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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SOURCES USED:

Dr. Joseph H. Ward historical marker notes.

FOOTNOTES:

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

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

[3] Gamble, 90.

[4] Quotation from Gamble, 92.

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

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

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

[8] Ibid., 67.

[9] Ibid., 66.

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

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

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