Cultivating a “Usable Past:” Insights from the 2022 Queer History Conference

Conference program, a preliminary list of sessions can be found here.

From June 12-14, scholars from all corners of the globe—including Cape Town, New Delhi, Toronto, Berlin, Peru, and Amsterdam—convened at San Francisco State University. Among them were Indianapolis historians Sam Opsahl (he/him), Jordan Ryan (they/them), and myself (she/her). The reason for this meeting of the minds?: the second ever Queer History Conference (QHC). Amidst the surreal beauty of the campus, lined by Muir Woods’s iconic redwood trees, we discussed universal research questions, learned about novel methodologies, and shared valuable resources. Considering how new the field of queer history is, I would be remiss not to discuss the insights gleaned at the QHC, many of which could be applied to various historical projects.

QHC attendees were a uniquely welcoming and curious bunch, although we were slightly intimidated by the number of people who decided to forgo compelling sessions like “Queering Women, Sex, and Youth in Colonial Settings” and “Legal Consciousness in Mid-Twentieth Century Queer and Trans History” in order to attend our panel. However, we felt immediately at ease presenting about those living on the margins of Indianapolis’s queer community, especially because our moderator Dr. Eric Gonzaba gave credence to Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that “wherever you go there is always a Hoosier doing something important there.”* Now an Assistant Professor of American Studies at California State University-Fullerton, Dr. Gonzaba grew up in rural southern Indiana and earned his BA from Indiana University. In his introduction, Dr. Gonzaba aptly noted that Indiana’s place in American queer history has been cemented both by the groundbreaking work of the Kinsey Institute and the controversial passage of the 2015 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Jordan Ryan, architectural historian, activist-scholar, and founder of The History Concierge, kicked off our session. Ryan adapted their presentation from their paper, co-authored with Dr. Paul Mullins for the Journal for the Anthropology of North America, entitled “Imagining Musical Place: Race, Heritage, and African American Musical Landscapes.” Ryan focused on the erasure of Black cultural sites along Indiana Avenue, including venues like the Pink Poodle (later the Famous Door) and Log Cabin, which hosted popular drag shows in the first half of the 20th century. Ryan noted that although female impersonators were popular in vaudeville revues, “moral ideologues sometimes resisted openly queer drag performances.” This was reflected in one Indianapolis Recorder editorial about a show at the Paradise that attracted an audience of 2,000. The opiner wrote that “‘fairy’ (fag) (pansy) public stage show and dance . . . was a disgrace to this community.” Ryan concluded that:

Like much of the complex expressive culture that flourished on Indiana Avenue, female impersonators have not found a place in the public memory that has been crafted by ideologues whose representations of jazz have revolved around a very narrow dimension of the Indiana Avenue musical experience.

Following Ryan’s analysis of the built environment and public memory, I presented my work about the exclusion of gender non-conforming individuals at Indianapolis gay bars and the queer community’s effort to grapple with this discrimination. (A draft of my paper can be read here). On separate occasions in 1989, Our Place refused to serve patrons Kerry Gean and Roberta Alyson, resulting in public humiliation and, in Alyson’s case, arrest. Bar employees refused service on the grounds that Gean and Alyson—members of the Indiana Crossdresser Society (IXE)—did not meet dress code and their identification did not match their female-presenting appearance. Our Place was by no means the only Indianapolis gay bar to implement these policies and soon the pages of gay newsletter The Works teemed with editorials about the conflict. The majority of them condemned this discrimination, likening it to the prohibition of Black individuals at Riverside Park, while some agreed that such policies were necessary to preserve the bars’ masculine atmosphere.

Perhaps ironically, it was Indianapolis police officer and community liaison Shirley Purvitis who facilitated a meeting to try to resolve issues between “certain segments of the gay community.” Bar owners, IXE members, IPD vice officers, and members of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union and Justice, Inc. shared their experiences and discussed excise law. Although contentious, such meetings, coverage in The Works, and one-on-one meetings between IXE members and bar owners, led to the reversal of policies at many bars. The conflict illuminated the value of forums and facilitators and demonstrated how amplifying multiple perspectives resulted in greater inclusion.

Sam Opsahl, program coordinator for Indiana Humanities, concluded our panel, presenting a paper adapted from his 2020 thesis, “Circle City Strife: Gay and Lesbian Activism during the Hudnut Era.” He highlighted the work of Justice, Inc. leader Kathy Sarris, noting that she “worked to insert the queer community’s narrative into public spaces by celebrating the gay and lesbian minority in public.” Opsahl positioned Sarris at the center of the local rights movement, ensuring that she will not be forgotten, unlike many lesbian activists whose work has been overshadowed by that of white, male leaders belonging to the middle class.

In 1983, through the Indianapolis Gay/Lesbian Coalition (IGLC), Berg and Sarris secured a meeting with Mayor William Hudnut, where they presented a list of seven recommendations. This marked the first time an Indianapolis mayor met with gay individuals to discuss issues facing the greater community. While the closed door meeting did not produce the results they hoped for, Berg and Sarris left feeling that “at least a dialogue had been initiated that they would continue to pursue should Hudnut be re-elected.” Opsahl contended that:

Mayor Hudnut, Berg, and Sarris contested the space on Monument Circle via protests and community celebrations, which rendered Indianapolis’ queer community impossible to ignore. Hudnut’s visions of an entrepreneurial city were endangered by the public debacles on Monument Circle, police discrimination, and the HIV crisis. Activists established their own dreams for citywide recognition that conflicted with Hudnut’s.

In listening to my colleagues’ presentations, fielding thoughtful audience questions, and receiving feedback from Dr. Gonzaba, I gained insight about Indianapolis’s queer past in real-time. It occurred to me that each of the individuals we studied had had to navigate the internalization of white, cisgender, heteronormative ideals by the LGBTQ community. We were left to ponder questions, like “What makes Indianapolis’s community unique?” and “How do we best document and memorialize queer history in a conservative region, in which anonymity provides safety?” The examination of intersectionality, as it relates to queer history, is relatively new and we hope our panel contributed to this field of study.

With our session mercifully scheduled for the first day, I was anxious to learn about others’ research findings and methodologies for the duration of the conference. I found the “Strategies for Documenting and Memorializing Queer History” panel to be particularly enlightening, as University of Toronto Professor Elspeth Brown’s presentation made me rethink how we conduct and use oral history interviews. Dr. Brown spoke about implementing novel interview strategies, such as utilizing guided meditation in order to engage interviewee’s senses. She found that this practice allowed subjects to both reinhabit and meaningfully relay the past.

Dr. Brown and her team have also given much thought to the question of utility, asking themselves: “Is the main purpose of conducting interviews to create a primary source for future historians to draw upon? Or is their value entrenched in telling relevant stories to modern audiences?” Regarding the latter, Dr. Brown is mindful of a study that found people listen to only half of an oral history interview, regardless of whether it is one minute or three hours long. Therefore, her team tried to think creatively about how to capture listeners’ attention. They hired an illustrator and sound engineer to recreate settings described by interview subjects. Pairing the animated sequences with two minute interview segments provided a multisensory experience. Dr. Brown played one such clip for the audience and I think we were all stunned by how immersed we were in the story.

Slide from Professor Elspeth Brown’s presentation about novel oral history interviewing techniques.

While attention has certainly been paid to illuminating history through social media, San Francisco State University Master’s student Jesse Ataide’s presentation “Imagining the Queer Past on Instagram” probed issues unique to queer history. Ataide initially created his account @queer_modernisms to share interesting images he came across in his research, which focused on the period between 1890 and 1969. However, when the account rapidly grew in followers (it is now up to 26,000), he realized he needed to be more intentional about how he curated content. He became ever-mindful of the question “who and what is queer?,” noting that many images circulated online appear queer to the “contemporary eye,” but can easily be misinterpreted. These include fascist/Nazi images that glorify the male body and “same sex intimacy across different eras and cultures.” Ataide noted that the subjects of such images may have actively resisted the “queer” designation and that “unambiguous self-identification” is certainly the exception, not the norm. So, in order to avoid outing or misinterpreting someone’s sexual identity, he tries to “find mention or evidence of queerness in academic, published, or other authoritative sources before posting.”

He also discussed the importance of representation. Images of white, masculine, middleclass male subjects garner the highest rates of engagement, so he is currently strategizing how to amplify diverse content without losing his platform. Ataide left us with many insightful questions to ponder, especially about how best to create a “useable past.”

Jesse Ataide presenting issues that he grapples with regarding queer history.

My time at SFSU concluded with a roundtable comprised of both academic press editors and scholars whose work has been published by such presses. Larin McLaughlin, Editor in Chief at the University of Washington Press, emphasized the importance of vision when crafting and pitching a book idea. It is not enough that your topic has never been written about before, but you should able to articulate to a publisher how your work moves the field forward. Finding an editor that shares your set of goals is also crucial in executing your vision. McLaughlin encouraged writers to focus on interdisciplinary topics, as they appeal to audiences outside of history. Dominique J. Moore, Acquisitions Editor for the University of Illinois Press, noted that a well-executed introduction chapter goes a long way in convincing an editor to publish your work. She also advised crafting a table of contents that contains a summary of each chapter’s arguments and sources, as well as how the chapters relate to one another. When considering your audience, ask yourself, “What conference do I want to see my book at?” Write for those attendees.

Panelists also articulated the differences between trade and university presses. They noted that whereas trade presses typically have much bigger marketing budgets that can be used to quickly advertise your book to a broad network, academic presses provide longevity, as they continue to publish books long after the first printing. Similarly, trade presses sometimes present more obstacles to publication, as aspiring authors have to convince an agent who then needs to convince an editor about your work. For the self-doubting historian, their reassurance about the peer review process was liberating: ultimately, you can and should push back against critiques that you vehemently disagree with. You are the expert, after all.

Sam Opsahl, Nicole Poletika, and Jordan Ryan at Indiana’s first LGBTQ historical marker, Monument Circle, courtesy of Jordan Ryan.

In a field dominated by stories of stigma, violence, and oppression, the 2022 QHC provided a much needed opportunity to learn about LGBTQ individuals who thrived, helped build community, and furthered human rights. It was invigorating to be around scholars equally humbled and excited to be part of this nascent field. The conference also provided reassurance that I am on the right track in terms of respectfully telling balanced, accurate histories about LGBTQ Hoosiers. Likewise, it revealed to me that people genuinely are curious about queer life in the Midwest. But before delving back into the pages of The Works, this midwestern historian is closing her eyes and revisiting San Francisco’s winding roads, dotted with colorful condominiums and flanked by glimmering beaches.

* IUPUI anthropology professor Paul Mullins was originally slated to moderate our session. Although Dr. Mullins was unable to make it, he was with us in spirit and scholarship.

The Corn Cob Curtain Controversy in Indianapolis, 1971-1975

Image sent to author from a former Corn Cob reader.

Marty Laubach was an unlikely political radical. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, his working-class Republican parents attended a church with members of the ultraconservative John Birch Society. But several concurrent events placed him at odds with his parent’s conservative values. The 1968 riots at the Democratic National Convention, the possibility of conscription into Vietnam, the 1970 shooting of antiwar demonstrators at Kent State University by National Guardsmen, and his older brother’s antiwar views solidified his youthful rebellion. He began attending antiwar demonstrations and started working on an unauthorized publication at Arsenal Technical High School called After Breakfast. The publication, which had a short duration, ceased in 1971, so Laubach and a group of like-minded peers created a new underground newspaper called the Corn Cob Curtain.[1] The paper’s countercultural tone and opposition to school policies about unauthorized publications on campus led students to file a lawsuit that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974.[2]

The Corn Cob Curtain controversy launched the conservative city of Indianapolis and high school students into a battle of free speech. Besides old newspaper clippings, there is no public recognition of the conflict. At its peak, the paper printed around 3,000 copies of a single issue, circulated in over 15 public and private Indianapolis high schools and the surrounding suburbs.[3] It received criticism from school administrators, legal officials, concerned residents who submitted letters to the editors, and the city’s two major newspapers, the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis News.

Laubach and his peers were not alone in their efforts in challenging high school’s censorship policies. From mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, a minority of Indiana high school students published and distributed underground publications. Laced with creative drawings, designs, and witty language, they bared the names Blackhawk Broadcast, Desiderata, and the purposely-misspelled New Amerikan Mercury. Constituting a minority of contributors, these publications emerged in urban and rural areas and raised poignant questions about local issues, race, education, and free speech rights.[4] Students remained either indifferent, hostile, or supportive.  School administrators balked at their existence and contributors risked retaliation from school officials.[5] Indiana State Treasurer, most notably, referred to them as “trash so foul as to be beyond normal belief” and claimed they were “flooding” high school and college campuses throughout the state.[6]

Image sent to author by a former contributor.

