver tongued orator” by Brevet Brigadier General Edward F. Noyes, Ingersoll commemorated the sacrifices of Union veterans, as well as stumped for Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes in his remarks. Throughout his speech, Ingersoll used the memory of Lincoln to hit home his partisan political message. One such example: “Every man that cursed Abraham Lincoln because he issued the Proclamation of Emancipation—the grandest paper since the Declaration of Independence—every one of them was a Democrat.” Clearly the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was a contentious document in its time, of which many politicos disagreed with. Nevertheless, Ingersoll’s rhetorical flourish used Lincoln’s political prescience to elevate the Republican party, which Ingersoll saw as the party of freedom and progress.

In the middle of his speech, Ingersoll’s tone shifted from partisan (and somewhat rancorous) to poetic and solemn as he reflected on the horrors of war, its fallen soldiers, and the society those who fought had left behind. “These heroes are dead,” he began:

They died for liberty — they died for us. They are at rest. They sleep in the land they made free, under the flag they rendered stainless, under the solemn pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, and the embracing vines. They sleep beneath the shadows of the clouds, careless alike of sunshine or of storm, each in the windowless Palace of Rest. The Earth may run red with other wars — they are at peace. In the midst of battle, in the roar of conflict, they found the serenity of death! I have one sentiment for all soldiers living and dead: cheers for the living; tears for the dead.

As a man who fought at the Battle of Shiloh, who experienced horrors as a prisoner of war, Ingersoll’s words were not mere flights of rhetoric. He intimately understood the sacrifices his generation made in the service of saving the Union, and he wanted every person hearing his words that day to recognize those sacrifices.

The title page of the illustrated version of Ingersoll’s “Vision of War Speech,” published in 1899, Google Books.

His remarks received an immediate public reaction. The Indianapolis News praised his speech, albeit with slight criticism, writing “the orator justified all expectations by delivering a speech, bitter in perhaps of arraingment [sic], but comprehensive, eloquent, and inimitable.” The ‘vision of war’ section was later reprinted as a pamphlet with illustrations that reiterated many of its core themes. It was one of the orations that made Ingersoll a nationally-renowned public speaker.

By 1880, then a more accomplished orator, Ingersoll began to tackle Lincoln as a subject more directly, publishing a laudatory sketch of the president that was published in pamphlet form. This version focused less on biographical details and more on character impressions of the president. Right from the outset, Ingersoll was keenly aware of how Lincoln’s memory is shaped by the public, often to the negation of the real person. As he wrote, “Hundreds of people are now engaged in smoothing out the lines of Lincoln’s face—forcing all features to the common mold—so that he may be known, not as he really was, but, according to their poor standard, as he should have been.” The metaphor of “smoothing out” is certainly apt; upon his assassination in 1865, Lincoln’s visage appeared in countless artistic depictions which removed him from the realm of mortals and into the hands of providence. He became more of a symbol than a man.

A pamphlet of Ingersoll’s Lincoln Speech, 1880, Internet Archive.

Ingersoll sought to counter this with his 1880 pamphlet, reminding Americans that “Lincoln was a many-sided man, acquainted with smiles and tears, complex in brain, single in heart, direct as light; and his word, candid as mirrors, gave the perfect image of his thought. He was never afraid to ask—never too dignified to admit that he did not know.” Ingersoll’s portrait, while still quite laudatory, nevertheless centered Lincoln’s humility and complexity, reaffirming his humanity rather than attempting to deify him. Additionally, Ingersoll emphasized Lincoln’s dedication to education, despite the latter’s known history of scant instruction. “Lincoln never finished his education,” he noted, “To the night of his death he was a pupil, a learner, an enquirer, a seeker after knowledge.” This was in stark contrast to those who Ingersoll called “spoiled by what is called education. For the most part, colleges are places where pebbles are polished and diamonds are dimmed.” This revealed an influential parallel between Ingersoll and Lincoln. Both were Illinoisans who received little formal education and became lawyers through independent study, rather than going to a university. Ingersoll saw much of himself in Lincoln, which one suspects impacted the orator’s portrait of the president as a self-educated, self-made man unsullied by the indulgences of the established ways of acculturation. In all, Ingersoll’s 1880 pamphlet depicted Lincoln as a moral, and even righteous, figure, but still relatable— a man dedicated to education, honesty, and self-improvement.

Indianapolis News, April 29 1893, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By the 1890s, Ingersoll’s renown for oratory made him constantly in demand, and for the 1893 Lincoln Dinner of the Republican Club of New York on February 11, he delivered a revised version of his speech as a keynote speaker. While much of the text is similar to the 1880 version, Ingersoll added a section of Lincoln’s own oratory as a means of memorialization. The passage, which Ingersoll described lovingly as “sculptured speech,” was taken from Lincoln’s remarks in Edwardsville, Illinois on September 11, 1858, during his run for the Senate against Stephen A. Douglas:

And when, by all these means, you have succeeded in dehumanizing the negro; when you have put him down and made it impossible for him to be but as the beasts of the field; when you have extinguished his soul in this world and placed him where the ray of hope is blown out as in the darkness of the damned, are you quite sure that the demon you have roused will not turn and rend you? What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling seacoast, our army and our navy.

These are not our reliance against tyranny. All of those may be turned against us without making us weaker for the struggle.

Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us. Our defence [sic] is in the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere.

Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors. Familiarize yourselves with the chains of bondage and you prepare your own limbs to wear them.

Lincoln’s words placed liberty, not mere power, at the heart of the American experiment of self-government, a heart which would be torn asunder by the barbarism of slavery. In reflecting on Lincoln’s use of language, Ingersoll declared, “The orator loves the real, the simple, the natural, and he places thought and feeling above all. He knows that the greatest ideas should be expressed in the shortest words. He knows that a great idea is like a great statue, and he knows that the greater the statue the less drapery it needs.” Among other attributes, Lincoln’s use of simple, but poetic language during a time of deep of crisis, in Ingersoll’s estimation, cemented his place in American history.

Robert Ingersoll delivered his speech on Lincoln during a nationwide tour in 1893, with one of the stops being Indianapolis. He had spoken many times in Indianapolis since his “vision of war” speech in 1876, but the venue in 1893 was the illustrious English Opera House, which was located on Monument Circle and was a mainstay of the entertainment industry during the era. The Indianapolis News and Journal ran flashy advertisements in advance of his appearance, with the latter stating “Colonel Ingersoll’s treatment of the subject is said to be one of those rarely intellectual things that is to be heard but a few times in a lifetime.” Ingersoll arrived in Indianapolis at noon on May 4, 1893, mere hours from his scheduled performance, according to the News. The Journal ran a final advertisement in its early edition, noting that it would be Ingersoll’s “only appearance this season.”

Ingersoll’s Lincoln Speech in Indianapolis,1893, Indiana Memory.

The Standard Publishing Company of Indianapolis reproduced his speech, with commentary, in pamphlet form (a digital version is available via Indiana Memory). Ingersoll opens his speech with a fascinating coincidence of history: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day, February 12, 1809. “Eighty-four years ago two babes were born,” he began:

one in the woods of Kentucky amid the hardships and poverty of pioneers; one in England surrounded by wealth and culture. One was educated in the university of nature, the other at Oxford. One associated his name with the enfranchisement of labor, with the emancipation of millions, with the salvation of the Republic. He is known to us as Abraham Lincoln. The other broke the chains of superstition and filled the world with intellectual light, and he is known as Charles Darwin. Because of those two men the nineteenth century is illustrious.

Ingersoll viewed Darwin and Lincoln as emancipatory figures, with Lincoln the emancipator of people and Darwin the emancipator of minds. As one of the first to popularize the theory of evolution in America, Ingersoll comprehended the profound implications of Darwin’s ideas in a deeply religious country. Perhaps Ingersoll linked Darwin with Lincoln in an attempt to soften the intellectual blow of his concepts; conversely, linking Lincoln with Darwin emphasized the importance of the former’s contributions to humanity, ones with transformative consequences for his nation.

Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, Galapagos Travel Center/Wikipedia.

Later in his lecture, Ingersoll painted a portrait of Lincoln as a man of contradictions who nevertheless transcended them. “The sympathies of Lincoln, his ties, his kindred, were with the South,” he noted, “His convictions, his sense of justice and his ideals were with the North.” Born of upland southern ancestry and marrying into a southern aristocratic family, Lincoln could have easily given into the currents of his experiences. Yet, “he knew the horrors of slavery, and he felt the unspeakable ecstasies and glories of freedom,” Ingersoll continued, and “he had the manhood and independence of true greatness, and he could not have been a slave.” Lincoln’s abhorrence of slavery, and the political road that conviction took him on, made him, in Ingersoll’s eyes, a statesman rather than mere politician. “A politician schemes and works in every way to make the people do something for him,” the orator declared, while “A statesman wishes to do something for the people. With him place and power are the means to an end, and the end is the good of his country.” For Ingersoll, Lincoln’s sense of higher purpose allowed him to transcend his age and become a leader for the ages.

Near the end of his speech, Ingersoll directly addressed the question of memory in regards to the “Great Emancipator.” “The memory of Lincoln,” he said, “is the strongest, tenderest tie that binds all hearts together now, and holds all States beneath a nation’s flag.” With this passage, Ingersoll positioned Lincoln as the force which connected the Union and transformed the United States from a loose conglomeration of states into a single, unified nation. The nationalism of late-nineteenth century America was on full-display, with Lincoln as the catalyzing agent melding heart and hearthstone across the land. (This is an image of Lincoln that persists to this day; in times of crisis, politicians and the media often look to Lincoln for insights on how to unify and connect the people of America.) To reaffirm the importance of memory, Ingersoll ended his speech with the moving words, “Lincoln was the grandest figure of the fiercest civil war. He was the gentlest memory of our world.”

Indiana State Sentinel, May 10 1893, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Ingersoll’s appearance was a resounding success, with the Indiana State Sentinel writing, “English’s opera house was packed from gallery to pit Thursday to hear America’s greatest orator in his famous lecture, ‘Abraham Lincoln’.” Of his performance, the Sentinel also said, “Col. Ingersoll has lost none of his great ‘personal magnetism’ that enables him to move his audience to the feeling of his every emotion.” Its publication in pamphlet form ensured more people would consume his lecture, thus furthering Ingersoll’s memorializing of the sixteenth President.

Despite his success with audiences and readers, Ingersoll caught the ire of critics concerning his treatment of Abraham Lincoln’s religious views. Ingersoll, a religious skeptic who gave public speeches denouncing Christianity, was accused of asserting that Lincoln was a nonbeliever. As a March 26, 1893 editorial in the Indianapolis Journal remarked, “The assertion of Colonel Ingersoll in his address on the character of Abraham Lincoln, to the effect that he was a freethinker after the manner of Voltaire and Paine, challenged emphatic contradiction which was no more conclusive than the Ingersoll declaration.” The article then provides numerous quotations which give credence to the claim that Lincoln was a believer in God, such as the speech he gave in 1861 in Springfield before he left for Washington, wherein he said:

A duty devolves upon me which is, perhaps, greater than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington. He never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same Divine aid which sustained him, and on the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support, and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that Divine assistance without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain.

At the same time, Lincoln may have not accepted the mainstream consensus on Christianity, which the editorial granted. “Abraham Lincoln may not have troubled himself about dogmas,” the Journal acknowledged, “but no man was ever more devout in his reliance upon the great power which controls human acts and events, or whose conduct was more thoroughly in harmony with the truths of the Sermon on the Mount.”

The Religion of Abraham Lincoln, a dialogue between Ingersoll and Gen. Charles H.T. Collis, Internet Archive.

Ingersoll addressed these concerns head on in a series of letters between himself and Colonel Charles H. T. Collis, an Irish immigrant to the United States who also served in the Civil War. A book compiling their correspondence was published in 1900, shortly after Ingersoll’s death. Collis attended Ingersoll’s performance of the Lincoln speech in New York on February 11, 1893 and immediately wrote to him challenging his conclusions on Lincoln’s faith. With passion and conviction, Collis wrote, “no man invoked ‘the gracious favor of Almighty God’ in every effort of his life with more apparent fervor than did he, and this God was not the Deists’ God, but the God whom he worshiped under the forms of the Christian Church, of which he was a member.” Ingersoll retorted in a follow up letter, writing, “Lincoln was never a member of any church,” and that “he denied the inspiration of the Scriptures, and that he always insisted that Christ was not the Son of God, and that the dogma of the Atonement was, and is, an absurdity.”

As with much of history, Lincoln’s religious beliefs fall somewhere between Ingersoll’s and Collis’s. It is true that he never formally joined a church or was baptized, but he often asked for counsel from religious leaders and infused his speeches, especially the Second Inaugural, with meditations that bordered on theology. As historian and Lincoln biographer David R. Contosta has written, “he was no Christian in any conventional sense of the term, since there is no evidence that he ever accepted the divinity of Christ or ever joined a church,” but “what he had come to embrace in the end was the inscrutable omnipotence of a God who worked his will in history though persons and events of his own time and choosing.”

Lincoln’s Meditation on the Divine Will, September, 1862, Brown University.

One striking piece of evidence to support Contosta’s conclusion is Lincoln’s “Meditation on the Divine Will,” written in September of 1862. “The will of God prevails,” Lincoln reflected:

In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party – and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true – that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.

Lincoln’s theology centered the agency of God in human affairs, using people as agents of his divine plan. These musings emphasize Lincoln’s belief in fate, a holdover from his Primitive Baptist upbringing, which, Contosta noted, stressed “predestination and human sinfulness.” Lincoln was not an Agnostic like Ingersoll, but he also wasn’t the kind of Christian the Collis portrayed him as. As with many aspects of his life, Lincoln was a complex, often contradictory figure whose idiosyncratic religious views highlighted these tensions.

Lincoln’s Tomb, in Great Speeches of Ingersoll, Internet Archive.

The Civil War, with Lincoln as its central protagonist, was the defining event of Ingersoll’s life. It shaped his view of politics, oratory, and even religion. He placed a high priority on telling this story with eloquence, mastery, and tactfulness. As a result, it is not surprising that his lectures on Lincoln became so popular, as well as lauded. In commenting on his speech in Indianapolis, a pamphlet noted, “No man in the world could do justice to the memory of Abraham Lincoln with the same force and eloquence as Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll.” While many books and recollections were published during Ingersoll’s time, he kept the public memory of Lincoln alive as only an orator could do. In some respects, it was a logical outgrowth of Lincoln himself, who was one of the most influential public speakers in American history. Robert Ingersoll’s orations on Lincoln, while somewhat forgotten now, nevertheless provided a unique contribution to the memorialization and mythologization of the sixteenth President—a vast tapestry of remembrance which exists to this day.

Physicist Melba N. Phillips: Indiana’s Oppenheimer Connection

 

Melba Phillips at Berkley, 1930, photo courtesy of Ellen and John Vinson, accessed Physics in Perspective 10 (2008).

Physicist and educator Dr. Melba Phillips of Pike County, Indiana was an esteemed colleague of J. Robert Oppenheimer and important innovator in her own right. The two young scientists introduced a foundational physics principle, the Oppenheimer-Phillips Process, before taking separate paths. Phillips became an influential educator while Oppenheimer . . . well, I don’t want to spoil the movie for you. And while Phillips does not appear in the film, she did play an important role in the “heroic age” of physics, especially those exciting years that she and Oppenheimer spent at the University of California, Berkeley.

Melba Newell Phillips was born in 1907 in Pike County to a family of teachers. She graduated early from Union High School and enrolled at Oakland City College (now University) in Gibson County. There she benefitted from several important mentors, developed foundational math and science skills (though she recalled learning more physics from textbooks than her professor), and pushed back against conservative rules and instructors. This independence and refusal to compromise would serve her later in life. [1]

After graduating in 1926, Phillips taught briefly at Union High School before accepting a teaching fellowship at Battle Creek College in Michigan. She taught classes and filled in the gaps in her physics education by taking advanced courses. She earned her master’s degree in 1928 at the age of twenty one. In the summer of 1929 she attended a symposium on theoretical physics at the University of Michigan taught by Edward U. Condon, a distinguished and innovative physicist who would later join the Manhattan Project. Phillips impressed Condon and on his recommendation was accepted to the PhD program at the University of California Berkley in 1930. [2]

There was no better place for a young physicist in the 1930s than Berkeley. After World War I, the university devoted abundant resources to the physics department. They hired innovative scientists as teachers and built cutting-edge facilities to encourage experimentation. For example, the university hired renowned scientist Ernest Lawrence, who in 1931 invented the famous cyclotron, a particle accelerator that allowed the user to smash open atomic nuclei. Lawrence worked with his fellow faculty members Emilio Segre and Owen Chamberlain using both theoretical physics and the cyclotron to confirm the existence of the antiproton. All three received the Nobel Prize and joined the Manhattan Project.[3]

J. Robert Oppenheimer at Berkeley, 1948, gelatin silver print, Arnold Newman (American, 1918-2006), Gift of David Newman and Deirdre Steinberg, © Arnold Newman Properties/Getty Images 1948, 2006.84.3, accessed the Portland Art Museum.

