Foster the People: How One Entrepreneur Cultivated a More Equitable Indianapolis

Andrew Foster, Crispus Attucks High School, January 1, 1938, Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, accessed digitalindy.org.

“Someone once suggested that the black man pull himself up by his bootstraps.”

“The black man agreed that it was a good idea, but he wasn’t exactly sure of how to go about it. First of all, he had no boots, and secondly, he considered himself lucky to be wearing shoes.”

Andrew “Bo” Foster perhaps related to the figurative Black man described by Skip Hess in his 1968 Indianapolis News article.[1] Foster’s adolescence was marked by hardship and instability. Despite this, he became a prominent entrepreneur and civic leader in Indianapolis. Not only did he manage to procure “boots,” but went on to ensure that others in the community had a pair. In doing so, he created opportunities for socioeconomic advancement.

According to his grandson, Charles Foster Jolivette, Foster was born along an alley near Riley Towers in 1919.[2] His father, Edward, died when Foster was a young child. For reasons that are unclear, he was not raised primarily by his mother, Eva. When not staying with father figure William W. Hyde, a local Black attorney, he spent his childhood in the Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children, which had a history of corporal punishment and unsanitary conditions.[3] Nevertheless, Foster kept up with his education, graduating from Crispus Attucks High School in 1938.[4]

Foster during World War II, courtesy of the Foster family.

The Indianapolis News reported that after graduation he “hauled scrap iron on a tonnage basis.”[5] Shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Foster was sent to Camp Wolters, an infantry replacement training center in Texas.[6] By 1943, he had graduated as a second lieutenant from officer candidate school at Camp Hood and went on to serve on a tank destroyer unit.

After Foster’s service, he established a lucrative Indianapolis trucking company, enabling him to open and manage several businesses that served Black patrons in the segregated city.[7] His work ethic was second to none, as he worked most holidays, and reportedly said “You must be willing to work 26 hours a day if you want to be in business.”[8] Reflecting on his prolific career in 1983, Foster told the Indianapolis Recorder that he had no formal training, “just high school, the Army and common sense. I came out of the Army and started hauling trash. I saw a need for a black hotel, then added a motel three years later in order to survive.”[9]

Postcard, Evan Finch Collection, accessed Indiana Album.

By 1949, he opened Foster Hotel and the Guest House at North Illinois Street.[10] Both were listed in The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, which published the names of safe, welcoming businesses and accommodations across the country.[11] At a time when Black Americans were turned away from hotels, Foster’s were one of the only in Indianapolis to serve them. In addition to Foster Hotel and Guest House, he opened the Manor House, Motor Lodge, Carrollton Hotel, and private rooming houses.[12] These businesses accommodated tourists, “permanent guests,” and famed customers, such as Muhammad Ali, LaWanda Page, Lionel Hampton, Nat King Cole, and Redd Foxx.[13] Unless these celebrities had friends or family in the city, they all stayed at a Foster establishment.

Patrons praised the facilities for their cleanliness, modern features, and hospitable staff. Foster opted against “frills” because “Negroes travel on a pretty tight budget” and he chose not to build a pool because of the liability insurance fees.[14] The Recorder attributed his “steady rise in the scale of fortune” to his “integrity, foresight, business acumen and high sense of fair play in his dealing with others.”[15] His bachelor pad reflected this burgeoning fortune. According to a 1954 Jet magazine profile, it was outfitted with “walls of black glass, a full-mirrored ceiling, monogrammed glass-enclosed tub and shower, and double lavatories in pink. The floor is pink and black marble and Foster had a lifelike nude painted on one wall.”[16]

Women dancing at Pearl’s Lounge, courtesy of the Foster family.

In addition to financial success, Foster founded his businesses to meet the need for a communal space in which to socialize, politically organize, and host civic and philanthropic events. According to the Recorder, Foster “saw blacks holding meetings at white-owned establishments ‘where they couldn’t always speak their peace’” and sought to provide a venue where they could.[17] Pearl’s Lounge, opened by 1970, did just that. Named for his wife, whom he married in 1962, the cocktail lounge at 118 West McLean Place (adjoining Foster Hotel). Foster later told the Recorder, “‘Many a black group has gotten its start here.”[18]

The Recorder considered the new addition “just about the most beautiful eating and drinking emporium in the Hoosier capital,” praising its “dim lighted lovers’ rooms of oriental design” and “beautiful mahogany bar with electronic stereo component for continuous music.” In a word, Pearl’s was “fantabulous.”[19]

Voting drive outside of Pearl’s, courtesy of the Foster family.

Pearl’s banquet hall and ballroom facilitated numerous events. These included a fashion show, voter registration program, and IU alumni meeting regarding how to best serve Black students. Pearl’s also hosted numerous NAACP events, including a businessmen’s luncheon, at which executive director Roy Wilkins spoke in favor of busing as a means to educational equality.[20] Pearl’s also served as a venue for furthering race relations. For example, the Recorder reported in 1975, “In their first major attempt to acquaint the owners, coaches and players with the black community, the Indiana Pacers will host a reception and a buffet dinner” at the lounge.[21]

Robert Briggs (far left), Huerta Tribble (fourth from left), Richard Lugar (fifth from the left), Andrew Foster (sixth from the left, Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society, accessed https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p0303/id/409/rec/3.

Pearl’s lounge hosted numerous political campaign events and debates—including those of Mayor William Hudnut, Judge Rufus C. Kuykendall, Senator Julia Carson, and Senator Richard Lugar.[22] It accommodated events for groups across the political spectrum, including Indiana Black Republican Council meetings and a Socialist Workers Party rally.[23]


Indianapolis Star, February 17, 1970, 26, accessed Newspapers.com.

Foster not only uplifted the community through his businesses, but also as president of the Indianapolis chapter of the National Business League (NBL) in the 1960s and 70s. Through the NBL—described as the “chamber of commerce of Negro enterprise” and a “type of professional group therapy”—Foster mentored Black business owners.[24] He helped them obtain grants and matched minority-owned businesses with “established corporate buyers.” Under Foster’s leadership, the NBL worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Operation Breadbasket to provide entrepreneurs with seminars about topics like accounting trends and business law.

Of this work, Foster said “We’re living in a new day and working with a new Negro who is more professionally and economically mature . . .  Negro businessmen today realize that they can not stand a chance individually. They must unite and mobilize their resources for a stronger voice and larger economic base.”[25] He also worked to increase capital for minorities by co-founding the Midwest National Bank in 1972. The bank publicly objected to redlining practices, issued “inner-city” loans, and appointed women to several leadership positions.[26]


Despite cultivating a small empire and a reputation as a civic-minded leader, Foster’s proverbial boots were nearly confiscated. In 1974, he was arrested for allegedly operating an interstate heroin ring.[27] His arrest followed a “‘super secret'” investigation conducted by the FDA and Indianapolis Police Department narcotic squad, which purported that he violated the Indiana Controlled Substances Act. The following year, the Indianapolis Star reported that a Marion County grand jury exonerated Foster, claiming in an eight-page report that his arrest was “‘politically motivated.'”[28] The report concluded that he was arrested because two informants were promised leniency in other cases against them if they would implicate Foster. Jurors opined, “‘We believe Andrew Foster has personally suffered a great deal as a result of these indictments.'”

Foster elaborated on this suffering. He told the Indianapolis Star that his wife was afraid to stay at home, fearing that the allegations would induce individuals in the drug trade to “‘kidnap one of our children or break into our home to rob us.'”[29] Another ramification of the indictment was Foster’s resignation from the board of the Midwest National Bank. He told the Star, “‘I was a successful black businessman and the younger blacks could look up to me and see a model for success,'” but after the arrest and prosecutors’ statements “some of the younger blacks felt I was discredited.'”[30] In his pursuit of accountability, Foster filed suit against Marion County Prosecutor Noble Pearcy and Chief Trial Deputy Leroy New for defamation.[31] Over the course of years and various appeals, the state ruled against Foster, concluding that “‘the prosecutor and his assistant were immune from being sued for anything they said in their official capacity.'”[32] The U.S. Supreme Court sided with the state.

Broadcasters Hall of Famer Amos Brown (right) celebrating “Bo Foster’s Day” with Bo (seated) in 1982, courtesy of the Foster family.

The arrest ultimately failed to tarnish his reputation, which he went to various length to defend, including voluntarily taking a lie detector test.[33] He certainly felt a sense of gratification when hundreds gathered to celebrate “Bo Foster Day” on August 24, 1982.[34] At the event, the Marion County Sherriff’s Department presented him with a plaque, and Joe Slash, the city’s first Black deputy mayor, presented him with a letter from Mayor William Hudnut. Foster was also bestowed with the prestigious Sagamore of the Wabash, which Governor Robert Orr awarded in recognition of his civic contributions.[35] The Indianapolis Recorder profiled the event and predicted “In the years to come the children and grandchildren of Mr. and Mrs. Foster will remember him as a man who contributed endlessly to the well being of the Hoosier state and of his admiring contemporaries . . . a man who lived the American Dream.”[36]

Foster’s relatives at the 2023 historical marker dedication, former site of Foster Motor Lodge and Pearl’s Lounge, photo taken by author.

Andrew “Bo” Foster passed away in 1987, having increased capital and equity for Indianapolis’s Black community.[37] In the 1990s, Foster Motor Lodge and adjoining Pearl’s Lounge were demolished.[38] Fittingly, the site was replaced with the Hamilton Center, a non-profit mental health organization. This would be the location of a historical marker installed in 2023 to commemorate Foster. His family shares his sense of stewardship. His grandson, Charles, applied for the marker and manages a robust Instagram account documenting Foster’s life to ensure his legacy endures.

The marker dedication was a joyous occasion, one that resembled a family reunion. Relatives flew from across the country to commemorate the patriarch and learn about the Indianapolis of his time. Also in attendance was Joe Slash, who was effusive in his praise of Foster and his enduring impact. He and family members passed around a microphone, sharing memories and anecdotes that affirmed the Recorder‘s prediction.

Notes:

[1] Skip Hess, “No ‘Bootstraps,’ So NBL Evolves,” Indianapolis News, June 27, 1968, 56, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] Andrew Foster Legacy Inc. Instagram account, managed by Charles Foster Jolivette. The account includes several primary sources, including newspaper clippings and images.

[3] Robert Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, August 26, 1969, 24, accessed Newspapers.com; “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 22, 1983, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[4] Photograph, Andrew Foster, January 1, 1938, Crispus Attucks High School Collection, accessed Indianapolis Public Library Digital Collections; Photograph, Crispus Attucks Alumni, December 9, 1983, accessed Indiana Historical Society Digital Image Collections.

[5] Robert Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, August 26, 1969, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.

[6] “Andrew Daniel Foster,” U.S. World War II Draft Cards, Young Men, 1940-1947, Registration Date: October 16, 1940, accessed Ancestry Library; “Service Roll: Inductions and Enlistments into U. S. Forces,” Indianapolis News, October 21, 1941, 8, accessed Newspapers.com; Indianapolis Star, March 2, 1943, 22, accessed Newspapers.com; Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, 24.

[7] The Saint, “The Avenoo,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 27, 1957, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, 24; “Andrew D. Foster, Owned Motor Lodge,” Indianapolis News, June 25, 1987, 39, accessed Newspapers.com; “The ‘New’ Pearl’s Management is Sponsoring Andrew ‘Bo’ Foster Memorial/Appreciation Day May 28,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 21, 1988, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[8] “Andrew Foster,” 1950 United States Federal Census, accessed Ancestry Library; George Vecsey, “For Many, It was Just Another Weekend,” New York Times, February 15, 1971, 13, accessed timesmachine.nytimes.com; Andrew Foster Legacy Inc. Instagram account.

[9] “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, 1.

[10] Indianapolis Recorder, February 5, 1949, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “’House of Strangers’ at Walker Sunday,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 8, 1949, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[11] “Indianapolis,” The Negro Travelers’ Green Book: The Guide to Travel and Vacations (1955 Edition): 20, accessed New York Public Library Digital Collections; “Indianapolis,” Travelers’ Greek Book (New York City: Victor H. Green & Co., 1966-1967): 24, accessed New York Public Library Digital Collections; Alexandria Burris, “How the ‘Great Book’ Helped Black Motorists Travel across Indiana,” IndyStar, February 16, 2022, accessed indystar.com. (Foster Hotel and Guest House were printed in issues from 1955 to 1977).

[12] “Foster Opens Hotel in Downtown Section,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 22, 1955, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; Indianapolis Recorder, August 13, 1955, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; The Saint, “The Avenoo,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 27, 1957, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; The Saint, “The Avenoo,” Indianapolis Recorder, June 29, 1963, 12, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Ad, Indianapolis Recorder, July 8, 1967, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[13] Ad, “Welcome Permanent Guest,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 6, 1954, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; The Saint, “The Avenoo,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 24, 1966, 10, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, 24; “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 22, 1983, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[14] Robert Corya, “Dust Nothing New to Andrew Foster,” Indianapolis News, August 26, 1969, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.

[15] “Foster Opens Hotel in Downtown Section,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 22, 1955, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] Jet (November 11, 19540): 46, submitted by marker applicant.

[17] “Marriage Licenses,” Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1962, 30, accessed Newspapers.com; Ad, “Pearl’s Cocktail Lounge,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 9, 1970, 11, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, 1; “The ‘New’ Pearl’s Management is Sponsoring Andrew ‘Bo’ Foster Memorial/Appreciation Day May 28,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 21, 1988, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[18] “Success Hasn’t Spoiled Bo,” Indianapolis Recorder, 1.

[19] Indianapolis Recorder, October 17, 1970, submitted by marker applicant.

[20] Renee Ferguson, “NAACP Leader Denounces Bills Prohibiting Busing,” Indianapolis News, February 23, 1972, 10, accessed Newspapers.com; “Women’s Luncheon Every Monday at Pearl’s Lounge,” Indianapolis Recorder, August 17, 1974, 5, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Indianapolis Recorder, October 9, 1976, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Let’s Go: Leisure Time Calendar,” Indianapolis Star, February 27, 1983, 83, accessed Newspapers.com; “Special Notices,” Indianapolis News, October 26, 1984, 33, accessed Newspapers.com.

[21] “Pacers Get-Acquainted Buffet at Pearl’s Nov. 3,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 25, 1975, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[22] “Black Republicans Enjoy Reception,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 2, 1971, 4, accessed Newspapers.com; “One Man in Life,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 6, 1973, 15, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Group Raises $67,075 for Lugar Campaign,” Indianapolis News, March 13, 1974, 20, accessed Newspapers.com; “Hudnut, GOP Mayoral Candidate, Plans Active Recruitment Program for Blacks,” Indianapolis Recorder, October 4, 1975, 1, 17, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “Black Republicans Cite Kuykendall, Ms. Holland,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 28, 1976, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “C. Delores Tucker Arranges Series of Weekend Talks,” Indianapolis Star, October 10, 1976, 86, accessed Newspapers.com; William J. Sedivy, “Socialist Workers Vice Presidential Candidate in City,” Indianapolis Star, September 15, 1984, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.

