Purdue’s “World’s Largest Drum”, made by Indianapolis’ Leedy Manufacturing Company in 1921, has been involved in many rivalries over its size. Learn more about its unique history from our latest video.
Music: “Regimented Instinct” by Teknoaxe, “Jumpin’ Boogie Woogie” by Audionautix, “Anchors Aweigh” by US Marine Corps Band, “National Emblem” by US Naval Academy Band, “Low Tide” by Silent Partner, “Jazz Bar” by Doug Maxwell, Media Right Productions, “Hail, Purdue” by Purdue All-American Marching Band
On the precipice of World War I, Hoosier women had reason to be hopeful that they had, at last, won their long fight for suffrage. The 1917 legislative session brought about three major suffrage measures, all of which passed. But the constitutionality of suffrage bills would soon be challenged, and when the United States formally entered the war on April 6, 1917, Hoosier suffragists and clubwomen stood at a crossroads. Should they continue fighting for the vote or should they pause their efforts to focus attention on assisting the homefront?
Historian Anita Morgan noted that during the Civil War, “women had dropped suffrage campaigning in exchange for tackling war work and thought, erroneously, that war work would win them suffrage. That disappointment yet festered, and this time, they would not make the same mistake.”[i] In fact, Dr. Morgan asserted that “what the war managed to do was to finally focus the energies of all these suffragists and club women so they acted in concert for one goal—win the war and in the process win suffrage for themselves.”[ii] Leaders believed that their best response to the U.S. entering World War I would be to support its efforts entirely while simultaneously continuing the fight for suffrage. Doing so would put President Wilson in their debt and earn the National American Woman Suffrage Association valuable supporters.[iii] It would also, incidentally, afford women a unique experience in which to hone their public speaking and organizational skills.
“Never again will suffrage be decried or ignored in Indiana,” declared fliers sent to women across Indiana by Marie Stuart Edwards, president of the Woman’s Franchise League (WFL). Edwards wrote to Indiana Federation of Clubs’ members around the state reporting that suffragists were intensifying their efforts, regardless of the war, writing: “plans are being made to carry the fight and you will hear about them.” She encouraged Hoosier women to “emphasize the relations between suffrage and patriotism” to enhance their credibility as future-voters. By combining the war effort with suffrage efforts, women could now band together and show the country and government why they were worthy of the vote. Edwards went on to say that “real patriotism demands that we serve the Government no matter how out of patience we get with state authorities. If possible, make a showing as a LEAGUE.”[i]
Indiana women, following Edwards’s suggestion, quickly mobilized. Reports from the WFL show that Lenore Hannah Cox requested names of prominent women from across the state, who might telegraph congressmen in regards to the passage of the federal suffrage amendment when called upon to do so.[ii] Financial reports of the Woman’s Franchise League similarly show that the league began collecting Liberty Bond donations as part of its budget, promoting the drive through their newspaper, The Hoosier Suffragist.[iii]
Prolific columnist and Indianapolis suffragist Grace Julian Clarke wrote in the Indianapolis Star, “more depends upon us in this matter than many persons realize, and it is a work that only women can perform.”[iv] She quickly assumed a leadership role in her community and volunteered to lead a sign-up station for the Red Cross at the Irvington post office. Other prominent club women around Indianapolis followed suit.[v] Clarke also introduced a resolution at a “patriotic meeting” held at the Y.W.C.A. in Indianapolis that urged local women to “pledge . . . to do our bit in war emergency relief work, and to induce others to do the same.”[vi] About 400 women registered their intent to take part in war relief work after Clarke’s address. By May 1917, Clarke had been appointed to supervise WFL war work, which required Clarke to process all of the records from the war work registration drive.[vii] Registrars had asked women to complete registration cards promising to help with some type of government service if called upon during the war.[viii]
In October of 1917, Hoosier suffragists like Clarke joined the “fourteen-minute women,” speaking before clubs, church societies, and other women’s organizations for about—you guessed it—fourteen minutes on the subject of food conservation. The group was “one wing of the army of talkers, pledgers, advertisers and boosters” that the local branch of the United States food administration, led by future U.S. president Herbert Hoover, expected to disseminate important facts regarding food conservation. The “fourteen-minute women,” organized by suffragist and former WFL secretary Julia C. Henderson as part of the speakers’ bureau for the Seventh District for food conservation work, collaborated with “four-minute men.”[ix]
Members of the “fourteen-minute women” included other locally prominent women in hundreds of speaking tours during the war, which helped develop their public speaking skills.[x] In January of 1918, the “fourteen-minute women” were enlisted in state service after their effort had been found to be “so effective that it was deemed advisable to enlarge and extend it beyond the 7th District.”[xi] This expansion included training women to speak on activities that were expected of women in the General Federation of Clubs as an aid in prosecuting the war, with an emphasis on food conservation. Clarke, among others, received unique training and experience in public speaking as a result, further elevating her reputation as a public figure. Of this link between war work and the drive for enfranchisement, she contended:
we [women] are truly patriotic, not only by knitting and doing the conventional kinds of war work, but by the utmost exertions to secure for the women of our country their rightful place as equal partners in the tremendously important enterprise of government . . . Women of all religious denominations, club women, women who work whether in the home or in the many fields outside, young women and old, colored women and white, all women with sufficient wit to discern right from wrong, daylight from night, should enlist in the present suffrage drive.[xii]
Women quite literally utilized war work to demonstrate their deservedness of full-enfranchisement. The state’s Constitutional Convention law was challenged in court on the grounds that it was an “unnecessary public expense,” and the partial suffrage law was challenged for simply costing too much to effectively double the number of voters in the state. Responding to these assertions, Hoosier suffragists attended an Indiana Supreme Court hearing, bringing supplies most likely as part of their “knitting for soldiers campaign to support the war effort, and stayed through four hours of arguments.” In their newsletter, The Hoosier Suffragist, WFL members further challenged these claims, writing “‘Mr. Hoover says he expects the women of this country to save enough to pay for the war,” and yet some men complained that “ballot boxes and ‘fixings’ for women to vote will cost at least six thousand dollars.” The author quipped “If we pay for the war can’t the men scrape up the money for those ballot boxes?”[xiii]
On May 7, 1919, 20,000 jubilant men and women cheered returning soldiers at the Welcome Home Parade in Indianapolis. The parade stretched for thirty-three blocks, and left the city awash in red, white, and blue. Trains unloaded returning Hoosier soldiers who displayed their regimental colors. Many attendees had survived the 1918 influenza pandemic, nursed the sick at Fort Harrison, or lost friends and relatives to the pandemic. While suffragists celebrated the end of the war and the dwindling of a catastrophic pandemic, their struggle for full-enfranchisement endured.
According to Talking Hoosier History, Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in June 1919, which then required thirty-six states to ratify in order to become law. Indiana suffragists immediately began calling for Governor Goodrich to convene a special session of the General Assembly to ratify the 19th Amendment. The governor, however, wanted to wait to see what other states would do before spending time and money on a special session. Months later, with still no sign of a special session, suffragists turned up the pressure and Franchise League president Helen Benbridge delivered petitions signed by 86,000 Hoosiers.
Their determination proved effective and Governor Goodrich agreed to call a special session. Historian Anita Morgan noted that Hoosier “legislators who spoke in favor of the [suffrage] measure gave women’s war work, which to them signified women’s loyalty, as the reason to support.”[i] On January 16, 1920, Indiana ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Indianapolis News reported on the reaction of women at the statehouse when they heard the news:
As soon as the house passed the resolution, a band in the hall began playing ‘Glory, Glory Hallelujah.’ Women joined in the singing. Scores rushed into the corridor and began embracing. Many shook hands and scenes of wildest joy and confusion prevailed.
The celebrations continued when, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment and the measure became law.
Increasing patriotism, in alignment with a united outward appearance by suffragists, proved a calculated and successful political strategy used by women during the war. The war had illuminated women’s ability to use genuine patriotism as a political tactic to achieve the vote through club and suffrage work. Although women were challenged during a time when they were so close to achieving the goal that they had been working on for nearly a century, loyalty to their country ultimately advanced the “cause of humanity and progress.”
[i] Anita Morgan, “We Must Be Fearless:” The Woman Suffrage Movement in Indiana (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 2020), 196.
[i] Copy of flier attached to Mrs. Richard E. Edwards to Clarke, Nov. 3, 1917, GJC, Box 2, Folder 1, ISL.
[ii] Printed board letter and reports, Woman’s Franchise League of Indiana, Nov. 3, 1917, GJC, Box 2, Folder 1, ISL.
[iii] “Mrs. Fred M’Collough Head of Loan Drive,” The Hoosier Suffragist, October 26, 1917, p. 1.
[iv] Grace Julian Clarke, “Making Study of League to Enforce Peace,” Indianapolis Star, Oct. 27, 1918, 38.
[v] “Gaining Members Rapidly,” Indianapolis Star, April 7, 1917, 11.
[vi] “Many Women Enroll For War Relief Work,” Indianapolis News, April 12, 1917, 7.
[vii] “Supervisor of War Work,” Indianapolis News, May 9, 1917, 9.
[viii] “Census of Women Will Learn Qualifications for Aiding Government,” The Call-Leader (Elwood, Indiana), May 12, 1917, 1.
[ix] “Hoover Luncheon and Dinner,” Indianapolis News, October 19, 1917, 18.
[x] “Will Talk Wherever They Get the Chance,” Indianapolis News, October 16, 1917, 1.
[xi] “To Organize Speakers,” South Bend Tribune, January 18, 1918, 5.
[xii] Scrapbook regarding World War I, League of Nations, and suffrage, Grace Julian Clarke, vol. 422-11, Indiana State Library.
Washington Long woke up early at his daughter Anna’s house. He had not even heard the rooster crow yet, and the sky was still a dark blue as night faded away into the dawn. The old man slept in the front bedroom that Anna and Kellis Hoard added when he moved in. In the latter years of his life, Washington seemed aged and often forgetful. He moved in with his daughter and son-in-law in the new house down the hill from his own around 1919. Anna washed and ironed his clothes, as he set great store by how he looked, especially on a big day like today.
He noted his only daughter had set out his good summer suit, with freshly-pressed trousers and his Sunday shoes. A crisp white dress shirt and tie hung next to the suit. Washington dug into the dresser drawer and found his gold watch and chain. Today, he was going to look remarkable, a real gentleman farmer.
Washington no longer worked his land. Instead, his son-in-law, Kellis, and the hired man managed the farming at both the Hoard farm and Washington’s farm on the other side of Sugar Creek, Washington Township, Whitley County.