The faculty member who worked most closely with Phillips, greatly influenced her, and became a lifelong friend: the renowned J. Robert Oppenheimer. He had come to Berkeley as an assistant professor of physics in the summer of 1929, shortly before Phillips. He taught theoretical physics, an area in which Berkeley was weak. Oppenheimer explained that he didn’t teach students to prepare them for careers, but instead was motivated by including them in the unsolved problems of the physics world.  He stated:

I didn’t start to make a school. I didn’t start to look for students. I started really as a propagator of the theory which I loved, about which I continued to learn more, and which was not well understood and which was very rich. The pattern was not that of someone who takes on a course and teaches students preparing for a variety of careers but of explaining first to faculty, staff, and colleagues and then to anyone who would listen, what this was about, what had been learned, what the unsolved problems were. [4]

Phillips was profoundly drawn to solving the unknown, something she had ruminated on as an undergrad. Oppenheimer was the perfect mentor for her curious nature and ambition.

By 1931, Phillips had chosen two topics within the field of experimental physics to study and work into her doctoral dissertation.  (Experimental physics is the branch of the field dealing with observation of physical phenomenon through experimentation to test a theory. In turn, these experiments further shape new theories. They are symbiotic sub-disciplines.) As theoretical physics was Oppenheimer’s area of expertise, he became her advisor, and almost immediately, her friend. By 1933, she had worked both of her topics into a dissertation–each of which could had been a dissertation unto itself, according to her peers. [5] Physicists Dwight Neuenschwander and Sallie Watkins explained:

Melba was not the kind of physicist who enters a new field, picks all the low-hanging fruit, and moves on. Rather, the fruit that Melba harvested required her to climb high into some very tall trees. She solved difficult problems, and was a stickler for detail, to do the job right . . . Melba asked genuine questions in her papers. To answer them she invoked fundamental principles, then developed them with sophisticated calculations and insightful approximations and, quite often, with numerical integrations that had to be done by hand because programmable computers had not yet been invented.[6]

Even before her dissertation was finished, several academic journals published Phillips’s work. She had begun to make a name for herself in the physics world and had made herself the peer of her mentor. In 1933, Oppenheimer called her “an extraordinarily able woman” with “a genuine vocation for mathematics and theoretical physics, and an outstanding talent for it.” [7]  He praised her “difficult and important” contributions to theoretical physics while studying at Berkeley and stated that he could “fully recommend her as a valuable member of any university physics department in the country,” although he would “regard it as a very real loss” t0 his department.[8] A full-time job remained elusive, in part because of the Great Depression, but gender discrimination undoubtedly contributed. After earning her Ph.D. in 1933, Dr. Phillips stayed nominally employed with a combination of work as a research assistant and a part-time instructor. She used her extra time at the university to advance her career.

During this period, Phillips and Oppenheimer worked together on problems of theoretical physics, while their colleague Ernest Lawrence’s experiments using the university’s particle accelerator confirmed their theories. In a 1935 paper, Phillips and Oppenheimer proposed a process that was a type of deuteron-induced nuclear reaction, which became a staple of nuclear physics; the New York Times called the discovery a “basic contribution to quantum theory.” [9] This Oppenheimer-Phillips process, as it was called, explained “what was at the time unexpected behavior of accelerated deuterons (nuclei of deuterium, or ‘heavy hydrogen’ atoms) in reactions with other nuclei.” [10] The paper was widely circulated and praised. The Oppenheimer-Phillips process secured Phillips’s place in the history of physics.

Despite her accomplishments and praise from colleagues, Phillips faced challenges. While she had ascended to the peak of her field in a time of unprecedented progress, she bore the historical burden of gender discrimination within that field. According to science writer Margaret Wertheimer, physics has historically been more resistant to women than other scientific fields because of its quest to discover the truths of the universe that descend from theological traditions. While science and religion have been depicted as at odds during the last few centuries, this was not always the case. As the study of physics developed during the Middle Ages, its goal was a religious one: to understand the ultimate truths of the universe through mathematics. It followed then that the social, cultural, and political forces that prevented women from interpreting sacred texts or entering the clergy applied to the field of physics. [11] Some of these prejudices against women remained in the 1930s.

While Phillips clearly had to deal with the burden of exclusion in the field upon her arrival in Berkeley, she was not always comfortable talking about her experience. In interviews she was careful not to insult the many supportive colleagues while speaking of those who were not. Phillips stated:

As in my first college year I was often the only woman in the class, but classes were never large, and the competition was fun rather than otherwise . . . During the five years I lived in Berkeley four women took PhD’s in physics, and perhaps an equal number stopped with the M.A. . . . Were women discriminated against in the department? It did not seem so, certainly not as students. We had teaching fellowships on par with everyone else. It is true that there was one professor who would not take women assistants but it was no hardship to miss that option. [12]

In the same recollection Phillips referred vaguely to “unfair decisions” made by the university about salaries and stipends, but discounted “overt discrimination on account of sex.”[13] Clearly then, Phillips saw that women were not getting equal access to facilities, credit for discoveries, and pay. In fact, physicist and chemist Francis Bonner, who would go on to work on the Manhattan Project, explained that normally such an accomplishment as publishing a new physics principle considered “one of the classics of early nuclear physics,” would have meant a faculty appointment [14]. Phillips received no such appointment. This could be partly because of her gender and partly because of the depressed economy. So perhaps in interpreting the climate at Berkeley at this time, we should use Phillips’s own words whenever possible. She seemed to distinguish between “unfair practices” and “overt discrimination.” And while the former will persist throughout this examination of her career and its challenges, one example of the latter practically jumps off the pages of national newspapers.

In February 1934, Phillips’s name appeared in headlines across the country, but not for her groundbreaking work in physics. Instead, she appeared in the national press for the first time, infantilized and sexualized as a poor, tearful girl who was nearly scandalized by her professor. This incident is worth examining in some detail not only for further evidence of the prejudice Phillips faced, but also because the story continues to be retold without deeper examination in biographies of Oppenheimer.

On February 14, the Associated Press (AP) reported:

Robert Oppenheimer, 30, physics professor of the University of California, took Miss Melba Phillips of Berkeley, a research assistant, for a ride in the Berkeley hills Monday night. Prof. Oppenheimer then parked the automobile, made Miss Phillips comfortable by wrapping a blanket around her, and said he was going for a walk. Time passed but Miss Phillips waited and waited. Two hours later Policeman Albert Nevin passed by. “My escort went for a walk hours ago and he hasn’t returned,” Miss Phillips told the officer tearfully. [15]

The article continued to state that the police raised an alarm and searched the area to no avail.  Eventually, they looked for Oppenheimer at the faculty club where he lived.  The AP reported:

And there they found him – fast asleep in bed.  “Miss Phillips?” he exclaimed to the officers.  “Oh, my word! I forgot all about her. I just walked and walked, and I was home and I went to bed. I’m so sorry.”[16]

The International News Service (INS) also picked up the story, with some minor tweaks.  In the INS version “Pretty Miss Melba Phillips was found in an automobile in the Berkeley Hills by police at an early hour in the morning.” Oppenheimer had driven her “into the hills to watch the colorful panorama” of a sunrise. After he was found in his quarters, he supposedly stated, “Ah, I forgot Miss Phillips. I just walked home and went to bed.” [17]

Local newspapers included even more questionable details. One article was titled “Absent-Minded Prof. Parks Girl and Then Takes Self Home and to Bed While She Hails Cops For Aid.” The extra details in this article include the following:

Professor Oppenheimer parked the car, wrapped Miss Phillips in a blanket.
“Comfy?” inquired the prof.
“Uh-huh!” said Miss Phillips.
“I’ll be back presently,” said her escort. “I’m going for a walk.”
Miss Phillips waited and waited. The night was dark. Crickets yodled [sic] in the bushes. Insects whirred and crawled. Off in the distance a dog barked. . . Miss Phillips became jittery. Two hours later Policeman Albert Nevin was hailed by a faint feminine voice.
“My escort went for a walk hours ago and he hasn’t returned,” said Miss Phillips tearfully. [18]

The article–rife with action verbs–concludes with a description of the capable policemen.  The cops “hit” the phones, police cars “hurried to the spot,” the men “combed the bushes,” and “searched and sleuthed.” When the article got to the part where they found Oppenheimer at the faculty club, it reported that the professor stated, “Whazzat? Girl? Miss Phillips? Oh, Lord–my word! By George! I forgot all about her.”[19] The implication is that Dr. Phillips, an accomplished physicist and colleague, was solely an object of sexual interest and once the great man’s mind had moved on to other things, she was forgotten, disposable. By emphasizing the “early morning hours” and the automobile parked in a remote location, the newspapers were more than alluding to some sort of sexual relationship. Primary sources refute this allegation.

Phillips’s life experiences and attitude to this point show her as a brave and self-confident young woman. The idea that she would have been tearful because she was left waiting in a car seems unlikely.  Also, she was comfortable in nature. She grew up on a farm surrounded by woods where she knew all the wildflowers and where the morels grew. [20] It’s unlikely she was terrified by the “yodel” of crickets. She had successfully navigated much more trying challenges than spending some unexpected time alone by this by this point in her life.

Melba Phillips at Berkley with J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Car, photograph, circa 1930s, Courtesy of Ellen Vinson, accessed Physics in Perspective 10 (2008).

Another reason to doubt the wire services’ version of this story is that Phillips was an experienced driver. Several photographs of Phillips taken at Berkeley show her driving Oppenheimer’s car or posing confidently next to it. Another time, she and another colleague went out driving when they ran over a milk bottle and flattened a tire. Her colleague went to find a mechanic and when they returned Phillips had changed the tire and was relaxing in the car.  As her colleague remembered, “Melba could be handy with a wrench.” [21] If Phillips had wanted to go home or go searching for the missing Oppenheimer, she would have felt perfectly comfortable driving the car.

“Melba Phillips Sits at the Wheel of Robert Oppenheimer’s Car,” photograph, circa 1930s, Courtesy of AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, accessed Society of Physics Students, spsnational.org

Its perhaps not shocking that newspapers crafted such a salacious story in 1934. What is surprising is that biographers of Oppenheimer continued to cite these articles as evidence of a romantic relationship. For example, the authors of the Pulitzer Prize winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote: “For a short time, Robert dated his doctoral student Melba Phillips, and one evening he drove her out to Grizzly Peak, in the Berkeley hills.” The authors then go on to rely on the wire services’ version of events described previously. They cite no other sources as evidence that the colleagues had a romantic relationship. [22]

Further evidence of a strictly collegial relationship comes from Oppenheimer’s letters. Oppenheimer describes Phillips, or “Melber,” as he sometimes called her, as only a professional colleague or simply a friend.  In January 1932, Oppenheimer wrote Ernst Lawrence stating that Phillips was doing well and had written him “of some new evidence on the degree of disassociation of potassium . . . Her paper is nearly written up.”[23] In the Fall of 1932, he wrote his brother Frank that “Melber and Lawrence,” among others, “send you greetings.”[24] In January 1935, he wrote his brother concerning theoretical physics problems and noted that “as soon as I get back to Berkeley Melber & I will have a careful look at the calculations.”[25] In Spring 1935, he wrote Lawrence concerning the paper that would define the Oppenheimer-Phillips Process: “I am sending Melba today an outline of the calculations & plots I have made for the deuteron transmutations functions.”[26] In this letter, he noted that Phillips was working out the math calculations for the problem. There is no evidence in these published letters of anything but Oppenheimer’s respect for Phillips as a colleague.

Photo: Collection of Ellen Vinson.

In short, the portrait of Phillips painted by these articles looked nothing like the accomplished physicist and confident young woman she had become. In February of 1934, when these articles ran, Dr. Phillips had completed and defended her Ph.D. dissertation and published a series of papers in academic journals on multi-electron atoms. She was also working for the university as a part-time instructor, while she and Oppenheimer developed their famous process on the “transmutation function for deuterons” and preparing it for publication. But in her first appearance on the national stage, predating the publication of the Oppenheimer-Phillips process by only a few months, she was pretty, helpless, tearful Miss Melba Phillips, the forgotten assistant.  Newspapers across the country were still running the article as late as March.

Despite this wound to her pride, Phillips continued to achieve within her field and went on to become an influential physics educator. But many challenges still lay ahead of her, including advocating for the peaceful application of nuclear energy in the wake of the atomic bomb and facing a Senate subcommittee charging her with communist affiliation during the McCarthy Era. There is much more to learn about Melba Phillips. Check out the state historical marker, additional blog posts, and this podcast episode to learn more.  Or maybe we will see you at the movies this week to see Phillips’s friend Oppenheimer on the big screen.

 

Notes:

[1] Randy Mills, “A Source of Strength and Inspiration: Melba Phillips at Oakland City College,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 30, No. 3 (2018): 38-45.

[2] Dwight E. Neuenschwander and Sallie A. Watkins, “In Appreciation: Professional and Personal Coherence: The Life and Work of Melba Newell Phillips,” Physics in Perspective 10 (2008): 295-364, accessed INSPIRE, Indiana State Library.

[3] “Our History,” Berkeley Physics, University of California, Berkeley, accessed physics.berkeley.edu/about-us/history.

[4] “Oppenheimer: A Life,” J. Robert Oppenheimer Centennial Exhibition, Office for History of Science and Technology, University of California, Berkeley, accessed cstms.berkeley.edu/.

[5] Neuenschwander and Watkins, 305-8.

[6] Ibid., 305.

[7] J. Robert Oppenheimer to May L. Cheney, April 10, 1933 in Neuenschwander and Watkins, 308.

[8] Neuenschwander and Watkins, 302. The authors quote a private letter.

[9] “J. Robert Oppenheimer, Atom Bomb Pioneer, Dies,” New York Times, February 19, 1967, 1, accessed timesmachine.nytimes.com.

[10] Press release, “Melba Phillips, Physicist, 1907-2004,” University of Chicago News Office, November 16, 2004, accessed http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/04/041116.phillips.shtml.

[11] Margaret Wertheim, Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender Wars (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995), 9.

[12] Melba Phillips, “Studying Physics in the Thirties – A Personal Recollection,” April 24, 1978, Folder 2: Correspondence, 1948-1999, Box 1, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Press release, “Melba Phillips, Physicist, 1907-2004,” University of Chicago News Office, November 16, 2004, accessed http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/04/041116.phillips.shtml.

[15] “Professor in Adage’s Proof,” Sun Bernardino County Sun, February 14, 1934, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; “Absent Minded Professor Leaves Girl in Car, Walks Home and Retires,” Salt Lake Tribune, February 14, 1934, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Professor True to Form,” Indiana (PA) Gazette, February 14, 1934, accessed Newspapers.com; “Girl Is Left in Auto Parked in Hills By Absent Minded Prof,” (Lebanon, PA) Evening Report, February 14, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[18] “Absent-Minded Prof. Parks Girls And Then Takes Self Home and to Bed While She Hails Cops For Aid,” Santa Cruz Evening News, February 14, 1934, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Lisa L. Williams to Randy Mills, July 13, 2018, personal collection of Randy Mills, professor emeritus, Oakland City University.

[21] Neuenschwander and Watkins, 305.

[22] Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2006), 95-96.

[23] J. Robert Oppenheimer to Ernest Lawrence, January 3, 1932 in Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner, eds., Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections (Harvard University Press, 1980), 147.

[34] J. Robert Oppenheimer to Frank Oppenheimer, Fall 1932 in Kimball and Weiner, 157-8.

[25] J. Robert Oppenheimer to Frank Oppenheimer, January 11, 1935 in Kimball and Weiner, 189.

[26] J. Robert Oppenheimer to Ernest Lawrence, Spring 1935 in Kimball and Weiner, 193.

“The Greater Creed:” How Suffragist Sara Messing Stern Overcame Antisemitism through Verse

Portions of this post first appeared as an article by the author in the Indiana Jewish History journal, published by the Indiana Jewish Historical Society. The complete article, which gives much more information on her suffrage work is available here along with annotations.

Sara Messing Stern, a dedicated suffrage worker and advocate for the poor, was accustomed to being the only Jewish woman in the room. Whether organizing housing relief or mobilizing women for the vote, she applied her steady hand and organizational skills to achieve progressive results. She lived her Jewish values through her work and expressed them through her poetry. She believed that no matter a person’s faith, God called them to care for those less fortunate. For the most part, Stern thrived in the suffrage and women’s club movements, which were dominated by women of various Christian sects. However, as is often the case for Jews, she was accepted by society until she wasn’t. That is, if her peers felt she had gained too much power or if they came into conflict with her ideas, these Christian women were not above using antisemitic language and ideas to dismiss and denigrate her. Yet Stern would rise above their defamation to help Hoosier women win the vote and rebut their slander through poetry.

Indianapolis Star, January 25, 1913, 9, Newspapers.com.

