“Nestled in the wooded hills of southern Indiana, lies a land of fantasy. . . where it’s Christmas every day.”
Indiana has its fair share of uniquely named towns – Gnaw Bone, Popcorn, Pinhook, Needmore, and Pumpkin Center to name a few. But perhaps the most well-known idiosyncratic place name is Santa Claus in Spencer County, Indiana.
So, how did we get this intriguing sobriquet? Before we get there, we should cover some of the history of the area. The Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware tribes first stewarded the land that later became Spencer County. At the turn of the 19th century, many of these tribes joined Tecumseh’s confederation to oppose white encroachment. However, both U.S. policy and the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1803 and the Treaty of Vincennes in 1804 opened the land to white settlement. Crossing over from Kentucky, white settlers established permanent homes by 1810 in the Indiana territory near Rockport on the Ohio River, 17 miles southwest of modern-day Santa Claus. But by the mid-nineteenth century when settlers decided to incorporate their new town, they did not originally pay such homage to the Christmas holiday.
As with many place names, the origin of the name Santa Claus is mostly the stuff of legend. The Indiana State University Folklore Archive has preserved three versions of the story behind the name Santa Claus. Below is one example:
Several families settled in the area and decided that they should have a name for their community. They decided on Santa Fe. They applied for a post office to make it official. On Christmas of 1855, everyone was greatly excited at the thought of going to their own brand new post office for their Christmas cards and gifts instead of having to ride to Dale. Unfortunately, a large white envelope with important seals arrived the day before Christmas to reveal that a town in Indiana already was named Santa Fe. Determined to get their post office just as quickly as possible, the citizens of Santa Fe decided to discuss the matter that very night, Christmas Eve. While they were signing, the whole world outdoors became filled with an intense, blinding light, and a little boy came rushing in. ‘The Star, the Christmas star is falling! Everyone rushed out just in time to see a flaming mass shooting down from the heavens and crash into a low distant hill. They considered it an omen of good fortune. Returning to the meeting, it seemed to most natural thing for all the folk to agree that the name Santa Fe should be changed to Santa Claus.
This account is certainly embellished to some extent, seeing as the “Christmas Star” (which appears in the sky every twenty years when Jupiter and Saturn align in the winter sky) made its last appearance in 2020 and did not, in fact, fall from the sky in 1855. However, it gives us an idea of why Santa Claus citizens themselves believe to be their origin story.
However it happened, the townsfolk eventually decided on Santa Claus as a replacement name, and the Santa Claus post office was officially established on May 21, 1856.
For years, however, the strangely named town was just that – a town with a strange name. It wasn’t until Santa Claus Postmaster James Martin began answering letters written to Saint Nick in the early 20th century that the town began truly embracing its merry moniker. It’s unclear when or why letters to the man at the North Pole began arriving at the Santa Claus, Indiana post office, but in 1914 Martin began writing back, and the tradition only grew from there.
Mail clerks around the country began rerouting letters simply addressed “Santa Claus” to the Indiana town for Martin to handle. Parents began writing notes with enclosed letters or packages to be stamped with the Santa Claus postmark and sent back, making the letters and gifts under the tree on Christmas morning that much more authentic.
By 1928, Martin and his clerks were, not unlike Santa and his elves, handling thousands of letters every holiday season and were garnering enough attention to catch the eye of Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Before Ripley’s was an after school tv show and before it was a coffee table book you bought at your school’s annual Scholastic Book Fair, it was a syndicated newspaper panel that shared interesting tidbits and oddities from around the world. And on January 7, 1930, the oddity in question was none other than Santa Claus, Indiana.
It was a brief mention, but it was enough. The next Christmas, Martin reported that the number of parcels and letters coming through his post office had grown exponentially, adding:
I guess my name ought to be Santa Claus, because I have to pay out of my own pocket for handling all this mail. I’ve hired six clerks to help out and I recon it’s going to cost $200. But it advertises the town and besides lots of folks from all around come out to the store to see us sending out the mail.
With great fame comes great scrutiny, or at least it did in this case. By 1931, the Associated Press reported that officials in Washington were considering changing the name of the town as the stress put on the postal system during the holiday season was becoming too much to handle. Christmas lovers across the country bemoaned the potential loss, but none so loudly as the citizens of Santa Claus, who contacted their U.S. Senator James Watson and U.S. Representative John Boehne, of Indiana.
Watson and Boehne got to work for their constituents. Representative Boehne notified the USPS that the entire Indiana delegation would oppose the name change if it were to go forward. Senator Watson took a more direct route and went straight to Postmaster General Walter Brown to assure him that, “The people won’t want it changed. “ “The name must not be changed nor the office abolished.”
In the end, of course, the citizens were able to preserve their beloved town’s name, and the tradition continued to grow.
Entrepreneurs, hoping to cash in on the Christmas spirit, began to take notice of the small town. In 1935, Vincennes speculator Milt Harris founded the business called Santa Claus of Santa Claus, Incorporated. Harris erected Santa’s Candy Castle, the first tourist attraction in town. Built to look like a fairy castle and filled with candy from project sponsor Curtiss Candy Company, the Candy Castle was the centerpiece of what Harris dubbed Santa Claus Town, a little holiday village of sorts made up of his business ventures. The castle would eventually be joined by Santa’s Workshop and a toy village.
Across town, a different, similarly named business, Santa Claus, Incorporated, brainchild of Chicago businessman Carl Barrett, built another Yuletide monument, a 22-foot tall statue of Santa Claus purportedly made of solid granite. This colossal Kris Kringle was the start of a second Christmas themed landmark, this one called Santa Claus Park. All of this in a town of fewer than 100 people.
Both attractions were dedicated during the Christmas season of 1935, but all the holiday spirit in the world wasn’t enough to keep the peace between Harris and Barrett.
By 1935, the town of Santa Claus, Indiana was home to two organizations – Santa Claus, Incorporated, owned by Carl Barrett, and Santa Claus of Santa Claus, Incorporated, owned by Milt Harris. Barrett and Santa Claus, Incorporated were developing Santa Claus Park, which featured the 22-foot Santa Claus statue. Harris and his company were developing Santa Claus Town, featuring Santa’s Candy Castle. Barrett filed suit against Harris, alleging that the latter had no right to use a name so similar to its own. Meanwhile, Harris filed suit against Barrett because Barrett had bought and was building Santa Claus Park on land that had been leased to Harris by the previous owner.
A judge put an injunction on Santa Claus Park, meaning Barrett could not move forward with development. Eventually, this tongue twister of a case went all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled in 1940 that both companies could keep using their names and overturned the injunction, meaning that the plans for Santa Claus Park could move forward, regardless of Harris’s lease.
However, the protracted legal battle, combined with wartime rationing, which impacted tourism due to gasoline and tire shortages, took a toll on both attractions. By 1943, cracks ran through the base of the giant Santa Statue and the Candy Castle had closed its doors.
With the end of the war came new opportunities. In 1946, retired Evansville industrialist and father of nine, Louis Koch, opened Santa Claus Land after being disappointed that the town had little to offer visiting children hoping to catch a glimpse of the jolly man in the red suit. This theme park, reportedly the first amusement park in the world with a specific theme, included a toy shop, toy displays, a restaurant, themed rides and, of course, Saint Nicholas.
This was no run of the mill Santa Claus, though. Jim Yellig would become, according to the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame, “one of the most beloved and legendary Santas of all time.” Yellig had donned the red and white suit at the Candy Castle and volunteered to answer letters to Santa for years before becoming the resident Santa at the new park, a position which he held for 38 years. During his tenure as Saint Nick, Yellig heard the Christmas wishes of over one million children.
Throughout “Santa Jim’s” tenure, Santa Claus Land continued to grow, thanks in large part to Louis Koch’s son, Bill Koch, who took over operation of the park soon after its founding. By 1957, the park offered a “miniature circus,” a wax museum, Santa’s Deer Farm, and an outdoor amphitheater. Live entertainment shows, such as a water ski show, started and in the early 1970s rides such as Dasher’s Seahorses, Comet’s Rockets, Blitzen’s Airplanes, and Prancer’s Merry-Go-Round were added. And in 1984, the Koch family expanded from a strictly Christmas-themed park to include Halloween and Fourth of July sections and changed its name to Holiday World. Still in operation today as Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, the theme park, which features what are considered some of the best wooden roller coasters in the world, welcomes over 1 million people per year.
Today, the town of Santa Claus is more “Christmas-y” than ever. Many of its 2,400 residents live in Christmas Lake Village or Holiday Village on streets with names like Poinsettia Drive, Candy Cane Lane, or Evergreen Plaza. The Candy Castle was renovated and reopened in 2006 and is known for its wide selection of cocoas and its Frozen Hot Chocolate. Carl Barrett’s 22-foot Santa Statue was restored by Holiday World in 2011 and now welcomes tourists from all over the world. Visitors to Holiday World can stay at Lake Rudolph Campground and RV Park or Santa’s Lodge. Every Christmas season, the small town comes alive with festivals, parades, and even Christmas fireworks. And, of course, dedicated volunteers still answer children’s letters to Santa, even if they sound a little different than they used to.
“Harry is a fine boy, he never told me a lie in his life,” Lena Pierpont proclaimed about her son, “Handsome Harry” Pierpont, who was considered the brains of the John Dillinger gang. Like many families, the Pierponts rallied around their son in times of trouble. The extent to which they defended Harry demonstrated both the depths of parental love and the pitfalls of willful ignorance. Harry’s troubles centered on the frenzied period between September 1933 and July 1934, when the Dillinger gang became America’s most wanted criminals for a crime spree that impacted Indiana communities big and small.
While Dillinger became the FBI’s very first “Public Enemy Number 1,” 32-year-old Harry Pierpont was often credited with being the architect of the Dillinger gang’s crimes, and the mentor who helped make Dillinger a skilled criminal. Born in Muncie in 1902, Pierpont had amassed a lengthy criminal history long before meeting up with Dillinger. Pierpont was linked to a series of 1920s bank and store robberies across the state, including in Greencastle, Marion, Lebanon, Noblesville, Upland, New Harmony, and Kokomo, prior to landing in the Indiana State Prison at Michigan City – where he befriended and mentored Dillinger.
Pierpont’s criminal sophistication, however, had not spared him from arrest. By July 1934, he was arrested and awaited execution in Ohio for the murder of Lima County Sheriff Jesse Sarber. The sheriff had been killed in October 1933 as gangsters broke Dillinger out of the county jail. Pierpont’s mother, Lena, and father, J. Gilbert, instinctively believed in their son’s innocence and grew resentful over the “persecution” they said they endured from authorities after they had relocated from Ohio to Goshen, Indiana in April 1934. Pierpont’s beleaguered parents had come to the Hoosier city to try and “make an honest living in a respectable business.”
By mid-July, with Dillinger still at large (although only days away from being slain by federal officers in Chicago), the Pierponts were under constant surveillance in an all-out effort to locate Dillinger. They had rented a “barbeque and beer parlor” on what was then called State Road 2 (now U.S. 33 West). Known as the “Cozy Corner Lunch” spot, the roadhouse was a half mile northwest of the famous A.E. Kunderd gladiola farm just outside the Goshen city limits. Conducting what she called her first “free will interview” given to a journalist, Lena told the The Goshen News Times & Democrat, “I am going to try and open this place and run a legitimate business as soon as these men stop trailing us. Mr. Pierpont (her husband) is ill and unable to work, so all we want is to earn an honest living.”
The Goshen News Times & Democrat reported that the Pierponts had rented the barbeque stand on an one-year lease offered by a couple identified as Mr. and Mrs. Rodney Hill. Although summer was nearly half over, the Pierponts had not opened for the year because a requisite beer license was still pending. The Pierponts believed this was held up by local officials facing pressure from federal authorities. Lena bitterly explained that the couple had sold all of their farm goods in Ohio in order to open the Goshen business.
“We should not be persecuted,” Lena explained. “We’re simply unfortunate. The government should call off its detectives and allow us to live as other good American citizens.” She pointed at a car parked about a quarter mile away and said, “See that car down the road? They’re always watching us.” She alleged that “Every minute for 24 hours a day we’re shadowed. They think we know (John) Dillinger and that he may come here. We don’t know him and we don’t want to.” She insisted that her son was hiding in the attic of her home on the night the Ohio sheriff was killed, and while he was a fugitive escapee from the Indiana State Prison at the time, he was no murderer.
Lena suggested that if she and Gilbert did know Dillinger maybe “we could get a deposition from him to the effect that our son, Harry, did not kill Sheriff Jess Sarber at Lima, Ohio.” Harry had assured her that Dillinger would clear him of the murder “and name the real slayer,” thus saving her son from the electric chair in Ohio. The Indianapolis Times reported in September, Lena successfully arranged to meet with him in Chicago. According to her account, when asked who freed him from the Lima jail, Dillinger said “‘I’ll tell you who turned me out. Homer Van Meter is the man who fired the shot that killed Sarber and Tommy Carroll and George McGinnis are the men who were in the Lima jail and turned me out.'”