It was Thursday, August 19, 1926. Today might be a special day for Washington. He didn’t yet know. Since 1909, Whitley County had awarded loving cups to the oldest registered settler and the longest continuous resident at Old Settlers’ Days.
Would he be first in line to register at the Old Settlers’ tent near the Courthouse? Would this be the year he won a silver cup?
After a family breakfast, Kellis pulled his reliable Ford machine in front of the farmhouse door. The early morning sky was cloud-free and blue as the perennial periwinkles that overgrew on the south side of the summer kitchen—a perfect day for a festival. Granddaughter Zoe, Anna, and Washington got in the car, and they were off, east on the Washington Center Road past the school where the Long children had graduated. Then, they headed north on Indiana State Road 11 (later Indiana State Road 9) to the Whitley County Courthouse.
The stately courthouse in the middle of town was the center of Old Settlers’ Day events. The French Renaissance-style building rose to three stories of Indiana limestone, topped with an iron-covered dome. A few people wandered inside to see the relics room, treasures belonging to the first white settlers of Whitley County.
Registration began at 9 a.m. The South Whitley and Columbia City high school bands played lively music for those waiting in line.
The day featured events for the whole family, a greased pole climbing contest, free children’s show at the Columbia Theatre, and a horseshoe pitching contest with cash prizes at the Gun Club.
For Washington, the highlight was the official, early afternoon Old Settlers’ Day ceremony in front of the courthouse. Ralph Gates, a local attorney, and future governor of Indiana, gave a welcoming address, followed by the Baptist Reverend Charles Watkins of Muncie, who gave a lengthy speech entitled, “Faith of our Fathers.”
Reverend Watkins urged the large crowd to remember that the first structure in pioneer life was the home, followed by the church, followed by the school. “It is just a short distance to a church nowadays by machine. The importance of religion cannot be overestimated,” said Reverend Watkins.
“How much faith have the people in the future generation of boys and girls today?,” the speaker asked.
Washington was widely known to enjoy liberal religious views and supported several religious organizations financially. He may have thoroughly enjoyed the zeal of the speaker. Or his attention might have wandered to the Civil War monument on the courthouse lawn, which honored the Whitley County Civil War dead. Washington’s brother, Lewis Reuben Long, died of dysentery after Vicksburg on the western front in 1863.
Reverend Watkins answered his question about the future generation of boys and girls. “I do not feel the flapper, or the drug store sheik would fall when they came to meet their duties and responsibilities of life. One evidence of age frequently manifested was to begin to criticize the younger generation because they do not do like the other person did when he was a boy and to think that they are going pell-mell to the devil.”
The sun was still high above on this early August afternoon. Underneath its’ warm rays, some elders nodded off during the featured address and lunch.
Watkins concluded his remarks by saying that the boys and girls who make love in automobiles are no different than their parents who used to tie their reins around the whip and let Old Dobbin find his way home.
Finally, Reverend L.A. Luckenbill rose to present the two loving cups, one for the oldest resident and one for the most senior continuous resident.
“The winner of the oldest resident is Isaiah Johnson of Thorncreek Town-ship,” said Reverend Luckenbill. “Mr. Johnson was born on December 10, 1835, and is now 90 years, five months, and nine days.”
So much for being the most senior resident. The family held its collective breath. How many others here today had been born in a log cabin in Whitley County? In 1845?
“The longest continuous resident for 1926 is Washington Long of Washington Township. Mr. Long was born in Washington Township on February 23, 1845, and is 81 years, five months, and 27 days.”
Washington walked proudly to the bandstand, his green registration tag attached to his jacket lapel, his gold watch chain glimmering in the afternoon sun. He surveyed the large crowd that had gathered all along Van Buren from Main to Chauncey Street.
Reverend Luckenbill asked him to say a few words about his coveted award.
“Things ain’t like they used to was,” said the 81-year resident of Whitley County. And then he went back to his chair and sat to thunderous applause. Washington’s statement on constant change has become a family saying for generations.
The Hoards enjoyed visiting with friends into the evening as Washington accepted congratulations.
The Fort Wayne Colored Giants played the Columbia City Modern Woodmen at Carter Field in baseball. Others attended the Hog Calling Contest at the Band Stand, which offered cash prizes for the best call. For people who missed her afternoon show, Grace Gage, contortionist, and her two trained dogs gave a special performance on the courthouse lawn. Darkness came, and an illuminated aeroplane flew low over the crowd, followed by a 25-minute display of fireworks over Columbia City.
After a memorable day, the family returned home, still delighted Washington had finally received his due as a pioneer. He would not compete again, believing others should have their chance. His loving cup, however, became a treasured family heirloom.
 “The Aftermath of the Annual Old Settlers’ Day,” The Post (Columbia City, IN), August 20, 1926.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Program, Old Settlers’ Day, Columbia City, Indiana, Thursday, August 19, 1926, Peabody Library, Columbia City, Indiana.  “The Aftermath of the Annual Old Settlers’ Day,” August 20, 1926.
At the Indiana Historical Bureau, we routinely get requests from researchers for assistance. Some of these are fairly simple, like helping with someone’s family history or determining the age of an antique they just bought. However, every once in a while, we get queries so interesting that they require a whole lot more research, and you never know what you might turn up.
Back in March, I received an email from a gentleman in California who recently found a unique item while metal-detecting on the beach. He needed help figuring out what it was and how old it might be. It was a weathered, rusted emblem with two elephants on the front and a name, “Rub-No-More.” On the back, it said, “some worry about wash day; others use Rub-No-More.” He also knew it had an Indiana connection, as a quick internet search determined that the Rub-No-More brand was based out of Fort Wayne.
It turns out that the item he found was a Rub-No-More watch fob, likely made sometime between 1905-1920. A watch fob was a decorative piece that accompanied a pocket watch, and helped keep the watch in a wearer’s pocket. A fob exactly like this one was recently sold at auction. Chicago’s F.H. Noble & Company, whose long history includes making trophies and urns for cremated remains, manufactured the fob. But what about the history of the company who commissioned it, the Rub-No-More Company? In learning more about this small, weathered piece of advertising, I discovered a history of one of Indiana’s most successful businesses at the turn of the twentieth century.
While its origins go back at least to 1880, the Summit City Soap Works of Fort Wayne (the Rub-No-More Company’s original name) was formally incorporated in May of 1885, with a capital stock of $25,000 for “manufactur[ing] laundry and other soaps,” according to the Indianapolis Sentinel. Their penchant for lavishing gifts on customers goes back almost to its founding. As the Wabash Express reported on May 27, 1886, Harry Mayel of the Summit City Soap Works came to Terre Haute and provided “over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars in beautiful and valuable presents” to purchasers of the company’s Ceylon Red Letter Soap. While this was a great deal for consumers, it appears it wasn’t as good for the company. By 1888, the Summit City Soap Works was insolvent, with $18,000 in debt and only $14,000 in assets, and a court-ordered receiver came in to clean up the mess. The difficulties didn’t end there. Two years later, as mentioned by the Crawfordsville Daily Journal, the company’s facilities on Glasgow Avenue burned to the ground, an estimated loss of $6,000. The company, sadly, had no insurance to cover these damages.
Clearly, it was time for new leadership, and it came in the form of the highly successful Berghoff family, German immigrants who became a mainstay of Fort Wayne’s business community. The Berghoffs ran a profitable brewery in the city, most known for its “Dortmunder Beer” brand. They parlayed this success into other ventures, including the Summit City Soap Works. Gustave A. Berghoff, a traveling salesman for the brewery, purchased the soap manufacturer in 1892, likely from his own brother, Hubert. The latter had purchased the firm a year earlier for a measly $5,000, and intended to revive the soap maker to “run day and night,” according to the Fort Wayne Sentinel.
Gustave Berghoff and his team wasted no time getting the company back on its feet and profitable, betting its success on a brand new product, Rub-No-More. Introduced in 1895, Rub-No-More was a “labor saving compound” that “clean[ed] the working clothes of a mechanic as well as the finest linen of the household, without much rubbing,” the Fort Wayne News wrote in its May 30th issue. To kick off the new product, the company launched a massive advertising campaign that provided free samples of Rub-No-More to every family in Fort Wayne. Summit City Soap Works then sold it at five cents, in a package that would cover five washing weeks. Rub-No-More became a hit, greatly benefiting Berghoff and his company. As such, they continued their tradition of giveaways. For example, in 1898, Summit City Soap Works offered its customers a free children’s book or wall calendar in exchange for saved Rub-No-More coupons and Globe Soap wrappers.
The company completely reorganized in 1903, including a new incorporation and expansion of its facilities. After eighteen years as an incorporated company, the Summit City Soap Works saw its capital stock increase four fold, to $100,000. Its executive staff also evolved, with Gustave Berghoff retaining his position as president but appointing his brothers, Henry and Hubert Berghoff, along with J. W. Roach and Albert J. Jauch, to the board of directors. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette reported that Berghoff was “having built a large addition to his factory, which will double the plant’s capacity.” The paper also commented on the company’s success, writing that “the business has grown from a small beginning to large proportions, and the institution is now known all over the United States, and the output is used almost universally in this country.”
The company also expanded its marketing, filing for multiple trademarks in 1905. The first filing, from April 17, 1905, included its new logo for Rub-No-More as well as an emblem, one so iconic to the company that it inspired my research: the two elephants logo. Used for decades as the symbol of Rub-No-More, the trademark displays an adult elephant dressed as a washerwoman washing a child elephant with its trunk. The second filing, dated September 19, 1905, includes both the new logo for the company’s name as well as the two elephants symbol. These became the company’s go-to branding for both its products and promotional materials, and it served them well. Grocers at Kendallville purchased 14,000 pounds of soap from the company in April of 1909, as noted by the Fort Wayne Sentinel, which traveled “in a single shipment over the [city’s] interurban.” That year, the Summit City Soap Works continued its tradition of promotional giveaways. An advertisement in the Dayton Herald offered customers free gifts in exchange for some of their products’ packaging trademarks. They offered girls an embroidery set and boys a “very interesting game” suitable for thirteen people.
One incident in 1911 showed how Rub-No-More soap could lead to more than just fun giveaways. A young woman named Bessie Lauer, an employee of the Summit City Soap Works, wrote her name on the inside of a soap bar’s packaging. It made its way out west, where a “wealthy California orange grower” found it and sought out a courtship, perhaps even marriage. She turned down his offer, but the publicity it garnered led to a Hanford, California Sentinel article describing the whole affair. Apparently embarrassed by the incident, Lauer told the Sentinel that “this is the first time she has ever written her name on a soap wrapper, and she fervently states that it will be her last.”