Sara was born to German Jewish immigrants Rica (née Naphtali) and Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation Rabbi Meyer Messing, who was himself an advocate of progressive reform and a supporter of women’s rights, in Indianapolis in 1879. In 1906, Sara married Leon Stern, an auditor for an Indianapolis coal company. While she took her husband’s surname “Stern,” she also kept her maiden name “Messing,” maintaining a link to the Messing ancestral line of prominent rabbis as well as her individual identity. While newspapers sometimes referred to her as “Mrs. Leon Stern,” primary sources show that within the organizations where she held power, she presented herself as “Sara Messing Stern.”

Stern first made her mark in Indianapolis through philanthropy and was especially concerned with the welfare of women and children.  She advocated for reforming child labor laws and tenement housing, and served as a probation officer, aiding juvenile offenders and guiding them back to a productive path. She believed in second chances and recognized that the poor faced great obstacles. She stated in 1912, “I have found in dealing with people who have sinned that we are too quick to judge by what we see done, rather than the things overcome.”

Bretzman, “Grace Julian Clarke,” photograph, 1909, Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

Stern worked with many city charities and was a leading member of the local section of the National Council of Jewish Women. As a Council representative, Stern attended a 1909 reception for the firebrand suffragist Grace Julian Clarke, who had been recently elected president of the Indiana Federation of Clubs. Stern and Clarke would continue to cross paths through club and charitable work over the next few years. In fact, a deepening friendship with Clarke may have brought Stern into more active suffrage work.

In 1911, Stern and her husband moved to Terre Haute, but the move did not prevent Stern from engaging in women’s rights work at a state level. Instead, she increased her influence through the Indiana General Federation of Clubs and the Women’s Franchise League (WFL) over the next several years.  She also served as an officer of the Terre Haute section of the National Council of Jewish Women and as the group’s representative to the other statewide women’s organizations. By 1912, Stern was one of several directors of the WFL and spoke on the organization’s behalf around the state, often joining other prominent suffragists. Stern also served as the treasurer of the Indiana Federation of Clubs, an important position for an outspoken suffragist.

Grace Julian Clarke Women’s Clubs and Suffrage Scrapbook, 1912-1914, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

The large and influential Federation, which was an umbrella organization for a myriad of women’s clubs, had not yet taken a stance on the suffrage issue. Stern and other suffragists who held leadership positions were able to educate their colleagues and advocate for the vote from inside the organization. For example, in October 1912, when the Federation of Clubs held their annual meeting in Fort Wayne, the WFL held a “suffrage luncheon” at the same hotel as the meeting, providing an opportunity for Federation members to learn about issues surrounding the vote. Clarke and Stern both gave toasts. Clarke’s speech was a straightforward one about lessons from her recent work campaigning for suffrage. Stern responded in jest with a mock anti-suffrage toast titled “I Do Not Need the Vote,” intended to show the absurdity of the opposition’s position, especially when that position was assumed by a woman who would only benefit from increased civic rights.

Indianapolis News, October 28, 1915, 20, Newspapers.com

In her work with the Indiana Federation of Clubs, Stern faced subtle but powerful antisemitism. Suffragists and club leaders were shrewd politicians. They had formed lobbying groups, penned legislation introduced in the Indiana General Assembly, changed the minds of important leaders such as Governor Ralston, and largely tipped the scales of public opinion towards enfranchisement. As with male politicians, the women’s politics sometimes got ugly. While disparaging comments and mudslinging was considered a regular part of campaigning for men, when women engaged in the same traditional, if “unseemly,” tactics, they were labelled as “catty.” The infighting surrounding the 1915 campaign for the Indiana General Federation of Women’s Clubs presidency was brutal, not because the women were especially petty, but because they were political actors vying for power in a large, influential organization. Despite her best efforts, even Stern was drawn into the fray. Notably, some of the damage inflicted on her character seems to be the result of latent antisemitism in some of her colleagues rather than any action or position that she took herself.

South Bend News-Times, October 27, 1915, 3, Newspapers.com

As Terre Haute clubwomen Lenore Hanna Cox and Stella Stimson clashed in the fight for the Federation, Grace Julian Clarke was often in the middle of the battle and was the recipient of many letters showing support for or opposition to the candidates. Clarke supported Cox for the presidency and worked hard to back her candidacy and oppose Stimson. Clarke’s main complaint about Stimson was that she felt Stimson’s temperance work interfered with her suffrage advocacy, potentially driving away supporters who did not support Prohibition.

Image accessed Indiana and Indianans: A History of Aboriginal and Territorial Indiana and the Century of Statehood.

In August, for reasons unknown, Stimson wrote Clarke suggesting Stern as Federation president. Since Stimson herself was vying for the office, this seems to be some sort of political chess move – perhaps positioning herself as uninterested in order not to seem overly ambitious. Stimson’s letter had a negative impact on Stern’s reputation amongst her Federation colleagues. It made Clarke worry that Stern was another potential obstacle to Cox’s presidency. As word got out, some Federation members suspected Stern to be Stimson’s “spy” at closed meetings and wanted to exclude Stern from the Federation and the Terre Haute WFL. Unfortunately, some of this suspicion seems to have been tinged with antisemitism.

Stern was never interested in the Federation presidency. In fact, she told a colleague that she “absolutely would not have it if it were handed to her on a platter.” Her résumé shows that she was more interested in philanthropy and women’s rights than club politics. And yet, Cox and another Terre Haute clubwoman, Helen C. Benbridge, attacked Stern in letters to Clarke. Benbridge wrote an especially hateful letter.

Indianapolis Star, May 7, 1914, 5, Newspapers.com.

Stimson’s tactic for beating Cox was to paint the latter as less “Christian,” by which Stimson meant less moral, because Stimson was a prohibitionist while Cox did not believe the liquor issue was as important as the vote. While campaigning, Stimson claimed that Cox was not Christian. Benbridge took this as an opportunity to attack Stern, bending Stimson’s words back to a more literal interpretation of what it meant to be Christian. Benbridge wrote, “If Mrs. S[timson] objects to Mrs. C[ox] because she is not a Christian why does Mrs. Stern strike her as a good candidate?” While Benbridge was certainly being somewhat sarcastic, the implication was that being Jewish should disqualify Stern from the presidency. It has just a hint of antisemitism, especially as Benbridge continued to write in a disparaging way about Stern’s influence in the Jewish community of Terre Haute.

Benbridge claimed that Stern was “furious” with Stimson “about several Jewish matters.” Stimson was a Christian and an active leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, so why she was involved in “Jewish matters” to the extent that she could anger Stern, a prominent Jewish leader, is unclear. Cox also wrote disparagingly about Stern, encouraging the baseless rumor that Stern was Stimson’s spy and pushing to remove her from the WFL and Federation. Cox wrote that by including Stern in the Federation leadership, they would be creating “a Frankenstein” of an organization. This dehumanizing language is also telling of Cox’s potential antisemitic feelings toward Stern.

Lenore Cox to Grace Julian Clarke, October 21, 1915, Grace Julian Clarke Correspondence and Papers, 1915 Oct.-Dec., Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

In another letter disparaging Stern and seeking Clarke’s support to remove Stern from the Terre Haute branches of the Federation and WFL, Cox claimed that she (Cox) had the support of the National Council of Jewish Women, not Stern. This was unlikely considering Stern was an officer of the Terre Haute Section of the Council while Cox was a Christian who attended an Episcopal church and thus not a Council member. However, the claim does show the necessity of securing the support of an active community of Jewish women and perhaps the threat Cox felt Stern might pose to her leadership in Terre Haute. Cox did have to admit to Clarke that Stern had graciously supported a motion that Cox had made during a recent meeting. Cox, who appeared to view things in black and white—allies and opponents—could not understand why Stern, whom she had labelled as her enemy, could possibly agree with her on an issue. Cox asked Clarke, “Is she really normal?” Again, using “othering” language that divested Stern of some humanity.

It is worth noting that while Clarke worried about Stern’s connection to Stimson in her private letters, Clarke did not descend into name calling like the others. Clarke often spoke positively of Stern in public, praising Stern’s philanthropic work and calling her “able and efficient in whatever she undertakes.” Clarke and Stern worked together successfully for many more years.

That any of these attacks were aimed more harshly at Stern because she was Jewish is, to some degree, speculation. Again, this was politics, and mudslinging was always part of the game. However, we can be certain that Stern did face antisemitism at various points in her career. According to historian Melissa R. Klapper, Jewish women had only recently, and only tepidly at that, been included in the suffrage movement. Meetings, resolutions, songs, and speeches were imbued with Christian rhetoric that could make Jewish women feel excluded. Rallies and conventions were often held on Friday evenings when observant Jewish women would have been prevented from attending or felt conflicted about participating. Some Jewish women were reluctant to work with Christian suffragists who used contact with Jews as an evangelizing opportunity.

The antisemitism imbued in the women’s suffrage movement was perhaps most clearly expressed through its leadership. Nationally prominent suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton published an article referring to Jews as “a useless portion of society.” In her Woman’s Bible, Stanton went on to blame the “backward” ideas espoused by Judaism for women’s second-class status. Famed Methodist minister and suffrage orator Anna Howard Shaw blamed Jewish immigrants for failed suffrage campaigns and Quaker suffragist Alice Paul worked amicably with Jewish women in public, while privately expressing her “antagonism for Jews.” According to Klapper, the antisemitism of their colleagues meant that Jewish women felt an “unease with their place” and “occupied an ambiguous position” within the larger suffrage movement. So whether or not we interpret the hostility directed toward Stern by her fellow clubwomen as antisemitic, Stern would certainly have been familiar with the writings of the leaders of the women’s movements and received the message that she was an outsider in a Christian space.

We also know Stern faced antisemitism because she wrote about it in her own words. In 1911, Stern published her poem “The Greater Creed” in The Butterfly, a magazine concerned with Progressive Era reform, politics, and culture. Stern’s poem had three main points. First, she expressed the completeness Jews felt in worshipping one God, explaining to a Christian reader that Jews did not feel the need for “a mediator.” While this may seem like a dig at the complexity of Christian spiritual practices, her goal was not to be divisive. She paid respect to the equality of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, noting that they were God’s children. Her second goal in “The Greater Creed,” was to argue that while some people worshipped Allah, some Christ, and some “Reason,” one’s chosen belief system mattered less than one’s actions. She stated that it was work on behalf of one’s fellow man, not creeds, that made one holy. She wrote, “Fling afar your doctrine. Cast aside your fears.” Her final and most powerful message was that all people of faith should unite to serve those in need. She concluded:

Seek out the weeping ones and dry their tears.

The sick, the halt, the sinner and the blind,

Oh, pity them and love them and be kind.

For after all, the helpful human deed

By Christian, Turk or Jew to one in need

Can bring more souls to God than all man’s creed.

While Stern pushed back against the dominance of Christian culture at the start of the poem, she immediately moved on to her main point: doctrine doesn’t matter as much as serving the poor.

But by 1917, Stern had extensively revised this poem, doubling the stanzas, and drastically changing its tone. While she closed the poem, renamed “The Jew to the Gentile,” with the same eighteen lines that made up “The Greater Creed,” she added thirty additional lines to the beginning. In these new stanzas she boldly confronted the antisemitism she faced in the world around her. First, she addressed the condemnation she felt Christians delivered to Jews for not believing in the divinity of Jesus. Quoting a fictional priest, she wrote:

The priest bent angry gaze upon the Jew,

“What base ingratitude. Shame, shame that you

Who love the Father, should deny His Son.

Christ, Jesus, is Divine, with God is one.”

Still speaking in the voice of the judgmental priest character, she continued on the same theme: “Oh, stiff-necked race/ Forever shall the glory of God’s face / Be turned from you.” She then shifted her focus to what she perceived as a hypocritical characteristic of Christianity, that is, violently persecuting those who did not share Christian beliefs. She wrote from the perspective of a Jew responding to the condemnation of the fictional priest, stating that Christianity had forced belief in the divinity of Christ on the world “with rack and sword.” Again, after her attack, she softened her tone and in her next few lines, she explored the theme of Jewish forgiveness. She wrote:

And yet

Although you maimed us with the scourge and flame

And tortured and reviled us ‘in His name’;

We reach out arms in friendliness to you

And plead for peace.

After this stanza, Stern then repeated the lines of the 1911 version of the poem, which were focused on the importance of acting on behalf of the poor and needy as opposed to arguing over religious creed. So, what had changed between the uplifting lines of the 1911 work and the castigating revision of 1917? We can surmise that she came into greater contact and conflict with antisemitic language or ideas, likely in the context of the women’s organizations that occupied most of her time.

Despite the opposition of members of the Federation or any other potential antisemitic incidents she may have faced, Stern rose above the political backstabbing and continued to serve as a leader within the Federation. She also became the treasurer of the National Council of Jewish women (the nationwide organization, not just the Terre Haute section). She even found time to lead a local Vigo County organization dedicated to studying and protecting birds. As the suffrage movement headed into its final stretch, Stern made an important contribution to the final push for the vote through the Legislative Council of Indiana Women, a statewide organization dedicated to lobbying the General Assembly.

Indianapolis News, July 7, 1917, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles.

On January 16, 1920, Indiana ratified the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Sara Messing Stern was among the “women who saw the culmination of a struggle in which they were pioneers,” according to the Indianapolis News. The following day, Governor Goodrich signed the ratification resolution surrounded by the “prominent suffrage workers of the state.” A photograph on the front page of the Indianapolis Star, shows Stern among them, looking on approvingly. As she stood in the governor’s office, she saw her life’s work for women’s suffrage achieved.

Indianapolis Star, January 17, 1920, 1, Newspapers.com.

Stern was only one of a large army of women fighting for full citizenship rights for women, yet she made an impact on Indiana history. She felt called to serve God by caring for those less fortunate, and she left a legacy of improving her communities in Indianapolis and Terre Haute. She overcame many obstacles, including the inherent antisemitism of Progressive Era women’s movements. Throughout her career, Sara Messing Stern maintained her Jewish faith and pushed back against antisemitism of her colleagues, powerfully expressing her defiance through her poetry. To Stern, the “Greater Creed” was not a specific religious doctrine, but instead helping others and striving for equality.

Notes:

For an extended and annotated version of this post, click here.

For an overview of the Federation controversy, read historian Jackie Swihart’s Indiana History Blog post: “A Petty Affair: Grace Julian Clarke and the 1915 Campaign for the Indiana General Federation of Women’s Clubs Presidency.”

View Grace Julian Clarke’s 1915 correspondence via the Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

The Plight of Desertion: Jewish Families at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Immigrants, Ellis Island, 1907, courtesy of Library of Congress.

The turn of the twentieth century was marked by record rates of family desertion in the United States, especially among eastern European Jewish immigrant families. A family was considered deserted if the male head of household withheld his wages or if he were to leave and no longer offer monetary support.[i] Jewish women who were deserted by their husbands were left in a particularly vulnerable and liminal state; they were neither widowed nor wed, yet Jewish law dictated that they were bound to their spouse until a divorce could be obtained.[ii]

Rates of family desertion, or the act of a primary caregiver leaving their family without providing support, have been shown to significantly rise in times of mass migration, which made it a pressing issue as over two million eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century.[iii] While it is not known how many women were victims of desertion during this migration period, data from Jewish philanthropic organizations suggest it affected a large number  of women.[iv] Between 1900 and 1922, approximately 15% of aid distributed by Jewish charitable agencies in the United States was granted to deserted women and their families, most of which was granted to Jewish women and families due to their large migration numbers.[v]

The Struggles of Immigration

The pattern of Jewish migration was typically that of a family migration, though families were often disrupted throughout the process.[vi] The head of the household, who was generally the husband, would emigrate alone, later to be joined by their kin. The men would arrive in their new country, settle down, find a job, and build up the necessary funds to bring the remaining relatives to join them, typically in two to three years’ time.[vii] This separation placed great stress on families.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1904, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Upon arriving to the United States, the search for employment, long working hours, health issues, and poor living conditions took a heavy toll on immigrants. On top of these stressors, many Jewish immigrants did not know how to read or write, and therefore had to rely on the aid of others if they wished to write home. These limitations made contacting relatives difficult, if not impossible. Families were often left with silence for months or years at a time, waiting to hear that their loved one had made it to the United States, and that they were actively working towards a reunion in the New World.[viii]

Following immigration, many families experienced new tensions and challenges within the home, which threatened the stability of family units. Members of families, who were separated during the emigration process, often felt alienated from each other and their relationships became irreparable.[ix] American influences encouraged men to act more aggressively if they wished to thrive in their new capitalist country, while women were expected to behave in more submissive manners than the roles which they had previously assumed, drastically altering family dynamics.[x] Marriages established in eastern Europe were rarely the product of love and were more often based on tradition; after living in the United States for an extended period of time, it was not uncommon for married couples to simply drift apart to the point of incompatibility or to develop romantic relationships with new partners.[xi] Generational conflict, typically related to irreligiousness of children, placed stress on household relationships and generated feelings of shame, humiliation, and disconnectedness.[xii] As a result of the new tensions in their relationships, many men did not seek divorces and, instead, turned towards desertion as a solution. This became such an occurrence that National Desertion Bureau president Walter Liebman labeled the process a “poor man’s divorce.”[xiii]

For some men, however, desertion was an attempt to assist their families. They would leave their families behind to better their conditions and earn funds. By leaving without a word, though it caused much distress, many husbands felt confident that charities would offer assistance. Samuel Sorbel, a lawyer who worked on desertion cases in Indiana in 1908, reported in an August 29th, 1908 Evansville Courier and Press article that deserters often told him: “Well, as long as I was here the charities wouldn’t do anything for them, and I knew that if I went away they would feed the wife and children and keep a roof over their heads.” For these men, desertion felt like a mercy to their loved ones. By leaving their families and seeking employment in a different city, the men could save up money for their return home while local charities supported their families in the meantime. This outcome was preferable to making the difficult choice of whether to pay rent or to put food on the table with an inadequate income. Unfortunately, the aid given to deserted families during the man’s absence was not as grand as many men had hoped; Sorbel stated he had never met a case of desertion that was without destitution.

