*This post was written by IUPUI Public History graduate student Molly Hollcraft.
Often, stories and memories play an important part in understanding history. They offer a human element that helps connect people to one another. W. Todd Groce wrote in an article for History News that “Memory is deeply emotional,” and when people remember something they do so because they have a connection to it. According to historian David Thelen, memory “can illuminate how individuals, ethnic groups, political parties, and cultures shape and reshape their identities.” In 2009, at the age of 98, Black activist Pearl Cannon Bassett gave an interview to a student at the University of Southern Indiana. In the interview, she recounted events related to civil rights and desegregation that she witnessed while living in Marion, Indiana. Bassett’s memories of the discrimination and Civil Rights Movement in Grant County illuminate how Black citizens in Marion shaped their identity.
Peal Bassett and Civil Rights
Pearl Elizabeth Cannon Bassett was born April 28, 1911, in Marion, Indiana. Aside from the years she spent in Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois, Pearl Bassett, also known to many as “Ms. Pearl,” spent her life in Marion. In her oral history interview, Bassett briefly talked about her early education and her family. She recalled how her teacher lowered her grade because it was “too high.” While she was not living in Marion at the time, she recalled the impact the 1930 Marion lynching had on the local Black community. As a 19-year-old, she would have been about the same age as victims Tom Shipp and Abe Smith. In August, the young men had been jailed for the murder of Claude Deeter and rape of Mary Ball. A white mob ripped Shipp and Smith from their cells, brutally beat them, and lynched them near the Marion courthouse. Fearing for her safety, Bassett’s family told her that she should not return home yet. When the National Guard was called into action in Marion not long after the lynching, some of the soldiers were standing in her family’s yard. In remembering the lynching, she said “that was terrible because we had a lot of discrimination.” Shortly after the tragedy, she became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Through organizations like the NAACP, Bassett became an active member in the Marion community and helped fight discrimination and segregation. Her name appeared frequently in the African American newspaper TheIndianapolis Recorder for these efforts. Her work included how helping the Red Cross reach its quota for war relief, serving as chairman for the war service commission, and serving as a board member for the Carver Community Center. In her interview, Bassett talked about how she helped organize the NAACP Auxiliary, Women in NAACP, and the Urban Gild, all of which would play a role in desegregation efforts throughout the city.
She also described the discrimination that Black citizens in Marion faced because of segregated of swimming pools, such as Matter Park. Before its 1954 integration, African Americans had to travel to Anderson to swim. When they did get to swim in the Marion pools they would be drained and refilled afterwards. While it is unclear how directly Bassett was involved in these efforts, it is certainly possible as she was a member of the Marion Urban League, one of the two civil rights organizations that worked to desegregate the swimming pool.
We do know that she participated in anti-discrimination efforts through civil disobedience, as she stated: “When we could not go into the restaurant and eat. . . we formed a committee, and we just read the civil rights law, which has always been right. . . . And if they didn’t open up the place, when they were charged $100 a person in their restaurant. So they opened it up the day we walked in there.”
She also joined an NAACP march in 1969, recalling “We first had the walk from 26th Street to the courthouse for discrimination and equal opportunities for people and jobs. And it was a wonderful thing.” The Ku Klux Klan tried unsuccessfully to confront them at the courthouse, but were told by the city that “they would need a permit and that they [the KKK] would have to take their hoods off.” This was not the only experience that Pearl Bassett had with the Klan. While president of one of the many organizations she was involved in, she received a call from the Klan members. She said, “Many a time they told me they were coming out and burn up my house.”
While in the NAACP, The Indianapolis Recorder reported in the 1960s that Bassett was elected secretary and chaplain for the Marion branch. Bassett was also the President of Women and “wore her tiara as the state queen of the NAACP” during a visit to Kokomo in 1982. She was also the first Black secretary of the Democratic Committee in Grant County. Pearl Bassett also received numerous awards from the NAACP and The Fort Wayne Frost Illustrated reported in 2004 that she received the Region Three Rosa Parks Women of the Year award for her work in civil rights. The Mayor of Marion made a Proclamation for Pearl Bassett Day and gave her a key to the city. In June 2021, Pearl Bassett passed away at the age of 110. Her first-hand accounts help humanize tragic events and shape the identity of Black citizens in Grant County. Her documented memories are invaluable because traditional media often mischaracterized or neglected to record minority history.
Sherman Minton’s willingness to find flexibility in the law and his own thinking helped end state-sanctioned discrimination toward African Americans in housing, employment, and education. Considering his rigid stance on judicial restraint, Minton’s reformist civil rights record is surprising at first glance. He believed that Congress, not the courts, should define the country’s laws. As an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1949-1956, Minton invariably deferred to both congressional and judicial precedent, opposing activism by the Court. A closer look at his role in several landmark desegregation cases shows how Minton was able to stretch precedent in order to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice. His much-lauded judicial opinion on Barrows v. Jackson, the Supreme Court decision that ended discriminatory housing covenants, is particularly relevant. Today, much work remains to fully end discriminatory policies that create disparity in income and living conditions for millions of Black Americans, a sort of de facto segregation that lingers more than sixty years after these Civil Rights Era desegregation cases. The civil rights work of Sherman Minton is worth considering here, if for no other reason, because it remains unfinished.
Young Minton, better known as “Shay,” was a troublemaker. Born in Georgetown, Indiana, in 1890, he had to work from a young age to help support his struggling family. Yet, he somehow still found the energy to knock neighbors hats off with snowballs or loosen a wheel on his brother’s wagon, causing it to fall off and ruin his date. While Minton may have been rambunctious in his spare time, he was a serious student with a love of learning. He graduated from New Albany High School in 1910 and worked a series of jobs before enrolling at Indiana University in 1911.
At IU, Minton excelled in football, baseball, and debate. He took two years of undergraduate classes before entering the IU School of Law, graduating with a Bachelor of Laws in 1915. He then won a scholarship to Yale University School of Law where he earned his Master of Laws degree in 1916. While at Yale, Minton came under the tutelage of former President William Howard Taft, who himself would go on to serve as a Supreme Court justice (the only president to boast this accomplishment). Reportedly, after Shay argued with Taft over a lesson about a certain Supreme Court ruling, Taft told his student:
I’m afraid, Mr. Minton, that if you don’t like the way this law has been interpreted, you will have to get on the Supreme Court and change it.
Minton would later take the former president up on this suggestion.
Upon graduation from Yale, Minton set up a law practice in New Albany. Soon after, the United States entered WWI and Minton immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army. He was commissioned as an infantry officer, trained at Fort Benjamin Harrison, and sent overseas in July of 1918 where he served on the French front.
After returning from war, Minton entered the Democratic primary to seek a congressional Senate seat. While he was unsuccessful in this 1920 election, he would remain active or interested in Democratic Party politics his entire life. For the following decade, he practiced law before making another unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1930. During the 1930s, he became even more politically active, campaigning for Paul McNutt in the 1932 gubernatorial race. After McNutt was elected, the new governor rewarded Minton with his first public office, appointing him public counselor to the Public Service Commission. Minton began his work March 8, 1933, representing the public against utilities companies, and securing rate reductions in hundreds of cases.
In 1934, Minton again ran for Congress on a platform of staunch support for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. That November 6th, Indiana voters finally sent Minton to Washington. He took his seat in the U.S. Senate next to future President Harry Truman in January 1935.
Minton would serve only one term in Congress, but the experience influenced his later judicial positions. As a member of a committee that investigated utility companies, he helped break up monopolies, work he would later continue from the bench. He was a vocal critic of the Supreme Court decisions that declared several New Deal policies unconstitutional, establishing his long-held view that the Court shouldn’t overturn the will of the people as expressed through their elected officials. And he became a spokesman for the administration, explaining complicated issues (like Roosevelt’s court packing plan) in plain language, a strength he would later bring to his written judicial opinions.
When it came to increasing or strengthening the rights of African Americans, he was swayed neither by the administration nor legislative precedent. Instead, Minton took a moral stand for civil rights. For example, he broke with the administration’s lack of action against lynching by advocating for anti-lynching legislation throughout his term. When opponents to a 1938 anti-lynching bill claimed that the states should regulate lynching, not Congress, Minton noted that there had been eight lynchings the previous year and none were prosecuted. “In other words,” Minton told his fellow senators, “there was 100 percent failure to prosecute the most heinous crime.” He finished with a moral argument for legislative interference to stop lynching, stating:
I am interested in State rights, but I am much more interested in human rights.
Minton was again nominated for his Senate seat in 1940, but lost as the Republican Party swept the Indiana elections. Recognizing his service to the Democratic Party and the administration, in January 1941, President Roosevelt made Minton his administrative assistant. Soon a position on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, a busy federal court located in Chicago, opened, and FDR nominated Minton for this prestigious judgeship. On May 7, 1941, the Senate confirmed the nomination and that October Minton joined the Seventh Circuit bench. 
The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard a large number of cases and Minton wrote his share of opinions and dissents in his eight years on the bench in Chicago. Yet, even drawing on this large sample of cases, it can be difficult to understand his judicial philosophy. He seems full of contradictions at times.
An ardent New Dealer, Minton believed the government was responsible for improving the lives of its citizens, which included protecting consumers. Thus, Minton often decided against corporations engaging in monopolistic practices and usually decided for the rights of labor unions. However, it was the greater good of the majority of citizens that moved Minton, not necessarily the rights of individuals. Thus, he often decided in favor of government agencies at the expense of individual rights. This was especially true when the decision could potentially impact national security. Perhaps this is not surprising considering for much of his time on the Seventh Circuit bench, the world was at war and many in the United States feared both foreign and domestic enemy agents.
Minton was dedicated to judicial restraint and upholding legislative intent – two sides of the same coin. In other words, Minton believed that the courts should not overturn congressional legislation which was the will of the people made law. This dovetails with his interest in protecting the rights of the majority. By deferring to Congress, Minton believed he was deferring to the people of the United States who elected the congressmen. But in cases of individual freedoms, his position sometimes put him out of step with his colleagues who saw an opportunity to expand civil liberties through their decisions. Minton was not opposed to increased civil liberties, he just believed that such issues were under the purview of Congress, not the courts. He would adhere to this view as he ascended to the nation’s highest court.
In September 1949, President Harry Truman nominated Sherman Minton, his old friend from their years in the Senate, for the Supreme Court of the United States. Minton was confirmed and took his place on the bench that October. As an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Minton maintained his general position of restraint, tendency to side with legislative precedent and the administration against individuals, and his disinclination to overturn the rulings of state courts. Despite this determination, Minton maintained a consistently strong, activist position when it came to civil rights issues, especially desegregation, as evidenced by landmark cases such as McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents, Sweatt v. Painter, Brown v. Board of Education, and Barrows v. Jackson.