After decades of operation under the Summit City Soap Works moniker, the company formally changed its name in 1912 to the Rub-No-More Company, solidifying the importance of their branded soap to the entire enterprise. (A notification of the name change was published in the January 18, 1912 issue of the Fort Wayne Daily News, but it wasn’t official until April 12, 1912, when articles of incorporation were filed, according to the Indianapolis News. Advertisements in newspapers as early as June of that year indicated the name change). Around this time, Gustave Berghoff, the company’s president, began serving on the board of directors of the German-American National Bank based in Fort Wayne, greatly increasing his stature within the local business community.
By 1917, sales of the Rub-No-More Company topped $3,000,000 a year, as referenced in a profile in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette celebrating its 25th anniversary under the ownership of Berghoff. The article noted the expansion of its production facilities, from “the old days [when the plant was] comprised [of] but a few shacks” with “equipment consisting mostly of crude apparatus[es],” to a plant comprising “thousands of square feet.” This machinery was “of the most modern design . . . the value of which totals near a million dollars.” Within two decades, Rub-No-More, the company’s flagship product, became a mainstay product for consumers, with “circulars, wrappers, etc. . . . reproduced 200,000,000 times a year,” bringing “both the institution and the city continually before the minds of millions of people residing in this and foreign countries.”
An interesting modern parallel, the Rub-No-More Company encouraged sterilizing face masks during the influenza pandemic of 1918. A notice printed in the November 22, 1918 issue of the Indianapolis News instructed readers to “sterilize flu masks” by “thoroughly dissolv[ing] two tablespoonsful [sic] of Rub-No-More soap chips in one quart of boiling water” to “carefully wash masks.” As with today’s COVID-19 pandemic, soap companies have used their advertising to encourage people to wear masks and to keep them clean, something the Rub-No-More company did over 100 years ago.
Despite the Rub-No-More Company having a mostly positive reputation, it wasn’t without controversy. In 1918, the Indianapolis Star reported that the Rub-No-More Company was one of several companies charged with violating the federal child labor law. In a grand jury indictment against them, it was alleged that “three children were required to work ten and one-half hours a day” at their plant. Another issue the company faced came from its manufacturing process— one of “obnoxious odors.” The Indianapolis Times wrote in 1923 that the City of Fort Wayne was seeking a “permanent injunction” requiring the Rub-No-More Company to reconfigure their production process to alleviate the harsh smells that bothered the city’s east side residents. It is unclear what the outcomes of these situations were, but violations of child labor laws and air quality, somewhat new to American industry in 1918, represented some of the lesser angels of industrialization.
After 35 years of success at the helm, Gustave Berghoff sold the Rub-No-More Company to Procter & Gamble and retired from the company in 1927. The company’s roughly 140 employees were transferred to other Procter & Gamble plants after a transitional period where Rub-No-More Company’s manufacturing stock was used. The Rub-No-More brand continued for many years under the Procter & Gamble umbrella, with advertisements for the product appearing in newspapers well into the early 1950s. Gustave Berghoff, the company’s former president, died on January 25, 1940 at the age of 76. He is buried in Catholic Cemetery in Fort Wayne.
The Rub-No-More Company exists in history as something of a Horatio Alger tale. A German immigrant, helped by his family, purchased a failing firm and turned it into one of the most successful soap companies of the early 20th century. Additionally, its innovative approach to marketing, promotions, and branding ensured its dominance in the marketplace. This story is also about how even a simple item, like a watch fob washing up on the beach in California, can lead to an understanding of one of northern Indiana’s industrial giants at the beginning of the American Century.
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.'”
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.'” 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 Globereported 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.
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.
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.” 
* * *
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.
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.” 
 “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.
 “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.
 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.
 “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.
 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.
 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.
 “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.
For many former Indiana lawmakers, the legislative and technological world feels quite different from the one in which they began their political careers. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that statistically the U.S. is the only democratic nation in the world where social trust has seen a major decline, suggesting political polarization is the major driving force. Luckily, history provides us with perspective in these contentious times, reminding us of an age when things were once different and that there is always hope for change.
According to former legislators of the Indiana General Assembly (IGA), politicians have generally collaborated well and operated in an atmosphere where, despite political disagreements, most worked congenially across party lines. This is not to say that political polarization is as tense as it appears at the federal level, but Indiana Legislative Oral History Initiative (ILOHI) interviews indicate that bipartisanship is harder in Indiana than it once was. As ILOHI’s oral historian, I found myself hearing over and over again from legislators who began their careers in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that state politics have changed, that the current political climate is less collegial. This belief was echoed by former legislators of both major political parties.
When asking former Republican legislators about their impressions of bipartisan cooperation during their service compared to today, I was given the following responses. Former Republican Rep. Ned Lamkin, who served in the House of Representatives from 1967 to 1982 and was crucial in creating Unigov legislation (which merged Marion County and the City of Indianapolis), stated: “ bipartisan groups would go to lunch together every day . . . so we had really good . . . collegial relationships with one another unlike it is today . . . we really did say ‘only 10% of this is political.’” Lamkin’s African American colleague, Representative Choice Edwards, served during the 1969 session and helped pass Unigov into law. In an ILOHI interview, Edwards recounted his experience in the IGA, saying “So it went from very serious kinds of things to jovial . . . you know I believe to quote the philosopher Mencius if you ain’t laughing you ain’t living. So, I believe in . . . trying to ease tensions with laughter.”
Edwards’ predecessor, Republican Van Smith, who served in the Indiana House of Representatives in 1961 and was chairman of former Vice President Mike Pence’s successful 2012 gubernatorial campaign, echoed these same thoughts. He reflected:
There’s not deep bipartisan political respect that there once was. I don’t know I would have as much enjoyment in the legislature as I had before. I don’t know if I would have as much fun running for public office as I had before. There is this tendency to really build extreme vitriol positions against personalities, rather than have a good discussion of issues. It saddens me, because it’s a magnification in both parties, it’s a magnification of the bitterness, the attractiveness of being bitter. . . I am a staunch Christian and it just ain’t good.
Former Democratic legislators, like Rep. Charlie Brown, who served from 1982 to 2018, too observed increasing political polarization. Brown contended:
It’s just over the last six years, that what you see at the federal level was at the local level here. It used to be that we’d fuss and fight on the floor or in committee, but then go out and have a drink or have dinner together. That changed drastically over the last six or eight years. It was a total separation and isolation of the parties as it is at the federal level. I don’t know what brought that on. We just do not have that camaraderie any longer.
Democrat Lindel Hume, who served in the House of Representatives from 1974 to 1982 and the Senate from 1982 to 2014, echoed this, stating
It’s a tale of two legislatures . . . Whether you were Democrat or Republican you had friends on both sides of the aisle and you would kid around together . . . A much better relationship across party lines and one of the reasons I decided to retire from the legislature was that it just wasn’t the same.
African American teacher and Democratic legislator Earline Rogers served in the House from 1983 to 1990 and Senate from 1990 to 2016. She noted that despite differing races or parties, her statehouse colleagues respected and related to one another, adding that the public probably wouldn’t “recognize the camaraderie that’s there.” She also recalled that while caring for loved ones diagnosed with cancer, she and Republican colleague Tom Wyss, “went through something together. . . there’s a bond that political parties just can’t break up.”
While the legislators agreed that polarization had intensified, most did not attribute it to a specific source. One major factor exists today that did not in the early careers of former legislators: the internet. The Pew Research Center reported in early 2020 the results of a survey regarding how trustworthy Democrats and Republicans found 30 different news sources. The results found that Democrats trusted 22 of the sources and Republicans distrusted 20 of the sources, showing a deep divide. The Wall Street Journal noted a few months back that mathematicians studying the role of social media in political polarization are seeing a disturbing trend, where social media sites appear designed to highlight the most contentious and extreme political posts.
According to Facing History & Ourselves, online platforms “use algorithms to expose viewers to increasingly extreme content, which can lead them to fringe political views without their realizing it. . . . Spending time in a political echo-chamber can make it easier for negative feelings toward members of the other political party to develop.” Information has become inherently political and it is harder than ever to discuss it, because so many have come to only trust information that fulfills their political biases. As a result, it is like throwing gasoline on a fire by reinforcing the idea that the other “side” is too extreme or untrustworthy to even interact with. In addition to “media bubbles,” Facing History cites “in-group bias,” or tribalism, and changing election policies like campaign finance reform and gerrymandering for increasing political polarization.
The 2021 session indicated that the party divide among Indiana legislators isn’t likely to narrow any time soon, given the recent tension in the Assembly over a proposed bill regarding a South Bend school district. When Democrats belonging to the Black Legislative Caucus expressed concerns that the bill would lead to racial segregation in South Bend, it was reported that a group of white Republican legislators booed and heckled them. The conflict moved from the House floor to outside the chambers, and there, according to WFYI, a white male lawmaker had a confrontation with a black female legislator. Democrats called for implicit bias training after the incident. While some legislators pushed back against this proposal, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed that the conflict exposed serious issues in the IGA.
Perhaps, if there is one thing we can learn from former legislators, it is that things don’t have to be this way, that political echo chambers can be dismantled. The Association of Retired Members of the Indiana General Assembly, a bipartisan group founded in 2016, is hoping to restore civility and bipartisanship among legislators. An Indy Star op-ed noted the group is “joined in fellowship of our common legislative and political experiences as well as our respect for the legislative process.” Every two years, it awards legislators who demonstrate courtesy and respect for other members, are willing to find common ground, demonstrate self-discipline, and appreciate the rights of others. The op-ed’s author stated, and ILOHI interviewees confirmed, “Legislators are human and can be passionate. They can also be civil and work together for the good of our state.”
 Kevin Vallier, “Why Are Americans So Distrustful of Each Other?,” The Wall Street Journal, accessed WSJ.com.
 Mark Jurkowitz, Amy Mitchell, Elisa Shearer and Mason Walker, “U.S. Media Polarization and the 2020 Election: A Nation Divided,” accessed Pew Research Center.
 Christopher Mims, “Why Social Media Is So Good At Polarizing Us,” The Wall Street Journal, accessed Wall Street Journal.
* See Part 1 to learn about the Allens’ work for equality in the judicial system and World War II employment.
When the clouds of World War II lifted, South Bend activists and attorneys J. Chester and Elizabeth Allen had achieved many of their professional and philanthropic goals. The couple, who had opened their own law firm in 1939, had uplifted the Black community by crafting legislation, organizing social programs, and creating jobs. But institutional oppression and immense personal loss that followed in the war’s wake appeared to test their marriage. In these modern times of social unrest and pandemic-related stress, we can draw strength from the Allens’ ability to not only weather personal tragedy and systemic discrimination, but serve their community.