[23] “Black Republicans Enjoy Reception,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 2, 1971, 4, accessed Newspapers.com; Sedivy, “Socialist Workers Vice Presidential Candidate in City,” Indianapolis Star, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.

[24] Pat W. Stewart, “Operation Breadbasket Ministers Outline Broad Program for Action in the City,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 30, 1967, 1, 14, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; John H. Lyst, “Negro Firms to Get Push,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1968, 73, accessed Newspapers.com; L. J. Banks, “NBL Ready to Aid Negro Businessmen,” Indianapolis News, December 4, 1968, 78, accessed Newspapers.com; “Opportunity Fair to Aid Minorities,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1970, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

[25] Banks, “NBL Ready to Aid Negro Businessmen,” Indianapolis News, 78.

[26] Robert Corya, “80,000 Shares OK’d for Newest City Bank,” Indianapolis News, April 20, 1971, 5, accessed Newspapers.com; “New Midwest National Bank Gets Approval to Sell Common Stock,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 24, 1971, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “The Best Kept Secret in Town: Midwest National Bank,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 28, 1981, 22, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[27] “Health Board Member Among 7 Arrested on Drug Indictments,” Indianapolis Star, September 7, 1974, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

[28] Joseph Gelarden, “Jury Calls Indictment ‘Politics,'” Indianapolis Star, May 24, 1975, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Judge is Ordered to Consider Suit,” The Herald [Jasper, MI], June 21, 1978, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.

[32] “From Libel Suit: Court,” The Times [Munster, IN], April 4, 1979, 9, accessed Newspapers.com; “High Court Denies Hoosier’s Appeal,” Daily Reporter [Greenfield, IN], April 15, 1980, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[33] Andrew Foster Legacy Inc. Instagram account.

[34] “Bo Foster’s Day,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 4, 1982, 1, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[35] William “Skinny” Alexander, “Time for Talk,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 4, 1982, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[36] “Bo Foster’s Day,” Indianapolis Recorder, 1, 8.

[37] “Andrew Daniel Foster, Sr.,” Indiana State Board of Health Medical Certificate of Death, June 23, 1987, Indiana, U.S., Death Certificates, 1899-2011, accessed Ancestry Library; “Andrew D. Foster, Owned Motor Lodge,” Indianapolis News, June 25, 1987, 39, accessed Newspapers.

[38] Mary Francis, “McLean Place was Truly Foster’s Place, and Now It’s Official,” Indianapolis Star, November 16, 1994, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; Howard M. Smulevitz, “New Mental Health Center will Stand on Site of Historic Lounge and Lodge,” Indianapolis Star, September 7, 1996, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Where Are My People To Go?:” The West Baden “Race War”

Bellmen at the French Lick Hotel, accessed IndyStar.

Embroidered with resorts and mineral springs, French Lick Valley served as a veritable playground for Americans at the turn of the 20th century. Hotels in West Baden and French Lick offered all the creature comforts money could buy. One could luxuriate in mud baths, bird watch from marbled verandas, and be moved to tears at an opera house. When nestled in the hills of southwestern Indiana, daily responsibilities were but a glint in the rearview mirror. But for some, the Valley was a hotbed of violence and intimidation. In early June 1902, “Friends” penned a letter informing Black waiters, “There is 35 sticks of 45 per cent dynamite in hiding now to blow you up and there is also ammunition at the same place. Every house in West Baden, French Lick, Hillham and in the valley that has colored people in them will be blown up.”[1]

The letter reported that fifty-six locals had gathered in the countryside, plotting to drive out the region’s Black population. The conspirators were likely the same individuals who had recently installed a sign in West Baden bearing “the proverbial skull and cross bones” associated with sundown towns.[2] According to Lin Wagner, director emeritus of the French Lick West Baden Museum, “’The hotels were building and booming in the late 1800s, the south was undergoing reconstruction and a lot of blacks were moving north. West Baden Springs Hotel owner Lee W. Sinclair brought workers up from the south to work as nannies, bellmen, maids, porters and waiters; vital to the day to day operations and success of his West Baden resort.'”[3] As the Black community grew, the “laboring classes among the white people” conspired to dispel its workforce.

Pluto Spring interior, French Lick Springs, Indiana, circa 1910, courtesy Indiana Album, accessed Indiana Memory.

Between 1902 and 1908, newspapers reported on an emergent “race war” in the French Lick Valley. Just days after the letter was dispatched to Black waiters, as well as the property owners who rented to them, Secret Service officials descended on the area.[4] They warned the conspirators, who had appointed themselves the “Committee of Regulators,” that if they were caught with firearms they would be jailed for “inciting a riot.” And while “Uncle Sam” had taken “a Hand,” as the Huntington Weekly Herald phrased it, it is unclear if any of the “ringleaders” actually faced arrest or imprisonment.[5]

Punitive lip service was more likely, as Deputy U.S. Marshall John Ballard reportedly feared arrests would make the situation more volatile. In analyzing the “race war,” historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that “although there were no statutory laws forbidding black settlement,” it was “enforced not only by public opinion but also by sheriffs and other local officers, that decreed blacks could not settle in the town or stay overnight.” This aligns with the Bedford Weekly Mail‘s report that “several of the most objectionable” Black residents complied with a “quiet” order to leave the area during the conflict.[6]

Referencing the events in West Baden and similar occurrences in “several towns along the line of the Monon railroad,” Rev. Edward Gilliam wrote to the editor of the Indianapolis News, asking “Where are my people to go? What are we to do?”[7] He argued that these conflicts represented the larger struggle for Black people to support themselves in post-Reconstruction America. Rev. Gilliam wrote, “With factory doors, mercantile opportunities and other avenues of earning a livelihood closed against us,” it was particularly shameful to “be notified that we shall be permitted to choose our fields of labor only upon the approval and consent of a lot of men who defy the laws of the country.” He begged the question “is it not time for those who favor fair play to all men to speak out and emphatically say that Indiana shall not be disgraced  by such unlawful proceedings?” Black Americans were barred from employment and subsequently condemned for their destitution.

Group photo at West Baden Springs Hotel, 1906, Bretzman Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Society.

Just after midnight on June 5, 1908, sections of the Valley illuminated with gunfire. A few hours later, the sound of explosions plucked dozens of waiters from slumber at the Jersey European Hotel. “Frightened so badly that they could scarcely speak,” they rushed into the street as sticks of dynamite hammered the west side of the building.[8] Many boarders at the Jersey European—operated by Black proprietor Charles “Champ” Rice—were Black employees of the West Baden Springs Hotel.[9] While no one was physically harmed, the blast damaged the structure and succeeded in driving many residents from the area.

Journalists speculated about the perpetrators’ motive, but generally concurred that the violence was intended as retribution for the dismissal of white waitresses for the West Baden Springs Hotel, known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”[10] Reportedly, hotel manager Lee Sinclair had recently fired about forty waitresses and replaced them with Black men from Louisville.[11] According to Thornbrough, “Just as custom and prejudice, rather than law, assigned blacks to certain residential areas, so custom and prejudice decreed that only certain kinds of employment were open to ‘colored persons’—usually seasonal jobs that whites disdained.” U.S. Census reports at the time noted the majority of Black men worked as servants and porters.

Richmond Palladium (Daily), June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Sinclair justified his decision to replace the waitstaff as “trying to better moral conditions.” However, an anonymous writer informed the Indianapolis News that Sinclair was induced by the “jealousy of a woman for the waitresses. She has been trying to make this change for the last year.”[12] It is unclear if the woman was part of hotel staff or had a personal relationship with Sinclair. Regardless of its impetus, the resultant hostility caused many of the waiters and residents to flee the area.[13] On the precipice of a “race war,” Marshall John Ballard returned to West Baden, seeking to identify those who initiated the attacks. He was generally met with silence, especially from fearful Black residents who had chosen to remain in the Valley. A night watchman also had little to offer, as he reportedly fled in search of law enforcement when the shots began ringing.

Tensions were so heightened that the Brazil Daily Times predicted the state militia would be dispatched.[14] The Muncie Evening Press echoed, “Other attacks upon the place are feared unless police protection is furnished in this place. The community has always been opposed to negroes.”[15] Nevertheless, John Felker, owner of a building that housed the displaced individuals, refused to expel them, “even if the alternative is leveling the building to the ground with dynamite.”[16]

Perhaps the war would not be so easily won. The violence seemed to disperse as quickly as it emerged, or at least reports of it ceased to appear in newspapers. And while many Black residents fled, refugees in their own country, others stayed and nurtured the remaining community. In 1909, Rev. Chas. Hunter wrote to the Indianapolis Recorder about the burgeoning Black-owned businesses in the French Lick Valley.[17] He noted that members of the “superior class,” like hotel porter S.C. Pitman and news dealer H.L. Babbage, lived in “good houses, furnished up-to-date.” W.O. Martin owned a tailoring business and Mrs. W.L. Alexander and Mrs. W. M. Scott did “a fine business” as dress makers. James Gibbs, “well known in Indianapolis,” excelled as head waiter at French Lick Springs Hotel. Rev. Hunter concluded his letter to the editor by quipping “my old friend Wiggington plays the ‘devil’ as usual'” in his role as the French Lick Springs Hotel’s mascot, Pluto Water.

Yarmouth Wiggington dressed as the hotel’s Pluto Water mascot, ca. 1910, accessed Indiana Album.

Rev. Hunter’s editorial resonated with a Recorder subscriber, who added in the following issue that George Jones operated a dry cleaning business and tailoring establishment, both of which did “a very heavy summer business.”[18] George’s wife, Myldred, started a music class, hoping to teach “her former pupils and also people musically interested.”

Recreation and the humanities kept pace with business endeavors in the Valley’s Black community. Members of the Ladies Culture Club met that spring to discuss issues of peace. They listened as Mrs. W.O. Martin delivered a talk “On why should we hustle for a living.”[19] Young residents organized a literary society to explore matters of art and culture. In April 1909, the First Baptist Church was dedicated. Hugh Rice and J.P. Cook presented tithes on behalf of their fellow waiters at the West Baden and French Lick hotels.[20] After church, one could watch the West Baden Sprudels (managed by hotel proprietor Champ Rice) play the French Lick Plutos.

Postcard collected by Kevin Pope, showing the Sprudels ca. 1910-1913, courtesy Gary Ashwill, accessed Agate Type.

Rice’s Jersey European Hotel withstood the Summer of 1908. In ads printed in The New York Age in 1912, he promised those “in bad health” the benefits of the Jersey’s spring waters for just $1.00 per day.[21] Indeed, those who hailed from the Big Apple took him up on the offer, as well as those from cities like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Little Rock, Cleveland, and Chattanooga. Providing the Jersey European with competition, the Waddy Hotel opened in 1913. It served Black patrons like noted Indianapolis journalist Lillian Thomas Fox and, years later, famed boxer Joe Louis.

Black communities and institutions continued to grow in Indiana cities during the Progressive Era. In trying to make a livelihood, Black Americans had to contend with displacement, vandalism, violence, and eventually the organized efforts of the Klan. By 1923, fiery crosses stretched across Southern Indiana’s “little valley,” as 100 members were initiated into the hate group.[22] Despite the shadow cast by Jim Crow discrimination, Black Americans continued to answer the questions “Where are my people to go? What are we to do?” through community-building and fellowship.

 

Sources:

[1] “Race Troubles Imminent,” The Daily Mail (Bedford, IN), June 17, 1902, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] The Huntingburgh Independent (IN), June 21, 1902, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[3] Dawn Mitchell, “Revival at the Last African American Church in West Baden,” IndyStar, September 19, 2018, accessed IndyStar.com.

[4] “Government Takes a Hand,” Fort Wayne News, June 24, 1902, 6, accessed Newspapers.com; “Uncle Sam Now Takes a Hand,” Huntington Weekly Herald, June 27, 1902, 6, accessed Newspapers.com; Bedford Weekly Mail, June 27, 1902, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.

[5] “Uncle Sam Now Takes a Hand,” Huntington Weekly Herald, 6.

[6] Bedford Weekly Mail, June 27, 1902, 4; Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington, Indiana University Press: 2000), 3.

[7] “The Negro in Indiana,” Indianapolis News, June 24, 1902, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

[8] Quote from “Dynamite Used to Threaten Negroes,” Indianapolis News, June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Attempt to Blow up Negro Hotel,” Richmond Palladium, June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[9] “Use Dynamite on Hotel Owned by Colored Man,” Muncie Evening Press, June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[10] “Attempt to Blow up Negro Hotel,” Richmond Palladium, 1; “Dynamite Explosion Frightens Negroes,” The Republic (Columbus, IN), June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Dynamite Used to Threaten Negroes,” Indianapolis News, 1; “Race War at West Baden,” Greencastle Herald, June 5, 1908, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[11] Bedford Daily Mail, June 2, 1908, 1, accessed Newspapers.com; “Change to Male Waiters,” Indianapolis News, June 3, 1908, 10, accessed Newspapers.com; Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century, p. 6.

[12] “Dynamite Used to Threaten Negroes,” Indianapolis News, 1; Letter-to-the-Editor, X, “West Baden Waitresses,” Indianapolis News, June 12, 1908, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.

[13] “Use Dynamite on Hotel Owned by Colored Man,” Muncie Evening Press, June 5, 1908, 1; “All Quiet at West Baden,” Indianapolis News, June 6, 1908, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

[14] “Riot Quiets Down,” Brazil Daily Times, June 6, 1908, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[15] “Use Dynamite on Hotel Owned by Colored Man,” Muncie Evening Press, June 5, 1908, 1.

[16] “All Quiet at West Baden,” Indianapolis News, 15.

[17] Letter-to-the-Editor, Rev. Chas. Hunter, “French Lick,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 16, 1909, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[18] A Subscriber, “French Lick,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 23, 1909, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[19] “French Lick,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 10, 1909, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[20] “French Lick,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 24, 1909, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[21] “Jersey European Hotel, West Baden, Ind.,” New York Age, August 8, 1912, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; Ad, “Jersey European Hotel & Baths,” New York Age, October 3, 1912, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

[22] “French Lick Shows Interest,” Fiery Cross, April 6, 1923, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; “French Lick, Ind., Has Klan Ceremony,” Fiery Cross, July 6, 1923, 18, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Subversion and Solidarity: A Pre-Roe History of Abortion in the Midwest

Chichester’s English Pennyroyal Pills advertising pamphlet, ca. 1887. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection, accessed New-York Historical Society.

