THH Episode 45: “I Did Not Walk Alone:” The Civil Rights Work of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Transcript for “I Did Not Walk Alone:” The Civil Rights Work of Rabbi Maurice Davis

Written and Produced by Jill Weiss Simins

[Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at Selma and “How long, not long” speech at Montgomery, Alabama. Song “Avinu Malkeinu”performed by Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation Cantor Aviva Marer with organist Dave Strickland]

Justin Clark: On March 7, 1965, white state troopers violently attacked a group of peaceful protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama – an event remembered as “Bloody Sunday.” Newspapers across the country ran images of police beating and tear gassing African Americans who had been marching to protest the suppression of Black votes and the recent killing of activists. They did not finish their march that day, nor a few days later when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a group of protestors back to the bridge. They knelt in prayer but dared go no further. That night, March 9, a group of white men killed white Unitarian minister James Reeb who had traveled to Selma from Boston to join King. In response to this violence against Black protesters and their allies, protests erupted across the country.

Dr. King called for religious leaders representing all faiths to join him for a final march – to cross the bridge, journey to Montgomery, scale the steps of the Alabama capitol, and show the segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace and the world that their movement was righteous and unstoppable.

Rabbi Maurice Davis, the spiritual leader of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation and a prominent advocate for civil rights in the city, answered Dr. King’s call.

The Civil Rights Movement was a Black-led and Black-centered struggle for justice, but Jewish Americans made up a disproportionate number of the white activists who joined the campaign. Rabbi Maurice Davis stayed committed to this fight, even in the face of threats to his life. His advocacy stands as an example of how white Hoosiers can be allies for their Black neighbors as they continue the unfinished work of Dr. King and other leaders for Black equality, rights, and power.

I’m Justin Clark, and this is Talking Hoosier History.

It’s worth saying again. Black Americans led the fight for civil rights. Some Jewish Americans joined their fight. Many did not. The story of Jewish contributions to the Civil Rights Movement has sometimes been inaccurately told with a sort of “white savior” narrative. This inaccurate framing detracts from the lessons we can learn from the intersection of Black and Jewish civil rights work about allyship and about the strength of interfaith work for equality.

First of all, not all Jews are white. There is a severe lack of scholarship on how Jews of color interacted with the Civil Rights movement, but primary sources show that their struggles for rights were mainly taking place at a local level. Newspaper research shows that in the 1960s, Black Jews were struggling to be seen and accepted by the rest of their Jewish community, demanding access to the resources provided by Jewish organizations. More historical research is needed in this area.

Second, the “whiteness” of Jewish Americans, even of European descent, was conditional. They were tolerated by their white, Christian neighbors, as long as they did not draw attention to their differences or interfere with the Jim Crow social order and laws. And Jews were kept from positions of prestige or power in many cases. In the South, where they made up only one percent of the population, few Jews joined the Civil Rights movement initially. As Northern Jews increasingly spoke out against segregation in the 1950s and some Southern rabbis added their voices to the integration effort, the Ku Klux Klan retaliated. Synagogues were bombed in Atlanta, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Miami, while unexploded devices were discovered in several others.

Northern Jews had built larger communities with more secure relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors and had gained more political and economic power. Thus, they joined the movement in greater numbers. In Indianapolis, the NAACP and the Jewish Community Relations Council (or JCRC) began working together as early as 1948 to desegregate a local movie theater. By the 1950s, prominent Black leaders like Attorneys Henry Richardson and Willard Ransom called on the JCRC to join the campaign against school segregation and employment discrimination – an area where Jewish Hoosiers were also impacted, though to a significantly lesser extent. And by the late 1950s, the JCRC also joined the fight for open housing – that is, suitable housing for Black Hoosiers in non-segregated neighborhoods. Again, Black organizations like the NAACP, led these struggles, but Jewish leaders and organizations joined the fight at their behest. While there were certainly moments of tension or misunderstanding, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Black leaders called upon the Jewish community and appreciated their support – likely in part because Jewish activists deferred to Black leadership.

So why did Jews join the movement in greater numbers than other groups?

[Song “Sim Shalom” performed by IHC Cantor Aviva Marer and pianist Alex Pryrodny]

For some, the call was faith-based. The Jewish concept of tzedakah, which is Hebrew for “righteousness,” but refers to the moral obligation to helping those in need, is a central belief. So is the concept of tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for “repairing the world” and calls on Jews to work for social justice. Others became involved in the Civil Rights struggle as a natural progression of the largely liberal political ideology of many Northern Jews, who were overwhelmingly Democrat. Some became involved because they were still struggling for their own equal rights, though to a much lesser extent than Black Americans. The lessons of the Holocaust also drove home the link between intolerance and violence. Many Jews saw a general strengthening of the laws protecting minority rights as something that also protected the Jewish community. For most, it was probably a combination of these motivations.

Rabbi Maurice Davis entered the fight for civil rights by the early 1950s in Lexington, Kentucky, where he served as Rabbi of the Adath Israel Congregation. There he worked for the desegregation of schools and universities, addressing meetings and rallies, issuing public statements, and generally speaking truth to power. In 1954, he railed against segregation on public transport and in schools, as well as discrimination in employment and housing. Calling out white privilege, Rabbi Davis stated:

Rabbi Brett Krichiver: “The truth is that equality of opportunity is the inalienable right of the Negro as well as the white . . . We have perpetuated an evil in our land because certain financial advantages accrue from it.”

Clark: Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1921, Rabbi Davis earned his Master of Hebrew Letters from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and served as a student rabbi, before accepting the Lexington appointment in 1951. During this tenure, he rose to prominent positions in regional and national Jewish organizations such as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, making him an ideal leader for a large synagogue like the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, or IHC.

In March, 1956, Rabbi Maurice Davis became the spiritual leader of the IHC, arriving in time to celebrate the centennial of its founding in 1856. Over 600 families made up the congregation, which was in the process of planning its new temple at 64th and Meridian, still the location of the IHC today. As the new IHC Rabbi, Davis would continue to advance the forward-thinking Reform Judaism of his predecessors.

While the IHC welcomed Rabbi Davis, other Hoosiers made the Davis family feel [quote] “something less than welcome.” In 1959, the Jewish Post reported that his son Jay was denied entry to the Riviera Club‘s swimming pool on North Illinois Street. The Rabbi told his congregation that Jay unfortunately learned first about the club’s “wonderful slide” and then its anti-Semitic policies. Jay summarized the situation as only a child could, stating: “Gee whiz, dad, it isn’t fair.” The Rabbi then had to explain the difference between legal segregation and social segregation to his son.

Rabbi Davis responded to discrimination not only when it was personal. He believed that it was his duty, and that of all religious leaders, to work for moral justice. Not all of his Jewish colleagues agreed. Two of Indianapolis’s leading rabbis told the Jewish Post that clergy should keep out of politics. Rabbi Davis, on the other hand, said it was the responsibility of leadership to help inform members on political issues, to encourage them to be active participants in government, and to [quote] “speak up whenever morality or ethics are involved in politics.”

In 1959, Rabbi Davis helped revitalize the Indianapolis Human Relations Council, made up of interfaith religious leaders and representatives from the NAACP, Indiana Civil Liberties Union, local philanthropic groups, and government agencies. Their agenda included addressing discrimination in housing, education, employment, law enforcement, and health care. He soon became the council president and focused much of his work on ending racist mortgage and loan policies that denied fair housing to African Americans and helped create segregated neighborhoods.

In 1960, the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP named Davis “honorary chairman,” a leadership position serving under the African American NAACP president, Rev H. L. Burton. The Indianapolis Recorder reported regularly on Rabbi Davis’s efforts to fight segregation and inequality through these organizations.

By 1962, he had a regular Jewish Post newspaper column in which he shared his views on issues of the day and advocated for civil rights. His columns were often fiery calls to action. He told his readers:

Krichiver: “ . . . this land of ours is the land of all of ours. It does not belong first of all, or most of all, to any special segment of the population. It is not the private domain of any group by right of inheritance, or color of skin, or ‘manifest destiny.’ America is a multi-racial, multi-religious nation, and we Jews above all others ought to know this, applaud this, support this, and defend this.”

Clark: In September 1963, he used his column to respond to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Alabama where four African American children were killed “while putting on their choir robes.” Rabbi Davis, however, blamed not just the bomber and not just the racism and negligence of the governor and police chief, but [quote] “every American citizen who participates in prejudice or fails to oppose it.” His powerful argument against injustice was shaped by the legacy of the Holocaust. He continued:

Krichiver: “Segregation and discrimination lead to bombing and lynching as surely as anti-Semitism leads to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. And any man who walks that path, has not the right to be amazed where it leads. We who know the end of the road, must say this openly, and believe this implicitly, and practice it publicly. And privately. And always.”

Clark: Not long after his article on the bombing, Rabbi Maurice Davis would receive a bomb threat of his own.

By 1965, the Civil Rights movement had reached its “political and emotional peak” with the police attacks on peaceful Black protestors. That “Bloody Sunday” in Selma included the brutal beating of civil rights leader, and future U.S. Representative John Lewis. When Dr. King issued his call to religious leaders to join him for a march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965, Rabbi Maurice Davis answered.

When David H. Goldstein of the Indianapolis JCRC and Rabbi Davis arrived in Selma, Alabama, they joined thousands of other activists at Brown Chapel AME Church for a ceremony before the march. Davis described their arrival:

Krichiver: “As we approached Selma we saw the Army begin to position itself. Jeeps and trucks filled with soldiers, hospital units, and communications experts clustered along the way . . . The road leading to the church was lined with National Guardsmen, recently federalized.”

Clark: While President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered National Guard protection for the marchers to avoid a repeat of “Bloody Sunday” and its ensuing protests, the atmosphere was still tense. Goldstein and Rabbi Davis met with rabbis and Jewish leaders who had arrived before them. These rabbis explained that they had been unable to buy a meal or place to stay  . . . because Black Selma residents insisted on giving the Jewish activists whatever they needed.

Goldstein and Rabbi Davis also looked to find out from these rabbis where they could get kippahs or yarmulkes, a traditional Jewish head covering and religious symbol. A shipment was supposed to have recently arrived for the Jewish activists to wear during the march. Organizers wanted Jewish demonstrators from all branches of the faith to be clearly visible as a show of support and numbers. They told them, “It is our answer to the clerical collar.” However, Goldstein and Rabbi Davis had trouble finding one. They soon learned why.

Two days earlier, five rabbis were jailed for taking part in demonstrations. After holding Shabbat services behind bars on Friday, they announced they would hold another service in front of the Brown Chapel after their release on Saturday. According to the Jewish Post, [quote] “Over 600 Negroes and whites, Jewish and non-Jews joined in the impromptu Havdalah services for one of the most unique of its kind in history.”

According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, those in attendance, regardless of their faith, donned yarmulkes “in respectful emulation of rabbis who participated in demonstrations.” In Selma, they became known as “freedom caps.” Davis reported:

Krichiver: All the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them . . . That is where all the yarmelkes went!”

[Song “Sim Shalom”]

Clark: Dr. King entered the chapel at 10:45 a.m. Sunday. Rabbi Davis was asked if he would represent the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. When he agreed, he was pulled up onto the platform next to King during the reverend’s sermon. He explained:

Krichiver: “Nothing but the word ‘magic’ can quite describe what it is he does to so many. When King speaks, you are not an audience. You are participants. And when he finished we were ready to march.”

Clark: The thousands of demonstrators were organized into rows, with the first three rows chosen by Dr. King. Rabbi Davis stated:

Krichiver: “Before the march began a list of 20 names were read to accompany Rev. King in the first three rows, and my name was one of them. I marched proudly at the front . . .”

Clark: A now-famous picture captured this moment. Wearing garlands of flowers and linking arms, Dr. King, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunch, and Civil Rights activist and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Heschel make up the center group of the front row with Rabbi Davis’s smiling face just behind Dr. King in the second row. He described the scene:

Krichiver: “On the street we formed three rows of eight, locked our arms together, and started to march. Behind us the thousands began to follow.”

Clark: When they arrived at the infamous bridge, they paused to remember those who came before them and had been attacked by the state police. The interfaith march continued onto the highway. The road was lined with armed National Guardsmen, and five helicopters circled the group. State troopers took pictures of the marchers. Rabbi Davis explained:

Krichiver: “This is an Alabama form of intimidation. I kept remembering that these were the same state troopers who two weeks earlier had ridden mercilessly into a defenseless mass of people . . . We kept on marching.”

Clark: The marchers passed people who “waved, wept, prayed, and shouted out words of encouragement” and others, “whites who taunted, jeered, cursed” or “stood with stark amazement at this incredible sight.” At one point they passed a car painted with hateful signs “taunting even the death of Reverend Reeb.” Other signs read “Dirty communist clergy go home” and “Integrationist scum stay away.”

Rabbi Davis marched for twelve hours without sitting down or eating. Unfortunately, he did not get to finish the march. Instead, he was called to fly to Cincinnati that night to be with his father-in-law who had been admitted to the hospital with a serious illness. When Rabbi Davis finally returned to Indianapolis, he was welcomed with a threatening phone call.

When he answered his phone Monday night at 11:00, an anonymous man asked if he was “the rabbi who went to Selma.” When Rabbi Davis answered affirmatively, the voice continued: “Let me check this list again . . . You are No. 2 in Indianapolis.” The implication was that Rabbi Davis was the second on a hit list of activists. He told the caller he was contacting the police, but the man replied: “It won’t do any good to call the police . . . it’ll be too late when it goes off.”

Police searched the house and found no explosives.  But the calls continued. On Tuesday, Rabbi Davis took the phone off the hook at 2 A.M. so the family could sleep. Letters arrived as well, full of “unbelievable filth, ugly statements,” and intimate knowledge of his larger civil rights work.

Rabbi Davis stated vaguely that he was required to take “protective measures” to ensure his family’s safety. The rabbi did not expound at the time, but later his children recalled that they had a so-called “babysitter” who carried a .45-caliber revolver under his jacket. From his statements to the press, it seemed the Rabbi was most hurt that the threats were likely coming from fellow Hoosiers. He told the Jewish Post:

Krichiver: “Monday night my life was threatened. Not in Selma. Not in Montgomery. Not in Atlanta. In Indianapolis.”

Clark: Like Dr. King, Rabbi Davis did not dwell on the darkness of humanity but used it as a chance to shine a light of hope on the potential of his fellow man. Just days after the threats on his family, the Jewish Post published a section of a sermon in which Davis explained why he felt called to join King in Selma. Davis stated that many people had asked him why he went. And he had trouble at first finding the right words. He liked the Christian term of “witnessing,” that is, seeing God in an event. He also liked the Hebrew term that Rabbi Abraham Heschel used: “kiddush ha-Shem,” that is, sanctifying God’s name. But in his personable manner, he ended up giving a simpler explanation to the Post:

Krichiver: “I know now what I was doing in Selma, Alabama. I was worshiping God. I was doing it on U.S. 80, along with 6,000 others who were doing precisely the same thing, in 6,000 different ways.”

Clark: He stated humbly:

Krichiver: “Last Sunday I went for a walk . . . I did not walk alone.”

He called others to join him in the larger march for civil rights. He referred to injustices that needed to still be righted in order to unite all of humanity as a “brotherhood postponed” and tasked his followers with making sure that while such unity is delayed, it is not destroyed. The way to achieve justice was not only to pray, but to act. He wrote:

 Krichiver: “Brotherhood postponed. The time has come, and it has been a long time coming. The time has come to worship with our lives as with our lips, in the streets as in the sanctuaries. And we who dare to call God, God, must begin to learn the challenge which that word contains. ‘One God over all’ has to mean ‘one brotherhood over all.’”

Clark: Rabbi Davis continued to work for civil rights in Indianapolis. He held leadership positions with the NAACP, the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights, Community Action Against Poverty, and the Indianapolis Council of Human Relations.

He never forgot his march with Dr. King. In 1986, he reflected in the pages of the Jewish Post about a first for the country, the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day – a new federal holiday incidentally created through a bill authored by Black Indiana legislator Katie Hall. Rabbi Davis recalled:

Krichiver: “The first national observance of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. I hear them say the words, pronounce the name, and in the twinkling of an eye I am suddenly in Selma, Alabama with some 80,000 other people; Jews, and Protestants, and Catholics, and atheists, and agnostics . . . We were there because of a man whom we admired as much as we loved, and whom we loved as much as we admired. We were there because he was there. And he was there because it was right.”