One contributor, Jeff Jacobs, recalled his experience dealing with hostile school officials while trying to distribute the paper. Although he found Arsenal Tech and Crispus Attucks High School campuses welcoming, he faced resistance at Southport and Emmerich Manual High Schools. At Manual High, school officials threatened to call the Marion County sheriff. “These little skirmishes, with our oppressors should not discourage us, but should enlighten us to try that much harder,” he told readers. “One of the greatest reasons for the CCC’s exisstance [sic] is to equalize the student with the administrators.”[7]

Within this atmosphere, the Corn Cob Curtain was born in 1971. Using pre-established social networks, activists  met teenagers from other schools throughout the summer, forming a citywide underground newspaper. The witty name originated from two Cold War metaphors—the “Iron Curtain” and the “Bamboo Curtain”—that alluded to geopolitical divisions between communist and non-communist countries in Europe and Asia. Adapting these metaphors, the students argued that their fight for constitutional rights on campus grounds was akin to the ideological battle “between the Free world and the Communist world.” They found themselves “locked behind a kind of ‘curtain’ of Midwestern Provincialism—a curtain of corn cobs.”[8]

The publication covered a multitude of topics. National and local news stories, American history, student affairs, education, music, movies, book reviews, and cartoons all appeared in the pages. Students critiqued their schools, with one contributor writing “All students in the Indianapolis area attending one of the prisons we call high school,” one written claimed. They insisted “high schools are de-humanizing,” and called for the formation of a citywide student union to “raise an effective voice to start the machinery in motions to bring about these changes.”[9] But no such group ever formed.

Generating public support for the newspaper was an arduous task at first. Some students had reportedly claimed the paper “eats shit.” But these complaints had legitimacy. The first two issues were aesthetically unappealing, images were scarce, stories lacked headlines, and the publication was printed on mimeograph paper. The students improved the paper substantially by printing it on newspaper print, incorporating images, and overall, made it look like an actual newspaper. In the third issue, publishers wrote an article titled “On Your Ass” and lambasted students’ lackluster participation and demanded action on their part to improve the paper’s shortcomings. “You, your paper, need to criticize what’s wrong with the Cob, if you don’t like it. You are the only one who can change it,” they exclaimed. If anything, the students wanted their peers to know that the Corn Cob Curtain was a collective effort, not just the responsibility from a small group of volunteers.[10]

Indianapolis News, July 12, 1971, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Corn Cob Curtain controversy began after the district Superintendent banned the publication upon the fifth issue’s release. Administrators’ justification for the ban stemmed from a cartoon that appeared on the back page. In a cartoon series called George the Cat, the character George wires up some dynamite in a bathroom while expressing dissatisfaction with the school. Just as he lights the fuse, the principal walks into the restroom, leading George to frantically jump into the toilet. As the principal begins using the restroom the toilet explodes. George survives the explosion with bruises, a broken arm, and human feces on his head. He quips, “I may have gotten rid of the school, but I’m still eatin’  the principals’ shit.” What was intended as a joke infuriated school officials who viewed the entire publication as obscene and wanted it discarded. The district’s attorneys agreed. They cited the cartoon as advocating “violence and the destruction and the school and the murder of the principal.” This gave school officials fodder to justify banning the paper.[11]

Laubach and five friends sought legal assistance from Craig Pinkus of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana and Ronald Elberger of the Legal Service Organization (LSO). Both young lawyers, Pinkus and Elberger agreed to represent the students. As a publicly funded organization that represented low-income families in Marion County, the LSO received criticism for representing what the local press dismissed as privilege, middle-class youth. Although this description wasn’t entirely accurate, it never halted the conservative editorial board of the Indianapolis Star from alleging the group was seeking to “destroy the power of Indianapolis school officials to ban a smutty underground paper from high school.”[12]

The federal district court ruled in the students’ favor, as did the U.S. Court of Appeals, citing that school officials had failed to show the detrimental effects the publication had on young people. Emboldened by calls to appeal the case by the Indianapolis Star and Indianapolis News after the district court ruling, the school district appealed the case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1974.[13] The oral arguments delivered by the school district’s attorney to Supreme Court justices revealed that school officials viewed the issue as a power struggle.

Chicago Tribune, December 9, 1974, 33, accessed Newspapers.com.

Attorney Lila Young insisted the district had “a complete inability to have any rules or regulations of what is going to be distrusted in our schools.” She constantly referred to the Corn Cob Curtain as “filth,” and alleged it contained “filthy cartoons” and “gutter language.” She argued that the distribution of such material contributed “to the delinquency of minors.” The students’ lawyer, Craig Pinkus, juxtaposed the publication to other material students read in schools that also continued inappropriate language, such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Catcher in the Rye. But the justices continuously asked him whether the policy applied to elementary schools, and Pinkus stated his organization drew a line between primary and secondary schools.[14]

Since the students did not file a class-action lawsuit, Supreme Court justices ruled the case moot in February 1975. Additionally, the publication no longer existed, partly because the plaintiffs had graduated from high school. The court remanded the case back to the lower court. Justice William O. Douglass wrote a dissenting opinion about the mootness of the case. He believed clashes would continue between students and administrators and the issue might appear in court again.[15] But his prophesy never came to fruition in Indianapolis. Interestingly, no consensus emerged for what the ruling meant. The ACLU argued that students’ rights to distribute an unauthorized publication on campus had not been overturned while the Indianapolis Star viewed the ruling as a victory for the school district, but acknowledged its inconclusiveness. Nonetheless, by 1975 high school underground newspapers were no longer a topic of contention in Indiana.[16]

The Corn Cob Curtain controversy represented the clash of counterculture and conservative politics in a city impacted by the social upheaval of the 1960s much later than other major urban areas. Tame compared to locations such as the San Francisco Bay area, Chicago, and New York, it took little to be declared a radical by city and school officials in Indianapolis. Indianapolis’s high school students infrequently participated in strikes. Instead, they created a citywide student protest movement through an underground newspaper and built a growing, radical political consciousness in the process.

Notes:

[1] Martin Laubach, interview with author, June 9, 2017, Bloomington, Indiana.

[2] Aaron G. Fountain, Jr., “Building a Student Movement in Naptown: The Corn Cob Curtain Controversy, Free Speech, and 1960s and 1970s High School Activism in Indianapolis,” Indiana Magazine of History 114, no. 3 (September 2018): 202-237.

[3] Oral Arguments, Board of School Commissioners of the City of Indianapolis v. Jacobs, December 11, 1974, accessed Oyez.org.

[4] Diane Divoky, How Old Will You Be in 1984?: Expressions of Student Outrage from the High School Free Press (New York: Avon Books, 1969), ix.

[5] Fountain Jr., “Building a Student Movement in Naptown,” 209.; “W.G.U. Responds to Criticism,” Warren Owl (Warren Central High School), December 10, 1971, Warren Central High School Archives, Indianapolis, Ind.

[6] “Snyder Hails Tax Feat of Legislature,” Indianapolis Star, March 26, 1969.

[7] Jeff Jacobs, Corn Cob Curtain 1, no. 3, December 1971, 4, Box 6, Folder 15, Youth Liberation Press Records.

[8] Corn Cob Curtain1, no. 1, [1971?], copy in author’s possession, used with permission by Deborah Owen.

[9] “Jail Break,” Corn Cob Curtain, 1, no. 5, [1972?], 5, Box 6, Folder 15, Youth Liberation Press Records, SCRC 175, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[10] “On Your Ass,” Corn Cob Curtain, 1, no. 3, December 1971, Box 6, Folder 15, Youth Liberation Press Records.

[11] Ibid., 223; “Underground Paper ‘Guidelines’ Sought,” Indianapolis Star, September 29, 1972.

[12] Fountain Jr., “Building a Student Movement in Naptown,” 223-224.; “Funds for Radicalism?” Indianapolis Star, October 20, 1972.

[13] Fountain, Jr., “Building a Student Movement in Naptown,” 230-231.

[14] Oral Arguments, Board of School Commissioners of the City of Indianapolis v. Jacobs, December 11, 1974, accessed Oyez.org..

[15] Jacobs v. The Board of School Commissioners, 1975, U.S. Supreme Court. LEXIS 30.

[16] Fountain, Jr., “Building a Student Movement in Naptown,” 232-234.

What Pearl Bassett’s Memory Reveals About Discrimination in Marion

Image of Pearl Bassett courtesy of WRTV

*This post was written by IUPUI Public History graduate student Molly Hollcraft. 

Often, stories and memories play an important part in understanding history. They offer a human element that helps connect people to one another. W. Todd Groce wrote in an article for History News that “Memory is deeply emotional,” and when people remember something they do so because they have a connection to it. According to historian David Thelen, memory “can illuminate how individuals, ethnic groups, political parties, and cultures shape and reshape their identities.” In 2009, at the age of 98, Black activist Pearl Cannon Bassett gave an interview to a student at the University of Southern Indiana. In the interview, she recounted events related to civil rights and desegregation that she witnessed while living in Marion, Indiana. Bassett’s memories of the discrimination and Civil Rights Movement in Grant County illuminate how Black citizens in Marion shaped their identity.

Pearl Bassett and Civil Rights

Pearl Elizabeth Cannon Bassett was born April 28, 1911, in Marion, Indiana. Aside from the years she spent in Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio and Chicago, Illinois, Pearl Bassett, also known to many as “Ms. Pearl,” spent her life in Marion. In her oral history interview, Bassett briefly talked about her early education and her family. She recalled how her teacher lowered her grade because it was “too high.” While she was not living in Marion at the time, she recalled the impact the 1930 Marion lynching had on the local Black community. As a 19-year-old, she would have been about the same age as victims Tom Shipp and Abe Smith. In August, the young men had been jailed for the murder of Claude Deeter and rape of Mary Ball. A white mob ripped Shipp and Smith from their cells, brutally beat them, and lynched them near the Marion courthouse. Fearing for her safety, Bassett’s family told her that she should not return home yet. When the National Guard was called into action in Marion not long after the lynching, some of the soldiers were standing in her family’s yard. In remembering the lynching, she said “that was terrible because we had a lot of discrimination.” Shortly after the tragedy, she became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Through organizations like the NAACP, Bassett became an active member in the Marion community and helped fight discrimination and segregation. Her name appeared frequently in the African American newspaper The Indianapolis 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.

Matter Park, ca. 1925, courtesy of Indiana Album.

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.”

Photo of Pearl Bassett with a plaque that says “Marion’s First Minority Champion.” Photo courtesy of Rawls Mortuary

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.

State Rep. Kevin Mahan (R-Hartford City) (left, podium) honoring Marion native Pearl Bassett (center), April 8, 2019, at the Indiana Statehouse, courtesy of the Indiana House of Representatives Republican Caucus.

Sources:

*Newspapers accessed through Hoosier State Chronicles and Newspapers.com.

W. Todd Groce, “The Value of History: When History and Memory Collide,” History News (2006): 5-6, accessed JSTOR.

David Thelen, “Memory and American History,” The Journal of American History (1989): 1117 1129, accessed JSTOR.

“Pearl Bassett,” Indiana Commission for Women: Writing her Story, 2019, accessed in.gov.

“Pearl Bassett Oral History Interview,” University of Southern Indiana, November 7, 2009, University Archives and Special Collections, David L. Rice Library, University of Southern Indiana.

Nicole Poletika, “Strange Fruit: The 1930 Marion Lynching and the Woman Who Tried to Prevent It,” Indiana History Blog, May 15, 2018, accessed The Indiana History Blog.

From “Gay Knights” to Celebration on the Circle: A History of Pride in Indianapolis

The New Works (August 1990): 15, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

* A note on terminology: We recognize that terminology referring to this marginalized community will continue to evolve. We have chosen to use “LGBTQ+” and “queer” after consulting with Indy Pride board members, historians specializing in the field, and new scholarship. We are cognizant that the community is not monolithic and that some individuals may not identify with these terms. It is also important to note that the mainstream civil rights movement excluded people of color, those living in poverty, and transgender individuals. 

The fabric of America has always been comprised of LGBTQ+ individuals, but due to social stigmas, legal discrimination, and the perpetuation of violence, many of these individuals lived quietly. While the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City proved to be a watershed moment in the national fight for equality, those in the conservative state of Indiana continued to socialize privately, for the most part. In 1976, the first “Gay Pride Week” was held in Indianapolis, hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) and the Gay Peoples Union. Rather than celebrate publicly, attendees were invited to attend a picnic at Sugar Creek Park, donate blood at MCC, participate in a “Youth Kamp Disco,” and attend workshops entitled “Do I Tell My Parents?,” “Christian and Gay,” “Lifestyles in the ‘70s,” and “Gays and Government.” MCC pastor Rev. James Hill said the purpose of the week was “to make society aware of our presence and as a self-affirming thing for gay people as well—affirming they have the right to be.’”