The 2022 overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health put the responsibility back on each individual state to determine abortion law for its citizens. In presenting a history of abortion in Indiana, I hope to share how both access and barriers to the termination of pregnancies have changed from the 19th century to the present. Due to the complexities of the abortion debate in Indiana, this article will only discuss the state of abortion prior to the 1970s.

While current laws seeking to ban abortion in Indiana and across the United States focus on the detection of a fetal heartbeat, legal cases between 1812 and 1926 were frequently concerned with “quickening,” which is defined as “the point in which the pregnant woman first feels the fetus move . . . usually between the sixteenth and eighteenth week of pregnancy.”[1] Prior to the point of quickening in a woman’s pregnancy, abortion was not considered a crime since the woman might not have been aware of the pregnancy, particularly if her menstrual cycle was irregular.[2] Instead, these women were often regarded as victims of their own actions in allowing themselves to become pregnant or as victims of an illegal abortion resulting in their death. It is this latter situation, unfortunately, that has allowed historians to learn about the history of abortion practices within the United States. The stories were often only publicly shared through inquest reports, which sought to investigate any deviations from acceptable medical practices that led to death.[3]

In the late 1800s, abortion became a statutory crime in Indiana, as in all states in America. This means that the criminality of the action was written into state laws rather than relying only on the precedent set by court decisions, also called “common law.”[4] The specific statute or law included the elements that an individual must satisfy to be found guilty of the crime, such as the action performed, their mental state when the act was performed, and proximate causation, which is defined as a link between the action and the effect of that action.[5] Despite statues and legal precedent asserting the criminal nature of abortions, women were frequently exempt from liability for their participation in terminating the pregnancy, with most charges instead filed against the individual who performed the abortion.[6]

Although women did not speak openly about abortions outside of their social circles, they did confide in their close friends and family members of their desire to be “fixed up” or to “bring their courses around.”[7] According to many historians’ investigations into the topic, women in the 18th and 19th centuries often turned to abortion as a common means of birth control, with some even asserting that it was safer than childbirth, which claimed the lives of numerous women annually. [8] Women often shared folk remedies or other methods for terminating the pregnancy in much the same way they would have discussed the treatments for other common illnesses.[9]

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The Post-Democrat (Muncie), March 20, 1936, accessed Ball State University Digital Media Repository.

At the turn of the 20th century, approaches to understanding and addressing the rate of abortions within the community involved comparing it with other birth control methods and encouraging the avoidance of pregnancy to prevent the need for an abortion. One such advocate was New York nurse Margaret Sanger,[10] who spearheaded the birth control movement, eventually leading to the approval of modern contraceptives. Sanger reportedly solicited the help of Roberta West Nicholson, a Hoosier legislator (1935-1936) and activist, who co-founded the Indiana Birth Control League in 1932, Indianapolis’s first Planned Parenthood center. A New York representative visited Nicholson in the city, describing the “very, very disappointing lack of progress they seemed to be making because there was apparently very little known about family planning and very little support in general terms for such a concept.” Nicholson was convinced that this should change and established a chapter in Indianapolis. Thus began her 18 years-long work as a family planning and social hygiene advocate.

Controversially, Sanger argued in favor of abortion for eugenics, though without the overtly racist undercurrent of most pro-eugenics writings. Instead, her arguments, which often referred to minority and immigrant women indirectly, called for increased access to contraception to assist in limiting the number of children born in their families.[11] At the core of Sanger’s arguments was the idea that “the ability to control family size was crucial to ending the cycle of women’s poverty.”[12] Indiana took Sanger’s beliefs a step further and passed a new law in 1907 that authorized the involuntary sterilization of “confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists,” following the argument that poverty, criminal behavior, and mental problems were hereditary.[13] According to the historical marker placed outside the Indiana State Library in 2007 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the law, approximately 2,500 people within state custody were sterilized under the mandatory sterilization approved by Governor J. Frank Hanly.[14]

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), accessed womenshistory.org.

In her work with minority, immigrant and working-class communities, Sanger often cared for women who were “relieved if there was a stillbirth, because they could not afford to raise any more children.”[15] As a result, it was these women that Sanger most commonly targeted with her advocacy for increased access to birth control in place of abortions; however, historians like Leslie Reagan and Joan Jacobs Brumberg have argued that abortions were sought by women in all sectors of society to prevent an unwanted birth or to protect a young woman’s reputation. Reagan found that mothers who helped their daughters seek illegal abortions often cited the double standard between males and females in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the mother “knew that bearing an illegitimate child would stigmatize her daughter for life while the boyfriend could experience sexual pleasures without hurting his honor.”[16]

Alternatively, unmarried young women who were kicked out of their homes upon disclosure of their pregnancies were encouraged to bear their children in maternity homes, which often refused to admit Black women.[17] Women who lived in these homes until the birth of the children were required to repent of their sin, perform domestic tasks, participate in religious services, and breastfeed the infants for several months even if they planned to give the children up for adoption.[18] Historians like Regina Kunzel have uncovered evidence that many young women in maternity homes tried and failed to abort their pregnancies as opposed to remaining in the maternity homes.[19]

In the 1930s, particularly during the Great Depression, married Black and white women within similar socioeconomic classes sought abortions at approximately the same rate, often citing their employment or role as the family breadwinner as a critical factor in wishing to avoid another child.[20] Furthermore, data has indicated no significant distinction between abortion rates when classified by religious background; however, the timing of the abortions often differed. Catholic and Jewish women gave birth younger and chose abortion as they aged, whereas Protestant women often sought abortions at younger ages, choosing to give birth later in life.[21]

Throughout the 1920s and 1940s, women from Indiana and other midwestern states often visited downtown Chicago to obtain an abortion at the medical practice of Dr. Josephine Gabler, who had established herself as an expert in the field willing to accept referrals from other medical professionals, despite the practice being illegal in Illinois as well.[22] To protect her identity, that of her staff, and the women visiting the practice, Dr. Gabler and her staff instructed women not to call anyone else if they had issues following their procedure, with the clinic staffing a 24-hour phone line available to assist patients. When women arrived at the clinic, the receptionist, Ada Martin, would lead them back to the room and cover their eyes with a towel so they could not identify the physician performing the procedure prior to putting them to sleep. She would then provide them with instructions for aftercare. Dr. Gabler and her staff paid physicians a percentage of the procedure fees for referring patients to the clinics. The clinic also paid monthly bribes to police officers, which allowed them to continue providing abortions openly without criminal prosecution.[23]

Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1941, 23, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers

One police officer who received bribes from Gabler’s clinic was Indianapolis Detective Daniel Moriarity. In 1941, the clinic’s former receptionist Ada Martin, who had purchased the clinic from Dr. Gabler, was the victim of an attempted murder. Tragically, Moriarity murdered Dr. Gabler’s daughter, mistaking her for her mother. He was attempting to hide the bribes he had received from Gabler and Martin. His crimes exposed the clinic’s practices for the first time.[24] Despite raids on the office in August 1940 and February 1941, convictions against Martin and her receptionist, Josephine Kuder, were overturned because the evidence used to build the case had been drawn from illegally-seized patient medical records.[25] During the trial, numerous women were forced to take the witness stand, sharing their experiences and subjecting themselves to the scrutiny and stigma of the courts.[26] One woman’s medical record from the clinic was even published in the Chicago Daily Tribune as a “sample,” and other women had their names and photos printed, further exposing them to unwanted attention and questioning outside of the courts.[27]

From the late 1930s into the 1970s, poor white women and Black women in northern Indiana and Detroit began to visit Dr. Edgar Bass Keemer Jr., a Black physician practicing in Detroit. He was urged by his wife, another physician who had obtained an abortion herself while completing her medical training, to perform abortions.[28]  Dr. Keemer initially refused to perform an abortion for an unmarried woman, who later died by suicide, leading to his commitment to helping other women to prevent a similar tragedy. Many poor white women regarded Dr. Keemer as a preferable option despite his race and gender because he provided follow-up care and, in the case of the procedure failing, arranged for the woman to have care at a hospital, which he fully paid in addition to any lost wages from missing work.[29]

For women able to make the journey to either Chicago to see Dr. Gabler or Detroit to visit Dr. Keemer, there was often concern about the amount of time a woman would be away from home, leading to the risk of others finding out about her abortion and stigmatizing her for her choices.[30] Abortions at Dr. Gabler’s clinic ranged in price from $35 to $300, with most women paying $50.[31] The cost was higher for abortions performed later in the pregnancy due to the added complexity. This encouraged women to seek treatment as early in the pregnancy as possible to limit costs.[32] Dr. Keemer’s patients were charged $15 in the late 1930s, with fees increasing on a sliding scale to $125 by the 1960s. If the procedure failed, Keemer returned the fee paid and also covered all patient fees associated with the woman receiving a D&C at a local hospital.[33]

(L to R): Cincinnati Enquirer, November 25, 1879, 4; November 26, 1879, 4; November 27, 1879, 4, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Access to abortions was particularly difficult for women living south of Indianapolis without the opportunity to seek treatment from the Gabler-Martin or Keemer clinics. In this area, some women resorted to procedures performed secretly by other professionals. One such case that gained national attention was that of Eliza Francis Levesay from Decatur County, which is located southeast of Indianapolis.[34] Levesay had had an affair with a young man named William Myers, and she became pregnant. Because Levesay was from a poor family and Myers was from a wealthy family, they believed it was in the best interest of both of their reputations that she seek an abortion.[35] Her abortion was performed by Dr. C. C. Burns, a local dentist. When Levesay became ill and sought medical treatment, her physician reported the case to the state authorities. While an investigation was performed, the jury could not reach a unanimous decision against any of the parties, and the case was dismissed.[36]

Profiting from abortion restrictions and lack of access to safe clinics, entrepreneurs marketed various pills and remedies that women had shared with each other for free. Women either mixed their own concoctions or purchased various remedies through the mail, with them marketed under various different names to avoid seizure under the Comstock Act, which prohibited the sending of “obscene” or “unlawful” materials through the postal service.[37] Interestingly, such restrictions were often applied only to those packages crossing state lines, urging entrepreneurs to take up the cause within the state as well.[38] Such remedies were not regulated by the FDA; therefore, their safety and efficacy were not established.[39] It is unknown whether such treatments actually worked or how many people died or became ill from using these them. In fact, some state laws, such as those published in 1827 in Illinois, classified the treatments as poisons.[40]

Dr. Jackson’s English Tablets pill packet, 1880-1900. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection, accessed New-York Historical Society.

In addition to physical harm resulting from such “treatments,” Dr. Keemer and others worried about women’s mental health should they be refused abortions. Despite state laws, demand for abortion increased in the decades following the Great Depression and World War II as more women entered college and the workplace.[41] Women needed to control when they would become pregnant because “once a woman was visibly pregnant, her school would expel her and her boss fire her . . . In short, pregnancy threatened to destroy a young woman’s life and ambitions.”[42] To protect their reputations and their futures, women from the 1930s to the 1960s sought illegal and unregulated abortions, which were often performed by individuals without medical training. Other women from the 1940 to the 1960s found sympathetic psychiatrists were able to secure abortions for “therapeutic reasons” to help prevent the “emotional distress and suicidal intentions” that women expressed in order to receive referrals for a medical hospital-performed abortion.[43]

Numerous state and national advocacy groups supported proposed changes to the laws in Indiana. In 1967, Robert Force, an Assistant Professor at Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis, and Irving Rosenbaum Jr., a physician, drafted the new Indiana Bill (H.B. 1621) and published a statement in which they argued that physicians needed to fully assess a woman’s prognosis if not able to obtain a medical abortion, much as they would when considering treatment for any other medical condition.[44] Additionally, they encouraged the incorporation of protections for women who were victims of crimes, such as rape or incest, and women with mental conditions who could not adequately appreciate their conditions or care for a child after its birth.[45] [46]

Proposed amendments to the Indiana abortion law, 1967. Robert Force, “Legal Problems of Abortion Law Reform,” accessed JSTOR.

Some of the groups lobbying for change and supporting the Indiana Bill represented bipartisan, secular, and religious organizations, including the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, Indiana State Medical Association, American Protestant Hospital Association, Indiana Council of Churches, National Council of Jewish Women, the Indianapolis Star, and other independent advocates.[47] In 1967, these advocacy groups called on legislators to consider legal precedents in which suicidal tendencies had been grounds for granting an abortion in drafting laws that would protect both the mental and physical health of women seeking an abortion.[48] The Indiana Bill passed the House, but the Senate made substantial changes, which essentially removed most of the proposed amendments, which would have made abortion legal without exception, and it was ultimately vetoed by the governor. While abortion was not legal at this point, Indiana had relaxed its anti-abortion laws to protect the mother’s life.[49]

Ruth Mahaney (right), n.d., in Madison Stacey, ‘It was hidden, you had to hunt,’ accessed WTHR.com.
Women’s Crisis Service ad, Spring 1975, in Julia Kilgore, “Ruth Mahaney & Nancy Brand: Insight into IU’S History of Women’s Reproductive Rights,” accessed IUB Archives.

In 1968, the women’s liberation movement reached Bloomington. During weekly meetings of the IU Women’s Caucus, various women shared their challenges with being able to access abortions, which remained illegal.[50] In response to these challenges, including her friend’s horrifying experience in which an abortionist refused to perform the procedure until she had sex with him, Indiana University graduate student Ruth Mahaney started an abortion counseling center, which came to be known as the Midwest Abortion Counseling Service. This center fielded calls from women in surrounding rural areas, students, and women in Bloomington, and offered support from local ministers and doctors who provided counseling services.[51]

The Midwest Abortion Counseling Service center helped connect women to sympathetic providers both in southern Indiana at IU and in the Chicago area through referrals to the Jane Collective for women to receive safe abortions from respectable providers.[52] In an interview as part of the Indiana University Bicentennial Oral History Project, Mahaney recalled driving young women to a municipal airport in Bloomington to be able to get to Chicago as soon as possible for their procedures.[53] After the legalization of abortion under Roe v. Wade in 1973, the Midwest Abortion Counseling Service transitioned to become the Women’s Crisis Service, which not only continued Mahaney’s work in supporting women seeking abortions but also provided support for women in other crises, such as rape or divorce. The center also to connected women to legal resources, daycares, and other available resources.[54]

Protestors gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court building to support their position in the ongoing abortion debate, accessed law.harvard.edu.