Although used to letting his wife serve as family spokesperson, Gilbert Pierpont told an enterprising reporter from The Goshen News-Times & Democrat, “Harry (Pierpont) will not die for the murder of Sheriff Sarber. We are looking for a reversal of the Lima verdict by the Ohio Supreme Court. If not, the case will go to the United States Supreme Court.” Harry’s angry and reportedly ill father said he didn’t like talking to reporters “because of so many false statements they have made about my son.” Contrasting her ailing husband, Lena “was jovial during the interview” and “jokingly remarked that the press would have it all wrong” when writing about her son.
State and federal law enforcement officials were quick to impeach the Pierponts. Captain Matt Leach, who headed the effort of the Indiana State Police to bring the marauding gang to justice, actually identified Pierpont as “the brains” of the Dillinger gang. It was Pierpont, Leach said, who came up with the idea of springing Dillinger from the county jail in Lima by posing as Indiana police officers. When Sheriff Sarber demanded to see their credentials, Pierpont reportedly said, “Here’s our credentials,” and fired multiple shots into the lawman, killing him instantly.
It was a short-lived, but “productive” period of freedom for thirty-one-year-old Dillinger after being sprung from the Lima jail. During this stint, he led his gang in a bold April 12, 1934 raid on the Warsaw Police Department, where they seized a cache of guns. The gang also conducted a deadly robbery of the Merchants National Bank in downtown South Bend on June 30, killing a police officer and injuring four others in a brazen sidewalk shootout. Federal agents put a stop to the spree when they gunned down Dillinger on the streets of Chicago on July 22, just nine months after the Pierpont-led escape from the Ohio jail.
While Dillinger met his “death sentence” on a Chicago street, Pierpont remained on Ohio’s death row for the murder of Sheriff Sarber. Lena said she and her husband would continue to make the journey of more than 200 miles from Goshen, Indiana to Columbus, Ohio, “every weekend” to see their son. “We will continue to do this as long as we have any money,” she said. Lena also declared she would continue to challenge state and federal authorities for their alleged harassment of her family. She had reportedly talked to an Elkhart attorney about bringing suit against state and federal authorities.
“We are unfortunate that our son is in prison under sentence of death,” Lena said, adding “No other members of our family have a criminal record. We should not be persecuted. They tell us that these men, who are constantly nearby in parked automobiles ready to follow us at any time we may leave, are federal government men.” Lena’s claim that her son Harry was the only member of her family who had run afoul of the law was not accurate. The Pierponts’ younger son, Fred, 27, and Lena herself, were both arrested and held on illegal possession of weapons charges and vagrancy in Terre Haute in December 1933. A car driven by Lena on the day she was arrested contained almost $500 in cash and a sawed-off shotgun.
To publicize her claims of harassment, a day after granting an exclusive interview to The Goshen News Times & Democrat (picked up by the Associated Press and reported by newspapers across the nation), Lena marched into the Elkhart County Courthouse at Goshen, demanding that she be granted her long-delayed beer license and that an “order of restraint” be placed against detectives following them. Despite his family’s attempts to win over “the court of public opinion,” as summer gave way to fall in 1934, Harry’s appeals to the Ohio Supreme Court were coming to no end other than delaying his execution. Surprisingly, in late September, Pierpont and fellow Dillinger gang member, Charles Makley, staged a spectacular, yet unsuccessful escape attempt from the Ohio Penitentiary. Fashioning realistic-looking handguns made of soap (and blackened with shoe polish), Pierpont and Makley were immediately “outgunned” by prison guards, who killed Makley and critically wounded Pierpont in a shootout.
By October, Pierpont could no longer escape his fate. As one reporter noted, Pierpont “whose trigger finger started the John Dillinger gang on its short but violent career of crime that blighted everything it touched, must die in the electric chair at the Ohio Penitentiary.” Prison officials reported “the doomed man has reconciled himself to death and embraced his former faith, the Roman Catholic religion.”
Sullen and weakened by the gunshot wounds sustained during his failed prison escape, Pierpont strongly contrasted with “the braggart who once boasted he would kill every cop on sight.” Now, jailers said, Pierpont wished out loud that he too had been fatally wounded in the prison shootout. “Pierpont’s mother, Lena, by this time living near Goshen, Indiana, and his sweetheart, Mrs. Mary Kinder, an Indianapolis gang ‘moll,’ are remaining true to the fallen gangster to the last,” one newspaper account told. Kinder, whom reporters were quick to point out was previously married, “even went to Columbus recently[,] determined to marry Harry in prison before he dies.”
On October 17, 1934, the “fair-haired brains of the dissolved Dillinger mob” was executed. The Associated Press noted, “Quietly, unaided and with the ghost of a smile on his lips, the 32-year-old killer sat down to death in the gaunt wooden chair within the high stockade of the prison guarded in unprecedented fashion.” Reporters who witnessed the execution said Pierpont “was not asked for any ‘last word,’ and he volunteered none. He just sat down with a rueful smile, closed his eyes, strained the muscles of his lanky, six-foot-two frame, as the current struck, clenched one fist – and that was all.” A national wire photo showed Kinder comforting Lena and Gilbert at their new home along U.S. 31 in Lakeville in St. Joseph County, where they had moved after their failed attempt to start a roadhouse near Goshen.
A funeral was conducted for Harry inside the Pierponts’ home, led by a priest from the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Lakeville. The services were held an hour earlier than was announced to keep reporters away. Harry Pierpont had told Ohio prison officials that he desired a “simple, but lavish funeral” and wanted his remains be released to his parents in Indiana. The South Bend Tribune reported, “His casket was adorned only by a small wreath of artificial flowers, and lay grotesquely surrounded by canned goods and automobile accessories in his parent’s home store.” Harry was eventually buried at the Holy Cross and St. Joseph Cemetery in Indianapolis.
Lena Pierpont would appear in the news one more time for her resilience. In the summer of 1937, Lakeville town authorities took court action to rid the village of “a band of roving coppersmiths” who had settled at Lena’s White City Inn. Surely she refused to oust them because she needed the income in the lean Depression years, but perhaps she also related to those on the fringes of society, trying their best to survive.
The Pierponts suffered another tragedy when Harry’s younger brother, Fred, died in March 1940 at the age of 33 from injuries suffered in a car crash near South Bend. Perhaps being forced to hone the art of resilience due to the upheaval wrought by Harry helped them survive this second blow. Lena died in her Lakeville home on October 21, 1958 at the age of 78. Her long-suffering husband Gilbert, died three years later also at Lakeville at the age of 80. They were buried alongside their infamous son in Indianapolis.
* Interestingly, the Goshen connection to the Dillinger gang, beyond the Pierponts’ battles there, is forever enshrined in the city’s limestone police booth opened in 1939. The impressive octagon structure sits on the corner of the Elkhart County Courthouse square, opposite Goshen’s two largest banks. Complete with bulletproof glass (donated by two of the city’s banks), the booth (partially funded by Works Progress Administration dollars) was never called into duty as Goshen’s banks escaped being robbed.
*Primary documents were accessed via Newspapers.com, the Goshen Public Library, and the Goshen Historical Society.
 Andrew E. Stoner “John H. Dillinger, Jr.” in Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, eds., Indiana’s 200: The People Who Shaped the Hoosier State (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2015), 96.
 Patrick Sauer, “Harry Pierpont: John Dillinger’s Mentor” in Julia Rothman and Matt Lamothe, eds., The Who, the What, the When: Sixty-Five Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History, (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, LLC., 2014), 42.
Black Hoosiers helped shape Indiana by establishing early farming communities, preserving the Union through service in the Civil War, gaining suffrage for women in the 1920s, defending democracy in WWI and WWII, and expanding equality and political power throughout the Civil Rights Era and beyond. But Black Hoosiers also suffered enslavement in Indiana, violent persecution, discrimination in jobs and housing, Jim Crow laws, and lynching.
Many Black Hoosiers and Black Americans continue to feel the stress imposed both by the continued disproportionate violence against people of color as well as the inherited traumas of the past. Already facing entrenched and systemic racism in American culture, people of color have additional burden of social media and news outlets filled with images of violence, sometimes fatal, against Black people. These images only reinforce the brutal American legacy of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow.
This racial trauma impacts mental health, sleep patterns, appetite, fertility, and susceptibility to disease, among other detriments. According to Safe Black Space, a community organization promoting healing, people of color “are experiencing trauma related to systemic racism and are feeling the impact of our humanity not being valued.” Their statement continues:
Some of us avoid our feelings or numb out. Some of us experience fear that something bad is going to happen to us or to our loved ones. Some of us are struggling with rage and frustration. It can be overwhelming.
But sacred Black spaces have been and continue to be essential to healing from this trauma, feeling safe, breathing deeply, and reclaiming health. The history of overt racism and violence inflicted on Black Hoosiers by their white neighbors makes clear just how important Indiana’s African American churches were to Black Hoosiers in centuries past. Since at least the early 19th century, Black Hoosiers gathered in small churches across the state to worship, celebrate, and socialize – but also to organize opposition to voter suppression and the Klan, to form local NAACP and Urban League branches, and organize protests and rallies that furthered civil rights.
Local history can show us the extraordinary in the ordinary, the bravery of average folks, and the work of a community to make the world just a little better. Allen Temple in Marion, Indiana was not unlike other Black churches in the Midwest or even others in Grant County. And yet, Allen Temple pastors and members pushed their community to desegregate, to increase rights of African Americans, and to stop violence against Black Marion residents. And those feats are no less remarkable for being reflected by other churches. The Civil Rights Movement and the gains it brought Black Americans was not an inevitable wave of progress. This wave was made up of individual droplets of hard work and bravery by small groups of people like those who found a home at Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Allen Temple’s history is rooted in Weaver Settlement. Black pioneers fleeing threats to their freedom in southern slave states founded this nearby Grant County community by the 1840s. Weaver grew over the decades as the pioneers were joined by other free and formerly enslaved families. These hardworking Black settlers established productive farms and the settlement grew to over 3000 acres by 1860. As the self-sustaining community thrived, residents built schools, churches, and stores, and male residents participated in the political process. But farmers could only divide their land between so many children before the plot would no longer be able to sustain a family. One or two children would inherit the farm, while others would have to find work elsewhere. By the 1880s, the descendants of the settler-farmers were looking to Marion for employment opportunities.
As more African Americans moved to Marion, the Rev. G. W. Shelton, who served as pastor of Hill’s Chapel at Weaver Settlement, began organizing a new A.M.E. church in South Marion. Marion residents had already established an A.M.E church on 5th Street in the city’s downtown, but Weaver residents settling on the southside needed both a religious and civic center in that area. Rev. Shelton completed the organization of the as-yet-unnamed church in September 1900. Church and county histories report that the congregation first gathered in a private home. By November 1901, the congregation purchased the church building at Washington and Thirty-Fifth Streets from a Protestant congregation.
Most of the information about Allen Temple’s early history comes from columns in the Indianapolis Recorder reporting on the Black communities of Weaver and Marion. For several years of the church’s early history, the newspaper referred to the church as “the South Marion Mission” or “the 35th Street A. M. E. Church.” From 1901 to 1904, church leadership organized a choir, raised funds for improvements, and established a Sabbath School. Congregants hosted social dinners, Thanksgiving suppers, and lectures by prominent religious leaders.
In 1905, the congregation finished remodeling the building and the church joined the Indiana A.M.E. Conference, officially making it a part of the larger A.M.E. hierarchy and organization. Finally, on July 23, 1905, the church received the name Allen Temple during a “grand rally.” More than 600 African American residents of Marion and surrounding communities attended a corner stone laying celebration. Allen Temple Rev. J. J. Evans, leading regional A.M.E. clergy, the prestigious “colored Masons,” and the Marion mayor were among those who led the ceremonies. Church leaders chose the name Allen Temple to honor Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.
Over the following decades, Allen Temple hosted fundraisers and revivals, often sharing members and pastors with Hill’s Chapel, and worked to pay off its mortgage. Meanwhile, Marion prospered from the gas boom and industrial workers organized and became more political. By the end of WWI, the city boomed. According to historian James Madison, “Lining the Courthouse Square in the 1920s were banks, clothing stores, drug stores, ice cream parlors, cigar stores, and theaters, some spreading a block or so off the square.” Black Marion residents were among the city’s business owners, professionals and civic employees. But they were not welcome everywhere in their own hometown.
Black residents did not have access to a number of Marion businesses and recreational attractions. Segregation was the rule, despite the 1885 Indiana Civil Rights Act that legally gave African Americans the right to patronize these establishments. In addition, bootleggers and gamblers brought increased crime as they flouted Prohibition. The police were reportedly apathetic at best. Most alarmingly, the Ku Klux Klan rose in power as many white Protestant Hoosiers turned their fears of crime, immigration, and increased diversity into an organized force for hate and discrimination. But these forces did not go unchallenged.
When NAACP state president Katherine “Flossie” Bailey organized a Marion branch in 1918, Allen Temple Rev. W. C. Irvin signed on as a founding member. Allen Temple clergy would continue to serve the NAACP at the state and local level throughout the church’s history. In September 1929, Bailey brought African American U.S. Representative Oscar DePriest to Allen Temple. Speaking to a large crowd of Black congregants and residents, DePriest called on the audience to vote and “to stand together.” Again, Allen Temple was not unique as a civil rights organizational center. Black churches across the country served this role. Allen Temple was not even unique in Marion, as several other churches hosted civil rights rallies and speakers as well. But that does not make it less heroic.