Program, 4th Annual Gay Pride Week Brunch, June 24, 1984, Jeffrey L. Huntington Collection, L198, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

According to an article The Works, when Pride plans failed to materialize in 1980, activists gathered at the Ramada Inn and formed a Pride Week Committee, which sponsored the 1981 Pride Week Brunch at Essex Hotel House. The Indianapolis Star noted in 1982 that celebrations continued in an insular manner, writing that individuals celebrated “Indiana style—without marches or noisy rallies.” Instead, they raised funds for various causes, donated food to the needy, and “tried quietly to let others know they are here.” Celebrants in 1984 continued the tradition of picnics, in addition to raising funds for AIDS research. The summer of that year, hundreds of LGBTQ+ Hoosiers met at Monument Circle to socialize, listen to local activists, learn about their rights, and register to vote.

The Works (September 1984): 6, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

While organizers were careful to note that this was not a protest or demonstration, it was the first large public gathering of queer individuals in the state. Their goal was to increase visibility for the community, hoping the show of solidarity would lead to a decrease in police harassment and increased commitment to solving the murders of LGBTQ+ individuals. Mayor Bill Hudnut reluctantly issued a letter that was read at one of the gatherings, declaring a commitment to “an absence of anti-gay bias in all police matters.” According to a June 1985 The Works article, this marked “the first time any Mayor of Indianapolis has made any positive public pronouncement on gays in Indianapolis.” Although relations between police and elected officials and queer Hoosiers would remain relatively fraught, the Works considered the 1984 gatherings a success, writing that the events:

will go down in the gay history of Indiana as the first time gays in this state have exercised their Constitutional right to freedom of public assembly. Gays and lesbians exercised this Constitutional right in no less a place than the Monument Circle area of Indianapolis in full view of many Indianapolis citizens who came to see what gays had to say.

The Works (September 1984): 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

After the 1984 gatherings, which some dubbed “Gay Knights on the Circle,” Pride Week celebrations remained relatively private until 1990. That year, the twentieth anniversary of NYC’s first Pride Week, Indiana activists felt ready to celebrate publicly. Organized primarily by Justice, Inc.’s Ruth Peters, the New Works News noted that the June event would “provide an opportunity for gays and lesbians to increase their political and community awareness and visibility. Having the event on the Circle will provide both an educational and enjoyable atmosphere for the Indianapolis community at large to enjoy the speakers and entertainers.”

Some Hoosiers, like Drew Carey, feared making themselves vulnerable by attending the state’s first large outdoor Pride event. Nevertheless, he felt his presence was important, writing in an editorial reprinted in the New Works June 1990 issue:

I can’t tell you how much this intimidates me. I have never made such an open stand. But I’m going to be there, stomach in knots and all, because there is nothing so vitally important. . . . If we make excuses for not going, we manifest the internalized homophobia that will continue to keep us on the fringe, where society need not even recognize that we exist. We say to ourselves, to friends, to family, and to society, ‘I’m ashamed; I’m embarrassed about what I am. Your stereotypes about gays and lesbians are right.’

Those who turned out for the unprecedented event enjoyed entertainment like drag shows, learned about gay rights legislation, listened to AIDS activists, and interacted with those manning booths for the Indiana Crossdresser Society (IXE), Indiana Youth Group, Damien Center, Act-Up Indy, Marion County Health Department Condom Contest, and Indiana Pro-Choice Action League.

“Circle Celebration Pics,” The New Works (August 1990): 15, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

Despite the presence of protesters, the event empowered attendees, challenged social stigmas, and welcomed a range of sexual and gender expressions. The New Works News editor reflected in August, “As I looked around me . . .  I had but one thought: this is what a city is supposed to be like-alive, vibrant, filled with productive, enjoyable activity.” Carmen Kruer had a similar sentiment, writing in an editorial for the same issue that for the first time the community could:

socialize publicly with minimal fear of harassment and was also able to feel the strength that its numbers can provide. I was very proud to be a part of the lesbian and gay community as it drew together to support one goal – the attainment of a safe environment for all persons regardless of their sexual orientation, race, creed, or gender. I will always remember this day as I anticipate the next public celebration in Indiana.

“3000 Attend ‘Circle Celebration,'” The New Works, 1, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

With the event’s success, organizations like Justice, Inc. pushed to keep the momentum going through donations and activism. One writer for the New Works News wrote in July that the “Celebration on the Circle” was only the beginning, contending that “The Gay Civil Rights movement is at a critical point in its development. Much has been accomplished, but there is still much of a negative nature which must be overcome both within ourselves and in the public in general. . . . It’s up to us.”

In the ensuing years, Justice, Inc. and Indy Pride helped grow the event and by 2012 an estimated 80,000 people and 300 vendor booths attended the celebration. According to Indy Pride, the Cadillac Barbie Pride Parade “featured a float, an antique truck, a few drag queens, some antique cars, and several walking groups,” becoming a cornerstone of celebrations. Of the annual event’s significance, Indy Pride noted “In the years since Pride first ‘came out of the closet,’ the exposure has created a massive change in the society of the city of Indianapolis and the state of Indiana. The battle is not won until everyone is equal but the Indy Pride Festival and the Indy Pride Parade are Indiana’s symbol of a growing acceptance in our cultures.”

Indy Pride celebrant, Mark A. Lee LGBT Photo Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Society.

As with most efforts to secure civil rights, progress for the queer community in the city known for its “Polite Protest” and “Hoosier Hospitality” occurred in fits and spurts. The 2014 legalization of gay marriage and the 2015 enactment of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act exemplifies this duality. As of 2021, organizations like the Indiana Youth Group and Indy Pride continue to provide resources and press for equal protection under the law.

* Sources used to write this post can be found here.

Learn about the following Indiana LGBTQ+ history topics:

“’Actually, Genuinely Welcomed:’ How North Meadow Circle of Friends Embraced and Wed LGBTQ Individuals”

“Gloria Frankel & The Seahorse: The South Bend LGBT Club’s Fight for Gay Rights”

“How Indy’s Queer Community Challenged Police Harassment in the 1980s”

“The Debate over ‘Decency:’ How Hoosiers Challenged Anita Bryant’s Anti-Gay Rights Crusade”

“’Walk a Mile in Their Pumps:’ Combating Discrimination within Indy’s Queer Community”

“’We Had Sung Them Off the Monument Steps:’ Pride, Protest, and Patriotism in Indianapolis”

Helen Corey: Arab American Politician, Leader, Food Ambassador

Helen Corey welcomed John F. Kennedy to Terre Haute just fifteen days before he was elected U.S. president. Credit: Char Wade.

Helen Corey was perhaps the most noteworthy Arab American leader in central Indiana during the 1960s and 1970s. More than four decades before Mitch Daniels became Indiana governor, she was the first Arab American to hold a statewide elected office. It is a travesty that she has not received the attention that her accomplishments demand.

Born 1923 in Canton, Ohio, her Syrian parents, Maheeba (“Mabel”) and Mkhyal (“Mike”) Corey, were originally from the Damascus area. Her parents belonged to the generation of immigrants who arrived in the United States during what Mark Twain referred to as the Gilded Age. The country was booming economically, and employers were in desperate need of labor. Helen Corey’s family, like others, sought these opportunities. Like many Armenians and Turks, Corey’s Syrian parents were citizens of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Southeastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean before World War I. Thousands of Ottoman citizens settled in Indiana, especially in Michigan City, South Bend, Indianapolis, and Terre Haute. The Indianapolis News noted in 1907 that these ethnic groups “have all made contributions to America’s making, though as a rule they have not been so welcome as other races.”

As a second-generation immigrant, Helen was raised to embrace both Arab and American cultures, as well as the family’s Antiochian Orthodox Christian roots. “When my sister, brother, and I were children,” she wrote, “our parents sent us to the Orthodox church hall following grade school classes where we learned to read and write the [Arabic] language from Arabic scholars Yusuf (Joseph) Sabb and Hunna (John) Shaheen. Our first lesson taught us that this was one of the richest languages in the world.” When the family was around Arabic-speaking friends, they used Arabic names and titles. Brother Albert was Abdullah. Her father was “Boo Abdullah [the father of Albert]” and her mother was addressed by the title, “Im Abdullah [the mother of Albert].”

She recalled in her 1962 The Art of Syrian Cookery:

When we lived in Canton, Ohio, as children, my sister, brother, and I used to get a great deal of pleasure watching my father and his friends take turns smoking the narghileh (Turkish water pipe) as they relaxed during the evenings, exchanging stories of their journey to this country. The narghileh had the sound of bubbling water and an incense aroma filled the house from the Persian tobacco that was used. Our narghileh was made of beautiful cut glass with an oriental brass stem, and the smoking pipe that was attached had an almost cobra look with its many variegated colors. . . The guests were served Turkish coffee and the hostess was ready to play the part of fortuneteller. The cups were inverted and left to stand so that the coffee sediment formed a pattern on the inside of the cup. Then the cups were turned up again and the hostess interpreted the future of each guest from the pattern in his cup.

Around 1947, the Corey family moved to Terre Haute, the home of a sizeable Arab American community. It was called “Little Syria.” Its proximity to the Wabash River facilitated the peddling of wares in Illinois and Kentucky. Historian Robert Hunter wrote that it was a “partial reconstruction of the one that existed in Ayn al-Shaara,” a village located not far from the city of Damascus. According to William Nasser, Indiana’s “father of cardiology” and the founder of the St. Vincent Hospital heart surgery program, Arab American youth faced discrimination in Terre Haute, where he was forced to ride in the back of the bus. Syrians were also barred from joining the country club. For these reasons, as Helen Corey noted in an interview with Robert Hunter, “in the 1920s and 1930s, Syrians did not have a prominent role in civic affairs and leadership of Terre Haute.” She and other second-generation immigrants opened the doors of opportunity for other Arab Americans. Corey’s political career began in 1948 when she worked as the secretary to the city’s longest serving mayor, Ralph Tucker. She would hold that position until 1961.

This job provided her a platform and the connections needed to become active in the Indiana Democratic Party. In 1956, Corey directed the speaker’s bureau of the Indiana Democratic State Central Committee, and in 1959, she was voted Indiana’s Outstanding Young Democratic Woman. On October 25, 1960, she was part of Vigo County’s welcoming committee for then Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party’s candidate for U.S. President. As a Young Democratic National Committeewoman, she was chosen to greet the “Kennedy Caravan” as it motored its way through Indiana and Illinois. She was also elected Indiana’s Young Democrat National Committeewoman and represented the state at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

Helen Corey was going places. In 1961, she became director of the Bureau of Women and Children in the Indiana Division of Labor. She offered written guidance to Indiana employers on child labor laws and women’s issues in the workplace. She consulted with members of the Indiana General Assembly.

Among the dishes featured on the cover of Helen Corey’s 1962 classic are meat pies, stuffed grape leaves, raw kibbi, stuffed zucchini, assorted pastries, and fried kibbi. In the upper right corner there is a water pipe.

It almost unbelievable that, as she was working hard for the state and the Democratic Party, she also found the time to pen one of the most influential cookbooks on Syrian food ever written in English.

Published by New York’s Doubleday Press in its series on global cuisines, The Art of Syrian Cookery (1962) stayed in print for decades. By the middle of 1965, it had sold 17,000 copies. Its influence could be felt across North America, and it was perhaps the most successful book in its category until the publication of Claudia Roden’s The Book of Middle Eastern Food in 1972. Even then, its many fans kept it as an essential reference in their kitchen. Food writers from Los Angeles to Miami mentioned it in their columns. Syrians and other Arabs checked it out from their local public libraries. One Arab American in Morgan City, Louisiana, said that “it was as near as mama’s cooking as anything I have ever read.” In 1982, a well-known Lebanese cook in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, explained that though her grandmother taught to her cook, she also relied on The Art of Syrian Cookery.

The book was dedicated to Corey’s mother, Maheeba, who not only shared the technical aspects of how to make such food, but taught Helen and her sister, Kate, about the cultural, religious, and social meanings and functions of everything from araq (anise-flavored brandy) to zalabee (doughnuts). This was food meant to be shared with others on important occasions in the old country and in the new. Corey explained, for example, what dishes are traditionally offered at wedding receptions and during Arab Orthodox Christian celebrations of Easter and the Feast of the Epiphany.

If it had been published today, this nostalgic food memoir might have launched the career of the charismatic and hard-working Helen Corey as a celebrity chef. But it appeared one year before Julia Child made her debut on public television, and most upscale restaurants hired only male chefs at the time.

Cooking had to remain a side gig.

Indiana Gov. Roger D. Branigin swears in Helen Corey as the first Arab American statewide office holder, 1965. Credit: Sandy Kassis.