Force’s and Rosenbaum’s changes to the laws remain present in modern Indiana abortion laws nearly 60 years later. The 2022 Dobbs decision spurred further debates about women’s reproductive rights. The Indiana Legislative Oral History Interview project provides a window into the perspectives of former Indiana lawmakers regarding abortion access.

For a bibliography of sources used in this post, click here.

Notes:

[1] Samuel W. Buell, “Criminal Abortion Revisited,” New York University Law Review 66, (1991): 1780.

[2] Buell, 1782; Julie Conger, “Abortion: The Five-Year Revolution and its Impact,” Ecology Law Quarterly 3, no. 2 (1973): 312.

[3] Leslie J. Reagan, When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 22.; Buell, 1782.

[4] “Criminal Law,” Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, accessed May 7, 2023, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/criminal_law.

[5] “Criminal Law.”

[6] Buell, 1783.

[7] Reagan, 23.

[8] Tamara Dean, “Safer Than Childbirth: Abortion in the 19th Century Was Widely Accepted as a Means of Avoiding the Risks of Pregnancy,” The American Scholar, 97; Reagan, 22.

[9] Reagan, 26.

[10] Debra Michals, “Margaret Sanger (1879-1966),” National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/margaret-sanger

[11] Melissa Murray, “Abortion, Sterilization, and the Universe of Reproductive Rights,” William & Mary Law Review 63, no. 5 (2022): 1607.

[12] Debra Michals, “Margaret Sanger (1879-1966),” National Women’s History Museum, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/margaret-sanger

[13] “Project Overview,” Indiana Eugenics History & Legacy 1907-2007, accessed June 28, 2023, https://eugenics.iupui.edu/ ; “1907 Indiana Eugenics Law,” Indiana Historical Bureau, accessed June 28, 2023, https://www.in.gov/history/state-historical-markers/find-a-marker/1907-indiana-eugenics-law/.

[14] “1907 Indiana Eugenics Law,” Indiana Historical Bureau.

[15] Ingrid Mundt, “Margaret Sanger, Taking a Stand for Birth Control,” History Teacher 51, no. 1 (2017): 124.

[16] Regan, 28.

[17] Regan, 28.

[18] Reagan, 28-9.

[19] Regina Kunzel, Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993): 68-69, 81.

[20] Reagan, 135.

[21] Reagan, 137.

[22] Reagan, 149.

[23] Reagan, 155.

[24] Reagan, 155.

[25] Reagan, 311. Mrs. Martin estimated in court testimony that she worked as a receptionist for Dr. Gabler for approximately 12-15 years. She purchased the practice from Dr. Gabler in January 1940 and later hired physicians, including Dr. Henry James Millstone, to perform abortions in the clinic. While under indictment following the raids, Dr. Millstone died by suicide from drinking poison on April 17, 1941, with his wife dying by suicide from drinking ammonia shortly after on May 1.

[26] Reagan, 167-168.

[27] Reagan, 167.

[28] Reagan, 156.

[29] Reagan, 157-158.

[30] Regan, 151. Dr. Gabler used surgical techniques for the abortion, including general anesthesia and dilation and curettage (D&C) similar to the procedure following a miscarriage, with after-instructions provided similar to those for women who had just given birth, such as avoiding hot baths or avoiding intercourse while they healed.

In contrast to Dr. Gabler, Dr. Keemer used the Leunbach method, which was reported to be safer and less painful.[30] The process utilized a compounded paste and potassium soap solution inserted into the uterus via a syringe.  The vagina was then packed with a sterile gauze tampon, which would be removed 18 hours later at home. Women receiving an abortion via the Leunbach method, on average, spent only 10 minutes on the doctor’s table and reported minimal cramps, with aspirin prescribed to blunt the pain. Women could return home the same day, and a nurse would visit women at home the following day. Dr. Keemer also arranged a follow-up visit as well to ensure all of the contents had been properly expelled to prevent infection.

[31] Reagan, 154-155.

[32] Reagan, 155.

[33] Regan, 157-158.

[34] Madeleine Boesche, “19th Century Anti-Abortion Laws Enforcement in the Rural United States,” Vassar College Clark Fellowship, accessed May 7, 2023, https://www.vassar.edu/history/clark-fellowship/2012/anti-abortion-laws-enforcement-rural-united-states.

[35] Various sources utilize different spellings for Mr. Myers’ last name, with “Myers” utilized in newspapers covering the case and “Miers” as the spelling in the Boesche article detailing her research into the case.

[36] Boesche, https://www.vassar.edu/history/clark-fellowship/2012/anti-abortion-laws-enforcement-rural-united-states.

[37] Reagan, 13.

[38] Melody Rose, Abortion: A Documentary and Reference Guide (London: Greenwood Press, 2008): 31.

[39] Sarah Gordon, “Female Remedies: A Little Show Draws a Big Response,” New York Historical Society Museum & Library, June 10, 2019,  https://www.nyhistory.org/blogs/female-remedies-a-little-show-draws-a-big-response.

[40] Reagan, 10.

[41] Reagan, 194.

[42] Reagan, 194-5.

[43] Reagan, 202.

[44] Robert Force, “Legal Problems of Abortion Law Reform,” Administrative Law Review 19, no. 4 (1967): 370-372.

[45] Force, 372.

[46] Force, 372.

[47] Force, 365.

[48] Force, 365.

[49] Force, 365.

[50] Mary Ann Wynkoop, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002): 136.

[51] Julia Kilgore, “Ruth Mahaney & Nancy Brand: Insight into IU’s History of Women’s Reproductive Rights,” IUB Archives (blog), October 28, 2016, https://blogs.libraries.indiana.edu/iubarchives/2016/10/28/ruth-mahaney-nancy-brand-insight-into-ius-history-of-womens-reproductive-rights/.

[52] Madison Stacey, “’It was hidden, you had to hunt’ | How covert networks helped women access abortions before Roe v. Wade,” WTHR.com, last modified August 24, 2022, https://www.wthr.com/article/features/how-covert-networks-helped-women-access-abortions-before-roe-v-wade/531-8839cfb4-8eff-475f-bd6a-27643eea675b.

[53] Stacey.

[54] Kilgore.

“I’m Lonely! Please Write:” The Search for Solidarity and the Indiana Crossdresser Society (IXE)

Members of IXE, Courtesy of The New Works News (August 1989): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

A note on terminology: This post examines gender non-conforming or gender-questioning individuals. This includes those who identified as “cross-dressers [CDs],” male/female “impersonators,” “transvestites [TVs],” “transsexuals [TSs],” and, in modern terminology, “transgender.” When unsure about how individuals identified or what pronouns they preferred, they will be referred to as the name that appears in relevant publications.

For gender non-conforming Hoosiers, the pursuit of kinship and shared identity was often fruitless, if not outright dangerous. Before the connectivity of the internet and the advocacy of organizations like Indiana Youth Group and GenderNexus, many were bereft of social opportunities and emotional support. Beginning in 1987, the Indiana Crossdresser Society (IXE) served these Hoosiers by providing social forums and offering resources to individuals struggling with gender identity. The group also challenged instances of discrimination within and outside of the LGBTQ community.

The Works newsletter provides a bit of insight into early Hoosier female impersonators (at least in predominantly-white areas of Indianapolis), who performed at bars along Virginia Avenue from the early 1900s until World War II. Articles in 1982 remarked on the resurgence in popularity of impersonators, noting that the Alley Cat Lounge and Disco had begun hosting weekly shows. By the mid-1980s, however, The Works reported that the queer community had been gatekeeping gender non-conforming or gender-questioning individuals, approximately 20,000 of whom lived in Indianapolis. In a 1984 Works article, Jim Chaffin—a gay, cisgender man—chastised the “drag queen” mentality among Indiana’s LGBTQ community. He implied that because society considered gay individuals too effeminate “more ‘normal’ acting gays” needed to come out. Couching his criticism in masculine rhetoric, Chaffin alleged of those who kept their identities private: “you guys don’t have the b*lls to just go ahead and say what you are.”

In the following issue, Roy Pershing, also known as LaNora Takie, fired back at Chaffin’s narrow view of queerness and Chaffin’s insistence that masculine gay men live publicly. The author noted that while Chaffin likely had good intentions, it is the “individuals’ business and no one else’s,” that:

‘We are told that we are wrong everyday by straights and others; so is it necessary for this kind of behavior to go on within the community?’ Furthermore, ‘Could you please tell me what your idea of a normal acting gay person is? Is it an overweight, big mouth who runs a male wh*re house or is it someone who dresses in leather from head to toe? . . . To me, a normal acting gay person is a person who is himself and doesn’t run around forcing him or her lifestyle’ on others.’

The author also felt that Chaffin’s use of “drag queen” was derogatory, and that Pershing/Takie considered themself to be an “entertainer” and “impersonator.”

Facing alienation in the Indianapolis area, some Hoosiers like Betty and Lori attended meetings in Cincinnati hosted by Cross-Port, a group that provided support and social opportunities for gender non-conforming people. According to Cross-Port’s newsletter InnerView, Lori was one of the first Hoosiers to attend these meetings, where she “stood close to seven foot in those spike heels, and spent much time ducking the beams in Heather’s basement.” By early 1987, Betty and Lori helped form a similar group in Indianapolis, called Iota Chi Sigma, better known as the Indiana Crossdresser Society (IXE). About thirteen people attended this first meeting, presided over by Chairperson Laura, who “received special recognition for wearing a dress.” In a Q&A published in InnerView, IXE described itself as a “gender group interested in helping gender conflicted persons in the context of a social meeting.” This included a broad range of individuals, who could “be anybody from the transvestite who just wants to wear womans [sic] panties to the transexual person who believes themselves to be of the opposite sex.” Cross-Talk, the “gender community’s news and information monthly,” remarked that IXE members, feeling that the “gender community was always too hard on itself,” sought to “show a ‘happier’ side.”

Kyle Niederpruem, “Cross-dressers Seek Society’s Acceptance,” Indianapolis Star, 1989, H1, accessed Newspapers.com.

After their first gathering, IXE met the first Thursday of every month at the 21 Club, and within a year, attendance outgrew that of Cross-Port. InnerView noted that Cross-Port members sometimes traveled from Cincinnati to Indianapolis to attend IXE meetings and Christmas parties. While in town, visitors shopped at Glendale Mall and Stuart’s Shoes, and participated in fashion shows at the downtown Hyatt Regency. One self-conscious visitor reported that they were treated courteously at these shops.

By 1989, IXE had over 100 members residing in the tri-state area—which included Kentucky—helping forge a social network of support for the marginalized community. According to an Indianapolis Star piece entitled “Cross-dressers Seek Society’s Acceptance,” most members were heterosexual men experiencing “gender conflict,” and came from a variety of professions, including carpentry, business, and law enforcement. The paper noted that once a month, about thirty members socialized at a Westside apartment clubhouse, many bringing their spouses. At one meeting, cosmologists gave members make up tips. At another, police officers advised them on how to avoid a “scene” in public.

The Star piece profiled IXE member Sharon Allan, who spent about 30% of his life dressing as a woman, undergoing “painful electrolysis” to achieve smooth skin, perming his hair, and piercing his ears. Sharon married his high school sweetheart, Ann, who knew about his cross-dressing from the beginning of their relationship. On their first date, she removed the choker from her neck and placed it around his. Ultimately, the couple divorced because Ann felt that although Sharon “is a wonderful person . . . his cross-dressing left no room for me as a woman in the marriage.'” Despite this blow, Sharon chose to be transparent about his identity with his young son in order to facilitate trust, stating, “‘I came to decide there was nothing wrong with what I was doing. There was nothing wrong with feeling feminine, inside or out.'”

Adam, a middle-aged health care professional, did not share Sharon’s perspective. According to the Star article, he began wearing women’s clothes as a teenager, but reported, “It’s not something I want to do. I got tired of feeling bad about myself. There were times I couldn’t control it.” Despite undergoing aversion therapy, Adam continued to dress in feminine clothing. His wife divorced him when she found out, and Adam noted, “It felt degrading to her and me as well. The discovery certainly was unpleasant. And it didn’t feel good to me. It was shaming.” Rita could empathize with Adam’s despair, having experienced two painful divorces. The northern Indiana police officer considered ending his life. Unlike Adam, Rita ultimately concluded that, despite having to keep the crossdressing aspect of his life private, “I wouldn’t give it up. If there was a magic pill, I wouldn’t take it.” The Star profile noted that Rita had begun wearing feminine clothing in elementary school. While in the Marines, he was able to shave his arms and legs “without attracting undue attention from his fellow leathernecks.”

Despite their personal struggles with shame and acceptance, gay bars afforded gender non-conforming Hoosiers a degree of shelter from harassment and discrimination. The Star noted that the venues were particularly important to this minority group because they provided a “place where men won’t try to pick them up.” However, these spaces dwindled when the 21 Club and G.G.’s closed, which according to the New Works News, prompted an influx of gender non-conforming patrons to other local gay bars. As demographics changed, some bar owners implemented exclusionary policies, perhaps reflecting the assertion of transgender activist Evan Greer in her 2018 piece for The Washington Post, that historically “the predominantly white, cis, gay, male leadership saw trans people as a threat to their slowly but surely growing social and economic political power.” Perhaps these discriminatory measures were an attempt to safeguard this hard-fought increase in social “legitimacy.”

In 1989, the New Works News reported on the fallout of the bar closings. Articles reported instances in which bar owners refused to serve cross-dressing and transgender individuals like Roberta Alyson and Kerry Gean. Dressed as the “woman I am deep inside of my biological male self,” Gean and friends went to the Varsity Lounge in February 1989. After they were seated, their server singled out Gean with a request for identification. The server then informed her that she was breaking the law because the photo on her I.D. did not identically match her face. Humiliated and hurt, she returned home, changed into “male” clothes, and upon return was immediately served.

Roberta Alyson, courtesy of The New Works News (August 1989): 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

By June, things were no better for Roberta Alyson, described by The Works as a “pre-operative transsexual.” Alyson was denied entrance to the gay bar Our Place on the grounds of not meeting dress code and identification not matching Alyson’s face, despite having a doctor’s note confirming the necessity of dressing as a woman. Bar officials got an off-duty officer who worked security to check the 31-year-old’s ID. The officer crumpled up the doctor’s note and Alyson “regrettably began to panic,” walking away from the parking lot. The officer pursued and arrested Alyson, who later said one of the back-up officers was abusive and tried to lift Alyson’s skirt. Alyson was charged with and fined for fleeing an officer. Alyson addressed the implications of such discrimination in a letter to the editor of The New Works News, noting Our Place’s dress code “flies in the face of the Stonewall Riots and sends a terrifyingly repressive message to the ‘straight’ community.”

