Overcoming Stigma: Ryan White’s AIDS Education Advocacy

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Transcript for Overcoming Stigma: Ryan White’s AIDS Education Advocacy

Recording of Ryan White: It was my decision to live a normal life, go to school, be with friends, and enjoy day to day activities. It was not going to be easy. I became known as the AIDS boy.

Beckley: Thirteen year old Ryan White was diagnosed with acquired immune deficiency syndrome in December, 1984. While the presence of the new disease had been detected over 2 years earlier, it was still a terrifying enigma. Especially in the mid-west, where less than ½ of 1 percent of all national AIDS diagnoses had been made. AIDS seemed like a distant nightmare – something that happened to other people in other places. The little understood, highly deadly disease was surrounded by fear, misunderstanding, and misinformation. Stigma and discrimination almost invariably accompanied an AIDS diagnosis. On this episode, we recount the story of Indiana teenager Ryan White and Hamilton Heights High School’s campaign to use education to combat this stigma.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

AIDS is the late stage of infection of human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. HIV attacks the cells within a body that help fight infection, making the infected person more vulnerable to other infections and diseases. While the HIV virus existed in humans as early as the 1920s, it wasn’t until 1981 that the medical community began noticing a rise in rare infections and suspecting a new immune deficiency disease to be the cause. By that time, up to 300,000 people on 5 continents had already been infected.

News audio: Federal health officials consider it an epidemic, yet you never hear anything about it…national Center for Disease Control in Atlanta today release the results of . . . disease, which most affects homosexual men . . . 1/3 have died and none have been cured the best guess is that some infectious agent is causing it.

Beckley: When we think about the early years of the AIDS crisis, we often think of the catastrophic effects the disease had on the gay community of the United States, and for good reason. By 1995, a full 10% of all adult men who identified as gay in America had died from the disease, a literal decimation. Of the 125 original members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Choir, all but 7 died within the first decade of the epidemic. Before the term acquired immune deficiency syndrome was coined in 1982, it was referred to as “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,” by health officials or “Gay Cancer” by the media. Much of the stigma surrounding the disease came from its link with the gay community and homophobic attitudes of the government, the media, and even medical professionals during the epidemic. There was another, smaller group which was also deeply and irreversibly affected by the AIDS epidemic, though: people with hemophilia.

Hemophilia is a rare disorder in which your blood lacks something called a clotting factor, meaning that it will not clot normally on its own. This leads to uncontrollable bleeding from cuts or excessive bruising form everyday activities. Up until the late 1960s, hemophiliacs had short life expectancies due to a lack of treatments for their condition. In 1965, Dr. Judith Graham Pool of Stanford University discovered a way of isolating the clotting factor in human blood, known as Factor VIII. This innovation allowed people with hemophilia to live relatively normal lives compared to their historical counterparts.

That changed dramatically in 1982 when the first cases of AIDS in the hemophiliac community were diagnosed.

News audio: At first it seemed to only strike one segment of the population. Now, Berry Peterson tells us, this is no longer the case.

Beckley: As a blood based product, Factor VIII was susceptible to contamination by blood borne illnesses, including HIV and AIDS. As first hundreds and then thousands of Americans were infected with AIDS, the risk of receiving contaminated treatments rose dramatically. Factor VIII, which just 20 years before had been the saving grace of those living with hemophilia, was now killing those same people.

This put people living with hemophilia and their loved ones in an unimaginably difficult position. Either continue using Factor VIII and risk infection or stop using it and risk bleeding to death. Ryan White, who was diagnosed with hemophilia soon after his December 1971 birth, was one of the many Americans faced with this decision. In his autobiography, Ryan White: My Own Story, Ryan describes this time in his life.

Voice actor portraying Ryan White:  “Aids was kind of lurking around in the background for all families of hemophiliacs, but back then nobody I knew except Grandpa seemed to take it very seriously. Grandpa and I had read everything we could find about it. We heard about older hemophiliacs who had gotten AIDS from the Factor that they needed as much as I did. That upset Grandpa. He started telling Mom not to give me Factor anymore.

Beckley: Ryan’s Grandfathers misgivings, in the end, were realized. Just before Christmas 1984, Ryan was hospitalized for pneumonia and after having a lung biopsy taken, was diagnosed with pneumocystis pneumonia. This, in turn, led to the realization of his and his family’s worst nightmares – an AIDS diagnosis. But from the start, Ryan decided on a unique approach to the illness.

Audio of Ryan White: I – from the very beginning, I said I was gonna fight this disease and I was gonna win.

Beckley: He wrote about his mother, Jeanne, telling him the news.

Audio of Jeanne White: From the very first, you know, he asked me, “Am I gonna die?” and this was when he was very first diagnosed, he said “Am I gonna die?” And I thought, “Gosh, how am I gonna answer this? And I said, “We’re all gonna die someday, we just don’t know when.”

Audio of Ryan: My mother told me we’re all gonna die someday so, just to step up to it.

Ryan White Voice Actor: I thought a minute. So what was the big deal about AIDS? I was a hemophiliac, so I already had my limits. But I’d been having an okay time, anyway. I certainly wasn’t about to die yet. Why not just get back to being a normal kid? “Tell you what, Mom,” I said. “Let’s just pretend I don’t have AIDS.”

Beckley: Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be possible. He couldn’t have known it, but he would soon be known around the world as the “poster boy for AIDS.” Making his diagnosis even more tragic, if that’s even possible, is the timing of it. Throughout 1984, scientists at the Center for Disease Control were developing a method of treating Factor VIII to kill any HIV virus lurking within. In October, two months before Ryan’s diagnosis, the method was endorsed and recommended by the CDC. The hemophilia community quickly implemented the method but, unfortunately, it was too late for Ryan – within just weeks of his diagnosis, all Factor VIII in the United States was being treated and hemophiliacs who had avoided infection thus far were spared.

For several months after his diagnosis, Ryan was too ill to return to school, but in the spring of 1985 he began voicing his desire to return to his normal life by resuming classes at Western Middle School. When his mother met with school officials to talk about this possibility, she encountered with resistance. Concerns about the health of other students, and that of Ryan himself, whose immune system had been ravaged by his illness, gave officials pause.  In one of the earliest news articles about the issue, Western School Superintendent J.O. Smith asked:

Voice actor: You tell me. What would you do? I don’t know. We’ve asked the State Board of Health, we’re expecting something from them. But nobody has anything to go by. Everybody wanted to know what they’re doing in other places. But we don’t have any precedent for this.

 

Beckley: He was right – there wasn’t much precedent for the situation they were facing. While a few schools had faced similar situations, the issues surrounding a child living with AIDS attending school – namely, the risk this posed to the other students – were far from settled. At this time, new and conflicting information came out at a dizzying pace.

News audio: . . . an epidemic of a rare form of cancer . . . a mysterious newly discovered disease . . . new deadly sexually transmitted disease . . .

Beckley: When the AIDS crisis first started, there were three risk groups identified: the gay population, intravenous drug users, and, strangely, Haitians. That based on misunderstood data indicating a higher rate of infections among Hattian Americans. Then, infants born to those with AIDS were added to the risk factor list. Next came those with Hemophilia and people who had received blood transfusions. Women with bisexual male partners were identified as a risk group in 1983. Then, women who had been artificially inseminated were being diagnosed.

Basically, the average person watching the evening news didn’t know who would be named next.

News audio: A weird, mutant virus, deadlier than the plague, suddenly appears on earth. People start dying, first by the score, then by the hundreds. Doctors are baffled. All the resources of medical science can’t help them find the cause, let alone the cure for the epidemic.

Beckley: There was fear in the air.

In 1985, when Western School Corporation was weighing its options, studies suggested that the AIDS virus may have been found in the tears and saliva of patients, which could have indicated that the virus was even more infectious than previously believed. Media reports on the studies muddied the waters further. For example, two newspaper headlines, both reporting on the same study and both published within 1 day of each other, read:

Voice actor:  “AIDS probably can’t be transmitted by saliva.”

Beckley: and

Voice actor: “AIDS virus found in saliva raises new questions.”

Beckley: With so much information—and misinformation—in the news cycle, the desire to hear from health authorities on the topic was understandable.

In July, three months after Ryan was told he could not attend school until the Indiana State Board of Health weighed in, a document titled “Guidelines for Children with AIDS Attending School” was released by the Board. Guideline number 1 read:

Voice actor: “AIDS children should be allowed to attend school as long as they behave acceptably . . . and have no uncoverable sores or skin eruptions. Routine and standard procedures should be used to clean up after a child has an accident or injury at school.”

Beckley: Despite this recommendation, Western School Corporation officials continued to deny Ryan admittance to class. Instead, they set up a remote learning system. From the confines of his bedroom, Ryan dialed into his classes via telephone and listened to his teachers lecture. He missed out on visual aids, class participation, and sometimes the lectures themselves, as the line was often garbled or disconnected.

Audio of Ryan White: I don’t want anybody else to get it. And I can see where they’re worried, but I mean, if my doctor says it’s okay to go back, I don’t see no reason why I can’t.

Beckley: A November ruling, this time by the Department of Education, confirmed the Board of Health’s assertion that Ryan should be admitted to class.

A series of rulings, appeals, and other legal filings followed, ultimately ending when the Indiana Court of Appeals declined to hear further arguments and Ryan finally got what he and his family had fought so hard for—he was allowed to return to classes on April 10, 1986. This victory was tarnished by ongoing discrimination from his classmates and other community members.

News audio: I don’t think he should be here. If people with chicken pox and measles can’t come, why should he? There’s been a lot of rumors that when he gets mad he spits on people.

Beckley: Addressing the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic in 1988, Ryan recalled some of the more poignant moments from his time in Kokomo:

Ryan white audio: They call you queer and stuff like that. Then you get people who throw away your dishes. I mean, I wouldn’t want to eat off of someone else’s dish either. I mean, it’s been washed so that’s all there is to it.

Ryan White Voice Actor: “I was labeled a troublemaker, my mom an unfit mother, and I was not welcome anywhere. People would get up and leave so they would not have to sit anywhere near me. Even at church, people would not shake my hand.”

Ryan White audio: They don’t know what else to do, so they’re cruel.

Beckley: Because of these experiences and his desire to escape oppressive media coverage, Ryan asked his mother if they could move out of Howard County. When the family decided to settle in Cicero, a small town about 30 miles to the south east, they couldn’t have known how drastically different their lives were about to become.

Tony Cook, the Hamilton Heights High School principal in the 1980s and now a State Representative, heard through informal channels that Ryan’s family was moving into his school district in April of 1987. The degree of media coverage surrounding Ryan’s battle to attend classes meant that Cook was well aware that his community’s reaction would be heavily scrutinized. In order to prepare his students, teachers, and neighbors for Ryan’s arrival, Cook and his staff set out on an AIDS educational crusade the likes of which had not been seen before.

With the backing of his superintendent and school board, Cook quickly made the decision that Ryan would be admitted to the school. This was really no surprise since Ryan’s cases had already set the legal precedent for children living with AIDS having the right to attend school.  What was more revolutionary was the decision that there would be no restrictions placed on what Ryan was able to do in school. During his time attending classes while in class in Western Middle School, he was not able to attend gym, used a separate restroom and water fountain, and ate off of disposable trays using plastic utensils. Cook’s decision to forgo such extreme measures signaled to the rest of the community – and to Ryan – that Ryan wasn’t some accident waiting to happen. Once that decision was made, it was time for Cook to take action.

After gathering AIDS-related materials from the Indiana State Board of Health, the Center for Disease Control, major newspapers, and scientific journals, Cook turned what was supposed to be his summer break into a months-long educational campaign.

Throughout the months that followed, Cook, armed with scientific sources, combated misinformation in his community. He spoke about AIDS at Kiwanis groups, Rotary Clubs, churches, and, really, any group that asked. He sat in living rooms and at kitchen tables throughout the community, personally addressing concerns of fellow citizens.

The school developed a collection of AIDS education materials that could be checked out. Cook contacted members of the student government, asking them to act as ambassadors, advocating on Ryan’s behalf with their fellow students and the media. School staff went through additional training to prepare them for the possibility of a blood or other biohazard spill. By the time the school year came around, Cicero, Arcadia, and the surrounding area had some of the best informed populations when it came to AIDS.

[Classroom sounds, bell ringing]

Beckley: The first few days of the 1987-1988 school year at Hamilton Heights High School were peppered with convocations in which Cook addressed each grade level to assuage any remaining concerns over sharing classrooms and hallways with Ryan. Students were encouraged to ask questions and support was provided for any feeling uncomfortable with the situation. In short, education was used to address stigma.

On Ryan’s first day of class, which was about a week after school started, the campaign seemed to have been relatively successful – all went smoothly, especially compared to the mass walk-outs and protests that had occurred when other children with AIDS began attending a new school.

Media presence, however, was a problem for the Hamilton Heights staff. Heights was an open campus, meaning students traveled between different buildings throughout the day. This would have made having members of the media on campus both distracting and potentially dangerous. But restricting access all together also wasn’t possible, as Ryan was a nationally-known figure by this time. The compromise was to have weekly press conferences during which Ryan, student ambassadors, and faculty could answer questions and update the press about the goings-on at the school.

On that first day, though, there was no formal press conference. Rather, as Ryan left the building the press surrounded him, asking how things had gone. He smiled and said:

News audio: Where you nervous at all this morning? “Oh, yea, I was terribly nervous.” What do you feel like now? I feel really good about this school. I like it a lot.

Ryan attributed his positive experiences at Hamilton Heights directly to the education campaign:

Ryan White Audio: When I went home that night, I just, I couldn’t believe they were so . . . I said, “Mom, they were really nice.” And it was all just so amazing.

Later, when speaking in front of the presidential commission on the HIV epidemic, he said:

Ryan White voice actor: I’m just one of the kids, and all because the students at Hamilton Heights High School listened to the facts, educated their parents and themselves, and believed in me . . . Hamilton Heights is proof that AIDS education in schools works.

Beckley: I had the opportunity to interview Representative Cook about his experiences during this time. During our interview, Cook spoke to the power of education to overcome even the most intense fear,

Cook:  “Yes, there were some folks that were uneasy and nervous, but we did see education overcome. And we saw a community that allowed us to do certain things, and again, they understood that we had delved into it a lot, and we had gathered stuff for them, and they trusted us to do it and carry it through.”

Beckley: That trust, built up over months of hard work, enabled the community to do what others could not – welcome Ryan and his family with open arms.

The first time Tony Cook met Ryan, Cook asked why Ryan wanted so badly to attend school. During our interview with Representative Cook, he recalled that the fifteen-year-old Ryan, who by that time had been in the middle of a media storm for nearly two years, replied

Ryan White Voice Actor: “’I just want to be a normal kid . . . I may die. So, for me, it’s important that I try to experience the high school experience as well as I can.”

Beckley: At Hamilton Heights High School, Ryan was able to do just that. He went to football games and high school dances. He had friends and a girlfriend. He was able to get his drivers license and a job working at a skate shop. In short, he was able to experience many of the same things other teenagers experienced, although his life was far from normal.

Ryan’s AIDS education advocacy had started before his move to Cicero, and it continued throughout the remainder of his life. He traveled the nation speaking in schools, on television, and before the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic. Cook also traveled, speaking to fellow educators about his experiences preparing Hamilton Heights for Ryan’s arrival. As more schools faced similar situations, Hamilton Heights High School was used as a model on which they could base their programs.

Tragically, five years after this initial diagnosis, Ryan died on April 15, 1990 after being admitted to Riley Hospital for Children with a respiratory tract infection.