Fortunately, Helen Corey’s political career blossomed at the very same moment that the book was published. In 1963, she was appointed executive secretary of the state’s Commission on the Status of Women. The next year, she won the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for office and then Indiana voters elected Corey the 23rd Reporter of the Indiana Supreme and Appellate Courts. She received 1,110,390 votes, enough to unseat incumbent Reporter Virginia Caylor, who got 920,168 votes.

As Reporter, Helen Corey’s job was to edit, publish, and distribute all of the judicial rulings of the Supreme and Appellate Courts and distribute them to law libraries, universities, and law offices. She worked with just two staff members in the Capitol’s Room 416, where Benjamin Harrison once had his office. The significance of Corey’s election as the first Arab American office holder in Indiana was not lost on the U.S. Department of State, which featured her in its Life in America series distributed abroad.

Helen Corey constantly encouraged women to become politically active. In 1965, for example, she was a featured speaker at the Marion County Democratic women’s weekend retreat to French Lick. She addressed the Indiana Federation of Democratic Women in 1967.

In 1966, Helen Corey, Frank Kafoure, and Father Joseph Shaheen, presented Indiana Gov. Branigin with a commemorative license plate celebrating the state’s sesquicentennial and the 40th anniversary of the founding of St. George Orthodox Church. Credit: St. George Church.

That year, she was making $12,500 in her post. The job also came with an official parking spot at the Capitol, but when Corey was assigned spot no. 21 instead of spot no. 22, Republican Clerk Kendal Mathews went berserk. He complained to the governor and the motor vehicles commissioner about it, and he parked in Corey’s spot, even though the parking attendant told him not to. The Indianapolis Star dubbed the incident “Coreyography.” Corey said the whole thing was ridiculous.

This was not the only time her gender became an issue. She was often asked why she wasn’t married, and she gave the answer that one had to give at the time: she believed that women should be married, but that they could have a career, too. Her good looks were also frequently addressed in public; the Indianapolis News referred to her as a “model” and a “pixie politician.”

Helen Corey campaigned hard in 1968, but it was a Republican year in Indiana statewide elections. Credit: Indiana Historical Society.

When Helen Corey stood for reelection in 1968, she campaigned hard, giving four speeches a day and traveling over 3,000 miles throughout the state to ask for Hoosiers’ votes. But with the exception of Democratic U.S. Senator Birch Bayh, Republicans dominated statewide offices that year. Helen Corey’s opponent, Marilou Wertzler, got 1,067,357 votes. Corey received 925,616.

After leaving office, Corey remained active with Democratic women’s causes, but by the middle 1970s she turned her attention, at least in part, to political organizing on behalf of Arab American causes. Arab issues were front and center in U.S. public life at the time. For example, in 1973, the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) stopped selling oil to nations that supported Israel in its dispute with Egypt. This embargo caused fuel shortages in the United States. Despite the fact that OPEC included non-Arab countries such as Iran and Venezuela–not to mention the fact that most Arab countries are not large oil producers–Arabs in general were blamed for making Americans wait in lines at gas stations. Prejudice and discrimination against Arab Americans increased. The social acceptance that Arab-descended Americans had achieved was at risk.

Second- and third-generation Arab Americans established the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA) to lobby national legislators on the foreign issues that affected their lives and livelihoods. One of its programs was “A Day on the Hill,” during which Arab Americans from each state would travel to Washington to meet with their members of Congress. Helen Corey was an obvious choice to coordinate the effort in Indiana. Working with George Halaby, Zeldia Hanna, Vicki Mesalam, and Faye Williams, she kicked off the Central Indiana NAAA chapter’s effort to gain members with a huge hafli (party) at the Stouffer Hotel in 1975. It featured Arab dancing, music, and food.

Over time, the membership of the NAAA decreased as the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee became the largest Arab American national organization. But Helen Corey and other Arab Hoosiers still fought anti-Arab prejudice. In 1990 future Vice President Mike Pence, then a candidate for the U.S. Congress, ran a campaign ad in which a white actor donned Arab head gear, a black robe, dark sunglasses, and used a fake Arab accent to intimate that Democrats were unwitting collaborators of the country’s Arab enemies. Helen Corey spoke out. “It’s degrading a culture,” she said, explaining that the use of racial stereotyping would drive many voters away. (Pence defended the ad.)

Helen Corey’s later cookbooks included meatless menus and an emphasis on the health benefits and Biblical origins of a Mediterranean diet.

In the final decades of the 1900s, Helen Corey did not focus as much on explicit political organizing as she did on culinary diplomacy. A leading authority on Syrian and Lebanese food and cooking, Helen Corey used food not only to bridge ethnic differences among Americans but also to educate Americans about her Antiochian Orthodox Christian faith. In 1990, she self-published her second cookbook, Food from Biblical Lands, and made a 70-minute documentary to promote it. In 2004, she published Healthy Syrian and Lebanese Cooking. These books repeated some of the original recipes from the 1962 classic, but also incorporated new dishes from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Palestine. There were also new stories of Helen Corey’s travels in Syria and new pictures of her family members, including one of her mother’s 100th birthday party.

Helen Corey (second from left) at historical marker dedication in Terre Haute, courtesy of the Tribune-Star.

Corey loved to share that heritage with her nieces. Robert Hunter wrote that Corey preserved and passed on “a big collection of folk stories, songs, and poems, most of which she got from her mother.” Corey told Hunter that “much has been lost,” but she insisted that “a lot has remained…  a ‘Syrianness,’ a sense of who you are and wanting to hold onto it even though you do not have much actual knowledge.”

During her long career, Helen Corey gained recognition and respect for her people, for her culture, and for herself. She is an unsung figure of Arab American and Indiana history whose life is just waiting for greater illumination.

Jay Brodzeller was the chief researcher of this post. Three of Helen Corey’s nieces, Cathy Azar, Sandy Kassis, and Char Wade, provided invaluable assistance. Thanks, as well, to Joan Bey, Matt Holdzkom, Mina Khoury, Rev. Joseph Olas, Father Paul Fuller, Julie Slaymaker, and Father Anthony Yazge.

Additional Sources:

“Armenians and Syrians,” Indianapolis News, March 8, 1907, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Little Syria on the Wabash” historical marker file, 84.2018.1, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

Interview with Helen Corey, conducted by Dr. Robert Hunter, Indiana State University, June 25, 2009, Indiana Historical Bureau marker file.

The Unlikely Civil Rights Legacy of Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton

“Sherman Minton,” photograph, n.d., Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana State Library, accessed Indiana State Library Digital Collections.

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.

New Albany High School, The Vista, 1909, accessed Maurer School of Law History and Archives, Indiana University. Sherman Minton is second from the left.
Indiana University, The Arbutus for Nineteen Thirteen, “U.S., School Yearbooks, 1880-2012,” accessed AncestryLibrary.com

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.[1]

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.[2] He then won a scholarship to Yale University School of Law where he earned his Master of Laws degree in 1916.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5]

Indianapolis Star, May 24, 1932, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.

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.[6] For the following decade, he practiced law before making another unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1930.[7] During the 1930s, he became even more politically active, campaigning for Paul McNutt in the 1932 gubernatorial race.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] He took his seat in the U.S. Senate next to future President Harry Truman in January 1935.

Tampa Morning Tribune, January 3, 1935, 2, accessed Newspapers.com

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.[11]

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.[12] 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.”[13] 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.[14]

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. [15]

Chicago Tribune, October 7, 1941, 2, accessed Newspapers.com

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.[16]

New York Daily News, March 30, 1948, 57, accessed Newspapers.com.

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.[17]

Indianapolis Times, October 12, 1949, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

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.[18] 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.

“George W. McLaurin,” photograph, n.d., Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, accessed Oklahoma Historical Society.

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.”[19] 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.[20]

Alabama Tribune, February 17, 1950, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

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.[21]

“English Class at Moton High School,” photograph, 1914, Brown v. Board of Education, National Archives. National Archives caption: English class at Moton High School, a school for Black students, one of several photographs entered as evidence in the case Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, which was one of five cases that the Supreme Court consolidated under Brown v. Board of Education, ca. 1951

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.[22]

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.[23] 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.

Greencastle Daily Banner, November 17, 1953, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

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.[24]

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.[25]

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 Barrows v. Jackson case would decide if state-sanctioned segregated neighborhoods could continue.[26]

Alabama Tribune, April 24, 1953, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

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 Barrows v. 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.[27]

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.[28]

Indianapolis Recorder, June 20, 1953, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

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.[29]

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.[30]

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.[31]

California Eagle, June 18, 1953, 2, accessed Newspapers.com

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.”[32]  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.

Tracy Hadden Loh, Christopher Coes, and Becca Buthe, “The Great Real Estate Reset,” December 16, 2020, accessed Brookings.

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.[33]

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.

Notes

[1] 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.

[2] “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.

[3] “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.

[4] Gugin and St. Clair, 52.

[5] 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.

[6] “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.

[7] “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.

[8] “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.

[9] Ralph L. Brooks, “State’s Commerce-Industry Division Affects All Citizens,” Indianapolis Sunday Star, September 17, 1933, 57, accessed Newspapers.com.

[10] “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.

[11] Gugin and St. Clair, Chapter Four: “Fulfilling His New Deal Promise.”

[12] “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.

[13] Congressional Record, 75th Congress, 3rd Session, 1938, vol. 83:2. 1931-45, cited in Gugin and St. Clair, 115.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “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.

[16] Gugin and St. Clair, Chapter Seven: “A Faithful Disciple of Judicial Restraint.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] “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.

[19] 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.

[20] Supreme Court, McLaurin v. Oklahoma State.

[21] 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.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Gugin and St. Clair, 263.

[24] 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.

[25] 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.

[26] David N. Atkinson, “Justice Sherman Minton and the Protection of Minority Rights,” Washington and Lee Law Review 34, iss. 1 (1997): 97-117, accessed Washington and Lee University School of Law Scholarly Commons.

[27] Supreme Court, Barrows et al. v. Jackson.

[28] Ibid.; Atkinson, 109.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Supreme Court, Barrows et al. v. Jackson.

[31] Gugin and St. Clair, 248.

[32] Ibid., 248-49.

[33] Tracy Hadden Loh, Christopher Coes, and Becca Buthe, “The Great Real Estate Reset,” December 16, 2020, Brookings Institute.

How IU’s Thomas Atkins Proved that “Power is Colorless”

Thomas Atkins, 1961, Arbutus yearbook, accessed Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

Residents at Smithwood Hall, a racially-integrated women’s dormitory at Indiana University, pelted objects from their windows on April 8, 1960. This did little to drive away the students who surrounded the building, singing segregation songs with lyrics like “Glory, glory Governor Faubus, the South shall rise again” and “Let’s all go to n****r haven.” Not until campus police arrived did the emboldened protesters finally disperse. The reason for their ire? The university had just elected its first African American student body president, Elkhart native Thomas I. Atkins. In fact, he was the first Black student to serve as president of a Big Ten school.

Protesters apparently targeted the dorm “commonly regarded as the key housing unit in campus elections” because residents voted narrowly in favor of Atkins, 388-372. As Thursday night crept into Friday morning, sisters at Alpha Phi discovered a burning cross—a signature of the Ku Klux Klan—on the white sorority’s lawn. It was rumored that some felt the sisters’ voting apathy resulted in Atkin’s victory. Under the cloak of darkness, approximately 400 students congregated at the center of campus, some waving Confederate flags and others shouting that “a bunch of beatniks” had engineered the victory. Before they could hang an effigy of Atkins, campus police broke up the protesters. The hate-filled demonstrations resumed Friday evening, when another fiery cross was found near housing for married students. Leo Downing, dean of students, noted wryly, “‘Our so-called ‘Klan element’ was really stymied in this election. . . . They either had to vote for Atkins, who is a Negro, or for [Mike] Dann, who is Jewish.'”

Campaign poster, 1960, accessed accessed Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

Atkins, described by the Indianapolis Recorder as a “mild-mannered honor student and speaker pro tem of the student senate,” responded graciously, stating he would ignore the protests as “‘not representing the Indiana University student body.'”[1] The backlash he experienced would follow him throughout his prolific civil rights law career, but his time in Bloomington helped him learn how to withstand it.

No stranger to adversity, Atkins recalled that after contracting polio at the age of five, doctors told him he would need to use crutches his entire life. Three years later, he was walking unassisted and in 1982 told the Boston Globe “‘One thing [polio] did was convince me that nothing was impossible.'” Developing tenacity at a young age served him well when Elkhart’s elementary schools “accidentally” integrated after the Black school collapsed and the town could not afford to rebuild it. Fearing for his safety, the third grader lined his pockets with rocks the first days he attended the desegregated elementary school.  As a teenager at Elkhart High School, he accomplished what he would at IU: being elected as the school’s first Black student body president.