On June 5, 1950, the Supreme Court decided both McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents and Sweatt v. Painter. These cases overturned the “separate but equal” precedent of Plessy v. Ferguson with the Court unanimously deciding that, at the level of graduate school and law school, segregation denied Black students equal educational opportunities, violating their Fourteenth Amendment rights to “equal protection of the laws.” Referring to the separate areas where a Black student was forced to eat and study, Chief Justice Fred Vinson wrote in the Court opinion:
Such restrictions impair and inhibit his ability to study, to engage in discussions and exchange views with other students, and, in general, to learn his profession . . . State imposed restrictions which produce such inequalities cannot be sustained.
These cases provided precedent for the Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. In this historic case, the Court determined that, like the earlier cases dealing with higher education, segregation in public schools also violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In short, the justices determined that there was no such thing as “separate but equal” education. In his opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:
We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.
Chief Justice Warren felt that an unanimous decision was essential in Brown in order to convey to the public that the Court was taking a moral as well as a constitutional stand against segregation and that the issue was now decided unequivocally. Imparting that moral argument in the opinion for Brown, Justice Warren wrote:
To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.
Legal historians Linda Gugin and James St. Clair argued that Sherman Minton played a vital role in making these decisions unanimous. The scholars called him “the Court’s strongest team player” because of the warm personal relationships he fostered with his colleagues. Minton was reportedly the only justice welcome in every one of their offices. He regularly organized group lunches and made sure to express his respect for his fellow justices when he dissented from their opinions. It was, therefore, quite possible that Minton was able to convey the importance of a united front on the Brown decision to his undecided colleagues.
Because the opinions in the aforementioned cases were written by the Chief Justice (Vinson for the 1950 cases and Warren in 1954), it is impossible to definitively analyze Minton’s impact on the decisions. However, in the 1953 case of Barrows v. Jackson, Minton penned the Court’s opinion, allowing us a rare opportunity to dissect his thinking and interpret his own views on segregation and civil rights. To summarize the complicated case of Barrows v. Jackson briefly, the white neighbors of Los Angeles resident Leola Jackson were suing her for damages after she sold her house to African American buyers. This sale violated the neighborhood’s “restrictive property covenant,” a clause forbidding the sale of property in the neighborhood to non-white buyers.
In the 1948 case Shelley v. Kraemer, the Supreme Court had ruled that while private discrimination was not unconstitutional, state courts could not enforce restrictive covenants because this would constitute state action in discrimination. Such state involvement would violate the State Action Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which affirms that “a state cannot make or enforce any law that abridges the privileges or immunities of any citizen.” In other words, white people were free to discriminate against African Americans by refusing to sell them homes in segregated neighborhoods, but the courts could not enforce such segregation or it would be the state itself that was discriminating against African Americans, which was unconstitutional.
White supporters of segregated neighborhoods quickly identified a weakness to exploit in the Shelley decision – the issue of damages. Was it legal for white home owners to sue for damages when their restrictive covenants were violated? If so, this blatant attempt to intimidate white sellers into not selling to Black buyers would make the spirit of Shelley, which was intended to end covenants, null and unenforceable. The Barrowsv. Jackson case would decide if state-sanctioned segregated neighborhoods could continue.
Minton’s decision in Barrows v. Jackson drew on this idea of state action as defined in Shelley and expanded it to finally end restrictive covenants for good. This required an advanced understanding of the technical aspects involved in the case, as well as a morally-based desire to end injustice in housing for African Americans. In order to end the unjust covenant practice, Minton had to engage in some complex legal maneuvering and creative use of precedent.
The first issue Minton addressed in his majority opinion in Barrowsv. Jackson was a relatively straightforward application of the “state action” determination in the Shelley decision. He argued that if the state were to award damages to Jackson’s neighbors for her violation of the covenant, this would constitute “state action.” This would then violate the Fourteenth Amendment State Action Clause.
The major legal challenge Minton resolved with his opinion, was that of the petitioners’ attempt to circumvent Shelley altogether. The white petitioners were not suing the Black buyers for damages, which would have made the discrimination obvious. They were suing the white seller. This was a carefully chosen legal strategy. Traditionally, the Court would not hear cases where the party being impacted, in this case discriminated against, was not present. The attorneys for the neighbors hoped that the case would be dismissed because the rights being violated were that of a third party (the Black buyers), who were not present in the courtroom. Here, Minton flipped the question. He asked the Barrows’ attorneys, “whose constitutional rights would be violated if California failed to award contract damages to the petitioners?” They had to reply “that no one’s rights would be violated.” So, where then was the damage? The petitioners would have to bring the racial issue into the courtroom if they were claiming some damage had been done in selling to a Black buyer.
Minton extended the Shelley decision to cover the missing third party issue by explaining that Jackson had a right to protect herself against the “coercion” of the petitioner. In short, the Shelley decision was intended to stop discrimination against African American buyers. If Jackson had to pay damages for violating the discriminatory covenant that Shelley had intended to invalidate then she would, in fact, be paying for failing to discriminate – a direct contradiction of the intent of Shelley. He determined that the interests of Jackson and the Black buyers were closely enough aligned that Jackson represented the buyers. Thus there was no missing third party and racial discrimination was the inherent issue.
Minton had little tolerance for the petitioners’ blatant attempt to circumvent the Shelley decision through such lawsuits aimed at technicalities. And he had no tolerance for continued discrimination against African Americans. He summed up his thinking eloquently and passionately in his written opinion:
The relation between the coercion exerted on respondent [Jackson] and her possible pecuniary loss thereby is so close to the purpose of the restrictive covenant to violate the constitutional rights of those discriminated against, that respondent is the only effective adversary of the unworthy covenant in its last stand. She will be permitted to protect herself and, by so doing, close the gap to the use of this covenant, so universally condemned by the courts.
Minton and his clerks cited several other cases, notably Pierce v. Society of Sisters, and wrote careful clauses further defining the third party issue. [See complete legal analysis here]. In summary, Minton closed the last loophole allowing restrictive covenants and state-sanctioned segregation. Legal scholars Gugin and St. Clair summarized the final decision thusly:
The court moved to make restrictive covenants virtually unenforceable in state courts by ruling that state courts cannot award damages when a restrictive covenant is violated because it is tantamount to the state itself discriminating on the basis of race, which it may not do under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Minton’s arguments as forwarded in his written opinion in Barrows v. Jackson may stand as his finest judicial moment. Gugin and St. Clair called it “Minton’s most memorable opinion” and noted that “he was praised in law review articles for his imaginative approach.” In fact, the Barrows decision has been classed among the most important desegregation events of the Civil Rights Era. Although Barrows determined that the state would not discriminate, de facto segregation continued.
In fact, neighborhoods remain segregated to this day. The real estate opportunities afforded white Americans and denied Black Americans in the 1950s helped widen the economic disparity between races. “White flight” from cities and government subsidies for suburbs have created new segregated neighborhoods. Zoning, housing codes, gentrification, and low-income housing areas have further separated economic classes, divided along racial lines. Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic further highlighted this disparity. More than twice as many Black Americans died as a result of “the inequitable living conditions, work circumstances, underlying conditions, and lower access to health care that characterize segregated neighborhoods.” According to the Brookings Institute:
Public policy and industry practice have produced a separate and unequal landscape of American neighborhoods, propagating multigenerational negative impacts on health, social mobility, and wealth for people of color as well as harmful divisions in our economy and society.
As the Supreme Court decided in the desegregation cases when Minton sat on the bench in the 1950s, there is no such thing as separate but equal. The work for equal rights for Black Americans and the perfection of the promises made in the United States Constitution continues.
1900 United States Federal Census, Georgetown Township, Floyd County, Indiana, page 8, line 36, Enumeration District: 0054; FHL microfilm: 1240371, Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.; “Twenty Pupils Suspended,” Plymouth Tribune, February 25, 1909, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.; Linda C. Gugin and James E. St. Clair, Sherman Minton: New Deal Senator, Cold War Justice (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1997), 38-44.
 “Indiana University Debaters Who Will Meet Illinois and Ohio Orators in Annual Contest,” Indianapolis News, March 13, 1913, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton, Star Half Appears on Field,” South Bend Tribune, November 19, 1913, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Bryan Prize is Awarded,” Indianapolis Star, April 9, 1914, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Lineup for Sunday’s Game,” Bloomington Evening World, April 23, 1915, 1, Newspapers.com.; “Medic and Law Graduate List,” Bloomington Evening World, May 28, 1915, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.
 “News of the Colleges,” Indianapolis News, September 29, 1915, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Enters Yale,” Bloomington Evening World, September 29, 1915, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; 1920 Alumni Directory of Yale University (New Haven: Yale University, 1920), 541, accessed HathiTrust.
 Gugin and St. Clair, 52.
 Sherman Minton Draft Registration Card, June 1, 1917, Floyd County, Indiana, Form 522, No. 46, U.S. World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.; “In Second Training Camp,” Indianapolis News, August 14, 1917, 3, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.; U.S. Army, Passenger List of Organizations and Casuals Returning to the United States, July 7, 1919, Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985; National Archives at College Park, Record Group 92, Roll or Box 125, U.S., Army Transport Service Arriving and Departing Passenger Lists, 1910-1939, accessed AncestryLibrary.com.
 “Soldier Announces His Candidacy for Congress,” Jasper Herald, December 5, 1919, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “J. W. Ewing Wins Third District Nomination,” Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, May 8, 1920, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.
 “Democrats to Open Campaign Sept. 18,” Seymour Daily Tribune, September 13, 1914, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Democratic Speakings Announced for County,” Brownstown Banner, September 17, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Sherman Minton Has Brilliant Record,” Jeffersonville Evening News, reprinted Jasper Herald, January 24, 1930, 4, accessed Newspapers.com; Sherman Minton, “To The Voters of Dubois Co,” Jasper Herald, May 16, 1930, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Democrats in Jasper Rally,” Bedford Daily Mail, October 15, 1930, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
 “Meeting Shows M’Nutt Backing,” Indianapolis Star, February 8, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “McNutt Meeting Set for Tonight,” Boonville Enquirer, April 29, 1932, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
 Ralph L. Brooks, “State’s Commerce-Industry Division Affects All Citizens,” Indianapolis Sunday Star, September 17, 1933, 57, accessed Newspapers.com.
 “Republicans Sweep City, County; Minton Beats Robinson in Race for Senate Seat,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, November 7, 1934, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Leads Lake Ticket,” Hammond Times, November 8, 1934, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Winner,” Boonville Enquirer, November 9, 1934, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.
 Gugin and St. Clair, Chapter Four: “Fulfilling His New Deal Promise.”
 “Senators Agree on One Point,” Muncie Evening Press,” August 6, 1937, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.; “May Use Anti-Lynch Bill in Filibuster,” Baltimore Sun, November 25, 1940, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.
 Congressional Record, 75th Congress, 3rd Session, 1938, vol. 83:2. 1931-45, cited in Gugin and St. Clair, 115.