As the early Atomic Era unfurled, J. Chester plunged back into his fight to fully desegregate South Bend’s Engman Natatorium. The effort had begun in the 1930s and resulted in the park board’s meager concession of allowing Black residents to swim a few hours per week, when white residents were not there. In 1950, J. Chester and a group of attorneys, including white lawyer Maurice Tulchinsky, appeared before the parks board to again make the case for integration. Seemingly racism cloaked in Cold War rhetoric, one board member told the men that Tulchinsky’s involvement hinted at communist impulses. J. Chester replied, “‘You don’t have to be a communist to defend equal rights, opportunities and treatment for all people under the law. The Constitution and Bill of Rights mandate it.'” Threatening to file suit unless board members agreed to end segregation entirely, the lawyers at last won their long fight for equality, likely with the aid of Elizabeth Allen.
Oral history interviews and secondary sources suggest that Elizabeth drew up the original complaint and advised behind the scenes, pointing out that African American taxpayers helped fund the pool and therefore deserved to use it. Her name does not appear on official documents, perhaps because she was still in law school or because the lawyers feared that her involvement as a Black woman could hurt the cause. If Tulchinsky was accused of working on behalf of the Communist Party, one can only imagine what nefarious influences board members would assign Elizabeth if she was involved in the effort publicly.
A series of interviews with the couple’s son, Dr. Irving Allen, bespeaks the constant frustration Elizabeth experienced from having to shelve her ambitions due to gender and familial norms and/or racial discrimination. In 1936, Elizabeth declared her candidacy for state representative, but withdrew, perhaps, because as interviewer David Healey suggested to Irving, she was “always overshadowed by circumstances” or “convinced that your father would have a better chance of winning.” Irving agreed that this sense of disappointment was probably compounded by the “loss and loneliness,” resulting from J. Chester’s absence while he served in the Indiana General Assembly between 1939 and 1941. Elizabeth could be “explosively judgmental” about J. Chester’s legislative efforts, accusing him of being too accommodating to white voters while campaigning. Perhaps this criticism stemmed partly from never having a chance to campaign for office herself.
Irving imagined the scrutiny she experienced as a Black female lawyer in South Bend during the “Dark Ages” of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. He remembered his mother coming home and criticizing local judges “who she just despised and felt mistreated by.” This likely included Circuit Judge Dan Pyle, who in May 1952 fined her for contempt of court during a hearing in which she served as counsel. The South Bend Tribune reported that the “woman attorney” was fined for refusing to “abide by his instruction to refrain from dictating a lengthy statement for the court record.” Pyle ruled her “out of order in the request and demanded that she be quiet.” Irving recalled the incident, saying “she took it racially and cursed him out basically . . . and ended up in jail. Daddy got her out and got the whole thing, I think, squashed.”
Institutionalized discrimination and the stressors of working in the public eye seemed to breed resentment that spilled over into their marriage. The Allen household, while loving, was also highly-charged, in part because Elizabeth and J. Chester diverged sharply when it came to political allegiance and temperament. Irving recalled, “you were never sure whether the issues were where the vitriol was coming from or whether it was personal stuff that was being argued out through the politics.” But from a young age, Irving learned to tune out his parents’ disagreements. He stated there was “often too much venom involved in the . . . arguments about politics or nuances of how black folks could best be served in South Bend or the country.”
In Irving’s opinion, his parents were incapable of relaxing and resetting, prioritizing the needs of others over themselves in their work with organizations like the NAACP and Hering House. He noted that money was another source of tension for the Allens. Although they were attorneys, systemic racism affected their success and often meant they didn’t get the “big” cases. Determined that their children would get a good education, efforts to save for college proved stressful due to the lack of lucrative cases.
Irving suspected that the “pressures of work had enormous bearing” on his mother’s “existence.” Of his parents, Elizabeth had a poorer “capacity to separate work from the rest of her life. . . . I would just imagine the shit she took. Must have been unimaginable . . . unimaginable. And where’s it gonna go? It’s probably gonna come home into the relationship with her husband.” It surely did not go unnoticed that newspaper articles referred to her husband as “Attorney J. Chester Allen” and her as “Mrs. J. Chester Allen,” despite being an accomplished attorney in her own right. Probably equally frustrating, Elizabeth was subjected to scrutiny about her appearance and mannerisms in a way her husband undoubtedly was not, exemplified by this 1950 South Bend Tribune description: “feminine, but brusque. She has a no-nonsense attitude that contradicts the ultra-feminine hat on her head.”
Despite the many obstacles Elizabeth had to overcome, she received public recognition in 1953, 1955, and 1960, when she served as Judge Protem, filling in on occasion when the city judge was absent. “Her Madame Honor” was likely the first woman to wield a gavel in South Bend’s courtrooms. While a temporary role, Irving believed that the appointment was symbolic, honoring her legal career. Elizabeth worked to carve out educational and career opportunities for other Black women, generally relegated to domestic service in that era. Recognizing that de facto segregation would endure despite the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, Elizabeth sprung into action, hosting an emergency meeting for the United Negro College Fund. She also worked to get Black women into her Alma Mater, Talladega College.
The Allens opened their house to Black Notre Dame students who had nowhere to stay due to discrimination and the housing shortage exasperated by World War II. Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that in the 1940s many black families were forced to crowd into one or two bedroom units in substandard buildings. Elizabeth had worked during WWII and post-war years to improve housing options and clear local slums because “delinquency and crime are resulting from sub-standard housing.” In the 1950s, J. Chester helped a group of Black Studebaker workers navigate discriminatory lending and real estate practices to form a building cooperative called “Better Homes of South Bend.”
By the middle of the decade, twenty-two families of the co-op had moved in along North Elmer Street and helped build a vibrant community, filled with activities like family cookouts, kickball, and building snowmen. Irving described a “haunting aspect of the Better Homes story.” Although they had “outstanding credentials as good citizens and an established law practice,” the Allens encountered difficulties purchasing a home of their own. Perhaps such discrimination led J. Chester to further leverage housing reform when he was elected the city’s first Black Councilman in 1959. He quickly got to work trying to prevent the displacement of Black families as new developments arose. As Councilman he also got more African American appointed in city government. One Indianapolis Recorder writer was optimistic that Allen’s “devotion to the law as the shield of liberty” would enable him to “protect the rights of minorities and at the same time guard the welfare of the majority.”
J. Chester’s and Elizabeth’s work served as a tide that lifted many boats in St. Joseph County. But the couple soon experienced a devastating personal blow. Their daughter, Sarah-whom Irving described as a “brilliant student” at Central High School-was awarded honors at Wellesley College, before attending Tennessee’s Fisk University. In 1960, the South Bend Tribune noted an “illness forced her to leave college.” She had since been working as a secretary at the family’s law practice and receiving psychiatric care in her hometown. Shortly before dinner at the Allens’ house one summer evening in 1963, the family discovered that she had died by suicide. Only 27-years-old, Sarah undoubtedly possessed the astuteness and determination of her parents, but suffered from the era’s limited treatment options for mental health issues. Days after her passing, loves ones paid their respects at the city’s Episcopal Cathedral of St. James and the city council passed a resolution expressing sympathy for the loss of Councilman Allen’s daughter.
One can only imagine the impact such a catastrophic event had on the family. Perhaps it contributed to the fragmentation of the Allen and Allen law firm, which Irving said “kind of came unglued” in the early part of the decade. It’s possible it was the trigger for Elizabeth’s own hospitalization in the 1960s. Surely it contributed to the 1965 South Bend Tribune announcement of the couple’s separation after 37 years of marriage. Ultimately, the Allens chose not to go through with the divorce, perhaps a testament to their tenacity and love.
Work and community uplift likely became a haven from grief for the African American couple. In the years after her daughter’s passing, Elizabeth seemed to focus on advocating for women. She served as legislative chairman of the 1964 National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, leading a workshop on “The Role of Business and Professional Women in the War on Poverty” at the organization’s annual meeting. Towards the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, Elizabeth served on the board of St. Joseph’s first Planned Parenthood clinic. According to Irving, his mother was a feminist before the term existed. She would “go to war over women divorcing or getting beaten up by their husbands,” but, being ahead of her time, she fought a war “without any constituents.” Nevertheless, she was “‘incredible example to women—black or white.'”
J. Chester poured himself into education equality as the first Black member of the South Bend school board of trustees in 1966. One editorial contended that he was an ideal representative of Black educational interests, citing his “Quick intelligence, independence of thought, hard work and a genuine affection for his home community.” He used his legal skills in 1967 to advocate for equality, appealing a verdict that ruled the Linden School building, a Black school, could safely reopen despite a classroom ceiling collapsing during the school day.
While continuing to grieve, sons Irving and J. Chester Allen, Jr. pursued their professional goals. Their parents were determined that they would attend East Coast schools because, Irving noted, Black Americans had to be “twice as good” as their white colleagues. He earned his medical degree at Boston University in 1965 and practiced psychiatry in Massachusetts. Like his parents, J. Chester Jr. beat the drum for equality, leading an NAACP march protesting the police force’s refusal to hire a Black officer. He told the South Bend Tribune, “‘Maybe we’ll fill up that jail of theirs until they get tired of seeing us in it and hire one of us to get rid of the rest of us.'”
Like his parents, J. Chester Jr. was able to break racial barriers; he was sworn in as St. Joseph County’s first Black Superior Court Judge in 1976. Three years after J. Chester Jr.’s historic achievement, his father passed away. The man who had apparently stumbled upon South Bend did much to even its playing field for minorities. Black residents were better educated, politically- and civically-empowered, financially stabler, and able to enjoy the city’s facilities because of his tireless efforts as an attorney and elected official.
Unfortunately, his son’s promising career was cut short in 1983. J. Chester Jr. died of natural causes on Christmas Day, the same day his father was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1900. Matriarch Elizabeth Allen was now a widower who had lost two children. But her life was never defined by tragedy. In disregarding an admissions officer’s advice to forgo law school in favor of marriage years before, she started down a path canopied by improbable accomplishments, bitter disappointments, professional accolades, and personal heartbreak. Her fortitude and persistence meant that future generations would endure fewer obstacles than she did.
Behind her walked another Black female attorney from Chicago married to an ambitious Black attorney: First Lady Michelle Obama. The two women experienced the highs of professional accomplishments as a minority, the frustrations of sacrificing for their husband’s ambitions, public critiques of their appearance, and allegations of being too outspoken. Unlike Michelle, Elizabeth’s story has largely yet to be told, but South Bend writer Dr. Gabrielle Robinson and IHB are changing that by installing a state historical marker in 2021. Elizabeth, largely overshadowed by her husband, will quite literally have an equal share of recognition with this marker.