Clark: Today, of course, Dr. King’s work for equal rights for Black Americans remains unfinished. Over the past year, many white Americans woke up to the violent realities of being Black in the United States and added their voices to the recent protest movements. Advocates such as Dr. Uzodinma Iweala, author and CEO of the Africa Center in Brookyln, stress the crucial role of white allies, as long as the work remains centered on “the importance of respecting and supporting Black people.” White privilege gives white Americans the ability to enter spaces of power and decision-making that are closed to Black Americans. Therefore, advocates stress that white individuals have a responsibility to recognize that privilege and use it to demand equality for their Black neighbors. Silence is complicity.

Writing for The Root, Janée Woods Weber, a social justice advocate and host of the podcast Driving the Green Book, explains that there are right and wrong ways to be a white ally to Black equality movements.  Woods explains that to become an effective white ally, you should first research the history of Black oppression in your community. Know the stories of anti-Black violence and the link between economic disparity and prejudice. Do the work to educate yourself on the issues. Do not put the onerous on Black educators, friends, or colleagues who have known about and experienced prejudice their entire lives. Woods explains:

“People of color cannot and should not shoulder the burden for dismantling the racist, white-supremacist system that devalues and criminalizes black life without the all-in support, blood, sweat and tears of white people. If you are not already a white ally, now is the time to become one.”

Potential allies can look to the lessons left to us by Rabbi Davis and other white Americans who effectively served the civil rights cause. Rabbi Davis demanded accountability from his own community and called on other white Jews to join the effort – making them see social justice as a core part of being Jewish. Rabbi Davis also deferred to Black leaders and their goals, putting his efforts where Black leaders identified problems and answering Dr. King’s call for aid from white allies. Most important, Rabbi Davis not only spoke against racism and discrimination; he took action. He was even willing to risk his life – something Black activists did every time they marched.

Today, much of the work for social justice and advocacy in the Jewish community is being led by Jews of Color. During a webinar organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which can be accessed through the Jews of Color Initiative website, teacher, writer, nonprofit CEO, and advocate Yavilah McCoy calls on white allies to ask themselves: “What am I willing to give up? What am I able to learn, and what am I willing to contribute to halt the perpetuation of racism and white supremacy in this country?” She and other Jews of Color are asking white allies, especially white Jewish allies, to be a part of doing the work to “reallocate and reapportion” power, privilege, and resources to create equality. White allies can look to such voices in their community telling them how to help.  And like Rabbi Davis found, if you’re willing to go for that walk, you will not walk alone.

[End of “Avinu Malkeinu”]

Once again, I’m Justin Clark 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. To view the historical sources, a full transcript, and links to the websites and articles mentioned in this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top.

This episode of Talking Hoosier History was researched and written by IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins. Production and sound engineering also by Jill Weiss Simins. A special thanks to Rabbi Brett Krichiver, senior rabbi at the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, for bringing the words of his predecessor to life. You may have noticed that two songs performed in Hebrew stand out in this episode. Both were sung by talented IHC Cantor Aviva Marer. The first, Avinu Malkeinu, was written by Max Janowski. Cantor Aviva recorded at Central Synagogue in NYC with organist and music director Dave Strickland. The second, an arrangement of a traditional folk song called Sim Shalom, was arranged by Bonia Shur and the cantor was accompanied by pianist Alex Pryrodny.

We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes

Jill Weiss Simins, “Walking with Dr. King: The Civil Rights Legacy of Rabbi Maurice Davis, accessed Indiana History Blog.

Krista Kinslow, “The Road to Freedom Is Long and Winding: Jewish Involvement in the Indianapolis Civil Rights Movement,” Indiana Magazine of History 108, No. 1 (March 2012): 1-34, accessed JSTOR.

Howard Sachar, “Jews in the Civil Rights Movement,” A History of Jews in America, accessed  My Jewish Learning.

“Jewish Views on Civil Rights,” accessed Reform Judaism.

Janée Woods Weber, “12 Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People,” The Root, August 19, 2014, accessed https://www.theroot.com/12-ways-to-be-a-white-ally-to-black-people-1790876784.

Scott Simon Interview with Uzodinma Iweala, “How White People Can Advocate for the Black Lives Matter Movement,” Weekend Edition, July 11, 2020, accessed npr.org.

Music Credits

Re-centering the Potawatomi at Sycamore Row Part One

Photograph by Chris Light, accessed Wikipedia.

This is Part One of a two-part post. Part One examines why IHB and local partners chose to refocus the text of a new historical marker to Sycamore Row in Carroll County that replaces a damaged 1963 marker. Instead of focusing on the unverifiable legends surrounding the row of sycamores lining the Old Michigan Road, this new marker centers the persecution and removal of the Potawatomi to make way for that road and further white settlement. Part Two will look in depth at the persecution of the this indigenous group by the U.S. government as well as the resistance and continued “survivance” of the Potawatomi people.*

What’s in a Legend?

The sycamore trees lining the Old Michigan Road have long been the subject of much curiosity and folklore in Carroll County. But there is a story here of even greater historical significance – the removal and resistance of the Potawatomi. While the trees will likely continue to be the subject that brings people to this marker, IHB hopes to recenter the Potawatomi in the story. (To skip right to the story of the Potawatomi, go to Part Two of this post, available April 2021).

Folklore is a tricky area for historians. The sources for these stories are often lost, making it difficult to determine the historical accuracy of the tale. But historians shouldn’t ignore folklore either. Local stories of unknown origin can point to greater truths about a community. It becomes less important to know exactly if something really happened and more significant to know why the community remembers that it did.

Folklore is both a mirror and a tool. It can reflect the values of the community and serve to effect change. Folklore surrounding “Sycamore Row” in Carroll County does both of these things. Continuing local investment in this row of trees reflects a community that values its early history. At the same time, these trees have served as a preservation tool bringing this community together time and time again for the sake of saving a small piece of Indiana’s story.

These are the big ideas around folklore, but what about searching for the facts behind the stories? In the case of Sycamore Row, digging into the events that we can document only makes the story more interesting and inclusive. And it gives us the opportunity to reexamine the central role of the Potawatomi in this history and return it to the landscape in a small way.

Sycamore Row

Sycamore Row Historical Marker, Indiana Historical Bureau, accessed Carroll County Indiana.

In 1963, the Indiana Historical Bureau placed a marker for “Sycamore Row” on State Road 29, formerly the Old Michigan Road. The 1963 marker read:

This row of sycamores sprouted from freshly cut logs used in the 1830’s to corduroy a swampy section of the historic Michigan Road, the first state road in Indiana, running from Madison to Michigan City.

IHB historians of the 1960s presented this theory on the origin of the sycamores as fact. Today, IHB requires primary documentation for all marker statements. While there are secondary sources (sources created after the event in question), there are no reliable primary sources for this statement. In fact, we don’t know where the trees came from. Local legend purports that saplings sprang from the logs used to lay the “corduroy” base when the dirt road was planked in the 1850s. There is evidence that sycamores were used on this section of the road. During road construction in the 1930s, the Logansport Press reported that workers discovered sycamore logs under the road near the famous Fouts farm. And it is possible that some saplings could have grown on their own, though it’s unlikely they sprouted from the logs. Local historian Bonnie Maxwell asked several experts for their take. One Indiana forester wrote that it was more likely that the trees sprouted from seeds that took root in the freshly dug furrows next to the road. Others noted that even if the trees sprouted as the legend claims, they would not be the same trees we see today, as they are not large enough have sprouted in the early 19th century. Other theories have been posited as well, including one from a 1921 Logansport-Pharos article claiming that the trees were planted to protect the creek bank during road construction in the 1870s. Regardless, we know from Carroll County residents that there have been sycamores along that stretch of road for as long as anyone can remember. It matters less to know where the trees came from and more to know why they have been preserved in memory and in the landscape. [1]

Preservation and Community Building

The ongoing preservation and stewardship of Sycamore Row tells us that local residents care about the history of their community. The trees provide a tangible way of caring for that history. To that end, Carroll County residents have joined together many times over the years to protect the sycamores.

In the 1920s, the Michigan Road section at Sycamore Row became State Road 29 and some of the trees were removed during paving. Starting in the 1930s, road improvements planned by the state highway department threatened the sycamores again, but this time local residents acted quickly. In November 1939, the Logansport Pharos-Tribune reported that Second District American Legion commander Louis Kern organized opposition to a state highway department plan to remove 19 sycamores in order to widen the road. Local residents joined the protest and the state highway commission agreed to spare all but five of the 127 sycamore trees during the highway expansion. [2]

By the 1940s, newspapers reported on the dangerous and narrow stretch of road between the sycamores where several accidents had occurred. By the 1960s, local school officials worried about school busses safely passing other cars and trucks on the stretch and proposed cutting down the trees to widen the road. In 1963, Governor Matthew Walsh issued an order to halt the planned removal of sixty-six of the sycamores and the state highway department planted twenty new trees. Many still called for a safer, wider road and the local controversy continued. [3]

In 1969, officials from the school board and the Carroll County Historical Society (CCHS) met to discuss options for improving driving conditions, weighing this need against the historical significance of the sycamores. Meanwhile, the state highway department continued planning to widen the road, a plan that would have required cutting down the trees. The CCHS staunchly opposed removing the sycamores and organized support for its efforts. The organization worked for over a decade to save Sycamore Row, petitioning lawmakers and gaining the support of Governor Edgar Whitcomb. Carroll County residents signed petitions and spoke out at public meetings with the state highways commission. Ultimately, in 1983, the state highway department announced its plan to reroute SR 29 around the sycamores. This grass roots effort, focused on preserving local history, had prevailed even over the needs of modernization. Construction on the new route began in 1987. The Logansport Pharos-Tribune reported that residents then began using the section of the Old Michigan Road to go down to the bank of the creek and fish. [4]

“Friends of CC Parks Plant Sycamore Trees,” Carroll County Comet, January 4, 2021, accessed Carroll County Comet.

In 2012 the Friends of Carroll County Parks took over stewardship of Sycamore Row and began planting new sycamore saplings the following year. In 2020 they planted even larger sycamores to preserve the legacy for future generations. They also took over the care of the 1963 historical marker, repainting it for the bicentennial. In late 2020, the marker was damaged beyond repair and had to be removed. This opened up an opportunity for IHB, the Friends, and the CCHS to place a new two-sided historical marker. The marker process  is driven by applicants, either individuals or community organizations, and then IHB works with those partners, providing primary research to help tell their stories. We work together, sharing authority. These Carroll County organizations still want to tell the story of the sycamores, but recognize that there is complex history beyond the legends.

Re-centering the Potawatomi

IHB and local partners are using the extra space on the double-sided marker to include the Potawatomi in the story of Sycamore Row. While there is no way we can give the history of these indigenous peoples in all its complexity in the short space provided on a marker, we can make sure it is more central. After all, the story of the genocide, removal, and resistance of the Potawatomi to settler colonialism is part of the story of Indiana.

Some people have a negative view of this kind of reevaluation of sources and apply the label “revisionist” to historians updating the interpretation of an old story. However, “historians view the constant search for new perspectives as the lifeblood of historical understanding,” according to author, historian, and Columbia professor Eric Foner. [5] As we find new sources and include more diverse views, our interpretation changes. It becomes more complex, but also more accurate. And while there is a temptation to view history as a set of facts, or just as “what happened,” it is always interpretive. For instance, the act of deciding what story does or does not make it onto a historical marker is an act of interpretation. When IHB omits the Native American perspective from a historical marker we present a version of history that begins with white settlement. It might be simpler but its not accurate. There were already people on this land, people with a deep and impactful history. When historians and communities include indigenous stories, they present a version of Indiana history that is more complex and has a darker side. This inclusion reminds us that Indiana was settled not only through the efforts and perseverance of the Black and white settlers who cleared the forests, established farms, and cut roads through the landscape. It was also settled through the removal and genocide of native peoples. Both things are true. Both are Indiana history.

With this in mind, the new two-sided marker at Sycamore Row will read:

The sycamores here line the sides of the Michigan Road, which connected the Ohio River with Lake Michigan and further opened Indiana for white settlement and trade. Under intense military and economic pressure, Potawatomi leaders ceded the land for the road in 1826. John Tipton, one of the U.S. agents who negotiated this treaty, purchased the land here in 1831. 

The state began work on the road in the 1830s. While there are several theories on how the trees came to be here, their origin is uncertain. By the 1930s, road improvements threatened the trees, but residents organized to preserve them over the following decades. In 1983, the Carroll County Historical Society petitioned to reroute the highway and saved Sycamore Row. 

Of course, this does little more than hint at the complex history of the Potawatomi. Markers can only serve as the starting point for any story, and so, IHB uses our website, blog, and podcast to explore further. In Part Two of this post, we will take an in-depth look at the persecution of the Potawatomi to make way for the Michigan Road, their resistance to unjust treaty-making, their removal and genocide as perpetuated by the U.S. government, and the continued “survivance” of the Potawatomi people today in the face of all of this injustice.

*”Survivance” is a term coined by White Earth Ojibwe scholar Gerald Vizenor to explain that indigenous people survived and resisted white colonization and genocide and continue as a people to this day. Theirs is not a history of decline. Their work preserving and forwarding their culture, traditions, language, religions, and struggle for rights and land continues.

Notes

Special thanks to Bonnie Maxwell of the Friends of Carroll County Parks for sharing her newspaper research. Newspaper articles cited here are courtesy of Maxwell unless otherwise noted. Copies are available in the IHB marker file.

[1] “Trees Half Century Old Still Stand,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, May 14, 1921.; “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 8, 1939.; “Deer Creek Road Corduroy Found at Taylor Fouts Place,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, September 1, 1939.; Correspondence between Bonnie Maxwell, Joe O’Donnell, Tim Eizinger, and Lenny Farlee, submitted to IHB December 28, 2020, copy in IHB file.

[2] “Second State Road to Come in for Paving,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, November 13, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 8, 1939.

[3] “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 8, 1939.; “Lane of Trees at Deer Creek To Be Spared by State,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 16, 1939.; “Halt Cutting of Sycamores Along Route 29,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, March 18, 1963.; “Governor Save 66 Sycamores,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, March 19, 1963.; “Sycamores to Get Historical Marker,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, April 4, 1963.; “Plant More Sycamores on Road 29,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, April 4, 1963.

[4] “Historical Society Hears Research Report,” Hoosier Democrat, December 3, 1970.; Letter to the Editor, Hoosier Democrat, November 25, 1971.; Carroll County Comet, November 7, 1979.; Dennis McCouch, “Save the Sycamores” Carroll County Comet, November 7, 1979.; “Sycamore Row Petitions,” Carroll County Comet, January 16, 1980.; Von Roebuck, “Carroll County Landmarks to Remain Intact,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, December 1, 1983.; “Bridge Work to Cause Deer Creek Detour,” Logansport Pharos-Tribune, June 7, 1987.

[5] Eric Foner, Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), xvi.

THH Episode 44: Giving Voice: Karen Freeman-Wilson

* Transcribed by Benjamin Baumann

Nicole Poletika: I’m Nicole Poletika filling in for host Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.

On today’s installment of Giving Voice, I have the pleasure of speaking with Karen Freeman-Wilson, who served as Mayor of Gary, Indiana from 2012 to 2019. And is currently President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. A Harvard Law School Graduate, Freeman-Wilson has had a prolific career, which includes serving as Indiana Attorney General. She has sought to advance social justice, as a Chairperson of the Criminal and Social Justice Committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and as Director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. If you haven’t already listened to our latest episode, which covered the 1972 National Black Political Convention, I suggest you do so now, as we reference it during our conversation.

In this episode we discuss how the 1972 Convention impacted Freeman-Wilson, as well as Gary’s legacy of black political empowerment, modern activism, and how black women can get a seat at the political table.

And now, Giving Voice.

Poletika: Well, I’m here today with Karen Freeman-Wilson former Mayor of Gary, Indiana and current President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. Um, were really excited to have you here Karen, thank you so much for joining us.

Karen Freeman-Wilson: I’m excited to join you.

Poletika: So I know you grew up in Gary and as a small child you recall uh Richard Hatcher’s exciting mayoral election in 1967, and you remember the 1972 National Black Political Convention. So I know the historical record is missing recollections from local residents of the convention, so I was hoping you could tell us what you remember from the convention and how it shaped your personally or professionally or both.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely, I was 12 at the time and it was exciting to know that a National Convention was coming to Gary, Indiana. It was the talk of the town, uh people had a sense of pride that not only it was a national convening, but it was a convening of black people and because Gary only had one hotel at the time, a number of the people stayed in the homes of Gary residents. And we were able to host someone in our home. So, what I recall was the fact that they were convening to talk about an agenda and it seems odd for a 12 year old to remember that, but because I was an only child I found myself in a lot of rooms where adults were. And so, you know of course you just pay attention to what they are talking about and they were talking about black political agenda. Westside was a newly built school at that time and so it was a source of pride as well and so the fact that they were going to Westside, I remember seeing the signs from each state. So, you saw that people from all over the country were in the Westside gymnasium. There were people that you saw on television, of course Shirley Chisholm was there and she was someone that everyone took pride in. We knew that she was someone running for um President…John Conyers at that time was the Congressman from Detroit and you would occasionally see him on television, and one of the figures that everyone knew, even though he was just over in Chicago was uh Reverend Jesse Jackson. So, with all of those folks coming to Gary, talking about a Black agenda and really engendering a sense of pride in Gary residents that this subject matter, which was very important that was very weighty, and was all being led by our mayor, Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher. Who was of course a source of pride for us locally and nationally, uh it was a big deal.