 “Sherman Minton Is Named to Circuit Court of Appeals,” Muncie Evening Press, May 7, 1941, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Sworn In as U.S. Judge,” Indianapolis Star, May 31, 1941, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Induction Today,” Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1941, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Becomes U.S. Judge, Says Good-by, Politics,” Chicago Tribune, October 8, 1941, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.
 Gugin and St. Clair, Chapter Seven: “A Faithful Disciple of Judicial Restraint.”
 “Names Minton to High Court,” Terre Haute Tribune, September 15, 1949, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Is Confirmed for Court, 48 to 16,” New York Times, October 5, 1949, 1, accessed timesmachine.nytimes.com.; “Hoosier Sworn In As Supreme Court Justice,” Muncie Evening Press, October 12, 1949, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Minton Sworn In As Supreme Court Justice,” New York Times, October 13, 1949, 18, accessed timesmachine.nytimes.com.
 Supreme Court of the United States, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education et al., Decided June 5, 1950, 339 U.S. 637, Legal Information Institute.; Supreme Court of the United States, Sweatt v. Painter et al., Decided June 5, 1950, 339 U.S. 629, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.
 Supreme Court, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State.
 Supreme Court of the United States, Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al., Decided May 17, 1954, 347 U.S. 483, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.
 Gugin and St. Clair, 263.
 Supreme Court of the United States, Barrows et al. v. Jackson, Decided June 15, 1953, 346 U.S. 249, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.
 Supreme Court of the United States, Shelley et ux. v. Kraemer et ux. McGhee et ux. v. Sipes et al., Decided May 3, 1948, 334 U.S. 1, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School.
* See Part 1 to learn about the Allens’ work for equality in the judicial system and World War II employment.
When the clouds of World War II lifted, South Bend activists and attorneys J. Chester and Elizabeth Allen had achieved many of their professional and philanthropic goals. The couple, who had opened their own law firm in 1939, had uplifted the Black community by crafting legislation, organizing social programs, and creating jobs. But institutional oppression and immense personal loss that followed in the war’s wake appeared to test their marriage. In these modern times of social unrest and pandemic-related stress, we can draw strength from the Allens’ ability to not only weather personal tragedy and systemic discrimination, but serve their community.
As the early Atomic Era unfurled, J. Chester plunged back into his fight to fully desegregate South Bend’s Engman Natatorium. The effort had begun in the 1930s and resulted in the park board’s meager concession of allowing Black residents to swim a few hours per week, when white residents were not there. In 1950, J. Chester and a group of attorneys, including white lawyer Maurice Tulchinsky, appeared before the parks board to again make the case for integration. Seemingly racism cloaked in Cold War rhetoric, one board member told the men that Tulchinsky’s involvement hinted at communist impulses. J. Chester replied, “‘You don’t have to be a communist to defend equal rights, opportunities and treatment for all people under the law. The Constitution and Bill of Rights mandate it.'” Threatening to file suit unless board members agreed to end segregation entirely, the lawyers at last won their long fight for equality, likely with the aid of Elizabeth Allen.
Oral history interviews and secondary sources suggest that Elizabeth drew up the original complaint and advised behind the scenes, pointing out that African American taxpayers helped fund the pool and therefore deserved to use it. Her name does not appear on official documents, perhaps because she was still in law school or because the lawyers feared that her involvement as a Black woman could hurt the cause. If Tulchinsky was accused of working on behalf of the Communist Party, one can only imagine what nefarious influences board members would assign Elizabeth if she was involved in the effort publicly.
A series of interviews with the couple’s son, Dr. Irving Allen, bespeaks the constant frustration Elizabeth experienced from having to shelve her ambitions due to gender and familial norms and/or racial discrimination. In 1936, Elizabeth declared her candidacy for state representative, but withdrew, perhaps, because as interviewer David Healey suggested to Irving, she was “always overshadowed by circumstances” or “convinced that your father would have a better chance of winning.” Irving agreed that this sense of disappointment was probably compounded by the “loss and loneliness,” resulting from J. Chester’s absence while he served in the Indiana General Assembly between 1939 and 1941. Elizabeth could be “explosively judgmental” about J. Chester’s legislative efforts, accusing him of being too accommodating to white voters while campaigning. Perhaps this criticism stemmed partly from never having a chance to campaign for office herself.
Irving imagined the scrutiny she experienced as a Black female lawyer in South Bend during the “Dark Ages” of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. He remembered his mother coming home and criticizing local judges “who she just despised and felt mistreated by.” This likely included Circuit Judge Dan Pyle, who in May 1952 fined her for contempt of court during a hearing in which she served as counsel. The South Bend Tribune reported that the “woman attorney” was fined for refusing to “abide by his instruction to refrain from dictating a lengthy statement for the court record.” Pyle ruled her “out of order in the request and demanded that she be quiet.” Irving recalled the incident, saying “she took it racially and cursed him out basically . . . and ended up in jail. Daddy got her out and got the whole thing, I think, squashed.”
Institutionalized discrimination and the stressors of working in the public eye seemed to breed resentment that spilled over into their marriage. The Allen household, while loving, was also highly-charged, in part because Elizabeth and J. Chester diverged sharply when it came to political allegiance and temperament. Irving recalled, “you were never sure whether the issues were where the vitriol was coming from or whether it was personal stuff that was being argued out through the politics.” But from a young age, Irving learned to tune out his parents’ disagreements. He stated there was “often too much venom involved in the . . . arguments about politics or nuances of how black folks could best be served in South Bend or the country.”
In Irving’s opinion, his parents were incapable of relaxing and resetting, prioritizing the needs of others over themselves in their work with organizations like the NAACP and Hering House. He noted that money was another source of tension for the Allens. Although they were attorneys, systemic racism affected their success and often meant they didn’t get the “big” cases. Determined that their children would get a good education, efforts to save for college proved stressful due to the lack of lucrative cases.
Irving suspected that the “pressures of work had enormous bearing” on his mother’s “existence.” Of his parents, Elizabeth had a poorer “capacity to separate work from the rest of her life. . . . I would just imagine the shit she took. Must have been unimaginable . . . unimaginable. And where’s it gonna go? It’s probably gonna come home into the relationship with her husband.” It surely did not go unnoticed that newspaper articles referred to her husband as “Attorney J. Chester Allen” and her as “Mrs. J. Chester Allen,” despite being an accomplished attorney in her own right. Probably equally frustrating, Elizabeth was subjected to scrutiny about her appearance and mannerisms in a way her husband undoubtedly was not, exemplified by this 1950 South Bend Tribune description: “feminine, but brusque. She has a no-nonsense attitude that contradicts the ultra-feminine hat on her head.”
Despite the many obstacles Elizabeth had to overcome, she received public recognition in 1953, 1955, and 1960, when she served as Judge Protem, filling in on occasion when the city judge was absent. “Her Madame Honor” was likely the first woman to wield a gavel in South Bend’s courtrooms. While a temporary role, Irving believed that the appointment was symbolic, honoring her legal career. Elizabeth worked to carve out educational and career opportunities for other Black women, generally relegated to domestic service in that era. Recognizing that de facto segregation would endure despite the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, Elizabeth sprung into action, hosting an emergency meeting for the United Negro College Fund. She also worked to get Black women into her Alma Mater, Talladega College.
The Allens opened their house to Black Notre Dame students who had nowhere to stay due to discrimination and the housing shortage exasperated by World War II. Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that in the 1940s many black families were forced to crowd into one or two bedroom units in substandard buildings. Elizabeth had worked during WWII and post-war years to improve housing options and clear local slums because “delinquency and crime are resulting from sub-standard housing.” In the 1950s, J. Chester helped a group of Black Studebaker workers navigate discriminatory lending and real estate practices to form a building cooperative called “Better Homes of South Bend.”
By the middle of the decade, twenty-two families of the co-op had moved in along North Elmer Street and helped build a vibrant community, filled with activities like family cookouts, kickball, and building snowmen. Irving described a “haunting aspect of the Better Homes story.” Although they had “outstanding credentials as good citizens and an established law practice,” the Allens encountered difficulties purchasing a home of their own. Perhaps such discrimination led J. Chester to further leverage housing reform when he was elected the city’s first Black Councilman in 1959. He quickly got to work trying to prevent the displacement of Black families as new developments arose. As Councilman he also got more African American appointed in city government. One Indianapolis Recorder writer was optimistic that Allen’s “devotion to the law as the shield of liberty” would enable him to “protect the rights of minorities and at the same time guard the welfare of the majority.”
J. Chester’s and Elizabeth’s work served as a tide that lifted many boats in St. Joseph County. But the couple soon experienced a devastating personal blow. Their daughter, Sarah-whom Irving described as a “brilliant student” at Central High School-was awarded honors at Wellesley College, before attending Tennessee’s Fisk University. In 1960, the South Bend Tribune noted an “illness forced her to leave college.” She had since been working as a secretary at the family’s law practice and receiving psychiatric care in her hometown. Shortly before dinner at the Allens’ house one summer evening in 1963, the family discovered that she had died by suicide. Only 27-years-old, Sarah undoubtedly possessed the astuteness and determination of her parents, but suffered from the era’s limited treatment options for mental health issues. Days after her passing, loves ones paid their respects at the city’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. James and the city council passed a resolution expressing sympathy for the loss of Councilman Allen’s daughter.
One can only imagine the impact such a catastrophic event had on the family. Perhaps it contributed to the fragmentation of the Allen and Allen law firm, which Irving said “kind of came unglued” in the early part of the decade. It’s possible it was the trigger for Elizabeth’s own hospitalization in the 1960s. Surely it contributed to the 1965 South Bend Tribune announcement of the couple’s separation after 37 years of marriage. Ultimately, the Allens chose not to go through with the divorce, perhaps a testament to their tenacity and love.
Work and community uplift likely became a haven from grief for the African American couple. In the years after her daughter’s passing, Elizabeth seemed to focus on advocating for women. She served as legislative chairman of the 1964 National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, leading a workshop on “The Role of Business and Professional Women in the War on Poverty” at the organization’s annual meeting. Towards the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, Elizabeth served on the board of St. Joseph’s first Planned Parenthood clinic. According to Irving, his mother was a feminist before the term existed. She would “go to war over women divorcing or getting beaten up by their husbands,” but, being ahead of her time, she fought a war “without any constituents.” Nevertheless, she was “‘incredible example to women—black or white.'”
J. Chester poured himself into education equality as the first Black member of the South Bend school board of trustees in 1966. One editorial contended that he was an ideal representative of Black educational interests, citing his “Quick intelligence, independence of thought, hard work and a genuine affection for his home community.” He used his legal skills in 1967 to advocate for equality, appealing a verdict that ruled the Linden School building, a Black school, could safely reopen despite a classroom ceiling collapsing during the school day.
While continuing to grieve, sons Irving and J. Chester Allen, Jr. pursued their professional goals. Their parents were determined that they would attend East Coast schools because, Irving noted, Black Americans had to be “twice as good” as their white colleagues. He earned his medical degree at Boston University in 1965 and practiced psychiatry in Massachusetts. Like his parents, J. Chester Jr. beat the drum for equality, leading an NAACP march protesting the police force’s refusal to hire a Black officer. He told the South Bend Tribune, “‘Maybe we’ll fill up that jail of theirs until they get tired of seeing us in it and hire one of us to get rid of the rest of us.'”