News audio: Funeral services for Ryan will be held on Wednesday . . . the last five years, he lived with AIDS. He got it . . . Indiana Governor Evan Bayh has ordered the flags throughout the state to be flown at half staff . . . Ryan White attracted nation-wide attention and sympathy . . .

Beckley: Celebrities such as Sir Elton John and Michael Jackson attended his funeral, such was his impact on the nation.

Elton John audio: This one’s for Ryan.

Beckley: His legacy of AIDS advocacy lives on in the Ryan White CARE Act, which was passed just months after his death and continues to provide funding for HIV and AIDS community-based care and treatment services.

This year,  2019 the Indiana Historical Bureau dedicated a state historical marker to Ryan White’s AIDS education advocacy and to Hamilton Heights’ role in the story. Over seven hundred people attended the ceremony – the largest we’ve ever had. In that way, Ryan’s legacy is cemented in our history – people remember the courageous, well-spoken young man who faced the stigma of AIDS with equanimity.

Ryan White audio: Yea, I think a lot more people are not afraid of AIDS now, and they’re not afraid of someone who has it. And I think they’re more willing to accept people who have AIDS.

We can still learn much from his story. Between 2010 and 2015, Scott County, Indiana experienced the state’s worst HIV outbreak to date. 215 people – nearly all intravenous drug users – were diagnosed.  Despite being in Ryan White’s home state, the students at the local high school knew little about the illness. When diagnosis rates began to rise, rumors very similar to those seen in the 1980s began to swirl, rumors that you can catch AIDS from water fountains, toilet seats, and from second hand contact. This came, in part, from a lack of AIDS education. The AIDS information standard from the Indiana Department of Education reads:

Voice Actor:  “The state board shall provide information stressing the moral aspects of abstinence from sexual activity in any literature that it distributes to students and young adults concerning available methods for the prevention of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The literature must state that the best way to avoid AIDS is for young people to refrain from sexual activity until they are ready as adults to establish, in the context of marriage, a mutually faithful monogamous relationship.”

Beckley: Some schools, of course, have robust AIDS education curriculum. But it is possible, with the current standards in place, to only teach that abstinence is the best way to avoid contracting AIDS. Setting aside the controversy from the issues surrounding abstinence first sex-ed, this method is inadequate in that it ignores the various other methods of transmission, and by framing AIDS as a purely sexually transmitted disease, and linking it with morality, we further stigmatize those living with AIDS.

As the Scott County HIV/AIDS outbreak was coming to light, students at Austin High School took AIDS Education into their own hands, much as Ryan had done 25 years before. They came together and wrote a special edition of the school newspaper – the Eagle – dispelling myths about the disease. They brought health officials in to talk with students about the realities of living with HIV. They even set up a group called “Stand Up,” which focused on AIDS education. These teenagers saw a problem and they addressed it, even though it wasn’t necessarily their job to do so, much like it wasn’t necessarily Ryan White’s job to educate the nation on the same issues in the 1980s.

Over 700,000 Americans have died from AIDS related illnesses since 1981. Treatments such as highly active antiretroviral therapy and Combivir, along with the preventative medication PrEP have resulted in an 85% drop in death rates since 1995, which is considered the peak of the epidemic in the U.S. This is the story in America – each nation has its own story and is in its own stage of dealing with the HIV crisis. Today, approximately 36.9 million people are living with HIV or AIDS globally, but new breakthroughs are promising and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS has announced a targeted strategy to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.

Ryan White audio: You know, it’s given me a more positive attitude, of course. And, just to feel like you’re not fighting it alone – that you have other people fighting it with you.

[Talking Hoosier History theme music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thank you to Justin Clark for voicing several parts on this episode. And a very special thanks to Ollie Banker, who gave voice to Ryan White throughout the episode. Check back in two weeks for an interview with Jeremy Turner, director of the HIV, STD, Viral Hepitius division of the Indiana State Department of Health, who will talk about the steps the state and the nation are taking to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030. Find us on Facbook and Twitter as the Indiana Historical Bureau, and remember to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening.

Ryan White Show Notes

Books

Cunningham, Ann Marie and Ryan White, Ryan White: My Own Story, California: Berkley Publishing, 1992.

Resnik, Susan, Blood Sage, California: University of California Press, 1999.

 

Newspapers

“AIDS virus found in saliva raises new questions,” San Francisco Examiner, October 10, 1984.

“AIDS probably can’t be transmitted by saliva,” York Daily Record, October 11, 1984.

Articles

                Evatt, B.L., The Tragic History of AIDS in the Hemophilia Population, 1982-1984, Occasional Papers, December 2007, Number 6, Accessed: https://www1.wfh.org/publication/files/pdf-1269.pdf

Chorba, TL, RC Holman, MJ Clarke, BL Evatt, Effects of HIV Infection on Age and Cause of Death for Persons with Hemophilia A in the United States, American Journal of Hematol, April 2001, accessed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11279632

Websites

“A Brief History of Hemophilia Treatment,” Hemophilia News Today: https://hemophilianewstoday.com/2017/05/15/brief-history-hemophilia-treatment/

“Hemophilia,” Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hemophilia/symptoms-causes/syc-20373327

“History of Bleeding Disorders,” National Hemophilia Foundation: https://www.hemophilia.org/Bleeding-Disorders/History-of-Bleeding-Disorders

“History of HIV and AIDS Overview,” Avert: https://www.avert.org/professionals/history-hiv-aids/overview

“A Brief Timeline of AIDS,” http://www.factlv.org/timeline.htm

“A Timeline of HIV and AIDS,” HIV.gov: https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/history/hiv-and-aids-timeline

Blanche McNeely Wean and the Intrepid First Women of IU’s Business School

Omicron Delta, 1944, courtesy of Indiana University Archives, P0040666.

As a historical researcher, I spend much of my time thinking about what the world was like one hundred years ago. Remnants of this world are seen particularly in the institutions that have survived throughout the decades. One such institution is Indiana University, which will celebrate 200 years in 2020. In my work as a researcher for the Office of the Bicentennial, I have come across many stories that add vibrant details to the seemingly-distant world of one hundred years ago.

Hoosiers in this world faced adversity, rose above challenges, and broke glass ceilings. This was the case at the School of Commerce and Finance (today’s Kelley School of Business), which was formed during IU’s centennial in 1920. The school was founded during a time of transition. World War I had just concluded, the “roaring twenties” were on the horizon, and economic catastrophe loomed on the periphery. Blanche McNeely Wean, the first woman to be admitted into the School of Commerce and Finance, witnessed this transition. She navigated through it as a widowed working mother of three during the Great Depression.

Blanche McNeely Wean as a business student in 1923, courtesy of Indiana University Archives, P0073325.

A Bloomington native, McNeely bridged “Town and Gown” by enrolling at Indiana University in 1919 to study education. She grew up in an entrepreneurial family. Her father ran a grocery store in town, where McNeely worked throughout her childhood. She would later consider this to be a core experience that sparked her interest in business. Her duties ranged from “driving the cow home and back from Dunn Meadow at 10th street for milking” to cold calling residents who might buy overstock peaches from the store. In 1919, McNeely’s father, Homer Clark McNeely, opened and operated the Yellow Cab Co. of Bloomington.

Although McNeely studied education at IU, she took nearly all of the preliminary business courses she could without being a business student.  She shared with a male professor that she had ambitions to join the business world, stemming from her work experience. The professor told her that business was a “man’s world” and suggested she stick to education. Following this rejection, she turned to School of Commerce and Finance  secretary Sarah Kirby, who encouraged her to ask Dean Rawles for admission into the school. In her memoir, published in 1996, Blanche Accounts, she credited her 1922 admission to the school to Kirby. She recalled “In his very formal way he [Dean Rawles] looked me over as if he had not seen me before and said, ‘Well Blanche, you have taken all the preliminary courses. I cannot see why not.’”

Rawles Hall, 1923, courtesy of Indiana University Archives, P0080796.

After that exchange, McNeely became the first woman admitted into the business school. Anna Hasler and Athleen Catterson transferred from the University of Chicago and were admitted concurrently. The three women graduated together in 1923, making them the first women to graduate from the Indiana University School of Commerce and Finance—and McNeely was the first female graduate to have completed all of the degree requirements at IU. Notable classmates included: Herman B Wells, first chancellor of Indiana University; Ernie Pyle, Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II journalist; and Hoagy Carmichael, famed singer and songwriter. McNeely wrote later in her memoir that she did not “remember that the men in our classes treated us differently. We studied together and served on committees together.” When not studying, McNeely played tennis, served on the YWCA board, and went on walks with a friend.

(L) Athleen Catterson, 1923 (R) Anna Hasler, 1923, courtesy of Indiana University Archives, P0073323 and P0073324.

The female graduates’ success would likely not have been possible without women like Lulu Westenhaver and Sarah Kirby, who had been instrumental to the education and administrative efficiency of the school. Kirby had been a secretary when the school began and served under six different deans throughout thirty-eight years at IU. She would go onto make history in 1942 when she became the first woman to be elected an honorary member of the school’s honor society, Beta Gamma Sigma. Westenhaver came to IU in 1920 as a stenography instructor in the new business school. She served alongside Kirby as a secretary during several of those years and was a key sponsor of student groups, especially for female students. Two such groups were Omicron Delta and Chi Gamma, both of which were sponsored by Westenhaver and Kirby, as well as Professor Esther Bray.

After graduation, McNeely moved to Lafayette to begin working as a teacher, and married Francis Wean in 1926. In 1930, Francis unexpectedly passed away, widowing McNeely Wean and leaving her to raise three daughters under the age of three at the onset of the Great Depression. McNeely Wean wrote in her memoir about the time:

The shock of his death was almost more than I could bear. I found it hard to make decisions, except one, and that with emphasis. Friends without children asked whether I would consider giving one of my children to them. I was indignant and answered, ‘Why? I have my education and ability to work. I can take care of my own children.’

(L) Sarah Kirby, 1941 (R) Lulu Westenhaver, 1948, courtesy of Indiana University Archives, P0073327 and P0073336.

Instead, McNeely Wean moved back to Bloomington to substitute teach for Lulu Westenhaver, who was on medical leave. In Blanche Accounts, she describes that moving back to Bloomington was like a homecoming: “It was a time to renew old friendships with Herman Wells, Mr. Pritchett, Joe Batchelor, Esther Bray, and Miss Kirby.”

While teaching at IU, McNeely Wean worked on obtaining her master’s degree and was offered a trial position as the head of the business department at Central Normal College in Danville (later renamed Canterbury College). Rather than uprooting her family, she woke up every Monday morning at 2:30 a.m. to drive to Danville and teach a 6:00 a.m. class. In 1932, McNeely Wean received an official offer from Central Normal College to head the business school, serve as the dean of women for the college, and serve as the student newspaper’s advisor—with the expectation that she would first graduate with her master’s degree from Indiana University that same year. She graduated with a Master of Arts degree in May 1932, and then moved her family to Danville. She continued at Central Normal College for fifteen years while also working as an accountant for outside businesses.

Blanche McNeely Wean, 1987, The Indianapolis Star, September 24 1987, 17.

In a 1982 interview with The Indianapolis News, McNeely Wean recalled how she worried and cared for Central Normal College students during the Great Depression: “We ate lots of hamburger, Spanish rice, and ‘hot dog gravy.’ I diced up the hot dogs to make it go further in milk gravy. That’s what the students called it. I had to do it because we never knew how many would show up.”

In the meantime, all three of her daughters earned their undergraduate and graduate degrees at Indiana University. In 1947, McNeely Wean left Central Normal College and started her own accounting firm out of her home. She ran the business on her own with a few employees until her grandson, Ted Andrews, joined the firm, which was rechristened Wean, Andrews, & Co. in 1980.

After McNeely Wean passed away in 1999, Andrews described his grandmother to The Indianapolis News, noting “She was a workaholic. She’d scold clients who were retiring [saying], ‘What do you mean you are retiring, you are only 75!’” McNeely Wean shattered glass ceilings for many women aspiring to careers in business, and contributed greatly to the education of business students at Central Normal College. In an interview with The Indianapolis Star in 1987, McNeely Wean expounded on the importance of ability rather than appearance, stating “I judge an individual on his or her merits. It’s not a matter of color or race, of women or men. It’s a question of ‘the job has to be done and let’s do it.’ If you can do it better than the other fellow, fine.”

Esther Bray as a faculty member in 1966, courtesy of Indiana University Archives, P0058296.

Although McNeely Wean was instrumental in proving that women could succeed in the business world, even without the support of a husband, business was not yet a widely-accessible career choice for many women, especially in the world of higher education. Some women who pursued business careers turned to teaching the subject, such as business professor Esther Bray, who graduated from Indiana University in 1925. She returned to IU in 1937 to teach in the business school, where she would prove to be a force of nature and a fierce advocate for her students. Bray was the only woman on the business school faculty for many years, as instructors were not considered “faculty” throughout the university at the time. In later interviews, Bray recalled that departmental meetings were often opened with “Mrs. Bray and gentlemen, shall we come to order?” She was active in her community as a volunteer for nonprofit and political organizations. When Bray passed away in 1999, a faculty memorial resolution was approved in her honor, calling Bray a “role model for women” and “had the time been right, she would have been a congresswoman.”

Both McNeely Wean’s and Bray’s lives are testaments to the growing options for young, ambitious women who came of age during the 1920s and 1930s. Without the context of supporting figures such as Sarah Kirby and Lulu Westenhaver, the story of Blanche McNeely Wean may have been very different. Their trajectory highlights how women built communities for themselves in the male-dominated world of academia. The roots of these communities are visible today at IU through groups organized for female business students.

Omicron Delta, 1970, courtesy of Indiana University Archives, P0090794.

* While business classes had been offered at the university for years, they were dispersed throughout different departments. The creation of the School of Commerce and Finance placed business courses into the school instead of departments.

FURTHER READING

Indiana University Arbutus, 1923, 1937, 1941, and 1971.

Esther Bray, Indiana University Memorial Resolution, Bloomington Faculty Council Circular, Indiana University.

Blanche McNeely Wean, Blanche Accounts: A McNeely Family Story (Danville, IN: self-published, 1996).

Lulu Westenhaver, Indiana University Memorial Resolutions, Bloomington Faculty Council, 1959.

NEWSPAPER ARTICLES:

“Honored at IU,” The Indianapolis News, May 9, 1942.

“Instructor at IU for 28 years Dies,” The Courier-Journal (Louisville), April 23, 1959.

Mary Ann Butters, “Dinner to Focus Spotlight on Mrs. Bray,” The Indianapolis Star, March 2, 1972.

Ruth Chaney, “Congressman’s Wife has Life of Varied Interests,” The Daily Journal (Franklin, IN), October 6, 1964.

Mike Ellis, “Book to Be the Keeper of the Fate,” The Indianapolis News, September 9, 1987.

Lynn Hopper, “Awash in Fond Memories,” The Indianapolis Star, February 27, 1998.

Jean Jensen, “She’s at Home in Business,” The Indianapolis News, December 29, 1982.

Suzanne McBride, “An Education in Higher Learning: 21-Year Board Member Sees Progress,” The Indianapolis News, June 22, 1992.

Claude Parsons, “Esther Bray is Serving 16th Year on Higher Education Commission,” The Indianapolis News, April 9, 1987.

Beth Rosenberg, “Blanche Wean, 86, Still Accountable,” The Indianapolis Star, September 24, 1987.

Beth Spangle, “Blanche McNeely Wean Left a Legacy for Town and Family,” The Indianapolis News, June 9, 1999.

Lotys Benning Stewart, “They Achieve,” The Indianapolis Star, June 30, 1946.

Bill Strother, “Esther Bray Recalled as Leader, Teacher,” The Herald Times Online, December 23, 1999.

Jodi Wetuski, “Her Varied Life Adds Up,” The Indianapolis Star, July 17, 1996.