Poletika: Yeah, um and I remember he said that like you mentioned there was only one hotel so people stayed with residents, um and he said that some of the locals actually made life long friendships with the people that came in from outta town. Did you have that experience with the people that you hosted?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, to be honest my mom and dad had most of the interaction with them. So, I can’t even…I remember they were from Detroit, but beyond that I don’t remember much about them. I do know that there was at least one or two times because we were regular travelers to Detroit, because of relatives that my mom communicated with them. So, yes um there were friendships that came out of that and even from folks who were younger and who were activists, they were able to come together around subsequent convenings not the magnitude of that, but certainly subsequent convenings. And an interesting thing happened when we had sort of this convening, I believed it was back in 17 the 45th anniversary I believe. And people who had been here came back and they talked about it so that was uh real source of pride and interest for Gary residents who had gotten older, but who still remembered.

Poletika: Right, and you would have been mayor at that time.

Freeman-Wilson: Yes, I was the mayor at that time.

Poletika: Wow, that’s full circle.

Freeman-Wilson: It was.

Poletika: When the convention was here, were you in close proximity to the delegates? Did you get to actually observe any of the caucuses, in there kind of brainstorming?

Freeman-Wilson: I did not. Again, I went to Westside during the convention once to kind of see the general session, but I never had an opportunity to share with the caucuses at that time.

Poletika: You got to kind of be around the thinking though and.

Freeman-Wilson: Yeah, it was uh…you know it was a lot of energy in the room. Of course, um there were a lot of people there and they were sharing their ideas. I heard the speeches. Uh I remember, hearing Jesse Jackson speech, he was young so as a 12-year-old, you’re always gravitating around those folks who were closer to your age and that was always something that was exciting to see and hear from him.

Poletika: I bet and I know um, some people have kind of said that he was made in the convention with that speech so.

Freeman-Wilson: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. You know of course he was a um, an associate of Dr. King and after Dr. King’s passing. He was known because of operation breadbasket in Chicago, but I think he took the national stage in a significant way during that convention.

Poletika: So you, are a trail blazer yourself, um having been elected Gary’s first female mayor in 2012. And I know that black women were largely excluded from organizing the uh ’72 convention and um we had just talked about Shirley Chisholm. Uh I know some African Americans just refused to endorse her, because she was a woman.

Freeman-Wilson: Yes, that is correct.

Poletika: And it can be argued that women have more political influence than ever before, but in your opinion what uh obstacles do black women still face and how can they get a seat at the table?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, you know that’s an interesting question about the political influence of black women, because you’re right to the extent that we constitute the um workers and campaigns, and we are certainly reliable in terms of a source of a voting block and to ensure that people go to the poles. Uh when it comes to thinking about who will run for office, who will be the representative, even though black women are more than capable uh we often are looked over or are pushed aside. In favor of black men. And um, I don’t think its either or, it has to be both and, but very often there is more sexism in politics than there is racism.

Poletika: Interesting, yeah and I think Stacey Abrams is a good example of that and she came so close to holding office but didn’t quite get there.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely.

Poletika: Do you have any advice for those wanting to get a seat at the table?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I certainly uh would encourage folks to continue to be engaged and be involved and you should not concede the fact that you won’t get a seat at the table, you can take a seat at the table. You have to work a little harder, fight a little harder, and push and be aggressive, but don’t mistake being emphatic and uh being focused, with being uh aggressive or pushy, which is something they always want to hang on women. But, I think that people need our representation, they need our voice. And certainly, the folks that we are representing need to have us in that room. So, its important that we, ensure that we get a seat at the table.

Poletika: Dr. Peniel Joseph described the convention as quote: “The most important political, cultural, and intellectual gathering of the black power era.” And it seems to me that Gary’s legacy of this black political empowerment is often kind of dropped from the narrative, which is unfortunate. So how do you envision Gary’s future in terms of political or socio-economic parody for black residents?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I think that it is important to remember Gary’s role in the black power movement. In the narrative of that day about self-determination, as a result of the Gary convention you got Maynard Jackson in Atlanta. You got Wellington Webb in Denver, Colorado. You got uh, so many black mayors who were the first black mayors in their communities. And that led to economic empowerment in those communities. I think the challenge for Gary was that there was so much pushback on the political power that was gained by Mayor Hatcher and that was in many parts because Indiana had such a history of segregation and racism that people immediately reacted to his election in Gary in a negative way. Before he had an opportunity to lead and to govern there were folks who were making plans to not only leave town, but incorporate a city that was indirect contradiction of the existing Indiana law and that was Merrillville on the Gary border. And so, incorporate a town, because there was a law at the time that said that no town could be incorporated within 3 miles of a second-class city. There was a buffer zone. And uh not withstanding that fact you had legislation that was passed in the general assembly ironically in uh 1972 that allowed Merrillville to incorporate and as a result you saw growth in Merrillville, because that accelerated white flight. And so, as a result of that occurrence, Gary’s economic downturn was accelerated and that became Gary’s legacy unfortunately. I think now, there’s an opportunity to develop and create a new narrative uh from Gary because of the partnership that we were able to develop with the existing governor in Indianapolis and that Mayor Prince is continuing. I think there is also an opportunity because we were able to lay groundwork under the Obama Administration that can now be continued under the Biden Administration.

Poletika: Hmm, interesting point. And I know uh Mayor Hatcher had a city council that was in opposition to him and kind of blocked him.

Freeman-Wilson: Early on he did. Uh by the 2nd or 3rd term he was able to get things done. A lot of the development infrastructure, when you look at the Genesis Convention center that was built then. When you look at the Adam Benjamin Transportation Center that was built under his tenure. The Hudson Campbell Center, the Sheraton hotel that was ultimately torn down because everything has a lifespan right, but all of those things were accomplished under his tenure. The um housing…the affordable housing that was created during his time here all of those things occur.

Poletika: So, I have one last question for you. Based on your experiences as mayor and director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, and your various other leadership roles. What’s your advice for black activists and political hopefuls about how to make systemic change? Is it through the ballot, is it through public demonstrations, a combination?

Freeman-Wilson: I think it’s all of the above. There can’t be any one methodology. And I think that one of the things that is important to understand and that demonstrations will get you in the door to a table, but once you get to the table you have to have a negotiation strategy that will create long term systemic change. And so often people understand and are engaged at the protest, but they forget the strategy that has to be employed to create the systemic change and it’s not just uh from a political standpoint, but it has to be from an economic standpoint.

Poletika: Yeah, I know that there’s the Black Lives Matter organization and there’s the Black Votes Matter organization, seems like there working together.

Freeman-Wilson: Yeah, because the two aren’t mutually exclusive and there has to be a Black Economics Matter, as well.

Poletika: How do you think that you would leverage economic change?

Freeman-Wilson: Well, I think you leverage economic change in working with city and state government. Later today, I’m gonna be on uh panel with the State of Illinois where there gonna be talking about goals for black businesses. That’s important and so when you uh look at cities, when you look at states who will do business with black folks that ultimately allows them to employ black people in many instances and to transfer wealth in the black community. Because what we are seeing is an increasing gap and uh and many refer to it as uh racial wealth gap. How do you amass wealth uh, you amass wealth through business and you amass wealth through home ownership and so there has to be a focus on both of those mechanisms, along with the education that typically leads to wealth accumulation in those areas. So that you can ultimately ensure that you’re reducing the racial wealth gap. And government has a role to play in home ownership, in doing business with black folks and encouraging others, because you can’t just gain wealth by doing business with uh state government or the federal government. You have to do it with the private sector, because even when government turn downs occur private sectors uh, businesses will continue to procure goods and services.

Poletika: Right, and that’s why representation I am sure is so important. People like you being at the table and fighting for those measures.

Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely, that’s been one of our major areas of focus at the Chicago Urban League.

Poletika: Well, I can’t wait to learn more about your uh work with the Urban League, um how can people learn more about you and your work?

Freeman-Wilson: By looking at our website chiul.org, by following me @karenaboutgary and certainly on Twitter.

Poletika: Alright, well thank you so much for speaking with us, it was a real pleasure to talk with you.

Freeman-Wilson: Thank you so much.

Poletika: If you are interested in learning more about the National Black Political Convention check out our post at blog.history.in.gov and check out Dr. Leonard Moore’s book The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972. Please follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana History, subscribe, rate, and review talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.

2021 Marker Madness

DOWNLOAD A PRINTABLE BRACKET HERE

Learn more about each topic here!

To generate visibility of select Indiana history topics and encourage the public to apply for historical markers commemorating them, we’re kicking off the 4th annual Marker Madness bracket competition! This year’s topics include well-known names such as Charles “Chuck” Taylor and the Jackson 5, as well as Hoosier history deep-cuts such as queer activist Stan Berg and pitcher Amos “The Hoosier Thunderbolt” Rusie. Learn more about each topic here. Each day starting on March 1, there will be a featured match-up and YOU get to decide which topic will move forward.

Want to participate? Between now and March 1, fill out your own bracket and post it on social media using #MarkerMad2021. The person with the most correct individual matchups will win an Indiana history themed prize!

Vote on your favorite topic daily on both Facebook and Twitter. Check back here to see updated brackets!

Below is the final bracket. Thanks to all who participated this year!

 

THH Episode 43: “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

Transcript for “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

Written by Nicole Poletika and produced by Jill Weiss Simins.

Justin Clark: Leaders mounted the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to counter systemic oppression, which kept many African Americans in poverty, subpar housing complexes, and inferior schools, while keeping them out of voting booths, political office, and good paying jobs. Public demonstrations like the Selma-to-Montgomery March, the Watts Uprising, and Poor People’s Campaign drew widespread attention to the plight of African Americans. And the Black Power Movement, which produced African art and Black studies courses, strengthened “black consciousness” and bolstered racial pride.

But, Black activism and uplift was often met with violence and North Carolina minister Benjamin Chavis recalled that:

Olon Dotson: “I had gotten tired of going to funerals. . . . so much of the Movement had been tragic. You know. And I have to emphasize King’s assassination was a tragic blow to the Movement.”

Clark: For the most part, by the end of the decade, those in power continued to resist institutional change that would, in Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher’s words, grant Black Americans “’their fair share of the pie.’” So, Black leaders embraced a different strategy: channeling collective outrage into political reform, transforming the Black Power Movement into the Black Political Power Movement. The site of this “political experiment” for Black liberation? Gary, Indiana.

I’m Justin Clark, filling in for host Lindsey Beckley, and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Forging a new Black political strategy would prove challenging, as Martin Luther King’s death created a leadership void, in which differences grew between the two major ideological factions: integrationists and Nationalists. Integrationists, like Congressional Black Caucus and NAACP members, sought to work within the two-party system, pressuring elected officials to meet the needs of Black Americans. They also sought to elect more Black leaders at the local and federal level. Let’s take a quick detour to discuss the complexities of the Nationalist faction.

Nationalists generally sought to establish a self-governing nation, in which Black institutions oversaw Black communities. However, historian Leonard Moore noted that Nationalists were not monolithic. Some sought to replace U.S. capitalism with socialism, by violent means if necessary. Others, Dr. Moore wrote, believed that “the key to black liberation” depended on “the reclaiming of African values and culture.” Territorial nationalists, like members of the Nation of Islam and Republic of New Afrika, called for a separate “geographical home” for Black Americans. While the Nation of Islam imbued many African Americans with a sense of identity and empowerment, it operated as an extremist group that espoused Black superiority and directed hateful ideals at LGBTQ+ and Jewish Americans. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the Nation of Islam has “maintained a consistent record of anti-Semitism and racism since its founding in the 1930s” and grown more extreme under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan. It is important to address the organization’s problematic aspects, but also to clarify that not all Nationalists belonged to the Nation of Islam or espoused its rhetoric.

Nationalist leader, poet, and founder of the Congress of African Peoples, Amiri Baraka began prioritizing political activism by the early 1970s. He increasingly recognized that the resources and connections of political office holders were necessary to make enduring change. Baraka sought to establish some form of collaboration, or what he called “unity without conformity,” through a National Black Political Convention in 1972.

Gary, Indiana, a city literally built along racial lines, would be the unlikely site of this historic gathering. U.S. Steel Corporation gave birth to the city in 1906, converting acres of swampland and sand dunes into what would become an industrial mecca. Gary’s expanding steel market shaped the city’s built environment and encouraged population growth. Between 1906 and 1930, increasing numbers of European immigrants, Black Southerners, Mexicans, and white migrants flocked to the region looking for work in the steel industry.

Businessmen and steel mill managers settled North of the Wabash Railroad tracks, in Gary Land Company’s subdivisions. The cost to live in this area excluded many newcomers—primarily African Americans and immigrants—from its paved streets and lush rows of trees. Instead, minorities lived on the Southside—an area neglected by the Gary Land Company—often in tarpaper shacks, tents, and barracks that lacked ventilation. The city’s social construction ultimately resulted in its implosion. Beginning in the 1950s, waves of white residents fled from the city’s growing Black population to the suburbs, taking their businesses with them. This retreat robbed the city of tax dollars and residents of employment opportunities.

Gary’s 1967 mayoral election represented a longing for change in the majority-Black city. Thirty-four-year-old African American lawyer and Democratic candidate, Richard Hatcher, would respond to this call. The Michigan City native earned his law degree in 1959, which he quickly put to work as Lake County prosecutor. He also served as a private practice attorney, representing plaintiffs in school segregation lawsuits. According to historian Leonard Moore, Hatcher used his expertise to challenge police brutality and founded Muigwithania, a group of young black professionals “dedicated to black liberation.” It was this leadership prowess and social activism that made him an ideal mayoral candidate.

Since 1938, Gary’s mayors had belonged to the Democratic Party. And yet, the party supported Hatcher’s Republican opponent in the 1967 election. Although lacking funding and partisan support, Hatcher’s message of equality and racial uplift resonated with Gary’s disenfranchised voters. The leader made history on November 7, when he was elected one of the first African American mayors of a large city, along with Carl Stokes, who was elected Mayor of Cleveland just hours after Hatcher.

Mayor Hatcher quickly got to work meeting the demands of his African American constituents, establishing new low-income housing developments, diversifying the city council, and granting minority businesses government contracts. Given this progressive record, Gary soon made the list of National Black Political Convention hosts. Ultimately, planners selected the Steel City because it symbolized Black political empowerment and because other cities had reservations about accommodating so many African Americans.

On March 10, 1972, approximately 3,000 state delegates and 7,000 attendees from across the country poured into Gary for the weekend. Many of them marveled at the city’s helpful police force and congenial atmosphere. North Carolina delegate Benjamin Chavis recalled:

Dotson: “when we first saw the sign saying ‘Welcome to Gary’ and we got [to] downtown Gary, I mean, we thought we were in a different country. I mean . . . to see a city in the United States, given the backdrop now of all this Nixon repression going on, all this sense of disillusionment in some quarters of the nation, to drive into Gary, Indiana, and see streamers, red, black and green.”

Clark: The convention’s significance stemmed partly from the fact that those asked to help draw up the blueprint for equality came from all walks of life. Its architects would not solely be appointed leaders or office holders, but Black Panthers, feminists, college students, pastors, labor leaders, Nation of Islam members, and Marxists.

Because Gary had only one hotel, many attendees stayed in Chicago, IU Northwest dorms, or with Gary residents, some of whom they forged lifelong friendships with. That Friday afternoon, a collective sense of pride spread through West Side High School as delegates headed towards the gym, a packet in hand advertising local black-owned businesses. Music thrummed, vendors sold Afro combs, books about leaders like Marcus Garvey, and soul food like chitterlings, while others recited poetry on the sidewalk about the long struggle for their human rights.  Nationalist Queen Mother Moore, in her colorful headwrap, handed out pamphlets and made the case for reparations. Boxer-turned-activist Muhammad Ali served as sergeant-at-arms, joining police and civil defense personnel. The extra security proved necessary after a bomb threat was reportedly called into the Holiday Inn, the convention headquarters.