* * *

The backlash at Indiana University failed to tamp Atkins’s ambitions and the following month, the Muncie Evening Press announced he was the school’s first student to receive the U.S. Experiment in International Living grant. This allowed him to temporarily live in Turkey, where he gained insights for his thesis, “The Role of the Military in Turkish Society.” The Senior, who stayed with an Istanbul family of three, returned home in October and concluded that Turks “cannot see how the United States can propose to lead the free world and still have racial prejudice at home.” The following month he was one of three IU students nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship, which would fund three years of study at England’s Oxford University. So esteemed was Atkins that he was selected as one of twelve Board of Aeons students to advise university president Herman B Wells. In one instance, President Wells called upon him to convince discriminatory Bloomington barbers to cut Black students’ hair. Wells and Atkins convened a meeting with the barbers and, through compromise, got the barbers to agree to cut students’ hair regardless of their race.[2]

While setting himself up for professional success, Atkins made a significant and controversial decision in his personal life. Seven years before the landmark Loving v. Virginia case, in which the Supreme Court ended bans on interracial marriage, Atkins married white South Bend native Sharon Soash. Reportedly, the couple met playing with the Indiana all-state high school orchestra, and in college carpooled to the South Bend-Elkhart area from Bloomington during holiday breaks. Soash had served as Atkins’s student body campaign manger and recently graduated from IU with a history major.

“Parents Against Mixed Marriage,” Terre Haute Tribune, January 1, 1961, accessed Newspapers.com.

So taboo was their romance, that  just before the wedding one photographer staked out at Thomas’s mother’s house in an attempt to snap a picture of the couple; he was quickly rebuffed. While Soash’s father considered Atkins to be a gentleman, he tried to talk her out of the marriage. Unable to be dissuaded, they tied the knot in Cassopolis, Michigan because, according to the Boston Globe, interracial marriage was illegal in Indiana. The newlyweds planned to return to Bloomington and live in a married housing unit, where they no doubt experienced their share of harassment. Now with a spouse to consider, Atkins decided to withdraw from the Rhodes scholarship nomination process.

The South Bend Tribune reported that both Atkins planned to pursue careers in national diplomacy, a field undoubtedly in-demand during the early Cold War years.[3] Thomas was well on his way to this goal after earning a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, which enabled him to pursue graduate studies at Harvard University. While there, a Ford Foundation fellowship allowed him to train in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies and earn his Masters in 1963. In fact, the Indianapolis Star reported that Atkins earned an astonishing twelve educational fellowships, five of which were from Harvard. Despite his international ambitions, he ultimately chose to fight on the “homefront” while working towards his law degree at the Ivy League school.

That homefront was Boston, where Black parents’ charges of de facto segregation in its public school system had routinely fallen on deaf ears. Atkins turned up the volume as the local NAACP branch’s executive secretary. His knowledge of the law, appreciation of educational opportunities, and ability to withstand racially-charged backlash, made the 25-year-old an ideal advocate for the city’s Black youth. Atkins and other NAACP leaders organized a series of protests beginning in the spring of 1963, like the June 18 “Stay Out for Freedom.” In lieu of school, approximately 8,000 junior and high school students met at ten designated “Freedom Centers,” like St. Mark’s Social Center, where they discussed the Black liberation movement and learned about citizenship. The organizers’ goal was simple: get the Boston School Committee to admit that de facto segregation was present in the district. Atkins summarized “We have not asked the committee to sign away its soul in blood, but merely admit that such a condition exists.” However, the committee refused to concede this fact—and would continue to do so for years.

The assassination of Medgar Evers, a Black WWII veteran and Mississippi NAACP Field Secretary, just days prior to the “Stay Out for Freedom” event underlined the need to fight for racial equality. Atkins served as master of ceremonies at a June 26th memorial service for the slain activist at Parkman Bandstand. Over 15,000 Bostonians turned out to pay their respects and march against injustice. Recognizing that protest must be coupled with policy in order to be effective, Atkins and other leaders hosted a voter registration drive at the memorial service.

Boston Globe, July 29, 1963, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

Adding to their tactical repertoire, on July 29 Atkins and other activists blocked School Committee members from entering committee headquarters, threatening to do so every day until members agree to meet with NAACP’s Education Committee. Picketers handed out pamphlets to passersby about the “deplorable conditions of the Roxbury schools” and marched carrying signs that read:

“Stop Jim Crow Teacher Assignments”
“Why No Negro Principals?”
“Would You be Patient?”
“Don’t Shoot Us in the Back”

The battle lines firmly drawn, Chairman of the School Committee Louise Day Hicks responded that “Parades, demonstrations and sit-ins may appeal to the exhibitions, but they will not help the Negro school child who everybody admits does need help.”

Fed up with being stonewalled, Atkins, on behalf of the NAACP,  issued an ultimatum to the School Committee the following day, stating it had until August 2 to meet or face bigger demonstrations. Atkins wrote, “It is launched with utmost regret, for the Branch would by far prefer the relatively quiescent atmosphere of the bargaining table to the commotion and clamor surrounding a picket line.” In issuing the ultimatum, Atkins advised the School Committee to consider:

Whether they are willing to accept the moral responsibility for this demonstration and as to whether they are willing to accept the political responsibility of having another debit chalked up on an accounting sheet which already show many more debits than credits in the areas of civil rights.

When that meeting did take place, School Committee members refused to discuss segregation. The longer the dispute went on, the more entrenched both sides grew. Although critical city officials categorized the conflict as a battle of semantics, Atkins and other leaders refused to move the goal post: without addressing segregation’s existence, equality would be impossible. Local reformer Susan Batson explained that de facto “was the most evil kind” of segregation because “no one is responsible and some say it doesn’t exist.”

Boston Globe, September 6, 1963, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Surely, the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August—at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech—further empowered Boston leaders, who organized a “sleep-in” at School Committee headquarters. Such demonstrations drew the ire of committee member Joseph Lee, who called NAACP protesters “frauds, mountebanks, and charlatans.” Further, he contended:

they are clearly doing all in their power to obstruct the education of the Negro-American school child in Boston, so that they can perpetually pose as a potential Moses to lead the deprived pupil out of such imposed intellectual bondage–and at the same time pose as saviors to gull [sic?] a handsome living out of white dupers.

To these allegations, Atkins responded as he did to the IU demonstrations, with measured aplomb, stating, “I think it’s amusing.” He suggested that white residents and school committee members were shaken because “The Negro wasn’t proud of being a Negro before. Now he is. There isn’t a Negro Problem in Boston—there is a Boston problem.” But when it became clear that the committee would not recognize segregation, Atkins focused on leveraging the Black vote.  If activists couldn’t get committee members to change their minds, they would change committee members.

“6000 March for Rights in Boston,” Boston Globe, September 23, 1963, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

That summer, Atkins arranged for mobile registration booths to sweep the city in preparation for the elections. Before an audience of 6,000, gathered at the dilapidated Sherwin School on September 23, he urged, “Don’t complain-vote!,” foreshadowing the pleas of President Obama in 2016. Atkins framed voting as a form of self-help; to not do so would allow the school system to continue to “insult” and “ignore us.” He reminded the crowd that “Abraham Lincoln didn’t free you! He issued a document that has been studiously ignored for 100 years!” While Black and white children played on the playground, their parents sang emancipation anthems like “We Shall Overcome.” The audience also participated in a moment of silence to honor of the victims of the Birmingham bombing that took place just days earlier, another somber reminder of the injustices Black Americans faced.[4]

“Playground Integrated,” Boston Globe, September 23, 1963, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

With all hands on deck, the NAACP branch set out to collect voters’ signatures, registering 600 new voters in the predominantly-Black Ward #12 by the time polls closed on November 2. This was double the number of new Ward 12 voters registered in 1959. Now all that was left to do was wait as the election results rolled in.

Despite all their picketing, press conferences, and political campaigning, Atkins and fellow activists were dealt a blow when voters reelected each of the School Committee members. In fact, chairman Louise Day Hicks received more votes than even the mayor. Bostonians all but confirmed they agreed with the policy of “separate but equal.” But Atkins’s ability to mobilize Black voters helped sow the seeds of enduring political activism. According to the NAACP, 80% of eligible voters in Black wards turned out to cast their ballots, a percentage staggeringly higher than the 58% turnout in Boston’s other wards.

Atkins’s campaign to desegregate the school district—an effort that would require years of agitation—served another purpose, the Boston Globe noted. The city no longer looked to the South for news of the “Negro revolution.” Chants of liberation resounded in Boston’s streets, and the Globe reported civil rights is now “on the lips of cab drivers and politicians, housewives and factory workers.” The Globe added that the Civil Rights Movement is not an “accidental ripple of the national wave of protest. It is well-planned and seriously developed by a small, devoted band of persons,” Atkins, being one of them. He “has been instrumental in the carrying out of the vigorous, new approach” of the NAACP. The Boston transplant helped inspire a new militancy in the fight for Black liberation, which would culminate later in the decade with the Black Power Movement.[5]

Thomas Atkins, as NAACP executive secretary, leading a beach-in at Carson Beach to advocate for open public facilities in 1975, Boston Globe, June 29, 2008, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.

The 1963 electoral defeat hardly took the wind out of Atkins’s sails. He worked for educational and employment equality when elected Boston’s first Black city councilman in 1967.  Richard Hatcher’s election in Gary, Indiana—making him one of the first Black mayors of a large US city—that same year spoke to incremental gains in political representation for African Americans. In the tumultuous year of 1969, Atkins earned his law degree and went on to become a nationally-renowned civil rights lawyer. He continued to  work with the NAACP to fight for Boston’s Black students in the 1970s and 1980s, overseeing the safe implementation of busing as a means of integration. In trying to mitigate the harassment and violence directed at Black children bused to new schools, he perhaps recalled his own childhood fears of attending Elkhart’s newly-desegregated school.

An NAACP survey inquiring about the challenges South Boston High School students faced in the 1970s confirmed the inadequacy of the education they had received. Atkins recalled:

I was sitting in my office one night, and I reached into my briefcase and here were these forms. So I took them out, and I began sort of absently to read through them. As I read through one after another of these forms, what I saw was that these kids couldn’t spell. They could not write a simple declaratory sentence. And as I read these forms, none of which were grammatically correct or spelling proper, I just started to cry. It was impossible to explain the feeling of pain on the one hand, but on the other hand, I knew we were right.

Indianapolis News, November 9, 1967, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.

Anguish spurred action and Atkins became what The Times, of Munster, Indiana, described as “one of the most active and successful civil rights lawyers in the nation.” He filed segregation suits against school systems in Hammond and Indianapolis, Indiana; Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; Benton Harbor and Detroit, Michigan; and San Francisco. One activist noted “There’s no place where Tom Atkins wasn’t influential.” According to his son, this prolific work made him a target of death threats and ultimately he left his Roxbury home for the protection of his family. His son described Atkins “running chicken wire over windows to block Molotov cocktails and installing spigots throughout  the seven-bedroom house to connect the hoses for fighting fires.” [6]

* * *

In 1994, Atkins returned to his alma mater for the dedication of IU’s new Thomas I. Atkins Living/Learning Center. On a campus once pockmarked with fiery crosses, stood a residence hall that focused on “academic excellence and cultural awareness-specifically, the culture and history of African and African-Americans.” While social progress had been made since the 1960s, racial issues persisted. The dormitory hoped to change that by facilitating discussions among various races and improve how students related to one another. With the new center, the campus also hoped to attract more Black students, an issue Atkins addressed at his 1994 visit. He said “Leadership is not made of being the first follower. . . . IU needs to get out in front and I don’t think the university has done that sufficiently. I hope IU accepts the challenge to get it done.” After all, “without education, the door is locked” to American minorities.