“Jellison Takes Petition to Run for Congress,” South Bend Tribune, February 16, 1936, 23, accessed Newspapers.com.
Mary Butler, “Mrs. Elizabeth Allen Lays Down Law to Family,” South Bend Tribune, July 30, 1950, 39, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Circuit Judge Fines Lawyer for Contempt,” South Bend Tribune, May 10, 1952, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.
“First Woman Presides City Judge,” South Bend Tribune, November 19, 1953, 29, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Field Chief Will Meet Fund Group,” South Bend Tribune, March 25, 1957, 24, accessed Newspapers.com.
Program, “Leaders for Workshops on Three Areas Affecting the Urban Family,” Woman’s Council for Human Relations, , accessed Michiana Memory.
“Hon. J. Chester Allen,” Indianapolis Recorder, January 2, 1960, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
“Adult Award Winner,” South Bend Urban League and Hering House, Annual Report, 1960, p. 5, accessed Michiana Memory.
“Sarah Allen Found Dead,” South Bend Tribune, July 25, 1963, 43, accessed Newspapers.com.
Nancy Kavadas, “Niles Area NACP [sic] Groups Conduct Orderly Demonstration,” South Bend Tribune, February 9, 1964, 8, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Divorce Cases Filed,” South Bend Tribune, March 5, 1965, 30, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Irving Allen Wins Degree,” South Bend Tribune, June 10, 1965, 46, accessed Newspapers.com.
Ruth Copeland et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. South Bend Community School Corporation et al., Defendants-Appellees, 1967, 376 F.2d 585 (7th Cir. 1967), May 8, 1967, accessed JUSTIA US Law.
“Family Plan Unit Names Officers,” South Bend Tribune, January 26, 1968, 31, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Rites for Allen Wednesday,” South Bend Tribune, May 12, 1980, 21, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Wednesday Rites for Judge Allen,” South Bend Tribune, December 27, 1983, 28, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Allen, Former Civic Leader and Attorney, Dies at 89,” South Bend Tribune, December 28, 1994, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.
Marilyn Klimek, “Couple Led in Area Racial Integration,” South Bend Tribune, November 30, 1997, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.
Oral History Interview with Dr. Irving Allen, conducted by Dr. Les Lamon, IU South Bend Professor Emeritus, David Healey, and John Charles Bryant, Part 1 and Part 2, August 11, 2004, Civil Rights Heritage Center, courtesy of St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.
Barack Obama, A Promised Land (New York: Crown Publishing, 2020).
Email, Dr. Irving Allen to Nicole Poletika, March 19, 2021.
Nicole Poletika: I’m Nicole Poletika filling in for host Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.
On today’s installment of Giving Voice, I have the pleasure of speaking with Karen Freeman-Wilson, who served as Mayor of Gary, Indiana from 2012 to 2019. And is currently President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. A Harvard Law School Graduate, Freeman-Wilson has had a prolific career, which includes serving as Indiana Attorney General. She has sought to advance social justice, as a Chairperson of the Criminal and Social Justice Committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and as Director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. If you haven’t already listened to our latest episode, which covered the 1972 National Black Political Convention, I suggest you do so now, as we reference it during our conversation.
In this episode we discuss how the 1972 Convention impacted Freeman-Wilson, as well as Gary’s legacy of black political empowerment, modern activism, and how black women can get a seat at the political table.
And now, Giving Voice.
Poletika: Well, I’m here today with Karen Freeman-Wilson former Mayor of Gary, Indiana and current President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. Um, were really excited to have you here Karen, thank you so much for joining us.
Karen Freeman-Wilson: I’m excited to join you.
Poletika: So I know you grew up in Gary and as a small child you recall uh Richard Hatcher’s exciting mayoral election in 1967, and you remember the 1972 National Black Political Convention. So I know the historical record is missing recollections from local residents of the convention, so I was hoping you could tell us what you remember from the convention and how it shaped your personally or professionally or both.
Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely, I was 12 at the time and it was exciting to know that a National Convention was coming to Gary, Indiana. It was the talk of the town, uh people had a sense of pride that not only it was a national convening, but it was a convening of black people and because Gary only had one hotel at the time, a number of the people stayed in the homes of Gary residents. And we were able to host someone in our home. So, what I recall was the fact that they were convening to talk about an agenda and it seems odd for a 12 year old to remember that, but because I was an only child I found myself in a lot of rooms where adults were. And so, you know of course you just pay attention to what they are talking about and they were talking about black political agenda. Westside was a newly built school at that time and so it was a source of pride as well and so the fact that they were going to Westside, I remember seeing the signs from each state. So, you saw that people from all over the country were in the Westside gymnasium. There were people that you saw on television, of course Shirley Chisholm was there and she was someone that everyone took pride in. We knew that she was someone running for um President…John Conyers at that time was the Congressman from Detroit and you would occasionally see him on television, and one of the figures that everyone knew, even though he was just over in Chicago was uh Reverend Jesse Jackson. So, with all of those folks coming to Gary, talking about a Black agenda and really engendering a sense of pride in Gary residents that this subject matter, which was very important that was very weighty, and was all being led by our mayor, Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher. Who was of course a source of pride for us locally and nationally, uh it was a big deal.
Poletika: Yeah, um and I remember he said that like you mentioned there was only one hotel so people stayed with residents, um and he said that some of the locals actually made life long friendships with the people that came in from outta town. Did you have that experience with the people that you hosted?
Freeman-Wilson: Well, to be honest my mom and dad had most of the interaction with them. So, I can’t even…I remember they were from Detroit, but beyond that I don’t remember much about them. I do know that there was at least one or two times because we were regular travelers to Detroit, because of relatives that my mom communicated with them. So, yes um there were friendships that came out of that and even from folks who were younger and who were activists, they were able to come together around subsequent convenings not the magnitude of that, but certainly subsequent convenings. And an interesting thing happened when we had sort of this convening, I believed it was back in 17 the 45th anniversary I believe. And people who had been here came back and they talked about it so that was uh real source of pride and interest for Gary residents who had gotten older, but who still remembered.
Poletika: Right, and you would have been mayor at that time.
Freeman-Wilson: Yes, I was the mayor at that time.
Poletika: Wow, that’s full circle.
Freeman-Wilson: It was.
Poletika: When the convention was here, were you in close proximity to the delegates? Did you get to actually observe any of the caucuses, in there kind of brainstorming?
Freeman-Wilson: I did not. Again, I went to Westside during the convention once to kind of see the general session, but I never had an opportunity to share with the caucuses at that time.
Poletika: You got to kind of be around the thinking though and.
Freeman-Wilson: Yeah, it was uh…you know it was a lot of energy in the room. Of course, um there were a lot of people there and they were sharing their ideas. I heard the speeches. Uh I remember, hearing Jesse Jackson speech, he was young so as a 12-year-old, you’re always gravitating around those folks who were closer to your age and that was always something that was exciting to see and hear from him.
Poletika: I bet and I know um, some people have kind of said that he was made in the convention with that speech so.
Freeman-Wilson: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. You know of course he was a um, an associate of Dr. King and after Dr. King’s passing. He was known because of operation breadbasket in Chicago, but I think he took the national stage in a significant way during that convention.
Poletika: So you, are a trail blazer yourself, um having been elected Gary’s first female mayor in 2012. And I know that black women were largely excluded from organizing the uh ’72 convention and um we had just talked about Shirley Chisholm. Uh I know some African Americans just refused to endorse her, because she was a woman.
Freeman-Wilson: Yes, that is correct.
Poletika: And it can be argued that women have more political influence than ever before, but in your opinion what uh obstacles do black women still face and how can they get a seat at the table?
Freeman-Wilson: Well, you know that’s an interesting question about the political influence of black women, because you’re right to the extent that we constitute the um workers and campaigns, and we are certainly reliable in terms of a source of a voting block and to ensure that people go to the poles. Uh when it comes to thinking about who will run for office, who will be the representative, even though black women are more than capable uh we often are looked over or are pushed aside. In favor of black men. And um, I don’t think its either or, it has to be both and, but very often there is more sexism in politics than there is racism.
Poletika: Interesting, yeah and I think Stacey Abrams is a good example of that and she came so close to holding office but didn’t quite get there.
Poletika: Do you have any advice for those wanting to get a seat at the table?
Freeman-Wilson: Well, I certainly uh would encourage folks to continue to be engaged and be involved and you should not concede the fact that you won’t get a seat at the table, you can take a seat at the table. You have to work a little harder, fight a little harder, and push and be aggressive, but don’t mistake being emphatic and uh being focused, with being uh aggressive or pushy, which is something they always want to hang on women. But, I think that people need our representation, they need our voice. And certainly, the folks that we are representing need to have us in that room. So, its important that we, ensure that we get a seat at the table.
Poletika: Dr. Peniel Joseph described the convention as quote: “The most important political, cultural, and intellectual gathering of the black power era.” And it seems to me that Gary’s legacy of this black political empowerment is often kind of dropped from the narrative, which is unfortunate. So how do you envision Gary’s future in terms of political or socio-economic parody for black residents?
Freeman-Wilson: Well, I think that it is important to remember Gary’s role in the black power movement. In the narrative of that day about self-determination, as a result of the Gary convention you got Maynard Jackson in Atlanta. You got Wellington Webb in Denver, Colorado. You got uh, so many black mayors who were the first black mayors in their communities. And that led to economic empowerment in those communities. I think the challenge for Gary was that there was so much pushback on the political power that was gained by Mayor Hatcher and that was in many parts because Indiana had such a history of segregation and racism that people immediately reacted to his election in Gary in a negative way. Before he had an opportunity to lead and to govern there were folks who were making plans to not only leave town, but incorporate a city that was indirect contradiction of the existing Indiana law and that was Merrillville on the Gary border. And so, incorporate a town, because there was a law at the time that said that no town could be incorporated within 3 miles of a second-class city. There was a buffer zone. And uh not withstanding that fact you had legislation that was passed in the general assembly ironically in uh 1972 that allowed Merrillville to incorporate and as a result you saw growth in Merrillville, because that accelerated white flight. And so, as a result of that occurrence, Gary’s economic downturn was accelerated and that became Gary’s legacy unfortunately. I think now, there’s an opportunity to develop and create a new narrative uh from Gary because of the partnership that we were able to develop with the existing governor in Indianapolis and that Mayor Prince is continuing. I think there is also an opportunity because we were able to lay groundwork under the Obama Administration that can now be continued under the Biden Administration.