The Role of Philanthropic Organizations and the National Desertion Bureau

Evansville Courier and Press, August 29, 1908.

Jewish charitable organizations sought to assist deserted women in a number of ways. When working with a deserted family, most organizations hoped to locate missing husbands and reunite them with their families. This process, however, could take months, or even years, to complete. In the meantime, Jewish charitable organizations attempted to assist deserted families through financial and material charity, though the support was generally minimal.[xiv] The relationship between charitable organizations and immigrants—both the husbands and the wives— was tense and, at times, discriminatory and victim-blaming.

Anti-desertion campaigns were typically organized and managed by middle-class men who saw themselves as the protectors of women and children, many of whom were German Jewish Americans.[xv] These reformers had relative control over the public narrative surrounding desertion, spinning deserters as burdens to society. According to a May 12, 1920 Fort Wayne Sentinel article, deserters were “the arch villains of society, the primary cause of all social distress, the perpetrators rather than the victims of all social evils.” These reformers attempted to separate their own male identities from those of deserters by challenging the latter’s manhood, often painting working-class deserters as cowardly, unambitious, and incapable of becoming proper breadwinners for their families. Working-class families never fully adopted the ideal of having a male breadwinner due to their low wages, but this concept was of central importance to the middle-class’s understanding of manhood.[xvi]

Upon seeking external assistance, deserted women became subject to much public scrutiny and judgement. Philanthropic organizations consistently looked to categorize the people to whom they provide aid—a person’s marital status merited how much, if any, assistance should be granted to their case.[xvii] Immigrants who requested aid were studied for shortcomings or plausible blame for their being deserted. Nearly any characteristic or action of a woman could be twisted into rational for her circumstances; some women were criticized for their inability or unwillingness to forgo their traditions and customs to “Americanize” and assimilate to American customs, while others became too indulgent in material consumption and American trends.[xviii]

Jewish Welfare Federation of Indianapolis Relief Card for Mrs. Morris Cohen, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.

In Indianapolis, the Jewish Welfare Federation (JWF) of Indianapolis provided a great deal of support to deserted families. One such case of support was that for the Cohen family. On August 17, 1914, applied for aid from the JWF of Indianapolis after Morris Cohen deserted her and six of their seven children. Mr. Cohen had left for St. Louis, taking along one of their sons, Isidor. By the time the Federation had made contact with the United Jewish Charities in St. Louis, the two Cohens had relocated once again with no indication of their destination.[xix]

Just over a year later on November 15, 1915, the JWF discovered that Morris and Isidor had moved to in Birmingham, Alabama, where the latter was employed at a department store. Isidor encouraged the family to join the two in Birmingham, but Mrs. Cohen* was hesitant to do so; Morris had habitually moved from city to city the prior fourteen years, thus she questioned the finality of the move. Additionally,  elder children were employed in positions they did not wish to lose, her three youngest children were well settled in school, and one was ill with pneumonia. The Federation contacted Isidor’s employers, Birmingham’s Federation of Jewish Charities, and a local Rabbi to gauge what would be the best action for the Cohen family. Following the correspondence, the JWF of Indianapolis agreed with Mrs. Cohen and believed it would be best for the family to stay in Indianapolis, and for her husband to send monetary support or to return to the city. Records suggest Morris obliged with the latter, and the family did not require further support from the JWF of Indianapolis.[xx]

Philanthropic organizations like the JWF quickly became inundated by the sheer number of women seeking assistance during the spike in immigration in the early 1900s. In 1909, the United Hebrew Charities reported that for every three relief applications received by widows, two were received from deserted women.[xxi] Desertion became such a strain on charitable organizations and state services that Jewish Americans feared, “Mah yomru hagoyim” (What will the gentiles say?”).[xxii] This concern contributed to the development of the United Hebrew Charities’ National Desertion Bureau (NDB) in 1905. The Bureau worked to locate deserters and return them home, or, if a deserter was unwilling to return, to negotiate support on behalf of his family.[xxiii] These negotiations would be finalized in front of a judge in the “Court of Tears,” aptly named due to the emotional distress associated with the hearings.

Gallery of Missing Husbands, printed in the Forward 9 June, 1912, accessed https://www.jewishgen.org/databases/usa/missinghusbands.html.

The NDB corresponded with local charities, organizations, religious institutions, and employers when attempting to locate missing husbands, much like the JWF had done in the case of the Cohen family. The NDB would gather the husband’s name, date of disappearance, physical description, photographs, and additional information that might be of assistance in locating him. Case descriptions and photos were frequently published in Yiddish newspapers in the cities of New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Montreal, and Toronto—cities to which deserters often fled. These postings became part of the newspapers’ “Gallery of Missing Husbands,” which pleaded for members of the public to inform the NDB if a deserter was found. These public tips were then used to apprehend the men so a solution could be found to satisfy both him and his family. It served a secondary purpose of attempting to prevent  desertion; the gallery made it clear to men who read the paper that if they were to desert their families, they could be publicly humiliated.[xxiv]

Neglected Children

Indianapolis Orphan’s Asylum, circa 1885, courtesy of the Indiana Album.

Desertion not only took a toll on immigrant wives, but it also deeply affected their children. For every ten families which applied for relief from charitable organizations, one came from a deserted family. Additionally, one of four children committed to orphanages at the time had been deserted by one, or both, of their parents; after desertion, some women felt that giving up their child was the only option as they struggled to provide adequate care and daily necessities.[xxv] Children who remained in the home felt the effects of desertion through parental neglect and the need to work to help the household. These stressors led deserted children to struggle with emotional instability and/or delinquency later in their lives.[xxvi]

This is precisely what happened to the Behrman family Louis Behrman deserted his wife and children in the summer of 1905, leaving them behind in Indianapolis while he took refuge in Chicago. found herself without support from her husband and responsible for ten children, the youngest of which was three years old and the eldest twenty years old. She and two of her children attempted to support the family, making a total of $12.50 a week. Trying to ease the burden on their family, Nathan and Robert Behrman, twelve and eight years old respectively, were caught stealing and begging and were committed to a day nursery for seven months as consequence, adding yet another stressor to the family’s circumstances. The JWF assisted the Behrman family until the husband could be found. Louis Behrman was arrested for contributing to their delinquency, received a fine, and was sentenced to a workhouse. He returned to his family after serving his sentence. Charitable organizations like the JWF of Indianapolis provided much needed services to the struggling families affected by desertion, providing resources, support, and a chance for justice against deserters.[xxvii]

Letter from Stern Brothers Clothiers and Shoers regarding Louis Behrman’s desertion of his family, 1907, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, M0463, Box 264, Folder 26.

A History of Hardship

Early-twentieth-century Jewish immigrants were not alone in their hardships. Desertion and family neglection were an issue for many immigrants, regardless of their origin and background. Catholics, for example, addressed issues of desertion through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, but Catholic charities aided deserted families on a case-by-case basis. Jewish charities, on the other hand, identified desertion as a greater social problem in need of fixing and established national connections, including those with charities and businesses across the country, with which to address it. This unique approach stemmed from the fear of American Jews, who believed widespread discussion of family desertion in the Jewish community could encourage new waves of antisemitism.[xxviii]

Despite the fact that immigrants founded the United States, the country has rarely welcomed newcomers with open arms. There is a common misconception in the twenty-first century that European immigrants in the twentieth century became Americans with ease, persevering and prospering in a growing economy. Historically, however, adversities plagued every step of the immigration process, and fear of how these challenges were perceived by the greater public caused much stress in both existing and developing communities. The same can be said of immigrants today. By recognizing this historic trend, America has the opportunity to reduce this burden and provide better support to future immigrants. It is clear through the efforts of organizations like the National Desertion Bureau that creating specialized departments for societal problems can help those in need, and doing so would positively impact both native and foreign-born Americans.

 

* The author was unable to locate the first name of Mrs. Cohen or Mrs. Behrman.

For a bibliography, click here.

Notes:

[i] Reena Sigman Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband Who Is In New York City:’ Husband Desertion in the American Jewish Immigrant Community 1900-1926,” Jewish Social Studies 44, no. 1 (1982): 4.

[ii] Anna R. Igra, Wives Without Husbands: Marriage, Desertion, & Welfare in New York, 1900-1935 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 2.; Gur Alroey, “‘And I Remained Alone in a Vast Land:’ Women in the Jewish Migration from Eastern Europe,” Jewish Social Studies 12, no. 3 (2006): 62; Bluma Goldstein, Enforced Marginality: Jewish Narratives on Abandoned Wives (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 2-6.

[iii] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 60; Lindsey Mintz, “A Century of Jewish Education in Indianapolis: 1860 to 1960,” Indiana Jewish History 35, no. 1 (2003): 14-15.

[iv] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 60.

[v] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 5.

[vi] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 10; Paula E. Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” in Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Paula E. Hyman (London: Routledge, 1998), 346-347.

[vii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 10-11; Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 59-60; Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 346-347.

[viii] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 62; Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 348-349.

[ix] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’”59; Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 349.

[x] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 3-4.

[xi] Alroey, “‘I Remained Alone,’” 286-287.

[xii] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 3-5.

[xiii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 43; Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 4.

[xiv] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 7; Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 346-347; Caroline Light, “‘A Predominant Cause of Distress:’ Gender, Benevolence, and the ‘Agunah’ in Regional Perspective,” American Jewish History 97, no. 2 (2013): 166-167.

[xv] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 3-4; Fridkis, “Desertion,” 289-291.

[xvi] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 3-5.

[xvii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 2, 78-81; Light, “‘A Predominant Cause of Distress,’” 167.

[xviii] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 5-6; Light, “‘A Predominant Cause of Distress,’” 166-167.

[xix] Correspondence regarding Morris Cohen, 1913-1916, Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-() Collection (M0463, Box 264, Folder 40), Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, IN.

[xx] Correspondence regarding Morris Cohen, 1913-1916, Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-() Collection (M0463, Box 264, Folder 40).

[xxi] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 1.

[xxii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 15.

[xxiii] Hyman, “Eastern European Immigration,” 349.

[xxiv] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 11; Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 23-26. Goldstein, Enforced Marginality, 92-100.

[xxv] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 8.; Goldstein, Enforced Marginality, 112-114.

[xxvi] Friedman, “‘Send Me My Husband,’” 8.

[xxvii] Correspondence regarding Louis Behrman, 1905-1912, Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-() Collection (M0463, Box 264, Folder 26), Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, IN.

[xxviii] Igra, “Wives Without Husbands,” 9.

 

Jewish Immigrant Assimilation and Labor in the Early Twentieth Century

Women from an Indianapolis citizens class, courtesy of the Neighborhood of Saturdays archive.

Since the early 1800s, Jews have lived and worked in the Hoosier State. Indiana’s Jewish population has fluctuated over time, with  immigration increasing at the turn of the twentieth century. As Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States, many settled in the Midwest, as new factories and businesses sought laborers. In comparison to their treatment in the South, the Midwest was more accepting of immigrants than other parts of the country. On December 22, 1907, the Indianapolis Star reported that upon arriving in Louisiana to look for work, a group of thirty immigrants from southern Europe were “attacked, beaten and robbed” not once, but twice. Such violence in the South was common and, therefore, encouraged immigrants to stay in the North and Midwest.

Jewish identity in America has changed over time. At times of early settlement and migration, Jewish communities were comprised of a variety of cultures, traditions, and practices. Early Jewish immigrants were mostly Ashkenazi Jews from Germany while immigrants who arrived later included Sephardic Jews from southern Europe and other Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Europe.[i] In the early twentieth century, as native-born Americans began to scrutinize and resist immigration, established Ashkenazi Jews began to push for the assimilation of Jewish immigrants in attempts to mitigate waves of antisemitism. As part of this initiative, Jewish philanthropic organizations provided the newcomers with aid and employment opportunities, forever changing the cultural landscape of the United States as philanthropic organizations relocated immigrants from New York to cities across the country like Indianapolis, Evansville, and Fort Wayne. While the newcomers were aided by organizations like the Jewish Federation, these same organizations often encouraged the erasure of cultural markers and traditions in an attempt to avoid increasing antisemitism in Indiana.

The “Jewish Question”

The “Jewish Question” was used by writers, philosophers, and theologians beginning in the nineteenth century to argue that a Jewish presence in society was a problem that must be solved. To many supporters of the belief, the “solution” was for Jews to discard their traditions and customs to assimilate into society. Racial antisemites, however, argued that there were no true solutions because Jews were members of a separate, unchangeable race who were incapable of assimilating.

Antisemitism has been encoded in texts throughout history on every continent, in different languages and in different cultures. Its reach is unparalleled both historically and in the present moment as the group is repeatedly depicted as the “other,” removed from society and painted as incapable of true integration.[ii] In an Evansville Journal October 24th, 1923 article, the Ku Klux Klan illustrated this point with the statement:

As a race the Jewish are law-abiding. They are of physically wholesome stock. They are mentally alert. They are a family people. But their homes are not American, but Jewish homes, into which we cannot go and from which they will never emerge for a real intermingling with America.

This statement was published nearly a century after Jews began emigrating to the United States. Yet, in that century, antisemitism in America persisted. In fact, antisemitism spread across the country and developed a strong foothold in this time, reaching a peak in the 1920s and 1930s.[iii] While the experiences of Jewish immigrants in the nineteenth century and those in the twentieth century differ, the persistence of antisemitism deeply affected both groups and influenced Jewish settlement trends.

Boston Globe, August 15, 1909, accessed Newspapers.com.

Early Jewish settlement in the United States began in the 1840s and 1850s, when German Jewish immigrants arrived with the hope of finding new opportunities. Many of these early arrivals became well established as merchants and business owners. These early immigrants experienced less systematic and social prejudice compared to that experienced by later waves of eastern and southern European Jews, who would arrive at the turn of the twentieth century.[iv] German Jewish immigrants frequently rejected the practices and behaviors associated with what they saw as “traditional” Jewish life; for their part, eastern European Jews were typically more invested in Jewish cultural practices, and they were more easily identifiable as members of Orthodox sects, such as the Hasidim. [v]

Incidents of antisemitism and nationalism began to escalate at the turn of the twentieth century as the U.S. experienced  a large influx of eastern European Jews—between the years of 1881 and 1924, roughly 2.5 million eastern European Jews emigrated to the country.[vi]  The September 29th, 1903 issue of the Indianapolis Journal published an article titled “Danger of Immigration,” which featured a sermon from New York Reverend Robert S. MacArthur, in which he cautioned against the influx of foreigners:

The recent marvelous expansion in American life has given a cosmopolitan character. . . . We must, however, teach the old world that it cannot empty its poorhouses and prisons by dumping its paupers, Anarchists and other criminals on American soil. American is worthy the best immigrants.

Jewish Americans feared these kinds of perceptions would grow in the public’s mind and thus took action. Jewish leaders created and expanded organizations and charities to aid Jews upon their arrival in New York. One such Jewish philanthropic organization assisted thousands of immigrants in relocating from New York to over 1,000 cities across the country.[vii] Together with this relocation initiative, community organizations—such as the Indiana Jewish Welfare Federation of Indianapolis—developed assimilation education resources intent on rapidly “Americanizing” the newcomers.

Assimilation, Acculturation, and Americanization

The concepts of “assimilation” and “acculturation” have long been central to discussions of immigration. Their definitions have continued to evolve over time, with historians and social scientists debating what it means to assimilate or acculturate.[viii] The literature on immigration typically defines acculturation as the process whereby a minority group or individual adopts elements of another cultural group and integrates them into their native cultural practices. Assimilation is an outcome of the acculturation process, in which the individual completely adopts the practices and lifestyles of another cultural group while losing those of their culture of origin.[ix]

These concepts became more mainstream at the turn of the twentieth century as the United States saw unprecedented rates of immigration. The country’s discussion was narrowed even further as the idea of “Americanization” emerged. Similar to assimilation, Americanization implied the adoption of “American” behaviors, practices, and values. What specific traits, however, identified a person as distinctly “American” versus “non-American” were difficult to pinpoint.[x]

Letter from Chas Graf, accessed Ancestry.com.