Times-Mail (Bedford), November 20, 1994, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

In his 50s, doctors diagnosed Atkins with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was determined to overcome it through grit and hard work, as he had when afflicted with polio, stating “I believe miracles are usually man-made.” As the disease progressed, the Boston Globe noted he “continued to assist on cases even after he needed his son to translate his slurred speech and a special computer arm to help him peck out sentences.” The indomitable Atkins succumbed to the disease in June 2008, just months before voters elected Barack Obama the nation’s first African American president. His historic election came on the heels of work done by fearless leaders like Atkins, who the Boston Globe described as a “humanist” with a “steely resolve.”  His time in Elkhart and Bloomington helped cultivate this unique blend of empathy and empowerment, best summarized by one of Atkins’s favorite sayings: “Power is colorless. . . . It’s like water. You can drink it or you can drown in it.” [7]

Sources:

[1] “Another Cross Burned After Negro’s Win,” The Times (Munster), April 10, 1960, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Campus Demonstration Follows Election of I.U. Negro Student,” Rushville Republican, April 8, 1960, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Segregation Demonstration Held at I.U.,” Anderson Herald, April 10, 1960, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Whites Attempt to ‘Hang’ in Effigy, Negro Prexy [sic?] at IU,” Indianapolis Recorder, April 16, 1960, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

[2] “3 Seek Rhodes Scholarship,” Indianapolis Star, November 6, 1960, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Foreign Study Grant to Indiana Studied,” Muncie Evening Press, May 27, 1960, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Thomas I. Atkins, Rights Champion and City Councilor, Dies,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2018, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Turks Believe Race Prejudice Moral Question,” Indianapolis Star, October 3, 1960, 22, accessed Newspapers.com.; Andrew Welsh-Huggins, “Atkins a Campus Activist since 1960,” Times-Mail (Bedford), November 20, 1994, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

[3] Erin Moskowitz and Mark Feeney, “Civil Rights Trailblazer Atkins Dies at 69,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2008, accessed Boston.com.; John H. Gamble, “Atkins and Bride Look to Career,” South Bend Tribune, January 1, 1961, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Parents Against Mixed Marriage,” Terre Haute Tribune, January 1, 1961, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Student Leaders in Interracial Nuptials in Mich.,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 7, 1961, 7, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.; “Thomas I. Atkins, Rights Champion and City Councilor, Dies,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2018, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.; “White Girl Marries Negro I.U. Leader,” South Bend Tribune, December 31, 1960, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

[4] “14 Get Wilson Grants at N.D.,” South Bend Tribune, March 13, 1961, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.; “15,000 to Mourn Evers Here,” Boston Globe, June 26, 1963, 7, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Atkins Named Director of Federal Bank,” South Bend Tribune, January 9, 1980, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.; Boston Globe, July 29, 1963, 1, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.; Boston Globe, June 17, 1963, 1, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Elkhart Native Seeks Boston Mayoral Bid,” Indianapolis Star, May 13, 1971, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Fellowship to Elkhartan,” South Bend Tribune, June 1, 1962, 20, accessed Newspapers.com.; Ian Forman, “De Facto Sleeping Giant in Mrs. Hicks’ Smash Win,” Boston Globe, November 6, 1963, 1, 29, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Hub School Boycott Planned by Negroes,”1963 Year of Ferment for Negroes in Boston,” Boston Globe, December 25, 1963, 43, accessed Newspapers.com; Boston Globe, June 13, 1963, 12, accessed Newspapers.com.; Robert L. Levey, “Does Bias Win Votes in the Hub?,” Boston Globe, August 20, 1963, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.; Robert L. Levey, “‘Don’t Complain-Vote,’ Atkins Urges Negroes,” Boston Globe, September 23, 1963, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; Robert L. Levey, “How Hub Negro Protest Gains,” Boston Globe, December 8, 1963, 75, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Mrs. Hicks Asks Brooke Help Halt School Boycott,” Boston Globe, June 14, 1963, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; Richard J. Connolly, “New Demonstrations Due: Hot Words Fly in Sit-In Fight,” Boston Globe, September 8, 1963, 1, 22-25, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Some 3,000 Boston Negro Pupils Boycott Classes in Mass Protest,” North Adams Transcript (Massachusetts), June 18, 1963, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Text of a Statement Read by Thomas Atkins, Executive Secretary of the Boston Branch NAACP, Concerning Direct Action to Be Taken Against the Boston School Committee,” July 30, 1963, Boston Public Schools Desegregation Project, Northeastern University Library Digital Repository Service.

[5] Robert L. Levey, “How Hub Negro Protest Gains,” Boston Globe, December 8, 1963, 75, accessed Newspapers.com.; “N.A.A.C.P.: Vote on ‘Racial Basis,” Boston Globe, November 6, 1963, 29, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Political ‘Consciousness’ is Sweeping Negroes,” Pittsburgh Courier, November 2, 1963, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

[6] Associated Press, “Negroes Win Many Races,” Spokane Daily Chronicle, November 8, 1967, accessed Google News.;”Discrimination Charges Aired,” The Times (Munster, IN), August 8, 1978, 17, accessed Newspapers.com.; “Education for Blacks is Issue–Not Busing,” Palladium-Item (Richmond, IN), September 9, 1981, 9, accessed Newspapers.com.; Felicia Gayle, “Integration Suit Begins,” The Times (Munster, IN), July 27, 1979, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; Steven Hansen, “Activist Profiled,” The Times (Munster, IN), August 24, 1978, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.; Eric Moskowitz and Mark Feeney, “Civil Rights Trailblazer Atkins Dies at 69,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2008, B3, accessed Newspapers.com.; “NAACP Lawyer Faces Arrest,” South Bend Tribune, July 26, 1978, 3, accessed Newspapers.com.; “New Boston Councilman,” Indianapolis News, November 9, 1967, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.; David M. Rosen, “Boston May Call in U.S. Marshals,” The Republic (Columbus, IN), October 8, 1974, 13, accessed Newspapers.com.; Howard M. Smulevitz, “IPS Desegregation Plan Calls for Busing of 41,000 Pupils,” Indianapolis Star, November 14, 1978, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.; Howard M. Smulevitz, “Ohio Decisions Seen Lending Weight to Dillin’s Busing Stand,” Indianapolis Star, July 3, 1979, 9, accessed Newspaper.com.; Transcript, “The Keys to the Kingdom (1974-1980),” Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1985, accessed PBS.org.

[7] “A Boston Pioneer and his Mark,” Boston Globe, July 1, 2008, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.; Lejene Breckenridge, “Achievements of Ex-Elkhartan Honored at I.U.,” South Bend Tribune, January 3, 1995, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.; Lauren Fagan, “Civil Rights Attorney, Elkhart Native Atkins Dies,” South Bend Tribune, July 2, 2008, B3, accessed Newspapers.com.; Eric Moskowitz and Mark Feeney, “Civil Rights Trailblazer Atkins Dies at 69,” Boston Globe, June 29, 2008, B3, accessed Newspapers.com.; Andrew Welsh-Huggins, “Exploring the Culture of Color,” and “Atkins a Campus Activist since 1960,” Times-Mail (Bedford), November 20, 1994, 25, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Debate over “Decency:” How Hoosiers Challenged Anita Bryant’s Anti-Gay Rights Crusade

Advertisement, Indianapolis Star, October 1, 1977, 19, accessed Newspapers.com.

Pop singer, evangelical Christian, and Florida orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant symbolized the contentious battle over American civil rights and national mores in 1977. Grounded in her religious convictions, she launched the “Save Our Children” campaign, which led to the repeal of a Dade County ordinance that would protect the rights of homosexual residents. That October, Bryant flew to Indianapolis to perform and spread her anti-gay rights message at the “Rally for Decency,” alongside controversial southern pastor Jerry Falwell Sr. and Indiana lawmaker Don Boys, who planned to introduce a bill at the 1978 legislative session that would criminalize sodomy.[1]

From the moment Bryant’s plane touched down to the second she departed the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum, Hoosier journalists and activists pressed Bryant on her opposition to the employment of gay teachers and her advocacy of gay conversion therapy. Like in Indianapolis, her visits to Fort Wayne and South Bend later that month were met with protest, albeit characteristically polite in nature. One of the nation’s leading gay rights activists at the time, Bob Kunst, credited Anita Bryant’s 1977 crusade with forwarding the gay rights movement by normalizing discussions about homosexuality.[2]

Indeed, her efforts to keep gay individuals from obtaining their rights inspired organized resistance in Indiana. The Michiana Human Rights Coalition formed in direct response to her appearance in South Bend. Her visits to the Hoosier state also catalyzed support for gay rights from those outside of the queer community, many of whom may not have given much thought to the plight of this minority group previously. Catholic and cisgender University of Notre Dame Library employee Charles Early explained why he protested her performance on campus in The South Bend Tribune, noting “I joined in a demonstration opposing Anita Bryant on an issue which did not affect me personally because I believe that the spirit which she represents is ultimately a threat to everyone’s rights.”[3]

Here, we examine Hoosier protest to Bryant’s 1977 visits and how similar resistance across the country effectively ended her entertainment career, resulted in the loss of lucrative endorsement deals, and reflected changing national mores.


Schlafly at the Illinois State Capitol, June 19, 1978, photo: Bettman/Getty Images, accessed Town and Country.

It could be said that the conflicting movements of 1977 constituted a fight for the nation’s soul. Journalist Gloria Steinem, bearing her trademark aviator eyeglasses, mobilized feminists in support of women’s reproductive rights and long-awaited ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would guarantee equal legal rights for women. Leading counter-protests, conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, “STOP ERA” button dutifully pinned to her lapel, rallied “pro-family” troops at the White House.[4] Occupying the same battlefield as Schlafly was Anita Bryant, who shared her desire to quell the winds of cultural change and safeguard “traditional” American family values. Of this resistance, Early theorized “Many people today are frightened and disturbed by the unrest and rapid change in American society, and they want to go back to a time when things were simpler and more understandable.”[5]

While Steinem and Schlafly sparred over the role and rights of women, Bryant focused on safeguarding the American family by suppressing the rights of gay Americans. Fearing her children would be exposed to the “perversion” of gay teachers, she successfully led a movement to repeal a Dade County, Florida ordinance that would prohibit teachers from being fired due to their sexual orientation.[6]

The Works (May 1985), 31, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

Anita and her husband Bob Green insisted that they loved gay individuals, so much so that they dedicated themselves to converting them to heterosexuality in order to save them from hell and the “sad” lifestyle they lived. Green recalled:

‘When we were kids, we used to say if a guy was a homosexual, all we had to do was fix him up with a girl and the next day he’d be heterosexual. . . . Well it’s not like that. Anita and I have led many, many homosexuals to the light. But it’s a slow process. It’s an area of sin Christians need to work on.’[7]

Feeling no love from the devout Christian couple was Ernest Rumbarger, an Indianapolis resident and gay contributor to The Works. He recalled that in the 1970s gay men “were finally learning how to communicate with each other in a social setting other than bars” and that “Gay businesses as such were beginning to flourish and, all in all, things seemed to be going rather well.”  That is, until Anita Bryant undertook her “Save Our Children” campaign. Indianapolis police officers arrested Rumbarger and two other men in 1977 for homosexual prostitution in Indianapolis. Rumbarger wrote that he and his partner were two of Bryant’s “better known local victims. We were taken from our home in the middle of the night and held for eight days in jail, incommunicado.” Despite receiving no assistance from the Indiana Civil Liberties Union or Gay People’s Union, a grand jury found Rumbarger not guilty and reportedly offered him an “unsolicited public apology.” The Hoosier wrote “On either coast we would have been carried through the streets and hailed as national heroes” for his triumph over persecution.[8]

The Daily Journal (Franklin, Ind.), October 8, 1977, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

As Bryant’s campaign emboldened harassment of queer individuals, Hoosier allies mounted resistance to her October 7 visit to Indianapolis. The day before the “Rally for Decency,” the Indiana Coalition for Human Rights hosted a news conference, attended by representatives of the Metropolitan Community Church of Indianapolis, Gay People’s Union, and the Sex Information and Education Council of Indiana. Coalition spokesperson Mary Byrne told the press that allies would picket Bryant’s performance “because she represents a force for evil and persecution. She has inflamed irrational prejudices and fostered fear and hatred.” Attending the protest would be Baptist minister Rev. Jeanine C. Rae, who believed that fundamentalists’ attempts to legislate sexuality threatened the separation of church and state. She argued that withholding human rights from certain communities “‘limits the freedom of all persons-including white heterosexual Baptists.'”[9]

Immediately after arriving at the Indianapolis International Airport on the day of her performance, Anita participated in a press conference, looking, in the words of journalist Robert Reed, “very much like an aging but attractive president of the local PTA.” She and her husband fielded questions about her work to repeal the Dade County ordinance, which she felt afforded gay individuals “special privileges” and would allow them to flaunt homosexuality in the classroom.[10] She believed “God put homosexuals in the same category as murderers, thieves and drunks. Homosexuality is a sin and I’m against all sin. I’m also against laws that give respectability and sanction to these types of individuals.”[11] Her crusade against these laws, she alleged, incited a “national conspiracy” against her. She reported receiving bomb threats and the loss of product endorsements. Reed wrote that her statements were ill-received by journalists, who left the press conference while she was still talking.[12]

Protesters at the Fairgrounds, Indianapolis Star, October 8, 1977, 32, accessed Newspapers.com.