The convention kicked off with a press conference before state caucuses began developing resolutions to be debated over the course of the weekend. And were treated to a performance by “Godfather of Soul” James Brown that evening. The following day, after a late start, the convention resumed with an address by Mayor Hatcher. In his black rimmed glasses and striped suitcoat, he approached the podium, greeted by a standing ovation. An ideal host for his ability to mediate between Nationalists and integrationists, it was fitting that he delivered the opening address. Hatcher began his speech by invoking the “spirit of triumph and determinism” of W.E.B. DuBois. Warmly welcoming the attendees, which included entertainer Harry Belafonte and Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale, he stated the goal of the 1972 convention was the creation of a National Black Political Agenda that would serve as a “dynamic program for black liberation.”

While the “foment” and demonstrations of the 1960s served a purpose, it was time for African Americans to wield political power, to not only advise on legislation but to help create it. He told the rapt audience:

Dotson: “In our infinite patience, we have tried year after year, election after election to work with the two major political parties. We believed the pledges, believed the platforms, believed the promises, each time hoping they would come true. Hoping we would not again be sold out.”

Clark: But no longer. African Americans would pick political candidates to represent them, not the party. And the chosen party must address the “inhumanity” faced daily by every Black American. In addressing indignities, the party must work from the bottom up. National decisions, Hatcher argued:

Dotson: “must be discussed in every nook and cranny of this country, from the tar paper shacks in the Mississippi Delta, to the pine hovels of the Appalachian Hills, from the rank and fetid basement apartments of the 47th Street to the barios of Spanish Harlem.”

Clark: Black Americans must demand that legislators end employment discrimination and meager wages. They must demand a decent public school system and the replacement of inferior houses with those that do “not affront the eyes nor offend the nostrils.” Quality health care must be provided, regardless of one’s means to pay for it. Like in white suburbia, the heroin epidemic should not be allowed to ravage Black youth. Should the government fail to meet these demands, they would lose the support of Black voters, who could “conceivably turn to fearsome tactics” or form a third political party. Mayor Hatcher concluded the rousing speech by asking:

Dotson: “Will we walk in unity or disperse in a thousand different directions?”

“Will we act like free black men or timid shivering chattels?”

“Will we do what must be done?”

“History will be our judge.”

Clark: Lauded by Dr. Moore as a “work of art,” Hatcher’s speech set the tone for the convention. It blended the urgent tone of Nationalists and the pragmatism of the Congressional Black Caucus. But if his speech was a work of art, Jesse Jackson’s was the Louvre. The young preacher and P.U.S.H. founder, wearing an MLK medallion and wide-collared shirt, was met by applause as he took the stage. He began:

Dotson: “‘Brother Hatcher came up North and got a new house in Gary and said to all the scattered tribes around the nation come home. I know my home is too small but come home. We could’ve went to New York City or L.A. But we didn’t have a home there. Come home. Over in this smoke-filled city called Gary one of our Black brothers said ‘Tribe’ come home.’”

Clark: Invoking Nationalist rhetoric, he asked:

Dotson: “Brothers and Sisters, what time is it?”

Clark: To which the crowd cried:

Dotson: “Nationtime.”

“For 7.5 million registered Black voters and 6 million unregistered Black voters, what time is it?”

“Nationtime.”

“For Black democrats, Black republicans, Black panthers, Black Muslims, Black independents, Black businessmen, Black professionals, Black mothers on welfare, what time is it?”

“Nationtime.”

Clark: Jackson called for African Americans to unlearn white superiority, to create a third party in order to represent their own interests. This required ego, which he argued they lacked after enduring decades of abuse and oppression. He proclaimed:

Dotson: “when you sit here with your healthy Black body and developed Black mind and put your confidence, creativity, and belief in somebody else who is less intelligent than you, to represent you, your ego has been castrated.”

Clark: Holding the audience in the cusp of his hands, Jackson bellowed:

Dotson: “What time is it?”

“Nationtime!,” the audience chanted, now on their feet, fists in the air.

“When we respect each other, what time is it?”

“Nationtime!”

“When we get ourselves confident, what time is it?”

“Nationtime!”

“When we form our own political party, what time is it?”

“Nationtime!”

Clark: With his electrifying speech, he stepped into the leadership void left by MLK. In the words of attendee Byron Lewis, Jackson “was born in that convention.” Fellow preacher, Ben Chavis, recalled the poignant moment:

Dotson: “everybody raised their fists and stood up, literally, and repeated over and over again, ‘It’s Nation-time. It’s Nation-time.’ . . . Jesse Jackson became the keynoter in terms of lifting the emotional level of the crowd to an all-time high with the call for Nation-time. But it was just not a hollow call. It was just not a rhetorical call . . . I mean, you could hear it . . . reverberating Marcus Garvey. You could hear it reverberating all those prize struggles from the forties, and the thirties, and the fifties and the sixties. I mean, it came to be fulfilled in that moment, of crying that it’s Nation-time, not next year, not next century, but now. In 1972. In Gary, Indiana.”

Clark: To Chavis, “Nationtime” meant unity of purpose. This would be needed when the delegates, energized by the speeches, debated potential resolutions for the Black Agenda. Illinois delegates proposed prison terms and fines for employers guilty of discrimination, as well as employment priority for Black veterans. North Carolina proposed a prisoners’ bill of rights. Indiana was among those delegations that demanded an end to the Vietnam War. California and Oklahoma proposed harsher consequences for hard drug dealers. Discussion and, at times tense debate, centered around topics like forced busing, foreign policy, and whether or not to endorse African American Democratic presidential candidate, Shirley Chisholm.

Given the number of issues demanding attention, and the varied backgrounds and beliefs of delegates, some degree of discord was inevitable. But on Sunday, proceedings nearly fell apart. Baraka, clad in a black dashiki, presided over the stage, lined with leaders like Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz. He introduced a draft of the National Black Agenda, incorporating the suggested resolutions. To many delegates, the Agenda disproportionately represented Nationalist objectives, such as opposition to forced busing, which integrationists favored as a means to provide African American students with better education. Some delegates alleged that the Agenda failed to offer strategies for implementing resolutions, many of which they deemed unrealistic. Michigan delegation leader, Coleman Young, vocalized these concerns, as well as his discomfort about ratifying the Agenda before having a chance to digest it or give local activists an opportunity to provide feedback.

Coleman felt that the “Black Magna Carta,” as he dubbed it, was contradictory, with some resolutions supporting separatist ideals and others political integration. The Michigan delegation quickly composed a statement opposing ratification at the convention and read it to the crowd. They then filed out of the gymnasium, with Illinois’s delegation on the verge of following suit. Baraka pleaded with them not to leave, fearful that the disunity would entirely derail the convention. When his armed aids intercepted the Michigan delegates, Young recalled “’We were strapped down pretty well and showed them enough artillery to make it out of there.’” On the precipice of disbanding at best and violence at worst, the anxious crowd was ecstatic to realize that part of Michigan’s delegation had indeed remained. Shouts of “Nationtime!” soon resounded.

Delegates who had traveled across the country would not have to return home without hope or direction. By Sunday’s end, a draft of the National Black Political Agenda had been adopted, and tenuous compromise forged. Conveners founded the National Black Political Assembly, which would meet regularly to follow through on the plans made at the convention. Convention planners tweaked the Agenda in the following weeks, trying to address the concerns of delegates, and publicly released the 68-page document on May 19th, Malcolm X’s birthday. With the national elections approaching, the Agenda would be taken to the Democratic Party Convention and the candidate who prioritized its resolutions would gain the support of Black voters. These included:

  • proportional representation in Congress and local government
  • creating a National Black Development Agency to spur economic development
  • ending the exploitation of Third World Countries
  • ensuring a minimum income of $6,500 for a Black family of four

The document didn’t go so far as to endorse the creation of an independent party, but argued that “Social transformation or social destruction . . . are our only real choices.”

While many delegates felt uncomfortable with some of the resolutions, like its stance on busing, Pittsburgh Courier columnist Ethyl Payne wrote that the convention was successful in that “It was a political experiment in political participation. They now know what it means to be a part of the elective process.” The delegates and attendees returned home energized, committed to political engagement. Chavis said that, despite disputes:

Dotson: “I felt like I had been to a revival. . . . But not just a revival on the spiritual plane. Although that’s significant. But it was a revival on the political plane. It was a revival on the psychological plane. It was a revival on the cultural plane.”

Clark: The exhilarating event planted the seeds of political empowerment for young observers, some of whom served as delegates’ pages. Gary resident Wayne A. Young recalled that, when he was 12, he accidentally walked into the convention lobby and picked up literature, which:

Doston: “inspired dreams for my city and my country.” . . . “It was sweet to see so many budding and established activists, from Max Robinson to Rosa Parks to Ron Dellums all sitting in the Cougar Den.”

Clark: Although the National Black Political Assembly fractured over the following years, momentum generated at the convention increased voter participation. Black elected officials grew from 1,469 in 1970 to 4,890 by 1980. Dr. Moore poignantly concluded:

Dotson: “Despite the collapse of the National Black Political Convention, it galvanized entire communities around the possibilities of black political power and ‘people went back home, rolled up their sleeves and ran for public office in a way that Blacks had never thought about running for public office before.’ Thus, the presidential victories of Barack Hussein Obama can trace their lineage to Gary West Side High School, where black folk met in 1972 under the banner of the National Black Political Convention.”

Clark: While President Obama’s election was historic, institutional change has been slow to come and Black Americans continue to fight for their “’fair share of the pie.’” They are still disproportionately affected by issues like mass incarceration, unemployment, and barriers to health care. The death of Black Americans at the hands of police and the resurgence of white supremacist groups have generated a new collective outrage. Like the late 1960s and early 1970s, activists are grappling with how to transform this outrage into cohesive strategy.

Attention again turned to the ballot as a means for change with the 2020 U.S. election. Through increased grassroots mobilization and voter participation—goals outlined at the 1972 convention— Black turnout swung election results in favor of Democrat Joe Biden. In fact, AP News reported that Black voters transformed Georgia into a new battleground state, “potentially remaking presidential politics for years to come.” By leveraging social media and tirelessly knocking on doors, groups like Black Voters Matter imparted the relevance of voting to quality of life. Their work helped elect Kamala Harris, the country’s first woman and person of color to serve as Vice President. Black constituents again flexed their political muscle during the Georgia Senate runoffs on January 6, 2021, helping to elect Jon Ossof, the state’s first Jewish U.S. senator, and Reverend Raphael Warnock, the state’s first Black U.S. senator. These voters also helped flip the U.S. Senate from a Republican majority to a Democratic majority. Combined with a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and presidential administration, this could fundamentally alter federal legislation. It remains to be seen whether the high rate of Black political participation will be sustained and if elected officials respond to the demands of those who helped put them in office. But recent elections and the boldness of organizers like Stacey Abrams have made clear how profoundly Black Americans, once lynched for attempting to cast their ballot, can influence democracy.

Listeners, we would love to hear from those who attended or organized the convention, especially those from The Region. Please see the show notes for her contact information.  

Once again, I’m Justin Clark 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 the 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.

This episode of Talking Hoosier History was researched and written by IHB historian Nicole Poletika. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Our guest voice for this episode is Dr. Olon Dotson [Gary native and Ball State University professor]. We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice [with former mayor of Gary, Karen Freeman-Wilson]. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thank you for listening!

Show Notes for “Tribe Come Home:” The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana

If you organized or attended the convention, and would like to share your experience, please contact IHB historian Nicole Poletika at npoletika@library.in.gov or 317-232-2536.

Sources:

“Black Convention at Showdown Stages,” Vidette-Messenger of Porter County, March 11, 1972, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Black Political Movement Born in Gary,” Journal and Courier (Lafayette), March 13, 1972, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Oral History Interview, Benjamin Chavis, April 18, 1989, Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection, accessed Eyes on the Prize II Interviews.

Gwendolyn Cherry, House of Representatives, “Cherry Notes from Florida,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 2, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Chisholm Candidacy Faces Black Debate,” Muncie Evening Press, March 11, 1972, 1, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Jay Harris, “Black Political Agenda Hit on Busing, Israel,” News Journal (Wilmington, DE), May 19, 1972, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Erik Johnson, “Remembering Mayor Richard G. Hatcher,” Chicago Crusader, Special Tribute Edition, December 20, 2019, accessed chicagocrusader.com.

Sam Levine, “’They Always Put Other Barriers in Place:’ How Georgia Activists Fought Off Voter Suppression,” The Guardian, January 13, 2021, accessed theguardian.com.

Leonard N. Moore, The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018), 2, 64-65, 96-102, 105-108, 112, 130-131, 149, 152.

“The NAACP and the Black Political Convention,” The Crisis 79, no. 7 (August-September 1972): 229-230, accessed Google Books.

Documentary, NATIONTIME-GARY, directed by William Greaves, screened at AFI DOCS 2020.

James Parker, “Blacks Marching to Different Drums,” The Times (Munster), March 12, 1972, 1A, 12A, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ethel L. Payne, “After Gary, What?,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

Nicole Poletika, “City Church: Spirituality and Segregation in Gary,” Indiana History Blog, May 13, 2019, accessed blog.history.in.gov.

Nicole Poletika, “‘Tired of Going to Funerals:’ The 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary,” Belt Magazine (January 2019), accessed beltmag.com.

“Race and Voting,” Constitutional Rights Foundation, accessed crf-usa.org.

Jesus Rodriguez, “BLM Organizers See the 1972 National Black Political Convention as a Model. What Can They Learn from It?,” Politico Magazine, August 28, 2020, accessed politico.com.

Kat Stafford, Aaron Morrison, Angeliki Kastanis, “’This is Proof’: Biden’s Win Reveals Power of Black Voters,” Associated Press, November 9, 2020, accessed apnews.com.

“’…We Must Pave the Way so that Others May Follow,’” Pittsburgh Courier, March 25, 1972, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ross Williams, “Record Turnout among Black Voters Could Help Georgia Reshape the Nation,” Georgia Public Broadcasting, January 11, 2021, accessed gpb.org.

Wayne A. Young, “A Gary Native Reflects on What ‘Nationtime’ Means Today,” Chicago Crusader, November 24, 2020, accessed chicagocrusader.com.

How South Bend Attorneys Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen Lifted the “Heel of Oppression”

Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen, courtesy of Indianapolis Recorder, July 25, 1942, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles and South Bend Tribune, February 10, 2014, accessed SouthBendTribune.com.

*This is Part One in a series about the Allens.

Marriage is complicated enough. Add in opposing political views, routinely confronting systemic racism and sexism, and coping with the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II, and it’s even more challenging. African American attorneys Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen experienced these struggles and, while theirs was not a perfect marriage, through compromise, mutual respect, shared obstacles and goals, and love, they enjoyed 55 years together as man and wife. The South Bend couple dedicated themselves to each other and to uplifting the Black community by crafting legislation, organizing social programs, creating jobs, and demanding educational equality. The opportunities the Allens created for marginalized Hoosiers long outlived them.

On his way to Indianapolis in the late 1920s, J. Chester’s car broke down in South Bend and, after staying with a family on Linden Street, liked the city so much he decided to make it his home. Or so the story goes. Elizabeth Fletcher Allen, whom he met at Boston University and married in 1928, was likely working towards her law degree back in Massachusetts when J. Chester made that fateful trip. She would eventually join her husband in Indiana, but in the meantime J. Chester quickly got to work serving South Bend’s Black community. In 1930, J. Chester was admitted to the bar and the following year was appointed County Poor Attorney for St. Joseph County.

His arrival was perhaps serendipitous, as the Great Depression had begun rendering African Americans, who were already disenfranchised, destitute. J. Chester served as management committee chairman of the Hering House, which he described as “‘the clearing house of most of the social activities of the colored people as well as the point of contact between the white and colored groups of South Bend. . . . Its activities in the three fields of spiritual, mental and physical training make it indeed a character building institution.'” Through the organization, J. Chester helped provide 4,678 meals to unemployed African Americans, along with clothes, lodging, and medical aid to others in the Black community in 1931.

In addition to providing basic necessities during those lean years, J. Chester took on various anti-discrimination lawsuits in South Bend. In 1935, he helped prosecute a case against a white restaurant owner, who refused to serve Charles H. Wills, Justice of the Peace, in a section designated only for white patrons. That same year, J. Chester served as attorney for the Citizens Committee, formed in protest to the “unwarranted shooting” of Arthur Owens, a Black 18 year-old man, by white police officer Fred Miller. The Indianapolis Recorder, an African American newspaper, noted that eleven eyewitnesses recounted that “the youth was shot by Officer Miller as he stepped from a car with hands raised, after having been commanded by the officer and his companion, Samuel Koco Zrowski, to halt.” The officers had been pursuing the car with the belief it had been stolen.

“Public Angered at Whitewash,’” Indianapolis Recorder, June 1, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Elizabeth Allen-likely back in town temporarily-and other Black leaders organized a mass meeting to protest the “wanton, brutal and unwarranted” shooting. Despite boycotts, a benefit ball to raise prosecutorial funds, and protests by the Black community and white communists, a grand jury did not return an indictment against Officer Miller for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. This, J. Chester said, was due to “blind prejudice on the part of the prosecutor.”