Upon their arrival in the United States, immigrants experienced culture shock in their new surroundings, regardless of their origin. For those who did not have family and friends already established in the country, it was difficult to move away from New York, as they were unfamiliar with the country and transportation systems. Outside of New York, it could be difficult to adhere to Jewish practices; Chas Graff reflected in a July 22nd, 1908 [xi] that it was impossible to find kosher meat anywhere near Logansport, Indiana (photo included). Because Jewish populations were small throughout Indiana, this issue consistently arose during the early twentieth century. Language barriers were an additional challenge, as many immigrants had limited proficiency in English. An Indianapolis Jewish immigrant named William Silberman reflected to the IRO in an undated letter, “I don’t know where to go and don’t master the English.”[xii]

Beginning in the late 1800s and gaining in popularity in the 1900s, an Americanization education movement took hold across the United States with the goal of expediting the assimilation process. A hierarchy of immigrants was established, with the light-skinned, blonde haired so-called “Old Stock” immigrants from northern and western Europe being viewed as superior to the dark-skinned southern and eastern Europeans. The former was considered to be model immigrants, known for their quick assimilation and gentile practices, while the latter were viewed as unrefined, poor-mannered individuals in dire need of education on how to “properly” behave.[xiii]

Labor: Barriers and Opportunities

At the time of this mass migration, the United States’s labor market was drastically changing. Manufacturers moved towards models of mass production, seeking to reduce employee downtime and increase production, and unions began to form to advocate for workers’ rights and workplace condition improvements. Unfortunately, many unions would not accept Jews into their organizations on the basis of not meeting a central criterion: being white.[xiv] While their predecessors, Ashkenazi German Jewish immigrants who arrived in the nineteenth century, were typically better accepted by their neighbors due to their practicing of Reform Judaism, Sephardic Jewish immigrants and Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe were more racialized. This racialization reduced opportunities for these groups, limiting what types of jobs and compensation were available to them to a greater extent than their German predecessors.[xv]

Jewish community members began to grow concerned about the gentile public’s perception of Jews changing due to these so-called ghettos. They were concerned that judgement of the new wave of immigrants would affect the livelihoods of the Jewish immigrants who had arrived years prior.[xvi] Journalistic entities were taking notice of the change, frequently publishing stories reflecting on the country’s Jewish presence. On August 8th, 1907, for instance, the Indianapolis News featured a story titled “Wave of Crime Due to Idle Immigrants.” The article suggested that immigrants in New York struggled to find and hold employment in the congested city and, as a result, the unemployed were “attacking children” because they were simply “floating around with nothing to do.” The author suggested immigrants would be of much more useful if they were sent elsewhere and utilized for labor, writing: “Now they are picking pockets, whereas if they were in the South, they would be picking cotton.”

Despite their desire to work and establish themselves in America, eastern and southern European immigrants were criticized and critiqued for their presence in the country and questioned for their work ethic. During this mass migration period, newspapers published numerous articles comparing the newcomers to previous immigrants, claiming that their predecessors were more intelligent, hardy, and industrious and “better stock.” This argument has persisted throughout history—every immigration period is met with resistance, and new arrivals are often compared to and classified as inferior to those who arrived years earlier. However, every generation of immigrants is burdened with problems similar to their predecessors. The United States continues to resist immigration today by using the same arguments as were seen in the early twentieth century, questioning the character of new arrivals, debating whether their labor was beneficial to the country, and making declarations that previous immigrants were better suited for life in America. Immigrants have historically been identified as burdens on society unless they were skilled in a trade or willing to work undesirable jobs, which has often led to their exploitation.

Many companies used this period of mass migration to exploit the labor of incoming immigrants, locking them into contracts with unlivable wages. Isaac Benjamin Cohen, a former resident of Indianapolis’s Southside, immigrated from Monastir in 1906. Upon landing at Ellis Island, Cohen was approached by representatives from a mining company, who offered him a position in Wheeling, West Virginia. Cohen accepted the offer, hoping to save up the money necessary to bring his wife and two daughters to join him in America. The work was laborious, and the wages were so little that after months of working for the company, Cohen was indebted to them and not permitted to leave. He felt that he had no choice but to escape in the night. Upon doing so, he rode a train to Chicago, where he was given word that jobs were available in Indianapolis. The Circle City provided him with better opportunities, allowing him to earn a livable wage and eventually pay for his family’s voyage to the country.[xvii]

The Industrial Removal Office

With the influx of eastern European immigrants arriving in New York, established Jewish Americans, many of them with their origins in western Europe, particularly Germany, feared the growing presence of Yiddish-speaking eastern European Jews and Sephardic southern European Jews in New York would create new waves of antisemitism, which in turn could threaten their own status as respected Americans. Beyond the concerns for their own reputations, Jewish Americans sympathized with immigrants and did not wish to see them exploited. These motivations inspired the creation of the Industrial Removal Office (IRO) in 1901.[xviii]  The organization was established to aid Jewish immigrants living in New York, providing transportation and temporary support to those who were willing to resettle in smaller cities across the country.

The IRO framed its mission in terms of how immigrant relocation could benefit cities of the United States by providing needed labor and stimulating local economies. This was not a unique initiative. A handful of Jewish charities had previously attempted to relocate immigrants to agricultural communities in states like Louisiana, Oregon, Tennessee, and the Dakotas. However, these relocation programs were disorganized and typically unsuccessful in terms of long-term placements. The majority of Jewish immigrants had little knowledge about farming, lived in terrible conditions in the settlements, and preferred city life.[xix] The IRO, for its part, played to the immigrants’ strengths, placing them in cities with familiar work and supporting their establishment. It operated in a highly-organized manner and was in communication with many employers, religious leaders, and organizations throughout the country.

Upon seeking aid from the IRO, Jewish laborers were assessed on their character—the organization relocated only those immigrants whom officials deemed to be of respectable character and strong work ethic. The IRO was in constant communication with its own representatives, employers, and Jewish organizations in many major U.S. cities. The New York office received requests for laborers and would do its best to send qualified individuals—whom it called “removals” —to fill the positions. While many immigrants were eager to utilize the services of the IRO, others were hesitant to leave New York or were too frightened to pick up and move once again.[xx]

Map of immigrants relocated through the IRO. Photo via Robert Rockaway, “The Industrial Removal Office,” accessed Tablet Magazine.

The efforts of the IRO brought many Jewish immigrants to Indianapolis and other Indiana towns such as Anderson, Evansville, Logansport, Fort Wayne, and South Bend. The IRO worked with a handful of local businesses to secure employment for removals. Because many of the new arrivals were typically well trained in the garment trades, Kahn Tailoring Company became one of the IRO’s most valuable contacts in Indianapolis.

Kahn Tailoring Company had begun as a small tailor shop in 1886 and had rapidly expanded. As the son of German Jewish immigrants, its founder, Henry Kahn, was sympathetic to the Jewish immigrants arriving in New York. He attempted to assist in their resettlement processes by collaborating with the IRO to hire skilled workers. Kahn Tailoring Company was known for not only hiring new Sephardic immigrants, in particular, but also for providing them with generous benefits and educational opportunities which may have otherwise been unobtainable.

Call for coat makers, Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 21, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), accessed Ancestry.com.

After immigrants arrived in their new cities and secured employment, IRO officials would typically provide check-ins to evaluate the success of the removal. If problems arose, the representatives would meet with the immigrant to discuss potential solutions. If a city was deemed an ill fit for the worker, the IRO would assist in relocating him to a different city. Otherwise, the IRO would hand the case off to local Jewish charities, such as the Jewish Welfare Federation (JWF) of Indianapolis, who would provide further assistance. The JWF provided translators to bridge the language barrier of many immigrants, as well as offering legal aid, monetary allowances, and allotments of physical goods, such as coal, groceries, and clothing.[xxi]

Because of the industrial nature of many of the positions filled by the IRO, removals often found themselves in dangerous workplace environments. In the case of Russian immigrant Moses Cohen, within a month of being placed in a job at Connersville, Indiana, he lost his arm to a press machine accident. Cohen had a wife and child in Russia, a child in New York, and four children in Indianapolis to support. The JWF stepped in on Cohen’s behalf to secure him a moderate settlement for the injury and to protect his employment.[xxii] This intervention provided much needed support to the Cohen family, securing Mr. Cohen’s income which may have otherwise been lost due to his permanent injury.

Not every new arrival was satisfied to work in factories, however. Many people emigrated to the United States with the hopes of becoming entrepreneurs and business owners.  For the IRO removals who arrived in Indianapolis without trade skills but with dreams of self-employment, the JWF often provided loans or small allowances and encouraged peddling. In the early twentieth century, the Indianapolis streets were filled with horse-drawn wagons, pushcarts, and market stands. For some, this early peddling led to the development and establishment of full-fledged businesses.[xxiii] This was also an option for those who could no longer handle their jobs. Chas Cassalori immigrated to America in 1906 from the Ottoman Empire. He was employed as a presser at Kahn Tailoring Company in Indianapolis, but he developed severe rheumatism which made it impossible for him to work on his feet. The JWF connected Mr. Cassalori with someone who taught him the shoe trade, which allowed the man to open a shoe store at 529 Massachusetts Avenue.[xxiv]

The IRO continued its relocation efforts until its dissolution in 1922. Changes in U.S. immigration law at this time—particularly the Immigration Restriction Act of 1921—largely cut off the flow of European Jewish immigrants, reducing the need for the Office. Throughout its two decades of work, the organization assisted roughly 80,000 Jews in moving to more than 1,600 communities across the country. These communities continued to grow without the IRO’s direct involvement, as the removals’ kin and friends sought to join them after hearing of their settlement.[xxv] As a result, the IRO’s main correspondence cities developed sizable Jewish communities, rich in culture and history.

For some early twentieth century immigrants, the stress of migration, culture shock, and difficult employment was too much to handle. In July 1906, an Indianapolis man contacted the IRO, stating that a Russian immigrant by the name of Aaron Cohn was “on the verge of insanity from homesickness” and had threatened to end his life because he did not feel he could adapt to life in America.[xxvi] The IRO’s General Manager, David M. Bressler, responded that the Office had unfortunately dealt with numerous immigrants in similar situations, and that this homesickness was a “real disease” that could “be cured only by radical treatment, either by work or by return home.”[xxvii] In response to such situations, the IRO encouraged immigrants to participate in educational programs.

Community Education Initiatives

Cooking class at the Nathan Morris House, The Indianapolis Journal, May 8, 1904, accessed Newspapers.com.

In an attempt to better support new immigrants, and to prevent a new wave of antisemitism, philanthropic organizations, particularly those run by German Jewish Americans, established initiatives to educate and Americanize eastern European Jews across the country. The mission became central to much of the Jewish philanthropic work at the time; New York’s Harmonie Club, a prestigious German Jewish social club in the U.S., which mirrored the conduct of clubs across the country, used the unofficial slogan of “More polish, less Polish” when advertising their Americanization programs.[xxviii]

Immigrant education in Indianapolis was run by a handful of charities and philanthropic organizations, including the city’s National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), the of Indianapolis (JWF)[xxix], and the Workmen’s Circle.[xxx] On October 10, 1909, the Indianapolis Star declared the NCJW to be “among the most important local women’s organizations,” stating: “There is no club in the city that accomplishes more earnest philanthropical work than this council.”

Nathan Morris, The Indianapolis Journal, May 8, 1904, accessed Newspapers.com.

The NCJW established the Nathan Morris House with the Jewish Federation in 1904, named after a Jewish attorney who tragically perished while trying to save his nephew from a burning house. It served as both a social hub and educational settlement house for immigrants new to Indianapolis, offering classes designed to help their constituents acculturate to American life, particularly through English and American citizenship classes. It also sponsored vocational training and courses in dressmaking, millinery, typing, cooking, and dancing and held events to celebrate their patrons’ works. According to the Indianapolis News on April 28, 1905, the settlement house held a night of entertainment, featuring a play and an exhibit of hats made by its members to demonstrate the skills learned in millinery class, awarding prizes to Nellie Barrett and Ruth Rosenfield for their handiwork. The Nathan Morris House classes were of much interest to locals; the Indianapolis Journal reported on May 8, 1904 that the large number of members and their constant class attendance made it difficult to accommodate new guests.

Children of the Nathan Morris House on an outing to Wonderland Park, Indianapolis Star, June 23, 1907.

Local organizations would use the house’s meeting rooms while working with the settlement house’s patrons, such as the teachers from local kindergarten, whose monthly classes taught immigrant mothers “American child-rearing methods” and to discourage the use of “Old World” habits and patterns.[xxxi] The members had frequent social outings, which increased the settlement house’s visibility and piqued the interest of others in joining. The success of the settlement house created a shortage on space. By the end of 1912, the Jewish Federation purchased a new building with the intention of expanding community services even further. The new community center was named the Communal Building.

In 1913, the Communal Building opened on Indianapolis’s Southside. The Jewish Federation intended for the Communal Building to exist as a resource for all Indianapolis Jews, but the differing needs and interests of well-established Jewish Americans versus those of the newcomer immigrants made this goal difficult to reach. Instead of becoming a central hub to connect the city’s Jewish population, the Communal Building further divided German American Jews from eastern and southern European Jews as the former associated the building with poor, unrefined patrons.[xxxii]

The Southside Communal Building, 1950, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, accessed the Indiana Magazine of History 103, no. 1 (2007).

American Judaism

The Jewish Federation and NCJW constantly struggled to find a balance between integration and the retention of identity. While the philanthropic groups were pushing for immigrants to assimilate to American culture, the organization leaders hoped to preserve their patrons’ connection to Judaism. The leaders of these Jewish education initiatives did not want immigrants to abandon their religion, but instead wanted to create a new, distinctively American Jewish identity; however, they wished to build this identity from Ashkenazi Jewish traditions rather than those of the Sephardim.

The Indianapolis News, March 3, 1917.

The vocalization of the necessity for Jews to assimilate often came from within Jewish communities. Fort Wayne’s Rabbi Aaron Weinstein reflected in a sermon shared in the April 13, 1919 Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette that the future of American Judaism should be “moulded by American traditions and American standards of life,” and upheld “by its moral and spiritual outlook all that is highest and best in Americanism.” Pride for the United States was deeply rooted in Americanization programs, as evident from the March 3, 1917 Indianapolis News article featuring foreign children posed with American flags as part of their Americanization education. As a result of this connection, many Jewish immigrants and their families developed a home culture intertwined with Jewish and American characteristics. In a 1981 interview with anthropologist Jack Glazier, former Indianapolis Southside resident Lee Zuckerman shared that she had a number of memories of her mother completing routine tasks, like rocking a cradle or cutting green beans, while reciting the Preamble to the United States Constitution.[xxxiii]

While the Americanization movement was intended to better acclimate immigrants to life in America, it occasionally created turmoil in communities and immigrant homes. As a result of groups like the Jewish Federation and NCJW attempting to rapidly assimilate Jewish immigrants, organization involvement discouraged and effectively erased parts the immigrants’ Sephardic cultural identities. In a May 18, 1981 interview, Vickie Goldstein, a former resident of Indianapolis’s Southside and daughter of two Sephardic immigrants, stated that she felt like she was part of a “lost generation as far as religion is concerned.”[xxxiv] A similar statement was given by Max Cohen, a member of the same generation and neighborhood as Goldstein. Cohen felt that he was never aware of the richness of his Sephardic culture growing up, only developing a true pride for his heritage and Sephardic traditions as a young adult.[xxxv] In this regard, the rapid assimilation of Sephardic Jews in Indianapolis resulted in a sense of lost culture in second and third generation Jewish Americans.

By erasing cultural markers and traditions of Jewish immigrants in the twentieth century, philanthropic leaders hoped to avoid an increase in antisemitism. Unfortunately, antisemitism has continued to evolve and gain footholds in the United States, threatening the well-being of Jewish people’s lives every day. A 2022 audit by the Anti-Defamation League reported that since the organization began tracking them in 1979, antisemitic incidents in the United States reached an all-time high in 2021. The report showed an average of more than seven incidents of assault, harassment, and vandalism every day, which is a 34% increase from 2020. It is not only antisemitism that has escalated in recent years. Hate of all kinds— against minorities and immigrants— has been fostered in the United States. According to a 2021 article by the Indy Star, hate crimes in Indiana spiked in 2020 with a 133% increase over 2019, making it the highest number of incidents in two decades. Through the 2016 presidential election, there was a steep increase of 20% in hate crimes against foreign-born minorities.[xxxvi]

The recent dramatic increase of hate crimes in the last decade is a major point of concern. The globalization of prejudice has created a sense of comfort among nationalists and, as a result, hate speech is widely expressed in the public sphere.[xxxvii] Political divides have drastically grown, and extremists have redefined the American freedom of speech as the acceptance of intolerance.[xxxviii] Social media has provided a platform for the formation of hateful spaces, allowing hate to grow through a “radicalization effect,” in which individuals can avoid real-life repercussions for hateful behavior due to online anonymity.[xxxix] Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center work tirelessly to combat this national growth of hate, documenting and exposing hate crimes and seeking justice for targeted victims.[xl]

America has long been dubbed a “nation of immigrants,” yet it has never been a nation truly welcoming of newcomers. Immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century were heavily scrutinized for their foreign characteristics and encouraged to leave behind their “Old World” values if they wished to fit into American society. They were assigned value based on their skills and willingness to work in poor conditions. Despite the passing of a century, immigrants today are burdened with the same barriers as their predecessors. The documentation of early twentieth century immigration experiences provides Americans with the opportunity to learn from the past. Philanthropic organizations urged early Jewish immigrants to rapidly assimilate to their new surroundings in order to avoid new waves of antisemitism. Many immigrants lost their traditions and heritage as a result, yet the antisemitic hate nonetheless persisted. By avoiding this narrative in the future, immigrants have the chance to retain and celebrate their heritage, making America a true nation of immigrants.