From Redlining to Better Homes: The Better Homes of South Bend Housing Cooperative

Jump to Show Notes

Hear an interview with Mike Jackson, who live in the neighborhood built by Better Homes here. 

Transcript for From Redlining to Better Homes

[Birds Chirping, Neighborhood Sounds]

Beckley: Dr. Bernard Vagner and his wife Audrey moved to South Bend, Indiana in January, 1949. The young couple had decided to lease some rooms in a house while familiarizing themselves with their new city. But by that summer, it was time to start looking for a place of their own. After being shown several properties that left much to be desired, they decided that perhaps building their own home would be a better option. And they were in luck – there were two lots available on the corner of Campeau Street in a nice neighborhood. According to the Vagner’s attorney, the landowner was very anxious to sell. And she must have been for when the couple arrived to look at the land, she showed up with the deeds in-hand, apparently ready to make a deal that very day.

That is, until she saw the couple. As soon as she laid eyes on the pair, she started making excuses – “the neighbors might not like it.” “My husband wouldn’t approve.” And so on. What she hadn’t realized until that moment was that the Vagner’s were African American. And in the US in 1949, that meant that many neighborhoods were closed to them, whether they had the money to buy a home there or not.

The Vagner’s weren’t able to purchase a home that year. In fact, it took them until June of 1955 to find a house – that’s nearly 6 years of searching…just to find someone willing to sell them property. At this same time, similar experiences drove 22 families also in South Bend, to come together to confront this racist exclusion and build a community for themselves – a community called Better Homes of South Bend. In this episode, we’ll explain and examine the role redlining has played in our state’s history and tell the story of Better Homes of South Bend, which was created for the precise purpose of defeating redlining.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History

Newsreel: I was just one of the New Deal’s idealistic programs that changed the face of the nation.

Beckley: On August 1, 1933 seventeen thousand people stood in line in front of the newly opened Home Owners Loan Corporation office in Chicago. The Home Owners Loan Corporation, or HOLC, was a newly formed government-sponsored organization – part the New Deal – formed to address the ongoing foreclosure crisis in America. To do this, HOLC was offering long-term, low interest rate home mortgage loans for both refinancing existing mortgages and financing new home purchases.

Newsreel: Home ownership is the basis of a happy, contented family life. And now, through the use of the national housing act ensured mortgage, it’s brought within the reach of all citizens on a monthly payment plan no greater than rent.

Beckley: This meant that many Americans, for the first time in their lives, had the opportunity to own their own home, rather than renting. Many white Americans, that is.

[Music]

Beckley: In the 3 decades after the establishment of HOLC, just 2 percent of all loans went to non-white families. Various methods were employed to exclude minorities from receiving home loans, but among the most effective and infamous were the Residential Security Maps. These maps, kept secret and only discovered by historians in the 1980s, are considered the basis for the widespread, systematic denial of housing loans for Black Americans, known as redlining, a term referring to officials drawing red lines around specific neighborhoods.

HOLC began research for the maps in the mid-1930s. Working with local realtors and banks, the organization painstakingly divided 239 American cities, including what were then the 7 largest cities in Indiana – Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Gary, Muncie, Terre Haute, Evansville, and South Bend –  into neighborhoods, assigning each neighborhood a grade of “A” through “D.” “A” being what they considered to be the best, and “D” the worst – kind of like school. Each grade corresponded with a color on the security map – green for “A,” blue for “B,” yellow for “C,” and red for “D.”

Many features of a neighborhood were considered when assigning these grades. Building type and age, proximity to shopping and business districts, sales histories…and “infiltration of inharmonious racial groups.” The Underwriting Manual, which served as a comprehensive guide to those deciding who was to receive HOLC loans stated that:

Voice actor reading from HOLC handbook:  “If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in [home] values.”

Beckley: If the valuator judged an area to even be in danger of “infiltration,” they were instructed to downgrade the rating of the whole neighborhood. And those ratings were incredibly important. White families seeking a mortgage in a green or blue area were nearly always approved. In yellow areas, the chances of approval dropped dramatically. And if were looking to purchase a property in a red area, their chances were slim to none. For Black families, the possibility of obtaining a mortgage in any area was close to zero.

If you’re Black, you can only live in specific all black neighborhoods. Banks won’t approve mortgages for any homes in that area due to redlining. But you can’t get a loan for a house in other neighborhoods because you’re Black. Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro’s books Black Wealth / White Wealth on this topic:

Voice Actor:  “African Americans who desired and were able to afford home ownership found themselves consigned to central-city communities where their investments were affected by the “self-fulfilling prophecies” of the FHA appraisers: cut off from sources of new investment[,] their homes and communities deteriorated and lost value in comparison to those homes and communities that FHA appraisers deemed desirable.”

Beckley: Making it even more difficult for minority families to purchase property, many neighborhoods had what were called racially restrictive covenants. These covenants were written into the deed for the property, and they could be very specific about who could and could not purchase the home in the future.

Voice Actor: “No person other than one of the Caucasian race shall reside on any of said described premises excepting that a domestic servant in the actual employ of an occupant may reside in the home of his master.”

“Said tract shall not be sold, leased, or rented to any person or persons other than of white race nor shall any person or persons other than of white race use or occupy said tract.”

Beckley:  Both of those are examples of real covenants in deeds from the 1930s and 40s in Seattle, Washington. Similar covenants existed across America.

[Music]

Beckley: Together, redlining and racially restrictive covenants all but excluded minority families from participating in the American dream. The dream owning a home that could be passed down through the generations. This has had long term effects – access to home mortgage loans is an underpinning of wealth building in America, meaning that these practices hindered the upward mobility of all Black Americans. In fact, Mapping Inequality states that:

Voice Actor:  “More than a half-century of research has shown housing to be for the twentieth century what slavery was to the antebellum period, namely the broad foundation of both American prosperity and racial inequality.”

Beckley: In the early 1950s in South Bend, Indiana, 23 families challenged this inequality with bravery and ingenuity.

Most of South Bend’s African American population had arrived during the Great Migration, a period from around 1916 to 1970 when many Black Americans moved from the rural south to northern cities to fill the need for industrial workers during the first and second world wars.

Newsreel: America is many things to many people.

Beckley: Before this time, very few Black families lived in South Bend.

Newsreel: It’s all races, creeds, and religions.

Beckley: Those few families of color who did live in the city lived alongside their white neighbors, without much segregation.

Newsreel: Freedom to own property.

Beckley: As the black population began to rise, though, this changed dramatically.

By the time the families we’ll be following for this episode were living and working in South Bend, Jim Crowism, a term used to describe the racist attitudes, policies and laws from the late 1800s to the 1960s, was a strong force in cities throughout America, including South Bend. In Better Homes of South Bend, author Gabrielle Robinson writes of the Black citizens of her city:

Voice actor reading from Better Homes of South Bend: “They met Jim Crow at every step; whether they were at work… or at home…whether they were shopping and served only after white customers had been helped or could enter city hotels and restaurants only as bellboys and waiters.”

Beckley: Decades of redlining had forced the majority of South Bend’s Black population into rentals in the area surrounding the Studebaker plant, which was also one of the main employers of African Americans in South Bend. In two developments just one block from the immense, smoking factory – Maggie’s Court and Horse’s Alley – 54 families were crowded together in 44 small rental houses.

[Music]

Beckley: Those who didn’t live in that most densely populated areas often rented nearby federal defense homes.

These homes had been built to accommodate the rapidly expanding African American population during World War II and were prefabricated homes supplied, as their name suggests, by the federal government. These were meant to be temporary structures, constructed quickly and to be torn down after the war. That had never happened due to the continued lack of housing for African Americans in South Bend and the refusal of white residents to allow desegregation.

[Music]

Beckley: Even if white residents were willing to sell their homes to a Black family, they would have been hard pressed to find a realtor willing to help navigate the process. Up until 1950, the official code of ethics of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers stated,

Voice actor reading from Code of Ethics: “A realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence would clearly be detrimental to property values in the neighborhood.”

Beckley: After 1950, this portion of the code was amended to remove “race or nationality,” but that didn’t lead to any change in their practices – redlining, racially restrictive covenants, and general racism worked together to keep the Black families of South Bend from owning land in large swaths of the city.

It was in this context that several families gathered after church on Sunday, May 21, 1950 to take matters into their own hands. Their plan was to form a housing cooperative. Through this co-op, which they named Better Homes of South Bend, the families hoped to achieve what few had done before – own their own homes, outside of the industrial slums they had been relegated to for their whole lives. The idea was for them to pool their money and resources to purchase several undeveloped lots. The co-op would obtain a mortgage loan to start the construction and then each individual family would, with the co-ops help, obtain their own mortgage to finish construction.

By and large, the people of Better Homes were just like the vast majority of the Black residents in South Bend. Many had moved to the north seeking employment and better opportunities for their families. Almost all of the men worked at the Studebaker plant in one position or another. And they had all struggled to find adequate housing for their families.

Now, I’m going to get into the actual nuts and bolts of how the Better Homes of South Bend hoped to achieve their goals – bear with me, I promise the payoff is worth it.

[Music]

Beckley: Like any new organization, the members of Better Homes of South Bend started by electing officers, hiring a lawyer, and drawing up incorporation papers. Their lawyer, noted African American civil rights advocate J. Chester Allen, advised the group that forming a corporation gave them the best chance of success. So, that’s what they planned to do. He also estimated that the group would need at least $2,000 for startup money. This money came from the founding families themselves, who would pay an initial amount of $100 to secure their spot and another $300 payment as soon as they were able to. Considering one Studebaker worker reported his income as $72 per week, these sums were nothing to be scoffed at.

After the initial meeting, things moved quickly for a time. Less than a month later, they were able to successfully place an option on 26 undeveloped lots on North Elmer Street. Leroy Cobb, the youngest member of the Better Homes group, recalls the first time he saw the Elmer Street site over 60 years later. He and a friend took a bus to the area and, after getting lost, he finally set eyes on the empty street that would become his neighborhood. Little did he know that acquiring the land would be the easiest part of the process.

Every step after that was slowed by bureaucratic red tape, discriminatory practices, and the normal problems that can creep up when taking on a project of this size.

Since these were totally undeveloped lots, one of the first hurdles was getting the city to install sewage and water lines, a task that took years to complete. The next, more obvious task was to hire a contractor, but the local contracting companies were notorious for using sub-par materials for homes being built for African Americans. When they finally found what they thought was a suitable contractor, he delayed and made excuses and changed prices so often that it was hard to attribute it just to bad business practices. And later, once the families moved in, the discrimination continued. One Better Homes resident recalled that the local little league changed the borders of the district to stop just a few blocks before Elmer Street, apparently to exclude Black children.

However, there were reasons for celebration alongside the frustrations. Milestones that were scattered throughout that same time included divvying up the lots, hiring contractors, and obtaining mortgages. That last one was especially important since local banks were well known for denying black families mortgages, especially in non-black neighborhoods. Leroy Cobb recalled the meeting with the bank executives:

Voice actor: “Here I am, just a bit over twenty years old, sitting in one of those fancy board rooms and facing all these white men in their suits.”

Beckley: DeHart Hubbard was an African American man and the race relations adviser for the Federal Housing Authority. Leroy Cobbs recalled Hubbard helping the group navigate the mortgage process, saying:

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

Beckley: And really, the whole experience must have been inspiring. The process, though long and sometimes demoralizing, was ultimately successful.

[music]

Beckley: All told, 22 homes were built through the Better Homes of South Bend Co-op. The first family was able to move into their home sometime in 1952, but it wasn’t until 1954 that all Better Homes members were listed in their Elmer Street residences in city directories.

[Music. Bird song]

Beckley: Just think about what that meant to those families. They were able to obtain what had seemed unobtainable – a piece of the American dream. The families celebrated their accomplishments with a community picnic in the summer of 1954, and let me tell you, looking at the group photo from that picnic is something special. A group of well dressed, smiling people, kids fidgeting, eyes squinted in the bright light of a beautiful summer afternoon, posing with the roofs of the homes they had worked so long to secure visible in the background. It’s beautiful. And it’s lasting.

That picnic wasn’t the only community celebration in the years to come. Picnics were held every summer. There were neighborhood parades, where a King and Queen were crowned. The children grew up together – they were the only African American students to attend the nearby Marquette Elementary School, just as their families were the only African American families to live in that area of the city. The success of Better Homes went beyond the immediate reality of living in a new neighborhood though.

Home ownership is a foundation of generational wealth and security in America. The Better Homes families built more than just houses in that empty space – they built a community and, even more than that, they built a legacy. When Better Homes of South Bend author Gabrielle Robinson spoke to the children of the members of the organization, she discovered the true importance of the project. Beyond breaking color barriers or defying racism, the members created a safe, happy place for their children to grow up and those children reflected fondly on their childhoods on Elmer Street.

Voice actor: “It was a wonderful neighborhood to grow up in.”

“We had hedges between our homes, and flowers in the yard. On Saturdays you could hear the lawnmowers in the yards.”

“We were proud of where we lived.”

“You couldn’t get away with anything…On Elmer Street, I had many dads.”

Beckley: These children went on to become lawyers, teachers, principals, nurses, and more. At a time when 70-75% of African Americans in the nation graduated high school, 100% of the Better Homes children graduated and 13 went on to graduate from college. And today, some of them can still be found right there on Elmer street, living in the same one story homes with flowers in the yards and hedges on the fence line that their parents built all those years ago.

The Better Homes of South Bend Co-op was a success. It afforded those families the opportunity to live in a nice area. The children of Better Homes members integrated their schools and went on to successful professional careers. And some other families were even able to move into the same area after the Better Homes blazed the path for them. Unfortunately, this success did not spread far from those few blocks on Elmer Street.

Redlining and other exclusionary practices have left a lasting effect on South Bend. Today, 83% of families living in areas that received “D” ratings on the 1937 Security Maps fall in the low to moderate income bracket while 95% of families living in areas that received “A” ratings earn mid to upper incomes. Simply put, neighborhoods that were redlined in 1937 are economically depressed today. The same holds true for the vast majority of cities where Security Maps were developed.

In those instances where a formerly “D” rated area now contains a high number of mid to upper income earners, it is by and large the result of gentrification, which comes with its own set of problems. When an area is gentrified, the people who have lived in the area for generations – often minorities – are forced out by inflated property taxes and higher living costs. This leads to the question posed by National Community Reinvestment Coalition researcher Bruce Mitchell:

Voice actor:  “Is Gentrification promoting sustainable desegregation? Or is it just a movement towards increased segregation in the next census period?”

Beckley: If gentrification is a movement towards increased segregation, it’s likely join the likes of slavery and redlining in history books as the basis for widespread wealth building for white Americans and widespread inequality for Black Americans.

However, redlining is effecting our communities in more direct ways than its relationship with gentrification. In fact, just this year, in June of 2019, First Merchants, an Indiana based bank, settled a redlining lawsuit brought against them by the Department of Justice. Although it settled out of court, the case was strong and made it more evident than ever that redlining is more than just a footnote in history – it’s an ongoing injustice in American cities.

[Theme music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. My main secondary source for the information on Better Homes of South Bend in this episode came from Gabrielle Robinson’s Better Homes of South Bend: An American Story of Courage. If you would like to see all of my sources, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. We’d like to thank Brenna young, Carrie Reiburg, Alleah Varnett of Shortridge High School, Sam Smith of Butler University, and Justin Clark of the Indiana Historical Bureau for lending their voices to the podcast. Find us on twitter and Facebook as the Indiana Historical Bureau. And please, take a moment to like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. As always, thanks for listening.

Redlining Show Notes

Jackson, Kenneth, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Lipsitz, George, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.