Despite a disheartening outcome, J. Chester continued to lend his legal expertise to combating local discrimination. The following year, he and a team of lawyers challenged Engman Public Natatorium’s ban on African Americans from using the facilities. The team presented a petition, likely prepared by Elizabeth, to the state board of tax commission demanding Engman remove all restrictions. Allen and other NAACP representatives had tried this in 1931, arguing that the natatorium was “supported in whole or in part by taxes paid by residents of the city,” including African Americans. Without access to the pool, they would be relegated to unsafe swimming holes, one of which led to the death of a Black youth the previous summer. While they had no luck in 1931, the 1936 appeal convinced commissioners to provide African American residents access to the pool, but only on the first Monday of every month and on a segregated basis. This was just one victory in the decades-long fight to fully desegregate the natatorium.

Image caption: Photograph of Leroy Cobb and two unidentified men sitting along Pinhook Park. In the era of segregation in South Bend, with city pools like the Engman Public Natatorium barring African Americans from entry, Pinhook Park became a popular location for public swimming, ca. 1947, St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collections.

While it appears that Elizabeth lent her aid to certain events in South Bend, like protesting the shooting of Owen, it is tough to discern Elizabeth’s activities at this time. This is perhaps due to scant documentation for African Americans, particularly women, during this period. Likely, she was working towards her law degree at Boston University, despite being told by an admissions officer “there was not need to come and advised she get married.” Proving the officer wrong, Elizabeth not only got married, but gave birth to two children while pursuing her law degree. She attributed this tenacity to the confidence her father instilled in her during childhood and later said “’To be a woman lawyer you have to have the hide of a rhinoceros.’”

Her persistence paid off and after joining J. Chester in South Bend, she was admitted to the bar in 1938. Perhaps her presence inspired in him a sense of security and conviction, resulting in a run for the Indiana General Assembly. That year, voters elected J. Chester (D) the first African American to represent St. Joseph County. Rep. Allen introduced and supported bills that would eliminate racial discrimination in sports, the judicial system, and public spaces. The new lawmaker also endorsed bills that would require Indianapolis’s City Hospital to employ Black personnel and that would mandate appointing at least one African American to the State Board of Public Instruction, telling his colleagues “the legislature should see to it that these children had a spokesman of their own racial group to assure their obtaining a measure of equal accommodation and facilities in the segregated public school system” (Indianapolis Recorder, March 11, 1939). Writer L.J. Martin praised Allen’s unwavering commitment to serving Black Hoosiers while in public office, noting in the Indianapolis Recorder,

Hon. J. Chester Allen said he had stayed up late at night reading bills for such ‘racial traps.’ He found them, he eliminated them, one hotel sponsored bill in particular would have been a slap at the race. Mr. Allen astonishes me, in the forcible argument for racial progress.

J. Chester Allen (center), South Bend Tribune, November 6, 1940, 17, accessed Newspapers.com.

While J. Chester walked the halls of the statehouse, championing bills that furthered racial equality, Elizabeth was able to make a difference as a lawyer. The couple opened “Allen and Allen” in 1939—the same year she gave birth to their third child. One of the first Black female lawyers in the city, and likely state, Elizabeth quickly forged a reputation as an articulate and ambitious woman. She did not hesitate to express her convictions, not even to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Elizabeth sent her a letter expressing the need to integrate housing and provide African Americans with the same government-funded housing white Americans received. Elizabeth’s son, Dr. Irving Allen, told an interviewer that Roosevelt’s response resulted in his mother’s “angry departure” from the Democratic Party. Allegedly, Roosevelt “sent back this long-winded pretentious letter rationalizing the situation . . . that the races couldn’t live together.” Both idealistic, Dr. Allen recalled that his parents’ political discourse over the dinner table “could blow up at any time.”

Elizabeth’s editorial for the South Bend Tribune, entitled “Negro and 1940,” also provides insight into her views. She lauded the “new Negro,” who:

is fearless and motivated by confidence in his belief that he owes to his race the duty of guiding those members whose minds have not been trained to clear thinking, his knowledge that the able members of his race have always from the beginning of this country contributed to the civic upbuilding and a conviction that it is up to him to keep the gains which have been made.

Membership Card, 1944, J. Chester and Elizabeth Fletcher Allen Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, Indiana University South Bend Archives, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

By this definition, Elizabeth exemplified the “new Negro,” dedicating her life to uplifting South Bend’s Black community through her work with the NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee and by organizing drives to improve housing for minorities. According to her son, Dr. Irving Allen, Elizabeth embodied the Black empowerment she wrote about, challenging oppression and advocating for those “being cheated out of a decent life.” Dr. Allen suspected that his mother also wanted to effect change as a legislator, but sacrificed her political aspirations to support her husband’s career.

Elizabeth Allen, courtesy The History Museum Collection, accessed Roberta Heinman, “Suffragists and Activists are Among 10 Influential Women in Indiana,” South Bend Tribune, August 16, 2020.

Although Elizabeth felt she had to shelve her political aspirations, she complemented her husband’s legislative work, particularly regarding World War II defense employment. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 created an immediate need for the manufacture of ordnance. While U.S. government war contracts lifted many Americans out of the poverty wrought by the Depression, many manufacturers refused to hire African Americans. This further disenfranchised them as, according to W. Chester Hibbitt, Chairman of the Citizens’ Defense Council, an estimated 54% of African Americans living in Indiana were on relief by 1941.

And while the federal government complained of a labor shortage, J. Chester contended that “Negro workers, skilled and semi-skilled, by the thousands are walking the streets or working on W. P. A. projects, because they happen to have been endowed with a dark skin by the Creator of all men'” (“The Story of House Bill No. 445, p.15). He argued that it was the responsibility of lawmakers to prohibit employment discrimination, not only to eliminate poverty, but to safeguard democracy. Echoing the Double V campaign, Rep. Allen stated that “our first line of defense should be the preservation of the belief in the hearts of all men, black and white alike, that Democracy exists for all of us; that we are all entitled to a home, a job and the expectancy of better things to come for our children.” The continued denial of American minorities’ rights undermined the fight for freedom abroad.

Elected to a second term in 1940, J. Chester led the call for anti-discrimination legislation. Months before President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, Rep. Allen and Rep. Evans introduced House Bill No. 445. If enacted, it would make it illegal for Indiana companies benefiting from federal defense contracts “to discriminate against employing any person on account of race, color or creed.” So popular was the bill that after the Indiana Senate passed it, delegations of African Americans and their children filled statehouse corridors and galleries, carrying “placards advocating passage of the bill, describing the measure as the only thing necessary to provide Negroes with jobs” (“The Story of House Bill No. 445”, p.7).

The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Story of House Bill No. 445 . . . A Bill That Failed to Pass,” (Indianapolis, 1941?), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

Despite the bill’s promising fate, on the last day of session the House kicked it over to the Committee on Military Affairs, where it essentially died. In an article for the Indianapolis Recorder, J. Chester noted that although the bill was defeated,

such state-wide attention had been drawn to the sad economic plight of the Negro workers of Indiana and its attendant dangers that people of both races agreed that the alleviation of the Negro unemployment problem was the number one job of the preparations for war of Indiana and proceeded in for right home-rule manner to do something about it.

On June 1, 1941, Governor Schricker answered the call to “do something about it,” appointing J. Chester the Coordinator of Negro Affairs to the Indiana State Council of Defense. As part of the Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation, Allen traveled throughout the state, appealing to groups like the A.F.L., C.I.O., and the Indiana State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association, which all formally pledged to employ African Americans. Through intensive groundwork, Allen established bi-racial committees in at least twenty Indiana cities.

Based on the “mutual cooperation between the employer, labor and the Negro,” the Recorder reported that these local committees would “go into action whenever and wherever Negro industrial employment presents a problem.” Although his persuasive skills often convinced employers to hire Black employees, historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that “Allen sometimes invoked Order 8802 and threats of federal investigation to persuade management to employ and upgrade black workers.”

The Indiana State Defense Council and The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “’Job Opportunities for Negroes:’ The Goal of Indiana’s Bi-Racial Cooperation Plan,” Pamphlet No. 4 (January 1943), accessed Hathitrust.

Allen and the bi-racial committees also served as a sort of “middlemen” for white employers who wanted to hire African Americans, but were unsure how to recruit those best-suited for the job. Allen and the committees distributed “mimieographed questionnaires,” which provided” more valuable information with respect to Negro labor supplies, skills, etc. This information was then used with great effect in the mobilization and cataloguing of types of dependable Negro workers for local defense industries.”

Under Allen’s leadership, the Indiana Plan proved incredibly successful, providing employment to those, in Allen’s words, “whose record of loyalty and services dates in an unbroken chain back to the year 1620” (“The Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation,” p.5). According to the “Job Opportunities for Negroes” pamphlet, between July 1, 1941 and July 1, 1942, there “was a net increase of 82% Negro employment, most of which was in manufacturing. . . . working conditions also improved” (p.2). (It should be noted that employers continued to deny African Americans jobs in “skilled capacities.”) In fact, Indiana was awarded the “Citation of Merit” by the National Director of Civilian Defense for “outstanding work in the field of race relations.” So efficiently organized and implemented, other states used the plan as a model to bring African Americans into the workforce.

Indiana State Defense Council, The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, and Governor Schricker’s Negro Employment Committee, “What is the Truth About Job Opportunities for Negroes in Indiana?,” (August 1942), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

The Bi-Racial Cooperation Plan’s significance endured long after World War II ended. White employers could no longer claim that Black Hoosiers lacked the skills or competence required of the workplace or that it was “unnatural” for white and Black employees to work alongside each other. Reflecting on the program, Allen wrote in 1945, “Time was when a Negro interested in securing better employment opportunities for his people could not even obtain an audience with those able to grant such favors.” But the Bi-Racial Cooperation plan “has accomplished more for the Negro’s permanent economic improvement than had been done in the preceding history of the state.”

While African Americans were often the first to be let go from defense jobs with the conclusion of war, Allen’s work permanently wedged the door open to employment for Black Hoosiers. Allen, perhaps at the encouragement of Elizabeth, emphasized the importance of creating job opportunities for Black women and in his 1945 article noted that thousands of female laborers “have been upgraded from traditional domestic jobs, to which all colored women had previously been assigned irrespective of training or ability, to defense plants as receptionists, power-sewing machine operators, line operators and other better paying positions where their training can be utilized.”

Elizabeth Allen front left, J. Chester Allen back of the table, Ca. 1944, J. Chester and Elizabeth Fletcher Allen Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center, Indiana University South Bend Archives, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

Like her husband, Elizabeth refused to accept that Black Hoosiers would be excluded from the economic boon created by defense jobs. In the early 1940s, she established a nurse’s aid training and placement program for Black women in St. Joseph County. Of her WWII work, Elizabeth’s son said that she opened professional doors for Black women and that she saw herself as helping people who were oppressed. Like J. Chester, Elizabeth helped select local men for placement in defense jobs and, according to an October 11, 1941 Indianapolis Recorder article

used the utmost care in selecting the men to go into the factory realizing that future opportunities were dependent upon the foundation which these pioneers laid both in building good will among the fellow employes, and proving to the management that colored are reliable, trustworthy, hard-working and capable of advancing.

While J. Chester traveled the state, Elizabeth tended to the needs of the local community, chairing a drive in 1942 at Hering House for “community betterment in housing[,] social and industrial fields.” In the 1940s, Elizabeth organized various meetings to improve local housing for the Black community, emphasizing the link between substandard residences and crime rates, delinquency, and health. Deeply committed to ensuring quality education for African American children, Elizabeth founded Educational Service, Inc. in 1943, which encouraged youth to pursue social and economic advancement, provided financial aid to “worthy” students, offered individual counseling, and fostered good citizens. All of this while caring for three young children and likely manning the couple’s law office, as J. Chester fulfilled his duties with the Indiana State Council of Defense. Fortunately, Elizabeth later told the South Bend Tribune, “I want to keep busy constantly. I have to be about something all the time.”

When the war clouds cleared, the Allens achieved many of their professional and philanthropic goals. But they also experienced immense personal loss that appeared to test their marriage. Their post-war journey is explored in Part II.

 

Sources:

The majority of this post is based on state historical marker notes, in addition to the following:

“11,605 Helped by Hering House,” South Bend Tribune, April 22, 1931, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

“11 Witnesses Charge Police Shot too Soon,” South Bend Tribune, April 10, 1935, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Seek to Avenge Youth’s Death,” Indianapolis Recorder, May 25, 1935, 1, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“Public Angered at Whitewash,’” Indianapolis Recorder, June 1, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Elizabeth F. Allen, “Negro and 1940,” South Bend Tribune, October 1, 1939, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Story of House Bill No. 445 . . . A Bill That Failed to Pass,” (Indianapolis, 1941?), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

The Indiana State Defense Council and The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation,” Pamphlet No. 3, (April 1942), Indiana State Library pamphlet.

Mary Butler, “Mrs. Elizabeth Allen Lays Down Law to Family,” South Bend Tribune, July 30, 1950, 39, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Adult Award Winner,” South Bend Urban League and Hering House, Annual Report, 1960, p. 5, accessed Michiana Memory.

“Area Women Lawyers Tell It ‘Like It Is,’” South Bend Tribune, March 9, 1975, 69, accessed Newspapers.com.

Marilyn Klimek, “Couple Led in Area Racial Integration,” South Bend Tribune, November 30, 1997, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 207.

Oral History Interview with Dr. Irving Allen, conducted by Dr. Les Lamon, IU South Bend Professor Emeritus, David Healey, and John Charles Bryant, Part 1 and Part 2, August 11, 2004, Civil Rights Heritage Center, courtesy of St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.

THH Episode 42: Giving Voice: Dr. James Madison

Jump to Show Notes

Transcript for Giving Voice: Dr. James Madison

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.

On this installment of Giving Voice, I talk with Dr. James Madison, whose new book, Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland explores what the Klan of the 1920s in Indiana looked like, how they amassed and wielded their power, and how their legacy continues to be seen in the state today. If you haven’t listened to our latest episode, which covers the story of how the University of Notre Dame harnessed the popularity of their football program to combat a smear campaign carried out by the Klan, I encourage you to do so as it elaborates on some of the aspects we touch on in this conversation.

And now, Giving Voice.

I’m here today with Dr. James Madison, Emeritus Professor of History at Indiana University and the author of the new book, Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland. Thank you, Dr. Madison for being here with me today it’s a real pleasure speaking with you.

Madison: Well, thank you Lindsey. I’m always happy to talk history and I’m especially happy to be on this Indiana Historical Bureau program. So, thank you.

Beckley: So, I thought we’d start out with a simple question that might not have a simple answer. Who joined the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana in the 1920s? And why did they join?

Madison: That’s a very important question, Lindsey, and we are now able to answer that question. Thirty or 40 years ago, we couldn’t, but there’s been a lot of good scholarship on that and there’s more coming out in the future. White, native born Protestants is the answer to your question.

And that’s very important because the myth that prevails – the wrong headed assumption – that has been hailed for nearly 100 years was that members of the Klan in Indiana in the 1920s were, as the great journalist Elmer Davis called them, the “great unteachable’s.” That they were sort of a lower order, even ne’er do wells. We now know that’s not true. They were good Hoosiers. They were good citizens. Respectable people, for the most part. But they were all in their self-definition, 100% American – that is white, native born, Protestants.

Beckley: And why did they join this fraternal organization? What did they see in it that enticed them to join?

Madison: Here too there is a myth. That the Hoosiers that joined the Klan were manipulated by snake oil salesman like DC Stevenson, the grand dragon. That they were not very sophisticated and that they did not understand what the Klan was about. I think that’s simply not true. The evidence is overwhelming that most of the people who joined the Klan truly believed in the values, the goals of the Ku Klux Klan. That is, to redeem America, to return America to its greatness – return America to a place where the enemies were held in secondary status so that good, 100% Americans could really, really run the nation.

Lindsey: Yeah, that’s really interesting. Because I do think that a lot of people still have those ideas and their head that people were duped into joining the Klan or that it was a bunch of ne’er do wells, as you say, that joined. Whereas it was ordinary citizens going in with eyes wide open.

What conditions here in the state preceded the Klan’s arrival that kind of paved the way for them to gain such massive power in such a short amount of time?

Madison Well, there are deep traditions in Indiana history and in American history that were essential to the success of the Ku Klux Klan. And those include fear and hatred of immigrants an outsiders. Fear and hatred among Protestants of Catholics. Among Christians of Jews. All sorts of prejudices and divisions including prejudices against African Americans in particular. All of these ways of dividing Hoosiers and Americans into us and them had persisted in Indiana from the very beginning. So that’s one essential part of the Klan story in the 1920s.