For a bibliography, click here.

Notes:

[i] Sephardic Jews trace origins to the Iberian Peninsula prior to the Inquisition.  After 1492, some of these Jews were invited by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Beyezid II, to settle in those lands.  The first Sephardic immigrants to Indianapolis arrived from cities that are now in North Macedonia and Greece, in the early decades of the twentieth century.

[ii] Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2013), 7-21.

[iii] Karen Brodkin, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010), 26.

[iv]  Robert Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted: Jewish Immigrants in Early Twentieth-Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 5-6.

[v]  Jack Glazier, Dispersing the Ghetto: The Relocation of Jewish Immigrants Across America (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2005), 6-12.

[vi] Jack Glazier, “‘Transplanted from Kiev to Hoosierdom’: How the Industrial Removal Office Directed Jewish Immigrants to Terre Haute,” Indiana Magazine of History 97, no. 1 (2001): 5.

[vii] Glazier, Dispersing the Ghetto, 16-17; Robert Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted, 29-30.

[viii] Russel A. Kazal, “Revisiting Assimilation: The Rise, Fall, and Reappraisal of a Concept in American Ethnic History,” American Historical Review 100, no. 2 (1995): 437.

[ix] Kazal, “Revisiting Assimilation,” 465-467; Robert A. Carlson, “Americanization as an Early Twentieth-Century Adult Education Movement,” History of Education Quarterly 10, no. 4 (1970): 440.

[x] Kazal, “Revisiting Assimilation,”468-470; Carlson, “Americanization,” 444.

[xi] Letter from Chas Graff [translated by IRO], 22 July, 1908, U.S., Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 21, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), Ancestry.com, accessed www.ancestry.com/search/collections/1613/.

[xii] Letter from William Silberman, n.d., U.S., Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 18, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), accessed Ancestry.com.

[xiii] Carlson, “Americanization,” 440-441.

[xiv] Broadkin, “Global Capitalism,” 241-242; Irwin Yellowitz, “Jewish Immigrants and the American Labor Movement, 1900-1920,” American Jewish History 71, no. 2 (1981): 189.

[xv] Glazier, “Transplanted,” 5; Broadkin, “Global Capitalism,” 241-242.

[xvi] Ibid., 6.

[xvii] Gladys Cohen Nisenbaum, interview by Jack Glazier, January 20, 1981.

[xviii] Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted, 1-3, 13-14; Glazier, “Transplanted,” 2-5, 15-16.

[xix] Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted, 7-8.

[xx] Ibid., 19-20; Glazier, “Transplanted,” 5-6.

[xxi] Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-Ongoing, Boxes 264-268, Collection # M0463, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, IN.

[xxii] Cohen, Moses and Simmie. 1912-1916.  [Federation Documentation]. Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-Ongoing, Box 264, Folder 5, Collection # M0463.

[xxiii] Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-Ongoing, Boxes 264-268, Collection # M0463.

[xxiv] Cassalori, Charles “Chas” and Masolto (1913-1918).  [Federation Documentation]. Jewish Federation of Indianapolis Records, 1880-Ongoing, Box 264, Folder 5, Collection # M0463.

[xxv] Rockaway, Words of the Uprooted, 27, 32; David Bressler, “Distributing Immigrants Throughout America,” Jewish Tribune, December 18, 1914, 6.

[xxvi] Letter to David M. Bressler from Sol. Kiser, 25 July,1906, U.S., Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 18, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), accessed Ancestry.com.

[xxvii] Bressler Response to Sol. Kiser, 27 July, 1906, U.S., Industrial Removal Office Records, 1899-1922, Box 97, Folder 18, Series X: Correspondence of Immigrants, (1901-1921), accessed Ancestry.com.

[xxviii] Gerald Sorin, “Mutual Contempt, Mutual Benefit: The Strained Encounter Between German and Eastern European Jews in America, 1880-1920,” American Jewish History 81, no. 1 (1993): 35.

[xxix] This organization was established with the name “Jewish Welfare Federation of Indianapolis.” It is later referred to as the “Jewish Federation of Indianapolis” in documentation, though it is unclear when this name change occurred.

[xxx] Judith E. Endelman, The Jewish Community of Indianapolis, 1849 to the Present (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984), 71-72.

[xxxi] Endelman, Jewish Community, 93.

[xxxii] Richard Moss, “Creating a Jewish American Identity in Indianapolis: The Jewish Welfare Federation and the Regulation of Leisure, 1920-1934,” Indiana Magazine of History 103, no. 1 (2007): 46-47.

[xxxiii] Lee Cohen Zuckerman, interview by Jack Glazier, May 4, 1981.

[xxxiv] Vickie Calderon Goldstein, interview by Jack Glazier, May 18,1981.

[xxxv] Max Cohen, interview by Jack Glazier, April 18,1981.

[xxxvi] Jonathan Weisman, (((Semitism))) (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 194-195.

[xxxvii] Goldhagen, The Devil, 163.

[xxxviii] Weisman, (((Semitism))), 21.

[xxxix] Deborah E. Lipstadt, Antisemitism: Here and Now (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 2019), 35; Weisman, (((Semitism))), 107-111, 121.

[xl] Weisman, (((Semitism))), 218.

 

Billy Sunday: Revival in Richmond

Billy Sunday preaches in Jacksonville, Illinois, 1908. Indiana Memory.

The Reverend Billy Sunday, born November 19, 1863, started life as a professional baseball player before his conversion to Christianity in the late 1880s. From 1891 to 1895, Sunday learned the craft of evangelizing with an apprenticeship at the Chicago Y.M.C.A. (of which evangelical icon Dwight Moody was a co-founder), and by 1896 had become a professional evangelist. For the next 40 years, Sunday preached a Presbyterianism that represented “the more ‘American’ side of that denominational tradition—a broad, somewhat tolerant, not highly doctrinal, moralistic, patriotic, and often optimistic version of evangelical Protestantism.” His “sensational and vaudevillian” style urged personal responsibility and growth, which he advocated for in his urban evangelizing campaigns. From Sunday’s style of Americanized evangelism, one can easily see a connection to more modern evangelicals like Billy Graham.

Richmond Palladium, May 2, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

For many years, Sunday made Winona Lake, Indiana his home with his wife and family. It gave him more opportunities to hold revivals in Indiana, especially ones lasting for weeks at a time. One such revival came to Richmond in the spring of 1922. For six weeks, Sunday preached to scores of people in Richmond, “saving souls” and collecting donations from audiences. The Palladium, the city’s premiere newspaper, provided  a supplement section in its daily paper for Sunday to share his sermons, stories, and testimonials with the public. It is unclear as to why the Palladium decided to provide such expansive coverage; perhaps a publishing agreement between Sunday’s ministry and the newspaper facilitated the section. An insight into this arrangement might be gleamed from Sunday biographer Theodore Thomas Frankenberg:

Newspapers in any community, whether large or small, must necessarily pay attention to an enterprise which the business men of the town or city are backing to the extent of thousands and thousands of dollars. The element of publicity continues with increasing vigor to the very end of all campaigns, and one of the remarkable features in connection with it is the fact that this publicity is never sought by any direct or overt act — it comes naturally, almost spontaneously, and is easily the fourth factor toward preparing the field for the advent of the evangelist.

In any event, a half-page ad in the Palladium advertised Sunday’s revival and the paper’s forthcoming coverage. “The Palladium will publish a daily supplement giving two full pages of news and pictures regarding the meetings and the sermons in Richmond,” the ad stated. The paper also boasted of its team of reporters who would cover the revivals with a “direct telephone line . . . run from the Tabernacle to the Palladium office in order that there be no delay.” While Sunday’s preaching may have been “old time religion,” the Palladium’s supplement was a modern affair that anticipated the rise of twentieth century American protestant evangelicalism.

Richmond Palladium, April 13, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.
Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Palladium published its first supplement on April 17, 1922, right after Easter Sunday. Throughout its six-week run, the Billy Sunday supplement followed a predictable pattern. The first page would run a photo of Sunday, often with a quote. The first one, called “I’ve Got a Combative Nature,” quotes the preacher talking about his background in sports and its influence on his preaching. “I was graduated from five gymnasiums. I can go so fast for five rounds you can’t see me in the dust,” declared the Reverend Sunday. The right hand side carried his main sermon, which often focused on a specific topic. For the first issue, Sunday ruminated on what he believed was the “real essence of Christianity,” love:

I will admit that Christianity has fallen away beneath love as the original standard. Love is the dominant principle of the world; love can never be defeated. Love may be checked; love may be prevented for the time being, in accomplishing its aim, but love will drill a tunnel through all the mountains of opposition and reach the goal of a touchdown. Love—it’s the mightiest thing in the world! And the world is starving today for the manifestation of the love of God in the hearts of men and women.

Richmond Palladium, April 17, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Christianity was more than just love to Billy Sunday. It also manifested itself in good works, particularly donations to the church, or in his case, to his revivals. In every supplement, an article or informational table would display the amount of money, in cash and pledges, Sunday’s ministry received for his sermons. The first day, the total collections were $859.71. This wasn’t good enough for the fiery evangelist. “I turned down 25 cities to come here, and it is not fair to me or to the other cities if you do not support me,” Sunday chided. As subsequent issues were published, the money totals and people “saved” became more explicit.

Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Palladium’s Billy Sunday supplement also shared with readers some of his best one liners or bits from his sermons. This was a smart move; Sunday was extremely quotable and articulate and would often do more with a sentence than other speakers could do in a paragraph. For example, in the April 18 issue, the Palladium published some of “Today’s Hot Epigrams from Billy Sunday’s Lips.” Here’s some of his best quotes from that issue:

*

I think that God is too busy to pay any attention to the fellow who is trying to lift himself by his own bootstraps.

*

This is not a world of chance. God don’t wind it up and then throw away the key and let her rip till she runs down. Nothing comes by chance.

*

Christianity is not a simply a creed. Christianity is a creed plus Jesus Christ.

*

Like with the first issue, a picture of Sunday, often in an animated preaching pose, accompanied the quotes. This gave readers a choice; either read the long-form sermons or check out their best bits and quotable lines. This provided Sunday with a wider readership than if he had just provided the sermons as a whole.

Richmond Palladium, April 19, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of Sunday’s indispensable lieutenants in his crusades for Christ was Robert Matthews, described by the Palladium as the “custodian of the tabernacle.” However, this was not his only job. Matthews served as Sunday’s secretary, a “buffer between the world and his boss,” as well as his “pianist for the chorus, understudy for Rody [Homer Rodeheaver] as the leader of the choir, and finally a good talker when he has to be.” A native of Kentucky, Matthews graduated from Lake Forest College, received musical education in “New York, Paris, Milan, and Melbourne,” and spent time in the newspaper business before joining Sunday’s staff. The Palladium described Matthews as “faithful to Billy,” further noting that “he is sure that Billy is the greatest man on the face of the earth.” Matthews, along with other staff, made sure that the Sunday revivals went perfectly.

Homer Rodeheaver, known as “Rody,” was Sunday’s musical director. Richmond Palladium, April 20, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The revivals benefited additionally from a well-organized schedule of prayer meetings, led by Florence Kinney, a graduate of Dr. Wilbert W. White’s Bible Training School in New York City and dedicated lieutenant to Sunday. Kinney believed that, “Souls can be saved and individuals converted in those neighborhoods, just as well as at the big tabernacle meetings.” Kinney and Reverend Alfred H. Backus organized Richmond into 10 sections, each with their own superintendent responsible for prayer meetings. Kinney herself taught Bible study classes during the week, scheduled “immediately after the afternoon sermon.” These individualized, personal meetings reinforced Sunday’s sermons, gained new converts, and emboldened the already converted. In this regard, Sunday’s bureaucratic approach echoed the modern evangelical enterprises of Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell decades later.

“Come Up to Help the Lord,” hand-written proclamation from Reverend Sunday. Richmond Palladium, April 21, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the supplement for April 21, the Palladium published a hand-written proclamation from Sunday, calling for evangelism in Richmond. “The history of the church is the history of revivals—the Church was born in the revival at Pentecost,” Sunday declared in his letter. He also summoned all of Richmond to join his revival. “I issue a proclamation,” Sunday wrote, “to the forces of truth, morality, righteousness in and out of the churches of Richmond ‘come up to the help of the Lord, against the and devil and all his hosts.” He signed it with his name and “Psalm 34,” which, among other verses, stated that “The Lord redeemeth the soul of his servants: and none of them that trust in him shall be desolate.” Sunday fervently believed that the message of Christianity would fail unless the people actively worked for the propagation of its message.

Billy Sunday’s tabernacle in Richmond, Indiana. Richmond Palladium, April 18, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

To hit home this message, the Palladium ran a small chart, starting in the April 19 supplement, chronicling the money raised and those “saved” at the daily services. Between the afternoon and evening services on April 21, the ministry collected $344 and preached to 4,900 attendees. However, by the weekend’s end, the collection ballooned to $3,183.36 and attendance expanded by 19,700 people. As an aside, the paper also noted that the “foregoing does not include pledges, which will swell the total.” The chart began including converts with the April 26 issue, where 119 “’hit the sawdust trail,’ the first converts of the Richmond campaign.” Within days, the paper named the converted as “trail hitters,” a term used throughout the rest of Sunday’s revival in Richmond. By the time Billy Sunday’s six weeks in Richmond came to a close, his ministry claimed 5,876 “tail hitters” and $34,658 in collections. Not too bad for an old baseball slugger turned champion for the Lord.

Richmond Palladium, April 26, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Sunday was not without his controversies. He was openly against divorce, appearing in films, dancing, drinking alcohol, and the theory of evolution. With evolution, Sunday chided that, “If you believe your great, great granddaddy was a monkey, then you take your daddy and go to hell with him, but leave me out! I came from a different bunch, thank God.” He was also particularly bothered by divorce, saying “I shall never prostitute my manhood and high and honorable calling to unite in marriage a man or woman that has ever been divorced for any reason, as long as the man or woman from whom he or she is divorced is alive!” Sunday also railed against hypocrites within the ministry, stating, “I don’t like to see a minister who has one mannerism for the pulpit and another for the street.”

Richmond Palladium, May 3, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Yet, despite his calls for moral behavior and rejection of modern life, there was one group with which he was incautiously naive: the Ku Klux Klan. On May 14, 1922, 12 Klansmen in white robes approached the pulpit during Sunday’s evening service. They stood silent as they handed the reverend an envelope containing a “commendation and $50 in bills.” Sunday took the letter, merely replied “I thank you,” and said to the audience after they left, “I don’t know how you felt, but I commenced to check up on myself.” The Palladium reported that Sunday was “dumbfounded,” even though this was not his first encounter with the Klan. “The klan [sic] has made a present to Mr. Sunday in every city he has been in during the last year. . . . Even the Klan in Sioux City did the same thing,” Sunday confidant Robert Matthews told the press.

Richmond Palladium, May 15, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Muncie chapter and the provisional Richmond chapter of the Ku Klux Klan signed the letter commending Sunday for “the wonderful work that you and your associates are doing in [sic] behalf of perpetuating the tenets of the Christian Religion throughout the nation. . . .” The Palladium further noted that this was “the first time in the history of Richmond that the Ku Klux Klan had appeared. . . .” It also would not be their last time. According to historian Leonard Moore, 4,037 men from Wayne County, of which 3,183 were from Richmond, joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. Of Richmond’s 26,000 residents, over 12% belonged to the Klan during the decade. Sunday’s interaction with the Klan was not an aberration, but rather a sign of things to come.

As for the Reverend, he shrugged off the “dumbfounding” incident, declared that he did not belong to any secret fraternal organizations, and said that “if you behave yourself they won’t bother you.” In an odd turn, Sunday never readdressed the incident, but instead criticized the liberal wing of Baptist Christianity. “It’s the liberal bunch that don’t like me, and I don’t want their backing,” Sunday shared with his audience before he called for attendees to come forward to be saved.” Sunday’s apparent lack of moral clarity on the issue of the Klan does not imply an endorsement of its politics; it only demonstrates that Sunday was not aware of the implications of associating with them. Nevertheless, Sunday’s actions remain problematic.