Alyson received assistance from IXE, of which she was a member. That year, IXE had “joined Justice, Inc., a statewide umbrella organization for support and activist groups working in and with the gay/lesbian community. Justice has a full time lobbyist at the state capital.” Forging such partnerships would prove critical in challenging discrimination. With Justice’s help, IXE initiated a series of meetings with bar owners, excise police, and allies like the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. These gatherings provided a forum to exchange perspectives and to gain a better understanding of excise laws.

The groups initially gathered in July for a meeting facilitated by police officer and community liaison Shirley Purvitis. Remarking on the conflict within the queer community, she noted in the Star profile that crossdressers are “‘professional people with good jobs. They’re taxpayers. A lot of them have families. It’s time we started learning about them.'” As expected, the meeting was tense. Some owners claimed that they implemented policies, like denying entrance to those whose photo I.D.s did not reflect their apparent gender, because they feared breaking excise laws and making their businesses vulnerable to legal issues. Responding to these concerns, Excise Chief Okey reassured that “the only requirement that excise has for a person being served alcohol is that they be 21 years of age or older. . . . crossdressing, either male or female, is not grounds for refusal of service.”

Courtesy of The New Works News (August 1989): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

Other bar owners stated blatantly that they refused to admit these patrons because they intended to “‘preserve the established atmosphere of their bars.’” A 501 Tavern spokesperson stated that these individuals “‘were not wanted there,’ and if they had been admitted violence might have resulted. The bar owners also voiced the fear that if they admitted people in drag their regular patrons might leave.” Our Place owner David Morse sympathized with the 501 Tavern representative. He complained at a later meeting that new patrons had filled his bar with “boisterous, outrageous drag queens in double Dolly Parton wigs and that their presence was very disruptive” to the bar’s masculine ethos.

Works writer E. Rumbarger came away from this first meeting with a greater understanding of those who had been excluded from gay bars. Prior to attending, he had mused, “Did they eat their young? . . . Did they have two heads?” However, he was “very surprised and pleased to find that they were simply a group of very relaxed and congenial people who were ‘doing their own thing. . . . These men quite simply looked and acted like women or to be more precise—ladies.” He added that he could not fathom how any establishment would “object to their presence” and urged that “Greater knowledge and understanding is needed (and quickly) in the gay community regarding the wide diversity of groups that make up the community.” Similarly, Stan Berg, Works publisher and owner of the Body Works bath house, addressed Dee Gordon’s editorial, which criticized the push for greater inclusion. Berg opined that Gordon had articulated the:

feelings and actions of another owner of a gay business who, at one time, and for many years, kept out drags. Now, whether old age, an increasing tolerance for gays of all persuasions, or just the realization that bigotry was wrong, actually changed this business owner’s mind, I can’t tell you. But, that business owner is me. The bottom line is that your arguments are bigoted bullsh*t. My own reasons for keeping drags out of THE WORKS for seven years were also bigoted bullsh*t.

Kyle Niederpruem, “Cross-dressers Seek Society’s Acceptance,” Indianapolis Star, 1989, H1, accessed Newspapers.com.

While the initial meeting spurred greater understanding among certain individuals, it failed to resolve turmoil within the broader community or result in specific policy reform. Upon IXE’s request, Justice, Inc. conducted a survey of those parties involved in the conflict and hosted a subsequent workshop in September. This workshop provided an opportunity to discuss injustices experienced by various groups within the community. Many voiced their anguish about discrimination within the lesbian community, against persons with AIDS, and along racial lines. At the center of the meeting, however, remained the exclusion of gender non-conforming individuals. IXE vice president Sharon Allan detailed the trials faced by crossdressers and drag queens, noting that they “are currently experiencing problems which the gay community faced years ago.”

However contentious, these meetings led to the reversal of policies at some bars and helped open the door to acceptance for other gender non-conforming individuals in Indianapolis. IXE members reported in September that they encountered less hostility at local establishments. Although bars like The Varsity maintained stringent policies, Tomorrow’s was much more welcoming. And while Jimmy’s did not reverse its I.D. policy, employees were more lenient about its enforcement. Roberta Alyson patronized the bar with a friend, who was also dressed in “female attire.” When the server approached, this friend instinctively searched their purse for identification, to which their server said “’Don’t worry about that, honey, we don’t do that kind of discriminating here.’” The Works noted that this action “on the part of Jimmy’s shows that people can change their mind” and should be commended for doing so.

Booth at Pride Week Picnic, New Works News, August 1989, 13, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

As the 1980s came to a close, the queer community seemed more tolerant—and perhaps welcoming—of gender non-conforming individuals. The Works announced in January 1990 that the owner of the 21 Club was opening 3535 West, which would “cater to all segments of the gay community.” The piece added, “Now that Indianapolis will finally have a gay meeting place where everyone is welcome, perhaps our gay visitors from out of town who have avoided coming here in recent months because of all the discriminatory nonsense taking place in some of the local bars, will once again return to Indy for a renewal of good times shared in the past.”

In 1990, at the first large outdoor Pride celebration, which took place on Monument Circle, people who staffed IXE’s booth reported that they were generally accepted, if not entirely understood. An unidentified member mused in the Works:

‘We all had lots of fun watching and talking. More often than not people would come up to our table and say hello and then look at what was on display and read the titles of the magazines and books, see the word ‘crossdressing’ and then look up at us and then down at the book and then back at us as a look of surprise and realization passed across their faces. . . . One girl was talking with Emily for five minutes before she looked down and saw the title ‘Understanding the Crossdresser’ and said with utter surprise, ‘Oh, I get it! You’re a guy! That’s cool. You know, I never understood why I can wear anything I want and guys can’t wear skirts.’

Similarly, public acceptance of crossdressers increased slightly following media profiles like that published by the Indianapolis Star about IXE. The feature’s author marveled that not only did she not receive vitriolic phone calls from readers after its publication, but got calls asking for more information about IXE. Indeed, Genny Beemyn contended in “Transgender History of the United States,” that in the early 1990s a “larger rights movement” emerged. Beemyn noted that this movement was “facilitated by the increasing use of the term ‘transgender’ to encompass all individuals whose gender identity or expression differs from the social norms of the gender assigned to them at birth.”

Dan Riley, courtesy of Tapestry: The Journal for All Persons Interested in Crossdressing and Transsexualism 58 (1991): 129, accessed Digital Transgender Archive.

Reflecting this movement, the Louisville Gender Society was formed in 1992, serving people living in southern Indiana and Illinois, as well as Kentucky. At the same time, IXE’s membership notably increased, as gender non-conforming Hoosiers searched for solidarity. In a 1991 Tapestry issue, Gloria C., a 33 year-old “transvestite” who lived in a small town, pleaded “I’m lonely! Please Write.” The auto racing and fishing fan hoped to meet “TV/TS” friends. IXE drew members like Michelle Michaels, a 40-year-old self-described transvestite who struggled with addiction resulting from the “guilt, shame, & confusion” of crossdressing. After getting sober, Michaels—who had three children and a supportive wife—joined IXE because of an ongoing struggle with “acceptance, self-esteem and balance.” Member Vickie Mansfield, “a young 47,” was involved in the Catholic Church, enjoyed “fine wines,” and was only “recently out of the closet.” Dan Riley, a 40-year-old “female-to-male” crossdresser, who enjoyed hiking and t’ai chi, joined the organization, in part, because Dan liked “helping others ‘coming out.’” Indianapolis funeral service supplier Yvonne Cook was not only a lifetime member IXE, but a leader and board member of the International Foundation for Gender Education.

IXE served such members until at least 2005. Although, no longer an organization as of 2023, IXE provided solidarity to so many Hoosiers in distress or suffering from loneliness. Additionally, its members’ activism and willingness to facilitate discussion helped change public perceptions about gender non-conforming individuals and contributed to greater inclusivity within the LGBTQ community. The struggle to obtain societal acceptance and secure civil rights in Indiana endures, as evidenced by recent debates about gender-affirming medical practices. Like the Indiana Crossdresser Society, groups like Trans Solutions Resources and Research, continue to fight, in the words of Sharon Allan, for “‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a fundamental right.'”

 

Sources:

Genny Beemyn, “Transgender History in the United States,” in ed. Laura Erickson-Schroth, Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, p. 28, accessed UMass Amherst.

Cross-Port InnerView (March 1987, June 1987, July 1987, August 1987, December 1987, July 1988, November 1988, January 1991, August 1991, September 1991, December 1992, June 1995, June 1996), Digital Transgender Archive.

Cross-Talk: The Transgendered Community’s Newsletter (September 1991, July 1992), Digital Transgender Archive.

Editorial, Jim Chaffin, “‘Hoosier Gay Boy, Come on Down!,'” The Works (October 1984): 7, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

“Indiana,” Tapestry: The Journal for All Persons Interested in Crossdressing and Transsexualism 78 (Winter 1996): D38, accessed Digital Transgender Archive.

“National Gender News,” Renaissance News 3, no. 1 (January 1989): 9, accessed Digital Transgender Archive.

Kyle Niederpruem, “Cross-dressers Seek Society’s Acceptance,” Indianapolis Star, November 26, 1989, 115, accessed Newspapers.com.

“North American Support Groups,” Lady Like (Winter 2005): 44, accessed Internet Archive.

Editorial, Roy Pershing/LaNora Takie, “Darts from a ‘Drag,'” The Works (November 1984): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives, IUPUI Library.

JoAnn Roberts, “The Iconoclast,” Renaissance News 6, no. 9 (September 1992): 7, accessed Digital Transgender Archive.

Tapestry: The Journal for All Persons Interested in Crossdressing and Transsexualism 58 (1991): 129-130, accessed Digital Transgender Archive.

Nicole Poletika, “’Walk a Mile in Their Pumps:’ Combating Discrimination within Indy’s Queer Community,” October 7, 2020, accessed Untold Indiana.

Draft, Nicole Poletika, “’Walk a Mile in their Pumps:’ Combating Discrimination within Indianapolis’s Queer Community,” 2022 Queer History Conference paper, accessible here.

When Harry Refused to Serve Harry: Belafonte’s Visit to Purdue

Clipping, Debris (Purdue University’s yearbook), 1957, p. 27, accessed Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.

In 1956, Black activist Harry Belafonte was one of the top performers in the United States and his album, Belafonte, reached #2 on the Billboard Chart. When he performed two shows of “Sing, Man, Sing” at the Purdue University Hall of Music on May 5, it was a major hit. Before the first performance,  Belafonte visited Purdue’s famous drinking establishment, Harry’s Chocolate Shop. However, proprietor Harry J. Marlack refused to serve him due to the color of his skin.

Born in Harlem to Jamaican parents, Belafonte experienced discrimination throughout his life. In 1944, while serving in the U.S. Navy, Belafonte was denied entry to New York’s famous Copa Cabana because he was Black. When Belafonte achieved stardom in the 1950s, the Copa Cabana offered him a lucrative contract to perform there. He infuriated the owner by spurning the offer, citing the discrimination he faced at their door years earlier in his decision.

In Spring 1956, Belafonte met Martin Luther King, Jr. for the first time in the basement of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Belafonte committed to “help [King] in any way I could. And for the next twelve years, that’s what I did.”[i] When he concluded the first show at Purdue, Belafonte kept his promise to King and addressed the audience about the discriminatory act and what he thought of it. His words angered Purdue officials and the campus buzzed. While Purdue students and staff talked about the incident at Harry’s Chocolate Shop and Belafonte’s speech for weeks afterward[ii], nothing was written about the incident. This prompted a Ph.D. student, David Caplan, to write a letter to the editor of The Exponent, Purdue’s student newspaper. Caplan wrote:

Many Purdue students and staff members have been talking about a recent incident that took place in ‘Harry’s Chocolate Shop’ when Harry Belafonte and his troupe were in town. Why has no mention been made of this in the Exponent? Certainly an incident of such scope deserves at least a news item, if not an editorial. Burying one’s head in the sand does not change the facts that have occurred. Why has this story not been reported?

The Exponent editor responded to Caplan by writing, “the Exponent has followed and will continue to follow the accepted journalistic practice of not publishing ‘cold’ news or facts that have been distorted by personal opinion or hearsay. The Exponent staff refuses to yield to ‘rabble-rousers’ or free-publicity seekers.”[iii]

Behind the scenes, Purdue University officials had zero tolerance for Belafonte’s civil rights message. In a 1977 interview with the Lafayette Journal & Courier, former director of Purdue Musical Organizations, Al Stewart, talked about many famous people he had met during his long career. Of Belafonte, Stewart opined:

He finished a 7 p.m. show with an angry jab at racial discrimination at a local drinking place. I warned him never to do that again or he’d never get another booking anywhere in the U.S. Second show, Dr. Hovde (Purdue President Frederick L. Hovde) and I sat in the front row and tape-recorded the whole thing as evidence if we needed it. It was a beautiful show.

Stewart’s comments demonstrated stunning hubris. Belafonte was on top of the entertainment world in 1956. He had the #2 album in the United States. In June, he released a second album, Calypso, that spent a record ninety-nine weeks on the Billboard Chart. He headlined Broadway shows and top-tier venues across the country. He played the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles and the Palmer House in Chicago. He broke Lena Horne’s attendance record at the Venetian Room in San Francisco, and broke the color barrier and Frank Sinatra’s attendance record at Waldorf’s Empire Room in New York City. Furthermore, it’s impossible to imagine Stewart belittling Sinatra or Elvis Presley—Belafonte’s peers at the time.

By the time Stewart made his remarks in 1977, the Civil Rights Act had become law thirteen years earlier. Belafonte had recorded a campaign ad for John Kennedy, mediated between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show ten times, hosted the Tonight Show for a full week, had four gold records, starred in movies, and was a world-renowned civil rights leader. For Stewart to think he could have curtailed this superstar’s career is laughable, had it not been so bigoted. In response to racism, university officials told a Black man “Shut up and sing.”

Belafonte (right) at the National Black Political Convention, cover of William Greaves’s Nationtime film.

Harry Belafonte would refuse to “shut up and sing.” Rather, upon his return visits to Indiana, he used his voice to advance racial justice. He donated significant funds to Gary candidate Richard Hatcher’s mayoral campaign and vocalized his support for the unlikely candidate in national media outlets. Belafonte’s efforts helped make Richard Hatcher one of the first Black mayors of a major American city. In 1972, Belafonte returned to Gary to perform at the unprecedented National Black Political Convention, taking the opportunity to implore the massive audience to engage in political reform.