In September 1930, a white mob tore three Black teenagers, accused but not convicted of crimes against two white Marion residents, from the Marion jail. The mob then beat, mutilated, and lynched Tom Shipp and Abe Smith. The perpetrators left the young men’s bodies hanging as a message to Black residents that “they were at the mercy of white residents,” according to historian Nicole Poletika. The story of the 1930 Marion lynchings has been thoroughly and sensitively told elsewhere by other scholars, notably by James H. Madison in his 2001 monograph Lynching in the Heartland. But understanding that Marion’s Black community was deeply wounded, shaken, and afraid for their lives is important to understanding the significance of the work that Marion’s Black churches accomplished in the shadow of the lynchings.
In the face of this horror and fear, some local Black leaders still found the courage to speak out and call for action. Rev. Hillard D. Saunders, who had only recently been appointed pastor of Allen Temple, joined Bailey and others in demanding legal justice in the wake of the lynchings. They presented the Indiana governor with a petition calling for the removal of the sheriff who failed to protect Smith and Shipp.  While Bailey deserves the credit for ultimately leveraging the heinous crimes into anti-lynching legislation, the united support of the local NAACP leaders, Marion clergy, and the courage of every day Black residents demanded the attention of the Indiana General Assembly and governor. 
Allen Temple members and clergy continued to humbly push Marion towards greater inclusion and equality. In 1945, the church hosted John C. Dancy, executive secretary of Detroit Urban league. Dancy had helped desegregate industrial businesses in Michigan, opening skilled positions to African Americans. He likely spoke to Marion residents on peaceful desegregation tactics. By 1947, Allen Temple hosted regular meetings of the Marion Urban League, which was incorporated in 1942 with a much-needed mission of working “to secure equal Opportunities in all sectors of our society for Black and other minorities.” In May 1949, Allen Temple pastor C. T. H. Watkins joined speakers from Marion College and the Indiana Jewish Community Relations Council at an “interracial fellowship dinner.” By November 1949, the Marion Urban League boasted a membership of 350 African Americans, almost 15% of the city’s Black population.
Yet Marion remained segregated. In 1954, the Marion Urban League and the local NAACP successfully worked to desegregate the public pool, a highly visible symbol of inequality in the city. White and Black Marion residents pushed for increased hiring of Black teachers and police officers throughout the 1950s and 60s, making small but regular gains.
In 1961, A.M.E. leadership appointed the “dynamic” Rev. Dr. Ford Gibson to serve as pastor of Allen Temple. An Indianapolis native and former school teacher with a Ph.D. in sociology, Rev. Gibson had recently served as the president of the Indianapolis NAACP. In 1957 and 1958, Rev. Gibson led “the epic struggle for fair employment” at local supermarkets. Unsurprisingly, when he arrived at Allen Temple, Rev. Gibson invested himself in the fight for greater equality in Marion.
In the summer of 1962, Rev. Gibson and Rev. B. A. Foley of Bethel AME led a campaign demanding an “immediate investigation and the removal” of Marion Postmaster Charles R. Kilgour. The pastors charged that Kilgour, as president of the Francis Marion Hotel, which “allegedly refused to accommodate Negroes,” should be removed from his position as postmaster. Foley and Gibson publicly called on U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy to act. Rev. Gibson, who had also served as president of the Indiana chapter of the NAACP, addressed a crowd of 300 people at a mass meeting. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, the pastor stated that the Black residents of Marion “will not stop until segregation is dead and buried and never to rise again.”
While Kilgour kept his job, Rev. Gibson continued his calling. Rev. Gibson went on to serve the NAACP as the president of the Indiana Conference of Branches and president of Region 11, which included eight state organizations. He also joined the 1964 March on Washington and worked for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. While Black Americans continued to make progress toward equality, Marion still had a long way to go.
By July 1969, the city was on edge. The Marion NAACP reported “continued police brutality, abuse, harassment and refusal to protect young black people in that city.” White residents blamed local Black youth for a series of firebombings that destroyed a lumber company and country club. The Marion NAACP reported “arrests of black victims of unprovoked assaults by white hoodlums and the holding of young black people in custody and refusal of bonds on illegal grounds.” At the same time, the Marion city council approved the purchase of police dogs, threatening to further escalate violence.
On July 19, the Indianapolis Recorder reported on the national NAACP convention where the organization addressed the escalating violence in Marion. Marion representatives reported that in only one week, seventy-five Black residents had been arrested by Marion police “in a fashion of harassment and intimidation.” Once jailed, authorities were demanding excessive bail bonds of up to $10,000. Most alarmingly, the Marion NAACP leadership, including local branch president Carlyle Gulliford, received death threats.
In response, NAACP president Roy Wilkins called on the state NAACP organizations of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and West Virginia to descend on Marion for “a seven-state mass protest rally” on July 20. The NAACP published a list of demands for Marion officials, mainly attacking segregation and job discrimination. They demanded the city hire Black firemen, policemen, and officials and called out specific companies who would not hire African Americans, including the municipal phone and light companies. The NAACP also called for fair housing and mortgage practices and for an end to segregation in recreational facilities.
An estimated 3,000 people marched in the name of these demands, including the congregants of Allen Temple. Long time member Pearl Bassett, who was also active in the Urban League and a leader within the state NAACP, remembered the march. She recalled, “We first had the walk from 26th Street to the courthouse for discrimination and equal opportunities for people and jobs. And it was a wonderful thing.” Bassett told the Indianapolis Recorder, “It was so well organized and we accomplished what we set out to do.” Black activists did change Marion, but it took a long time. The city’s civil rights progress trailed the nation and the state. In his book Lynching in the Heartland, Dr. James Madison presents convincing evidence that this stunting of equality was in large part a result of the lingering fear and trauma imposed on the community by the 1930 lynchings.
But for centuries sacred Black spaces have served to heal some of this trauma. In these spaces, people of color can feel heard and process anxiety, engage in prayer and meditation, and become empowered through activism. Thus, these spaces are essential to creating positive change in all communities. By marking and preserving these spaces, we honor those people of color who sought refuge here throughout history- a moment to regain their strength in the face of oppression in order to continue fighting for civil rights. Each small, historically Black church across our state has a story to tell. The Indiana Historical Bureau and the friends and family of Weaver Settlement look forward to dedicating a new state historical marker in 2022 to tell the story of Allen Temple.
 “Coping with Racial Trauma,” Department of Psychology, University of Georgia, psychology.uga.edu.
Indiana Historical Bureau, Weaver Settlement State Historical Marker, in.gov/history.
 “Weaver,” Indianapolis Recorder, February 25, 1899, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 15, 1900, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 6, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 16, 1901, 5, Hoosier State Chronicles; Asenath Peters Artis, “The Negro in Grant County,” 1909, in Centennial History of Grant County, 1812-1912, edited by Ronald L. Whitson (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Co., 1914), 348-57, accessed Archive.org. Church histories produced by Allen Temple report that the congregation first met in the home of local resident Turner Wallace. IHB was unable to confirm the claim with census or newspaper research. Noted local historian Aseneth Peters Artis reported in 1909 that the congregation then purchased the building at Washington and Thirty-Fifth Streets from a Protestant congregation in 1901. This would have to have occurred in the second half of the year as the Indianapolis Recorder reported in July 1901 that the congregation was looking to build a church. By November 1901, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that “the South Marion Mission held services in the Methodist Protestant Church on 35 street.” It still took the congregation some years to pay off the mortgage.
“Marion Flashes,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 8, 1905, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Conference Meets,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 22, 1905, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Pastor of the 35th Street Church,” Marion News-Tribune, July 23, 1905, 7, microfilm, Marion Public Library; “Great Event,” Marion News-Tribune, July 24, 1905, 2, Marion and Grant County File, Marion Public Library.
 James H. Madison, A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 32.
 Madison, 30-42.
 Marion Indiana Branch National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Application for Charter, Date of Organization Meeting: November 28, 1918, NAACP Founding Documents, Library of Congress, copy available in IHB’s Allen Temple marker file.
 “Marion Group to Escort DePriest,” Kokomo Tribune, September 7, 1929, 11, Newspapers.com; Madison, 60.
 Madison, passim.
 “A. M. E. Church Appointments Made Public,” Indianapolis Times, October 1, 1929, 16, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Grant Sherriff’s Ousting Is Asked,” Indianapolis Star, August 21, 1930, 9, Newspapers.com.
Nicole Poletika, “Strange Fruit: The 1930 Marion Lynching and the Woman Who Tried to Prevent It,” Indiana History Blog, May 15, 2018, blog.history.in.gov.
 “John Campbell Dancy,” photograph, n.d., accessed Victoria W. Wolcott, “John Campbell Dancy Jr.,” January 19, 2007, BlackPast.org.
 “Urban League, Carver Center Hold Annual Meet at Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 13, 1947, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Marion Urban League Stages Campaign; Seeks 600 Members,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 7, 1949, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.
 “Fellowship Meet Addressed by Local Cleric, at Marion,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 14, 1949, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.
 “Marion Urban League Lauded at Meet: Work of Marion Urban League Wins Praise,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 12, 1949, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.
 Madison, 130-138.
 “Hoosier Minister Gets Degree in California,” Indianapolis Recorder, August 25, 1951, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Rev. Ford Gibson Re-Elected NAACP President for Year,” Indianapolis Recorder, December 27, 1958, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Ministerial Appointments Are Made at AME 123rd Meet,” Indianapolis Recorder, November 18, 1961, 9, Hoosier State Chronicles.
 “Marion Hotel Owner Under ‘Bias Fire:’ Ind. Postmaster Party to Charge of Jimcrowism,” Indianapolis Recorder, June 30, 1962, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.
 “Dr. Ford Gibson Assumes New AME Church Post,” Indianapolis Recorder, July 6, 1968, 13, Hoosier State Chronicles; “Dr. Ford Gibson to Speak Sun. at Allen Chapel AME,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 11, 1969, 7, Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Valpo” is a thriving university today, with some of the best programs in Indiana — and has no connections whatsoever to the KKK. Yet, a century ago, after its rapid rise to national fame, the highly-respected school experienced hard times that took many alumni and faculty by surprise.
Renowned for its economical tuition and low cost of living — as well as for admitting women and students from overseas — by 1905 “Old Valpo” enjoyed one of the highest enrollments of any private university in the U.S. With over 5,000 students that year, the school ranked just behind Harvard. Its affordability to working-class Americans led many to praise it as the aforementioned “Poor Man’s Harvard.”
Students from all over the U.S. and the world trained to be public school teachers there. Some were later busy teaching English to immigrants employed at Gary’s new steel mills. Valpo’s programs in law, engineering, medicine, and dentistry were well-regarded. Its College of Medicine and Surgery had been brought over from Northwestern University in Chicago. When the college moved back to the Windy City in 1926, it formed the nucleus of Loyola’s medical program.
Harvard and Yale might have been too good to take out ads in Chicago newspapers. But this ad from 1905 appeared next to one for another great school on the rise, the University of Notre Dame.
Yet, once enrollment peaked in 1907, venerable Valpo plunged into an unexpected, two-decade-long decline. After accreditation of American colleges and universities began at the turn of the century — partly driven by a desire to standardize high-school education and thereby “unify” the country — Valparaiso failed to win accreditation. Suddenly unable to transfer their credits, current and prospective students found the school a harder sell, especially as affordable new state universities, teachers’ colleges, and urban night schools entered the competition. Valpo’s lack of a football team and Greek life were another stumbling block, though it hurriedly scraped together a football program in the early 1920s and even played Harvard. (It lost 22-0 in its first game.)
World War I issued another blow. The famously affordable university had always attracted international students. (One of the more unusual of them was future Soviet Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin, “Stalin’s Man in China,” who would die in a Siberian gulag in 1951.) But after 1914, many of these students left to fight for their European homelands in WWI. When America entered the war against Germany in 1917, student military enlistment left Valpo’s academic and residence halls almost empty. Also, with plenty of war-related jobs now available to women, female students also tended to skip out on college for the duration of the war.
In 1919, Indiana passed a new law requiring private colleges to maintain a half-million dollar endowment. Cash-strapped Valparaiso University, burdened with a $350,000 debt (almost $5 million in today’s money) faced the real prospect of bankruptcy. The school’s trustees even tried to sell it to the state that year for use as a public teacher’s college, but the Indiana legislature declined the offer.
Holding on by a thread — and led by controversial president Daniel Russell Hodgdon, who turned out to hold fake medical degrees — desperate trustees and the equally-desperate citizens of Valparaiso sought new owners. That list of potential “saviors” grew to include the Presbyterian Church, the International Order of the Moose, and the owner of Cook Laboratories in Chicago, who wanted to turn the campus into a syringe factory and provide 1,000 jobs to townsfolk.
The efforts of the revived Klan proved more durable than that which had died out in the 1870s. Klan rallies and parades occurred all over the North and West, from Chicago and L.A. to Oregon and Maine. KKK membership in those years peaked in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, “ground zero” for some of the biggest Klan activity. D.C. Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in 23 states, operated mostly out of his headquarters in Indianapolis, a city that was almost taken over by Klansmen and Klanswomen; It was also a city that fought a valiant battle in the press, courts, and churches to discredit the “Invisible Empire.”