Robinson, Gabrielle, Better Homes of South Bend: An American Story of Courage, Charleson: The History Press, 2015.

Tindall, George and David Shi, America: A Narrative History, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Underwriting Manual: Underwriting and Valuation Procedure Under Title II of the National Housing Act, Washington D.C.: Federal Housing Administration, 1936 accessed Hathai Trust: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015018409246&view=1up&seq=5

Newspapers

                “Thousands Ask U.S. Home Loans on First Day,” Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1933, p.9.

Articles

                Mitchell, Bruce and Juan Franco, HOLC “Redlining” Maps: The Persistent Structure of Segregation and Economic Inequality, National Community Reinvestment Coalition, 2018, Accessed: https://ncrc.org/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2018/02/NCRC-Research-HOLC-10.pdf.

Welsh, Nancy, “Racially Restrictive Covenants in the United States: A Call to Action,” Agora Journal of Urban Planning and Design, 2018, Accessed: https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/143831/A_12%20Racially%20Restrictive%20Covenants%20in%20the%20US.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

Websites

                Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America: https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=5/36.721/-96.943&opacity=0.8&text=intro

                Racial Restrictive Covenants: Neighborhood by Neighborhood Restrictions Across King County, “The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project:” https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/covenants.htm

“T-RACES: a Testbed for the Redlining Archives of California’s Exclusionary Spaces”
R. Marciano, D. Goldberg, C. Hou: http://salt.umd.edu/T-RACES/

https://www.educationnext.org/graduations-on-the-rise/

https://www.indiana-demographics.com/south-bend-demographics

Other

The Indiana Historical Bureau. “Better Homes of South Bend” Historical marker file.

 

Overcoming Stigma: Ryan White, Hamilton Heights, and Tony Cook’s Educational Crusade

Ryan in the hallway of Hamilton Heights High School, 1987, courtesy of Time & Life Magazine.

In the early years of the AIDS crisis, when fear and misunderstanding accompanied any mention of the disease, schools across the nation faced a decision: whether to allow students diagnosed with AIDS to attend classes. In October 1985, a New York school district barred children from attending classes after officials learned that their mothers’ boyfriends had been diagnosed with the disease. When a different New York district admitted a student with AIDS around that same time, attendance dropped by 25%, despite the fact that the specific school the child was attending was kept confidential. In Swansea, Massachusetts, school officials decided to “do the right thing” by admitting a teenager living with AIDS—only two families decided to keep their children from school after the decision. A year earlier, in late 1984, a Dade County, Florida school admitted triplets who had been diagnosed with AIDS, but kept the siblings isolated from the rest of the students.

The (Elwood) Call-Leader, Oct. 04, 1985, 1.
Ryan White’s physician listens to his lungs while his mother, Jeanne White, looks on, courtesy of Time & Life Magazine.

While new controversies sprung up around the nation, one school in Central Indiana shot to the forefront of the debate in the summer of 1985. Ryan White, a 7th grade student in Howard County, was diagnosed with AIDS in December 1984 after contracting the disease from a contaminated hemophilia treatment. For several months, he was too ill to return to school, but in the spring of 1985 he began voicing his desire to return to his normal life by resuming classes at Western Middle School. When his mother met with school officials to talk about this possibility, she was met with resistance. Concerns about the health of other students, and that of Ryan himself, whose immune system had been ravaged by his illness, gave officials pause. In one of the earliest news articles about the issue, Western School Superintendent J.O. Smith asked:

You tell me. What would you do? . . . I don’t know. We’ve asked the State Board of Health. We’re expecting something from them. But nobody has anything to go by. Everybody wanted to know what they’re doing in other places. But we don’t have any precedent for this.

These two headlines ran within one day of each other in October 1984. Top: York Daily Record, October 11, 1984, 23. Bottom: San Francisco Examiner, October 10, 1984, 15.

He was right. While a few schools had faced similar situations, the issues surrounding a child with AIDS attending school, namely, the risk this posed to other students, were far from settled. At this time, new and conflicting information came out at a dizzying pace. Most reports held that AIDS was not transmissible through casual contact, but others implied that you couldn’t rule out the possibility of it being passed through saliva, which would have made it a much bigger threat. With so much information—and misinformation—in the news cycle, the desire to hear from health authorities on the topic was understandable.

Three months later, the Board of Health released a document containing detailed guidelines for children with AIDS attending school:

AIDS/ARC children should be allowed to attend school as long as they behave acceptably . . . and have no uncoverable sores or skin eruptions. Routine and standard procedures should be used to clean up after a child has an accident or injury at school.

Despite this recommendation, Western School Corporation officials continued to deny Ryan admittance to class. Instead, they set up a remote learning system. From the confines of his bedroom, Ryan dialed in to his classes via telephone and listened to his teachers lecture. He missed out on visual aids, class participation, and sometimes the lectures themselves, as the line was often garbled or disconnected.

Ryan participating in the Western School Corporation’s remote learning system from his home, courtesy of Getty Images.

A November ruling, this time by the Department of Education, confirmed the Board of Health’s assertion that Ryan should be admitted to class:

The child is to be admitted to the regular classrooms of the school at such times as the child’s health allows in accordance with the Indiana State Board of Health guidelines.

Ryan returned to school for one day before the school filed an appeal and he was once again removed from class. A series of rulings, appeals, and other legal filings followed, ultimately ending when the Indiana Court of Appeals declined to hear further arguments and Ryan finally got what he and his family had fought so hard for—returning to classes for good. However, upon his August 25, 1986 return, Ryan faced intense discrimination from classmates and other community members. Addressing the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic in 1988, Ryan recalled some of the more poignant moments from his time in Kokomo:

Some restaurants threw away my dishes, my school locker was vandalized inside and folders were marked ‘fag’ and other obscenities. I was labeled a troublemaker, my mom an unfit mother, and I was not welcome anywhere. People would get up and leave so they would not have to sit anywhere near me. Even at church, people would not shake my hand.

Because of these negative hometown experiences and his desire to evade oppressive media coverage, Ryan asked his mother if they could move out of Howard County. When the family decided to settle in Cicero, they couldn’t have known how drastically different their lives were about to become.

Ryan poses with students from Hamilton Heights Middle School, along with principle Tony Cook (right), courtesy of the Hamilton County Times.

Tony Cook, who was the Hamilton Heights High School principal in the 1980s and is now a State Representative, heard through informal channels that Ryan’s family was moving into his school district in April 1987. The degree of media coverage surrounding Ryan’s battle to attend classes meant that Cook was well aware that his community’s reaction to the White family’s arrival would be heavily scrutinized. Thus, he set out on an AIDS educational crusade the likes of which had not been seen before.

With the backing of his superintendent and school board, Cook quickly made the decision that not only would Ryan be admitted to the school, but there would be no restrictions placed on what Ryan was able to do in school (while in class in Western Middle School, he was not able to attend gym, used a separate restroom, and ate off of disposable trays with plastic utensils.) After gathering AIDS-related materials from the Indiana State Board of Health, the Center for Disease Control, major newspapers, and scientific journals, Tony Cook turned what was supposed to be his summer break into a months-long educational campaign.

Throughout the coming months, Cook spoke about AIDS at Kiwanis groups, Rotary Clubs, churches, and to any group that asked. He sat in living rooms and at kitchen tables throughout the community, personally addressing the concerns of fellow citizens. The school developed a collection of AIDS education materials that could be checked out by students. Tony contacted members of the student government to ask them to act as student ambassadors, advocating on Ryan’s behalf with their fellow students and the media. The school staff went through additional training to prepare them for the possibility of a blood or other biohazard spill. By the time the school year came around, Cicero, Arcadia, and the surrounding area had some of the best informed populations when it came to AIDS.

The first few days of the 1987-1988 school year at Hamilton Heights High School were peppered with convocations in which Cook addressed each grade level to assuage any remaining concerns over sharing classrooms and hallways with Ryan. Students were encouraged to ask questions and support was provided for any feeling uncomfortable with the situation. Administration also offered to change class schedules to avoid conflict.

Ryan with classmates at Hamilton Heights High School, courtesy of Britannica.com.

On Ryan’s first day of class, which was a week after school started, the campaign seemed to have been successful. As the press surrounded him on his way out, he smiled and said, “It went really great—really. Everybody was real nice and friendly.” Later, when speaking in front of the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic, Ryan attributed his positive experiences at Hamilton Heights directly to the education campaign:

I am a normal, happy teenager again . . . I’m just one of the kids, and all because the students at Hamilton Heights High School listened to the facts, educated their parents and themselves, and believed in me . . . Hamilton Heights High School is proof that AIDS education in schools works.

When reflecting on the experience in a recent interview, Representative Cook spoke to the power of education to overcome even the most intense fear, “Yes, there were some folks that were uneasy and nervous, but we did see education overcome. And we saw a community that . . . trusted us.” One obstacle Ryan and the school faced was the sheer amount of publicity surrounding his move to Hamilton County. Hamilton Heights High School was an open campus–students traveled between three different buildings throughout the day–which would have made having members of the media on campus both distracting and potentially dangerous. But restricting access all together also wasn’t possible, as Ryan was a nationally-known figure by this time. The compromise was to have weekly press conferences during which Ryan, student ambassadors, and faculty could answer questions and update the press about the goings-on at the school, a practice that persisted throughout Ryan’s first full semester at Hamilton Heights.

Ryan in April 1988, courtesy of Time Magazine.

After that first semester, the media began to lose interest in the story as it became more and more apparent that a mass walk-out or other dramatic event would not take place. The first time Tony Cook met Ryan, Cook asked why Ryan wanted so badly to attend school. During our interview with Representative Cook, he recalled that the fifteen-year-old Ryan, who by that time had been in the middle of a media storm for nearly two years, replied “’I just want to be a normal kid . . . I may die. So, for me, it’s important that I try to experience the high school experience as well as I can.” At Hamilton Heights High School, Ryan was able to do just that.

In the years following Ryan’s acceptance into Hamilton Heights High School, Ryan, Tony Cook, and others who had been involved in the educational program traveled around the country advocating for increased AIDS education. By August 1988, just one year after Ryan’s first day at Hamilton Heights, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis began developing an exhibit centering on the issue:

While Ryan White zips around the country speaking out for AIDS education, the students of Hamilton Heights High School are telling children visiting The Children’s Museum in Indianapolis what it was like accepting Ryan into school . . . ‘I think everyone was uneasy at first,’ said one student on the videotape about Ryan’s coming to the school. ‘Education eased a lot of people’s minds,’ said another student.

Sixth grade students listen to Heather Stephenson, a high school friend of Ryan, about bullying in Ryan’s room at the Power of Children exhibit, courtesy of the Washington Times.

Ryan White died on April 15, 1990 after being admitted to Riley Hospital for Children with a respiratory tract infection. In 2001, Ryan’s mother, Jeanne, donated the contents of his bedroom to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, where it has been painstakingly recreated as part of the “Power of Children” exhibit.  The museum also houses thousands of letters written to Ryan and his family throughout his illness. You can read the letters and even help transcribe them here.

Giving Voice: Mike Jackson

Transcript for Giving Voice: Mike Jackson

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this Giving Voice, from Talking Hoosier History.

Beckley: During each segment of giving voice, we’ll feature a different discussion from someone who, in some way, we hope will add to your understanding of a topic we’ve covered in the main podcast. We may talk to industry experts, historians, or people personally connected with the main story. It’s our mission to allow a deeper understanding of the topic, while providing a platform for those in the communities we cover in our work.

Our last episode focused on a group of families in South Bend, Indiana who came together to rise above housing discrimination in the city through their housing Co-op Better Homes of South Bend. A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of talking to someone who grew up in the neighborhood developed by Better Homes – Mike Jackson. Today, we bring you that discussion. If you haven’t listened to the episode, called “From Redlining to Better Homes: The Better Homes of South Bend Housing Cooperative,” I’d suggest doing that now, as it gives some great context on the discussion.

[Music]

Jackson: My name’s Mike Jackson. Funny thing: when I say I’m Mike Jackson, they don’t realize my real name’s Michael Jackson. It’s such a slight little thing but people don’t notice. And then, finaly they…they realize.

I grew up – I was born living on Prairie Aveneue. Prairie Avenue was right next to the Studebaker plant, where my dad, who had returned from World War II in France, started working. And the thing I remember about Prairie Avenue is that it was kind of like a housing project but it was pretty much for returning military people. I just remember all the families that were there and all the kids that were there to play with and I remember my grandmother also lived in the same neighborhood too. And the circus train – which I didn’t say before – the circus train pulled up behind our Prairie Ave neighborhood every year too. Ringling Brothers! And that was a real adventure and there was – you’d hear all the sounds of the elephants and the lions and all of that kind of stuff. So, I remember them coming several different times.

My family was on – in – in this Prairie Avenue neighborhood because my mom and all the ladies – my aunt, my grandmother had come up from Mississippi and the south while my dad and the other men were off to war. And so there were a number of other men in the neighborhood that had returned from World War II.

We were the first house built on Elmer Street – completed. There were other housed to come, and they came real fast. But we were on Elmer Street all by ourselves for a little while and as a little kid, I just remember going from our neighborhood on Prairie Avenue to Elmer Street. There we were, all by ourselves and we were the only new house on the block. There was just maybe one or two other houses. There was a basement house straight across from us where a white family lived and my brother and I, my brother Greg, we were the first black students to go to Marquette Elementary. And so, I really got consumed in my kindergarten year and my first year school at Marquette as that got going and everybody else from the prairie avenue neighborhood was going to build houses – I think 22 families built houses  – started getting their houses complete and coming to Elmer Street.

Beckley: And what was the integration process like for you? Was it an easy process as far as entering into the school? Were you accepted?

Jackson: Now, I didn’t really know. I kinda didn’t really know I was integrating the school but as I think – as I thought about it, my mom always took great, great, great pride and care to make sure we always went to school clean. We’d have on some blue jeans and the t-shirt was kinda what the style was in those years – ’52, ’53. But she always made sure we were looking good and there was no reason to look down at us. She took big pride in that. And me, though, the teachers, and the principle, and it seemed like everybody always was so nice. So, they may have been making an extra effort to be nice to us. Pretty much didn’t run into any problems that I saw as a little kid in my first years at Marquette.

Beckley: Even as more and more children came, it seems like it was a pretty smooth process, both through growing the community and everybody being accepted and – aside from the Little League story, which I think you referenced in Gabrielle’s book.

Jackson: Right. And that little league story: we were baseball players. We’d play stickball out in the street and in rocks and whatever and finally we got to play organized baseball and of course we wanted to play in the little league with the shiny stadium and nice uniforms and everything but they cut off the boundaries to the little league two blocks before Elmer Street. And, I mean, after Elmer Street, we realized there were only two more blocks with no houses on it. They could have taken up that whole are and, you know, been that area for the little league. But they cut it off. You know they cut it off. Eventually, we realized that they cut it off, you know, we were little black kids. And we were pretty much hurt by that. But we had great baseball cuz we played in the park league, but all we got was the shirt and cap. In the little league, you go the whole uniform. And in the little league, there was a fence where you could hit home runs over the fence and all those kind of things. But we, you know, we missed out on that. We have to ride our bikes to the different ball parks to play in the park leagues, which we loved – there’s just great memories, riding to all the different parks and playing the different teams at all the different parks. We were representing the Marquette school park on our baseball team.

Beckley: So, when you were growing up on Elmer Street, did you realize in the moment that you were living in a bit of a unique community?