More immediately, there’s World War One. And World War One was a horrible war in so many ways, including its domestic consequences because it exacerbated – it let forth all sorts of prejudices against them, against people who were others. And that persisted into the 1920s.

And then I’d say also that the decade of the 1920s was an unusual time where Indiana had a particularly mediocre political leadership. There were no men – and we’re talking almost entirely about men here in the 1920s – there were no men in political positions of leadership who had what we might call character or even charisma. They were mediocre. And they were mostly, in fact almost entirely, interested in getting reelected. So, policy issues, questions of central importance to our government and our state were not on their agenda. And when the Klan came along so very, very many of them, especially in the Republican Party, saw the Klan as a vehicle to increase their political power. To get reelected. To be more important in running national politics. So, all of those conditions created an atmosphere that was very, very ripe for the Klan to rise to power in Indiana in the early 1920s.

Beckley: So, that last point that you brought up about politics being more about being reelected than actually getting any agenda achieved, kind of flows well into my next question. Which is, it’s interesting to me that the Klan worked like a well-oiled machine to get sympathetic representatives elected to the General Assembly but then once they were actually there, they didn’t seem to get much actual policy or Klan-proposed policy achieved. Maybe one or two things, but it wasn’t quite the powerhouse that I think that they were intending. What do you think stopped them from achieving more in their short time in power?

Madison: That’s a very good point, and a very important part of this story because – let me speak just quickly to the first part, and that is that the Klan was often assumed to be a bunch of bumblers and not really knowing quite what they were doing. But that’s not true. The Klan was a very sophisticated organization. Hierarchal. Able to recruit large numbers of members. Able to bring in millions of dollars to its treasury. So, it’s a very sophisticated, powerful, well run organization by early 1924. So powerful that the Klan candidates sweep into office in the fall elections in 1924.

The General Assembly that sits in early 1925 is composed mostly of Klan members or supporters of the Klan. The governor of Indiana, Ed Jackson, far and away the worst governor in our history, was very very sympathetic to the Klan. So, a very powerful organization. And yet, as you say, Lindsey, in the General Assembly they proved to be a bunch of ineffectual’s, in particular because they started to fight among themselves. One of the blessings of this kind of movement often is that they are so selfish and power hungry that factions develop. That they split apart in their quest for power. And that’s exactly what happened in the late fall and early spring of 1925, particularly in the statehouse, because there are all sorts of factions and they just sort of fight each other. They were more interested in winning power than they were and passing Klan reform programs.

Beckley: It’s just so interesting how they worked so hard and just kind of slid into power there and then kind of fell apart at the most critical junction. Lucky for Indiana, of course.

Madison: Very, very lucky. Because the Klan program – the Klan legislative program – was serious and had they passed it then come back again in the following General Assembly, who knows what they would have put into the force of law and policy. It’s a dreadful, dreadful thing to contemplate.

Beckley: One quote from your book really jumped out at me and it is that, “Klan women and men saw themselves not as bigoted extremists but as good Christians and good Patriots joining proudly in a moral crusade.” Today, we see those same people as members of a terrorist organization. How did most Americans who weren’t part of the Klan but also weren’t part of the organized resistance, how did they view the Klan from the outside looking in?

Madison: That’s a hard question to answer because it’s very hard to find the primary sources that give voice to that. I think that it’s quite likely that many, many Hoosiers did not oppose the Klan and did not join the Klan. Perhaps a majority of Hoosiers were in that category. And within that category of not opposing and not joining or supporting, there are all ranges of possibilities, some were very, very unhappy about the Klan but unwilling to step up. And I think that’s a large number of Hoosiers. They were unwilling to stand up against the Klan. There were very few profiles in courage in this group. They were fearful because the Klan had such immense power. The Klan had the power to intimidate, to threaten, to make your life difficult if they chose to. But also, I think even those who did not join the Klan tended to think that, “well they’re sort of right. There’s really nothing wrong with this organization. We’re not going to pay our dues and march in a parade, but they are OK. They are normal.” And that’s a very important part of the Klan story in the 1920s. The Klan worked hard to be respected to be a normal part of America. And in the eyes of their members and supporters, they were exactly that. They were not on the margins. They were not a bunch of fools. They were normal, good, respectable Americans. And that’s a very hard thing for us to understand today because all sorts of myths and stories get in the way of that. But that is essential to understanding the Klan in Indiana in the 20s. Normal, respectable, Hoosiers.

Beckley: I think that a lot of people, when they’re thinking about the Klan, their ideas about the organization are kind of clouded by the Klan of the Reconstruction Era and then of the 1960s when it is much more violent and, in the case of the 60s, fragmented and kind of – it is those bumbling people, or at least it was closer to that. So, I think that we are thinking about it and we aren’t – a lot of folks aren’t separating out the three distinct versions of the Klan and the 1920s. It’s so hard to wrap your head around just because they were so respectable. And reading the first part of your book, it almost sounded like frivolous. The people were going to parades and having picnics and even cross burnings were a celebration. It wasn’t necessarily seen by them as a source of terror whereas it would have been seen by their victims as a source of terror, but something as iconic as a cross burning can be seen by members of the Klan as a festival almost. It’s just very hard to comprehend, I think.

Madison: Well, yes. And that’s the way in which the Klan was normal. Because, well the Klan had a very very straightforward purpose: to make America for 100% Americans. And to keep the enemies in their place. But at the same time, these were people who wanted to have a good time, who wanted to be with other like-minded people. It was a very social organization. They had picnics and all kinds of events. They got together in their weekly or semi-weekly Klavern meetings. There were Klavern’s in all 92 counties. They got together, they had a social program, they sang hymns, they had good conversation, they always had food – you know Hoosiers always have food at social events like that especially in the 1920s – so they had good food, good picnics, good times. They had fun and many of them joined in part because of that. But that wasn’t the only reason, or the major reason, that they joined. The idea of good Hoosiers enjoying life as members of the Ku Klux Klan is another one that is hard for us to understand. Because what gets in the way, as you said, was the Klan of the post-Civil War era which was a terrorist organization and the Klan of the 1960s, or that began in the 1960s and continued for decades afterwards, which was a horrible organization of white supremacists and getting towards acts of violence. But the Indiana Klan is not that way. Again, respectable and normal. They were not interested in violence. They were much more interested in having a parade, or a cross burning. Certainly those things intimidate people. It tells them that this is a very powerful organization. You see hundreds of robed people walking down Main Street and around the courthouse square in Indiana – that sends a message. You see a cross burning or several cross burnings on a hill outside of town or at the State Fairgrounds – that sends a message. And the Klan was very sophisticated and sending these kinds of messages. “We are powerful. Don’t cross us. Support us we are the good people and you better stay in your place if you are not one of us and not cause trouble.” So again, a sophisticated organization. A normal organization in Indiana in the 1920s. Not later on in the late 20th century not in the South after the Civil War. But in the 20s in Indiana? Absolutely.

Beckley: So, to close out the discussion today, I have another quote from your book. “The Klan was history. The legacy remains.” That’s a powerful quote and I was hoping that you could talk a little bit more about those legacies that you see remaining from the Klan.

Madison: Well, that’s another one of the many complexities of the Klan, because in some ways, I’ve argued, the Klan by 1930 was dead in Indiana. The Klan that we know in the 20s no longer existed. What happened was, as the Civil Rights movement began to grow in Indiana and in America in the late 50s and especially in the early 60s, it produced a space. It produced opposition. It produced blow back from some white Hoosiers and white Americans who said woah, woah, woah this Civil Rights movement has gone too far. These African Americans have gotten out of their place. They’re asking too much. And George Wallace came to Indiana in 1924 – the segregationist governor from Indiana* – and campaigned on that platform and got about 1/3 of the white vote. Horrible example of the responses to the idea that the Civil Rights went too far, as some whites in America an Indiana would claim. And that cleared a space for a revival, a renewal, of the Ku Klux Klan. Small groups mostly scattered across the state with some self-proclaimed Grand Dragons got a lot of publicity in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. They held rallies and parades in many places including Indianapolis in Kokomo and Madison, Indiana. Always at these rallies in the late 20th century, there were more opponents than supporters of the Klan. Far, far more people came out to protest. So that Klan that revived in the late 20th century really is a bunch of unteachable ne’er do wells. Really white supremacists par excellence. That was their reason for being. White supremacy. That Klan today has very little influence, very little presence. It can still intimidate us. A robe and mask of a burning cross can still cause us to fear. And African American families have stories handed down over the generations with that kind of terror, that kind of fear. But the real problem today I think is not in men and women who Don robes and hoods.

The issue today is respectable Americans, men and women and dark suits and silk blouses who say things that are on the outside may not look so horrible, but if you think a little bit, if you understand America and if you understand our past and our present, what they’re doing is using dog whistles. Coded language to say things that today are very similar to what the Klan said, much more explicitly, in the 1920s. The bigotry, prejudice, the notion that there are 100 percent Americans – that it’s US versus them – is still a notion that flourishes today in America and especially in the last four years. So, in the last four years we’ve seen an intensification of this kind of prejudice, this kind of bigotry, this kind of homophobia and xenophobia all of the things that contradict American ideals. It’s come from the White House, it is come from leaders in our political parties, especially one party in particular. And it has been the most significant attack to fundamental American values in my lifetime.

So, I think that we have in America a challenge of education. A challenge that requires that we understand our history from the very beginning to the present. Not a patriotic history. Not bedtime stories for children. Not myths. But the real history that we can now find and read not only in books but in museum exhibits and programs like this that are so very important to the future of our democracy, to our role as thinking, knowledgeable citizens.

Beckley: Yeah, we hope to always inform our listeners about their own past and how they can kind of utilized that to inform their present, so I appreciate you coming on and having this discussion today. This is such an important part of Indiana history that often gets overlooked or misunderstood. So, I’m I’m happy that we could clear some things up today.

Madison: Thank you Lindsey.

Beckley: A huge thank you, once again, to Dr. Madison. He’s one of the best Indiana historians out there and it was an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with him about such an important and prescient topic. If you’re interested in this period of Indiana history, I can’t recommend Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland highly enough – I know he did a lot of archival research in the past few years while working on it and it really shows.

This is the last episode of the year and we’ll be taking a little break over the holidays, but Talking Hoosier History will be back in February with more stories of the people, places, and events that shaped the Hoosier state. In the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana history tidbits. Subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening.

*George Wallace, the segregationist Senator, came to Indiana in 1964, rather than 1924, when he was running in the Democratic primaries. He was a Senator from Alabama, rather than Indiana.

Show Notes for Giving Voice: James Madison

Learn more about the Klan in Indiana:

Talking Hoosier History, The KKK, Political Corruption, and the Indianapolis Times, https://blog.history.in.gov/the-kkk-and-the-indianapolis-times/ 

Leonard J. Moore, Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana 1921-1928, University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part One: Opposition to the Klan at Notre Dame,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-one-notre-dame-opposition-to-the-klan/ 

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Two: Notre Dame’s 1924 Football Team Battles Klan Propaganda,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-two/

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Three: The Notre Dame Publicity Campaign that Crushed the Klan,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-three-the-notre-dame-publicity-campaign-that-crushed-the-klan/

James Madison, “The Klan’s Enemies Step Up, Slowly,” Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 116, No. 2 (June 2020), p. 93-120, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/indimagahist.116.2.01?seq=1

THH Episode 41: Notre Dame Tackles the Klan

Jump to Show Notes

Transcript for Notre Dame Tackles the Klan

[Radio clips of Notre Dame football fades in and out]

Nineteen twenty-four was going to be their year. The Notre Dame football team was coming off a well-played 1923 season with just one loss, and they had their sights set on an even bigger goal that year – a perfect season. However, to get there, they faced some stiff competition – rivals like the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who had served up their only loss in 1923, loomed on the horizon. But looming even larger than rival teams was an off-the-field opponent that was in a different class altogether. That year, Notre Dame set out to defeat the Ku Klux Klan in a media crusade the likes of which had never been seen before.

[Radio clips of Notre Dame football]

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

The Ku Klux Klan arrived in the Hoosier State in 1920. By the mid-20s, more than 250,000 men had joined the organization throughout the state, and thousands of women and children had joined auxiliary clubs. While bearing the name, costume, and racist, xenophobic rhetoric of the Reconstruction Era Klan, this iteration of the terrorist organization differed in some key ways.

The Klan of the 1860s and 70s wielded clubs, guns, and nooses, while the Klan of the 1920s mostly wielded political power. The Klan of the mid-19th century terrorized the African American population of the southern United States, while that of the 20th century broadened their animus to include political radicals, feminists, intellectuals, Jews, and, most vociferously, Catholics and immigrants.

One other way in which the Klan of the 1920s differed from its predecessor, especially in Indiana, was just how interwoven it was with respectable society. Klansmen weren’t on the fringes, ostracized by their hatred. Rather, as Indiana University historian James Madison said in his new book, The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, “The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was as dark as the night and as American as apple pie.”

Nativism and xenophobia were well established in the state before 1920 – Hoosiers were already asking if immigrants could really be American if they maintained traditions from their homeland. Or if Catholics could be loyal Americans while simultaneously being loyal to the Pope. These weren’t ideas introduced by the Klan, but rather they were ideas that paved the way for the Klan to quickly infiltrate society at a deep level.

Because the Klan was such an integral part of the fabric of everyday life in Indiana, there was very little widespread resistance to the organization. However, there were instances of individuals, communities, and religious groups taking a stand against the hatred. Dr. Madison explores some of these instances in his Indiana Magazine of History article titled “The Klan’s Enemies Step up, Slowly.” Various towns and cities around the state passed laws prohibiting the wearing of masks, targeting the white hood and mask worn during Klan events. They denied permits for Klan-affiliated speakers, and restricted public cross burnings and parades. Jewish Hoosiers organized a lecture series on tolerance in an area rife with Klan activity. Newspapers around the Midwest, including the Muncie Post-Democrat, the Chicago-based Tolerance and the Indianapolis Times wrote scathing editorials decrying the Klan’s practices.

It was Catholic Hoosiers who showed the most unified resistance, though – this was likely because they were the primary targets of the Klan’s intolerance. When the Tipton County Fair announced it would be hosting a “Klan Day,” Catholics boycotted the event. When the Knights of Columbus organized a protest against the Klan in Indianapolis, nearly 800 Catholic men attended. And perhaps the state’s most prominent anti-Klan demonstration took place in the town of South Bend in May 1924.

South Bend, home to Catholics of Irish, Polish, and Hungarian origin, as well as the traditionally Catholic University of Notre Dame, was one of the only major cities in Indiana without a Klan presence. The hate group was working hard to change that in the lead-up to the 1924 election using a two-pronged approach. First, Klan leaders worked to legitimize the organization through philanthropic and recreational family activities and to grow its power through infiltrating politics and local law enforcement. Second, they worked to demonize their target groups – in this case, Catholics and immigrants. To that end, the Klan published anti-Catholic, xenophobic propaganda in their widely circulated newspaper, The Fiery Cross, and, as the existing anti-Catholic sentiments of many Hoosiers were being stoked in that way, Klan leadership laid a kind of trap for the Catholic citizens of South Bend. They scheduled a mass Klan meeting, where members from the Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois Klans would gather to spread their hateful rhetoric. The hope was that Catholic students from the nearby University of Notre Dame and South Bend citizens, many of whom were of immigrant origin, would rise up in reaction to the Klan’s presence, giving the Klan the opportunity to paint them as violent, lawless, un-American immigrants in contrast to the peacefully assembled “100% American” Klansmen. The meeting was scheduled for May 17, 1924.

Fearful for the safety of their students and local residents, Notre Dame and South Bend officials worked to stop a potentially violent incident. South Bend Mayor Eli Seebirt refused to grant the Klan a parade permit, although he could not stop their peaceful assembly on public grounds. Notre Dame President Matthew Walsh issued a bulletin, imploring students to stay on campus and ignore the Klan activities in town. He wrote:

Clark reading from Walsh: Similar attempts of the Klan to flaunt its strength have resulted in riotous situations, sometimes in the loss of life. However aggravating the appearance of the Klan may be, remember that lawlessness begets lawlessness. Young blood and thoughtlessness may consider it a duty to show what a real American thinks of the Klan. There is only one duty that presents itself to Notre Dame men, under the circumstances, and that is to ignore whatever demonstration may take place today.

Beckley: Father Walsh was right. “Young blood” could not abide the humiliation of this anti-Catholic hate group taking over the town. The Fiery Cross had hurled insults and false accusations at the students for some time. The propaganda newspaper called them “hoodlums,” claimed that Notre Dame produced “nothing of value,” and blamed the students for crime in the area. As Klan members began arriving in the city on May 17, 1924, South Bend was ready to oppose them.