In January 2017, Belafonte returned to Purdue University, serving as keynote speaker for the university’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s celebration, themed “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Where Do We Go From Here?” At age 89, he knew his life’s work was unfinished and he delivered a rousing speech on justice, civic engagement, and meaningful art. Audience member Sandra Sydnor told the Journal & Courier “’I was overwhelmed by his presence. . . . We were just staying rooted in spot, not wanting to leave after he left because of his persona, because of his spirit.’” Belafonte passed away April 25, 2023, but this spirit would endure, along with his legacy of racial justice and equal rights activism.

* This piece will be featured in the author’s upcoming book, Dispatches from a Northern Hoosier.

 

Notes:

[i] Harry Belafonte and Michael Shnayerson, My Song: A Memoir  (New York: Penguin Random House, 2011), 150.

[ii] Conversation between the author and All-American football player Bernie Flowers, 1995.

[iii] The Purdue Exponent, May 23, 1956.

[iv] Lafayette Journal & Courier, November 13, 1977.
Stewart’s judgment is questionable. Belafonte referred to Sing, Man, Sing as “my one indisputable career bomb.” My Song: A Memoir, 142.

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.

 

Stewarding Sacred History: Insights from the “Anti-Racism & Community-Based Memory” Workshop

Panel of individuals working on Indiana projects (L to R): Sylvester Edwards, Facing Injustice & Terre Haute NAACP; Leon Bates, PhD student & local historian; Torri Williams, Marion Community Remembrance Projects; Eunice Trotter, Indiana Black Landmarks Heritage Preservation Program; Sophie Kloppenburg, Mount Vernon 1878 Memorial Initiative.

Professor Rasul Mowatt contended that memory is recollection, reflection, retention, recall, and, perhaps most importantly, a process at this weekend’s Workshop on Antiracism & Community-Based Memory Work. We were honored to be invited to the workshop—sponsored by IU’s “Unmasked: The 1935 Anti-Lynching Exhibits and Community Remembrance”—and found it particularly helpful in thinking about how we present forthcoming markers about racial violence to the public, such as that commemorating the lynching of John Tucker in Indianapolis. It also gave us ideas in ongoing pursuit of markers for the 1930 Marion lynching of Tom Shipp and Abe Smith, as well as Flossie Bailey, who tried to stop their lynching. It is impossible to summarize the many insights we came away with, but we’ll highlight a few.

Across the panels, speakers touched on the emotional toll of doing this work. In fact, Sylvester Edwards, of Facing Injustice and Terre Haute’s NAACP branch, described the Present Traumatic Stress Disorder he and other Black Americans experience in reckoning with this history. Edwards, the great-nephew of prolific activist Fannie Lou Hamer, helped lead efforts to install a local marker commemorating the 1901 lynching of George Ward in Terre Haute. Accused of murdering a white woman, a mob pulled Ward from the local jail, lynched him, and burned his body along the Wabash River. Between 1,000 and 3,000 spectators witnessed the lynching, as they picnicked. Many took the remains of Ward’s body as a “souvenir.” The atrocity caused Terre Haute’s Black community to flee.

A lynch mob watches as the body of George Ward burns. Smoke can be seen in the center of the photo under the bridge, courtesy of the Vigo County Historical Museum, accessed WFYI.

The lynching was quickly buried in the city’s collective memory and was not brought to light until Ward’s great-grandson, Terry Ward, approached the Equal Justice Initiative about doing a soil collection at the lynching site in 2020. He also worked with Edwards and the local NAACP to commemorate the lynching with a local historical marker. The marker dedication ceremony, which drew about 350 people, served as a celebration of life for the man who never had a burial or funeral. Edwards stated that these memorialization efforts helped the Ward family shed the shame association with the lynching. Terry told WFYI that the marker served as:

‘a source of strength, I think, for those of us who look back on our history and realize that we are not what they accused our ancestors of being. That we have an opportunity based on what our ancestors experienced to try to raise ourselves up above that.’

Edwards ended his talk at the workshop on a hopeful note. He was pleasantly surprised to see a number of white students win EJI awards for submitting essays about the lynching.

The work of Marquette University history professor Dr. Robert Smith can be tied back to another lynching in Indiana, that of teenagers Tom Shipp and Abe Smith in 1930. Shipp, Smith, and James Cameron were held in the Marion jail for the murder of Claude Deeter and rape of Mary Ball. Before the young men could stand trial, a mob comprised of white residents tore the young men from their cells, brutally beat and mutilated them before hanging Shipp and Smith from a tree on the courthouse lawn. Cameron narrowly escaped the fate of his friends. Out of fear of escalating violence, about 200 Black residents fled Marion for Weaver, a historic Black community in Grant County. The mob intended to send a message to the Black community that they were at the mercy of white residents.

Robert Smith, with America’s Black Holocaust Museum, speaking about James Cameron, who survived the Marion lynching and went on to found the ABHM museum.

How did the victims’ friends and family process their trauma and sorrow? For James Cameron, survivor of the lynching, it meant confronting local racism through threat of lawsuits and, later, by educating the nation about racial injustice by founding America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in Milwaukee in 1988. The site closed in 2008 due, in part, to the recession and operated virtually until 2022. Working with James’s son, Virgil, and local volunteers, Dr. Smith helped open the museum’s new site, which serves as a community center. At Saturday’s workshop, Dr. Smith implored scholars and professors to place more value on the knowledge and expertise of those outside of academia. He stated that a university’s objective should be to inspire dignity, and that scholars must be patient with the process of memorialization, as individuals’ timelines do not always correspond with university deadlines.

Panelist Benjamin Saulsberry, Public Engagement & Museum Education Director at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center, helped with “Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley: Let the World See” exhibit at The Children’s Museum. His insights were especially relevant to our work, as he detailed how historical markers can return stories to the landscape when physical structures no longer remain. He discussed the sad reality of vandalism against markers that commemorate racial violence, something we are mindful about as we prepare to install the John Tucker lynching marker in the heart of Indianapolis. Saulsberry left us with this statement: racial brutality includes not just the act of violence itself, but the lack of accountability from institutions.

Slide about the Scottsboro Boys Museum, which reopened in 2022.

Thomas Reidy, of the Scottsboro Boys Museum, also highlighted institutional injustice. In 1931, nine Black teenagers in Scottsboro, Alabama were found guilty by an all-white jury of raping two white women—one of whom later admitted to fabricating the crime—while riding the Southern Railroad freight train in search of work. Despite no evidence, poor legal aid, and rushed trials, the Scottsboro boys were sentenced to death. This instance of legal injustice generated global outrage, and mass protests resulted in the US Supreme Court overturning the convictions. However, the boys had to endure a series of retrials and reconvictions. Most were convicted of rape and served prison sentences.

At Saturday’s workshop, Reidy spoke about the Scottsboro Boys Museum’s efforts to create social change through education. Sheila Washington founded the Scottsboro Boys Museum in Joyce Chapel in 2010. Through her and Reidy’s efforts, Gov. Robert Bentley signed the Scottsboro Boys Act into law in 2013. This law ensured that all nine boys—Haywood Patterson, Olen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Willie Roberson, Andy Wright, Ozzie Powell, Eugene Williams, Charley Weems, and Roy Wright—received pardons. Washington told the Montgomery Advertiser that Gov. Bentley’s “decision will give them a final peace in their graves, wherever they are.” Reidy spoke to us about the museum’s ongoing efforts to use history to make more informed citizens. He highlighted the importance of getting into classrooms or bringing them to your institution, especially in light of recent legislation regarding history curriculum.

Sophie Kloppenburg standing at the marker she got installed at the Posey County courthouse grounds, 2022, accessed https://mvwildcats.com/.

Although all of Saturday’s panelists were profoundly informative, we were especially inspired by intrepid Mount Vernon High School student Sophie Kloppenburg. After learning about the lynching of Daniel Harrison Sr., his sons John and Daniel Jr., Jim Good, William Chambers, Ed Warner, and Jeff Hopkins, she made it her mission to bring their story to the public. In 1878, white women accused the men of rape, and as the men awaited trial, a mob pulled some of them from jail, hanging them from a tree on the grounds of the Posey County courthouse. The remaining men were tracked down and murdered. Shocked that she had never heard this history before, Kloppenburg began the process of getting a local marker installed on the courthouse lawn.

She encountered resistance from some community members and the city council. However, the budding historian attended a council meeting and was able to convince its members to approve of the marker. She also worked with locals to install a bench near the marker, inscribed with the names of the victims. Kloppenburg’s memorialization efforts did not stop there. She was able to obtain a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to incorporate the 1878 lynching into local curriculum. In working on this project, Kloppenburg, who is biracial and had no relationship with her father, was able to get in touch with the local Black community and her identity as a Black person in ways she previously had not.

The workshop closed with a heart-wrenching performance of “Strange Fruit,” a poem based on Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of Shipp and Smith swinging from a tree in Marion. The performance of Mississippi activist and jazz singer Effie Burt encapsulated the workshop’s main theme: history is not just something to be learned, rather that it evokes emotion, impacts identity, and can change perspectives. We are so grateful to those who examine and commemorate this history for the sake of collective memory, at the expense of their own mental well-being. We left the workshop with the solemn understanding that we are stewards of history that is sacred. The ways in which we examine and share it has the potential to help communities find reconciliation. Based on the efforts of younger generations, there is reason to be hopeful that the past can spur meaningful change and perhaps even restorative justice.

A False Promise of Freedom: The Lynching of John Tucker

According to archivist Keenan Salla, John Tucker’s property was located near the intersection of St. Clair and Delaware Streets (Out Lot 37, Lot 3). This 1880 image from a plat map was sent to author courtesy of the Indiana State Archives.

* Sources included in the historical marker application, compiled by historian Leon Bates, were foundational to this blog post.

Long before the Great Migration, Black Americans sought to make a living and secure housing in Indianapolis. The life of John Tucker affords us the opportunity to study the experiences of free people of color living in the city, when it was simply an outpost of the Western frontier. Tucker’s life also represented the many obstacles they faced in the pursuit of unequivocal freedom. In researching a new historical marker about Tucker’s violent death, I sought to uncover as many details as I could about his life, work, family, and experiences as a human. Amongst scant documentation, I gleaned that he was a farmer, who raised two children with his wife in a house near the intersection of St. Clair and Delaware Streets. Prominent orator Rev. Henry Ward Beecher noted that Tucker was “very generally respected as a peaceable, industrious, worthy man.”[1] On Independence Day of 1845, his pursuit of a life of freedom was brutally ended by white violence. Tucker’s death forced his young children into a years-long legal battle over his property and undoubtedly perpetuated generational trauma. The lynching also made overt the indignities and threats Black settlers had quietly endured.

Tucker was born into enslavement in Kentucky around 1800. It is unclear how or when he was freed, but the Indiana State Sentinel reported in 1845 that he “many years ago honorably obtained freedom.”[2] By 1830, Tucker settled in Indianapolis, which resembled “‘an almost inaccessible village,'” lacking navigable waterways and roads. As Indianapolis’s Black population increased, so did discrimination against Black Americans.[3] The Indiana General Assembly passed laws requiring them to register with county authorities and pay a bond as guarantee of good behavior.[4] Black residents were also prohibited from voting, serving in the state militia, testifying in court cases against white persons, and their children were banned from attending public schools.

Sketch of homes, including Overall’s, is courtesy of Indianapolis Remembered: Christian Schrader’s Sketches of Early Indianapolis (published 1987), p. 112.

Despite living in a “free” state, Black settlers not only experienced systemic discrimination, but were marginalized by racial violence. City historian Ignatius Brown described Indianapolis in the 1830s:

The work on the National road . . . had attracted many men of bad character and habits to this point. These, banded together under a leader of great size and strength, were long known as ‘the chain gang,’ and kept the town in a half subjugated state. Assaults were often committed, citizens threatened and insulted, and petty outrages perpetrated.[5]

James Overall, a respected free person of color, land-owner, and trustee for the African Methodist Episcopal church, would become a target of this violence in 1836. David J. Leach, a white gang member, tried to break into Overall’s home, located on Washington Street, and threatened to kill his family.[6]

Overall shot Leach in self-defense. In this tense circumstance, prominent white allies of Overall came to his aid. Despite an 1831 Indiana law that barred black testimony against whites in court, Overall gained legal protection from further attack. In his official opinion, Judge William W. Wick affirmed Overall’s “natural” right to defend his family and property. Unfortunately, Judge Wick’s interpretation of the 1836 law did not affect any change in the actual law and African Americans in Indiana continued to be without legal recourse in cases where only black testimony was available against a white party.

Historical marker installed by IHB in 2016, accessed https://www.in.gov/history/state-historical-markers/find-a-marker/find-historical-markers-by-county/indiana-historical-markers-by-county/james-overall/.

Overall’s home would again be linked to racial violence when Tucker’s body was transported to it for examination by a coroner.[7] The sequence of events resulting in Tucker’s death were generally corroborated by the testimony of approximately forty white witnesses at trial.[8] On the afternoon of July 4, 1845, Tucker was walking along Washington Street when inebriated white laborer Nicholas Wood physically assaulted him. Bewildered, and with few options for recourse because of his race, Tucker sought the intervention of city officials.[9] While Tucker headed to the Magistrate’s Office, Wood again struck him with a club. Tucker retreated up Illinois Street as Wood followed, now joined by saloon keeper William Ballenger and Edward Davis. Rev. Beecher reported that Tucker “defended himself with desperate determination” against the stones and brickbats hurled at him by the three men.[10] The “murderous affray” took place about 100 yards from Rev. Beecher’s church, and “greatly disturbed” the Independence Day celebration taking place that afternoon.[11]

A crowd surrounded Tucker on Illinois Street. Some gatherers tried to separate Tucker from his assaulters, while others encouraged the violence, chanting “kill the n****r!” Rev. Beecher reported that “the fight was at first scattering, and the mayor attempted to quell the rioters, as did several citizens,” but most “surprised at the suddenness and rapidity of the thing, stood irresolute or timid, having no courageous man among them to save the victim.”[12] Within minutes, John Tucker succumbed to his injuries near a gutter on Illinois Street. Although not the result of a hanging, his death is considered a lynching, as defined by the Equal Justice Initiative: “Lynchings were violent and public events designed to terrorize all Black people in order to re-establish white supremacy and suppress Black civil rights.”

Immediately after the lynching, Wood was brought before Mayor Levy, and “being rather uproarious with liquor, and the excitement considerable, the Mayor very properly committed the accused” to jail until the following day. Davis sustained severe injuries from Tucker’s attempts to defend himself, and had to recuperate at home before a court appearance was possible.[13] By the time Wood informed Mayor Levy about Ballenger’s involvement and a warrant was written for his arrest, Ballenger “had already secreted himself.”