Jackson: Ummm… I, yea, pretty soon I did. Because, when we went to Marquette, we were the only black families going – walking, we walked to school, we walked home from lunch, I mean, it was the good ol’ school days. But we were the only black families – we were the only 2 blocks of houses that had minority families going to Marquette and we knew…we realized that. Yea, we realized we were different at Marquette and so we did – and then, too, I mean, there’s always Jim Crow and all those things going on but you know, my mom and dad, we realized that they had little things that was thrown in their face. The little prejudices and this and that. We knew those kind of things were going on so we knew we were a different group.

Beckley: Did you realize while living there, like, did you guys discuss how you got there and did your parents bring that up much and did you discuss that amongst the other children? And did you talk much about Better Homes of South Bend itself?

Jackson: Eventually, we did. Eventually, we realized that the way the houses had come about was that our dads, and moms, and dads, had gotten together and they had kinda – we were that sure how, but they had built these houses. They had built our street in a place that normally we couldn’t build. So we knew they had done some different things and some special things to get our houses built so, yea, we talked about that all the time.

Another reason we talked about it, too, though, is, like, when we eventually got into high school, you know, here we are still these same two blocks, but on the west side, you know, we weren’t living on the west side, but we were going to school with all the kinds from, you know, the west side of South Bend. So, even they realized on the west side that, you know, there’s two blocks of black families over there on Elmer Street. So, we were kind of like tagged the Northsiders or whatever.

Beckley: Do you think that your, I don’t know, your childhood and growing up on Elmer Street and in that community had a big impact on your life and do you think that it affected the way that you grew up in any significant way?

Jackson: Well, we saw that our parents – our moms and dads – all got along and our moms and dads, you know, they had gatherings on Elmer Street and they had picnics and they had cookouts and we saw them always together. And of course, when they’re together, we’re there with them too, so we’re all hanging out and this and that. So, there was just this unsaid something – feeling – that we were all more family because we were all kind of isolated. So that just kind of, you know, from our observations, you could just kind of feel something different about the whole thing.

Beckley: They went through something together and that kind of created a bond that might not have been there otherwise?

Jackson: Right. Sure. And, you know, since we’re in and out of everybody’s house, whatever Keith had or whatever Charles had, whatever I had too, was like my stuff. And, you know, my mom’s baking us cooking and bringing them out while were playing stick ball in the street. We’d go to somebody else’s house and they’re giving her this and that. It was kinda like what the times were like to. Cuz, you know, you could stay for dinner sometimes, stay for dinner. But sometimes they say you go home and eat dinner. But sometimes, you’d stay and it didn’t matter. It was just like, we were all related. And we were related because we were all Elmer Street. So that stuck with us as, you know, we branched out and went to high school and this and that. We were Elmer Street.

Beckley: So, I think to wrap it up, do you have any favorite stories of your time on Elmer Street or something that’s just kind of quintessentially your childhood that you’d like to share? Just a brief story?

Jackson: As far as stories, it’s like on Saturdays – I mentioned that in the book – you’d get up on Saturdays and you’d hear all the lawnmowers running. And, you know, everybody’d be cutting their grass. All the dad’s would be cutting their grass.

The houses, and the places, and the neighborhood and the blocks all just looked so good and everybody would be going by complimenting each other on how their yard looked. And they’d be buying – some of the dads would be buying hedges or their getting different things to make sure the houses looked good and there was just a big pride and, you know, I’m proud of how the neighbors houses look, and our house too. But it wasn’t like a jealousy – it was a pride. Cuz – it was kinda like we felt like I guess we were in the spotlight or under a microscope. What are those families doin’ on Elmer Street? So that’s one thing I really remember too.

And then, eventually, I became the person cutting the grass at my dads, you know, at our house, too. Which was – oh wow! Now, he’s giving it over to me to let me cut the grass. Ya know, and keep that same pride going.

Beckley: I’m not sure many teenagers felt that way.

Jackson: I know, I know. But we did. Cuz we were always seeing them doing that.

Beckley: Do you feel like, perhaps, you on Elmer Street were held up to a different standard from other families in the surrounding areas? Cuz you were different.

Jackson: Oh definitely. Yes. Definitely. We were – and we met that standard, too, though. And surpassed it. And a lot of times, as we walked to school. So we walked, you know, we walked like…blocks and blocks to school. I won’t get into how far we used to walk to school in the snow and all that, but we always knew our block looked as good as and better, often than other blocks looked. You know, and were proud of that too. We were proud to say we lived on Elmer Street.

Beckley: Mike, I want to thank you again for coming onto our show today and for talking a little bit about your childhood and South Bend. We really appreciate your time.

Jackson: I really appreciate you paying attention to us and recognizing us.

Beckley: Of course. It definitely is a story worth telling so we’re happy to tell it.

Once again, I’d like to thank Mike for taking the time to talk with me about his experiences growing up on Elmer Street. If you want to learn more about life on Elmer Street, I highly recommend Gabrielle Robinson’s book Better Homes of South Bend, which was referenced a few times in that discussion.

We’ll be back next month with another episode of Talking Hoosier History. In the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and twitter for daily doses of Indiana History tidbits. Subscribe, rate, and review to Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening.

How Indianapolis Surgeon Dr. Joseph Ward Challenged the Jim Crow South

“New Sanitarium,” The Freeman, An Illustrated Colored Newspaper (Indianapolis), July 19, 1909, 3. accessed Google News.

If you scour Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier, The Encyclopedia of African American Military History, The African American Encyclopedia, and the Who’s Who of the Colored Race, Dr. Joseph Ward’s name is nowhere to be found. This is a concerning omission, given that his leadership at Tuskegee, Alabama’s Veterans Hospital No. 91. helped prove to some white Jim Crow Southerners, medical practitioners, U.S. military officials, and even President Calvin Coolidge that African Americans were fit to manage large institutions. His significance is two-fold: in an era where African Americans were often excluded from medical treatment, Ward made care accessible to those in Indianapolis and, on a much larger scale, to Southern veterans.

Born in Wilson, North Carolina to Mittie Ward and Napoleon Hagans, Joseph traveled as a young man to Indianapolis in search of better opportunities. In the Circle City, he attended Shortridge High School and worked as the personal driver of white physician George Hasty. According to the African American newspaper The Freeman, Dr. Hasty “‘said there was something unusual in the green looking country boy, and to the delight of Joe as he called him, he offered to send him to school.'”[1] By the 1890s, Ward had earned his degree from Indiana Medical College and practiced medicine in his adopted city. In 1899, The Freeman remarked “The fact that he has risen from the bottom of poverty, th[r]ough honorable poverty, without any assistance, is sufficient evidence to justify our belief in his success in the future.”

Barred from treating Black patients in city hospitals due to institutionalized discrimination, he opened Ward’s Sanitarium and Nurses’ Training School on Indiana Avenue around 1907, which soon garnered the praise of white physicians. He also convinced administrators at the segregated City Hospital to allow Ward’s Black nursing students to attend courses. By enabling them to pass the same state licensing test as white students, he opened professional opportunities to African American women in an era in which they were often relegated to domestic service and manual labor.

Advertisement, Indianapolis Recorder, January 8, 1910, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Dr. Ward became as foundational to Indianapolis’s rich Black history as The Freeman publisher Dr. George Knox and entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, for whom Ward helped get her professional start. He gave back to his city by helping found the African American Senate Avenue YMCA. During World War I, Ward temporarily left his practice to serve in the Medical Corps in France with the 92nd Division Medical Corps, where he worked as ward surgeon of Base Hospital No. 49. Again, his diligence propelled him to excellence, and he became one of two African Americans to achieve the rank of Major in World War I.[2] In 1924, Dr. Ward’s name was etched into the annals of history, when he became the first African American commander of the segregated Veterans Hospital No. 91 at Tuskegee, Alabama. Ward’s decision to accept the position was itself an act of bravery, coming on the heels of hostility from white residents, politicians, and the Ku Klux Klan.

Initially, the Veterans Bureau placed the new hospital in control of a white staff, despite promising Black personnel they would manage it. After seemingly talking out of both sides of their mouths, Bureau officials gradually began replacing white staff with Black staff due to the unrelenting protest of African Americans across the country. This decision essentially pulled the pin from a grenade. Vanessa Northington Gamble contended in Making A Place for Ourselves: The Black Hospital Movement, 1920-1945 that “White Tuskegeeans saw the fight over the hospital as a ‘test of the supremacy of the Angle-Saxon race’ and were prepared to win the battle by any means necessary.”[3] When African American bookkeeper John C. Calhoun arrived at the hospital to replace his white predecessor, he was handed a letter that warned[4]:

WE UNDERSTAND YOU ARE REPORTING TO HOSPITAL TO ACCEPT DISBURSING OFFICERS JOB, IF YOU VALUE YOUR WELFARE DO NOT TAKE THIS JOB BUT LEAVE AT ONCE FOR PARTS FROM WHENCE YOU CAME OR SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES, KKK.

He took heed, and an hour after Calhoun fled, approximately 50,000 Klan members marched on Tuskegee and burned a forty-foot cross, before silently marching near the veterans’ hospital. Although violence was avoided, one “fair-skinned” man reportedly “infiltrated the Klan by passing as white” and learned they planned to kill a Black leader and blow up the Tuskegee Institute. The community at large expressed their disapproval of Black leadership by protesting at the White House. Southern politicians did so by writing pieces for the local papers, like State Senator R. H. Powell, who insisted in The Montgomery Advertiser “We know that a bunch of negro officers, with uniforms and big salaries and the protection of Uncle Sam . . . will quickly turn this little town into a place of riot such as has been experienced in so many places where there has occurred an outbreak between the races.”

But President Calvin Coolidge’s Republican administration stood up to the Klan and continued to replace white staff with Black personnel. In a nod to the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War, The Buffalo American wrote that the Klan’s demonstration “proved to be another ‘lost cause’ and Negro workers continued to arrive.”[5] With Dr. Ward’s appointment, the hospital’s staff was composed entirely of Black personnel. The hospital’s pioneering practitioners treated Southern Black veterans, many of whom suffered from PTSD following WWI service. Under Ward’s leadership, the Buffalo American reported, patients “are happy, content and enjoying the best of care at the hands of members of their own race who are inheritently [sic] interested in their welfare.” The Montgomery Advertiser noted in 1935 that No. 91 was among the largest U.S. veterans hospitals in the country, offering 1,136 beds, and experiencing a monthly wait list of about 375 patients. In addition to neuropsychiatric treatment, the hospital’s library hosted a bibliotherapy program and patients could view moving pictures and attend dances. The sprawling complex also provided job opportunities for Black laborers, waiters, stenographers, plumbers, and electricians.

Dr. Joseph Ward, courtesy of VA History Highlights, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

In describing his leadership, Ward’s colleagues recalled that his purpose was firm, demeanor alert, and interactions with subordinates fair. Ward reportedly “amassed an enviable reputation in the Tuskegee community. His legendary inspection tours on horseback and his manly fearlessness in dealing with community groups at a time when there was a fixed subordinate attitude in Negro-white relations are two of the more popular recollections.”[6] He proved so adept as a leader that the War Department promoted him to Lieutenant Colonel. A 1929 editorial for the Journal of the National Medical Association praised Ward for his ability “to win over to your cause the White South.”[7] The author added that Ward “has served as an inspiration to the members of the staff of the hospital. He has stimulated original observation and contributions”[8] and noted “‘Those who led the opposition to the organization of a Negro personnel openly and frankly acknowledge their mistake and their regret for the earlier unfortunate occurrences.'”[9]

President Coolidge affirmed these characterizations in an address to Congress. Howard University conferred an honorary Master of Arts degree upon Ward for honoring his profession “under pioneer conditions of extraordinary difficulty.”[10] The accolades go on. In regards to this praise, Ward was characteristically humble, stating in The Buffalo American on October 30, 1924, “‘My associates have worked as though they realized that not only them personally, but the entire group was on trial and whatever success we have had was due to that spirit.'”

Tuskegee VHA key staff, 1933, Dr. Ward, front row, center, courtesy of VA History Highlights, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Years after Ward’s appointment, racial tension had not entirely dissipated. In 1936, a federal grand jury charged Ward and thirteen others on the hospital’s staff with “conspiracy to defraud the Government through diversion of hospital supplies.” After more than eleven years of service, the esteemed leader was dismissed “under a cloud,” and he plead guilty to the charges in 1937.[11] Black newspapers provided a different perspective on Ward’s rapid descent from grace. According to The New York Age, Black Republicans viewed the “wholesale indictment of the Negro personnel” at Veterans Hospital No. 91 as an attempt by Southern Democrats to replace Black staff with white, to “rob Negroes of lucrative jobs.”[12] The paper added that these Southern Democrats tried to “take advantage of the administration of their own party in Washington and oust colored executives on charges they would not have dared to file under a Republican regime.” These Black employees, the paper alleged, became the “hapless victims of dirty politics.” Given the previous attempts of the white community to usurp control of the veterans hospital, one is tempted to see truth in this interpretation. After Ward’s dismissal, he quietly returned home to Indianapolis and resumed his private practice, which had moved to Boulevard Place. He practiced there until at least 1949 and in 1956 he died in Indianapolis. 

The struggle for leadership of the new veterans hospital shifted the threat of African American autonomy from theoretical to real for the white Jim Crow South. It exposed the organizational capabilities of the white community in terms of protesting the possibility of this autonomy. It also exposed the capabilities of the Black community in terms of demanding their own governance, efforts Dr. Ward ensured were not made in vain. The young man who journeyed out of the South in search of better opportunities later returned to create them for others. Yet somehow his efforts are virtually absent from the historical record. With the help of doctoral student Leon Bates, IHB is changing that this summer by commemorating Lt. Col. Joseph H. Ward with a historical marker.

 

SOURCES USED:

Dr. Joseph H. Ward historical marker notes.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] “Dr. Joseph H. Ward,” The Freeman: An Illustrated Colored Newspaper (Indianapolis), July 22, 1899, 1, accessed Google News.

[2] “Maj. Ward Back from U.S. Work,” The Indianapolis Star, June 29, 1919, accessed Newspapers.com. “Dr. Joseph H. Ward,” The Freeman: An Illustrated Colored Newspaper (Indianapolis), July 22, 1899, 1, accessed Google News.

[3] Gamble, 90.

[4] Quotation from Gamble, 92.

[5] “Making Good at ‘The Tuskegee’ United States Veterans’ Hospital, No. 91,” The Buffalo (New York) American, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

[6] Dr. Clifton O. Dummett and Eugene H. Dibble,”Historical Notes on the Tuskegee Veterans Hospital,” Journal of the National Medical Association 54, no. 2 (March 1962), 135.

[7] Editorial, “The U.S. Veterans’ Hospital, Tuskegee, Ala., Colonel Joseph Henry Ward,” Journal of the National Medical Association 21, no. 2 (1929): 65-66.

[8] Ibid., 67.

[9] Ibid., 66.

[10] “Col. Ward,” Baltimore Afro American, June 13, 1931, accessed Newspaper Archive.

[11] “Dr. Dibble Succeeds Col. Ward as Head of Tuskegee Hospital,” The Pittsburgh Courier, accessed Newspapers.com; Colonel Indicted in Food Stealing,” The Montgomery Advertiser, July 10, 1936, accessed Newspapers.com; “Two Plead Guilty in Hospital Case,” The Montgomery Advertiser, March 25, 1936, accessed Newspapers.com.

[12] “Charge Southern Democrats Seek Control of Veterans Hospital at Tuskegee, As 9 Others Are Indicted,” The New York Age, October 3, 1936, accessed Newspapers.com.

Taking It to the Streets: Hoosier Women’s Suffrage Automobile Tour

Indianapolis Star, June 6, 1912, 5, courtesy of Grace Julian Clarke’s scrapbooks.