The “second wave” of the Klan defined itself as a hyper-patriotic organization of white Protestant Americans and was more mainstream than at any other point in its history. Instead of waving the Confederate flag at rallies and parades as had previous iterations of the Klan, they flew the red, white, and blue. During the 1920s, the Klan was less concerned with suppressing African Americans than with stemming the tide of new immigration coming from Southern and Eastern Europe — including to heavily-industrial towns like Gary, just thirty miles from Valparaiso. The Klan sought to cripple an imaginary conspiracy contending that Catholics wanted to destroy American public schools and hand the U.S. government over to the Pope. It also warned of the activities of “Jewish Communists” and anarchists in the wake of the Russian Revolution and the 1919 Red Scare. Prohibition of alcohol, another cause taken up by the KKK, was a barely concealed way to crack down on immigrant culture.
These views were shared by thousands of Americans who didn’t belong to the Klan. The “Invisible Empire” even found strange bedfellows in the Progressive movement, including women’s suffrage advocates, who espoused some of the same “reform” ideals promoted by the Klan, albeit with different objectives. They also got involved in public health. In 1925, the organization helped fund a hospital in Logansport that catered only to Protestants. Alongside these initiatives, acquiring a university would have helped the Klan project a more legitimate image. Since Valparaiso was a teacher’s college, the Klan could also propagandize American children from within schools.
When encountering obvious concern from much of the faculty and student body, Elrod assured the press that a Ku Klux takeover of the school would change nothing except the trustee board, which was to be filled with Klan appointees. The school would remain open to women and would be non-sectarian, Elrod insisted — though Catholic students were already beginning to drop out and enroll elsewhere. Ludicrously, Elrod initially claimed that the Klan would admit any applicant who met the proper educational requirements, including African Americans, though he later admitted that the school would not have adequate facilities for them. (The sad irony is that Valparaiso University did not admit African Americans even before the Klan tried to buy it.)
Few people (trustees excepted, it seems) took Elrod at his word when he said that nothing else would change at the university, except skyrocketing enrollment and the return of its once prestigious reputation. Yet Elrod’s enemies had already come out. In the Fiery Cross on August 24, 1923, he was busy singling out “un-American” and “alien forces” as his opponents. Elrod may have been quick to pick up on campus rumors that Catholic priests from Notre Dame had visited town, spurring the Klan to act soon and not be outbid by the “agents of Rome.”
Heavy opposition came from the press. Even in Indiana, major urban newspapers tended to be anti-Klan, including the Indianapolis Star, Indianapolis News and most famously the Indianapolis Times, which won a Pulitzer for its battle against the group. Some of the sharpest criticism, however, came from George R. Dale, the wildly colorful and energetic editor of the Muncie Post Democrat. Dale, who endured death threats and assaults on his life and that of his family, ran a paper that was virtually one long, rambunctious op-ed piece, employing a folksy humor to give sucker-punches to the powerful “Indiana Realm.” Dale went on to become mayor of Muncie in 1930.
Editors and cartoonists nationwide– including E.H. Pomeroy, an illustrator for the Valparaiso Vidette — tore into Elrod’s proposal once it came out that he might, in fact, get hold of the $350,000 in cash needed to bail the school out of debt. (Elrod also promised that the Klan would set it up on a million-dollar endowment, twice the amount required by Indiana law.) As the story spread across the U.S., an illustrator in the New York Call went straight for the jugular, publishing a parody of Dante’s Inferno — “Abandon All Brains Ye Who Enter Here.” The cartoon depicts book-burning, classes in whipping and tar-and-feathering, a “Klinik” to teach “100% Americanism,” and a commencement day ceremony where students sport an unconventional new style of cap and gown.
Another critical broadside came from Helena, Montana. The writer in Helena’s Independent Record thought that a bout of education for those in the Klan might at least have a few “salutary” side-effects.
One editorial, “Ku Klux and Kolleges”, appeared in Robert W. Bingham’sLouisville Courier-Journal. It asks if there is no provision in the Indiana school’s original charter to prevent the sale to the Klan. The Courier-Journal also pointed out that many teachers in Kentucky had been trained at Valparaiso in its better days, and that Kentuckians should be concerned about its ultimate fate.
Though excitement among some Valparaiso citizens allegedly ran high, Milt Elrod was probably too quick to make blustery promises about the Klan’s own financial strength. His proposal to buy the school wasn’t completely baseless, but Elrod was a notorious booster and propagandist.
Through the sale of thousands of robes, newspaper subscriptions, and membership fees, the leadership of the Klan had amassed huge fortunes for itself. D.C. Stephenson had gone from being a poor coal dealer in Evansville to a wealthy man by age 33, but he squandered Klan money on liquor, women, cars, and a yacht. Even the $350,000 needed to buy the Valparaiso campus — not to mention the $1,000,000 offered as an endowment — was apparently beyond the ability of the Klan to come up with (or hang onto).
The American press and higher education breathed a sigh of relief when, after just a few weeks, Elrod feebly announced that the Klan had changed its mind due to “legal technicalities.” Some papers reported that — true to the Louisville Courier-Journal’s suggestion — a clause in the school’s original charter had been discovered, preventing control by any “fraternal, benevolent or charitable order” (an inaccurate description of the Klan, at any rate).
“Legal technicalities” caused by the school’s charter might have been a myth, a clever way for both the university and the Klan to save face after the embarrassing episode. Most newspapers ran with it, but there seems to be little evidence that university trustees would have called off the sale if enough cash had been put down in front of them.
In the summer of 1925, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod rescued the run-down, almost abandoned school. Lutherans at that time had several colleges and seminaries around the U.S., but no university. They announced vague plans to use it as a theology school or teachers’ college. Securing the deal was assisted by Reverend John C. Baur, a Lutheran minister and noted opponent of the Ku Klux Klan in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Under Lutheran guidance, Valparaiso University’s fortunes gradually turned around, though it barely survived the Great Depression. By the 1950s, “Old Valpo” once again ranked among Indiana’s and the nation’s best colleges, a reputation it still holds today.
Indiana is a sports state through and through. From our long history with Hoosier Hysteria and March Madness to our deep passion for the football team that arrived in the dead of night to the checkered flags dotting the capital city every May, it’s clear we love our sports. While many Hoosiers are familiar with our love for basketball, football, and racing (among many other popular pastimes), there’s also a long history in the state of Indiana with another much less known and perhaps more controversial sport:
Over the long decades of the sport’s existence, Hoosiers had a complicated relationship with Roller Derby. They loved it and found it immensely entertaining, but was it true sport? Was it more of an entertainment spectacle? Could Roller Derby scores grace the sports page of the Indianapolis Star or the Indianapolis Times the same as the box scores for other sports? Not everyone thought it should, yet thousands of Hoosiers still clamored for tickets whenever the Roller Derby wheeled into town.[i] There was just something deeply amusing about the fast-paced skating and amped up action of the mad whirlers as they skated around and around the banked track. The Roller Derby offered fans something that no other full contact team sport did: women competing on par with men, and for that reason, the Roller Derby was both beloved and spurned.
Roller Derby, in its modern form, was born out of the struggles of the Great Depression. There is a long history in the United States of various roller-skating races and marathons, and many of them were even called roller derbies. However, in the 1930s, an entertainment promoter named Leo Seltzer decided to try his hand at putting on a roller derby. He had recently become the main leaseholder on the Chicago Coliseum and after hosting a series of walkathons and danceathons was convinced that these attractions couldn’t hold the long-term interest of paying crowds.
Yet deep in the throes of the Depression, he knew he needed cheap entertainment that the average American could relate to and spend some of their hard-earned money enjoying. Seltzer claimed to have read an article that stated that well over 90% of Americans roller skated at some point in their lives, but he also drew inspiration from previously held roller marathons, skating races, popular 6-day bicycle races, walkathons, and danceathons to create what he dubbed the Transcontinental Roller Derby (TRD).[ii]
The first Transcontinental Roller Derby was held at the air-conditioned Chicago Coliseum on August 14, 1935, in front of 20,000 enthused fans. Here’s how it worked: ten co-ed pairs of skaters were competing against each other to, in essence, skate approximately 3,000 miles across the country (the distance could vary). One of each pair of skaters had to be skating on the track at all times the roller derby was open, which often was 6-12 hours a day. The women generally skated against the women for a particular interval and then men against the men. Their progress was tracked through a giant map of the United States featuring a transcontinental route, for instance, from Indianapolis to Los Angeles: According to Roller Derby: The History of an American Sport, “small lights on the map were lit as skaters advanced along the replicated path, marking their distance and mileage as they progressed city by city.”[iii]
The first skating duo to complete the 3,000 mile journey won the roller derby. Corrisse Martin and Benjamin McKay won the first TRD in Chicago. Roller Derby clearly a success, Seltzer took his spectacle on the road.[iv]
For the next couple of years, the TRD barnstormed the country, hosting Roller Derbies in venues across the nation. However, the business side of the Roller Derby operated out of Seltzer’s offices in Gary, Indiana.[v] Despite the ties to northern Indiana, the TRD did not skate in Indiana until the spring of 1937 when it rolled into Indianapolis. By then, Indy fans were eager to greet the sport and its skaters. According to an Indianapolis Star headline a week before the derby began, “Thrilling ‘jams’ await Roller Derby spectators” at the Coliseum at the state fairgrounds.[vi] Only one local Indianapolis resident participated in the first Hoosier Roller Derby: Tom Whitney. He was a veteran of the sport, however. Jane and Jack Cummings of Lafayette, a husband and wife team, joined the fray, and Gene Vizena, of East Gary, was also among the skating teams in that first competition in Indy.[vii]
The TRD would return to Indianapolis for a second stint in late September to mid-October 1937, again held at the Coliseum.[viii] Five thousand fans showed up to watch the competition on October 6, 1937, where they apparently discovered, “it was possible to yell louder than a combination of sirens and bells.”[ix] The fans loved it, but the newspapers weren’t exactly sure what to make of it. As one Star reporter wrote, “The curtain rolled up on the roller derby last night and if you will bear with the roller derby reporter while he unravels his neck and focuses his eyes he will try to tell you about this dizzy occupation.”[x]
But major changes were a-coming to the Roller Derby late in 1937 that would dramatically alter the competition, propel it into the limelight, and eventually make people question its legitimacy. The rules prior to late December 1937 prevented skaters from any physical contact with each other as they completed the marathon-style endurance race. This had become a frustrating facet of the race for larger skaters who were frequently outmaneuvered by the smaller and quicker skaters that easily lapped them. At a series held in the Miami, Florida area late in the year, a group of skaters let their frustrations out on the track and “began pushing, shoving, and elbowing the speedsters, pinning them in the pack behind them . . . The referees ended the sprinting jams and started penalizing and fining the bigger skaters, eliciting loud boos and hisses from the excited crowd.”[xi] Leo Seltzer always paid close attention to crowd reactions and ordered the refs to allow the skaters to continue with contact, to much fanfare.
Later that night, Seltzer and famed essayist and playwright Damon Runyon, who was at the game and witnessed the enthusiastic crowd response, rewrote the rules over dinner to permanently allow contact. From that point forward, the game evolved away from a marathon-style race to a full contact team sport, albeit one with amped up dramatics, lots of hard-hitting, and frequently a fight or two.[xii]
Here’s how the new game worked: Five players of the same sex from each team started on the oval track together—two jammers (players that could score points) and three blockers. Once the referee blew his whistle, the ten skaters began skating counterclockwise around the track and then grouped together to form what was dubbed a “pack.” According to Roller Derby, once skaters formed the pack, “the jammers, who began in the back of the pack, attempted to work their way through the pack to break free from the blockers.”[xiii] The blockers had a more complicated job of playing simultaneous offense and defense—their mission was to prevent the opposing team’s jammers from breaking out of the pack while also helping their jammers break through the pack to then score points. Immediately after the first jammer broke free of the pack, a jam clock began: “this meant that the jammers had two minutes to lap the pack and attempt to score as many points as possible before the jam time ran out.”[xiv] Jammers scored points for every opponent they passed after breaking through the pack that first time.