Like his parents, J. Chester Jr. was able to break racial barriers; he was sworn in as St. Joseph County’s first Black Superior Court Judge in 1976. Three years after J. Chester Jr.’s historic achievement, his father passed away. The man who had apparently stumbled upon South Bend did much to even its playing field for minorities. Black residents were better educated, politically- and civically-empowered, financially stabler, and able to enjoy the city’s facilities because of his tireless efforts as an attorney and elected official.
Unfortunately, his son’s promising career was cut short in 1983. J. Chester Jr. died of natural causes on Christmas Day, the same day his father was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1900. Matriarch Elizabeth Allen was now a widower who had lost two children. But her life was never defined by tragedy. In disregarding an admissions officer’s advice to forgo law school in favor of marriage years before, she started down a path canopied by improbable accomplishments, bitter disappointments, professional accolades, and personal heartbreak. Her fortitude and persistence meant that future generations would endure fewer obstacles than she did.
Behind her walked another Black female attorney from Chicago married to an ambitious Black attorney: First Lady Michelle Obama. The two women experienced the highs of professional accomplishments as a minority, the frustrations of sacrificing for their husband’s ambitions, public critiques of their appearance, and allegations of being too outspoken. Unlike Michelle, Elizabeth’s story has largely yet to be told, but South Bend writer Dr. Gabrielle Robinson and IHB are changing that by installing a state historical marker in 2021. Elizabeth, largely overshadowed by her husband, will quite literally have an equal share of recognition with this marker.
“Jellison Takes Petition to Run for Congress,” South Bend Tribune, February 16, 1936, 23, accessed Newspapers.com.
Mary Butler, “Mrs. Elizabeth Allen Lays Down Law to Family,” South Bend Tribune, July 30, 1950, 39, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Circuit Judge Fines Lawyer for Contempt,” South Bend Tribune, May 10, 1952, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.
“First Woman Presides City Judge,” South Bend Tribune, November 19, 1953, 29, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Field Chief Will Meet Fund Group,” South Bend Tribune, March 25, 1957, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.
Program, “Leaders for Workshops on Three Areas Affecting the Urban Family,” Woman’s Council for Human Relations, , accessed Michiana Memory.
“Hon. J. Chester Allen,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 2, 1960, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Adult Award Winner,” South Bend Urban League and Hering House, Annual Report, 1960, p. 5, accessed Michiana Memory.
“Sarah Allen Found Dead,” South Bend Tribune, July 25, 1963, 43, accessed Newspapers.com.
Nancy Kavadas, “Niles Area NACP [sic] Groups Conduct Orderly Demonstration,” South Bend Tribune, February 9, 1964, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Divorce Cases Filed,” South Bend Tribune, March 5, 1965, 30, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Irving Allen Wins Degree,” South Bend Tribune, June 10, 1965, 46, accessed Newspapers.com.
Ruth Copeland et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. South Bend Community School Corporation et al., Defendants-Appellees, 1967, 376 F.2d 585 (7th Cir. 1967), May 8, 1967, accessed JUSTIA US Law.
“Family Plan Unit Names Officers,” South Bend Tribune, January 26, 1968, 31, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Rites for Allen Wednesday,” South Bend Tribune, May 12, 1980, 21, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Wednesday Rites for Judge Allen,” South Bend Tribune, December 27, 1983, 28, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Allen, Former Civic Leader and Attorney, Dies at 89,” South Bend Tribune, December 28, 1994, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.
Marilyn Klimek, “Couple Led in Area Racial Integration,” South Bend Tribune, November 30, 1997, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.
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.
Barack Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Crown Publishing, 2020).
Email, Dr. Irving Allen to Nicole Poletika, March 19, 2021.
If you scour Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War, On the Trail of the Buffalo Soldier, The Encyclopedia of African American Military History, The African American Encyclopedia, and the Who’s Who of the Colored Race, Dr. Joseph Ward’s name is nowhere to be found. This is a concerning omission, given that his leadership at Tuskegee, Alabama’s Veterans Hospital No. 91. helped prove to some white Jim Crow Southerners, medical practitioners, U.S. military officials, and even President Calvin Coolidge that African Americans were fit to manage large institutions. His significance is two-fold: in an era where African Americans were often excluded from medical treatment, Ward made care accessible to those in Indianapolis and, on a much larger scale, to Southern veterans.
Born in Wilson, North Carolina to Mittie Ward and Napoleon Hagans, Joseph traveled as a young man to Indianapolis in search of better opportunities. In the Circle City, he attended Shortridge High School and worked as the personal driver of white physician George Hasty. According to the African American newspaper The Freeman, Dr. Hasty “‘said there was something unusual in the green looking country boy, and to the delight of Joe as he called him, he offered to send him to school.'” By the 1890s, Ward had earned his degree from Indiana Medical College and practiced medicine in his adopted city. In 1899, The Freeman remarked “The fact that he has risen from the bottom of poverty, th[r]ough honorable poverty, without any assistance, is sufficient evidence to justify our belief in his success in the future.”
Barred from treating Black patients in city hospitals due to institutionalized discrimination, he opened Ward’s Sanitarium and Nurses’ Training School on Indiana Avenue around 1907, which soon garnered the praise of white physicians. He also convinced administrators at the segregated City Hospital to allow Ward’s Black nursing students to attend courses. By enabling them to pass the same state licensing test as white students, he opened professional opportunities to African American women in an era in which they were often relegated to domestic service and manual labor.
Dr. Ward became as foundational to Indianapolis’s rich Black history as The Freeman publisher Dr. George Knox and entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, for whom Ward helped get her professional start. He gave back to his city by helping found the African American Senate Avenue YMCA. During World War I, Ward temporarily left his practice to serve in the Medical Corps in France with the 92nd Division Medical Corps, where he worked as ward surgeon of Base Hospital No. 49. Again, his diligence propelled him to excellence, and he became one of two African Americans to achieve the rank of Major in World War I. In 1924, Dr. Ward’s name was etched into the annals of history, when he became the first African American commander of the segregated Veterans Hospital No. 91 at Tuskegee, Alabama. Ward’s decision to accept the position was itself an act of bravery, coming on the heels of hostility from white residents, politicians, and the Ku Klux Klan.
Initially, the Veterans Bureau placed the new hospital in control of a white staff, despite promising Black personnel they would manage it. After seemingly talking out of both sides of their mouths, Bureau officials gradually began replacing white staff with Black staff due to the unrelenting protest of African Americans across the country. This decision essentially pulled the pin from a grenade. Vanessa Northington Gamble contended in Making A Place for Ourselves: The Black Hospital Movement, 1920-1945 that “White Tuskegeeans saw the fight over the hospital as a ‘test of the supremacy of the Angle-Saxon race’ and were prepared to win the battle by any means necessary.” When African American bookkeeper John C. Calhoun arrived at the hospital to replace his white predecessor, he was handed a letter that warned:
WE UNDERSTAND YOU ARE REPORTING TO HOSPITAL TO ACCEPT DISBURSING OFFICERS JOB, IF YOU VALUE YOUR WELFARE DO NOT TAKE THIS JOB BUT LEAVE AT ONCE FOR PARTS FROM WHENCE YOU CAME OR SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES, KKK.
He took heed, and an hour after Calhoun fled, approximately 50,000 Klan members marched on Tuskegee and burned a forty-foot cross, before silently marching near the veterans’ hospital. Although violence was avoided, one “fair-skinned” man reportedly “infiltrated the Klan by passing as white” and learned they planned to kill a Black leader and blow up the Tuskegee Institute. The community at large expressed their disapproval of Black leadership by protesting at the White House. Southern politicians did so by writing pieces for the local papers, like State Senator R. H. Powell, who insisted in The Montgomery Advertiser “We know that a bunch of negro officers, with uniforms and big salaries and the protection of Uncle Sam . . . will quickly turn this little town into a place of riot such as has been experienced in so many places where there has occurred an outbreak between the races.”
But President Calvin Coolidge’s Republican administration stood up to the Klan and continued to replace white staff with Black personnel. In a nod to the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War, The Buffalo American wrote that the Klan’s demonstration “proved to be another ‘lost cause’ and Negro workers continued to arrive.” With Dr. Ward’s appointment, the hospital’s staff was composed entirely of Black personnel. The hospital’s pioneering practitioners treated Southern Black veterans, many of whom suffered from PTSD following WWI service. Under Ward’s leadership, the Buffalo American reported, patients “are happy, content and enjoying the best of care at the hands of members of their own race who are inheritently [sic] interested in their welfare.” The Montgomery Advertiser noted in 1935 that No. 91 was among the largest U.S. veterans hospitals in the country, offering 1,136 beds, and experiencing a monthly wait list of about 375 patients. In addition to neuropsychiatric treatment, the hospital’s library hosted a bibliotherapy program and patients could view moving pictures and attend dances. The sprawling complex also provided job opportunities for Black laborers, waiters, stenographers, plumbers, and electricians.
In describing his leadership, Ward’s colleagues recalled that his purpose was firm, demeanor alert, and interactions with subordinates fair. Ward reportedly “amassed an enviable reputation in the Tuskegee community. His legendary inspection tours on horseback and his manly fearlessness in dealing with community groups at a time when there was a fixed subordinate attitude in Negro-white relations are two of the more popular recollections.” He proved so adept as a leader that the War Department promoted him to Lieutenant Colonel. A 1929 editorial for the Journal of the National Medical Association praised Ward for his ability “to win over to your cause the White South.” The author added that Ward “has served as an inspiration to the members of the staff of the hospital. He has stimulated original observation and contributions” and noted “‘Those who led the opposition to the organization of a Negro personnel openly and frankly acknowledge their mistake and their regret for the earlier unfortunate occurrences.'”
President Coolidge affirmed these characterizations in an address to Congress. Howard University conferred an honorary Master of Arts degree upon Ward for honoring his profession “under pioneer conditions of extraordinary difficulty.” The accolades go on. In regards to this praise, Ward was characteristically humble, stating in The Buffalo American on October 30, 1924, “‘My associates have worked as though they realized that not only them personally, but the entire group was on trial and whatever success we have had was due to that spirit.'”