“Five prominent suffragists wooed Nora, stormed Carmel, showed Westfield the sun of political equality rising in the East, and splintered their verbal swords, maces, spears and daggers against two club closing days and a bridge party in Noblesville.”  The June 6, 1912, edition of the Indianapolis Star vividly described what was probably the first women’s suffrage automobile tour in the state. The suffragists in question—Sara Lauter, Grace Julian Clarke, Mrs. R. Harry Miller, Julia Henderson, and Mrs. W.T. Barnes—represented the Woman’s Franchise League (WFL), one of the two major suffrage organizations in the state (the other was the Equal Suffrage Association).

This Hamilton County event was part of the Woman’s Franchise League’s re-energized campaign to get the vote.  After sixty-one years of petitioning state legislators to enact laws that recognized women’s right to vote with no success, the WFL decided to take its arguments more directly to the people.  Suffragists wanted to better inform the public about the benefits for all people when women voted and hoped that constituents would in turn pressure their legislators to enact women’s suffrage legislation.  The WFL needed to garner enough support over the summer of 1912, when travel was easiest in the still very rural state, to have suffrage legislation introduced in the 1913 state legislative session. Gov. Thomas Marshall had added an urgency to the task with his proposed new state constitution.  Marshall wanted only “literate male citizens of the United States who were registered in the state and had paid a poll tax for two years” to be permitted to vote. The existing state constitution, with its arcane amendment system, which had prevented women from gaining the vote in 1883, at least did not designate a sex as criteria for voting as Marshall’s proposal did.

To get their message to the people, the WFL came up with innovative publicity ideas. At the WFL’s request, women’s suffrage supporter and former U.S. Vice-President Charles W. Fairbanks hosted a heavily attended suffrage-themed lawn party at his Meridian Street home. WFL member Lucy Riesenberg suggested a suffrage baseball game. The Indianapolis Athletic Association, owners of the local field, agreed to host the event as long as the WFL sold 3,000 tickets at 50 cents each.  The suffragists deemed those terms “unreasonable” and dropped the idea. Grace Julian Clarke, ardent member of both the WFL and the Federation of Clubs, urged the group to pursue a suffrage auto tour as she heard had been completed by suffragists in Wisconsin. Sara Lauter offered the use of her car for the occasion and they almost immediately put the plan into action.  What better way to reach women than to go directly to them.

Indianapolis News, June 6, 1912, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.

On June 5, the five suffragists fastened a yellow “Votes for Women” banner to the side of Lauter’s car, loaded suffrage flyers and themselves into it, and set out from Indianapolis at 9:30 a.m.  Traveling north, they left some of the flyers behind in Nora and then motored to Westfield.  A group of men and women suffragists hosted the travelers at the public library, where everyone enjoyed lunch and the Indianapolis women gave short talks about how women voters could improve the lives of mothers, working women, and everyone else. Westfield suffragists formed a new WFL branch league on the spot, with Mrs. N.O. Stanbrough named President of the new group, Anna D. Stephens named Vice President, and Lizzie Tresmire as both Secretary and Treasurer.  The enthusiastic Westfield women even offered to travel to the village of Carmel, just three or four miles to the south, to establish a branch suffrage league there. When the Indianapolis suffragists returned to their car to take their message to Noblesville, they found it decorated with peonies, roses, and lilacs.

Indianapolis News, June 6, 1912, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Noblesville visit did not go as planned. The WFL suffragists had unfortunately chosen an inconvenient day for their visit. Women’s clubs did not meet in the summer and June 5 was the last meeting day of the year for two Noblesville clubs. The final day of the club season was a highlight of any club’s yearly program and not to be missed—even for a suffrage auto tour. Disappointed with the small number of women who attended the meeting at the First Presbyterian Church, but understanding the importance of the last day of the club year, WFL suffragists made the best of a bad situation. First, they promised to return the following week, and Mrs. Harry Alexander, Mrs. Walter Sanders, and Mrs. Charles Neal of Noblesville agreed to make the arrangements. Second, Clarke and Lauter took to the streets, where they distributed suffrage flyers and talked to unsuspecting shoppers and business owners around the courthouse square.  At the end of the day, the suffragists headed south to Allisonville, distributed more flyers, returned to Indianapolis around 5:00, and declared their first auto tour “a good day’s work.”

Motivated by their warm reception in Westfield and undaunted by the problems in Noblesville, suffragists chose Boone County as their next destination and traveled to Zionsville and Lebanon the following week. Hanging the “Votes for Women” banner from Mary Winter’s car, Winter, Julia Henderson, and Celeste Barnhill took on the task. The Rev. G.W. Nutter hosted the suffrage meeting at his church, the Zionsville Christian Church.  He announced his full support for women voting and asked to be allowed to join the WFL.  As had happened in Westfield, other men also attended the meeting and displayed as much support for the cause as women.  Winter and Barnhill welcomed them and noted the support the WFL received from many men.  They worried more, it seems, that some women remained indifferent to the vote. They tried to turn that indifference into support by explaining how the vote had the potential to improve the lives of all women through enactment of health and sanitation laws, regulations on child labor, and even by limiting or prohibiting the manufacture or sale of alcohol.

Indianapolis Star, June 13, 1912, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.

Leaving behind suffrage flyers in Zionsville, the women trekked to the courthouse in Lebanon for their next meeting.  This time, Mary Winter stressed that women voters could bring about the introduction of new legislation that dealt with working conditions and wages, liquor legislation, and vice regulation. She noted that women who worked in factories realized the need for the ballot more than women who did not work outside the home.  She hoped that those two groups of women would join forces and improve working and living conditions for everyone.  As with Zionsville, while the crowd expressed an interest in the cause, Boone County residents did not create a new suffrage organization.

In the end, Marshall did not get his new state constitution that would have explicitly forbidden women from voting.  He instead joined the ticket of Democratic presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson and in the November 1912 election became the Vice President of the United States.  No suffrage legislation passed out of the 1913 state legislative session.  In spite of that setback, auto tours became a standard means to reach women.  In Indianapolis, suffragists used automobiles as speaking platforms for impromptu street meetings. By standing in their cars, women were elevated enough above the crowd to clearly be seen and heard.

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1920, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

As a sign of the success of the auto tours, street meetings, and other suffrage work, in 1917 the state legislature had granted women partial suffrage (they could vote for some state officials). After a court challenge, however, the state Supreme Court ruled the partial suffrage bill unconstitutional.  Before that ruling, suffragists, sometimes with a public notary in tow, traveled the state in cars adorned with “Votes for Women” banners to be sure that women registered to vote.  Thousands of women registered in the summer of 1917 in part because of the persistent auto tours of the WFL. The experiment of 1912 became the standard means of reaching Hoosier women and promoting suffrage in even the remotest part of the state.

On January 16, 1920, the Indiana General Assembly ratified the 19th Amendment to the federal Constitution which recognized women’s right to vote. Finally, after federal ratification, Indiana women from all walks of life, sometimes with children in tow, stood in line in the bitterly cold weather to vote on November 2, 1920. Even an automobile accident did not prevent one Indianapolis woman from voting when, after a quick trip to the hospital, a friend drove her to her polling place.  The automobile proved crucial not only in getting the vote, but to the voting booth.

Indianapolis News, November 2, 1920, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.

Further Reading:

Susan Goodier and Karen Pastorello, Women Will Vote:  Winning Suffrage in New York State (Ithaca:  Three Hills Press of Cornell University Press, 2017).

Genevieve G. McBride, On Wisconsin Women:  Working for Their Rights from Settlement to Suffrage (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993).

Eleanor Flexnor and Ellen Fitzpatrick, Century of Struggle:  The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States (Cambridge:  Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Enlarged Edition 1996).

The “Destruction of an Icon:” Wrestling with Complicated Legacies

Rev. Oscar McCulloch, courtesy of IU Newsroom; Rep. Hall, courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives.

As a researcher, few things are more disheartening than coming across that blemish on an otherwise inspiring legacy. But it happens more often than not in the messiness of human history. Events and actors often occupy an ambiguous position between right and wrong, progressive and stagnant, heroic and indifferent. We wish the loose ends of the stories could be tied up into one neat moral bow, but often it’s more complex. In wrestling with this phenomenon, I concluded two things: that context is everything and that we must remember that the historical figures we idolize—and sometimes demonize—were, in fact, evolving humans. The visionary and controversial leadership of Indianapolis Rev. Oscar McCulloch and Gary, Indiana Rep. Katie Hall inspired these conclusions.

In the early 20th century, Oscar McCulloch’s misguided attempt to ease societal ills was utilized to strip Americans of their reproductive rights. Born in Fremont, Ohio in 1843, McCulloch studied at the Chicago Theological Seminary before assuming a pastorship at a church in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He moved to Indianapolis in 1877 to serve as pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church, situated on Monument Circle. On the heels of economic depression triggered by the Panic of 1873, he implemented his Social Gospel mission. He sought to ease financial hardship by applying the biblical principles of generosity and altruism. To the capital city, Brent Ruswick stated in his Indiana Magazine of History article, McCulloch “brought a blend of social and theological liberalism and scientific enthusiasm to his work in Indianapolis.”[1] He also brought a deep sense of empathy for the impoverished and soon coordinated and founded the city’s charitable institutions, like the Indianapolis Benevolent Society, Flower Mission Society, and the Indianapolis Benevolent Society.

In 1878, McCulloch encountered the Ishmael family, living in abject poverty. He described them in his diary [2]:

composed of a man, half-blind, a woman, and two children, the woman’s sister and child, the man’s mother, blind, all in one room six feet square. . . . When found they had no coal, no food. Dirty, filthy because of no fire, no soap, no towels.

Disturbed by the encounter, McCulloch headed to the township trustee’s office to research the Indianapolis family, who lived on land known as “Dumptown” along the White River, as well as in predominantly African American areas like Indiana Avenue, Possum Hollow, Bucktown, and Sleigho.[3] He discovered that generations of Ishmaels had depended upon public relief. According to Ruswick, McCulloch came to believe that the Ishmaels, “suffering from the full gamut of social dysfunctions,” were not “worthy people suffering ordinary poverty but paupers living wanton and debased lives.”[4] Over the course of ten years, the pastor sought to discover why pauperism reoccurred generationally, examining 1,789 ancestors of the Ishmaels, beginning with their 1840 arrival in Indiana.

Pamphlet, “The Tribe of Ishmael: diagram,” 1888, Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

The blemish. McCulloch’s nationally renowned 1888 “Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation” concluded that heredity and environment were responsible for social dependence.[5] He noted that the Ishmaels “so intermarried with others as to form a pauper ganglion of several hundreds,” that they were comprised of “murderers, a large number of illegitimacies and of prostitutes. They are generally diseased. The children die young.” In order to survive, the Ishmaels stole, begged, “gypsied” East and West, and relied on aid from almshouses, the Woman’s Reformatory, House of Refuge and the township. Assistance, he reasoned, only encouraged paupers like the Ishmaels to remain idle, to wander, and to propagate “similarly disposed children.” In fact, those benevolent souls who gave to “begging children and women with baskets,” he alleged, had a “vast sin to answer for.” McCulloch’s sentiment echoes modern arguments about who is entitled to public assistance.

In addition to revoking aid, McCulloch believed the drain on private and public resources in future generations could be stymied by removing biologically-doomed children from the environment of poverty. Ruswick noted that McCulloch, in the era of Darwin’s Natural Selection, believed “pauperism was so strongly rooted in a person’s biology that it could not be cured, once activated” and that charities should work to prevent paupers from either having or raising children. This line of thought foreshadowed Indiana’s late-1890s sterilization efforts and 1907 Eugenics Law. The Charity Organization Society, consulting McCulloch‘s “scientific proof,” decided to remove children from families with a history of pauperism and vagrancy, essentially trampling on human rights for the perceived good of society.

The Tribe of Ishmael, ca. 1910s-1920s, accessed Eugenics Record Office Records, American Philosophical Society Library.

But McCulloch had a change of heart. He began to rethink the causes of poverty, believing environmental and social factors were to blame rather than biological determinism. Ruswick notes that “Witnessing the rise of labor unrest in the mid-1880s, both within Indianapolis and nationwide, McCulloch began to issue calls for economic and social justice for all poor.* To the ire of many of his Indianapolis congregants, the pastor defended union demonstrations and pro-labor parties. He no longer traced poverty to DNA, but to an unjust socioeconomic system that locked generations in hardship. McCulloch believed that these hardships could be reversed through legislative reform and organized protest. To his dismay, McCulloch’s new ideology reportedly resulted in his church being “‘broken up.'”

In a nearly complete reversal of his stance on pauperism, McCulloch wrote a statement titled “The True Spirit of Charity Organization” in 1891, just prior to his death. He opined [6]:

I see no terrible army of pauperism, but a sorrowful crowd of men, women and children. I propose to speak of the spirit of charity organization. It is not a war against anybody. . . . It is the spirit of love entertaining this world with the eye of pity and the voice of hope. . . . It is, then, simply a question of organization, of the best method for method for the restoration of every one.

But after McCulloch’s death, Arthur H. Estabrook, a biologist at the Carnegie Institution’s Eugenics Research Office, repurposed McCulloch’s social study (notably lacking scientific methodology) into the scientific basis for eugenics. Historian Elsa F. Kramer wrote that Estabrook revised McCulloch’s “casual observations of individual feeblemindedness” into support for reforms that “included the institutionalization of adult vagrants, the prevention of any possibility of their future reproduction, and the segregation of their existing children—all to protect the integrity of well-born society’s germ-plasm.”[7] McCulloch had unwittingly provided a basis for preventing those with “inferior” genetics from having children in the name of improving the human race. Kramer notes that co-opting the Ishmael studies for this purpose reflected “the changing social context in which the notes were written.”[8] In fact, Estabrook resumed the Ishmael studies in 1915 because “of their perceived value to eugenic arguments on racial integrity.”[9]

The Tribe of Ishmael, ca. 1921, accessed Eugenics Record Office Records, American Philosophical Society Library.

McCulloch’s work influenced Charles B. Davenport’s report to the American Breeders Association and Dr. Harry C. Sharp’s “Indiana Plan,” an experimental program that utilized sterilization to curtail unwanted behaviors of imprisoned Indiana men. Sharp also promoted Indiana’s 1907 Eugenics Law, the first in the U.S., which authorized a forced sterilization program “to prevent procreation of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists” in state institutions. Twelve states enacted similar laws by 1913 and approximately 2,500 Hoosiers were sterilized before the practice ceased in 1974.[10] Even though McCulloch moved away from his problematic beliefs, for decades they were utilized to rob Americans of the ability to have a family. His legacy proved to be out of his hands.

Katie Beatrice Hall, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Coretta Scott King and Katie Hall observe President Reagan signing the bill commemorating Dr. King’s birthday on November 2, 1983, courtesy of the White House Photo Office, accessed achievement.org.

The complexities of African American Rep. Katie Hall’s legacy could not be more different. In 1983, Rep. Hall, built on a years-long struggle to create a federal holiday honoring the civil rights legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday. Each year since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, U.S. Representative John Conyers had introduced a bill to make Dr. King’s January 15 birthday a national holiday. Many became involved in the growing push to commemorate Dr. King with a holiday, including musician Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow. But it was the Gary, Indiana leader who spent the summer of 1983 on the phone with legislators to whip votes and successfully led several hearings called to measure Americans’ support of a holiday in memory of King’s legacy. Hall was quoted in the Indianapolis News about her motivation:

‘The time is before us to show what we believe— that justice and equality must continue to prevail, not only as individuals, but as the greatest nation in this world.’

2018 birthday card by Emyha Brown, student at McCullough Girls School.