Rev. Beecher described the general sentiment felt by Indianapolis’s citizens in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. He wrote, “I never saw a community more mortified and indignant at an outrage than were the sober citizens of this. Some violent haters of the blacks, the refuse of the groceries [grocery gang to which Wood belonged], and a very few hair-brained young fellows indulged in inflammatory language.”[14] Similarly, the Indiana State Sentinel wrote a few days after the lynching, “It was a horrible spectacle; doubly horrible that it should have occurred on the 4th of July, a day which of all others should be consecrated to purposes far different from a display of angry and vindictive passion and brutality.”[15] Unwilling to intervene in Tucker’s lynching, many citizens donated money to hire attorneys O.H. Smith and James Morrison, who would aid the state in prosecuting Tucker’s assailants. Prominent abolitionist and businessman Calvin Fletcher spearheaded efforts to secure counsel, writing in his diary, “as a citizen I have done all I could to see that the state should have Justice.”[16]

The Indiana State Sentinel reported that “Much difficulty presented itself in obtaining a jury in consequence of the notoriety of the case.”[17] Despite this, Edward Davis’s trial began by mid-August and several witnesses provided detailed testimony, including Tucker’s employer, City Postmaster Samuel Henderson.[18] Expert witnesses like Dr. John Evans, who helped establish the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, explained the significance of Tucker’s injuries to jury members. The Sentinel noted on August 13, “The examination of the witnesses was very laborious and great vigilance and attention given to it. The Court House was crowded to overflowing during the tedious detail.”

General Index of Estates, Marion County, courtesy of FamilySearch, sent to the author from archivist Keenan Salla, Indiana State Archives.

Despite damning testimony regarding his involvement in Tucker’s death, the jury acquitted Davis.[19] This surprised many in the community because days later the jury, hearing much the same testimony, found Nicholas Wood guilty of Tucker’s murder.[20] The Sentinel speculated on the reasoning for the differing verdicts, noting Wood was found guilty because he “commenced the affray, and followed it up to its conclusion.” Convicted of manslaughter, Wood was sentenced to three years in state prison.[21] Although a seemingly short sentence, his conviction was a rarity in an era when Black Hoosiers could not legally testify in court.


Many court records related to the case simply referred to “the Negro,” but John Tucker was a human being, whose death left his children without a father and fighting for a home. It is unclear what became of Tucker’s wife, but his 13-year-old daughter, Mary (also written as Meary), and his 10-year-old son, William, were left to grieve.[22] Because their father was only about 45 years old at the time of his murder, he was still working to pay off his property. Thus, his death pushed his family into insolvency and legal proceedings that would conclude only in 1851. Court records show that the children, appointed a guardian ad litem, were required to appear in court multiple times regarding the property at Out Lot 37, Lot 3. Ultimately, the court ruled that it be sold at a public auction held at the court house, likely leaving Mary and William penniless.

Ruling on the Estate of John Tucker, Saturday, August 23rd A.D. 1851 + 10th Day of the Term, sent to the author from archivist Keenan Salla, Indiana State Archives.

Lynchings in Indiana from the mid-1800s to 1930 intentionally terrorized Black communities and enforced white supremacy. The State Sentinel reported on August 28, 1845 “that many of the colored residents are in the habit, since the 4th of July, of carrying big clubs, &c.”[23] The article’s author admonished:

We assure them that this is wrong. It tends rather to provoke than allay ill feeling. They are as safe from harm, and as much under the protection of the laws as any member of community; and they should be extremely cautious of doing any thing having a tendency to arouse latent prejudice and hatred in the breasts of those who entertain them. Take our advice. Be quiet. Feel safe. Mind your proper business. Behave yourselves like men.

Clearly, this piece of “advice” rang hollow, as Tucker had minded his “proper business” and did nothing to provoke “ill feeling.” Indianapolis’s Black population, which had grown from 122 residents in 1840 to 405 by 1850, remained vigilant.[24] In 1851, the state furthered discrimination against the minority group when a new constitution was drafted, which prohibited migration of Black Americans into Indiana. Preeminent Indiana historian James Madison summarized the many barriers to equality for Black Hoosiers, noting that “Indiana has never been color-blind. For a long time, the state’s constitution, laws, courts, and majority white voice placed black Hoosiers in a separate and unequal place. . . . separation and discrimination, whether legal or extra-legal, were the patterns of public life for African Americans.”[25] As we continue to reckon with discrimination and racial violence, let us remember John Tucker—father, farmer, husband, and Hoosier.

 

Notes:

[1] H.W. Beecher, “Rev. H. W. Beecher—the Indianapolis Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 30, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[2] “Affray and Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 10, 1845, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Gayle Thornbrough and Dorothy L. Riker, eds., The Diary of Calvin Fletcher,  vol. III, 1844-1847 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1974), 164.

[3] “Marion County,” Early Black Settlements by County, Indiana Historical Society, accessed indianahistory.org; James H. Madison, Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 81, 94.

[4] Nicole Poletika, “James Overall: Indiana Free Person of Color and the ‘Natural Rights of Man,'” Untold Indiana, July 15, 2016, accessed https://blog.history.in.gov/james-overall-indiana-free-person-of-color-and-the-natural-rights-of-man/.

[5] Ignatius Brown, Logan’s History of Indianapolis from 1818 (Indianapolis: Logan & Co., 1868), 35.

[6] Poletika, “James Overall: Indiana Free Person of Color.”

[7] State vs. Nicholas Wood, William Ballinger + Edward Davis, Box 045, Folder 081, Location 53-S-6, Accession 2007236, AAIS 116220, Reference COURT0012595, Indiana State Archives, courtesy of historian Leon Bates.

[8] “Marion Circuit Court: Criminal Cases,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 13, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; State vs. Nicholas Wood, Box 045, Folder 081, Location 53-S-6, Accession 2007236, AAIS 116220, Reference COURT0012595, Indiana State Archives, courtesy of historian Leon Bates.

[9] “Rev. H. W. Beecher,” Indiana State Sentinel; “Marion Circuit Court: Criminal Cases,” Indiana State Sentinel.

[10] “Rev. H. W. Beecher,” Indiana State Sentinel.

[11] W.R. Holloway, Indianapolis: A Historical and Statistical Sketch of the Railroad City, a Chronicle of Its Social, Municipal, Commercial and Manufacturing Progress, with Full Statistical Tables (Indianapolis: Indianapolis Journal Print., 1870), 80-81, accessed Archive.org.

[12] “Affray and Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 10, 1845, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles; Testimony of Enoch Pyle, State vs. Nicholas Wood, William Ballinger + Edward Davis, Box 045, Folder 081, Location 53-S-6, Accession 2007236, AAIS 116220, Reference COURT0012595, Indiana State Archives, courtesy of historian Leon Bates.

[13] “Rev. H. W. Beecher,” Indiana State Sentinel; “Marion Circuit Court,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 13, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[14] “Rev. H. W. Beecher,” Indiana State Sentinel.

[15] “Affray and Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 10, 1845, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[16] The Diary of Calvin Fletcher, 165.

[17] “Marion Circuit Court,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 9, 1845, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[18] “Marion Circuit Court: Criminal Cases,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 13, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[19] The Locomotive, August 16, 1845, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[20] “Marion Circuit Court,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 20, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[21] “Murder Cases at Indianapolis,” Evansville Weekly Journal, August 28, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; Indiana State Prison South, Pardon Book B, page 20, microfilm roll 1, 401-F-2, DOC000690, ICPR Digital Archives, courtesy of historian Leon Bates.

[22] “Affray and Murder,” Indiana State Sentinel, July 10, 1845, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles, 5; “John Tucker,” General Index of Estates, No. 512, July 23, 1845, II-96, emailed to IHB by Indiana Archives and Records Administration Reference Archivist, Keenan Salla; Petition to Sell Paid Real Estate as Insolvent, John Tuckers Estate, George H.P. Henderson, Adm of the Estate of John Tucker, Deceased v.s. Mary Tucker & William Tucker, Infants, Thursday October 16th 1845, and 4th Day of Term, emailed to IHB by Indiana Archives and Records Administration Reference Archivist, Keenan Salla; George H. P. Henderson, Adm. of the Estate of John Tucker v. Elizabeth Frazee, of Full Age, & Meary Tucker and William Tucker (infants), Saturday, August 23rd, A.D., 1851 & 12th Day of the Term, emailed to IHB by Indiana Archives and Records Administration Reference Archivist, Keenan Salla.

[23] “Wrong,” Indiana State Sentinel, August 28, 1845, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

[24] “Marion County,” Early Black Settlements by County, Indiana Historical Society.

[25] James H. Madison, “Race, Law, and the Burdens of Indiana History,” in The History of Indiana Law, edited by David J. Bodenhamer and Hon. Randall T. Shepard (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006), 37-59.

Governor Paul V. McNutt: Hoosier Humanitarian

Indiana Govenor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1937. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Indiana Governor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1937. Library of Congress.

One of the most dynamic political careers of any Hoosier belonged to Governor Paul V. McNutt. He set his sights on the U.S. presidency as early as the 1920s, when he was the state and national commander of the American Legion. His advocacy of human rights, particularly for the Jewish people during his time as Governor and High Commissioner to the Philippines, put his moral arc far beyond some of his peers. In the 1940 presidential election, McNutt was also considered a Democratic “Dark Horse” candidate before Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to run for an unprecedented third term. McNutt’s progressive, internationalist political identity squared well with the New Deal Era and growing American involvement in World War II. While his chance to become president never materialized, McNutt’s decades of public service revealed a man dedicated to democracy and humanitarianism.

Paul McNutt as a senior at IU. IU Bloomington.

Paul Vories McNutt was born on July 19, 1891 in Franklin, Indiana. His father, attorney John Crittenden McNutt, served as a librarian for the Indiana Supreme Court and exposed his son to law and politics at a young age. When Paul was seven, the family moved to Martinsville, where he graduated from high school in 1909. He then attended Indiana University, earning a BA in English in 1913. McNutt attended IU at the same time as another influential Hoosier who would also have ambitions for the presidency: Republican businessman Wendell Willkie. While at IU, they both held leadership roles, with McNutt the President of the Student Union and Willkie the President of the Democratic-aligning Jackson Club. Willkie even helped McNutt win his Student Union presidency and biographer I. George Blake noted that they were “very good friends.” After his time at IU, McNutt pursued a career in law, receiving a Bachelor of Laws from Harvard University in 1916.

Captain Paul V. McNutt during his years of service in World War I. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Captain Paul V. McNutt during his years of service in World War I. Indiana Historical Society.

After a year of private practice with his father, McNutt joined the Indiana University law school faculty in 1917. However, World War I disrupted his teaching and in the spring he registered for military service. By November, the South Bend News-Times reported he attained the rank of Captain. He spent most of the war at bases in Texas, and while he “exuded pride in his contribution,” historian Dean J. Kotlowski noted that the war’s end dashed his chance to fight in Europe. He also met his future wife, Kathleen Timolat, during his time in Texas. He proposed marriage to Kathleen in 1918 and they married three months later. His only child, Louise, was born in 1921.

After the war, McNutt returned to teaching at the IU Law School faculty in 1919 and in 1925 was formally installed as the school’s Dean. Under his tenure, the Law School streamlined its administration, expanded its enrollment, and oversaw the launch of the Indiana Law Journal. He held this position until his inauguration as Governor in 1933.

McNutt and wife Kathleen, circa 1940. Library of Congress.

His career trajectory sharply pivoted once he got involved with the American Legion. The organization served as a vehicle for his political ambitions and provided him with the infrastructure to win the governorship. According to its website, the American Legion:

evolved from a group of war-weary veterans of World War I into one of the most influential nonprofit groups in the United States. Membership swiftly grew to over 1 million, and local posts sprang up across the country. Today [2022], membership stands at nearly 2 million in more than 13,000 posts worldwide.

McNutt joined the Bloomington post of the American Legion shortly after its founding in 1919. In the years leading up to his role as State and National Commander, McNutt had little interest in the Legion other than as a social club. This changed around the time he became Dean of the IU Law School; McNutt’s desire for higher office motivated his involvement in Legion leadership. Thus, he became one of the organization’s indispensable leaders and rose quickly through the ranks, being elected State Commander in 1926.

Paul McNutt, as National Commander of the American Legion, receiving a commendation in Poland, 1929. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Paul McNutt, as National Commander of the American Legion, receiving a commendation in Poland, 1929.  Library of Congress.

As State Commander, he lobbied for veterans, urging state banks to provide personal loans to WWI veterans based on their future retirement compensation. An American Legion Monthly piece credited McNutt with growing the Indiana department of the Legion from 18,336 to 25,505 by 1929. After rigorous campaigning and substantial support at the American Legion’s National Convention, McNutt was elected National Commander in 1928. In this role, McNutt continued to expand national membership, organized events, and offered advice on foreign policy and veteran’s affairs. McNutt’s outspoken views on military preparedness ignited a very public feud with President Herbert Hoover. In 1929, the Hoover Administration agreed to scrap two British Naval Ships, a decision McNutt vehemently disagreed with in a telegram published in the New York Times. McNutt believed it made America more open to attack if “naval parity with Britain” was lost. McNutt’s internationalist view of foreign policy, which would serve him well during the 1940s, clashed with the isolationist current of the 1920s.

In July 1929, McNutt traveled to France, Hungary, and Yugoslavia on a trip as National Commander. He visited the Legion’s world headquarters in Paris and attended gravesites for those killed in World War I. In October, his one-year term limit expired, and McNutt was replaced as National Commander. Following his tenure, the Legion appointed McNutt as “legal advisory council of the [U. S.] Veteran’s Bureau,” which advanced his policy experience. Overall, McNutt’s time in the American Legion provided the logistical tools and political network necessary to run for higher office.

Muncie-Post Democrat, July 1, 1932. Ball State University, Indiana Memory.

In 1932, Hoosier voters elected McNutt as the state’s first Democratic governor in twenty years, the same year Franklin Delano Roosevelt first won the presidency. In his inaugural address on January 9, 1933, McNutt advocated for broad political reform, especially relief for those affected by the Great Depression, something he vigorously campaigned on. He called for investments in public education, infrastructure, care for the elderly and infirm, and a reorganization of government functions. The next day, McNutt gave another address to the General Assembly detailing his proposals, which included consolidation of government agencies, a personal income tax, tighter regulation of public utilities, the end of alcohol prohibition, and balancing the state budget.

Franklin_D_Roosevelt_in_Car
Paul V. McNutt and Franklin Roosevelt, circa 1932. Both men would be elected in November of that year to higher office; McNutt to the Indiana Governorship and Roosevelt to the Presidency. Indiana Historical Society.