This newer version of Roller Derby really gained national prominence and coverage when it rooted itself in the New York City area with a lucrative ABC television network contract that telecast the event live every week for three years. From 1949-1952, the Roller Derby made its way into homes across the nation and became a staple of primetime TV. Various channels broadcast the sport for Hoosier viewers, ranging from the Indianapolis-based channel WFBM (Channel 6) to WGN out of Chicago (Channel 9) or WCPO Cincinnati (Channel 7).[xv] This provided a huge popularity boost to the sport, and fans loved watching the hard-hitting action of the male and female skaters competing together on a team. Indeed, it had higher viewership and ratings than other sporting events that were broadcast, such as boxing, wrestling, and college football, but there was a downside to this as well. The regular primetime programming without any sort of off-season led viewers, in part, to categorize the sport as entertainment television as opposed to a sporting event. This, along with the female skaters ready to battle it out on skates, endeared the sport to many while causing sports editors to thumb their noses at the Roller Derby.[xvi]
The Indianapolis Star coverage provides a great case study on the love-hate relationship with Roller Derby. Even prior to the TV exposure, the Indianapolis sports editors were leery of covering the Roller Derby as true sport, and often stories on the derby were intermixed among other sections of the paper—not in the “Sports, Financials, and Classifieds” section. As early as 1940, the Star sports editor explained why Roller Derby coverage wouldn’t appear on the sports pages: “When it came to the roller derby here we said, ‘Nay, nay’ for the sports pages—purely amusement. There was a squawk from the promoters, but the ‘front office’ backed us up in our contention.”[xvii]
Yet, Roller Derby was covered occasionally in the sports pages throughout the 1940s, but in 1954, the Star doubled down on their stance, despite continuing to provide coverage on the first Roller Derby in the city for years (on the sports page no less): “A mechanized morality play called the Roller Derby has dusted off an old wrestling script and moved dizzily into the Coliseum.”[xviii] The author allowed that “despite a journey that has no terminus, all on board seem to have fun. The crowd—made up of those who like to comment loudly on the performances of the athletes—exercises its vocal chords as strenuously as the athletes exercise their ideas of coed mayhem.”[xix] Still, he added an extra dig on the female skaters: “Girls skate against girls and boys against boys. But it’s quite difficult to determine when the sex of the competition changes off. If anything, the girls are the more nasty.”[xx]
Regardless, Hoosiers came out in droves to attend the Roller Derby whenever it came to Indiana. Roller Derbies were held at the Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds, at Victory Field, at Butler (now Hinkle) Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and it even came to Fort Wayne in the spring of 1953.[xxi] According to the Angola Herald, “Fort Wayne [was] one of the smallest cities to ever play host to the Roller Derby teams. Most of the time the skaters are booked into large cities like New York, Philadelphia, Denver, Chicago, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.”[xxii]
Over the decades, until the Seltzer Roller Derby folded in the mid-1970s, Hoosiers continued to grapple with their enjoyment of the game and their confusion over how to characterize it. Whether it was a “scripted morality play”[xxiii] or a “big league counterpart . . . to baseball, football, basketball and other sports,”[xxiv] Hoosiers loved the hard hits, big spills, and over-the-top action of the female and male skaters.
Stay tuned for another blog post focusing on Hoosiers starring in the Roller Derby, namely the Kemp family (3 Indianapolis siblings who took the sport by storm)!
[i] “King and Aronson Lead Derby Field,” Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1937; Crowd of 8,376 At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, May 2, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937; “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Roller Derby Due At Victory Field,” Indianapolis Times, May 30, 1949; “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne, Angola Herald, May 14, April 29, 1953; “Chiefs Beat Westerners, 35-34,” Indianapolis Star, October 29, 1954.
[ii] Michella M. Marino, Roller Derby: The History of An American Sport, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021),18-20; Hal Boyle, “Roller Derby Gives Women Something to Yell About,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, June 5, 1950; Leo Seltzer, quoted in Herb Michelson’s A Very Simple Game: The Story of Roller Derby, (Oakland, California: Occasional Publishing, 1971), 7; Jerry Seltzer, interview by author, June 17, 2011, Sonoma, California, digital audio recording, Michella Marino Oral History Collection, W.E.B. DuBois, University of Massachusetts Amherst.
[iii] Marino, 20; Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’ Await Roller Derby Spectators,” Indianapolis Star, April 11, 1937.
[v] “Incorporations,” Indianapolis Star, September 18, 1935; “Kaplan Says His Arrest was Outrage,” The Times (Hammond, Indiana), November 24, 1937; Marino, 22-23.
[vi] Bob Stranahan, “Thrilling ‘Jams’…”; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937.
[vii] “Hoosier Team in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1937; “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937.
[viii] “Fall Roller Derby To Start Sept. 28,” Indianapolis Star, September 17, 1937; “Thirty in Derby Starting Tuesday,” Indianapolis Star, September 21, 1937; “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have The Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937;
[ix] “Derby ‘Menaced’ By Black Shirts,” Indianapolis Star, October 6, 1937.
[x] “They Go ‘Round and ‘Round and Have the Darndest Time—At Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1937.
[xv] “WFBM-TV Ch. 6 Programs for Friday,” Indianapolis Star, June 10, 1949; “Thursday TV, April 26, 1951,” Indianapolis Star, April 21, 1951; “WGN-TV Chicago (Channel 9),” Indianapolis Star, November 11, 1951; “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, February 2, 1952 “Your Radio and Television Programs for Saturday,” Indianapolis Star, March 1, 1952.
[xxi] “Ten Roller Derby Teams Announced,” Indianapolis Star, April 14, 1937; Bob Stranahan, “Skaters Practice at Coliseum Oval For Start of Roller Derby Tonight,” Indianapolis Star, April 15, 1937; “Interest in Roller Derby Reaches New High; Hoosier Team Captain Returns,” Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1939; “Field of 37 Set For Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 1, 1949; “Indianapolis Cops Lead in Roller Derby,” Indianapolis Star, June 2, 1949; “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.
[xxii] “Roller Derby Comes to Fort Wayne May 14,” Angola Herald, Wed. April 29, 1953.
Legendary choreographer and “unsung gay hero” Charles Allen sat with a tape recorder in his Fort Wayne house, a veritable art museum awaiting curation. Sipping gin and orange juice from an empty peanut butter jar, he began to document his life. Notorious for self-mythologizing—once claiming to have killed a man using “voodoo and black magic”—some of the anecdotes he fed the tape no doubt were embellished. These would prove unnecessary, however, as his legacy speaks for itself. Not only did Allen give “birth to generations of dancers and . . . change the way people looked at the world around him,” but he inspired and empowered LGBTQ+ Hoosiers, perhaps unintentionally. Upon Allen’s 1980 death, Jerry Jokay wrote in TROIS, Fort Wayne’s gay newsletter, that “Although he probably wouldn’t have seen it this way, one of his greatest contributions was that he was a gay hero. And he is a gay hero simply because his gayness was a trivial issue in his life even in spite of the oppression it caused him.” Allen, on the other hand, would probably consider his greatest contributions to be advancing performing arts and instilling a love of storytelling and self-expression in Hoosiers.
Born in 1912, Allen was likely raised by his aunt and uncle in Mongo, Indiana. Depictions of Allen’s childhood are characteristically colorful and include a traipse through Tamarack Swamp with famed author and naturalist Gene Stratton Porter in search of insects and plant specimens. Allen “recalled dyeing his hair pinkish-brown as a child, catching blue racer snakes, putting them around his neck, and startling passersby on highway 20 near his home. A barefoot, innocent, wild-haired child of the swamp.” The spirited child attended school in Kendallville and spent free time in LaGrange, where he learned to play piano at Wigdon Theater. Fully enamored with artistic expression, he devoured performances delivered by a travelling company. The News-Sentinel reported “there was a troupe of four or five men, who did a two-reel silent movie, and set up an impromptu stage with an indian scene. There was singing, and two of the men did female impersonations. When he left the show, his life had changed. . . . He’d fallen in love.”
The production continued to call to him, long after the caravans departed. He left school, took a train to northern Michigan, where the travelling company had migrated, and became its new pianist. As despair deepened during the Great Depression, the public increasingly took solace in travelling shows. These provided Allen with opportunities to try his theatrical hand and hone his skills as a performer. The News-Sentinel noted, “People were doing almost anything for money. He fell in with a freak show,” dubbed the Palace of Wonders, for which he mesmerized crowds as the Human Pin Cushion. During this period, Allen learned how to perform the “half-man, half-woman” act, styling his feminine half after screen siren Marlene Dietrich. When he returned to Fort Wayne, he would perform this routine at local tavern, Henry’s, and played piano at bars like This Old House, Trolly Bar, and the Caboose. Allen insisted that friends stay at his house once the bars closed down for the night, hating solitude.
The eclectic career he had forged for himself was abruptly derailed by the conformist ethos of the 1940s. At a time of global upheaval, Americans held evermore sacrosanct heteronormativity. The News-Sentinel reported that during this “less enlightened age,” a judge sentenced Allen to six years in a Michigan City Prison after “an affair with a soldier led to a charge of sodomy.” Allen recalled in the Fort Wayne Free Press that the judge declared ironically “we’re going to send you where you’ll be happy; locked up with a lot of men!” This prediction proved correct, as he spent time with paramours in a makeshift room fashioned out of old pianos and curtains. On weekends, he played piano for the men waiting in line to watch a movie. While it played, a band mate would take his place at the piano, so that he could go hold hands with his companion. During his few years in prison, Allen made friends, assembled a band—for which he played the sousaphone—and learned how to dance.
The News-Sentinel noted that in prison Allen “kept following his insatible [sic] desire to learn. Where he could find no one else to teach him, he taught himself. The creativity could never let him rest. It would be that way to the end of his life.” This cultivation of self-expression paralleled the journey of African American poet, Etheridge Knight. While serving eight years at the Indiana State Prison in the 1960s, he discovered the restorative power of writing, culminating in his revolutionary Poems from Prison. Knight later stated that “Poetry and a few people in there trying to stay human saved me . . . I knew that I couldn’t just deaden all my feeling the way some people did.”
So, too, did music and dance sustain Allen during his incarceration. Upon release, he returned to Fort Wayne, opening the Charles Allen Dance Studio. According to the Journal-Gazette, he was the city’s only choreographer and, through his trips to New York and Chicago, “single-handedly” invigorated the city’s theater scene. Something of a cultural conduit, Allen traveled to Vera Cruz, Mexico to research indigenous dances. He studied dance at the University of Guatemala and the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico, imbuing midwestern students with unique material and perspectives.
In life and work, Allen gravitated towards those on the fringes, perhaps identifying with their struggles or the stigmatization they endured. He reportedly taught exotic dancers how to improve their performances and played piano at “houses of ill repute.” In his TROIS article, Springer wrote that Allen played piano and felt a “kinship” with Black Americans because “like him, they were among the outsiders of society.” Though he was exacting and sometimes cruel, the News Sentinel reported that “he would work with beginners no one else had time for, work tirelessly because he felt a love of what he was doing.” Janice Dyson recalled this experience, after her mom “scrimped grocery money to help pay” for lessons for her and her sister, Bernice. She recalled that Allen “was a real taskmaster. . . . Bernice was intimidated by him and quit after about a year. I wasn’t afraid of him, but I learned pretty quickly that when he said practice or else, he meant it.” Perhaps he hoped to provoke the same grit he’d developed through surmounting the many hardships imposed by society.
While he worked with Fort Wayne performers, Allen reportedly knew the jazz greats, like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, and one friend noted that “a lot of famous people used to come here and have him fix their acts. Polish the acts. Reblock them or rechoreograph them.'” Legend has it that one winter Allen sold his horse to pay the train fare to see Holiday perform in New York City. Due to a snow storm, he was the only person to show up at the theater. The usher relayed his presence to Holiday, who performed only for him, after which they went out for a drink. She reportedly drove him to the train station and ran alongside the cars, waving as the train departed. Allen was so moved by the experience that he wept while watching the train station scene in “The Lady Sings the Blues.”
Purdue University Fort Wayne (PUFW) recognized the ingenue’s talent, hiring Allen to teach courses like Stage Movement. He felt immense pride about being self-taught. A man who embodied resistance towards oppression and convention, his influence intersected fortuitously with the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s. Friends and colleagues seem to agree that he was not an activist in the traditional sense, but he always answered when called to provide insight about homosexuality or the burgeoning “homophile” movement. He recognized that, as one of few men in the area living openly, if he did not engage in public discourse that no one one would. When asked by WANE-TV to serve as one of five panelists about homosexuality Allen agreed, saying “‘I’m all right here, I don’t have any problems because I’m not scared. But a lot of people are scared; they’re scared they’ll get arrested.” He appealed to dozens of people to serve as panelists, but only two agreed. Those who declined feared that their parents would disown them or that they would lose their job, as had one of Allen’s friends who served in World War II. Others claimed the panel was unnecessary or worried that it would upset the “status quo,” which had provided a modicum of safety. To this reasoning, Allen said, “‘I thought if everything is so fine, why can’t they get on the air and say it’s fine. It’s because it isn’t fine.”
Allen spoke about homosexuality at PUFW campus teach-ins and college classes, and wrote editorials for the student paper, The Fort Wayne Free Press, under the pseudonym “Claude Hawk.” He wanted audiences to understand that sexuality was not a choice, noting that “My own doctor tells me that one gene or chromosome determines sexual preference—not butchness, effeminancy, athleticism, not militancy, but whom you want to go to bed with.” He added that this knowledge, while “comforting,” doesn’t help if you get fired or the “bartender breaks your glass after each drink, etc., etc.” His efforts shifted the perspectives of students like Linda Lamirand and Katharine Stout, who attended a teach-in with the “brave man” who “sat up there and told it like it is.” The authors were enlightened by Allen’s revelations that he knew he was gay at the age of four and that scientific studies suggested that biology dictated sexual preference.