Years after Ward’s appointment, racial tension had not entirely dissipated. In 1936, a federal grand jury charged Ward and thirteen others on the hospital’s staff with “conspiracy to defraud the Government through diversion of hospital supplies.” After more than eleven years of service, the esteemed leader was dismissed “under a cloud,” and he plead guilty to the charges in 1937.Black newspapers provided a different perspective on Ward’s rapid descent from grace. According to The New York Age, Black Republicans viewed the “wholesale indictment of the Negro personnel” at Veterans Hospital No. 91 as an attempt by Southern Democrats to replace Black staff with white, to “rob Negroes of lucrative jobs.” The paper added that these Southern Democrats tried to “take advantage of the administration of their own party in Washington and oust colored executives on charges they would not have dared to file under a Republican regime.” These Black employees, the paper alleged, became the “hapless victims of dirty politics.” Given the previous attempts of the white community to usurp control of the veterans hospital, one is tempted to see truth in this interpretation. After Ward’s dismissal, he quietly returned home to Indianapolis and resumed his private practice, which had moved to Boulevard Place. He practiced there until at least 1949 and in 1956 he died in Indianapolis.
The struggle for leadership of the new veterans hospital shifted the threat of African American autonomy from theoretical to real for the white Jim Crow South. It exposed the organizational capabilities of the white community in terms of protesting the possibility of this autonomy. It also exposed the capabilities of the Black community in terms of demanding their own governance, efforts Dr. Ward ensured were not made in vain. The young man who journeyed out of the South in search of better opportunities later returned to create them for others. Yet somehow his efforts are virtually absent from the historical record. With the help of doctoral student Leon Bates, IHB is changing that this summer by commemorating Lt. Col. Joseph H. Ward with a historical marker.
 “Dr. Joseph H. Ward,” The Freeman: An Illustrated Colored Newspaper (Indianapolis), July 22, 1899, 1, accessed Google News.
 “Maj. Ward Back from U.S. Work,” The Indianapolis Star, June 29, 1919, accessed Newspapers.com. “Dr. Joseph H. Ward,” The Freeman: An Illustrated Colored Newspaper (Indianapolis), July 22, 1899, 1, accessed Google News.
 Gamble, 90.
 Quotation from Gamble, 92.
 “Making Good at ‘The Tuskegee’ United States Veterans’ Hospital, No. 91,” The Buffalo (New York) American, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.
 Dr. Clifton O. Dummett and Eugene H. Dibble,”Historical Notes on the Tuskegee Veterans Hospital,” Journal of the National Medical Association 54, no. 2 (March 1962), 135.
 Editorial, “The U.S. Veterans’ Hospital, Tuskegee, Ala., Colonel Joseph Henry Ward,” Journal of the National Medical Association 21, no. 2 (1929): 65-66.
 “Dr. Dibble Succeeds Col. Ward as Head of Tuskegee Hospital,” The Pittsburgh Courier, accessed Newspapers.com; Colonel Indicted in Food Stealing,” The Montgomery Advertiser, July 10, 1936, accessed Newspapers.com; “Two Plead Guilty in Hospital Case,” The Montgomery Advertiser, March 25, 1936, accessed Newspapers.com.
 “Charge Southern Democrats Seek Control of Veterans Hospital at Tuskegee, As 9 Others Are Indicted,” The New York Age, October 3, 1936, accessed Newspapers.com.
Last Sunday I went for a walk . . . I did not walk alone.
With these simple words Rabbi Maurice Davis described his 1965 trip to Selma to the readers of the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post. Rabbi Davis’s “walk” was a protest led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. against institutional racism, voter suppression, and violence against African Americans. When King asked civil rights leaders from around the country to join him in Alabama, Davis had no question that it was his duty to join the demonstration of solidarity. Davis had long worked for civil rights through both secular and faith-based channels. He advocated for community action in his sermons to the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. He led several civic action councils that combated segregation, racist policies, and poverty. And he extended his appeal for civil rights to the entire city through a regular newspaper column and a television show. Mostly, however, Rabbi Davis marched at Selma “because it was right.”
“You Were a Spark for Us”
Maurice Davis was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1921. Census records show that his Russian-born father Jacob managed a garage while his mother Sadie cared for five children. They did well for themselves and were able to send Maurice first to Brown University in 1939 and then to the University of Cincinnati where he received his B.A. in 1945. He then received his Master of Hebrew Letters from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. After serving several different congregations as a student rabbi, he became rabbi of Adath Israel in Lexington, Kentucky in 1951. By this point he was already active in the local civil rights movement and joined the Kentucky Commission Against Segregation.
Rabbi Maurice Davis became the spiritual leader of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation (IHC) in March 1956, in time to celebrate the centennial of its founding in 1856. Over 600 families made up the large congregation which was in the process of planning their new temple at 64th and Meridian, which still houses the IHC today (a move from their earlier location at the Market Street Temple.) As the ninth Rabbi serving the IHC, Davis continued to advance the forward-thinking Reform Judaism of his predecessors, according to the Jewish Post. In his first year, he attracted eighty new congregants, and temple brotherhood president Herman Logan wrote in the congregational bulletin:
You were a spark for us which turned into a flame when a new brotherhood was beginning.
It was an auspicious start for the young rabbi.
“Something Less Than Welcome”
While the IHC welcomed Rabbi Davis, his wife Marion, and their sons Jay and Michael, some other Hoosiers made the Davis family feel “something less than welcome.” In 1959, the Jewish Postreported that Rabbi Davis’s son Jay was denied entry to the Riviera Club‘s swimming pool at 5640 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. The rabbi told his congregation that while many people think segregation in the private sphere “has no meaning” and should be tolerated, it does have meaning to the people it affects. And in this case, the meaning was that a nine-year-old boy was made to feel inferior to his peers.
The Jewish Post pursued the story, reporting on a survey of five “exclusive” Indianapolis clubs. Each club, including the Riviera Club, claimed not to discriminate against Jews. Some of the club chairmen and presidents even claimed they had Jewish members. However, when the Jewish Post interviewed the club managers, they reported that they knew of no Jewish members. Others in the club leadership claimed no Jews had applied for membership or that they did not keep track of religious affiliation. From the perspective of the Post, none gave a straight answer.
Rabbi Davis did not only respond to discrimination when it was personal. He believed that it was his responsibility, and that of all religious leaders, to work for moral justice. Not all of his Jewish colleagues agreed. In response to a 1960 Indianapolis Timespoll of religious leaders (reported by the Jewish Post), two of Indianapolis’s leading rabbis (Congregation B’nai Torah and Shara Tefila) reported that clergy should keep out of politics. Rabbi Davis, on the other hand, said it was the responsibility of the synagogue to help inform members on political issues, to encourage them to be active participants in government, and “to speak up whenever morality or ethics are involved in politics.”
Rabbi Davis not only advocated for equality for Jews, but all people facing oppression. He encouraged Jews to look beyond their own community and work to end discrimination everywhere. He stated, “A decent and sensitive America is good for all Americans and we must help her be so” (more here). Indianapolis’s African American community took note. In 1960, the Indianapolis branch of the NAACP named Davis its “honorary chairman” and the Indianapolis Recorder reported regularly on his efforts to fight segregation and inequality. As president of the Indianapolis Human Relations Council, Davis worked to end racist mortgage and loan policies that denied fair housing to African Americans and created segregated neighborhoods (more here). He conducted personal investigations of restaurants and other establishments which had reputations for discriminating against African Americans and reported his findings in the Jewish Post (more here). By 1962, he had a regular column giving his views on issues of the day and often advocating for civil rights.
His columns were often fiery calls to action. For example, in September 1963, he responded 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 “every American citizen who participates in prejudice or fails to oppose it.” His powerful arguments against injustice were often shaped by the legacy of the holocaust. He continued:
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.
Not long after his article on the bombing, Rabbi Maurice Davis received a bomb threat of his own.
“My Name Was One of Them”
By 1965, the civil rights movement had reached its “political and emotional peak” with three marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to protest the suppression of African American votes and the recent killing of activist Jimmie Lee Jackson (more here: International Civil Rights Center and Museum). On March 7, the protesters led by John Lewis began a peaceful march, but were soon stopped at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma by state troopers and Dallas County police who were waiting for them. In an incident remembered as “Bloody Sunday,” police violently attacked the unarmed demonstrators with clubs and tear gas. Police beat Lewis unconscious. On March 9, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. flew to Selma and called for others to join him. That day, a larger group followed King back to the bridge to kneel in prayer, but dared go no further as a federal judge had issued a restraining order against the march. Many were disappointed that King did not attempt to march on toward Montgomery. Others, however, credit his concession with expediting the passage of the Voting Rights Act.*
The night of the second march to the bridge a group of white men killed Unitarian minister James Reeb who had traveled to Selma from Boston to join King. Related protests erupted across the country and King called for a third march. On Sunday, March 21, civil rights leaders and supporters from around the country arrived in Selma to march over the infamous bridge to Montgomery. Rabbi Maurice Davis would march in the front lines.
When the Indianapolis Star reported that Rabbi Davis and David H. Goldstein (of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council) had left for Selma, the newspaper estimated that these Hoosiers would join around 300 people. Instead, Davis reported that they joined thousands at Brown Chapel Methodist Church for a ceremony before the march. Davis described their arrival at the church:
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.
While President Johnson ordered National Guard protection for the marchers to avoid a repeat of “Bloody Sunday” and its ensuing protests, the atmosphere was still tense. Davis and Goldstein met with some other rabbis after the service who had arrived before them. These rabbis told them that they were unable to buy a meal or place to stay, the reason being the Selma residents insisted on giving the activists whatever they needed.
Davis and Goldstein also looked to find out from the other rabbis where they could get yarmulkes, as a shipment was supposed to have recently arrived. Organizers wanted Jewish demonstrators from all branches of the faith to be as clearly visible as those of other faiths to show their support and numbers. They told Davis, “It is our answer to the clerical collar.” However, Davis and Goldstein had trouble finding one. They soon learned why.
Two days earlier, five rabbis were jailed for taking part in demonstrations. After holding Sabbath behind bars Friday, they announced they would hold a service in front of the Brown Chapel after their release on Saturday. According to the Jewish Post, “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 that “all the Civil Rights workers wanted to wear them . . . That is where all the yarmelkes went!”
Dr. King entered the chapel at 10:45 a.m. Sunday. 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 latter’s “magic” sermon. Davis explained:
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.
The thousands of demonstrators were organized into rows with the first three rows chosen by Dr. King. Davis stated:
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 . . .
On the street we formed three rows of 8, locked our arms together, and started to march. Behind us the thousands began to follow.
When they arrived at the infamous bridge they paused to remember those who came before them and were attacked. They continued onto the highway. The road was lined with armed National Guardsmen and five helicopters circled the group. State troopers were taking pictures of the marchers. Davis explained:
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.
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 Reed.” 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, Davis 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 Daivs finally returned to Indianapolis, he was welcomed with a threatening phone call.
“It’ll be too late when it goes off.”
When Rabbi Davis answered his phone Monday night at 11:00, an anonymous man asked if he was “the rabbi who went to Selma.” When Davis answered affirmatively, the voice continued: “Let me check this list again . . . You are No. 2 in Indianapolis.” The implication was that Davis was the second on a hit list of activists. Davis told the caller he was calling 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 nothing. But the calls continued. On Tuesday, 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.