That night, the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum thrummed with cheers and “Amens” as approximately 7,000 attendees absorbed the words of speakers who outlined their plans to “restore decency” in America. The Martinsville Reporter-Times noted that the event “took on the aura of a political rally and a Baptist revival.”[13] Local pastors emphasized the need to elect officials who supported causes like “Save Our Children,” some of whom sat in that very coliseum. Greenwood Rep. Donald Boys advocated for his anti-sodomy law, to be introduced the following year, and for lawmakers to expunge the Equal Rights Amendment. After his bill failed to pass in 1976, the persistent lawmaker wrote, “‘This is the day of equal rights unless you happen to be a Christian, conservative, white male, creationist.’”[14]

Outside of the coliseum, 500 protesters bore the rain, carrying dampened signs that read “Straights for gay rights” and “A day without human rights is a day without sunshine”— a play on the Florida Citrus Commission’s “Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine” slogan.[15] Protesters included Fritz Lieber, co-chairman of the Indiana Coalition for Human Rights, who lost his teaching position for being gay. Mary Hoffman, her husband, and three kids also attended the demonstration, believing that Bryant’s message “‘parallels McCarthyism, the Ku Klux Klan and Hitler.'” As protesters stoically made their presence known, Rev. Jerry Falwell quipped on the stage, “It’s a shame it’s raining. It might wash off their make up.”[16]

Bryant on stage at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, Indianapolis Star, October 8, 1977, 32, accessed Newspapers.com.

When at last Bryant took the stage, the audience was rapt, hanging onto every word she sang. She occasionally punctuated her religious and patriotic songs with oration—like warning the audience that “if parents don’t rise up and set standards for our children, the humanists, the ultra-liberals and the militant homosexuals will”—which inspired several standing ovations.[17] After her performance, the polarizing figure departed for Nashville, but the momentum generated at the rally carried over to the next day, when a parade of 500, led by U.S. Marine Cleve McClary, marched to Monument Circle. There, 2,000 Hoosiers joined them for an “encore” rally to “restore decency.” Local pastor Earl Lawson, who worked to reform homosexual individuals and sex workers, declared that he would organize similar rallies across the state.[18]

Opponents responded to the continued rallies through the press. Indianapolis newspapers printed an advertisement compiled by sixty-three clergy protesting “the crusade against persons with homosexual orientation.” A few days after the rally, Jerry Briscoe wrote to the Indianapolis News editor that Bryant’s judgment of others “has become devastating to their existence” and contradicted Christian theology. He stated, “God is our ultimate judge—that is, of course, before Anita Bryant came along.”[19]

Athletic and Convocation Center, University of Notre Dame, South Bend Tribune, October 28, 1977, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Hoosiers, joined by Cleveland and Chicago activists, again mounted resistance to Bryant when she returned to Indiana at the end of the month. The Michiana Human Rights Coalition formed ahead of her October 26th concert at the University of Notre Dame, with the motto that “All God’s Chillun Gotta Sing.” Protesters planned to march with signs bearing Bible verses and Shakespearean quotes reaffirming human rights.[20] That evening, only 500 of the arena’s 10,000 seats were occupied. The South Bend Tribune reported that Bryant, who led the audience in prayer for gay individuals, unwed couples living together, and divorced couples, “seemed lost in the vastness of the Athletic and Convocation Center.” The number of protesters, both in support of and opposition to Bryant, nearly matched that of concert-goers.[21]

About two weeks before her Notre Dame performance, a protester threw a pie at Bryant during a press conference in Des Moines, Iowa. Her face eclipsed by whipped cream, Bryant tried to pray for the man before breaking down into tears.[22] South Bend demonstrators determined to make their opinions known peacefully and by demonstrating love. They went so far as to invite Bryant to a “gay” reception in her honor, to which she declined. In lieu of pie, they gave her a bouquet of roses and dropped petals at the feet of counter-protesters.[23]

Charles Early, “Counter-protesters at Bryant Concert Warped by Hatred,” The South Bend Tribune, November 7, 1977, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

According to Catholic Notre Dame employee Charles Early, the same kindness was not exhibited by counter-protesters, one of whom spat on the seven-year-old daughter of a Michiana Coalition leader. However, Early alleged the “fiasco” that was the concert showed a growing acceptance of the marginalized community.[24] Just three days later, demonstrators picketed Bryant’s performance at Fort Wayne’s Embassy Theater for the 60th anniversary celebration of the Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Co. Some carried signs saying “Gay is Okay” and “Anita Bryant is Proof Orange Juice Causes Brain Damage.”[25]

Bryant was met with similar protests across the country and nationwide boycotts of orange juice, endorsed by entertainment titans like Barbara Streisand, John Waters, and Mary Tyler Moore.[26] Gay bars swapped orange juice for apple in screwdriver cocktails. The backlash effectively ended her entertainment career and endorsement deals. She reportedly lost $500,000 in television contracts, was no longer booked for performances, and lost her years-long endorsement deal with the Florida Citrus Commission.[27] Bryant’s crusade ultimately backfired and activists credit her with bringing the issue of gay rights to the forefront. One South Bend Tribune editorial noted that she “stirred a reaction among those whose awareness of and sympathy with the problem previously was minimal but who automatically throw up mental defenses against extremism.” The author wrote that her campaign also prompted examination of the “psychological and physical complexity of homosexuality.”[28]

Bryant promoting Florida orange juice, accessed South Florida Gay News.

In Louisville, Bryant’s crusade inspired some gay and lesbian residents to cautiously come out of the closet.  The thought that “‘We’re all monsters'” inspired one man to be open about his sexuality.[29] Another man interviewed noted that “Anita has made gays aware of themselves.” Reflecting increasingly-tolerant attitudes, that November Harvey Milk became the first openly-gay elected official in California, when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. He introduced a gay rights ordinance similar to that which officials repealed in Dade County.[30]

By 1980, Anita Bryant was divorced and financially depleted.[31] Five years earlier, she described the agony of choosing whether to prioritize her family and Christian faith over a career in entertainment.[32] Although she experienced “depressions and doubts, caused by the many sides of me coming into conflict,” prayer revealed to her that she must relinquish ambition and submit to a life of service to her family and Christ. Now shunned by Christian fundamentalists for leaving her marriage, perhaps she related to the lyrics of a song she performed in 1964:

The world is full of lonely people
I know because I’m one of them [33]


Celebrations resounded in courthouses across the country in 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down same-sex marriage bans in all states.[34] But the 2015 enactment of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as well as the 2018 firing of a Roncalli High School guidance counselor upon discovery of her same-sex marriage, again set off passionate debate about religious and civil rights.[35] The events of October 1977 demonstrate that Hoosiers have historically participated in the debate and protested for what they believe is right.

Notes:
* All newspaper articles accessed via Newspapers.com.

[1] Mike Ellis, “‘Standards Must Be Set by Parents,'” Indianapolis News, October 8, 1977, 2.

[2] Interview, “Anita Bryant Confronted in 1977,” Who’s Who, accessed YouTube.

[3] Charles Early, “Counter-protesters at Bryant Concert Warped by Hatred,” South Bend Tribune, November 7, 1977, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.

[4] Karen Karbo, “How Gloria Steinem Became the ‘World’s Most Famous Feminist,'” March 25, 2019, accessed National Geographic.; Douglas Martin, “Phyllis Schlafly, ‘First Lady’ of a Political March to the Right, Dies at 92,” September 5, 2016, accessed New York Times.

[5] Early, “Counter-protesters at Bryant Concert Warped by Hatred.”

[6] Barney Seibert, “Perverts’ Hatred Makes Life Tough for Anita Bryant,” The Reporter-Times (Martinsville, IN), April 10, 1980, 5.

[7] Holly Miller, “‘Deliverance:’ Anita and Mate Tell Their Story,” Anderson Herald, October 8, 1977, 1.

[8] “3 Arrested in ’77 Freed of Charges,” Indianapolis Star, March 9, 1979, 20.; Editorial, E. Rumbarger, “What Do Hoosiers Have to Be Proud of?,” New Works News (June 1989), 4, accessed Chris Gonzalez GLBT Archives.

[9] “Anita to Face Pickets Here,” Indianapolis News, October 6, 1977, 3.;  Jan Carroll, “Groups Call Miss Bryant Evil Force,” Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), October  7, 1977, 6.; “Protesters to Be on Hand to Picket Anti-Gay Rally,” Daily Journal (Franklin, IN), October 7, 1977, 5.

[10] Robert Reed, “Anita Bryant: She Draws Line for Hoosier Journalists,” Daily Journal (Franklin, IN), October 8, 1977, 2.

[11] Miller, “‘Deliverance:’ Anita and Mate Tell Their Story.”

[12] Reed, “Anita Bryant: She Draws Line for Hoosier Journalists.”

[13] “Protesters Picket Anita Bryant Decency Rally in Indianapolis,” Reporter-Times (Martinsville, IN), October 8, 1977, 1.

[14] Letter to the Editor, Donald Boys, State Representative, Reporter-Times (Martinsville, IN), June 9, 1977, 2.

[15] Ellis, “‘Standards Must Be Set by Parents.'”

[16] “Anita Stirs Emotions,” Journal and Courier (Lafayette, IN), October 9, 1977, 9.; Ellis, “‘Standards Must Be Set by Parents.'”

[17] Ellis, “‘Standards Must Be Set by Parents.'”

[18] “‘Save Our Society’ Circle Rally Held,” Indianapolis Star, October 9, 1977, 59.

[19] “Anita Stirs Emotions,” Journal and Courier.; Letter to the Editor, Jerry Briscoe, “On Peaceful Coexistence,” Indianapolis News, October 10, 1977, 9.

[20] “Support Grows for Gay Rights, Promoter Says,” South Bend Tribune, October 26, 1977, 14.

[21] Edmund Lawler, “Anita Bryant Revival Draws 500 into ACC,” South Bend Tribune, October 28, 1977, 1.

[22] William Simbro, “Pie Shoved in Anita Bryant’s Face by Homosexual—She Cries,” Des Moines Register, October 16, 1977, 3.

[23] “Support Grows for Gay Rights, Promoter Says,” South Bend Tribune.; Jeanne Derbeck, “‘Gay’ Tactic: Show of Kindness,'” South Bend Tribune, October 17, 1977, 1.; Lawler, “Anita Bryant Revival Draws 500 into ACC.”

[24] Early, “Counter-protesters at Bryant Concert Warped by Hatred.”

[25] “Anita Picketed in Fort Wayne,” Indianapolis News, October 29, 1977, 15.

[26] Fred Fejes, “Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The origins of America’s Debate of Homosexuality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), accessed Springer Link.

[27] Seibert, “Perverts’ Hatred Makes Life Tough for Anita Bryant.”; N.R. Kleinfield,” Tarnished Images: Publicity’s Great—Up to a Point,” Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), May 26, 1981, 36.

[28] Editorial, “Anita’s Woes,” South Bend Tribune, October 31, 1977, 14.

[29] “Anita Bryant has Opened Doors for Gays,” The Courier-Journal (Louisville), October 6, 1977, 1, 4.

[30] “Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement,” American Experience, accessed PBS.org.

[31] Seibert, “Perverts’ Hatred Makes Life Tough for Anita Bryant.”; Barry Bearak, “Turmoil Within  Ministry: Bryant Hears ‘Anita . . . Please Repent,” Miami Herald, June 8, 1980, 1A, 33A.; Steve Rothaus, “Bob Green: Anita’s Ex Paid Dearly in the Fight,” Steve Rothaus’ Gay South Florida, June 9, 2007, accessed Miami Herald.

[32] Alan Ebert, “For Easter: Anita Bryant’s Painful Progress Toward God,” Anderson Daily Bulletin, March 29, 1975, 30.

[33] Lyrics, “The World of Lonely People,” 1964, accessed Genius.com.

[34] Ed Payne, “Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act: What You Need to Know,” CNN, March 31, 2015, accessed CNN.com.; Bill Chappell, “Supreme Court Declares Same-Sex Marriage Legal in All 50 States,” The Two-Way, June 26, 2015, accessed NPR.org.

[35] Arika Herron, “Shelly Fitzgerald, First Gay Guidance Counselor Suspended by Roncalli, Files Federal Suit,” IndyStar, October 22, 2019, accessed IndyStar.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We are seeing the destruction of an icon.’

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

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

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

*Text italicized by the author.

SOURCES USED:

Katie Hall, Indiana History Blog.

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

Origin of Dr. MLK Day Law historical marker notes.

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

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Ruswick, 9.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Kramer, 54.

[4] Ruswick, 10.

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

[6] Quotation from Ruswick, 31.

[7] Kramer, 39.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 61.

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

“We Had Sung Them Off the Monument Steps:” Pride, Protest, and Patriotism in Indianapolis

 

Indianapolis Men’s Chorus Singing for Indy Pride 1992, Photo courtesy of Indiana Historical Society.

Music has long played a vital role in not only American history but also American activism.  Slave spirituals were key to enduring the brutality of slave life and provided not only relief but also coded communication. Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, “The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”  Similarly, music has been instrumental in a variety of modern 20th century movements such as the freedom songs of the Civil Rights Movement and feminist anthems of the Women’s Movement.  All movements have their anthems.  But what about when it comes to our actual national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”?