In one Free Press editorial, Allen addressed those who had come to terms with their sexuality, but faced the question “where do you go?” to meet someone. Of the dilemma, he wrote:
You can’t find someone at an office party or at a neighborhood bar because someone would ‘find out’. So you experiment. You drink too much or get so horny that, without experience, you get your teeth bashed in saying something dumb to to the wrong person; or the right-wrong person who relieves you of your watch, wallet, and rings. Or sometimes you are picked up by a nicelooking, intelligent, young man with long hair and bare feet, who turns out to be fuzz and you are entrapped, fined, and-or jailed.
He advised readers to find a “gentle, gay” friend, who can help navigate the covert social world, or a relatively tolerant restaurant or bar. A “third salvation,” Allen noted, was to “know an art or theater crowd who don’t give a damn. Not about you, but about it.” The theater provided a world in which he did not have to explain himself or act as a local spokesperson for homosexuality. He wrote that the “freedom, acceptance, and love” afforded by the theater community created “a place to breathe in this pollution of brotherhood. Since one doesn’t have to hide, or lose his job in these fields, these are the more obvious” ones in which to work. In fact, Allen noted that living as a gay man paralleled life in the performing arts, writing:
“You are forced to think and live like a male and play the game so well that you are never uncovered. And this becomes an art, gives you a facility for understanding objectively what’s going on. It’s like a play, and while others are doing it naturally you’re listening for clues, and if well rehearsed, arrive at a happy ending.”
While TROIS writer Jerry Jokay considered Allen “Fort Wayne’s unsung gay hero,” he noted that “his fortitude laid in the fact that he didn’t dwell upon his difference . . . Allen was preoccupied with being so much more, as his best friends attest.” Preoccupied, he was. Allen informed Free Press readers about his life, writing in 1971 that “I ran my own school, taught at Purdue, played piano in bars, was connected with Ft. Wayne Civic Theater, Kenosha Little Theater, Theater Alanta, had choreographed a Broadway show, was a Japanese paper folder, an Arabian knot tier.” He had traveled the globe in search of inspiration and imbued new generations of performers with it. The News-Sentinel wrote that “he became unique, in a world of his own creation. His art became his life, his life his art.”
His life, his art. Perhaps it was his cancer diagnosis that inspired him to detail them on tape, stories that writer Dan Luzadder suggested “may have been plucked from the intensity of his nether world.” We don’t know what stories he told, as he ran out of time to complete the recordings,* but perhaps he described the demands of caring for his pet python or recited original sonnets, haikus, and Limericks, “both clean and questionable.” We can be certain that his life and art profoundly influenced those around him. This is evidenced by the obituaries written upon his death in 1980 at the age of 68. Luzadder wrote in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel:
There was loneliness and insecurity. There were things that drove him. And there was tremendous courage to live through the times of his life, to aspire to art, to survive with nothing more than intelligence and faith in himself, to go hungry, to be alone, to see the world in its intolerance and still love it.
On March 21, hundreds of people from all walks of life—including actors, dancers, bartenders, city officials, and editors—stood shoulder-to-shoulder at the Performing Arts Center to pay their respects to the man “whose life had taught them the meaning of art.” His memorial served as a final standing ovation, with Civic Director Richard Casey reading from “Hamlet,” poets performing spoken word, and dancers delivering a finale performance of “Mr. Bojangles.”
Allen provides us with a window into the experiences of those who lived openly in Indiana prior to the liberating events of the 1980s and 1990s. Before a sense of community was fostered by the formation of groups like Fort Wayne Gay and Lesbian Organization (GLO), Pride Week celebrations, and the publication of gay newsletters, Allen drew upon a deep reservoir of self-assurance and creative impulse to fashion a fulfilling life. In his 1980 tribute, Steve Springer described Allen as “an individualist. Society had its standards of behavior and Allen had his own.” And although he had suffered because of these standards, Springer insisted that “Long after Anita Bryant and her hordes of intolerants are forgotten, the legend of Charles Allen will live on.”
* The author has been unable to locate these recordings. If you know of their location please contact npoletika @library.in.gov.
 “Family Festival Slated,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, April 28, 1976, 6C.
 “It Isn’t Fine,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, no. 17 (September 9-23, 1971).
 Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.; Claude Hawk, “Out of the Closet,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 11 (November 2-18, 1970): 3, 6.; “It Isn’t Fine,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, no. 17 (September 9-23, 1971).
 Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.
 Linda Lamirand and Katharine Stout, “Dear Freep,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 7 (April 22-May 6, 1971): 10.
 Claude Hawk, “Wherever You Are!,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 1, iss. 10 (October 7-21, 1970): 4.
 Claude Hawk, “God Love Us All,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 8 (May 6, 1971): 9.
 Bob Ihrie and Charles Allen, “Holiday on Ice,” The Fort Wayne Free Press 2, iss. 2 (January 18-February 2, 1971): 3.
 Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.
 Dell Ford, “Artists’ Artist Charles Allen Dies,” Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, March 20, 1980, 1C, 2C, ISL microfilm.
 Dan Luzadder, “Charles Allen: His Life and His Art Were his Epitaph,” (Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel, March 21, 1980, 7A, ISL microfilm.
 Dell Ford, “Funeral Celebrates Dance, Poetry, Drama, Music,” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, March 22, 1980, C1, ISL microfilm.; Steve Springer, “Chas. Allen,” The Communicator, March 27, 1980, reprinted in TROIS (Three Rivers’ One in Six) (May 1980): 5, 7, Northeast Indiana Diversity Library Collection, accessed Indiana Memory.
 Dell Ford, “Funeral Celebrates Dance, Poetry, Drama, Music,” Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, March 22, 1980, C1, ISL microfilm.
 Nicole Poletika, “From ‘Gay Knights’ to Celebration on the Circle: A History of Pride in Indianapolis,” October 5, 2021, accessed Indiana History Blog.
*This post was written by IUPUI Public History graduate student Molly Hollcraft.
Often, stories and memories play an important part in understanding history. They offer a human element that helps connect people to one another. W. Todd Groce wrote in an article for History News that “Memory is deeply emotional,” and when people remember something they do so because they have a connection to it. According to historian David Thelen, memory “can illuminate how individuals, ethnic groups, political parties, and cultures shape and reshape their identities.” In 2009, at the age of 98, Black activist Pearl Cannon Bassett gave an interview to a student at the University of Southern Indiana. In the interview, she recounted events related to civil rights and desegregation that she witnessed while living in Marion, Indiana. Bassett’s memories of the discrimination and Civil Rights Movement in Grant County illuminate how Black citizens in Marion shaped their identity.
Pearl Bassett and Civil Rights
Pearl Elizabeth Cannon Bassett was born April 28, 1911, in Marion, Indiana. Aside from the years she spent in Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois, Pearl Bassett, also known to many as “Ms. Pearl,” spent her life in Marion. In her oral history interview, Bassett briefly talked about her early education and her family. She recalled how her teacher lowered her grade because it was “too high.” While she was not living in Marion at the time, she recalled the impact the 1930 Marion lynching had on the local Black community. As a 19-year-old, she would have been about the same age as victims Tom Shipp and Abe Smith. In August, the young men had been jailed for the murder of Claude Deeter and rape of Mary Ball. A white mob ripped Shipp and Smith from their cells, brutally beat them, and lynched them near the Marion courthouse. Fearing for her safety, Bassett’s family told her that she should not return home yet. When the National Guard was called into action in Marion not long after the lynching, some of the soldiers were standing in her family’s yard. In remembering the lynching, she said “that was terrible because we had a lot of discrimination.” Shortly after the tragedy, she became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Through organizations like the NAACP, Bassett became an active member in the Marion community and helped fight discrimination and segregation. Her name appeared frequently in the African American newspaper TheIndianapolis Recorder for these efforts. Her work included how helping the Red Cross reach its quota for war relief, serving as chairman for the war service commission, and serving as a board member for the Carver Community Center. In her interview, Bassett talked about how she helped organize the NAACP Auxiliary, Women in NAACP, and the Urban Gild, all of which would play a role in desegregation efforts throughout the city.
She also described the discrimination that Black citizens in Marion faced because of segregated of swimming pools, such as Matter Park. Before its 1954 integration, African Americans had to travel to Anderson to swim. When they did get to swim in the Marion pools they would be drained and refilled afterwards. While it is unclear how directly Bassett was involved in these efforts, it is certainly possible as she was a member of the Marion Urban League, one of the two civil rights organizations that worked to desegregate the swimming pool.
We do know that she participated in anti-discrimination efforts through civil disobedience, as she stated: “When we could not go into the restaurant and eat. . . we formed a committee, and we just read the civil rights law, which has always been right. . . . And if they didn’t open up the place, when they were charged $100 a person in their restaurant. So they opened it up the day we walked in there.”
She also joined an NAACP march in 1969, recalling “We first had the walk from 26th Street to the courthouse for discrimination and equal opportunities for people and jobs. And it was a wonderful thing.” The Ku Klux Klan tried unsuccessfully to confront them at the courthouse, but were told by the city that “they would need a permit and that they [the KKK] would have to take their hoods off.” This was not the only experience that Pearl Bassett had with the Klan. While president of one of the many organizations she was involved in, she received a call from the Klan members. She said, “Many a time they told me they were coming out and burn up my house.”
While in the NAACP, The Indianapolis Recorder reported in the 1960s that Bassett was elected secretary and chaplain for the Marion branch. Bassett was also the President of Women and “wore her tiara as the state queen of the NAACP” during a visit to Kokomo in 1982. She was also the first Black secretary of the Democratic Committee in Grant County. Pearl Bassett also received numerous awards from the NAACP and The Fort Wayne Frost Illustrated reported in 2004 that she received the Region Three Rosa Parks Women of the Year award for her work in civil rights. The Mayor of Marion made a Proclamation for Pearl Bassett Day and gave her a key to the city. In June 2021, Pearl Bassett passed away at the age of 110. Her first-hand accounts help humanize tragic events and shape the identity of Black citizens in Grant County. Her documented memories are invaluable because traditional media often mischaracterized or neglected to record minority history.
Beckley: We’re here today with Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson, who is an Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University. And she joins us here today to speak about her article that is very related to our most recent episode about Anita Bryant, and I am so excited to talk with you today. Dr. Johnson.
Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here.
Beckley: Yeah. And I was telling you before we started recording that, as I was doing the research for the Anita Bryant episode, my boss actually sent me your article. And I was so glad because I was going to get was definitely going to get something wrong in that episode. And it’s always nice to have another historian spoofing and save me from that, and do the work before I have to. So I was wondering – So in your article, you kind of debunk a myth that has been pervasive in our culture for several decades now, I was wondering if you could kind of start off by telling the myth as it’s been told by various groups for decades.
Johnson: For sure. So Anita Bryant, as you know, and as your listeners will know, was a medium famous pop singer in the 1970s. And a really big celebrity in the evangelical world. And she was also famously a spokeswoman for Florida orange juice. So, a lot of people have talked to remember this experience of like, coming into their living rooms, and she would come onto her ads and be like, hello, I’m Anita Bryant. And they’re grandmothers – I’ve heard this from multiple people, their grandmothers would be like, hello, Anita. Um, so she was sort of a political in the way that conservative Christians were in the mid-1970s. She had some very political ideas about feminism and about homosexuality. But she identified herself as being outside of politics until 1976, when her local Miami Dade County passed an anti-discrimination code that included affectional, or sexual preferences, which is the mid-1970s way of saying gay people. Um, and she found out about this actually, from her pastor who was furious about it, and who wanted her to use her celebrity in order to spearhead a movement against the anti-discrimination code. And it was personal for her because the sponsor of the amendment was Ruth Shaq, who was a friend of hers, and the wife of her booking agent, and she had told all her church friends to vote for Ruth. So she felt responsible for the amendment. So she became the face of this successful effort to repeal the amendment. It passed two to one, the repeal vote, which happens six months after the code was originally passed. And this mobilized a national response among gay and lesbian, it was mostly gay and lesbian groups then. And one of the things that they did was boycott Florida Orange Juice, because that was her most famous corporate sponsor. And there’s been in both communities – the conservative Christian community and the LGBTQ community – this idea that the boycott destroyed her career brought her down. And it was this early triumph for a new, more radical gay liberation movement. And so I believed that as well, and I was doing research in the archives of the Florida Orange Juice marketing and advertising committee, and found that not only did they not fire her because of it, but they actually probably extended her contract because they didn’t want to seem like they were taking a side. And so, first of all, there was remarkably little discussion of her political activities, even well into the boycott. But they did do a sort of marketing survey to see how well. . . Oh wait, you only asked about the myth.
Beckley: I want – I want to know anything you’ll give us.