Poletika: Hmm, interesting point. And I know uh Mayor Hatcher had a city council that was in opposition to him and kind of blocked him.
Freeman-Wilson: Early on he did. Uh by the 2nd or 3rd term he was able to get things done. A lot of the development infrastructure, when you look at the Genesis Convention center that was built then. When you look at the Adam Benjamin Transportation Center that was built under his tenure. The Hudson Campbell Center, the Sheraton hotel that was ultimately torn down because everything has a lifespan right, but all of those things were accomplished under his tenure. The um housing…the affordable housing that was created during his time here all of those things occur.
Poletika: So, I have one last question for you. Based on your experiences as mayor and director of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, and your various other leadership roles. What’s your advice for black activists and political hopefuls about how to make systemic change? Is it through the ballot, is it through public demonstrations, a combination?
Freeman-Wilson: I think it’s all of the above. There can’t be any one methodology. And I think that one of the things that is important to understand and that demonstrations will get you in the door to a table, but once you get to the table you have to have a negotiation strategy that will create long term systemic change. And so often people understand and are engaged at the protest, but they forget the strategy that has to be employed to create the systemic change and it’s not just uh from a political standpoint, but it has to be from an economic standpoint.
Poletika: Yeah, I know that there’s the Black Lives Matter organization and there’s the Black Votes Matter organization, seems like there working together.
Freeman-Wilson: Yeah, because the two aren’t mutually exclusive and there has to be a Black Economics Matter, as well.
Poletika: How do you think that you would leverage economic change?
Freeman-Wilson: Well, I think you leverage economic change in working with city and state government. Later today, I’m gonna be on uh panel with the State of Illinois where there gonna be talking about goals for black businesses. That’s important and so when you uh look at cities, when you look at states who will do business with black folks that ultimately allows them to employ black people in many instances and to transfer wealth in the black community. Because what we are seeing is an increasing gap and uh and many refer to it as uh racial wealth gap. How do you amass wealth uh, you amass wealth through business and you amass wealth through home ownership and so there has to be a focus on both of those mechanisms, along with the education that typically leads to wealth accumulation in those areas. So that you can ultimately ensure that you’re reducing the racial wealth gap. And government has a role to play in home ownership, in doing business with black folks and encouraging others, because you can’t just gain wealth by doing business with uh state government or the federal government. You have to do it with the private sector, because even when government turn downs occur private sectors uh, businesses will continue to procure goods and services.
Poletika: Right, and that’s why representation I am sure is so important. People like you being at the table and fighting for those measures.
Freeman-Wilson: Absolutely, that’s been one of our major areas of focus at the Chicago Urban League.
Poletika: Well, I can’t wait to learn more about your uh work with the Urban League, um how can people learn more about you and your work?
Freeman-Wilson: By looking at our website chiul.org, by following me @karenaboutgary and certainly on Twitter.
Poletika: Alright, well thank you so much for speaking with us, it was a real pleasure to talk with you.
Freeman-Wilson: Thank you so much.
Poletika: If you are interested in learning more about the National Black Political Convention check out our post at blog.history.in.gov and check out Dr. Leonard Moore’s book The Defeat of Black Power: Civil Rights and the National Black Political Convention of 1972. Please follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana History, subscribe, rate, and review talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.
Marriage is complicated enough. Add in opposing political views, routinely confronting systemic racism and sexism, and coping with the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II, and it’s even more challenging. African American attorneys Elizabeth and J. Chester Allen experienced these struggles and, while theirs was not a perfect marriage, through compromise, mutual respect, shared obstacles and goals, and love, they enjoyed 55 years together as man and wife. The South Bend couple dedicated themselves to each other and to uplifting the Black community by crafting legislation, organizing social programs, creating jobs, and demanding educational equality. The opportunities the Allens created for marginalized Hoosiers long outlived them.
On his way to Indianapolis in the late 1920s, J. Chester’s car broke down in South Bend and, after staying with a family on Linden Street, liked the city so much he decided to make it his home. Or so the story goes. Elizabeth Fletcher Allen, whom he met at Boston University and married in 1928, was likely working towards her law degree back in Massachusetts when J. Chester made that fateful trip. She would eventually join her husband in Indiana, but in the meantime J. Chester quickly got to work serving South Bend’s Black community. In 1930, J. Chester was admitted to the bar and the following year was appointed County Poor Attorney for St. Joseph County.
His arrival was perhaps serendipitous, as the Great Depression had begun rendering African Americans, who were already disenfranchised, destitute. J. Chester served as management committee chairman of the Hering House, which he described as “‘the clearing house of most of the social activities of the colored people as well as the point of contact between the white and colored groups of South Bend. . . . Its activities in the three fields of spiritual, mental and physical training make it indeed a character building institution.'” Through the organization, J. Chester helped provide 4,678 meals to unemployed African Americans, along with clothes, lodging, and medical aid to others in the Black community in 1931.
In addition to providing basic necessities during those lean years, J. Chester took on various anti-discrimination lawsuits in South Bend. In 1935, he helped prosecute a case against a white restaurant owner, who refused to serve Charles H. Wills, Justice of the Peace, in a section designated only for white patrons. That same year, J. Chester served as attorney for the Citizens Committee, formed in protest to the “unwarranted shooting” of Arthur Owens, a Black 18 year-old man, by white police officer Fred Miller. The Indianapolis Recorder, an African American newspaper, noted that eleven eyewitnesses recounted that “the youth was shot by Officer Miller as he stepped from a car with hands raised, after having been commanded by the officer and his companion, Samuel Koco Zrowski, to halt.” The officers had been pursuing the car with the belief it had been stolen.
Elizabeth Allen-likely back in town temporarily-and other Black leaders organized a mass meeting to protest the “wanton, brutal and unwarranted” shooting. Despite boycotts, a benefit ball to raise prosecutorial funds, and protests by the Black community and white communists, a grand jury did not return an indictment against Officer Miller for voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. This, J. Chester said, was due to “blind prejudice on the part of the prosecutor.”
Despite a disheartening outcome, J. Chester continued to lend his legal expertise to combating local discrimination. The following year, he and a team of lawyers challenged Engman Public Natatorium’s ban on African Americans from using the facilities. The team presented a petition, likely prepared by Elizabeth, to the state board of tax commission demanding Engman remove all restrictions. Allen and other NAACP representatives had tried this in 1931, arguing that the natatorium was “supported in whole or in part by taxes paid by residents of the city,” including African Americans. Without access to the pool, they would be relegated to unsafe swimming holes, one of which led to the death of a Black youth the previous summer. While they had no luck in 1931, the 1936 appeal convinced commissioners to provide African American residents access to the pool, but only on the first Monday of every month and on a segregated basis. This was just one victory in the decades-long fight to fully desegregate the natatorium.
While it appears that Elizabeth lent her aid to certain events in South Bend, like protesting the shooting of Owen, it is tough to discern Elizabeth’s activities at this time. This is perhaps due to scant documentation for African Americans, particularly women, during this period. Likely, she was working towards her law degree at Boston University, despite being told by an admissions officer “there was not need to come and advised she get married.” Proving the officer wrong, Elizabeth not only got married, but gave birth to two children while pursuing her law degree. She attributed this tenacity to the confidence her father instilled in her during childhood and later said “’To be a woman lawyer you have to have the hide of a rhinoceros.’”
Her persistence paid off and after joining J. Chester in South Bend, she was admitted to the bar in 1938. Perhaps her presence inspired in him a sense of security and conviction, resulting in a run for the Indiana General Assembly. That year, voters elected J. Chester (D) the first African American to represent St. Joseph County. Rep. Allen introduced and supported bills that would eliminate racial discrimination in sports, the judicial system, and public spaces. The new lawmaker also endorsed bills that would require Indianapolis’s City Hospital to employ Black personnel and that would mandate appointing at least one African American to the State Board of Public Instruction, telling his colleagues “the legislature should see to it that these children had a spokesman of their own racial group to assure their obtaining a measure of equal accommodation and facilities in the segregated public school system” (Indianapolis Recorder, March 11, 1939). Writer L.J. Martin praised Allen’s unwavering commitment to serving Black Hoosiers while in public office, noting in the Indianapolis Recorder,
Hon. J. Chester Allen said he had stayed up late at night reading bills for such ‘racial traps.’ He found them, he eliminated them, one hotel sponsored bill in particular would have been a slap at the race. Mr. Allen astonishes me, in the forcible argument for racial progress.
While J. Chester walked the halls of the statehouse, championing bills that furthered racial equality, Elizabeth was able to make a difference as a lawyer. The couple opened “Allen and Allen” in 1939—the same year she gave birth to their third child. One of the first Black female lawyers in the city, and likely state, Elizabeth quickly forged a reputation as an articulate and ambitious woman. She did not hesitate to express her convictions, not even to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Elizabeth sent her a letter expressing the need to integrate housing and provide African Americans with the same government-funded housing white Americans received. Elizabeth’s son, Dr. Irving Allen, told an interviewer that Roosevelt’s response resulted in his mother’s “angry departure” from the Democratic Party. Allegedly, Roosevelt “sent back this long-winded pretentious letter rationalizing the situation . . . that the races couldn’t live together.” Both idealistic, Dr. Allen recalled that his parents’ political discourse over the dinner table “could blow up at any time.”
Elizabeth’s editorial for the South Bend Tribune, entitled “Negro and 1940,” also provides insight into her views. She lauded the “new Negro,” who:
is fearless and motivated by confidence in his belief that he owes to his race the duty of guiding those members whose minds have not been trained to clear thinking, his knowledge that the able members of his race have always from the beginning of this country contributed to the civic upbuilding and a conviction that it is up to him to keep the gains which have been made.
By this definition, Elizabeth exemplified the “new Negro,” dedicating her life to uplifting South Bend’s Black community through her work with the NAACP’s Legal Redress Committee and by organizing drives to improve housing for minorities. According to her son, Dr. Irving Allen, Elizabeth embodied the Black empowerment she wrote about, challenging oppression and advocating for those “being cheated out of a decent life.” Dr. Allen suspected that his mother also wanted to effect change as a legislator, but sacrificed her political aspirations to support her husband’s career.
Although Elizabeth felt she had to shelve her political aspirations, she complemented her husband’s legislative work, particularly regarding World War II defense employment. The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 created an immediate need for the manufacture of ordnance. While U.S. government war contracts lifted many Americans out of the poverty wrought by the Depression, many manufacturers refused to hire African Americans. This further disenfranchised them as, according to W. Chester Hibbitt, Chairman of the Citizens’ Defense Council, an estimated 54% of African Americans living in Indiana were on relief by 1941.