The South Bend Tribune reported:

Clark reading from Tribune: Trouble started early in the day when Klansmen in full regalia of hoods, masks and robes appeared on street corners in the business section, ostensibly to direct their brethren to the meeting ground, Island park, and giving South Bend its first glimpse of Klansmen in uniform.

Beckley: Not long after Klan members began arriving, young men, assumed to have been Notre Dame students, surrounded the masked intruders. The anti-Klan South Bend residents and students tore off several masks and robes, exposing the identities of “kluxers” who wished to spread their hate anonymously. The Tribune reported that some Klan members were “roughly handled.” The newspaper also reported that the anti-Klan force showed some evidence of organization. They formed a “flying column” that moved in unison “from corner to corner, wherever a white robe appeared.” By 11:30 a.m. students and residents of South Bend had purged the business district of any sign of the Klan.

Meanwhile, Klan leaders continued to lobby city officials for permission to parade, hold meetings in their downtown headquarters, and assemble en masse at Island Park. Just after noon, the group determined to protect South Bend turned their attention to Klan headquarters. This home base was the third floor of a building and was identifiable by the “fiery cross” made of red light bulbs in the window. The students and South Bend residents surrounded the building and focused on removing the glowing red symbol of hate. Several young men “hurled potatoes” at the building, breaking several windows and smashing the light bulbs in the cross. The young men then stormed up the stairs to the Klan den and were stopped by minister and Klan leader Reverend J.H. Horton with a revolver.

The students attempted to convince Klan members to agree not to parade in masks or with weapons. While convincing all parties to ditch the costumes wasn’t easy, they did eventually negotiate a truce. By 3:30 p.m., the protestors had left the headquarters and rallied at a local pool hall.  Here, a student leader spoke to the crowd and urged them to remain peaceful but vigilant in case they were needed by the local police to break up the parade. After all was said and done, despite Klan threats, the city never issued a parade license and the Klan never paraded. Looking at the outcomes of this clash, it may seem as though the Notre Dame students came out on top – they were able to clear much of the city of white-robed Klansmen, the parade had not happened, and they had faced their persecutors head-on, something that’s easy to root for. However, this show of resistance was exactly what they Klan wanted, and they ran with it, painting the students as a “reckless, fight loving gang of Hoodlums” and using the Fiery Cross to spread a narrative of law-abiding Protestant citizens being denied their right to peacefully assemble while being violently attacked by gangs of Catholics and immigrants working together.

Mixing outright lies into their media spin, the Klan newspaper claimed that the students ripped up American flags and attacked women and children. The Klan’s propaganda was picked up by many mainstream newspapers and widely reported. The Notre Dame students may have appeared to win the day, but the reputation of the University of Notre Dame, and the Catholic community as a whole, had been tarnished by the spread of Klan propaganda.

The university needed a way to combat this bad press, and luckily, they had just the thing: the wildly successful Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. Since 1921, Father John O’Hara, the prefect of religion, had been working to link the players’ Catholicism with their success on the gridiron by arranging press coverage of the players attending mass before away games, providing medals of saints for them to wear during games, and writing about “the religious component in Notre Dame’s football success.” In essence, he drew on the idea of sport as a platform for social change, an idea that continues to be used in the 21st century. O’Hara planned to take this strategy up a notch for the 1924 season in an attempt to combat the smear campaign being waged by the Klan.

In order to put this plan into action, though, the Fighting Irish would have to make an even more impressive showing than they had in the 1923 season. This was a tall order, as their only loss that season was a devastating defeat by the Nebraska Cornhuskers, a game during which the Fighting Irish were subjected to anti-Catholic insults. This would have to be a year like no other – a perfect, undefeated season.

Coach Knute Rockne had his work cut out for him, but he came to the 1924 season with a plan – instead of starting his first-string players, he would send in his second-string “shock troops” to tire out their opponents. Then he would send in his best players, still fresh and ready to make up any ground that had been lost and more. The strategy was deployed with great success in the first two games of the season – Lombard College and Wabash College were defeated with a combined score of 74 to zero. The first real test for both the team and the press strategy came on October 25, when the Fighting Irish faced one of their biggest rivals – the Army team.

[Radio coverage from Army game]

In the lead up to the game, alumni living in the city fed Notre Dame-produced press statements to New York newspapers and drummed up support for the Fighting Irish at local Catholic organizations. As 60,000 fans…

Clark with old-time radio effects:  60,000 fans have descended upon the New York City Polo Grounds to watch this match-up …

Beckley: it was clear that the good press had paid off – the New York Times reported that the crowd was the largest ever seen in the city. When the Irish pulled off a relatively tight 13-7 victory, the press raved and reporter Grantland Rice of the New York Herald Tribune delivered one of the most famous lines in sports history, writing about the Notre Dame’s backfield lineup:

Clark reading from Tribune: Outlined against a blue, gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore, they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden.

Beckley: The “four horsemen” nickname immediately gained traction. Upon the team’s return, the university arranged to have a photographer shoot a picture of the “horsemen” in uniform on horseback – just another card in the media playbook

One-third of the way through their regular season, the plan was right on track – the team had won some decisive victories and the media coverage was overwhelmingly positive, despite the fact that the Fiery Cross continued to re-hash the events of May 24, smearing the Catholic and immigrant community of South Bend every chance they got. As the season continued, it became clear that this Notre Dame team was a force to be reckoned with – they emerged from their mid-season games with three more decisive victories against Princeton, Georgia Tech, and University of Wisconsin. Their next, and perhaps largest, hurdle still loomed ahead in the form of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who had delivered their only defeat of the 1923 season.

In their last match-up, the Fighting Irish had encountered prejudice and xenophobic epithets from the Nebraska fanbase. This meant that a victory against the Huskers would not only get the Irish one win closer to a perfect season, but the victory of the hardworking and stoic Irish Catholic school over a team with anti-Catholic fans would be symbolic of a larger Catholic victory over prejudice.

This game had been the focus of the entire season for Notre Dame, and when the two teams took the field in South Bend on November 15, the Fighting Irish were out for revenge…

Clark with old time radio effects: …the Fighting Irish are out for revenge. Coach Rockne may be re-thinking his shock troop tactics this game… and the Huskers advance to the four-yard line after the Irish give up a fumble … The crowd goes wild as the first stringers take the field … and the Huskers drive it in for an early touchdown, Huskers lead 6-0 at the end of the first period! The Irish come out strong in the second quarter … the Four Horsemen are putting on a fine show … and we go to the half with the Irish ahead 14-6. … The Irish Eleven are really putting on a show now … Notre Dame 21, Nebraska 6 at the end of the third period … and Layden plunges through the center for a touchdown! … 34-6. The Irish win! The Irish win!!

Beckley: Finally, they had defeated the team that had not only ruined their otherwise perfect 1923 season, but had maligned them with anti-Catholic, anti-Irish slurs as well.

With that win in the books, the Irish swept through the remaining two games on their schedule – against Northwestern and Carnegie Tech – with relative ease, achieving their goal of a perfect season. This perfect record was everything the university administration had hoped for in order to engage their publicity machine and improve the school’s unfairly marred reputation. Giving them an even better opportunity for good press, the team was invited to play in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Father O’Hara, who had orchestrated press coverage of the team throughout the season, saw this as an unprecedented public relations opportunity.

Rather than travel to California a week before the game and practice a few times on the Rose Bowl field, the team was put through a grueling three-week schedule of practices, press conferences, public appearances, and daily Mass – all while snaking their way across the country by train. At the same time, the Klan continued to churn out hateful propaganda painting Catholics and immigrants as un-American troublemakers. And major outlets had picked up the narrative, lending credibility to the slanderous claims. This was what these young men, who were already facing the biggest game of their careers, were up against. Not only did they have to be at the top of their game, they also had to be on the moral high ground – they were representatives not only of Notre Dame, but of the larger Catholic and Irish American communities.

Finally, the team arrived in Los Angeles to a train platform crowded with fans – it seemed their press tour was working.

After checking into the hotel, the team went to the Rose Bowl field for practice. Standing in the stadium, the Irish focused on their goal: a Rose Bowl championship. After one more practice, the Fighting Irish returned to their hotel to rest for the night. In the meantime, newspapers across the country reported on the practice, debated who would win the following day, and discussed just how evenly matched the two teams were. The excitement was building. The Chicago Tribune reported:

Clark reading from Tribune: Every arriving train brings more football fans, and the great majority favor Notre Dame to win. Coaches from all sections of the country are here to get a line on the Rockne style of play and see what all expect to be a great exhibition of open football.

Beckley: On the warm and sunny New Year’s Day of 1925, the team attended Mass and took Holy Communion before heading to the Rose Bowl. Over 53,000 fans filled the stands and others sat in trees outside the stadium. The game started at 2:15 p.m. As usual, Coach Rockne started his second string “shock troops…

Clark with old time radio effects: …Coach Rockne has started his second string “shock troops.” That might be a mistake with this Stanford offense … and the Cardinals score first with a field goal – score 3-0 Stanford … And the first string players enter the fray … Even the usually unstoppable Four Horsemen seem to be unable to make a drive against this Stanford line …  Oh! And the Irish get a break as Stanford flubs the punt, placing the Irish on the Stanford 32 yard-line! … The Irish drive it in for their first score of the game – Irish lead 6-3! … Notre Dame full-back Elmer Layden intercepts the pass and runs it back for a 70 yard touchdown!! … Irish lead 13-3 going into the second half!

And the Cardinals fumble the ball – Irishman Edward Huntsinger picks it up and runs it 20 yards for another touchdown!! … Stanford has the ball inside the Notre Dame 1-yard line … and they’re stopped mere inches from the endzone!! Stanford goes for a pass and it’s intercepted by Layden … he’s going, he’s going, he’s gone!!! Layden runs it back for another 70 yard touchdown … And the Irish win the Rose Bowl 27-10! What a way to top off a perfect season!!

Beckley: The season was over, but the public relations machine was still in full force. The team set off on a “victory lap” from California to Indiana on January 2, a 10-day journey where the players met adoring crowds, rubbed shoulders with celebrities, and shook hands with politicians. This was a victory lap for the Notre Dame football squad, yes, but also for Catholicism. After all, what’s more American than football? And here was a group of scholar-athletes demonstrating for the nation that their faith didn’t stand in the way of being American.

Perhaps everyone who had been discriminated against in this era of the Klan was feeling a little Irish in the wake of the Notre Dame victory. Herbert Fleishacker, a prominent Jewish San Francisco banker, wrote in a telegram to the alumni group:

Clark reading telegram: WE IRISH MUST STAND TOGETHER.

Beckley: By the time they arrived back at the university on January 12, the players were completely exhausted, but triumphant. The Fighting Irish had delivered an undefeated season and a national championship to their university. Notre Dame officials, in turn, leveraged the opportunity into a publicity spectacle. Father O’Hara’s plan to use football successes to reform the school’s reputation had worked. Notre Dame historian Robert Burns noted that:

Clark reading from Burns: By playing very hard, but always according to the rules, never complaining or making excuses, and winning, Notre Dame players would show the American public what Catholics and Catholic education was all about.

Beckley: The Klan’s Fiery Cross continued to spread lies about Catholic plots and tales of Notre Dame hoodlums, but the country had just witnessed an extended and public display of honorable play, sportsmanship, and model behavior from these young Catholic men – the American public were largely over the story.

The publicity campaign organized by the University of Notre Dame forever crushed the Klan’s plans for infiltrating South Bend and tainting the school’s reputation. South Bend refused to be baited into further physical confrontations with the Klan, school officials refused to accept the insults hurled at them through Klan propaganda, and the Fighting Irish refused to play the Klan’s game. They played football instead – just one example in a long history of sports being used as a platform for social change and social justice in America.

However, while the Klan was defeated in South Bend, they remained dominant throughout much of Indiana, and their anti-Immigrant views were popular throughout the nation. The same year that this story takes place – 1924 – the Klan’s championing of white supremacist principles yielded real world consequences in the form of the national Immigration Act of 1924, which resulted in a quota system that reduced immigration by 80%. We saw the effects of this legislation most poignantly in the 1930s, when hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, who applied to the United States for immigration visas, were denied entry. Many of those people were later murdered in the Holocaust.

In the 1920s, the Klan claimed to be the sole proprietor of who was “American:” native born, white Protestants were, and foreign-born Catholics were not.  Although today the Klan has lost much of their power, their vision of white supremacy and exclusion still simmers right beneath the surface of American politics, and in some cases boils over. In the 1920s, we allowed hate groups to define who was and wasn’t considered American. Today, as we see hate groups on the rise, we must be vigilant not to let the mistakes of our past be repeated.

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is 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. This episode of Talking Hoosier History was adapted from “Integrity on the Gridiron,” three original posts written by IHB historian Jill Weiss Simins for the Indiana History Blog. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thank you to Justin Clark for lending his voice to today’s episode. We’ll be back in two weeks with an episode of Giving Voice, where I’ll be talking with Indiana University historian and author of the new book, The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, Dr. James Madison. In the meantime, find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Show Notes for Notre Dame Tackles the Klan

Learn about the Indianapolis Times crusade against the Klan with this episode of Talking Hoosier History. 

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part One: Opposition to the Klan at Notre Dame,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-one-notre-dame-opposition-to-the-klan/ 

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Two: Notre Dame’s 1924 Football Team Battles Klan Propaganda,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-two/

Jill Weiss Simins, “Integrity on the Gridiron Part Three: The Notre Dame Publicity Campaign that Crushed the Klan,” Indiana History Blog, https://blog.history.in.gov/integrity-on-the-gridiron-part-three-the-notre-dame-publicity-campaign-that-crushed-the-klan/

James Madison, “The Klan’s Enemies Step Up, Slowly,” Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 116, No. 2 (June 2020), p. 93-120, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/indimagahist.116.2.01?seq=1

Unlearning Ingrained Racism: Journalist Esther Griffin White’s Work to Become an Antiracist

Esther Griffin White, ca. 1915, Esther Griffin White Collection, Earlham College Archives, accessed George T. Blakey, “Esther Griffin White: An Awakener of Hoosier Potential,” Indiana Magazine of History 86, no. 3 (September 1990): 294-299, accessed scholarworks.iu.edu.

Esther Griffin White was a woman before her time—outspoken, rebellious, and willing to stake her reputation on the things that she believed in during an era when women were considered second-class citizens. Her Quaker upbringing imparted the importance of racial and gender equality, causes that she ultimately championed throughout her life. Her staunch political activism and dedication to gender equality throughout her life are, arguably, what she is most known for today. However, she also used her power, privilege, and platform as a white, middle-class, female journalist to speak out against racial injustice. Here, as we examine White’s writing, we clearly see someone trying to make sense of her own ingrained racism while at the same time standing up and speaking out against it.

Born in 1869 in Richmond, Indiana, White was a journalist, political activist, suffragist, and life-long Indiana resident. She began her writing career for the Richmond Palladium as an arts and culture critic and published her own paper (though infrequently) called The Little Paper, which she owned and operated out of her home at 110 South 9th Street. From the 1890s to 1944, she freelanced for many Richmond papers, often transferring from publication to publication as editors worried that her blunt and adversarial writing style could offend readers—likely a concern born partially out of sexism.

Clipping, Indianapolis Sun, 1913, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, If Chorus Girls Asked Men For Suffrage, They’d Get it, Box 5, Folder 4, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

White joined the Indiana Woman’s Franchise League in the early 1900s and was elected chairman of the Publicity Committee in 1916. While in the League, she began actively working towards the cause she wrote so much about; for example, she organized a suffrage street rally for several suffrage speakers in June 1916 in Richmond. This event was heralded as “one of the largest street meetings ever held in Richmond and the first suffrage meeting of its character held in eastern Indiana.”[1]

White was also a politician, running for mayor of Richmond in 1921, 1925, and again in 1938. She also ran for a Republican congressional seat in 1926, making her the first Indiana woman to seek U.S. congressional office. White ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress again in 1928, but to no avail. According to historian George T. Blakey, White was the first Hoosier woman to have her name on an official election ballot, before women even had the right to vote, when she ran for a delegate’s seat at the 1920 Republican State Convention.[2] Though White never held elected office, her ambition sent a strong message—that women could and should be recognized as political actors and that, as far as White was concerned, would no longer accept anything less.