Johnson: Um, so they had been looking into Anita Bryant’s effectiveness, basically, ever since they hired her in 1969. They had been doing yearly marketing surveys, and they had been finding that her appeal was declining it, it soared through the 1970’s – 71, 72 and then had been declining since then, sort of steadily and there was no real change as a result of the boycott, they did this kind of emergency study in response to the boycott. And they found that 11% of people said that they supported her more because of the boycott. 10% of people said they supported her less. And the vast majority of people did not care at all. And they were getting letters, sometimes sacks full of letters every week. And they were equally upset on both sides. There were people saying, “If you fire Anita Bryant I will never buy Florida orange juice again. And people saying I’m boycotting Florida orange juice until you fire Anita Bryant.” And to be perfectly honest, most of the people who were threatening to be upset if she was fired, were closer to their core demographic. They were Florida growers and Florida families. And so they essentially didn’t know what to do, they had this really difficult decision to make. And in the meantime, Singer sewing machines had had a contract with Anita Bryant to, for her to have her own like daytime variety show. And they cancelled it in the midst of the controversy, and that went really badly for them. They got a lot of bad publicity. So Florida orange juice said, we’re going to put out this kind of like, ambivalent support letter that says like, we’re very proud to be associated with Anita Bryant, but please don’t involve us in the politics on either side, we’re not interested. And there were a few things that contributed to the sense that she was fired because of the boycott. One was the there was one particular Florida Orange Juice executive who just popped off a lot and said things to the press, like, I wish we would fire her, which and he was very high up in the company, so people took that as gospel truth. And he got a lot of trouble behind the scenes. And then she was actually let go in 1981. But the key thing there was that she had then gone through a really messy divorce with her husband, which he opposed. And she had been both as a pop star and then as a political figure. She had represented herself as this emblem of American motherhood and Christian housewifery and patriotism. And all of that kind of crumbled in the midst of this divorce. So the things that she had based her non-political celebrity on, and the supporters who had rallied around her during the boycott, all kind of fell away. And at the same time, the marketing research that Florida orange use was doing suggested that this kind of 1950s-esque, although it started in the late 60s, view of the sunny, happy housewife was really not resonating with their consumers anymore. And so by 1981, they figured they were far enough away from the boycott, that they could let a let Bryant go without losing too much. And it was close enough that people remember it as being the boycott that sent her down.
Beckley: Well, and then I have read newspaper interviews that she did, where she went out and kind of blamed the boycott and and her political dealings with – blamed that for her being fired for her losing a lot of revenue. I read one, where she said that she could no longer buy the prime cuts of meat, and now she had to buy the choice cuts of meat. So she was saying, you know, she’s lost so much revenue that she’s had to change every facet of her life. And, you know, I kind of looked at that, at first I was like, okay, so this is her saying that the boycott, and her political dealings did lead directly to loss of revenue and loss of contracts. But when we were talking about it, when we were kind of brainstorming and factchecking were like, oh, well, that is good for her narrative that it was that rather than her divorce, that kind of was the nail in the coffin. So, your work definitely helped there where it kind of contextualize her self-proclaimed victimhood, if you will.
Johnson: Yeah, so she, it wasn’t just the divorce. It was also this kind of broader decline in the American appetite for the kind of patriotic over the top motherhood
Beckley: That Leave it to Beaver type.
Johnson: Exactly. And so it doesn’t. It doesn’t make her feel good to feel either like she is less popular on her own. merits, or that she’s made this huge mistake by divorcing her husband. And her turn towards victimhood is something that’s really emblematic of the new Christian right at this time, which is what we historians call the kind of beginning of the modern religious right in the United States. Leaders had been really skeptical of the African American freedom movement in the 1950s and 1960s. But by the 1970s, they are taking that language and using it to say that conservative Christians are being denied their civil rights, that they’re being denied their right to speak in the public square. And they take this kind of rightsp-based language directly from the black civil rights movement and other civil rights movements at the time to make the argument that their First Amendment rights are being infringed. And that’s exactly what Anita Bryant is doing in this moment.
Beckley: Yeah. And I noticed even before that, her using that language, I forget if it was during her press conference here in Indianapolis when she arrived here, or if it was one in Dade County, where she was saying that I don’t want to abridge anybody else’s rights, but my rights are being infringed by allowing gay individuals to influence our children and things like that. So she definitely was already mirroring that even early in her crusade, I guess she called it. So yeah, it definitely kind of as a theme throughout her journey, it seems like.
Johnson: yeah, and I think the thing to remember is that she was really practiced at narrating her own self. She wrote, I think, a record of 11 autobiographies in nine years, she would have had a blog if a blog was possible, but a blog wasn’t possible. And so she just published that much about herself. She had a lot of practice and a lot of finesse with taking what was happening and making it a narrative that suited her brand. So this wasn’t something she was just kind of coming up with, as the Florida orange juice thing was happening. It was something she already really knew how to do. And she actually ends up even mirroring the language of the gay rights community at this time. There’s this great quote, where she says, you know, they were all talking about coming out of the closet. And then I realized, Anita Bryant has come out of the closet too, as a conservative Christian, which is no longer a cool thing to be, according to her.
Beckley: I noticed a lot of mirroring and a lot of very, I mean, probably by the standards of the time, quietly, very homophobic language as far as fruit pies, even, you know, right after she was hit in the face with the pie saying, Oh, at least it was a fruit pie, kind of laughing it off like that. And, yeah, I was not alive during any of this – I’m from the 90s. I was born in 92. So I really didn’t become aware to the early 2000s. Obviously, still a lot of homophobia. But to read, people just saying awful, blatant homophobic things, just in the newspaper for everybody to read. It was just so shocking. This was my first queer history topic that I’ve covered. So I think that going into it, obviously, I expected homophobic language and and kind of coded messages. But they weren’t coded. They were coming right out and saying it and it was pretty shocking to read. I mean, I’m not queer. I can’t imagine being queer now or ever, but just I just admire the people that did come out and did face and Anita Bryant and did kind of come out and proclaim themselves as queer and here and kind of opposing her it was. It made it even more of a topic that I was excited to cover as I read more and more.
Johnson: Yeah, it’s, it’s the casualness of it. I think I also, I run an Oral History Program in Muncie, Indiana, looking into the queer history of the area. And what I’ve heard from a lot of the older generation is that they grew up thinking that they were literally the only gay person who had ever existed. And when you look at like the casual homophobia that was just in mainstream press, and the assumptions that are being made, you can see how you would come to that conclusion, but like, literally no one else in the history of time had ever had these same feelings that you did. And I think that, for me is one of the most heartbreaking things. Another thing about Anita Bryant is that she so she frequently frequently said, I don’t hate gay people. In fact, I love them even more than the people who claim to support them, because I am trying to save them from eternal burning in hell, whereas like supporting them on Earth is nice. Obviously, you don’t even care about their souls.
Beckley: To kind of pivot a little bit and talk about this at a meta level. When I first read your article, I obviously loved it because it crushed it miss conception I had. But also I love it, because it is such a good example of history being an ever evolving process. It’s not, history isn’t a written thing in a book is a process that we are always perform. And every time we uncover a new source, or we include a new viewpoint that’s never been included, that story is going to change. And often times, I find that when you do change the accepted story, the accepted narrative, you get labeled as a revisionist historian, which I don’t think is an insult that people think it is because that’s, again, what history is, is revising those all the time. Have you gotten any of that kind of feedback for your article? Can you talk a little bit about that, and about the process of history.
Johnson: Yeah, for sure. So before we started recording, I said to you that this is the article that has gotten the most negative comments on it. And it was actually a really interesting experience that’s been kind of emblematic of my career, which is that a lot of the comments on the Washington Post article accused me of being homophobic, there’s one person who says, I know this woman, she’s a huge Christian conservative, and I do not know them. And that is not accurate. But then I also got a voicemail where a woman, a Pentecostal woman, essentially laid hands on me over voicemail in order to cast out the demon of homosexuality, which, like I said, is kind of typical of my career. And I don’t know what this says about human nature. But I have found that whatever people are, they assume I’m the opposite. So whatever they want from the history, they assume I’m against them. And I, I think that part of it is that misunderstanding that you’re flagging, but the idea that by changing history, or by finding new things about history, that we, as historians have some kind of bad motive, when really, that is what we are trained to do. We’re trained to find the new angle, the new, the new thing to say, because there are always new perspectives, and always new things to say. And, as I tried to say, in my article, I think the story is really interesting, because it – I mean, we have this kernel of a fact that Anita Bryant was not fired as a result of the boycott and was, in fact, in fact, kept on longer. And yet, I think some of the lessons that have been taken from that myth are still very true. I mean, the fact that and, and that the myth helped those things to become true. So the fact that the gay community felt like they had taken down and Anita Bryant ended up feeling like this huge success, which galvanized the movement and made us stronger in a way that wouldn’t have happened, or maybe, maybe wouldn’t have happened. And a lot of people have said that it set up the activism of the AIDS era that it created those networks that were already in place. So I don’t think this revision is bad for the queer community. I think it actually tells us something more about our history. And that’s what historians in general are trying to do. Certainly, I’m not arguing that we are just objective narrators with no relationship to what we’re talking about. But most of the time, I think when we uncover new perspectives and new facts, what we’re doing is history. That is what historical research is, and we’re trying to shine new light, to get new understandings not to put down communities that have believed things, because that’s the evidence that they had.
Beckley: I often say that if history was unchanging, and if what we wrote in the book, the first time was all that was to be said, then there would be no need for the, what 500,000 different books written about Abraham Lincoln, or, you know, it just seems so obvious that, including new narratives and new viewpoints is so essential. And as we grow as a culture and find these hidden stories, it’s so important to bring those to light to give those people a voice and to, you know, just correct the narrative. It’s, sometimes it’s as simple as that. So I’m appreciative of the work you’re doing.
Johnson: Thank you. One of the metaphors that we use in the profession is that when history was a new pursuit, in the early 20th century, they thought about it as bricks in a wall, and you would just like, get your Abraham Lincoln brick, and you’d put in the wall, and you’d be done. And you get your civil war brick and put in the wall, and you’re done. And we now sort of since the 1970s, have coming out of the Black civil rights movement out of the women’s movement, the queer movement, this insight that there are a lot of different perspectives on any one event, that there are a lot of different ways of thinking and looking at it. And I think that’s so much more exciting than just having one brick, I think it’s so cool that we get a rainbow on every single thing.
Beckley: Absolutely. And that’s, you know, one of the things we try to do is tell some of those stories that people might not have heard yet and Indiana’s history. So thanks for helping us with that. I wanted to give you a minute here at the end to plug any upcoming work you have or tell people where they can find more of your work or even the the article we’ve been talking about so much. Sure.
Johnson: Sure, so the article we’ve been talking about is published in The Washington Post’s made by history blog. And this research is all based on my book, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2019 called This is our Message: Women’s Leadership and the New Christian Right, and it looks at Anita Bryant, as well as a number of other prominent Christian women, including Tammy Faye Baker for another queer angle on it. And even though it is published by University Press, I tried to write it in a way that was still fun.
Beckley: Well, thank you. And I think that is all for today. I hope all of our listeners at home have enjoyed this as much as I have come back in a few weeks for our next episode. And thank you for joining us today.
Johnson: Thank you so much.
Show Notes for Giving Voice: Dr. Emily Suzanne Johnson
* A note on terminology:We recognize that terminology referring to this marginalized community will continue to evolve. We have chosen to use “LGBTQ+” and “queer” after consulting with Indy Pride board members, historians specializing in the field, and new scholarship. We are cognizant that the community is not monolithic and that some individuals may not identify with these terms. It is also important to note that the mainstream civil rights movement excluded people of color, those living in poverty, and transgender individuals.
The fabric of America has always been comprised of LGBTQ+ individuals, but due to social stigmas, legal discrimination, and the perpetuation of violence, many of these individuals lived quietly. While the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City proved to be a watershed moment in the national fight for equality, those in the conservative state of Indiana continued to socialize privately, for the most part. In 1976, the first “Gay Pride Week” was held in Indianapolis, hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) and the Gay Peoples Union. Rather than celebrate publicly, attendees were invited to attend a picnic at Sugar Creek Park, donate blood at MCC, participate in a “Youth Kamp Disco,” and attend workshops entitled “Do I Tell My Parents?,” “Christian and Gay,” “Lifestyles in the ‘70s,” and “Gays and Government.” MCC pastor Rev. James Hill said the purpose of the week was “to make society aware of our presence and as a self-affirming thing for gay people as well—affirming they have the right to be.’”
According to an article The Works, when Pride plans failed to materialize in 1980, activists gathered at the Ramada Inn and formed a Pride Week Committee, which sponsored the 1981 Pride Week Brunch at Essex Hotel House. The Indianapolis Star noted in 1982 that celebrations continued in an insular manner, writing that individuals celebrated “Indiana style—without marches or noisy rallies.” Instead, they raised funds for various causes, donated food to the needy, and “tried quietly to let others know they are here.” Celebrants in 1984 continued the tradition of picnics, in addition to raising funds for AIDS research. The summer of that year, hundreds of LGBTQ+ Hoosiers met at Monument Circle to socialize, listen to local activists, learn about their rights, and register to vote.
While organizers were careful to note that this was not a protest or demonstration, it was the first large public gathering of queer individuals in the state. Their goal was to increase visibility for the community, hoping the show of solidarity would lead to a decrease in police harassment and increased commitment to solving the murders of LGBTQ+ individuals. Mayor Bill Hudnut reluctantly issued a letter that was read at one of the gatherings, declaring a commitment to “an absence of anti-gay bias in all police matters.” According to a June 1985 The Works article, this marked “the first time any Mayor of Indianapolis has made any positive public pronouncement on gays in Indianapolis.” Although relations between police and elected officials and queer Hoosiers would remain relatively fraught, the Works considered the 1984 gatherings a success, writing that the events:
will go down in the gay history of Indiana as the first time gays in this state have exercised their Constitutional right to freedom of public assembly. Gays and lesbians exercised this Constitutional right in no less a place than the Monument Circle area of Indianapolis in full view of many Indianapolis citizens who came to see what gays had to say.