Davis stated vaguely that he was required to take “protective measures” to protect his family. The rabbi did not expound at the time, but later his children recalled that they had a “babysitter” who carried a .45-caliber revolver under his jacket. From his statements to the press, it seems the rabbi was most hurt that the threats were possibly coming from fellow Hoosiers. He told the Jewish Post:
Monday night my life was threatened. Not in Selma. Not in Montgomery. Not in Atlanta. In Indianapolis.
“The Time Has Come to Worship with Our Lives”
Like King, 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 Herschel, who was also at Selma 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:
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.
He called others to join him. He referred to injustices that needed to still be overcome 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 in the traditional way, but also with actions. He wrote:
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.”
Rabbi Davis continued to work for civil rights in Indianapolis. He was again named honorary chairman of the NAACP. He served as a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights and on the board of the United Negro College Fund. He was president of the Indianapolis Council of Human Relations and organized the Community Action Against Poverty (sponsored by the City of Indianapolis and the President’s Commission on Equal Opportunity).
He never forgot his march with King. In 1986, he reflected in the pages of the Jewish Post about a first for the country:
You hear a song, or sniff an aroma, and all of a sudden you are miles and years away . . . It happens, too, with birthdays. January 20 was a very special day. 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 he loved as much as we admired. We were there because he was there. And he was there because it was right.
Rabbi Maurice Davis, “Rabbi Heschel Finds The Right Word For It,” (Indianapolis) Jewish Post, April 2, 1965, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Rabbi Maurice Davis, “Rabbi Davis Tells Why He Went to Selma,”(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, April 16, 1965, 22, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
Other sources are linked within the text.
*For more on the disappointment of some civil rights activists with King’s role in the Selma to Montgomery marches see: Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., eds., Freedom on My Mind: A HIstory of African Americans with Documents (Boston and New York: Bedford/St.Martin’s 2013), 675-6.
In 1833, an enslaved African American man named Samuel Barkshire received his freedom in Boone County, Kentucky, manumitted (or legally freed) by slaveholder Joseph Hawkins for the cost of one dollar. He would go on to become the patriarch of a group of Underground Railroad (UGRR) activists who helped freedom seekers along the Ohio River for over thirty years. What makes his story distinctive, is that he was joined in this cause by his family and their own former slaveholder.
The Ohio River acted as a boundary between slavery and freedom. For nearly 40 miles, it forms the northern border of Boone County, separating it from neighbors in Indiana and Ohio. This proximity to freedom caused local slaveholders to become hyper-vigilant for signs of pending escapes. The county’s riverfront was under near-constant scrutiny of patrollers and slave hunters. In the event of an escape, the first to come under suspicion were any free African Americans living in the area. With the exception of the elderly and infirm, most formerly enslaved people left for friendlier communities immediately after manumission.
Samuel Barkshire chose to stay in Boone County, perhaps because his family was still enslaved there. He bought a 100-acre farm bordering the land of his former slaveholder, Joseph Hawkins. The land once owned by Samuel’s first slaveholder, Dickey Barkshire, was also nearby. Part of the land Samuel once owned runs along a ridgeline overlooking the Ohio River. The ridges near the river were often used by freedom seekers as safe routes leading to several crossing points from Boone County to free states. In addition to the heirs of slaveholders Joseph Hawkins and Dickey Barkshire, Samuel’s neighbors also included the Universalist Church and some of its anti-slavery members. This placement put Samuel in a position to help freedom seekers while still living in a slave state. This was a dangerous endeavor, but a strong possibility, considering his level of involvement in the UGRR in Rising Sun.
When Joseph Hawkins died in 1836, his widow Nancy was his only heir. Little is known about Nancy’s early life, but she appeared in Joseph’s life sometime around 1817, and they had no children. Hawkins’ will is a simple document; he left all of his land and property to Nancy. There was no inventory taken of the estate, but tax lists of the year of his death show he was the owner of ten enslaved people and about two hundred acres of land.
Before her marriage to Joseph, Nancy was the consort of Dickey Barkshire for a period of years following his first wife’s death. Though this relationship is referenced in her probate, no marriage document has surfaced; she may have been Dickey’s wife in name only. This connection to the Barkshires indicates she knew Samuel Barkshire for years before marrying Joseph. Nancy’s relationship with Samuel and his family was very close, so it’s likely she asked her new husband to acquire ownership of the man, in order to free him. This also may have been the case with Violet, a woman once listed as a slave of Hawkins, who was later freed. Violet and Nancy were baptized together upon joining Middle Creek Baptist Church, and lived either in the same home or nearby one another until Nancy’s death in 1854.
Two days after the probate of Joseph Hawkins’ estate, Nancy purchased a home in Rising Sun. The Barkshire family, Violet and several other bondsmen moved across the river at the same time. Nancy, now living in a free state, began to manumit the enslaved people she had brought from Kentucky. Nancy seemed cognizant of the dangers faced by African Americans, even those legally manumitted and living on free soil. They could be kidnapped and sold back into slavery, or bound as an indentured servant, if debt or need came into play. If the former slave was not yet of age, and had no guardian, one would be assigned by the courts, without consent of the minor. In order to avoid these pitfalls, Nancy Hawkins filed manumissions only after there was some sort of protection in place, should something happen either to her or to Samuel and his wife.
This fall marks the 180th and 170th anniversaries of two rounds of manumissions filed by Nancy Hawkins in Indiana. In August, 1838, the first group: Harriet Frances Barkshire (Samuel’s wife), a man named Sandy and Mariah Hawkins (listed together), and a woman named Catherine were manumitted by deed. All were adults, but the manumission did not get filed until after Catherine was married in Dearborn County. This is important, a single woman would have been more vulnerable than the married women in the group. The second round of manumissions was filed in September of 1848, and included the Barkshire children: Arthur, Garrett, Matilda, Emily, Woodford and Minerva. One curious detail of their manumission papers was that each person’s exact birthdate was given. At the time of their manumissions, the two eldest boys, Arthur and Garrett, were both over 21 years old, and could therefore act as guardians for the younger children if something were to happen to their parents or to Nancy Hawkins. This was no light concern, considering the involvement of the family in UGRR activity in the area.
Samuel Barkshire acted as a coordinator and point of contact for Rising Sun’s UGRR network. He was well-known to local anti-slavery activists, and was acquainted with Levi Coffin, the “President of the Underground Railroad.” His participation is also mentioned in the memoirs of abolitionist Laura Smith Haviland, who sought his help in freeing a Boone County family who were enslaved in Rabbit Hash.
The three Barkshire sons acted as conductors, both on the river and over land. Their reach stretched from New Orleans all the way to Ontario, with Rising Sun serving as their base of operations. The three daughters’ involvement is not clear, but their parents and Nancy Hawkins, (with whom they sometimes lived), ran “stations” or temporary hiding places. The clandestine nature of this work would require both the help and complicity of the three girls.
Though Nancy’s involvement was not discovered during her lifetime, it was later revealed in a remembrance printed in the newspaper. As a well-heeled widow and former slaveholder herself, it was likely she wasn’t suspected by slave hunters. The author of the newspaper piece written in the 1880s, describes in great detail an episode in which five freedom seekers were kept hidden in Nancy’s home for days on end, unbeknownst to their Boone County slaveholders just across the river. It’s probable that this event was not an anomaly; she may have helped many times over.
Violet’s participation may have been comparable to that of the Barkshire daughters. She lived either with or next door to Nancy in Rising Sun over the years. Sandy Hawkins, who was freed along with Mariah, moved to New Orleans after his manumission. In 1851, he was accused of harboring a fugitive slave in his New Orleans home. Like many UGRR conductors, he also worked on riverboats, traveling from slave territory to free states regularly. Joseph Edrington, the man Catherine married in Rising Sun shortly before her manumission, was also named in Laura Smith Haviland’s memoir, as an agent of the UGRR.
The relationship between Nancy Hawkins, her friend Violet and the Barkshire family is clear in the will she left in 1854. The entirety of her household possessions were divided between the three Barkshire girls, and Violet received personal items and money. The three Barkshire sons were to share in the profit from the sale of her house, which they promptly bought back at auction. Though an unusual group, these Rising Sun activists did much to further the cause of freedom from bondage.
In an era when African Americans, especially women, were often professionally sidelined, Vivian Carter forced herself onto the field. Through her ingenuity and personal popularity, the musical “matriarch” became a business owner and record producer. Her company, Vee Jay Records, recorded and popularized many successful musicians of the mid-20th century, ranging from Rhythm-and-Blues to Pop Rock, Doo-Wop, Gospel, Soul, and Jazz artists. Although music had been strictly segregated along racial lines, Vee Jay introduced both black and white artists to mixed crowds of local teenagers first, and then to a national audience between 1953 and 1966. The company released recordings of some of the nation’s most prolific musicians, including Little Richard, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and The Four Seasons.
Born in 1921 in Tunica, Mississippi, Vivian Carter moved with her brother and parents to Gary at age 6. As a child and teenager, she was competitive, outgoing, and self-confident. These qualities helped her win a 1948 contest for the “best girl disc jockey in Chicago,” which was the beginning of Vivian’s radio career. Eventually, Vivian had a five-hour nightly radio program in Gary, called “Livin’ With Vivian,” referring to female listeners as “Powder Puffs” and male callers “Sponges.” The “hostest who brings you the mostest” played music by black artists and much of what she played was not available on commercial records. Since Vivian owned a record store in the heart of Gary, along with her future husband Jimmy Bracken, she knew that recordings of this music would sell.
Teenagers of all races from several Calumet Region schools would gather after school to watch Vivian through the glass store window while loudspeakers broadcast her favorite Rhythm and Blues recordings, as recalled by Jerry Locasto, a future radio executive who was one of those kids. While the records played, Vivian would come out and mingle with the kids to find out what they liked or disliked about each one. Kids could request songs, and she would play them. In 1953, Vivian and Jimmy started their own record label, called Vee Jay Records from the initials of “Vivian” and “Jimmy,” to record the music of local black artists.
Their first group was the Spaniels, a group of crooners from Gary Roosevelt High School, Vivian’s alma mater. The boys walked into the record shop after winning a talent contest at school, to ask if Vivian knew how they could get a recording made. Vivian listened to the group, then gave the impoverished boys a place to practice – her mother’s garage –and arranged to record them at Chance Records, a studio in Chicago. She later bought suits for their publicity photos and a station wagon for their travels.
Best Years of Vee Jay Records
The Spaniels’ first record, “Baby, It’s You” reached #10 on the Rhythm and Blues charts. Then the Spaniels hit #5 with their second record, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.” The record “crossed over” from the Race Records category to become a hit with white purchasers as well. But Vivian was disappointed when the McGuire Sisters, a “white girl trio,” sold more copies with their “cover” of the same song. She asked her brother, Calvin, to put more of a white-sounding background on the future records, to appeal to broader audiences. And the young company learned to print and register publishing rights to all their performers’ original songs, so they still made money when other performers covered them.