Original manuscript, Francis Scott Key, “Star Spangled Banner,” accesssed Library of Congress.

It seems unlikely that during the War of 1812, when Francis Scott Key penned the poem that would later become our national anthem, he could have foreseen the controversy over the song that would occur centuries later.  Certainly, he could not have predicted black football players taking a knee during his now musical poem prior to a professional football game, for one, because Key could not envision an America where black people lived free.  While he viewed slavery as sinful (despite owning slaves himself at various points in his life), he was an anti-abolitionist who also at times upheld slaveholder rights. He personally supported the idea of black people “returning to Africa” if they were freed from slavery.

Wood Engraving, accessed Library of Congress.

His poem, set to the tune of an English drinking song, has been rife with controversy from the beginning.  Many critics thought it too militaristic, too long, or even too hard to sing or to remember the complicated lyrics.  It did not become the official anthem until 1931 during President Herbert Hoover’s tenure and there were many outspoken critics of the choice at the time and since (“America the Beautiful” has always been a fan favorite).  But enough about Key.

In recent years, and regardless of how one feels about it, it is clear that our national anthem has been at the center of controversy in terms of its meaning and our reactions to it.  The anthem is, for some, a sacrosanct representation of America and to question it, to kneel during it, has become an act of such disrespect as to dominate national dialogue for years.  But clearly questions remain regarding the idea of ownership and interpretation of the anthem.  If indeed the anthem belongs to Americans and represents us as a unit, how do we come to a common consensus in regards to it?  Do we even need to?  If so, which Americans get to determine our anthem’s meaning and how we should respond to it?  Who gets to embody Americanism and Americanness, and who gets to make the decision about how we display our patriotism or call our country to be its best self?

Celebration on the Circle Program, Jeffrey L. Huntington collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, Indiana State Library, Indiana Memory.

These questions lead to a much less publicized yet incredibly important event that occurred in Indianapolis during the Gay Pride celebration called “Celebration on the Circle,” held at Monument Circle on Saturday June 29, 1991.  The gay community had been steadily growing and becoming more open in Indianapolis during the 1980s and early 1990s.  Yet, it was still dangerous in many ways to live openly as a gay man or lesbian in the Midwest at the time.  The vibrant gay bar scene and activism of the city were working on changing that by the early 1990s, but it was a long row to hoe, one that has not fully been completed across the state of Indiana.

One important development, among many, of Indianapolis becoming a more welcoming community to LGBTQ folks was the founding and then performances of the Indianapolis Men’s Chorus.  The Men’s Chorus was a gay men’s chorus founded by the non-profit Crossroads Performing Arts, Inc.  Crossroads, whose steering committee was originally under the direction of Jim Luce, had been working since January 1990 to lay the groundwork for the Men’s Chorus with future goals to establish a Women’s Chorus and an instrumental group.  Recruitment for the Men’s Chorus began in earnest by the end of March 1990, and the founding choral director, Michael Hayden, who was a music professor at Butler University, was hired in August 1990.  Vocal auditions were held in late September and early October, and the Men’s Chorus began practicing in earnest on October 14.  The group planned to formally debut in spring 1991, which they did at the historic Madame Walker Theater on Saturday June 8.

Crossroads’ mission was to “strengthen the spirit of pride within the gay/lesbian community, to build bridges of understanding with all people of Indiana, and to enable its audiences and the general public to perceive the gay/lesbian community and its members in a positive way.”  It is not surprising then, that the newly formed Men’s Chorus was slated to perform at the Gay Pride celebration in Indianapolis in late June 1991, as part of their debut season.  This was only the second Gay Pride event held at Monument Circle.  Gay Pride events, hosted by various organizations such as Justice, Inc., had been held in the city in the past, but throughout the 1980s they were semi-closeted, meaning they were held in a hotel, bar or rented space that was not actually out in the public—it was deemed too dangerous to be that open.  In 1988, however, the Pride celebration expanded with a festival held at the more public Indianapolis Sports Center.  Approximately 175 people attended, and by the very next year, when the event moved to Westlake Park, the number had dramatically risen to 1,000.

Justice, Inc. Celebration on the Circle button. 1990-06-30, accessed Digital Public Library of America.
Indianapolis Star, July 1, 1990, accessed ProQuest.

Yet, the gay community still had real cause for concern, particularly as they began celebrating more openly and in highly visible spaces. In 1990, the Pride festivities continued to expand and moved to Monument Circle for an event dubbed “Celebration on the Circle.”  Virulent anti-gay protesters from a variety of Indianapolis churches wanted to intimidate them off the streets and back into the closets.  According to the Indianapolis Star, approximately 100 protesters were on the scene, “many of whom wore gas masks and shouted insults as they walked around Monument Circle.”  One anti-gay demonstrator explained why they were at the Circle: “We are all Christians who are here because we don’t approve of what these people are doing, trying to turn Indianapolis into another gay capital like San Francisco…I find it objectionable that they want to take their unholy, unacceptable lifestyle to the center of the city.”  Indeed, the Indianapolis Star described the rally as “a confrontation with fundamentalist anger.”

The climate was just as hostile or perhaps even more so for the second Pride event at the Circle.  First off, in April 1991, city officials denied Justice, Inc. permission to hold the Pride rally at Monument Circle, and cited a temporary policy limiting “traffic disruption and police overtime as the reasons.”  The Indiana Civil Liberties Union quickly planned to challenge the decision in court.  Within weeks, Safety Director Joseph J. Shelton relented, stating, “The thing that really changed my mind about it is the fact that regardless of what we say or what we do, the outright appearance was that we were only imposing this restriction on this group… just because of the gay and lesbian organization.”  After organizers were given the green light to host their event at the Circle, Pride attendees, including the Men’s Chorus singers, were still not exactly sure how they would be received by their own city and its citizens.

Indianapolis Star, April 6, 1991, accessed ProQuest.

Hayden recalled having conversations with the singers about whether they wanted to perform at the Pride event and how the chorus wanted to be sensitive to its members’ differing levels of comfort.  They were right to have concerns.  Religious protesters, even angrier than at last year’s events, were in the mood for blood.  And they arrived with baseball bats.  Jim Luce wryly observed, “Because Jesus would have a baseball bat, right?”

Hayden and the Men’s Chorus, including Luce, walked into a hostile scene.  As the 1991 Gay Pride event was getting ready to kick-off, approximately 40 protesters stormed the stage.  Lt. Tom Bruno, of the Indianapolis Police Department’s traffic unit, described the protesters as being armed with “an attitude of confrontation.”  As tensions mounted, John Aleshire, a spectator at Pride who later went on to chair the board of Crossroads Performing Arts, was unsettled by what was taking place before his eyes.  He was both fearful of what was to come and felt helpless to stop it.

Celebration on the Circle Program, Jeffrey L. Huntington collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, Indiana State Library, Indiana Memory.

Right as the fundamentalist protesters and rally attendees including the Men’s Chorus, who had by then made their way onstage, seemed ready to clash, Michael Hayden, the chorus director, made a split-second decision.  He somehow had the knowledge and foresight to choose the only song that could defuse the tension and make the bat-wielding Christians stop in their tracks.  He looked at his men and said, “Sing the national anthem.  Right now.”  Pride attendees encircled the unwelcome protesters on the stage and assailed them with music.  According to the Indianapolis Star, “it was a tense moment,” but as Aleshire recalled, “something magical happened.”

As the Men’s Chorus armed themselves with their voices, the protesters were taken aback.  Luce described the scene: “It was fascinating to watch that group of people actively hating us while we were singing the National Anthem.  I mean they actively hated us.”  One onlooker later wrote, “Those who had wrapped their religion in Old Glory were hearing those ‘sissies’, ‘faggots’, and ‘moral degenerates’ demonstrating  that the ugly protesters held no monopoly when it came to expressing their love of country.”  And as Hayden queried, “What could they say?  How could they protest America’s national anthem?  There’s no way.”

Indianapolis Star, accessed ProQuest.

Hayden in that moment understood what was at stake here:  not only their right to be out in public as gay men and women, but their very Americanism.  Hayden recalled thinking, “We’re Americans too.  Shut up.  We’re going to own this just like you.  That flag represents us as well.”  And the fundamentalists faced a choice as the notes of the “Star Spangled Banner” descended upon them:  put their hands over their hearts as they had been taught that all loyal Americans should do when they hear our national anthem or charge full-force ahead at another group of patriotic Americans, nee Hoosiers, utilizing their right to celebrate in a public space.  The protesters ultimately stopped and paid their respects to the anthem, and it was just enough pause to dull the escalating tension.  In Hayden’s words, “We had sung them off the monument steps.”

Rainbow Flag, Courtesy of the ACLU

After the protesters exited the stage, events were able to carry on without further disruption.  No arrests were made and no violence occurred.  Attendees were proud of how the Pride event transpired, but fear of being so openly exposed continued to permeate throughout the day.

Activists, particularly those with ties to the Men’s Chorus, remember with pride how they sang down the hatred using their own patriotism.  Hayden described the Men’s Chorus singers as being these relatively young “homegrown” men, Hoosiers in their 20s and 30s who were “from these great families from Indiana.”  And after the situation was defused, they started cheering and hugging each other, and processing what they had just done. The following month, Hayden wrote to his chorus to reflect on their experiences: “Seeing a man carry a ball bat or standing on the steps with them shouting in our faces just trying to enlist us to violence … and then this mighty male instrument opening its mouth and singing these ‘Christians’ right off the steps!  Goliath has never seen a stronger David.  I have never felt so proud to be gay, a musician, and what we know to be a true Christian in my entire life.”

Indianapolis Star, December 29, 1992, accessed ProQuest.

Decades later, Hayden could still recall the emotions, power, and importance of what transpired that summer day.  He reminisced, “We all felt it, and we knew we had done that with our voices and our national anthem.”  Aleshire confirmed these feelings, “It proved to me, once again, that music is one of the most powerful forces to bring down walls and build bridges in their stead.”

 

Sources Used:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself, Edited with an Introduction by David W. Blight, (Bedford St. Martin’s, 2002).

Norman Gelb, “Francis Scott Key, the Reluctant Patriot,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2004, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/francis-scott-key-the-reluctant-patriot-180937178/, Accessed 3 January 2019.

Michael Hayden, Interviews by author, September 10, 11, 19, 2018, October 1, 2018, November 12, 2018, In possession of author.

Ruth Holladay, “A gay chorus? In Indy? Planners say it’s about time,” Indianapolis Star. Wednesday June 20, 1990.

Tim Lucas, “Career Changes are his specialty,” Indianapolis Star, Sunday June 21, 1992.

Mary Carole McCauley, “’Star-Spangled Banner’ writer had complex record on race,” The Baltimore Sun, September 13, 2017, https://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/arts/bs-ae-key-legacy-20140726-story.html.

Kevin Morgan, “Pride and protest at gay gathering,” Indianapolis Star, Sunday July 1, 1990.

“Indianapolis’ LGBT History,” No Limits podcast, June 7, 2018, https://www.wfyi.org/programs/no-limits/radio/Indianapolis-LGBT-History.

Indianapolis Men’s Chorus/Crossroads Performing Arts, Inc. Records, ca. 1989-1995, 2005.  William Henry Smith Memorial Library, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis, Indiana.

“3,000 gays expected for event,” Indianapolis Star, Friday June 29, 1990.

Kyle Niederpruem, “Gay bar patrons often crime targets,” Indianapolis Star, Sunday September 30, 1990.

Diana Penner, “Men’s Chorus keeps on singing in face of adversity and protest,” Indianapolis Star, Tuesday December 29, 1992.

Dorothy Petroskey, “Homosexuals told they can’t rally at Circle,” Indianapolis Star, Saturday April 6, 1991.

Jacqui Podzius, “Homosexuals show their pride at rally,” Indianapolis Star, Sunday June 30, 1991.

Don Sherfick, “A Salute to the Indychoruses Bridge-Builders,” https://indianaequality.typepad.com/indiana_equality_blog/2008/09/a-salute-to-the.html, Accessed 2 August 2018.

AJ Willingham, “The unexpected connection between slavery, NFL protests, and the national anthem,”  August 22, 2017,  https://www.cnn.com/2016/08/29/sport/colin-kaepernick-flag-protest-has-history-trnd/index.html.

Christopher Wilson, “Where’s the Debate on Francis Scott Key’s Slave-Holding Legacy?” Smithsonian.com, July 1, 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/wheres-debate-francis-scott-keys-slave-holding-legacy-180959550/.

Indy Pride, “History of Pride,” https://indypride.org/about/history/, Accessed 15 January 2019.