Richmond Palladium, May 26, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Towards the end of his run, Billy Sunday’s crowds, collections, and the “saved” continued to grow. On May 25, over 600 members of the local Odd Fellows organization attended the evening service, pushing the audience to 5,200 people and past tabernacle capacity. The next day brought a record 2,000 people to the revival on a week day, the highest it had ever been. His final night of evangelizing brought to his ministry over $10,700 in donations, mostly from those in attendance but also from those unable to attend who donated earlier in the week. The Palladium covered Sunday’s final sermon and the start of his travel home to Winona Lake:

Billy Sunday’s residence at Winona Lake, Indiana, 1920. Indiana Memory.

About 1,500 saw Mr. Sunday off to his home at 10:20 o’clock Sunday evening. As the train started. Billy Sunday was shaking hands with a member of the crowd and was pulled off the steps to the platform. He managed to catch the steps of the end car as it passed and Richmond’s last sight of the evangelist was as he stood on the platform, waving goodbye.

During his six-week revival, Sunday gave 95 sermons in front of nearly 250,000 people, making him one of the biggest draws in the history of Richmond. He left the city a massive success.

Richmond Palladium, May 29, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One of the biggest reasons for that success was the daily newspaper coverage he received in the Richmond Palladium. “The papers in this town have done better in covering this campaign from every angle than any other city have been to,” Sunday told the Palladium on his final day in Richmond. This is no exaggeration. The Palladium gave Sunday six weeks of uninterrupted newspaper coverage in a special supplemental section, a unique experiment in the newspaper’s near-200 year history. They printed his sermons almost verbatim, alongside other stories, quips, and updates on the prayer meetings and the amount of people “saved.” The Palladium‘s wall-to-wall coverage of Sunday’s revivals foreshadowed today’s network of newspapers, magazines, television stations, and internet media devoted to religious programming. Thus, the Palladium’s “Sunday Supplement” underscores the immense influence of Billy Sunday and evangelical Protestantism in the Midwest during the early 20th century.

To learn more about Billy Sunday, visit Chronicling America and Hoosier State Chronicles.

Richmond Palladium, May 9, 1922. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Portions of the introduction appeared in my thesis, Ingersoll, Infidels, and Indianapolis: Freethought and Religion in the Central Midwest.

Marion’s Allen Temple and the Importance of Black Spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[9] Madison, 30-42.

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

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

[12] Madison, passim. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] Madison, 130-138.

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

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

[23] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

[29] Madison, 140.

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

[31] Ibid.

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

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

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

[35] Madison, 142-153.

The Crusader: J. Frank Hanly and the Election of 1916

Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly. Courtesy of WikiCommons.
Indiana Governor J. Frank Hanly. Courtesy of WikiCommons.

Did you know that three Hoosiers appeared on national tickets for president or vice president in 1916?  The Democrats ran Thomas R. Marshall of Columbia City for re-election in 1916 alongside President Woodrow Wilson.  The Republican Party tabbed President Theodore Roosevelt‘s former vice president Charles W. Fairbanks of Indianapolis as the running mate of GOP presidential nominee Charles Evans Hughes.  You may ask, who was the third Hoosier running for president or vice president in 1916?  If you guessed Terre Haute-native Eugene V. Debs, you would be wrong.  After being the  Socialist Party presidential nominee four times from 1900-1912, Debs sat out the 1916 campaign before running again (from prison) in 1920.

The third Hoosier and national party candidate in 1916 was a man who is not well-known today, but was a former governor of Indiana, and an influential leader in the prohibition movement.  As a third-party challenger, J. Frank Hanly ran as the Prohibition Party presidential nominee during the 1916 election. Founded in 1869, the Prohibition Party campaigned for laws to limit or ban the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors.  The party nominated candidates for office, but only found real success with local elections.  For Hanly, his candidacy in 1916 served as the culmination of decades of advocacy for making Indiana, and the nation, dry as a desert.

The Hanly Family Home in Williamsport, Indiana. Courtesy of Newspapers.com.
The Hanly Family Home in Williamsport, Indiana. Source: Indianapolis Star, May 7, 1904.

According to a 1904 profile in the Indianapolis News, James Frank Hanly was born on April 4, 1863 in Champaign County, Illinois. His early life exemplified the rough-hewn stereotype that politicians of the era both yearned to have and exploit when useful. As the News wrote, “The world had nothing to offer the cabin boy but poverty. His parents lived on a rented place and sometimes the Hanly’s wondered where the sustenance of coming days was to come from.” Hanly, described as a bookish child, reveled in debate during his schoolhouse days and had “victory perched on his banner very often.” With his mother blinded early in his life and the family thrown into even more intense poverty, Hanly was sent to live with friends of the family in Williamsport, Warren County, Indiana.

He held odd-jobs throughout his early years in Indiana, most notably ditch digging and teaching, before gaining an opportunity from a local judge named Joseph Rabb. Rabb provided Hanly with the tools to take the bar exam. After passing the exam, Hanly began work at Rabb’s office. Nearly two years later in 1890, he founded a law office with partner Ele Stansbury. Equipped with skills of law and oratory, Hanly was a natural fit for the role of public service. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1894 and served one term; his reelection was dashed due to redistricting. After some considerations for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Hanly decided to run for governor of Indiana in 1904 and won, defeating Democrat John W. Kern by 84,000 votes, according to the Plymouth Tribune.

Indianapolis Journal, November 8, 1894. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis Journal, November 8, 1894, from Hoosier State Chronicles.
Governor J. Frank Hanly and military officers at Fort Benjamin Harrison Camp of Instruction, 1906. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Governor J. Frank Hanly (Center) and military officers at Fort Benjamin Harrison Camp of Instruction, 1906. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.

Hanly served as Indiana’s Governor from 1905-1909 and his tenure was marked by a controversial fight over Hanly’s central political issue: the sale of alcohol. He committed his tenure to enacting a stronger form of public policy in regards to the liquor traffic. In an op-ed for the Jasper Weekly Courier, Hanly wrote:

Personally, I have seen so much of the evils of the liquor traffic in the last four years, so much of its economic waste, so much of the physical ruin, so much of its mental blight, so much of its tears and heartache, that I have come to regard the business as one that must be held and controlled by strong and effective laws.

Jasper Weekly Courier, April 10, 1908, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

The type of “strong and effective laws” that Hanly wanted came in the form of a “county local option bill,” which Hanly foisted upon the Indiana General Assembly via a special session. This law strengthened the intent of the Nicholson Law, which required extended waiting periods for liquor licenses. Hanly saw this as the first step towards state-wide prohibition, but his opposition saw it as an opportunity. Due to his heavy-handed use of executive power during 1908, the Republican gubernatorial candidate James E. Watson was easily defeated by the Democratic challenger, Thomas Marshall.

Plymouth Tribune, September 24, 1908. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Plymouth Tribune, September 24, 1908, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly was undeterred. He reaffirmed his position against alcohol in a rousing speech at the 1908 Republican National Convention reprinted in the Indianapolis News. Concerning the liquor traffic, Hanly declared:

I hate it as Abraham Lincoln hated slavery. And as he sometimes saw in prophetic vision the end of slavery and the coming of the time when the sun should shine and the rain should fall upon no slave in all the republic, so I sometimes seem to see the end of this unholy traffic; the coming of the time when, if it does not wholly cease to be, it shall find no safe habitation anywhere beneath Old Glory’s stainless stars.

To Hanly, the sale of alcohol equaled slavery in its immorality, and akin to his political hero, viewed his indictment of alcohol as righteous as Lincoln’s position on slavery (at least on the surface).

Over the next eight years, Hanly dedicated himself to his cause with a near-religious fervor. He wrote and published pamphlets calling for stricter laws for state liquor trafficking and for nation-wide prohibition. He also formed an organization called the Flying Squadron Foundation that routinely gave speeches throughout the country in defense of outlawing alcohol.  He also founded a prohibitionist newspaper, the National Enquirer (not to be confused with the supermarket tabloid).

Lecturers of the Flying Squadron, a prohibitionist organization founded by J. Frank Hanly, 1917. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.
Lecturers of the Flying Squadron, a prohibitionist organization founded by J. Frank Hanly, 1917. Courtesy of Indiana Memory.

All of his activism proved valuable by the election of 1916. Originally, Hanly received the Progressive Party’s nomination for governor, after he ran unopposed in the March primary. Despite support from the party and the voters, Hanly felt ambivalent about his nomination. As the Indianapolis News reported, Hanly “spent nothing and made no promises when a candidate before the primary for the Progressive nomination as Governor.” The Progressive Party, in some respects, was a poor fit. Even though Hanly alienated himself from mainstream Republican politics due to his strict prohibitionist views, his dedication to fiscal conservatism and limited government did not align with the Progressives. While Hanly internally debated accepting the Progressives’ gubernatorial nomination, another political party began recruiting him for an even higher office.

Indianapolis News, June 15, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, June 15, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

In June 1916, Hanly abandoned the Progressive Party, and declined the nomination for governor. Later that summer, he received the Prohibition Party nomination for President of the United States. The Indianapolis News and the Indianapolis Star reported that Hanly would gladly accept this charge only after the party decided to abandon a plank in their party platform supporting “initiative, referendum, and recall” elections, which Hanly saw as anathema to his limited government views. The party acquiesced to Hanly’s demands, which later drew criticism from an editorial in the Indianapolis Star and later reprinted in the Jasper Weekly Courier.  On the day of his nomination, Hanly reiterated his resolve to the cause of Prohibition and argued that “legislative enactments, administrative action, judicial decision and constitutional amendment—all shall be used for its [alcohol’s] dethronement.” In eight short years, Hanly went from Republican, to reluctant Progressive, to ardent Prohibitionist.

Dr. Ira Landrith (Left) and J. Frank Hanly (Right) shaking hands at their nomination ceremony for the Vice-Presidential and Presidential nominations for the Prohibition Party, respectively. Source: Indianapolis Star, August 9, 1916.

His disassociation with the Republican Party led to a fairly embarrassing episode reported in the August 15 issue of the Indianapolis News. The paper wrote that, “state officials are wondering how a picture of J. Frank Hanly got on the wall in [Ed] Donnell’s office [at the state printing board’s office]. Mr. Hanly, former Governor of Indiana, is now the nominee for President on the Prohibition national ticket.” A little over a week later, on August 28, the portrait disappeared. When asked how it left, Donnell “referred questioners to [J. Roy] Strickland, who disclaimed all knowledge of any theft, other than to declare that he understood the picture had been confiscated by the Democratic state committee.” The installation and later removal of the painting remains a mystery, but this story exemplified one conclusion that many political observers were making about the Prohibition Party candidate: the major parties were done with him too.

Indianapolis News, August 28, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, August 28, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly’s presidential campaign began later that August with an announcement from Hanly and his Vice-Presidential running mate, Dr. Ira Landrith, that they would conduct a “two-months’ tour of the country, will stop at approximately 600 towns.” The slogan for their campaign was “A Million Votes for Prohibition.” As part of the Prohibition Party’s push for a million votes, Hanly heavily criticized the major party candidates, Republican Charles Evans Hughes and incumbent Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. On the issue of prohibition, Hanly said that “President Wilson has not changed his mind on the liquor question, not in the last six years, at least, but we know that during these six years he has changed his mind on every other question which has come before him.” Of Hughes, Hanly remarked that the Republican nominee “stands for nothing.” By supposed contrast, Hanly and Landrith stood for women’s suffrage, an eight-hour work day, environmental protections, and military preparedness in line with the Monroe Doctrine alongside its desire to end the liquor trade.

Indianapolis News, November 10, 1916, Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, November 10, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

By November 1916, the Prohibition Party appeared confident in their chances for some electoral success. The Indianapolis News covered their claims of success at a rally in Auburn, Indiana. “Ira Landrith, the vice-presidential candidate,” the News reported, “declared there now are 167 electoral votes in “dry” states; that next year there will be 200, and in 1930 there will be 300.” Their optimism was misplaced, for the election returns told a different story. Hanly and Landrith only captured 221,302 votes, or only 1.19 percent of the popular vote. They neither secured the one million votes they campaigned on, nor picked up a single electoral vote. Wilson won the election with 277 electoral votes and 49.25 percent of the popular vote. The Indianapolis News highlighted that the level of the vote for the Prohibition Party had dropped in Marion County alone by nearly 500 votes, from 1241 to 744, and throughout the State of Indiana, Hanly only garnered 16,680.

Indianapolis News, November 20, 1916. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, November 20, 1916, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Of the returns, Hanly was delighted despite his small showing at the polls.  He stated, “I believe that of all the presidential candidates at the last election, I am the happiest. The returns were no disappointment to me.” Despite the Prohibition Party’s electoral loss, the prohibition movement made great strides after the election. The News wrote“More than one-third of the people of the whole nation now live in territory where prohibition will be effective.” After the election Hanly remained an active prohibition proponent.  He played a key role in lobbying for the state-wide prohibition of alcohol by 1918, two years before the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandated prohibition across the United States. Hanly celebrated its implementation by introducing National Dry Federation President William Jennings Bryan at a meeting in Indianapolis.

Indianapolis News, August 2, 1920. Courtesy of Hoosier State Chronicles.
Indianapolis News, August 2, 1920, from Hoosier State Chronicles.

Hanly’s lifelong efforts advocating for prohibition came to an end with his untimely death on August 1, 1920, at the age of 57. He had been “fatally injured in an automobile accident near Dennison [Ohio],” reported the Indianapolis News. His funeral was held at Meridian Street Methodist Episcopal Church and he was buried in Williamsport, Indiana. In a eulogy by Indianapolis Phalanx publisher Edward Clark, Hanly was hailed as a “a national leader in the greatest moral and political reform of the century.” Clark concluded, “[Hanly] has ended life’s combat and laid down the weapons he wielded so heroically and so valiantly.”

Historian Jan Shipps argued that the choices Hanly made during his political career may have been pure opportunism, the mark of a true believer, or somewhere in the middle. The last argument seems to be the most accurate, because Hanly appeared to be a bit of both, at least in the press. He was an astute, masterful politician who used the workings of power to achieve his own prerogatives. At the same time, he was a deeply religious man whose moral judgement animated him to act as a crusader against alcohol. As Edward Clark’s eulogy intimated, Hanly knew that “to announce himself as a party prohibitionist meant unpopularity, scorn, ridicule, abuse, and political oblivion—but he hesitated not.” While he never saw the effects of Prohibition, both good and bad, in his state or in the country, Hanly’s contributions to the movement should not be neglected in our understanding of the era.

From “Gay Knights” to Celebration on the Circle: A History of Pride in Indianapolis

The New Works (August 1990): 15, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

* A note on terminology: We recognize that terminology referring to this marginalized community will continue to evolve. We have chosen to use “LGBTQ+” and “queer” after consulting with Indy Pride board members, historians specializing in the field, and new scholarship. We are cognizant that the community is not monolithic and that some individuals may not identify with these terms. It is also important to note that the mainstream civil rights movement excluded people of color, those living in poverty, and transgender individuals. 

The fabric of America has always been comprised of LGBTQ+ individuals, but due to social stigmas, legal discrimination, and the perpetuation of violence, many of these individuals lived quietly. While the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City proved to be a watershed moment in the national fight for equality, those in the conservative state of Indiana continued to socialize privately, for the most part. In 1976, the first “Gay Pride Week” was held in Indianapolis, hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) and the Gay Peoples Union. Rather than celebrate publicly, attendees were invited to attend a picnic at Sugar Creek Park, donate blood at MCC, participate in a “Youth Kamp Disco,” and attend workshops entitled “Do I Tell My Parents?,” “Christian and Gay,” “Lifestyles in the ‘70s,” and “Gays and Government.” MCC pastor Rev. James Hill said the purpose of the week was “to make society aware of our presence and as a self-affirming thing for gay people as well—affirming they have the right to be.’”

Program, 4th Annual Gay Pride Week Brunch, June 24, 1984, Jeffrey L. Huntington Collection, L198, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

According to an article The Works, when Pride plans failed to materialize in 1980, activists gathered at the Ramada Inn and formed a Pride Week Committee, which sponsored the 1981 Pride Week Brunch at Essex Hotel House. The Indianapolis Star noted in 1982 that celebrations continued in an insular manner, writing that individuals celebrated “Indiana style—without marches or noisy rallies.” Instead, they raised funds for various causes, donated food to the needy, and “tried quietly to let others know they are here.” Celebrants in 1984 continued the tradition of picnics, in addition to raising funds for AIDS research. The summer of that year, hundreds of LGBTQ+ Hoosiers met at Monument Circle to socialize, listen to local activists, learn about their rights, and register to vote.

The Works (September 1984): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

While organizers were careful to note that this was not a protest or demonstration, it was the first large public gathering of queer individuals in the state. Their goal was to increase visibility for the community, hoping the show of solidarity would lead to a decrease in police harassment and increased commitment to solving the murders of LGBTQ+ individuals. Mayor Bill Hudnut reluctantly issued a letter that was read at one of the gatherings, declaring a commitment to “an absence of anti-gay bias in all police matters.” According to a June 1985 The Works article, this marked “the first time any Mayor of Indianapolis has made any positive public pronouncement on gays in Indianapolis.” Although relations between police and elected officials and queer Hoosiers would remain relatively fraught, the Works considered the 1984 gatherings a success, writing that the events:

will go down in the gay history of Indiana as the first time gays in this state have exercised their Constitutional right to freedom of public assembly. Gays and lesbians exercised this Constitutional right in no less a place than the Monument Circle area of Indianapolis in full view of many Indianapolis citizens who came to see what gays had to say.