And while the federal government complained of a labor shortage, J. Chester contended that “Negro workers, skilled and semi-skilled, by the thousands are walking the streets or working on W. P. A. projects, because they happen to have been endowed with a dark skin by the Creator of all men'” (“The Story of House Bill No. 445, p.15). He argued that it was the responsibility of lawmakers to prohibit employment discrimination, not only to eliminate poverty, but to safeguard democracy. Echoing the Double V campaign, Rep. Allen stated that “our first line of defense should be the preservation of the belief in the hearts of all men, black and white alike, that Democracy exists for all of us; that we are all entitled to a home, a job and the expectancy of better things to come for our children.” The continued denial of American minorities’ rights undermined the fight for freedom abroad.
Elected to a second term in 1940, J. Chester led the call for anti-discrimination legislation. Months before President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, Rep. Allen and Rep. Evans introduced House Bill No. 445. If enacted, it would make it illegal for Indiana companies benefiting from federal defense contracts “to discriminate against employing any person on account of race, color or creed.” So popular was the bill that after the Indiana Senate passed it, delegations of African Americans and their children filled statehouse corridors and galleries, carrying “placards advocating passage of the bill, describing the measure as the only thing necessary to provide Negroes with jobs” (“The Story of House Bill No. 445”, p.7).
Despite the bill’s promising fate, on the last day of session the House kicked it over to the Committee on Military Affairs, where it essentially died. In an article for the Indianapolis Recorder, J. Chester noted that although the bill was defeated,
such state-wide attention had been drawn to the sad economic plight of the Negro workers of Indiana and its attendant dangers that people of both races agreed that the alleviation of the Negro unemployment problem was the number one job of the preparations for war of Indiana and proceeded in for right home-rule manner to do something about it.
On June 1, 1941, Governor Schricker answered the call to “do something about it,” appointing J. Chester the Coordinator of Negro Affairs to the Indiana State Council of Defense. As part of the Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation, Allen traveled throughout the state, appealing to groups like the A.F.L., C.I.O., and the Indiana State Medical, Dental and Pharmaceutical Association, which all formally pledged to employ African Americans. Through intensive groundwork, Allen established bi-racial committees in at least twenty Indiana cities.
Based on the “mutual cooperation between the employer, labor and the Negro,” the Recorder reported that these local committees would “go into action whenever and wherever Negro industrial employment presents a problem.” Although his persuasive skills often convinced employers to hire Black employees, historian Emma Lou Thornbrough noted that “Allen sometimes invoked Order 8802 and threats of federal investigation to persuade management to employ and upgrade black workers.”
Allen and the bi-racial committees also served as a sort of “middlemen” for white employers who wanted to hire African Americans, but were unsure how to recruit those best-suited for the job. Allen and the committees distributed “mimieographed questionnaires,” which provided” more valuable information with respect to Negro labor supplies, skills, etc. This information was then used with great effect in the mobilization and cataloguing of types of dependable Negro workers for local defense industries.”
Under Allen’s leadership, the Indiana Plan proved incredibly successful, providing employment to those, in Allen’s words, “whose record of loyalty and services dates in an unbroken chain back to the year 1620” (“The Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation,” p.5). According to the “Job Opportunities for Negroes” pamphlet, between July 1, 1941 and July 1, 1942, there “was a net increase of 82% Negro employment, most of which was in manufacturing. . . . working conditions also improved” (p.2). (It should be noted that employers continued to deny African Americans jobs in “skilled capacities.”) In fact, Indiana was awarded the “Citation of Merit” by the National Director of Civilian Defense for “outstanding work in the field of race relations.” So efficiently organized and implemented, other states used the plan as a model to bring African Americans into the workforce.
The Bi-Racial Cooperation Plan’s significance endured long after World War II ended. White employers could no longer claim that Black Hoosiers lacked the skills or competence required of the workplace or that it was “unnatural” for white and Black employees to work alongside each other. Reflecting on the program, Allen wrote in 1945, “Time was when a Negro interested in securing better employment opportunities for his people could not even obtain an audience with those able to grant such favors.” But the Bi-Racial Cooperation plan “has accomplished more for the Negro’s permanent economic improvement than had been done in the preceding history of the state.”
While African Americans were often the first to be let go from defense jobs with the conclusion of war, Allen’s work permanently wedged the door open to employment for Black Hoosiers. Allen, perhaps at the encouragement of Elizabeth, emphasized the importance of creating job opportunities for Black women and in his 1945 article noted that thousands of female laborers “have been upgraded from traditional domestic jobs, to which all colored women had previously been assigned irrespective of training or ability, to defense plants as receptionists, power-sewing machine operators, line operators and other better paying positions where their training can be utilized.”
Like her husband, Elizabeth refused to accept that Black Hoosiers would be excluded from the economic boon created by defense jobs. In the early 1940s, she established a nurse’s aid training and placement program for Black women in St. Joseph County. Of her WWII work, Elizabeth’s son said that she opened professional doors for Black women and that she saw herself as helping people who were oppressed. Like J. Chester, Elizabeth helped select local men for placement in defense jobs and, according to an October 11, 1941 Indianapolis Recorder article
used the utmost care in selecting the men to go into the factory realizing that future opportunities were dependent upon the foundation which these pioneers laid both in building good will among the fellow employes, and proving to the management that colored are reliable, trustworthy, hard-working and capable of advancing.
While J. Chester traveled the state, Elizabeth tended to the needs of the local community, chairing a drive in 1942 at Hering House for “community betterment in housing[,] social and industrial fields.” In the 1940s, Elizabeth organized various meetings to improve local housing for the Black community, emphasizing the link between substandard residences and crime rates, delinquency, and health. Deeply committed to ensuring quality education for African American children, Elizabeth founded Educational Service, Inc. in 1943, which encouraged youth to pursue social and economic advancement, provided financial aid to “worthy” students, offered individual counseling, and fostered good citizens. All of this while caring for three young children and likely manning the couple’s law office, as J. Chester fulfilled his duties with the Indiana State Council of Defense. Fortunately, Elizabeth later told the South Bend Tribune, “I want to keep busy constantly. I have to be about something all the time.”
When the war clouds cleared, the Allens achieved many of their professional and philanthropic goals. But they also experienced immense personal loss that appeared to test their marriage. Their post-war journey is explored in Part II.
Elizabeth F. Allen, “Negro and 1940,” South Bend Tribune, October 1, 1939, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.
The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Story of House Bill No. 445 . . . A Bill That Failed to Pass,” (Indianapolis, 1941?), Indiana State Library pamphlet.
The Indiana State Defense Council and The Indiana State Chamber of Commerce, “The Indiana Plan of Bi-Racial Cooperation,” Pamphlet No. 3, (April 1942), Indiana State Library pamphlet.
Mary Butler, “Mrs. Elizabeth Allen Lays Down Law to Family,” South Bend Tribune, July 30, 1950, 39, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Adult Award Winner,” South Bend Urban League and Hering House, Annual Report, 1960, p. 5, accessed Michiana Memory.
“Area Women Lawyers Tell It ‘Like It Is,’” South Bend Tribune, March 9, 1975, 69, accessed Newspapers.com.
Marilyn Klimek, “Couple Led in Area Racial Integration,” South Bend Tribune, November 30, 1997, 15, accessed Newspapers.com.
Emma Lou Thornbrough, Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 207.
Oral History Interview with Dr. Irving Allen, conducted by Dr. Les Lamon, IU South Bend Professor Emeritus, David Healey, and John Charles Bryant, Part 1 and Part 2, August 11, 2004, Civil Rights Heritage Center, courtesy of St. Joseph County Public Library, accessed Michiana Memory Digital Collection.
Esther Griffin White was a woman before her time—outspoken, rebellious, and willing to stake her reputation on the things that she believed in during an era when women were considered second-class citizens. Her Quaker upbringing imparted the importance of racial and gender equality, causes that she ultimately championed throughout her life. Her staunch political activism and dedication to gender equality throughout her life are, arguably, what she is most known for today. However, she also used her power, privilege, and platform as a white, middle-class, female journalist to speak out against racial injustice. Here, as we examine White’s writing, we clearly see someone trying to make sense of her own ingrained racism while at the same time standing up and speaking out against it.
Born in 1869 in Richmond, Indiana, White was a journalist, political activist, suffragist, and life-long Indiana resident. She began her writing career for the Richmond Palladium as an arts and culture critic and published her own paper (though infrequently) called The Little Paper, which she owned and operated out of her home at 110 South 9th Street. From the 1890s to 1944, she freelanced for many Richmond papers, often transferring from publication to publication as editors worried that her blunt and adversarial writing style could offend readers—likely a concern born partially out of sexism.
White joined the Indiana Woman’s Franchise League in the early 1900s and was elected chairman of the Publicity Committee in 1916. While in the League, she began actively working towards the cause she wrote so much about; for example, she organized a suffrage street rally for several suffrage speakers in June 1916 in Richmond. This event was heralded as “one of the largest street meetings ever held in Richmond and the first suffrage meeting of its character held in eastern Indiana.”
White was also a politician, running for mayor of Richmond in 1921, 1925, and again in 1938. She also ran for a Republican congressional seat in 1926, making her the first Indiana woman to seek U.S. congressional office. White ran for a seat in the U.S. Congress again in 1928, but to no avail. According to historian George T. Blakey, White was the first Hoosier woman to have her name on an official election ballot, before women even had the right to vote, when she ran for a delegate’s seat at the 1920 Republican State Convention. Though White never held elected office, her ambition sent a strong message—that women could and should be recognized as political actors and that, as far as White was concerned, would no longer accept anything less.
While she is probably best known for her work to advance women’s rights, she was also a proponent of racial equality and used her journalistic platform to speak about racial issues in the town of Richmond, Indiana throughout the first half of the 1900s. An active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), White’s opinions on and support of African Americans garnered plenty of scorn and judgment in her small, rural town—especially because she was a single white woman. Never one to care about others’ opinions of her, White used her talent, privilege, and position as a white female journalist to speak out against racial discrimination. Through her editorials and opinion pieces in both The Richmond Palladium and her self-published newspaper, The Little Paper, between 1910 and 1920, White condemned white supremacy and racial discrimination. Though she often wrote antiracist sentiment, on occasion her choice of words and arguments were in themselves racist—as she often touted common assimilationist and segregationist points of view. Through her published articles, we see the ways in which White grappled with her own ingrained and unconscious racism as she worked to be (what we call today) an antiracist in 20th-Century Richmond, Indiana.