Clipping, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, Name of Item, Box #, Folder #, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

While she is probably best known for her work to advance women’s rights, she was also a proponent of racial equality and used her journalistic platform to speak about racial issues in the town of Richmond, Indiana throughout the first half of the 1900s. An active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), White’s opinions on and support of African Americans garnered plenty of scorn and judgment in her small, rural town—especially because she was a single white woman.[3] Never one to care about others’ opinions of her, White used her talent, privilege, and position as a white female journalist to speak out against racial discrimination. Through her editorials and opinion pieces in both The Richmond Palladium and her self-published newspaper, The Little Paper, between 1910 and 1920, White condemned white supremacy and racial discrimination. Though she often wrote antiracist sentiment, on occasion her choice of words and arguments were in themselves racist—as she often touted common assimilationist and segregationist points of view. Through her published articles, we see the ways in which White grappled with her own ingrained and unconscious racism as she worked to be (what we call today) an antiracist in 20th-Century Richmond, Indiana.

Professor of history and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, explains the relationship between antiracist, assimilationist, and segregationist beliefs:

the history of the racialized world is a three-way fight between assimilationists, segregationists, and antiracists. Antiracists ideas are based in the truth that racial groups are equals in all the ways that they are different, assimilationist ideas are rooted in the notion that certain racial groups are culturally or behaviorally superior, and segregationist ideas spring from a belief in genetic racial distinction and fixed hierarchy.[4]

We find representations of each of these ideals, often within the same article, throughout White’s analysis of race. Though we understand that racial inferiority or superiority does not exist—all races are the same and race itself is a construct—we too understand that many people across time, and still today, have used pieces of assimilationist and segregationist ideas in their defense of equal treatment of the races. These racist ideas are so deeply ingrained in our societies that, although plenty of racist people have used them intentionally, plenty of others, like White, who believed in equality between the races, also sometimes unknowingly peddled racist beliefs.[5]

White was, as were some of her well-known contemporaries, engaging in the work to become an antiracist and to communicate antiracist ideas, while also at times touting assimilationist and segregationist ideas, which were prevalent views in terms of race in nineteenth and twentieth century America, and even today. However, highlighting White’s racist tendencies is not to discredit any of the antiracist beliefs she so clearly held—it is simply to be completely transparent about the reality of this type of work and the people engaged in it. She was not a perfect antiracist, but she was trying—she was standing up for what she believed in and, through her journalism, speaking on ideas of racial equality when it was not only unpopular to do so, especially for a woman, but potentially dangerous.

The last years of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century in America saw a rise in violence against African Americans by white supremacists looking to quell any power or rights the group received in the years after the Civil War.[6] The violence emerged, most horrifically, in the form of mob violence and lynchings, many of which were not hidden events done in the dark of the night, but rather public spectacles that often doubled as picnics for families and town folk.[7] Though the majority of lynchings occurred in the South, this barbaric act transcended regional lines and can be found nationwide. Mobs throughout the Hoosier state alone murdered at least sixty-six people between 1858 and 1930, eighteen of whom were African Americans.[8] Black men were not the only targets of lynchings, as Native American, Hispanic, Asian, white people, and women and children too were lynched across the United States.

Esther’s Quaker family (L to R): Winifred White Emory (sister), Mary Caroline Cotton White (mother), Esther Griffin White, undated, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, Letter From Raymond White, box 6, folder 1, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

There were no recorded lynchings in Richmond, perhaps because of its large Quaker community and the anti-slavery beliefs they held.[9] The closest recorded lynching to Richmond occurred in Blountsville, about thirty miles northwest of the city, in February of 1890.[10] However, the possibility of such violence constantly lingered in the minds of Black Americans. These conditions at the turn of the twentieth century prompted Esther Griffin White, as a white, female journalist to speak out against the unjust treatment of African Americans.

In one of her most notable articles pertaining to race, written in her self-published The Little Paper, White expressed disdain for the depiction of African Americans in the blockbuster hit of the early twentieth century, The Birth of a Nation. This controversial film released on February 8, 1915 by D.W. Griffith claimed to represent the Civil War and Reconstruction in America. However, it depicted the Ku Klux Klan as the valiant saviors of the ravaged, post-war South by freed, barbaric Black people. The film was a commercial hit and helped to rekindle the once regional Ku Klux Klan founded in 1865. It depicted freed Black Americans as “uncouth, intellectually inferior and predators of white women.”[11] The Birth of a Nation prompted protests by the NAACP, but they had little impact as the films’ popularity was so wide. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson showed it at the White House, heralding it as “writing history with lightning.”[12]

"The Birth of a Nation" by Esther Griffin White
Clipping from “African American Relations” exhibit, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

While she found the musical score and the general cinematography of the film noteworthy, Esther Griffin White did not share the same fervor over the film as President Wilson and so many other white Americans. In her newspaper review of the film, titled “’The Birth of a Nation’ Insidious Appeal to Race Prejudice, An Insult to Negro Citizens,” White writes that “colored people are justified, without any shadow of doubt, in their protest against the second part of ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” She continued, “the play is merely a dramatization of a novel by a well-known fire-eating Southern writer, who has done more to rake up old scores, to intensify class hatred, to accentuate race antagonism by his lurid pictures of conditions long since passed away than any other one medium in the United States.”[13] Here, we see White expressing contempt for the bestial, racist depiction of Black Americans in the film. She also adds:

The second part of ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ if it were looked upon as picture commentary on a phase of the country’s history, might be interesting. But the presentation is not made for this reason. On the other hand neither is it made for the glorification of a lost cause. Its raison d’etre is not philanthropic nor moral nor historic. But commercial…[it] is a business proposition. To make money for its producers.[14]

White seems to clarify here that she does not believe the film to be historically accurate or looking to start a conversation about the country’s past, but rather inflammatory and insulting to African American citizens: “the Negro citizen of this country was sacrificed to  make a moving picture holiday, so to speak. The glaringness of the sop thrown to them by the scenes at the end . . . is laughable if it were not sardonic.”[15] This review of The Birth of the Nation was certainly not the first, nor the last, public condemnation White would make regarding the treatment of African American citizens in the twentieth century.

In one of her earliest political articles from December 1911 in the Richmond Palladium, White writes about the idea of brotherhood and humanity among all people, and the exclusion of African Americans from those ideals. In her article “Negroes Pay Taxes on Millions,” White writes, “take our colored friends, in instance. ‘Live and let live,’ does not apply to our [white Americans’] attitude toward them. We push them clear outside of the limits and then denounce them if they resent total excommunication.”[16] While it seems here that White is arguing for the indiscriminatory inclusion of African Americans within American society and against segregation, further on in the article she begins arguing for more Black organizations to be formed in Richmond for Black residents, like a “colored” Y.M.C.A. for the “well behaved, educated and ambitious young colored men in this city.”[17] Rather than arguing for inclusion and accessibility, it seems White instead argued for the racist separate but equal doctrine we see come to a head in the 1890s with the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case in response to African American’s push for equal treatment and opportunity under the law.

Clipping, Richmond Palladium, December 6, 1911, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

She continued, “they [Black Americans] are just as much a part of the social, economic and political life of the community as their paler-hued brothers and unless given some consideration will develop into a complicated and puzzling problem. . . . They are citizens of this country just as are the whites.”[18] This perfectly illustrates White’s struggle with the idea of dueling consciousness as it relates to assimilationist and antiracist ideas. At the end of the article, White argues that “there is no use retiring into the fastness of race prejudice and lumping all of the colored people together. There are as many grades and distinctions as there are among the white people.” This comment, as well as many of the other antiracist sentiments White expressed throughout this article, demonstrate her ability to understand and express the antiracist notion that all races are the same—it is individual distinctions that make humans different—distinctions that have nothing to do with the color of their skin. This article, as a whole, demonstrates her own dueling consciousness as a white woman trying to pursue an antiracist mindset and advocating for antiracist policies while also struggling to unlearn deeply rooted racist ideals in the early twentieth century.

The very next month, in January of 1912, White was much more explicit about her views of racism. In her article, while arguing generally for universal gender and racial equality as it pertains to voting and citizenship, White laments:

Why, in instance, “call names.” Why say “niggers,” “dagoes,” “shenies.” Why arrogate yourself a certain superiority because you have a white skin. Who made the “earth and the fullness thereof”? How do you know who got here first? Who are you, anyway? In a few years you will be turned over to the worms who make no distinction between black or white, man or woman, good or bad, educated or uneducated, yellow or red, brown or copper. Neither God nor the worms care what your color may be, your race or your previous condition of servitude. There is nothing so immoral as thinking you are better than anyone else.[19]

In this article, perhaps her most antiracist, White does not allude to any racist or assimilationist ideals. As can be noted in the excerpt above, she completely disdains any ideology that espouses the belief that one’s skin color makes them any different.

Esther Griffin White, undated, Friends Collection and Earlham College Archives, Esther Griffin White, Box 6, Folder 1, Esther Griffin White Collection, Richmond, Indiana, accessed https://exhibits.earlham.edu/.

Just a few months after the above article, White wrote another piece for the Richmond Palladium titled “It Is True You Can’t Always Tell.” In this article, White builds on her antiracist views and highlights an experience she had a few weeks prior while attending a concert in Richmond. She noted how wonderful the musical act performed by a group of male musicians was and that “they were, indeed, one of the best ‘attractions’ the vaudeville theatre has ever had.” [20] She continued that many of the spectators thought them Italian, as they sang many of their songs in Italian, or perhaps Spanish, because they were dressed as troubadours, but that they were in fact African American. This, White argued, proved that “race prejudice is frequently only a matter of thinking” and that “people were delighted with [the musicians]—not because they were Italians or Spaniards, white Americans or of the Negro race, but because they were superior musicians.”[21]

Here, White is arguing that race prejudice and racism are not logical —they are both only a matter of warped thinking. The musicians were not loved and celebrated because of their prescribed race, but simply because they were talented. White continued, “it is one of life’s famed tragedies that these people should have to masquerade, after a fashion, in order to have their talents appreciated for what they really were.”[22]

Looking back at Esther Griffin White’s life reveals many things about her as a person, which can generally be boiled down to one sentiment: she was unapologetically her own person and used her power, privilege, and platform as a white, middle-class, female journalist to speak out against injustices. Through White’s articles, we clearly see someone trying to process her own ingrained racism while at the same time speaking out against it. That is essentially what happens when engaging in antiracist work. White did not always say or do the right things when it came to her antiracism work, but one can trust in her intentions and hope that she learned from her mistakes. Ultimately, her fearless condemnation of injustice in early-twentieth century Richmond should inspire us all, perhaps now more than ever, to stand up and speak out for what is right, even if it is unpopular.

Notes:

[1] “Suffrage Street Talks Draw Large Audience, Women State Their Purpose,” Richmond Palladium, June 27, 1916, 1, 11, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[2] George T. Blakey, “Esther Griffin White: An Awakener of Hoosier Potential,” Indiana Magazine of History 86, no. 3 (September 1990): 294-299, accessed scholarworks.iu.edu.

[3] Blakey, 286.

[4] Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), 31.

[5] So common was the dance between antiracist and assimilationist ideas for people that well-known Black author and activist W.E.B. Du Bois wrestled with them. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois’ 1903 essay, he expressed the dueling consciousness that demonstrates the fight between assimilationist and antiracist ideas, specifically for Black folk: “One never feels his twoness…an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”[5] Although Du Bois, as a Black man, had disproportionately different experiences than White did as a white woman, we see a similar push and pull between assimilationist and antiracist ideas in his defense of African American’s racial equality that we do in White’s writings.

[6] Michael J. Pfeiffer, Lynching Beyond Dixie: American Mob Violence Outside of the South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 1.

[7] Pfeiffer, 4. The more secretive, hidden lynchings would occur in the latter half of the twentieth century, often carried out by secretive groups like the KKK and often shrouded as “hate crimes” rather than what they were. It was middle-class southerners’ embarrassment at the newfound spotlight anti-lynching activists like Ida B. Wells were putting on the barbaric practice that drove it underground in the mid-twentieth century. In some areas, like the Midwest and West, public lynchings would continue into the mid-twentieth century.

[8] Pfeiffer, 9.

[9] “Early Black Settlements by County,” Research Materials, Indiana Historical Society, accessed indianahistory.org.

[10] Ibid., 1.

[11] Alexis Clark, “How ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Revived the Ku Klux Klan,” History Channel, accessed history.com.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Esther Griffin White, “‘The Birth of a Nation’ Insidious Appeal to Race Prejudice, An Insult to Negro Citizens,” The Little Paper, February 19, 1920, 1, accessed Earlham.edu.

[14] Ibid., 1.

[15] Ibid., 1.

[16] Esther Griffin White, “Negroes Pay Taxes on Millions,” Richmond Palladium, December 6, 1911, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[17] Ibid., 7.

[18] Ibid., 7.

[19] Esther Griffin White, “It Don’t Take Long When You’re a King,” Richmond Palladium, January 24, 1912, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[20] Esther Griffin White, “It Is True You Can’t Always Tell,” Richmond Palladium, February 21, 1912, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[21] Ibid., 6.

[22] Ibid., 6.

Hearth & Hardship: How Hoosiers Have Adapted Thanksgiving Celebrations and Recipes

Indianapolis Recorder, November 23, 1929, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

“The Long Distance Telephone is the Modern Thanksgiving Greeting:” this 1929 Indiana Bell Telephone Co. advertisement will certainly resonate with Hoosiers, who are finding alternative ways to spend the holidays during the pandemic. The ad continues—and we relate—”Distances, however, and the press of modern affairs sometimes seek to rob us” of the mouthwatering aromas of Grandma’s kitchen. Fortunately, the #telephone “takes our voices quickly and easily to the home folks whenever they are, and leaves lasting impressions of thoughtfulness and occasion for real Thanksgiving.”

Despite the stock market having just crashed, Americans in 1929 kept traditions alive and counted their blessings. While 2020 celebrations will look different in many Hoosier households, we thought we would look back at some of the recipes shared in the pages of historic Indiana newspapers, especially those published during periods of hardship. But before you get to cooking, be sure to pick up some skillets, pie dishes, and perhaps some nut crackers (to keep greedy fingers at bay) from Vonnegut’s.

Perhaps bespeaking the tension felt in households across the nation during the Great Depression, Jean Allen told the tale of one woman, who was grateful that Thanksgiving came only once a year (Muncie Star Press, November 17, 1934, 8). The woman “gave each of her children a sound spanking, tucked them in bed, and sat down to plan her Christmas dinner.” Mindful of these struggles, Allen crafted menus that would “save you a lot of work, worry, and wear and tear,” with a focus on “goodness” and cost.

Jean Allen, Muncie Star Press, November 17, 1934, 8.

If Allen’s recipes aren’t your persuasion, check out this  1935 issue of the African American newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder, which featured all cranberry everything, from tapioca to ice.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 30, 1935, 6.

Just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor plunged Americans into World War II, the Indianapolis Recorder noted that during a “New Deal Thanksgiving,” it was understandable that “some of us didn’t get right into the spirit of it.” Nonetheless, one could take a decorative page from those who did, bestowing their dinner table with lace and yellow chrysanthemums or perhaps a combination of fruit, apples leaves, and red, gold, and white placards.

The following year, the Recorder noted that there was much to be thankful for “in a world and season of great distress,” as Americans were “confronted presently with obligations and sacrifices to be made in prosecuting the war.” While it was natural to despair, and to worry that next year’s Thanksgiving could require even more sacrifices and rationing, the author wrote “the American people generally have enjoyed an abundance of the comforts or luxuries of life not realized by other peoples of the world. We have taken the needs or desires of our daily life as a matter of course.” Bowed over steaming plates, Hoosiers likely prayed for the safety of their sons, uncles, aunts, brothers, and sisters overseas.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 21, 1942, 5.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 21, 1942, 5.
Kokomo Tribune, November 21, 1938, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.

A seasoned procrastinator? The Kokomo Tribune has you covered with some last minute recipes. But before digging in, be mindful of Dr. C.C. Robinson’s suggestions. He advised readers in 1923, via the Muncie Evening Post, to “Remember that cheerfulness is a most necessary asset for enjoying a real meal. If your wife has invited someone who doesn’t agree with your idea on the League of Nations, don’t forget to carry on with a smile just the same. It helps the liver secretions.” Sound advice, in these polarized times. However, we have to disagree with his warning “Don’t think you have to eat everything.” After sampling the fare, be sure to compliment the chef, as it “may make her heart beat a little faster or increase the blood pressure for the time being.”

If you’re looking for a way to use up some of leftover turkey—once the tryptophan wears off, of course—this issue of the South Bend News-Times serves up several ideas.


Indianapolis Recorder, November 23, 1929, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

While this year’s Turkey Day feels a little different, these articles show that historically Americans have adapted to hardship, while retaining a sense of gratitude. Whether you’re making a meal for those closest to you or daydreaming of next year’s meal, we hope you have enjoyed exploring Thanksgiving recipes from years past. Search for more recipes using Newspapers.com. and Hoosier State Chronicles, which provides free access to over 1.1 million pages of newspapers spanning 216 years.

*Additional research provided by Lindsey Beckley.