Representative Hall knew the value of the Civil Rights Movement first hand. In 1938, she was born in Mississippi, where Jim Crow laws barred her from voting. Hall moved her family to Gary in 1960, seeking better opportunities. Hall trained as a school teacher at Indiana University, and she taught social studies in Gary public schools. As a politically engaged citizen, Hall campaigned to elect Gary’s first Black Mayor, Richard Hatcher. She broke barriers herself when, in 1974, she became the first Black Hoosier to represent Indiana in Congress. Two years later, she ran for the Indiana Senate and won. While in the Indiana General Assembly, Hall supported education measures, healthcare reform, labor interests, and protections for women, such as sponsoring a measure to “fund emergency hospital treatment for rape victims,” including those who could not afford to pay.

The blemish. In 1987, voters elected Hall Gary city clerk, and it was in this position that her career became mired in scandal. In 2001, suspended city clerk employees alleged that Hall and her daughter and chief deputy, Junifer Hall, pressured them to donate to Katie’s political campaign or face termination. Dionna Drinkard and Charmaine Singleton said they were suspended after not selling tickets at a fundraiser for Hall’s reelection campaign. Although suspended, the Halls continued to list them as active employees, which meant Drinkard was unable to collect unemployment. The U.S. District Court charged the Halls with racketeering and perjury, as well as more than a dozen other charges. At trial, a federal grand jury heard testimony from employees who stated that the Halls forced them to sell candy and staff fundraisers to maintain employment. Allegedly, the Halls added pressure by scheduling fundraisers just before pay day. Investigators discovered cases of ghost-employment, noting that employees listed on the office’s 2002 budget included a former intern who was killed in 1999, a student who worked for the clerk part time one summer two years previously, and Indiana’s Miss Perfect Teen, who was listed as a “maintenance man.”

The Times (Munster), May 18, 2002, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

According to the Munster Times, the Halls alleged their arrest was racially motivated and their lawyers (one of whom was Katie’s husband, John) claimed that “the Halls only did what white politicians have done for decades.” Josie Collins countered in an editorial for the Times that “if they do the crime, they should do the time. This is not an issue of racial discrimination. It is an issue of illegal use of the taxpayers’ money.” Whether or not the Halls’ allegation held water, it is clear from phone recordings between Junifer and an employee, as well as the “parade of employees past and present” who testified against the Halls, that they broke the law.

In 2003, the Halls pled guilty to a federal mail fraud charge that they extorted thousands of dollars from employees. By doing so, their other charges were dropped. They also admitted to providing Katie’s other daughter, Jacqueline, with an income and benefits, despite the fact that she did not actually work for the city clerk. The Halls immediately resigned from office. In 2004, they seemed to resist taking accountability for their criminal actions and filed a countersuit, in which they claimed that Gary Mayor Scott King and the Common Council refused to provide them with a competent lawyer regarding “the office’s operation.” The Munster Times noted “The Halls said they wouldn’t have broken the law if the city of Gary had provided them sound advice.” Instead, they lost their jobs and claimed to suffer from “‘extreme mental stress, anxiety, depression, humiliation and embarrassment by the negative publication of over 500 news articles.'” For this, they asked the court to award them $21 million.

The Times (Munster), July 9, 2003, 112, accessed Newspapers.com.

The City of Gary deemed the Halls’ Hail Mary pass “frivolous,” and a “‘form of harassment,'” arguing that “the Halls had no one to blame for their troubles but themselves.” The countersuit was dismissed. Junifer served a 16-month sentence at the Pekin Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin, Illinois. Katie Hall was placed on probation for five years. According to the Munster Times, one observer at her trial noted:

‘We are seeing the destruction of an icon.’

Thus ended Katie Hall’s illustrious political career, in which she worked so hard to break racial barriers and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This leads to the perhaps unanswerable question: “Why?” Maybe in the early 2000s no one was immune from being swept into Gary’s notoriously corrupt political system. This system arose from the city’s segregated design, one which afforded white residents significantly more opportunities than Black residents. Possibly, the Halls sought to create their own advantages, at the expense of others. Either way, it is understandable that some Gary residents opposed the installation of a historical marker commemorating her life and work.

In many ways, McCulloch’s and Hall’s stories are not unique. It seems almost inevitable that with such prolific careers, one will make morally or ethically questionable decisions or at least be accused of doing so. Take African American physician Dr. Joseph Ward, who established a sanitarium in Indianapolis to treat Black patients after being barred from practicing in City Hospital. He forged professional opportunities for aspiring African American nurses in an era when Black women were often relegated to domestic service and manual labor. In 1924, Dr. Ward became the first African American commander of the segregated Veterans Hospital No. 91 at Tuskegee, Alabama. With his appointment, the hospital’s staff was composed entirely of Black personnel. Ward’s decision to accept the position was itself an act of bravery, coming on the heels of hostility from white residents, politicians, and the Ku Klux Klan. The blemish. In 1937, before a Federal grand jury he pled guilty to “conspiracy to defraud the Government through diversion of hospital supplies.” The esteemed leader was dismissed “under a cloud” after over eleven years of service. However, African American newspapers attributed his fall from grace to political and racial factors. According to The New York Age, Black Republicans viewed the “wholesale indictment of the Negro personnel” at Veterans Hospital No. 91 as an attempt by Southern Democrats to replace Black staff with white, to “rob Negroes of lucrative jobs.” Again, context comes into play when making sense of blemishes.

If nothing else, these complex legacies are compelling and tell us something about the period in which the figures lived. Much like our favorite fictional characters—Walter White, Don Draper, Daenerys Targaryen—controversial figures like Katie Hall and Oscar McCulloch captivate us not because they were perfect or aspirational, but because they took risks and were complex, flawed, and impactful.  They were human.

*Text italicized by the author.

SOURCES USED:

Katie Hall, Indiana History Blog.

Elsa F. Kramer, “Recasting the Tribe of Ishmael: The Role of Indianapolis’s Nineteeth-Century Poor in Twentieth Century Eugenics,” Indiana Magazine of History 104 (March 2008), 54.

Origin of Dr. MLK Day Law historical marker notes.

Brent Ruswick, “The Measure of Worthiness: The Rev. Oscar McCulloch and the Pauper Problem, 1877-1891,” Indiana Magazine of History 104 (March 2008), 9.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Ruswick, 9.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Kramer, 54.

[4] Ruswick, 10.

[5] Oscar C. McCulloch, “The Tribe of Ishmael: A Study in Social Degradation,” (1891), accessed Archive.org.

[6] Quotation from Ruswick, 31.

[7] Kramer, 39.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 61.

[10] Learn more about the 1907 Indiana Eugenics Law and Indiana Plan with IHB’s historical marker notes.

Race, Power, and the Ballot: Early Black Settlement in Sugar Creek Township

Every election elicits charges of voter fraud. During the 2016 general election, Republicans charged Democrats with importing out-of-state voters to swing New Hampshire. During the 2018 midterms, Democrats charged Republicans with disenfranchising African American senior citizens who needed rides to the polls. The courts can decide the individual cases, but the accusations show us that people have always been concerned about who is a legitimate voter, and therefore, citizen.

In 1880, the democratic newspaper of Lebanon, Boone County, published a ranting article accusing Republicans of voter fraud. The Lebanon Weekly Pioneer claimed that Republicans at the state level imported Black men from North Carolina to Boone County to win a legislative seat for the region. The charge was ludicrous. Black families had established a thriving farming community around Thorntown in the Sugar Creek Township of Boone County as early as the 1840s. But the article showed more than the prejudice of the local editor, who saw this community as “imported,” as “other,” and as not “real” or “true” Boone County voters. The article reflected the fear of the white, democratic newspaper’s audience. These white citizens were afraid of losing their sovereignty. Because whether or not the Pioneer considered Black Hoosiers to be “real” voters, the Black men of Boone County held real political power. [1]

“Rice and Gilliam Families ca 1926,” accessed Roberts Settlement Photos, http://www.robertssettlement.org/historical-photos.html

By the 1840s, patriarch Moody Gilliam moved his large family, described as “mulatto” by white census takers, from North Carolina to Boone County, Indiana. Other members of the Gilliam family had been prominent in the establishment of nearby Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County. This proximity to family and another black community certainly played an important part in the decision to settle and farm in Boone. The Gilliams owned at least $1000.00 worth of property by 1850 which they farmed and improved successfully. By 1860, Moody Gilliam’s property was estimated at $4000.00. This would be approximately $120,000 today, a solid foundation for a family facing unimaginable prejudice and legal discrimination. [2]

Registration certificate issued in Gibson County, Indiana to Gilly Ann Perry, Indiana State Library, Nelson Perry Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

Though he was a well-to-do land owner by 1860, Moody Gilliam would not have been allowed to vote. Additionally, he may have been forced to register with county authorities and to post a $500 bond with the assumption that the county would someday be supporting him. In fact, Indiana residents made it clear that they did not even want him there at all. In 1851, Hoosiers voted for Article XIII of the Indiana Constitution that stated, “No negro or mulatto shall come into, or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.” Despite racist legislation and prejudice, Black settlers established a successful farming community in Boone County concentrated in Sugar Creek Township near Thorntown.

By 1860, seventy-two Black Hoosiers lived in Sugar Creek Township with eleven based in Thorntown proper. The census from that year, shows us that they arrived mainly from North Carolina and Kentucky, that they were predominately farmers, and that most could not read and write. Many Black Southerners had been prohibited from obtaining an education as it was seen by white slave owners as a threat to the slavery system. The mainly illiterate founders of the Sugar Creek settlement, however, broke this systematic oppression by making sure their children could read and write.

By the late 1860s, Sugar Creek residents of color purchased land from local Quakers for the purpose of building a school, likely at the corner of Vine and Franklin Streets in Thorntown. Around the same time, they also purchased a lot to build an A.M.E. church at the west end of Bow Street. The church established a Sabbath school around 1869. Thus, the children Sugar Creek’s founders received a primary education as well as a spiritual one. By 1869, residents purchased more Quaker land to establish a “burying ground for the Colored people of Thorntown and vicinity.” It was clear that they planned on staying. [3]

Harper’s Weekly, March 18, 1865. Wood Engraving. Colonel Charles Fox Leading the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment into Charleston, S.C. when the City Surrenders to Union Forces on February 21, 1865 ,” accessed Black Past.

During the Civil War, at least one Sugar Creek son fought for the Union cause in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. It’s not clear when Elijah Derricks came to Sugar Creek, before or after the war, but he is buried in the “colored cemetery.” Derricks volunteered for service in 1863 when he was 38-years-old. His regiment saw a great deal of action in Florida and South Carolina.

“Elijah Derricks,” 55th Massachusetts Infantry, Misc. Cards, 1864, compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers, accessed Fold3, Ancestry Library.

All Civil War units struggled with causalities from disease and Derricks suffered several bouts of illness, but returned to his regiment each time. In November 1864, he was injured at the Battle of Honey Hill, a Union initiative designed to help Sherman’s March to the Sea. It’s not clear if Derricks’ injury took him out of action or if he remained with the regiment until it mustered out. If he did remain, he would have been present in 1865 when the 55th marched into a conquered Charleston, arriving “to the shouts and cheers of newly freed women, men, and children.”[4] Either way, Derricks carried his injury for life, as he collected a pension for his injured arm back at Sugar Creek. [5]

Plan of the Battle of Honey Hill, South Carolina, November 30th, 1864. Virginia Historical Society, Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.ndlpcoop/gvhs01.vhs00181.

By the late 1860s, the Sugar Creek community also boasted a Masonic lodge. By 1874, they had seventy-four members and the Boone County Directory listed the group as: Washington Lodge F&AM (Colored). While not much is known about “the colored Masons of Thorntown,” their establishment of such a society shows us that they sought power through organization. However, the men of Sugar Creek also took more direct political action. [6] 

While the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave Black men in the North the right to vote in 1870, one newspaper article implied that some residents of color in Sugar Creek participated in local elections prior to this legislation. The Thorntown Argus reported in 1897 that after the well-liked and respected barber John Mitchell settled in Thorntown around 1864, “he was a delegate to the first Republican county convention held after his arrival and there were 47 colored voters in this township then”[7] The newspaper’s language is ambiguous, but seems to imply that they were voting in the 1860s before the amendment passed. [8]

James Sidney Hinton, 1880, Division of Manuscripts and Rare Books, Indiana State Library.

After officially gaining suffrage rights, however, the men of color in the community immediately joined the political efforts and causes of the time. On Saturday, August 10, 1870, they held a large “XVth Amendment celebration” at Thorntown. [9] One of the speakers that day was the James Sidney Hinton, a powerful orator and civil rights advocate who would become the first African American to serve in the Indiana General Assembly. There is no record of what the Republican leader said to the people of Thorntown the day they celebrated their enfranchisement. However, gleaning from a speech he made some years later on Independence Day, we can imagine he made similar remarks. Hinton stated on that occasion: “The forces of truth and the principles of liberty, born in the days of the revolution, and proclaimed in the Declaration of 1776 have placed the negro for the first time in his history on this continent in a position to realize that he is a man and an American citizen.” [10]

Thomas Kelly, “The Fifteenth Amendment,” 1870, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.34808/

In 1872, several prominent men of the Sugar Creek community founded a political organization. The Lebanon Patriot reported that “the colored men of Thorntown were organized into a Grant club at Thorntown” which hosted political speakers. [11] The Crawfordsville newspaper referred to it as the “Gran Wilson Club,” making clear that they were advocating for the Republican presidential ticket during the election season. [12] Despite the more blatantly racist policies of the Democratic Party at the time, not all Black residents of Sugar Creek were Republicans. In 1896, “Rev. Charley Derrickson of Thorntown, colored, 90 years of age, took part in several Bryan parades during the campaign.” [13] While this three time presidential candidate was never an advocate for Black citizens, perhaps the reverend found something he liked in William Jennings Bryan’s Protestant values.

By the late 1870s, local newspapers provided evidence of the power of the Black vote in the area. The Lebanon Pioneer described (and poked fun at) the candidates for local offices of Sherriff, County Recorder, and County Auditor. The newspaper implied that the candidates were Quakers and noted that only one of the candidates by the last name of Thistlethwait could “hold a solid negro vote.” The support of the Black vote, the newspaper concluded, was needed for Thistlethwait to win the election and was only possible for him if local resident of color, Harvey White, “sticks to him.” [14] The Pioneer was staunchly Democrat and often blatantly racist, so it is quite possible that these statements were meant to discredit the candidate. However, it does show the weight of Black leadership and suffrage in the district.

Map of Sugar Creek Township, 1878, Boone County Land Ownership Atlas, Boone County Genealogy, http://sites.rootsweb.com/~inboone/land/atlas_1878.htm

This increased influence of the Black vote was due in part to an increase in population. By 1870, 172 Black Hoosiers lived in Sugar Creek Township, seventy-seven of whom lived in Thorntown. The A.M.E. church had twenty-five adult congregants by 1874 and forty-five children in Sunday school. In 1879, the local newspaper reported that “Elias Schadd, colored, was impaneled as a petit juryman from Sugar Creek Township last Monday, to serve on the present term of court. He is the first colored man ever placed on the petit jury in Boone County.” [15] Thorntown was growing and changing, and for some white residents, this felt threatening.