Professor of history and founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, explains the relationship between antiracist, assimilationist, and segregationist beliefs:
the history of the racialized world is a three-way fight between assimilationists, segregationists, and antiracists. Antiracists ideas are based in the truth that racial groups are equals in all the ways that they are different, assimilationist ideas are rooted in the notion that certain racial groups are culturally or behaviorally superior, and segregationist ideas spring from a belief in genetic racial distinction and fixed hierarchy.
We find representations of each of these ideals, often within the same article, throughout White’s analysis of race. Though we understand that racial inferiority or superiority does not exist—all races are the same and race itself is a construct—we too understand that many people across time, and still today, have used pieces of assimilationist and segregationist ideas in their defense of equal treatment of the races. These racist ideas are so deeply ingrained in our societies that, although plenty of racist people have used them intentionally, plenty of others, like White, who believed in equality between the races, also sometimes unknowingly peddled racist beliefs.
White was, as were some of her well-known contemporaries, engaging in the work to become an antiracist and to communicate antiracist ideas, while also at times touting assimilationist and segregationist ideas, which were prevalent views in terms of race in nineteenth and twentieth century America, and even today. However, highlighting White’s racist tendencies is not to discredit any of the antiracist beliefs she so clearly held—it is simply to be completely transparent about the reality of this type of work and the people engaged in it. She was not a perfect antiracist, but she was trying—she was standing up for what she believed in and, through her journalism, speaking on ideas of racial equality when it was not only unpopular to do so, especially for a woman, but potentially dangerous.
The last years of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century in America saw a rise in violence against African Americans by white supremacists looking to quell any power or rights the group received in the years after the Civil War. The violence emerged, most horrifically, in the form of mob violence and lynchings, many of which were not hidden events done in the dark of the night, but rather public spectacles that often doubled as picnics for families and town folk. Though the majority of lynchings occurred in the South, this barbaric act transcended regional lines and can be found nationwide. Mobs throughout the Hoosier state alone murdered at least sixty-six people between 1858 and 1930, eighteen of whom were African Americans. Black men were not the only targets of lynchings, as Native American, Hispanic, Asian, white people, and women and children too were lynched across the United States.
There were no recorded lynchings in Richmond, perhaps because of its large Quaker community and the anti-slavery beliefs they held. The closest recorded lynching to Richmond occurred in Blountsville, about thirty miles northwest of the city, in February of 1890. However, the possibility of such violence constantly lingered in the minds of Black Americans. These conditions at the turn of the twentieth century prompted Esther Griffin White, as a white, female journalist to speak out against the unjust treatment of African Americans.
In one of her most notable articles pertaining to race, written in her self-published The Little Paper, White expressed disdain for the depiction of African Americans in the blockbuster hit of the early twentieth century, The Birth of a Nation. This controversial film released on February 8, 1915 by D.W. Griffith claimed to represent the Civil War and Reconstruction in America. However, it depicted the Ku Klux Klan as the valiant saviors of the ravaged, post-war South by freed, barbaric Black people. The film was a commercial hit and helped to rekindle the once regional Ku Klux Klan founded in 1865. It depicted freed Black Americans as “uncouth, intellectually inferior and predators of white women.”The Birth of a Nation prompted protests by the NAACP, but they had little impact as the films’ popularity was so wide. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson showed it at the White House, heralding it as “writing history with lightning.”
While she found the musical score and the general cinematography of the film noteworthy, Esther Griffin White did not share the same fervor over the film as President Wilson and so many other white Americans. In her newspaper review of the film, titled “’The Birth of a Nation’ Insidious Appeal to Race Prejudice, An Insult to Negro Citizens,” White writes that “colored people are justified, without any shadow of doubt, in their protest against the second part of ‘The Birth of a Nation.’” She continued, “the play is merely a dramatization of a novel by a well-known fire-eating Southern writer, who has done more to rake up old scores, to intensify class hatred, to accentuate race antagonism by his lurid pictures of conditions long since passed away than any other one medium in the United States.” Here, we see White expressing contempt for the bestial, racist depiction of Black Americans in the film. She also adds:
The second part of ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ if it were looked upon as picture commentary on a phase of the country’s history, might be interesting. But the presentation is not made for this reason. On the other hand neither is it made for the glorification of a lost cause. Its raison d’etre is not philanthropic nor moral nor historic. But commercial…[it] is a business proposition. To make money for its producers.
White seems to clarify here that she does not believe the film to be historically accurate or looking to start a conversation about the country’s past, but rather inflammatory and insulting to African American citizens: “the Negro citizen of this country was sacrificed to make a moving picture holiday, so to speak. The glaringness of the sop thrown to them by the scenes at the end . . . is laughable if it were not sardonic.” This review of The Birth of the Nation was certainly not the first, nor the last, public condemnation White would make regarding the treatment of African American citizens in the twentieth century.
In one of her earliest political articles from December 1911 in the Richmond Palladium, White writes about the idea of brotherhood and humanity among all people, and the exclusion of African Americans from those ideals. In her article “Negroes Pay Taxes on Millions,” White writes, “take our colored friends, in instance. ‘Live and let live,’ does not apply to our [white Americans’] attitude toward them. We push them clear outside of the limits and then denounce them if they resent total excommunication.” While it seems here that White is arguing for the indiscriminatory inclusion of African Americans within American society and against segregation, further on in the article she begins arguing for more Black organizations to be formed in Richmond for Black residents, like a “colored” Y.M.C.A. for the “well behaved, educated and ambitious young colored men in this city.” Rather than arguing for inclusion and accessibility, it seems White instead argued for the racist separate but equal doctrine we see come to a head in the 1890s with the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case in response to African American’s push for equal treatment and opportunity under the law.
She continued, “they [Black Americans] are just as much a part of the social, economic and political life of the community as their paler-hued brothers and unless given some consideration will develop into a complicated and puzzling problem. . . . They are citizens of this country just as are the whites.” This perfectly illustrates White’s struggle with the idea of dueling consciousness as it relates to assimilationist and antiracist ideas. At the end of the article, White argues that “there is no use retiring into the fastness of race prejudice and lumping all of the colored people together. There are as many grades and distinctions as there are among the white people.” This comment, as well as many of the other antiracist sentiments White expressed throughout this article, demonstrate her ability to understand and express the antiracist notion that all races are the same—it is individual distinctions that make humans different—distinctions that have nothing to do with the color of their skin. This article, as a whole, demonstrates her own dueling consciousness as a white woman trying to pursue an antiracist mindset and advocating for antiracist policies while also struggling to unlearn deeply rooted racist ideals in the early twentieth century.
The very next month, in January of 1912, White was much more explicit about her views of racism. In her article, while arguing generally for universal gender and racial equality as it pertains to voting and citizenship, White laments:
Why, in instance, “call names.” Why say “niggers,” “dagoes,” “shenies.” Why arrogate yourself a certain superiority because you have a white skin. Who made the “earth and the fullness thereof”? How do you know who got here first? Who are you, anyway? In a few years you will be turned over to the worms who make no distinction between black or white, man or woman, good or bad, educated or uneducated, yellow or red, brown or copper. Neither God nor the worms care what your color may be, your race or your previous condition of servitude. There is nothing so immoral as thinking you are better than anyone else.
In this article, perhaps her most antiracist, White does not allude to any racist or assimilationist ideals. As can be noted in the excerpt above, she completely disdains any ideology that espouses the belief that one’s skin color makes them any different.
Just a few months after the above article, White wrote another piece for the Richmond Palladium titled “It Is True You Can’t Always Tell.” In this article, White builds on her antiracist views and highlights an experience she had a few weeks prior while attending a concert in Richmond. She noted how wonderful the musical act performed by a group of male musicians was and that “they were, indeed, one of the best ‘attractions’ the vaudeville theatre has ever had.”  She continued that many of the spectators thought them Italian, as they sang many of their songs in Italian, or perhaps Spanish, because they were dressed as troubadours, but that they were in fact African American. This, White argued, proved that “race prejudice is frequently only a matter of thinking” and that “people were delighted with [the musicians]—not because they were Italians or Spaniards, white Americans or of the Negro race, but because they were superior musicians.”
Here, White is arguing that race prejudice and racism are not logical —they are both only a matter of warped thinking. The musicians were not loved and celebrated because of their prescribed race, but simply because they were talented. White continued, “it is one of life’s famed tragedies that these people should have to masquerade, after a fashion, in order to have their talents appreciated for what they really were.”
Looking back at Esther Griffin White’s life reveals many things about her as a person, which can generally be boiled down to one sentiment: she was unapologetically her own person and used her power, privilege, and platform as a white, middle-class, female journalist to speak out against injustices. Through White’s articles, we clearly see someone trying to process her own ingrained racism while at the same time speaking out against it. That is essentially what happens when engaging in antiracist work. White did not always say or do the right things when it came to her antiracism work, but one can trust in her intentions and hope that she learned from her mistakes. Ultimately, her fearless condemnation of injustice in early-twentieth century Richmond should inspire us all, perhaps now more than ever, to stand up and speak out for what is right, even if it is unpopular.
 “Suffrage Street Talks Draw Large Audience, Women State Their Purpose,” Richmond Palladium, June 27, 1916, 1, 11, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
 George T. Blakey, “Esther Griffin White: An Awakener of Hoosier Potential,” Indiana Magazine of History 86, no. 3 (September 1990): 294-299, accessed scholarworks.iu.edu.
 Ibram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York: Penguin Random House, 2018), 31.
 So common was the dance between antiracist and assimilationist ideas for people that well-known Black author and activist W.E.B. Du Bois wrestled with them. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois’ 1903 essay, he expressed the dueling consciousness that demonstrates the fight between assimilationist and antiracist ideas, specifically for Black folk: “One never feels his twoness…an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Although Du Bois, as a Black man, had disproportionately different experiences than White did as a white woman, we see a similar push and pull between assimilationist and antiracist ideas in his defense of African American’s racial equality that we do in White’s writings.
 Michael J. Pfeiffer, Lynching Beyond Dixie: American Mob Violence Outside of the South (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 1.
 Pfeiffer, 4. The more secretive, hidden lynchings would occur in the latter half of the twentieth century, often carried out by secretive groups like the KKK and often shrouded as “hate crimes” rather than what they were. It was middle-class southerners’ embarrassment at the newfound spotlight anti-lynching activists like Ida B. Wells were putting on the barbaric practice that drove it underground in the mid-twentieth century. In some areas, like the Midwest and West, public lynchings would continue into the mid-twentieth century.