In 1954, Vee Jay moved to Chicago and eventually opened on Michigan Avenue’s “Record Row.” Vivian, Calvin, and her husband Jimmy remained the heads of the company. But according to Bob Kostanczuk of the Gary Post-Tribune, Vivian was always “viewed as the company’s matriarch and driving force.” They hired the knowledgeable Ewart Abner, accountant for the former Chance Records, after Chance went out of business. Abner started as manager and eventually worked his way up to president.
In the next ten years, Vee Jay Records released successful recordings of black and white performers, including hits like The Four Seasons’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” The Dells “Oh, What a Night,” and The Beatles’s “Love Me Do” and “Twist and Shout.” Since radio stations wouldn’t play several records from one company label in the same time slot, Vee Jay also recorded under the labels Falcon, Conrad, Tollie, and Abner, from the middle names of the company’s principals. Vee Jay opened a Los Angeles studio, and Vivian and Jimmy soon drove around in luxury convertibles and fur coats.
The Beginning of the End
Vee Jay’s best (and worst) luck came in 1962 when they tried to buy distribution rights for Australian singer Frank Ifield’s European hit single “I Remember You.” The Gary Post-Tribune on August 23, 1998, noted that the British agent insisted they also take a quartet named The Beatles, unknown at that time in the United States. Vee Jay released several Beatles singles and their first U. S. album, to lukewarm success until the group appeared on the nationwide Ed Sullivan Show.
Then Beatles’ sales skyrocketed. Capitol Records, who had earlier turned down the Beatles, started filing lawsuits against Vee Jay to get the group back, as reported by Mike Callahan in “The Vee Jay Story” in Goldmine (May 1981). The cost of defending the lawsuits, in addition to Ewart Abner’s poor financial management and gambling habit, wiped out Vee Jay’s money and credit, and put the company out of business.
In a life story that Vivian called “rags to riches to rags,” Vivian and Jimmy lost everything, even their little record store, and divorced. Jimmy died and Vivian worked days at the county trustee’s office and hosted a late-night radio program in Gary from 1967 to 1982. According to Dr. James B. Lane’s Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History article, when her best friend from high school, Yjean Chambers, asked how Vivian felt about the spectacular rise and fall of her recording business, Vivian replied that she had “learned too late the art of looking over the shoulder of those who work for you.” Then Vivian added, “But I don’t miss a thing. That’s all behind me now.”
After several years of illness, Vivian died of complications from diabetes and hypertension in 1989. Lane says one of Vivian’s last visitors was James “Pookie” Hudson, her first recording artist, who sang Vivian to sleep with his hit song, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.”
They agreed that black prisoners should receive fair trials, that black Americans should not die years earlier than white counterparts, that black workers should be afforded a living wage, and that black candidates should be given opportunities to craft legislation that affected their communities. They shared a collective outrage. In 1972, organizers asked them – Americans of color affiliated with Socialists, Democrats, Republicans, Nationalists, and the Black Panthers- if they could overcome differing ideologies to channel this outrage into political action at the National Black Political Convention (NBPC) held in Gary, Indiana. Black poet and activist Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) advocated for the gathering to practice “unity without conformity.”
According to an essay in Major Problems in African American History, the Gary convention was the culmination of a series of uprisings in protest of discrimination, which historians refer to collectively as the Black Revolt. Black Americans were emboldened by tragic events, such as the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, as well as legislative progress, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In an interview, North Carolina convention delegate Ben Chavis recalled:
I had gotten tired of going to funerals. . . . so much of the Movement had been tragic. You know. And I have to emphasize [Rev. Martin Luther] King’s assassination was a tragic blow to the Movement. And so four years later, March of ’72, for us to be gathering up our wherewithal to go to Gary, Indiana–hey, that was a good shot in the arm for the Movement.
Historian Stephen Grant Meyer identified 1968, when King was assassinated, as the year in which the modern civil rights movement began to diverge. No longer was integration the primary means to make political and economic gains. This fracture gave rise to a Nationalist faction, which sought to promote black identity and improve living conditions through a separate black nation. The polarization was reminiscent of the late-19th and early-20th century debates between reformer Booker T. Washington and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, who both worked to ease the economic and social plight of African Americans. Washington believed this was best achieved by earning the respect of white citizens through hard work and self-help. Du Bois, on the other hand, believed white oppression should be cast off by protests and political activism, in large part through the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization he co-founded.
NBPC organizers, who had begun planning the conference in 1970, struggled to find a city willing to accommodate an influx of politically-engaged black Americans. Gary Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, an advocate of civil rights and minorities and one of the first African American mayors of a major U.S. city, volunteered his predominantly black city. Not since the 1930s, with the first meeting of the National Negros Congress in Chicago, had such a massive and diverse gathering of people of color convened to advance their rights. Approximately 3,000 official delegates and 7,000 attendees from across the United States met at Gary’s West Side High School from March 10 to March 12. The attendees included a prolific group of black leaders, such as Reverend Jesse Jackson, Coretta Scott King, Amiri Baraka, Muslim leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale, and Malcolm X’s widow Betty Shabazz. Organizers sought to create a cohesive political strategy for black Americans by the convention’s end.
A bomb threat was called into convention headquarters at the Holiday Inn and a local gang reportedly deposited guns in school lockers. These threats to disrupt the convention necessitated additional security. Uniformed and plainclothes policemen reinforced the northwestern Indiana city. Armed civil defense personnel supplemented the police presence and boxer-turned-activist Muhammad Ali served as sergeant-at-arms.
The high school, decorated with red, white, and blue bunting, thrummed with activity. As vendors sold books, banners, and souvenirs, a band prompted snapping and feet-tapping with “gutsy,” drum-driven music. The Munster Times reported “Two or three white reporters, their faces split with grins, were lost somewhere with the music. A policeman absentmindedly slapped the butt of his pistol to the beat.” Delegates ranging from “pinstripe-suited conservatives to youngsters in colorful flowing robe-type shirts [dashikis] and mod fashions to the black-uniformed para-military” milled about the gym waiting for the delayed convention to finally start. Organizers scrambled to respond to complaints that the elevated platform for journalists blocked the stage.
Entertainers like James Brown and Harry Belafonte lent their support to the convention by performing. Comic and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, weighing 90 pounds as a result of fasting to protest the Vietnam War, addressed the audience about issues of policing and drug access and asked, “‘[H]ow can a black kid in Harlem find a heroin pusher and the FBI can’t?'”
State delegations, national organizations, and individuals proposed resolutions in the creation of “A National Black Agenda” (Muncie Evening Press). This agenda would extend the movement beyond the convention. As convention attendee and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York Dr. Ron Daniels noted, the Black Agenda was “integral to holding candidates, who would seek Black votes, accountable to the interests and aspirations of Black people.”
Delegates from Illinois suggested fines and prison sentences for businessmen found guilty of discriminatory practices. North Carolina attendees proposed a bill of prisoners’ rights that included humane treatment and fair trials. Delegates from Indiana and other states demanded that the U.S. dedicate resources to the plight of black Americans rather than the Vietnam War and end the conflict immediately. North Carolina representatives also urged that black men receive Social Security benefits earlier than white men since their life expectancy was eight years shorter. The Muncie Evening Press noted that “Politicking was intense . . . as state delegations tried to compromise their own views with positions they felt other delegations could support.” Tensions ran so high that part of the Michigan delegation walked out of the convention.
Keynote speakers Reverend Jackson, executive director of P.U.S.H. and Operation Breadbasket, and Mayor Hatcher ignited the crowd and “stoked rhetorical fires aimed at molding the diverse black communities represented here into a solid unit that can tip the political balance this presidential election year and from now on” (Munster Times).
While similar in many aspects, the men’s speeches hinted at the divergence in philosophies pervading the convention. Hatcher believed change could come from within the existing two-party system, so long as the parties responded to the needs of African Americans. However, if legislators continued to neglect black constituents, black Americans would create a third party and, he told attendees, “we shall take with us the best of White America . . . many a white youth nauseated by the corrupt values rotting the innards of this society . . . many of the white poor . . . many a White G.I. . . . and many of the white working class, too.” The party would also welcome “chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Indians [and] Orientals” (IndianapolisRecorder).
However, Jackson, appealing to Nationalists, urged the immediate formation of a black party, potentially called the “Liberation Party.” He asserted “‘Without the option of a black political party, we are doomed to remain in the hip pocket of the Democratic party and in the rumble seat of the Republican party'” (Kokomo Tribune). Jackson also called for the establishment of black institutions to oversee black educational, economic, and judicial matters. He asked the crowd “what time is it?” and the audience, electrified, shouted “It’s Nation Time!”
Jackson’s proposal drew criticism from some black organizations, like the NAACP, which believed that continued segregation, albeit black-led, would impede progress. According to Major Problems in African American History, the NAACP circulated a memo at the convention denouncing the proposal of a separate nationhood for African Americans and criticizing the rhetoric for being “‘that of revolution rather than of reform.'” An Indianapolis Recorder editorial articulated this point, noting “The only road to nationwide achievement by a minority is through cooperation with the majority.”
Another contentious issue in the 1970s: school desegregation through the forced busing of black children to white schools. The Jackson faction opposed busing and defined successful black education not as being able to attend white schools, but rather as children attending black-led schools. The endorsement of the presidential candidate that would best represent black interests also generated conflict at the convention. Some delegations supported Democrat Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black Congresswoman, while many Nationalists wanted a leader from a black party.
After intense debate, a steering committee tentatively adopted a National Black Agenda. The committee officially published the 68-page document on May 19, Malcolm X’s birthday. The resolutions included black representation in Congress proportionate to the U.S. black population, a guaranteed minimum income of $6,500 for four-person households, a 50% cut in the defense and space budgets, and an end to national trade with countries that supplied the U.S. drug market. The resolutions, designed to move black Americans towards “self-determination and true independence,” represented major, yet tenuous compromise among the black community.
The steering committee also formed the National Black Political Assembly, a body tasked with implementing the Black Agenda. Dr. Daniels noted that, although many of the agenda’s resolutions never materialized, “thousands of Black people left Gary energized and committed to making electoral politics a more relevant/meaningful exercise to promote Black interests.” He attributed the quadrupling of elected black officials by the end of the 1970s, in large part, to the Gary convention and the “audacity of Black people to . . . defend black interests.” The NBPC was notable too for its inclusion of black Americans from all walks of life, rather than just prominent black figures, in formulating how to ease the struggles of the black community. The Recorder also noted that Mayor Hatcher’s reputation “has been considerably burnished in the white community as well as the black by the success of the historic event” (IndianapolisRecorder).
In 2012, Gary hosted the 40th anniversary of the National Black Political Convention. Speakers discussed the issues that had prevailed into the 21st century, such as a disparity in prison sentencing and poverty. One speaker remarked that without Shirley Chisholm, America’s first black president Barack Obama would not have occupied the White House. Another speaker, who ran for mayor of Baltimore, lamented that forty years after the convention “we’re still asking what to do instead of how to do it.” When asked if it was still “nation time” one speaker responded “it’s muted nation time.” Black Americans, they agreed, needed to “have the audacity.”