Lebanon Pioneer, November 27, 1879, 3, NewspaperArchive.com

In nearby Whitestown, Boone County, white residents carried out “an unprovoked attack on a colored family.” According to the Lebanon Patriot, the family arrived on Thursday January 29, 1880, and “took refuge in an old dwelling house.” A mob surrounded the house the following evening and “showered the building with stones and brick-bats.” When the family was forced out of the structure, one of the children was “seriously injured” by a brick. The mob successfully “forced the family to leave town.” The Patriot reported that the attack was instigated by reports that Republicans were importing voters to Boone County. The paper dismissed the charges against republicans, stating that the patriarch of the unnamed family “had gone there of his own notion” and “the attack was wholly unwarranted.” [16]

The Democratic paper, the Lebanon Pioneer, attacked the Lebanon Patriot’s report of the incident with racist vitriol and slurs. The Pioneer reported that the Black man’s name was “Thusa” and that a white resident named “Mr. Scovill” lent him a stove and asked him several questions. The Pioneer reported on their supposed exchange. Thusa “said he had come from North Carolina, and that he had come to vote with the ‘publican party.’” Scovill asked him if he had any money or clothes to which he reportedly replied “no, sah.” The paper concluded, “He was a pauper, and imported as such, and the only reason he could give, was to vote the ‘publican’ ticket.” The newspaper claimed Whitestown was fed up with supporting such paupers and played down the physical attack, claiming the mob threw stones only at the house, and never mentioned the man’s wife or children.  The Pioneer claimed the attack continued “until the colored occupant became so frightened as he agreed to leave the town . . . no one was hit or hurt.” [17]

Lebanon Weekly Pioneer, February 5, 1880, 2, accessed NewspaperArchive.com

In the same issue, the Lebanon Pioneer, printed a more extensive article charging Indiana Republicans with importing Black voters from North Carolina. Their entire argument hinged on the claim that if these Black settlers were coming of their own volition, they would never come to Boone County, Indiana. The paper asked:

If it is not for political purposes why do they come so far? Why don’t they stop in Pennsylvania or Ohio? And if the colored people are so anxious to come to Indiana, why don’t they come from Kentucky or Missouri. At least a few.

The Pioneer‘s argument was baseless. Of course, many people came from North Carolina, because they were joining family who came from North Carolina – a migration pattern that has existed for as long as migration has been recorded. And they did come from other states, especially Kentucky. In fact, about half of the residents of Sugar Creek were originally from the neighboring Blue Grass State. And some did come from Virginia and even New York.

Nonetheless the Pioneer stated:

It is a fact: they have brought them to Boone county. Republican leaders are doing it for the purpose of making sure of the county ticket and send a Republican to the legislature.

The paper concluded that these “stupid paupers” would “override the majority of real and true Indianians.” First of all, any true “Indianian” would have used the word “Hoosiers.” [18] Second, and all joking aside, there were few paupers or criminals among the Sugar Creek community. There were instead farmers, washer women, school teachers, reverends, barbers, ditch diggers, students, and veterans. [19] And despite all of the institutionalized prejudice, and against the odds, for many generations they created a healthy community in Sugar Creek, Boone County.

Lebanon Reporter, September 23, 2017, accessed http://eagleproject.homestead.com/

By the late 1890s, many of the Sugar Creek community had moved to Lebanon or surrounding towns for more employment opportunities. However, the Thorntown church stayed active for several more decades. In 1894, the Thorntown Argus reported that “the colored church” would serve as the polling place for the second precinct of Sugar Creek Township. [20] In 1898, the congregation raised money and built a brick parsonage building to house their reverend in comfort. In 1902, they held a successful New Year’s concert and fundraiser. That year, the Indianapolis Recorder reported on the “good work” of the Literary Society and Sunday school and noted that the women of the AME congregation organized a Missionary Society. [21] Unfortunately, there are few records of the lives of the women of Sugar Creek. Census records show that many had large families and thus were mainly engaged in child care, as well as helping with the farm. Thus, the work of the missionary society is perhaps our best insight into the lives of the women of Sugar Creek. These women organized programs and social gatherings at the church and engaged in community service. They raised money for a new carpet for the church. The ladies held “a successful social” after the organized theological debate held at the church and their programs were known for being “excellent” even forty miles away in Indianapolis. They led the memorial services for one congregate in which they were “assisted” by the revered, as opposed to the other way around. [22]

Indianapolis Recorder, May 17, 1902, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Today, the only known physical remnant of the Sugar Creek Community is the small cemetery where the Civil War veteran Elijah Derricks is buried under a worn headstone. This is all the more reason to continue looking into this story. There is more here – to add, correct, and uncover. Thorntown librarians, genealogists and Eagle Scouts have been working to learn more, and the descendants of Roberts Settlement have shown that genealogical research can open up a whole new world of stories. [See related local projects] But even with what little we do know about Thorntown and Sugar Creek, the community stands as a powerful reminder to check prejudice against newcomers. Before they could vote, or testify in court, or expect a fair shot, Black settlers built a thriving community in Sugar Creek. They worked, raised families, built a school, celebrated their accomplishments, worshiped together, and perhaps most importantly, they cast their ballots.

*Note on Terminology: The term “Black” is used here as opposed to “African American” because it provides the necessary ambiguity to describe the Sugar Creek settlers. Some family names at Sugar Creek are the same as residents of Roberts Settlement and thus likely relatives. Many Roberts residents either had no African heritage or very distant and thus did not identity as “African American.” Describing the Sugar Creek settlers as “Black” is more inclusive of the possibility that Sugar Creek residents had the same heritage as Roberts residents.

Notes

[1] Lebanon Weekly Pioneer, February 5, 1880.
[2] 1850 and 1860 United States Census accessed AncestryLibrary.
[3] Deed Record Book 15, Records of Boone County Recorder’s Office.
[4] Ephrem Yared, “55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment,” Black Past, March 15, 2016, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/55th-massachusetts-infantry-regiment-1863-1865/
[5] Lebanon Weekly Pioneer, October 11, 1883.
[6] Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, July 9, 1868.
[7] Thorntown Argus, March 6, 1897
[8] More on the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and Hoosier response: Indiana Historical Bureau
[9] Lebanon Patriot, September 15, 1870.
[10] “James Sidney Hinton,” accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.
[11] Lebanon Patriot, August 8, 1872.
[12] Crawfordsville Weekly Journal, August 15, 1872, Hoosier State Chronicles.
[13] Indianapolis Sun, November 3, 1896.
[14] Lebanon Pioneer, July 19, 1877.
[15] Lebanon Pioneer, November 27, 1879.
[16] Lebanon Weekly Pioneer, February 5, 1880.
[17] Lebanon Weekly Pioneer, February 5, 1880.
[18] Lindsey Beckley, “The Word ‘Hoosier:’ An Origin Story,” Transcript for Talking Hoosier History, Indiana Historical Bureau.
[19] 1850 and 1860 United States Census accessed AncestryLibrary.
[20] Thorntown Argus, November 3, 1894.
[21] Indianapolis Recorder, April 19, 1902, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.
[22] Indianapolis Recorder, April 19, 22, May 3, 17, 1902, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Further Reading

Anna-Lisa Cox, The Bone and Sinew of the Land (New York: PublicAffairs, 2018).

Warren Eugene Mitleer Jr., The Complications of Liberty: Free People of Color in North Carolina from the Colonial Period through Reconstruction, Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carolina Digital Repository, accessed cdr.lib.unc.edu.

Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana before 1900 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1985).

Stephen A. Vincent, Southern Seed, Northern Soil: African-American Farm Communities in the Midwest, 1765-1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).

“Do Fish Think, Really?” And Will Cuppy’s Other Musings

Will Cuppy, accessed Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Winter 2014).

Humorist Will Cuppy’s witticisms tended toward, as his biographer Wes Gehring put it, “dark comedy that flirts with nihilism.” Cuppy’s The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, published posthumously in 1950, spent four months on the New York Times best-seller list and enjoyed eighteen reprints in hardback. Decline and Fall typified Cuppy’s life’s work, which satirized human nature and utilized footnotes to great comedic effect. He spent sixteen years researching the historic figures featured in Decline and Fall, but, after years of battling depression, passed away before its publication.

Young Cuppy, 1902, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, accessed Gale Academic OneFile.

The Auburn, Indiana native spent a lot of time on his grandmother’s South Whitley farm. There, he developed a love of animals and a curiosity about life. According to an oft-cited anecdote, Cuppy found himself wondering if fish think—and no one he knew was curious enough to similarly wonder or care if indeed fish do think. In search of more inquisitive conversationalists, Cuppy moved out of Indiana as soon as he could. Upon graduation from Auburn High School, Cuppy departed for the University of Chicago where he would spend the next twelve years taking a wide array of courses. He completed his B.A. in philosophy and planned to get his Ph.D. in Elizabethan literature.

While at university, Cuppy worked for the school paper. As a result, the University of Chicago Press hired Cuppy to “create some old fraternity traditions for what was then a relatively new college” to give the school more of an old east coast university feel. This assignment evolved into Cuppy’s first book, Maroon Tales, published in 1910. Eventually, Cuppy’s college friend Burton Rascoe invited him out to New York City, where Rascoe was an editor and literary critic for the New York Tribune. After agreeing to move to New York City, Cuppy decided to get his M.A. in literature and leave the University of Chicago rather than complete his Ph.D. He was ready to move on.

Illustration from How to Become Extinct (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1941), 31.

In 1921, Cuppy moved into a tarpaper and tin shack on Jones’ Island in New York. Suffering from hypersensitivity to sound, Cuppy wished to escape the noise of the city. He lived on the island year-round for eight years, with occasional visits to the city for supplies. The men of the Coast Guard station a few hundred feet down the beach befriended him and shared food, as well as fixed his typewriter. Cuppy called his beach home Tottering-on-the-Brink, giving insight into his mental health. But despite his seclusion, Cuppy’s career progressed. By 1922, he was writing occasionally for the New York Tribune, and in 1926 he joined the staff there as a book reviewer (by which time the Tribune had become the New York Herald Tribune).

End paper art from How to be a Hermit, courtesy of Simanitis Says.

Then, in 1929, Cuppy had to leave his shack because New York designated the area to become a state park, although he received permission to visit his hermitage for irregular vacations. Cuppy moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village, but even after he left his residence at Jones’ Island he would sometimes be referred to—and refer to himself—as a hermit because he continued to maintain an isolated lifestyle. Predictably, Cuppy found it difficult to stand the noise of the humming city. He tended to sleep during the day and work during the night to minimize his exposure to the cacophonous sounds. When it all got to be too much, Cuppy would blow on noisemaker as hard as he could out an open window.

Cuppy published a book about his experience living on Jones’ Island in 1929, How to Be a Hermit (Or A Bachelor Keeps House). The book was a best-seller—reprinted six times in six months—and put Cuppy on the map as a humorist and author. In traditional Cuppy fashion, he quipped “I hear there’s a movement among them [architects] to use my bungalow as a textbook example of what’s wrong with their business. The sooner the better—that will give the dome of St. Paul’s a rest.” And then there was this telling jest:

Coffee! With the first nip of the godlike brew I decide not to jump off the roof until things get worse—I’ll give them another week or so.

Cuppy followed up Hermit with How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes in 1931.

Cuppy at a broadcast for CBS Radio, circa 1942, courtesy of Gale Academic OneFile, accessed Simanaitis Says.

The 1930s were a busy time for Cuppy. In 1930, he tried to establish himself as a comic lecturer; however, after a brief stint of talks, it appeared the venture did not work out. A few years later Cuppy hosted a short-lived radio program on NBC called “Just Relax.” It proved too difficult to sustain a radio program with Cuppy’s singular brand of comedy and socially anxious tendencies—radio executives simply told him he wasn’t funny. Though his program didn’t last, Cuppy continued to appear in radio broadcasts sporadically through the years. He went on the radio to promote his next book, How to Become Extinct (1941).

Numerous reviews of mystery and crime novels had garnered Cuppy the distinction of being “America’s mystery story expert” as early as 1935. It was earned—in the course of his career Cuppy published around 4,000 book reviews. He secretly admitted that his heart wasn’t in it and he’d never particularly enjoyed the mystery and detective genre, but reviewing these books in his New York Herald Tribune column “Mystery and Adventure” was Cuppy’s steadiest income stream over the years. Nevertheless, in the 1940s Cuppy used his genre expertise to edit three anthologies of mystery and crime fiction. His freelance writing also picked up in this decade.  National publications like McCall’s Magazine, The New Yorker, College Humor, For Men, and The Saturday Evening Post printed Cuppy’s essays that would later be compiled in his books, like How to Attract the Wombat (1949).

In a reflection that brings to mind Hoosier novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Cuppy was fond of saying:

I’m billed as a humorist, but of course I’m a tragedian at heart.

One gets the sense from reading Cuppy’s material that he used humor as a coping mechanism. Quoting Cuppy, Gehring wrote that the dark humorist “believed humor sprang from ‘rage, hay fever, overdue rent, and miscellaneous hell.’” You could say that, like his humor, Cuppy’s life was tragic. Though he had long suffered from depression, multiple sources noted Cuppy’s declining health in mid-1949. Then, threatened with eviction from his Greenwich Village apartment and reeling from the end of a decades-long friendship, Cuppy followed through on decades of casual talk about self-harm. He died on September 19, 1949, due to suicide. He was buried in Auburn, Indiana’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Illustration from The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1950), 38.

After Cuppy died, his editor, Fred Feldkamp, took on the task of assembling Cuppy’s numerous notes into The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. Cuppy took his research seriously, and this is where Cuppy’s extensive education shined through. He would spend months researching a single short essay, reading everything he could find on the topic and amassing sometimes hundreds of notecards on each subject. Having worked on Decline and Fall for a whopping sixteen years before his death, Cuppy had collected many boxes of notecards filled with research. Decline and Fall was an immediate success when it was published in 1950. Locally, the Indianapolis News named it one of the best humor books of the year, and listed it as the top best-seller in Indianapolis in non-fiction for the year. In 1951, Feldkamp used more of Cuppy’s notes to edit and publish How to Get from January to December; it was the final publication in Cuppy’s name.

Footnote from The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1950), 154.

Cuppy’s style was characterized by a satirical take on nature and historical figures. Footnotes were his comedic specialty—they were such a successful trademark that he was sometimes hired to add his touch of footnote flair to the works of fellow humorists. In Decline and Fall there is one footnote in particular which is emblematic of Cuppy’s unique dark humor: “It’s easy to see the faults in people, I know; and it’s harder to see the good. Especially when the good isn’t there.” Before the publication of Decline and Fall, Cuppy was frequently asked why he always wrote about animals—when would he write about people? But, of course, he had been lampooning humanity all along.

Courtesy of Amazon.com.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that in the last decade of his life, Cuppy befriended William Stieg, the man who would go on to create the character Shrek in his 1990 children’s book by the same name. A young cartoonist, Stieg was hired to illustrate How to Become Extinct and Decline and Fall. Cuppy and Stieg struck up an extensive correspondence, and Cuppy influenced Stieg’s style. The notion of a humorous curmudgeon living in isolation and drawn out into the world by both necessity and outgoing friends strikes a familiar chord that echoes in Shrek.

Cuppy was a famous humorist in his time, and the acclaim of his better-known comedy contemporaries, like P. G. Wodehouse and James Thurber, certainly helped to heighten his renown. When Decline and Fall came out, a reviewer for the New York Times insisted that “certain people, at least, thought [Cuppy] among the funniest men writing in English.” Beyond his work as a humorist, Cuppy’s career as a literary critic had been impactful; the managing editor of the Detroit Free Press wrote that he had “given up reading whodunits” after Cuppy’s death because he didn’t trust any other critic to guide his mystery selections. The sadly serious humorist is less widely known today, but his quips seem more relevant than ever.

Be sure to see Will Cuppy’s state historical marker at the site of his childhood home in Auburn after it is unveiled in August.

 

Further reading:

Wes D. Gehring, Will Cuppy, American Satirist: A Biography (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2013).

Norris W. Yates, “Will Cuppy: The Wise Fool as Pedant,” in The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1964).

Al Castle, “Naturalist Humor in Will Cuppy’s How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes,” Studies in American Humor, 2, 3 (1984): 330-336.