During his four years as governor, McNutt achieved many of his policy proposals. According to historian Linda C. Gugin, his signature achievement during his first year of office was the Executive Reorganization Act, passed by the General Assembly on February 3, 1933. It reorganized more than 100 separate divisions of government into eight departments, directly overseen by the Governor. This law was seen as a controversial power grab by many Republicans; one critic of McNutt, State Senator William E. Jenner, called him “Paul the Fifth” in a speech, as if he was a monarch rather than a Governor. Nevertheless, McNutt’s reorganization plan proved popular, and Democrats fared well in both the 1934 and 1936 elections. He also kept his promise on Prohibition. According to the New York Times, the General Assembly repealed the state’s prohibition law on February 25, 1933 and Governor McNutt “recommended pardons for those convicted of liquor law violations other than public intoxication and driving while intoxicated.”

Governor Paul V. McNutt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1936 Indiana State Fair. Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.
Governor Paul V. McNutt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1936 Indiana State Fair. Indiana Historical Society.

Perhaps most notably, Governor McNutt proved to be an early champion of human rights for European Jews persecuted by the iron-fisted rule of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. McNutt delivered the keynote address at a Chicago anti-Hitler meeting on March 27, 1933, condemning the Nazi treatment of German Jews. Thousands of attendees filled the theater and those unable to get in wrapped around the block, listening through loudspeakers. In his address, as recorded by the New York Times, he stressed the need to combat Germany’s injustice:

Indiana joins the protest against this persecution. This is a prayer for the freedom of the world. Are we to join with the traitors of brotherhood, or to enlist in the war of justice?

What nation would deny its pioneers and a people who have made such contributions to culture? No government can long endure that fails to guarantee to its people the right to live as human beings. The present government of Germany thus writes its own destruction.

Governor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1935. Image courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.
Governor Paul V. McNutt, circa 1935. Indiana Historical Society.

During the convention, a resolution introduced by Dr. Paul Hutchinson, editor of the Christian Century magazine and one of the event’s organizers, was adopted “amid wild applause.” It called for the United States to end its diplomatic relations with Germany until an independent investigation was conducted regarding the status of Jewish residents. This event was one of multiple examples of his advocacy of the Jewish people. (To learn “what Hoosiers knew when” about the Holocaust, see IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins’s History Unfolded blog series).

Furthermore, McNutt advocated for Americans ravaged by the Great Depression. According to Bradford Sample’s 2001 Indiana Magazine of History article, in the early years of the Depression, Hoosiers received minimal help from local and state government, relying instead on aid from civic and charitable organizations. Espousing traditional Hoosier principles of small government and self-sufficiency, McNutt’s predecessor Governor Harry G. Leslie refused to authorize relief bonds. According to the Evansville Press, the Republican governor balked at requests to call a special legislative session in March 1932, fearing an unemployment relief bill would be introduced and that it would “‘be hard for any legislator not to vote for it.'” Gov. Leslie opined that “such a procedure would demoralize the relief work now being done in committees. People now giving to unemployment relief would assume that their help was not needed if the state began making donations.'” He also refused to accept federal relief funds, viewing them as “direct threats to the tradition of local autonomy for relief in Indiana,” according to historian James H. Madison. McNutt worked to reverse the previous administration’s inaction.

Governor Paul V. McNutt speaking at the dedication of the new educational building, 1936. Indiana State Fairgrounds Collection, Indiana Memory.

While bank runs ravaged the country’s financial health, McNutt argued against a bank holiday for the state, despite states like Michigan had already passed one. This move ensured more stability to the banking system in the state. In late 1934, McNutt gave a policy speech defending his state’s old age pension program and a national plan for old age pensions, which paralleled President Roosevelt’s Social Security proposal:

In any future program will be included three great objectives: the security of the home, the security of livelihood and the security of social insurance. Such a program would be a great step toward the goal of human happiness. The first duty of government is to protect the humanity which it serves.

McNutt shaking hands at the 1934 Grand Army of the Republic parade in Muncie, Indiana. Ball State, Indiana Memory.

Once the Social Security Act was passed in 1935, McNutt’s administration aligned Indiana’s policies with the national program through the “Unemployment Compensation Act, the Public Welfare Act, and the Child and Maternal Health Act. Like Roosevelt, McNutt’s progressive policies highlighted his belief in “economic security for Americans at home as well as national security for America abroad.”

Despite his broader liberalism on many issues, Governor McNutt received criticism for how he wielded his political power. In the fall of 1933, Governor McNutt ordered Sullivan County under martial law and sent National Guard Troops to deal with unrest at the Starburn Shaft Mines following a labor contract dispute. He also garnered criticism for his actions during the 1934 midterm elections. McNutt used his influence within the Democratic Party to ensure that Sherman Minton was the Democratic nominee for Senate, rather than R. Earl Peters, a vocal opponent of the McNutt administration and its policies. These actions, alongside his consolidation of state government agencies, ironically garnered him the nickname the “Hoosier Hitler” among many within the labor movement.

Karl Kae Knecht cartoon highlighting McNutt’s presidential ambitions, 1939. Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library, Indiana Memory.

He spent the later years of his term as governor championing his reforms of state government and maintaining a progressive agenda. His second legislative message to the Indiana General Assembly called for the expansion of relief efforts within state government and new reforms for taxes, highways, and the sale of alcohol. In a 1935 address, McNutt championed the new Utilities Commission, whose tighter regulations on energy companies saved the Hoosier public over $5,000,000 in just two years—a crucial difference during the lean Depression years. These new regulations ensured that rural areas of the state received electricity for the first time, something McNutt counted as one of his greatest gubernatorial accomplishments. In his final weeks of office, McNutt was honored with a dinner hosted by Democratic Party leaders, who had begun to see him as a presidential candidate. Senator Sherman Minton said to McNutt that, “As we bid you good-bye to the State House, we bid you godspeed to the White House.”  In his book, Indiana Through Tradition and Change, historian James Madison emphasized that McNutt’s governorship was one of the most dynamic and influential administrations in Indiana history. Not since Civil War Governor Oliver P. Morton had a governor left such an impact on the lives of Hoosiers.

McNutt, as High Commissioner to the Philippines, visiting President Roosevelt in February 1938. Even then, his name was beginning to be mentioned as a candidate for President in 1940. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
McNutt, as High Commissioner to the Philippines, visiting President Roosevelt in February 1938. Even then, his name was beginning to be mentioned as a candidate for President in 1940. Library of Congress.

After his time as Governor, McNutt served as High Commissioner to the Philippine Islands from 1937-1939, and then again from 1945-47, becoming the Philippines’s first Ambassador to the United States after it gained independence in 1946. He was nominated for the position in 1937, roughly a month after he finished his term as Indiana’s Governor. His nomination surprised the Philippine public, to whom McNutt was relatively unknown. However, his diplomatic record reportedly earned their trust. Nevertheless, his nomination also drew criticism in the United States. Frederick J. Libby, executive secretary of the National Council for the Prevention of War, saw McNutt’s use of national guard troops as governor during labor disputes as a serious concern which he addressed in a letter to President Roosevelt. The criticism continued after his appointment, specifically in his handling of ceremonial functions. An article by James Stevens in the American Mercury noted that McNutt’s insistence on toasting décor during official functions as High Commissioner: “As the new High Commissioner to the Philippine Commonwealth, he recently issued an ukase [word for Russian edict] on precedence in public toasts and thus assured himself of front-page fame.” Regardless of the criticism, McNutt proved to be a key ally to President Roosevelt, and the office became a political asset.

McNutt on the cover of Life magazine, 1939. Google Books.

Much like during his governorship, McNutt’s commitment to the protection of European Jews extended to his role as High Commissioner. McNutt denounced the horrific policy of Kristallnacht, a nationwide pogrom the Nazi regime launched against German Jews in November 1938. Mobs smashed and looted Jewish shops and burned hundreds of Jewish synagogues. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, approximately 30,000 Jewish males were arrested and transferred from local prisons to concentration camps, mainly Dachau. German officials reported 91 Jewish deaths during Kristallnacht, but numbers were likely much higher. In the months following the “Night of Broken Glass,” thousands of Jews emigrated from Germany to other countries. McNutt ensured the escape of “1,200 German and Austrian Jews” to the Philippine Islands. His policies stood as an outlier for American policy during the 1930s, as entering the United States was often difficult for Jewish refugees fleeing fascism, even for such luminaries like Albert Einstein. Nevertheless, as acts of political conscience, these policies remain one of McNutt’s enduring legacies.

A woman named Mrs. O'Gridley, hanging up a photograph of handsome Paul, circa 1939-1940. This image became synonymous with McNutt's presidential campaign literature. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A woman named Mrs. O’Gridley, hanging up a photograph of Paul McNutt, circa 1939-1940. This image became synonymous with McNutt’s presidential campaign literature. Library of Congress.

During his time as Commissioner, some Democrats began touting him as a candidate for the party’s 1940 presidential nomination. Franklin Roosevelt, nearing the end of his second term as president, initially displayed ambivalence about a third term. This forced many within the Democratic Party to seek out a candidate, and McNutt received serious consideration. During his February 1938 visit to the U.S., the Indiana Democratic Editorial Association, a meeting of 300 Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., endorsed him for President. Two national publications also placed him front and center. A Life magazine piece by Jack Alexander highlighted the Indiana Democratic Party’s use of “McNutt for President Clubs,” local organizations that campaigned for the former Governor, as integral to his electoral success. Alva Johnston’s piece in the Saturday Evening Post highlighted his prominence next to Roosevelt and saw his chances of election as strong. If Roosevelt did not seek a third term, McNutt believed he had the political resources to win the Democratic nomination.

McNutt speaking before delegates of the 1940 Presidential Election. After Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt withdrew his consideration for the nomination. Image courtesy of Mrs. Roy Garrett Watson/I. George Blake.
McNutt speaking before delegates at the 1940 Democratic Convention. After Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt withdrew his consideration for the nomination. Mrs. Roy Garrett Watson/I. George Blake.

However, when Roosevelt decided to run for a third term, McNutt dropped out of the race for the Democratic Nomination in the hopes that he would be considered for the Vice Presidency. When Henry Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture, became Roosevelt’s choice for the Vice Presidency, McNutt conceded again to the wishes of the President. With a nomination for the presidency or vice presidency out of his grasp, McNutt ended his ambitions for the White House and he never held another elected office. Later that year, his friend and political rival Wendell Willkie secured the Republican nomination, but would lose to Roosevelt in November.

McNutt serving as the Director of the War Manpower Commission, 1942. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
McNutt serving as the Chairman of the War Manpower Commission, 1942. Library of Congress.
McNutt on the cover of Time magazine, 1942. Time.

After his unsuccessful presidential campaign, McNutt continued public service as a loyal lieutenant for Roosevelt during World War II. He served as the Administrator for the Federal Security Agency from 1939-41, overseeing war efforts in infrastructure, health, and education, as well as the implementation of Social Security. In 1942, he was the Director of the Office of Defense Health and Welfare Services, part of the larger Office of Emergency Management. His final war post was as Chairman of the War Manpower Commission from 1943-1945. During his tenure, McNutt became an advocate for agricultural issues and their impact on the war effort, urging the need for food preparedness and the importance of student agricultural sciences.

Paul V. McNutt being sworn in as High Commissioner of the Philippines, September 12, 1945. Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

Near the war’s end, at President Harry Truman’s personal request, McNutt returned as High Commissioner to the Philippines in 1945 and, once they secured independence, appointed their first U.S. Ambassador in 1946. McNutt represented President Truman at the Philippine Independence ceremony on July 4, 1946, sharing the ceremonial duties with Philippine President Manuel Roxas and General Douglas MacArthur. He retired from this post in 1947. After his final post to the Philippines, the former governor, diplomat, and administrator took on a variety of projects, including unsuccessful stint as chairman of the United Artists Film Corporation in 1950- 51, buying out the controlling shares from Hollywood legends Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Unable to save the company from losses, McNutt was eventually bought out by movie mogul Arthur Krim, whose subsequent leadership spearheaded such classic films as The African Queen (1951) and High Noon (1952).

Paul V McNutt in 1951. Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images).

By 1954, McNutt’s health began to decline, most likely due to complications from surgery on a “throat ailment,” and on March 24, 1955 he died in his Manhattan apartment at the age of 63. He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery on March 28, 1955 with full burial rites. Herman B Wells, then president of Indiana University, performed the eulogy. In honor of his contributions to Indiana University, a residence hall complex at the Bloomington campus is named Paul V. McNutt Quadrangle and a bust of him resides in the front foyer of the main building.

McNutt Quadrangle and Residence Hall, circa 1965. Indiana Album, Indiana Memory.

Paul V. McNutt’s decades of public service—as head of the American Legion, governor, diplomat, and administrator—left an indelible mark on the state of Indiana, the United States, and even the world. His commitment to human rights, political and social equality, and an internationalist view of foreign policy remain relevant today. His steadfast dedication to the protection and rights of the Jewish people during the hour of their extreme oppression serves as a model for us.

Paul McNutt bust in McNutt Residence Center, Indiana University Bloomington. Crawfordsville Journal-Review.

Above all, McNutt was committed to the cause of democracy. Like today, the challenges of McNutt’s era led many to question the relevance of the democratic ethos, whether we could have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In his inaugural address as Governor on January 9, 1933, Paul V. McNutt reflected on the importance of, and obstacles to, democracy:

It is possible to know the truth without fear, to meet a crisis with indomitable courage. Our proud heritage from the Indiana pioneers, who came here over a century and a half ago to build homes in the wilderness, should give us that power. Yet there are those among us who are afraid, who listen to prophets of evil. They profess to see the end of representative government, now rudely challenged by Communism, Fascism, and, some think, by Technocracy. They say that democracy in theory is not democracy in practice, that popular sovereignty is an elusive concept, that the right to have a voice in government is not a prized possession.

I wish to be counted among those who deny such a doctrine. I believe in the destiny of democracy as a system of government, believe in it more profoundly than in anything else human. . ..

This is a testing time for representative government. Our high enterprise is to prove it sufficient in every circumstance and for every task which can come to free people. We face a magnificent opportunity in which we, as lovers of freedom, dare not fail.

McNutt’s life and work demonstrate that democracy is a living, breathing process, one shaped by a resolute faith in the power of self-government. Hoosiers, and Americans broadly, are living through a “testing time” of their own, but the successes, and failures, of the life of Governor Paul V. McNutt provide a clear, historical example of robust and democratic leadership.

Paul McNutt, circa 1950. Harry S Truman Presidential Library and Museum.

To learn more about Governor Paul V. McNutt, visit the Bureau’s marker page : http://www.in.gov/history/markers/165.htm.