“Black Convention Split Over Separation,” Terre Haute Tribune, March 11, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Black Meet Without Incident Bodyguards, Police Vigilant,” Munster Times, March 12, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Black Political Movement Born in Gary,” Lafayette Journal and Courier, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Creation of ‘The National Assembly’ Concludes Black Political Convention,” Kokomo Tribune, March 13, 1972, accessed Newspapers.com.
The unified efforts of the Civil Rights Movement began to fracture when in 1966 a new strategy and ideology emerged, known as the Black Power Movement. This new movement also influenced the development of the Black Arts Movement. According to historian Ann Chambers, the Black Arts Movement did not speak for the entire black community; however, the movement gave a “new sense of racial pride to many young African-American artists.” One African-American writer and actor who opposed the Black Arts Movement was Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Charles Gordone.
Gordone was born Charles Fleming in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 12, 1925. In 1927, his mother moved with her children to Elkhart, Indiana. By 1931, she married, changing Charles Fleming’s name to Charles Gordon. He attended Elkhart High School and, although popular at school, faced racial discrimination while living in Indiana because of the divide between white and African-American children. According to Gordon, both races rejected him. White children avoided him because he was black, and the town’s African-American community shunned him because his family “lived on the other side of the tracks and . . . thought we [the Gordons] were trying to be white.”
After serving in the US Army Air Corps, he enrolled in Los Angeles City College, and graduated in 1952. Gordon stated that he majored in performing arts because “I couldn’t keep myself away from the drama department.” His experiences in college influenced his outlook on race in America. Gordon stated “I was always cast in subservient or stereotypical roles,” and he began wondering why he was not given prominent parts in Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, Pirandello plays. After graduation, Gordon moved to New York City. Once on the east-coast, Charles Gordon added an “e” to the end of his name, and became Charles Gordone when he joined Actor’s Equity Association; a labor union for theater actors and stage managers.
Two months after Gordone’s arrival in New York, he performed in Moss Hart’s Broadway play, The Climate of Eden, the “first of many Broadway and off-Broadway productions” for Gordone. He soon realized that black actors had a hard time earning a living in the entertainment business, and he claimed he “began to get really intense” about the lack of acting jobs for African Americans. He started conversing with many “young black actors,” and soon started picketing theaters on Broadway for better job opportunities. Similarly, fellow Hoosier actor William Walker, who portrayed Reverend Sykes in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, became a fierce civil rights advocate in Hollywood after being relegated to roles as a domestic servant because of his race. Walker worked with actor and future president Ronald Reagan to obtain more roles for African Americans.
Around 1963, Gordone became the chairman of the Committee for Employment of Negro Performers (CENP). Gordone claimed in 1962 and 1963 that television producers feared the withdrawal of corporate sponsorship if they “put Negroes in their shows” and that “discrimination took more forms in the entertainment field than in any other industry.”
Although the Civil Rights Movement had made extensive strides toward improving equality among the races, civil rights laws did not deter de facto segregation, or forms of segregation not “codified in law but practiced through unwritten custom.” In most of America, social norms excluded African Americans from decent schools, exclusive clubs, suburban housing divisions, and “all but the most menial jobs.” Federal laws also did not address the various factors causing urban black poverty. As racial tension mounted throughout the United States, Gordone struggled to survive in New York City. During the last half of the 1950s, out of work and broke, Gordone took a job as a waiter for Johnny Romero in the first African-American owned bar in Greenwich Village. His experiences there inspired his play No Place to Be Somebody, which he began scripting in 1960.
During the next seven years writing his play, Gordone sporadically worked in the theater industry. He was an original member of the cast for Jean Genet’s The Blacks: A Clown Show. The playwright, a white man, intended the play for an all African-American cast and a white audience. He states in his script that “One evening an actor asked me to write a play for an all-black cast. But what exactly is a black? First of all, what’s his color?”
In The Blacks: A Clown Show, African Americans wage war against the “white power structure,” and the oppressed evolve into the oppressor. Warner noted that Genet’s play put Gordone “in touch with his black anger.” In 1969, Gordone claimed that his experience as part of the cast changed his life because the play dealt with problems about race, enabled him to confront the “hatred and fear I [Gordone] had inside me about being black,” and introduced a talented group of African-American actors to the entertainment media including James Earl Jones and Maya Angelou.
Gordone finished his own play, No Place to Be Somebody, in 1967. The plot of the play revolves around an African-American bar owner named Johnny Williams. Other characters include a mixed-race actor, a black homosexual dancer, a Jewish strumpet, a black prostitute, an Irish hipster, an aging black hustler, a member of the Italian mafia, an influential white judge, and the judge’s idealistic daughter. Johnny Williams, is a tavern-owner, pimp and wannabe racketeer. His foil, Gabriel, also an African-American, is an intellectual struggling to be accepted as a legitimate actor.
According to a New York Times reviewer, the characters are forced to try and survive in a society controlled by white standards. Johnny Williams possesses a desire to become “somebody” in Italian-run organized crime; Gabriel fails in his attempts to be cast in African American roles because he is light-skinned. The characters’ actions in No Place to Be Somebody are influenced by racial and cultural pressures directed towards characters of opposing races. According to Gordone, “It [the play] is the story of power, about somebody who is stifled who was born in a subculture and feels the only out is through the subculture.” By the end of the play, most of the characters fail in obtaining their goals because they have all set their “ambitions in excess of their immediate limitations.”
Gordone originally offered the play to the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC); an acting group rooted in the Black Arts Movement. He claimed the co-founder, Robert Hooks, turned it down because the NEC did not allow white actors in their theater troupe. Gordone and Warner produced a “showcase version” of the play at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in 1967, but “the response wasn’t too good.” Gordone and Warner lost all their money in the venture. But in 1969, the play was accepted for the “Other Stage Workshop,” in Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, at the New York Shakespeare Festival.
No Place to Be Somebody opened on May 4, 1969 to mixed reviews. New York Times reviewer, Walter Kerr, compared Gordone’s work to Edward Albee’s masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Other reviews called the play “engrossing,” “powerful,” and hailed it as one of the “unique” plays of 1969. On the contrary, influential African-American critic, Clayton Riley, blasted the play’s poor production and directorial choices. Riley also questioned Gordone’s “incomprehensible” dialogue, depiction of “self-hatred,” “contempt for Black people,” and his “desire to say too much.” Yet, Riley did state that Gordone possessed “splendid talents.” According to Gordone, Riley’s review “hurt Riley more than me [Gordone] … brother Clayton is uptight. He can’t face it that The [white] Man is helping one of his brothers.”
After the play’s opening, No Place to Be Somebody quickly moved to the Anspacher Theater for an extended period of time and opened for a limited run on Broadway in the ANTA Theater. Exactly one year after the play opened at the Shakespeare Festival, May 4, 1970, Gordone won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The play was the first off-Broadway winner, and Gordone became known as the first African-American playwright to win the award. Yet he did not appreciate being categorized as a member of “black theater” or the Black Arts Movement, unlike Indianapolis poet Etheridge Knight.
According to a 1982 interview, Gordone’s views on race “alienated many blacks.” Gordone argued, in a 1970 New York Times editorial piece, that writers like LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) should write about more than “how badly the black man is treated and how angry he is.” Gordone believed such theater intensified the split amongst the races, and he questioned “Is black really ‘beautiful’? Or is that beauty always hidden underneath the anger and resentment?” According to Gordone, Jones’ writing was “egotistical, smug, angry (never violent), frightened, and damning of every white man in the world,” and Gordone took offense that Jones was “attempting to speak for all people of color in this country.”
According to Mance Williams, Gordone opposed the Black Arts Movement’s notion that the “Black Experience is a singular and unique phenomenon.” Gordone believed that African-American culture was one part of the larger American Culture, reasoning that without the “white experience,” there cannot be a “black experience.” Williams states that Gordone believed the races were interrelated, and helped create the unique qualities that defined the “white” and “black” races. In a 1992 interview, Gordone said “We need to redefine multiculturalism. There’s only one culture—the American culture, and we have many ethnic groups who contribute.”
One possible explanation for Gordone’s belief in multiculturalism is the fact that he claimed his ancestral makeup consisted of “part Indian, part French, part Irish, and part nigger,” and he jokingly called himself “a North American mestizo.” Williams claims the playwright deemed the “color problem” could only be resolved through cooperation between the races, and that is why Gordone shied away from any radical political movements that could further divide the races. However, according to Gordone, his exclusion from the Black Arts Movement left him “Dazed, hurt, confused, and filled with self-pity.”
Gordone claimed his professional success put tremendous pressure on him. Winning the Pulitzer Prize made Gordone unhappy because he was acclaimed as a writer, rather than a director. According to Gordone, “every time you sit down at a typewriter, you’re writing a Pulitzer Prize. You’re always competing with yourself and you have to write something that’s as good or better.” In 1969, he began drinking heavily, hoping “get the muse out of the bottle” after the “long struggle.” During Gordone’s battle with alcoholism, he still worked in the theater industry. He got involved with a group called Cell Block Theater, which used theater as therapy as part of an inmate rehabilitation program.
In 1981, Gordone met Susan Kouyomjian and in 1982 they founded The American Stage, an organization devoted to casting minorities into non-traditional roles, in Berkeley, California. The American Stage productions included A Streetcar Named Desire with a Creole actor playing Stanley; Of Mice and Men with two Mexican-American actors playing George and Lenny; and The Night of the Iguana with an African American actor in the lead role of Shannon. According to Gordone, he and Kouyomjian never overtly wanted to provide more opportunities for “black, Hispanic and Asian actors,” but Gordone said “it is now very much my thing.” Their goal was to logically cast actors “so that you don’t insult the work’s integrity.” Gordone believed “innovative casting enhances the plays,” and makes them so exciting that “it’s almost like you’re seeing them for the first time.”
In a 1988 interview, Gordone continued commenting about the portrayal of race in contemporary literature and theater. Susan Harris Smith asked if theater critics viewed Gordone as “black first and a writer second?” He replied “Yes” and commented the practice was “racist.” He claimed he was a playwright trying to “write about all people . . . and to say I [Gordone] have a black point of view is putting me in a corner.” He believed African-American critics finally reached a “significant realization” about the theme of No Place to Be Somebody, that “if blacks walk willingly into the mainstream without scrutiny their identity will die or they will go mad.”
In 1987, Texas A&M University hired Gordone to teach in the English and Speech Communications Department. There, Gordone began embracing the American-western lifestyle or “cowboy culture.” The playwright stated, “The West had always represented a welcoming place for those in search of a new life,” and he found a “spirit of newfound personal freedom” within the American West. Gordone remained in Texas until his death on November 16, 1995. Friends and family scattered his ashes in a “traditional cowboy ceremony, with a riderless horse” near Spring Creek Ranch, Texas.