After the 1984 gatherings, which some dubbed “Gay Knights on the Circle,” Pride Week celebrations remained relatively private until 1990. That year, the twentieth anniversary of NYC’s first Pride Week, Indiana activists felt ready to celebrate publicly. Organized primarily by Justice, Inc.’s Ruth Peters, the New Works News noted that the June event would “provide an opportunity for gays and lesbians to increase their political and community awareness and visibility. Having the event on the Circle will provide both an educational and enjoyable atmosphere for the Indianapolis community at large to enjoy the speakers and entertainers.”
Some Hoosiers, like Drew Carey, feared making themselves vulnerable by attending the state’s first large outdoor Pride event. Nevertheless, he felt his presence was important, writing in an editorial reprinted in the New Works June 1990 issue:
I can’t tell you how much this intimidates me. I have never made such an open stand. But I’m going to be there, stomach in knots and all, because there is nothing so vitally important. . . . If we make excuses for not going, we manifest the internalized homophobia that will continue to keep us on the fringe, where society need not even recognize that we exist. We say to ourselves, to friends, to family, and to society, ‘I’m ashamed; I’m embarrassed about what I am. Your stereotypes about gays and lesbians are right.’
Those who turned out for the unprecedented event enjoyed entertainment like drag shows, learned about gay rights legislation, listened to AIDS activists, and interacted with those manning booths for the Indiana Crossdresser Society (IXE), Indiana Youth Group, Damien Center, Act-Up Indy, Marion County Health Department Condom Contest, and Indiana Pro-Choice Action League.
Despite the presence of protesters, the event empowered attendees, challenged social stigmas, and welcomed a range of sexual and gender expressions. The New Works News editor reflected in August, “As I looked around me . . . I had but one thought: this is what a city is supposed to be like-alive, vibrant, filled with productive, enjoyable activity.” Carmen Kruer had a similar sentiment, writing in an editorial for the same issue that for the first time the community could:
socialize publicly with minimal fear of harassment and was also able to feel the strength that its numbers can provide. I was very proud to be a part of the lesbian and gay community as it drew together to support one goal – the attainment of a safe environment for all persons regardless of their sexual orientation, race, creed, or gender. I will always remember this day as I anticipate the next public celebration in Indiana.
With the event’s success, organizations like Justice, Inc. pushed to keep the momentum going through donations and activism. One writer for the New Works News wrote in July that the “Celebration on the Circle” was only the beginning, contending that “The Gay Civil Rights movement is at a critical point in its development. Much has been accomplished, but there is still much of a negative nature which must be overcome both within ourselves and in the public in general. . . . It’s up to us.”
In the ensuing years, Justice, Inc. and Indy Pride helped grow the event and by 2012 an estimated 80,000 people and 300 vendor booths attended the celebration. According to Indy Pride, the Cadillac Barbie Pride Parade “featured a float, an antique truck, a few drag queens, some antique cars, and several walking groups,” becoming a cornerstone of celebrations. Of the annual event’s significance, Indy Pride noted “In the years since Pride first ‘came out of the closet,’ the exposure has created a massive change in the society of the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana. The battle is not won until everyone is equal but the Indy Pride Festival and the Indy Pride Parade are Indiana’s symbol of a growing acceptance in our cultures.”
Many companies choose a face for their brand and then build a mythology around it. For example, the Converted Rice Company marketed their new parboiled, vacuum-dried rice as the homey-sounding “Uncle Ben’s Rice.” The company used the racially charged nomenclature “uncle” and an image of a distinguished-looking African American man to imply that the product would be like a friendly servant for the housewife. The company has claimed at various times that “Uncle Ben” was a respected rice grower or a hotel maitre d’, but more likely he never existed — much like Mr. Clean, Sara Lee, or Mr. Goodwrench.
While there are plenty of questions surrounding his origin story, the man called “Dr. Scholl,” was not only the founder of one of the most famous companies in the world and the inventor of many of its products, but he was a master of the world of advertising — changing the business in innovative ways. Scholl may (or may not) have been a quack doctor, but he was a crackerjack businessman.
William Mathais Scholl was born on a farm in Kankakee, LaPorte County, Indiana in 1882.* According to the 1900 census, William spent his youth working as a laborer on his parents’ farm, along with many other siblings. Sometime around 1900, Scholl moved to Chicago and found a job as a salesman at the popular Ruppert’s Shoe Store on Madison Street. Here, he encountered a variety of foot problems faced by his customers and became interested in podiatry. That same year, secondary sources claim, he enrolled in medical school at Loyola University. This has been hotly debated.
Despite investigations beginning in the 1920s and continuing today, it is still unclear if Scholl graduated with a medical degree around 1904 as he claimed. The Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine in Chicago supports the Scholl Museum which is dedicated to memorializing his achievements and authoritatively refers to him as “Dr. William Mathias Scholl.” However, the records of the American Medical Association tell a different story. According to Robert McClory’s investigative piece for the Chicago Reader in 1994:
“Visit the recently opened Scholl Museum . . . and you’ll find the doctor and his achievements raised to almost mythic levels . . . But check through the old AMA records and you’ll read about a man whose credentials are ‘entirely irregular,’ whose methods smack ‘strongly of quackery,’ and whose products ‘cannot be recommended’.”
There are also questions about his state medical license, as well as a later degree he claimed from the Chicago Medical College, an institution described by the American Medical Association as “low grade.” The AMA described Scholl’s “whole record” as “entirely irregular.”
Dr. Scholl, or “Dr.” Scholl, built an empire which has made his name recognizable all over the world. Degree in hand or not, at the turn of the twentieth century, young Scholl was busy inventing various devices intended to alleviate foot pain. One such device was the “Foot-Eazer,” which was a hit with the Ruppert’s Shoe Store customers. Supposedly one customer offered him several thousand dollars to start his business. He declined the offer, but was inspired to start his own business.
In 1904, Scholl set up shop in a small office in a building at 283-285 E. Madison Street in Chicago – the first location of the Scholl Manufacturing Company. By the next year, he began innovating new advertising techniques. Scholl would purportedly travel to various shoe stores, ask for the manager, and take out a human foot skeleton and put it on the counter. He used the foot to show how complicated and delicate all of the tiny bones are that hold so much weight and take so much abuse. He would demonstrate how supportive and comfortable his products worked.
Whether or not his products worked, his strategy of marketing directly to the store manager did. In addition to charging for the construction of the product, he also charged for consultations and fittings. Business boomed and in 1907 he moved into five rooms in a building on Schiller Street which had been abandoned by Western Wheel Works, a bicycle company. Almost immediately, he purchased the building and expanded the factory until it took up the entire block. The building stands and is in use as the Cobbler Square apartment complex — a nod to it’s former use.
By 1908, Scholl was using advertisements in trade journals to continue marketing his products directly to shoe store owners and managers. His approach at this point was to set up a booth at various fairs and train these prospective clients on how to talk about the Foot-Eazer “from a scientific prospective.” The ad below addresses these shoe store managers with several lofty promises about the Foot-Eazer:
“It will pay you well to be an expert in correcting foot troubles. . . you can sell a pair to one customer out of every three. Your profit is a dollar a pair – if you have 3000 customers that’s a thousand dollars for you . . .You will understand the science of it the moment you see it . . . as I have been allowed sweeping patents on it no one else can make anything like it.”
Scholl explained to this clients that his product was backed by “science,” would make them rich, and he was the only one who could provide it.
By 1909 he was recruiting teams of salespeople to approach the store owners for him. He set up a correspondence course to teach them the anatomy of the foot and the “science” behind his products. The course was called “Practipedics” and was described as “The Science of Giving Foot Comfort and Correcting the Cause of Foot and Shoe Troubles Based on the Experience, Inventions and Methods of Dr. William M. Scholl.” The ads from this period show that he was marketing these classes and sales opportunities to both men and women, an interesting approach for a time when few women worked outside the home. The ad below shows a woman studying the Foot-Eazer and promises that “This Alone Should Pay Your Rent.”
From here, Scholl’s business expanded even more quickly. By the time the U.S. entered World War One, Scholl was marketing to three different audiences — managers and owners of shoe stores, retail customers, and potential sales recruits — all through extensive advertising. Hoosier State Chronicles has a wealth of examples of ads for Scholl’s products, for stores selling them, and even for the Practipedics course. Indiana shoe stores often advertised special days where Scholl’s salespeople, presented as medical experts in foot care, would be at the store for personal fittings. In a 1917 issue of the Indianapolis News, the New York Store advertised their latest shoe styles and noted that they carried “A Complete Line of Dr. Scholl’s Foot Comfort Appliances.” In 1920, the South Bend Shoe Company advertised in the South Bend News-Tribune: “Foot Expert Here . . . A specialist from Chicago loaned to this store by Dr. Wm. M. Scholl the recognized foot authority.” This “expert” was most likely trained via correspondence course or week-long class and almost certainly never met Scholl.
Sometimes all three of Scholl’s audiences were targeted in one message, such as in the advertisement below from the Indianapolis News. First, the ad promises foot comfort to the average reader and pedestrian and explains to them the product while emphasizing the availability of “medically” trained dealers. Second, it advertises Marott’s Shoe Shop on East Washington who’s owners will have to stock up on Scholl’s products and provide the “foot expert.” Finally, the ad explains to the shoe dealers and other potential Scholl’s salespeople how to register for the next Scholl’s training course in Indianapolis. Additionally, Marrott’s Shoe Shop was a “Dr. Scholl’s Foot Comfort Store” which was supposed to consistently staff such “trained” foot experts — not just for special events. In Marrott’s advertisement which ran below the Scholl’s advertisement, the store claims that “Dr Scholl’s Foot Appliances are handled exclusively in Indianapolis by Marott’s Shoe Shop.” However, a search of Hoosier State Chronicles shows several other Indianapolis stores schilling for Scholl — including the New York Store from the advertisement above.
Another Indiana “Dr. Scholl’s Foot Comfort Store” was the Lion Store in Hammond. They were one of many stores around the country to participate in Scholl’s marketing plan for “Foot Comfort Week.” They advertised their participation and “foot expert” in the Hammond Times on June 12, 1917. Even general clothing stores participated in the marketing scheme. On June 21, 1917, the E. C. Minas Company, which called itself “Hammond’s Greatest Department Store,” advertised “Foot Comfort Week” in the Hammond Times which the ad claimed was happening “throughout the continent.” They noted that their store carried “the complete line” of Scholl’s appliances and “experts at fitting them to individual needs.” Later ads for the week-long event had more outrageous marketing schemes such advertisements for “Prettiest Foot” contests. Search Hoosier State Chronicles for more.
By the end of the war, Scholl’s company was established across the U.S, Europe, Egypt, and even Australia. He had also established a Podiatry College and written a text book. However, medical doctors working in the field were quick to criticize Scholl’s entangled business and medical operations and began to publicly question his qualifications. In 1923, the National Association of Chiropodists passed a resolution condemning Scholl’s work and banning him from advertising in their publications. Again, Robert McClory’s investigative article is the best source for more information on the controversy stirred up around Scholl’s standing in the medical community.
Scholl was not slowed down by the nay-saying in the least. He continued to invent, patent foot products, and open new stores around the world. According to McClory:
“In his lifetime Scholl would create more than 1,000 patented ointments, sprays, cushions, pads, supports, shields, springs and other mechanical and chemical gizmos for the feet. Eventually the Scholl empire would include more than 400 outlet stores and employ some 6,000 people worldwide.”
According to a short essay by Fred Cavinder in Forgotten Hoosiers (2009), during World War II, the Scholl plant in England made surgical and hospital equipment while the Chicago plant converted to the manufacture of military equipment. Cavinder writes, “As Word War II ended, Dr. Scholl invented the compact display fixture with the familiar blue and yellow colors.”
Scholl remained connected to the northwest region of Indiana throughout his life. He resided primarily in a single rented room at the downtown Chicago Illinois Athletic Club. However, later in life he purchased a home in Michigan City, Indiana, where he had moved his side business, Arno Adhesive Tapes. This company made all of the plaster and tape for the Dr. Scholl products. In the 1960s, Arno also expanded greatly and Scholl, now in his seventies, remained just as active in its management.
Scholl died in 1968 and is buried in Pine Lake Cemetery in La Porte Indiana. His family sold the Scholl’s brand to a large pharmaceutical company in 1979 and it remains successful to this day. So whether we remember him as “Dr.” or Dr. Scholl, he created an empire, changed an industry, and invented new ways to market and advertise. Search Hoosier State Chronicles for the many more advertisements.
* The 1900 census gives his birth year as 1884, but all other records including passport applications, WWI draft card, and death records cite 1882 as the correct year.
For further information, especially on the controversy surrounding Scholl’s medical qualifications see:
Robert McClory, “Best Foot Forward,” Chicago Reader, January 13, 1994, accessed ChicagoReader.com