The Works (September 1984): 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

After the 1984 gatherings, which some dubbed “Gay Knights on the Circle,” Pride Week celebrations remained relatively private until 1990. That year, the twentieth anniversary of NYC’s first Pride Week, Indiana activists felt ready to celebrate publicly. Organized primarily by Justice, Inc.’s Ruth Peters, the New Works News noted that the June event would “provide an opportunity for gays and lesbians to increase their political and community awareness and visibility. Having the event on the Circle will provide both an educational and enjoyable atmosphere for the Indianapolis community at large to enjoy the speakers and entertainers.”

Some Hoosiers, like Drew Carey, feared making themselves vulnerable by attending the state’s first large outdoor Pride event. Nevertheless, he felt his presence was important, writing in an editorial reprinted in the New Works June 1990 issue:

I can’t tell you how much this intimidates me. I have never made such an open stand. But I’m going to be there, stomach in knots and all, because there is nothing so vitally important. . . . If we make excuses for not going, we manifest the internalized homophobia that will continue to keep us on the fringe, where society need not even recognize that we exist. We say to ourselves, to friends, to family, and to society, ‘I’m ashamed; I’m embarrassed about what I am. Your stereotypes about gays and lesbians are right.’

Those who turned out for the unprecedented event enjoyed entertainment like drag shows, learned about gay rights legislation, listened to AIDS activists, and interacted with those manning booths for the Indiana Crossdresser Society (IXE), Indiana Youth Group, Damien Center, Act-Up Indy, Marion County Health Department Condom Contest, and Indiana Pro-Choice Action League.

“Circle Celebration Pics,” The New Works (August 1990): 15, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

Despite the presence of protesters, the event empowered attendees, challenged social stigmas, and welcomed a range of sexual and gender expressions. The New Works News editor reflected in August, “As I looked around me . . .  I had but one thought: this is what a city is supposed to be like-alive, vibrant, filled with productive, enjoyable activity.” Carmen Kruer had a similar sentiment, writing in an editorial for the same issue that for the first time the community could:

socialize publicly with minimal fear of harassment and was also able to feel the strength that its numbers can provide. I was very proud to be a part of the lesbian and gay community as it drew together to support one goal – the attainment of a safe environment for all persons regardless of their sexual orientation, race, creed, or gender. I will always remember this day as I anticipate the next public celebration in Indiana.

“3000 Attend ‘Circle Celebration,'” The New Works, 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

With the event’s success, organizations like Justice, Inc. pushed to keep the momentum going through donations and activism. One writer for the New Works News wrote in July that the “Celebration on the Circle” was only the beginning, contending that “The Gay Civil Rights movement is at a critical point in its development. Much has been accomplished, but there is still much of a negative nature which must be overcome both within ourselves and in the public in general. . . . It’s up to us.”

In the ensuing years, Justice, Inc. and Indy Pride helped grow the event and by 2012 an estimated 80,000 people and 300 vendor booths attended the celebration. According to Indy Pride, the Cadillac Barbie Pride Parade “featured a float, an antique truck, a few drag queens, some antique cars, and several walking groups,” becoming a cornerstone of celebrations. Of the annual event’s significance, Indy Pride noted “In the years since Pride first ‘came out of the closet,’ the exposure has created a massive change in the society of the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana. The battle is not won until everyone is equal but the Indy Pride Festival and the Indy Pride Parade are Indiana’s symbol of a growing acceptance in our cultures.”

Indy Pride celebrant, Mark A. Lee LGBT Photo Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Society.

As with most efforts to secure civil rights, progress for the queer community in the city known for its “Polite Protest” and “Hoosier Hospitality” occurred in fits and spurts. The 2014 legalization of gay marriage and the 2015 enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act exemplifies this duality. As of 2021, organizations like the Indiana Youth Group and Indy Pride continue to provide resources and press for equal protection under the law.

* Sources used to write this post can be found here.

Learn about the following Indiana LGBTQ+ history topics:

“’Actually, Genuinely Welcomed:’ How North Meadow Circle of Friends Embraced and Wed LGBTQ Individuals”

“Gloria Frankel & The Seahorse: The South Bend LGBT Club’s Fight for Gay Rights”

“How Indy’s Queer Community Challenged Police Harassment in the 1980s”

“The Debate over ‘Decency:’ How Hoosiers Challenged Anita Bryant’s Anti-Gay Rights Crusade”

“’Walk a Mile in Their Pumps:’ Combating Discrimination within Indy’s Queer Community”

“’We Had Sung Them Off the Monument Steps:’ Pride, Protest, and Patriotism in Indianapolis”

“Unswerving Integrity”: The Radical Friendship of Eugene V. Debs and Robert Ingersoll

This post is dedicated to Tom Flynn—freethinker, friend, and keeper of the Ingersoll flame.

On July 22, 1899, Hoosier Eugene Victor Debs, a radical labor organizer and the future socialist party candidate for president, published a tribute to one of his biggest influences and close friends—the orator and freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll. Known as the “Great Agnostic” for his decades-long public critique of organized religion, Ingersoll became the leader of the “Golden Age of Freethought” in the United States, a movement dedicated to secularism that began after the Civil War and ended around World War I. His death on July 21, 1899, at the age of 65, left an irreplaceable void in the hearts of many who saw Ingersoll as the leader of a new rationalist awakening in America.

Eugene V. Debs, 1897. Library of Congress.

In his tribute to Ingersoll, printed in the Terre Haute Gazette and later in the Social Democratic Herald, Debs reflected on their decades-long friendship and the lasting impact the freethinker had on his life. He wrote:

For 23 years it has been my privilege to know Colonel Ingersoll, and the announcement of his sudden death is so touching and shocking to me that I can hardly bring myself to realize the awful calamity. Like thousands of others who personally knew Colonel Ingersoll, I loved him as if he had been my elder brother. He was, without doubt, the most lovable character, the tenderest and greatest soul I have ever known.

He also noted the amount of charity work Ingersoll did, both for organizations and for individuals, such as a woman he aided after the financial collapse of her father and abandonment by her church. “Such incidents of kindness to the distressed and help to the needy,” Debs observed, “might be multiplied indefinitely, for Colonel Ingersoll’s whole life was replete with them and they constitute a religion compared with which all creeds and dogmas become meaningless and empty phrases.”

Robert Ingersoll portraits. Library of Congress.

Later, on January 17, 1900, Debs wrote to Ingersoll’s publisher C.P. Farrell that “I have never loved another mortal as I have loved Robert Ingersoll, and I never shall another.” While this language may seem a bit saccharine for us today, Debs meant every word of it. From his initial meetings with Ingersoll as a young man in Terre Haute, Indiana to the Great Agnostic’s defense of him during the Pullman railroad workers strike of 1894, Eugene Debs always felt a deep kinship with the heretical orator. While they took different spiritual tracks—with Ingersoll a dedicated agnostic and Debs a social-gospel Christian—both saw the importance of caring for others in this life, despite what might come after, and believed in the power of human reason as a vehicle for transcending outmoded superstitions. Debs learned the power of effective oratory from Ingersoll, routinely citing him as one of his biggest rhetorical influences. Ingersoll also had views on labor and capital that went far beyond the traditional liberalism of his day, something that likely played a role in the radicalization of Debs. As such, their unique friendship left a lasting imprint on American life during the turn of the twentieth century.

They first met in the spring of 1878, after Debs invited Ingersoll to give a lecture to the Occidental Literary Club in Terre Haute, an organization that the former helped organize. The Terre Haute Weekly Gazette reported on May 2, 1878 that Ingersoll’s oration the previous evening was on the “religion of the past, present, and future” and noted that “Mr. Ingersoll was introduced by Mr. E. V. Debs, in well chosen and well delivered words.” Years later, in his “Recollections on Ingersoll” (1917), Debs reflected on his first encounter with the legendary orator. In fact, the lecture that Ingersoll gave that evening, according to Debs, was one of his most important, “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child.” In it, Ingersoll excoriates those who held humanity in the bondage of superstition and called for freedom of intellectual development. As he declared, “This is my doctrine: Give every other human being every right you claim for yourself. Keep your mind open to the influences of nature. Receive new thoughts with hospitality. Let us advance.” Debs was amazed by this speech. Writing decades later, “Never until that night had I heard real oratory; never before had I listened enthralled to such a flow of genuine eloquence.” Ingersoll’s words, which “pleaded for every right and protested against every wrong,” galvanized the budding orator and political activist.

Robert Ingersoll addressing an audience. Peoria Magazine.

Also in 1878, Ingersoll used his considerable speaking talents towards another issue of grave importance: the condition of labor. While it would be too much to say that Ingersoll was a socialist like Debs, he was nevertheless a socially-conscious liberal Republican who understood the inequities between workers and owners in a capitalist society. In a speech entitled “Hard Times and the Way Out,” delivered in Boston, Massachusetts on October 20, 1878, Ingersoll laid out his views on the subject. While he reiterated his belief that “there is no conflict, and can be no conflict, in the United States between capital and labor,” he nevertheless chastised the capitalists who would impugn the dignity and quality of life of their laborers. “The man who wants others to work to such an extent that their lives are burdens, is utterly heartless,” he bellowed to the crowd in Boston. He also called for the use of improved technology to lower the overall workday. Additionally, in a passage that could’ve been composed by Eugene V. Debs decades later, Ingersoll declared:

I sympathize with every honest effort made by the children of labor to improve their condition. That is a poorly governed country in which those who do the most have the least. There is something wrong when men are obliged to beg for leave to toil. We are not yet a civilized people; when we are, pauperism and crime will vanish from our land.

This speech left a lasting impression on Debs, so much so that he quoted it at length in an 1886 article in the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine calling for the eight-hour workday. It is safe to say that Ingersoll’s own progressive views on labor influenced Debs’s own labor advocacy, especially during his time leading the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and co-founding the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W).

Eugene V. Debs, 1897. Indiana Memory.

Years later, in 1894, Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union (ARU) led a massive labor strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company in the outskirts of Chicago. Approximately 2,000 employees walked off the job in May, demanding an end to the 33 1/3% pay cut they took the year prior. When the strikes escalated into violence, largely due to the aggressive tactics of the Chicago police, the United States Court in Chicago filed an injunction against Debs and the ARU. The injunction claimed that Debs, as head of the ARU, violated federal law by “block[ing] the progress of the United States mails,” the Indianapolis Journal reported. Debs was later arrested for his actions, using legendary civil rights attorney Clarence Darrow for his defense. Some speculated at the time that Robert Ingersoll, himself a lawyer, would defend Debs in court, but that never came to pass. Instead, Ingersoll defended Debs in the court of public opinion, when the press reported his previous treatment for alcoholism in an effort to discredit his cause.

Workers leaving the Pullman Palace Car Works, 1893. Wikimedia Commons.

An article in the July 9, 1894 issue of the Jersey City News reported that Dr. Thomas S. Robertson treated Debs in 1892 for “neurasthenia” and “dipsomania,” terms used in the era to describe anxiety due to spinal cord injury and alcoholism, respectively. To help his friend, Ingersoll had written a letter of introduction for Debs to Dr. Robertson, as he had used the physician’s services before. The article quotes Dr. Robertson at length, who claimed that Debs suffered from exhaustion, which had been exacerbated by drinking, but he had improved in the two years since. When asked if Debs was of sound mind, Dr. Robertson said, “in ordinary times, yes, but he is likely to be carried away by excitement and enthusiasm.” In essence, Debs suffered from what today we might call stress-induced anxiety, which became more pronounced by substance abuse. However, it is important to note that charges of alcoholism were common in this era, and Debs might have exhibited symptoms of it without ever being intoxicated.

Sensing the intention of the press with this story, Ingersoll released a statement to the Philadelphia Observer, later reprinted in the Unionville, Nevada Silver State on August 27, 1894. In it, he stood up for his friend and the causes he fought for. “I have known Mr. Debs for about twelve years,” Ingersoll said, and “I believe, [he] is a perfectly sincere man—very enthusiastic in the cause of labor—and his sympathies are all with the workingman.” When asked about Debs’s drinking, Ingersoll pushed back on the claims, saying “I never met him when he appeared to be under the influence of stimulants. He was always in good health and in full possession of his faculties.” He also commented on the attempts at scandal in the newspapers, adding that his “testimony is important in view of gossip and denunciation that everywhere attend the public mention of the strike leader.” In one of Debs’ darkest hours, when his character and cause came under fire, Ingersoll publicly defended his friend and challenged the claims made against him. Such was the nature of their bond.

Harper’s Weekly, July 14, 1894. Library of Congress.

While Robert Ingersoll certainly influenced Debs on the importance of oratory and the cause of labor, he also left a profound intellectual influence on the future socialist. Early in his life, Debs developed an iconoclastic view of religion, which primed him for a rewarding relationship with Ingersoll. In conversations with Larry Karsner, published in book form in 1922, Debs reflected on the event that made him weary of organized religion. At the age of 15, Debs attended a sermon at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Terre Haute. The priest’s vivid descriptions of hell, with a “thousand demons and devils with horns and bristling tails, clutching pitchforks, steeped in brimstone,” completely soured him on institutionalized Christianity. “I left that church with rich and royal hatred of the priest as a person, and a loathing for the church as an institution,” Debs said, “and I vowed that I would never go inside a church again.” Furthermore, when asked by Karsner if he was a disbeliever at that time, Debs replied, “Oh yes, a strong one.”

He furthered his views on hell in a February 19, 1880 article in the Terre Haute Weekly Gazette. “I do not believe in hell as a place of torment or punishment after death,” he wrote, “. . . the hell of popular conception exists solely in the imagination.” He further argues that while the idea of hell may have served a beneficial function in the past, “as soon, however, as people become good enough to be just and honorable for the simple satisfaction it affords them, and avoid evil for the same reason, then there is no further necessity of hell.” With these words, Debs actually echoed much of what Ingersoll said on the subject in an 1878 lecture. “The idea of a hell,” Ingersoll noted, “was born of revenge and brutality on the one side, and cowardice on the other. In my judgment the American people are too brave, too charitable, too generous, too magnanimous, to believe in the infamous dogma of an eternal hell.”

Robert Ingersoll pamphlet on Hell, 1882. Google Books.

While the doctrine of hell and the strictures of the church left Debs cold, he nevertheless adopted a liberal, nondenominational form of Christianity later in his life, one molded by his exposure to Ingersoll and freethought. In a 1917 article entitled “Jesus the Supreme Leader,” published in the Call Magazine and later reprinted in pamphlet form, Debs shared his thoughts on the prophet from Nazareth. Debs saw Christ not as a distant, ethereal presence, but rather as a revolutionary figure whose own humanity made him divine. “Jesus was not divine because he was less human than his fellow-men,” he wrote, “but for the opposite reason, that he was supremely human, and it is this of which his divinity consists, the fullness and perfection of him as an intellectual, moral and spiritual human being.” He placed Jesus in the same pantheon of transformative figures as abolitionist John Brown, President Abraham Lincoln, and philosopher Karl Marx.

For Debs, Christ’s appeal to “love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” was the same in spirit as Marx’s famous dictum in the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of all countries unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.” Both statements are about solidarity—of people coming together, helping one another, and fighting for a better world. In this sense, Debs interpreted Christ like many humanists and non-sectarian Christians do today—as a deeply human figure that preached love, peace, and harmony with others.

Eugene V. Debs and Jesus of Nazareth pamphlet. Internet Archive.

While Debs and Ingersoll did not share the exact same views on Christianity, they did share a commitment to secularism, tolerance, freethought, and social justice. Debs would parlay his knowledge from Ingersoll and others into a successful political career, running five times on the socialist party ticket and earning nearly a million votes in 1920 while imprisoned for speaking out against America’s involvement in WWI. As Ingersoll was the leader of the “Golden Age of Freethought,” Debs was the leader of the “Golden Age of American Socialism,” with thousands attending his speeches and joining socialist organizations. Despite their friendship being tragically cut short by Robert Ingersoll’s death in 1899, Debs honored the legacy of the Great Agnostic for the rest of his life. Writing in his “Recollections of Ingersoll” in 1917, Debs said:

He was absolutely true to the highest principles of his exalted character and to the loftiest aspirations of his own unfettered soul. He bore the crudest misrepresentation, the foulest abuse, the vilest calumny, and the most heartless persecution without resentment or complaint. He measured up to his true stature in every hour of trial, he served with fidelity and without compromise to the last hour of his noble life, he paid in full the price of his unswerving integrity to his own soul, and each passing century to come will add fresh luster to his immortal fame.

In studying their lives and their friendship, one might say these words for Robert Green Ingersoll could equally apply to Eugene Victor Debs.

Eugene V. Debs standing by pillar. Indiana Memory.