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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SOURCES USED:

Dr. Joseph H. Ward historical marker notes.

FOOTNOTES:

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

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

[3] Gamble, 90.

[4] Quotation from Gamble, 92.

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

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

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

[8] Ibid., 67.

[9] Ibid., 66.

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

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

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

Representative Katie B. Hall’s Fight for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

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

On September 7, 1982, U.S. Representative Adam Benjamin (D-Indiana), a Gary native, was found dead of a heart attack in his Washington, D.C. apartment. Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher, the first African American mayor in the State of Indiana, was tasked with selecting a candidate to run in a special election to complete the last few months of Benjamin’s term. After some intra-party debate, Mayor Hatcher chose Indiana State Senator Katie Hall to serve out the remainder of Benjamin’s term in the U.S. House of Representatives. In November, Hall was elected to Indiana’s first congressional district seat, becoming the first African American to represent Indiana in Congress. When Hall arrived in Washington, D.C., she served as chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Census and Population, which was responsible for holidays. Her leadership in this subcommittee would successfully build on a years-long struggle to create a federal holiday honoring the civil rights legacy of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday.

Each year since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) had introduced a bill to make Dr. King’s January 15 birthday a national holiday. Over the years, many became involved in the growing push to commemorate Dr. King with a holiday. Musician Stevie Wonder was one of the most active in support of Conyers’s efforts. He led rallies on the Washington Mall and used his concerts to generate public support. In 1980, Wonder released a song titled “Happy Birthday” in honor of Dr. King’s birthday. The following year, Wonder funded a Washington, D.C. lobbying organization, which, together with The King Center, lobbied for the holiday’s establishment. Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, ran The King Center and was also heavily involved in pushing for the holiday, testifying multiple times before the Subcommittee on Census and Population. In 1982, Mrs. King and Wonder delivered a petition to the Speaker of the House bearing more than six million signatures in favor of the holiday. For Dr. King’s birthday in 1983, Mrs. King urged a boycott, asking Americans to not spend any money on January 15.

Opponents objected to the proposed holiday for various reasons. North Carolina Republican Senator Jesse Helms led the opposition, citing a high cost to the federal government. He claimed it would cost four to twelve billion dollars; however, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost to be eighteen million dollars. Furthermore, a King holiday would bring the number of federal holidays to ten, and detractors thought that to be too many. President Ronald Reagan’s initial opposition to the holiday also centered on concern over the cost; later, his position was that holidays in honor of an individual ought to be reserved for “the Washingtons and Lincolns.”

Earlier in October, Senator Helms had filibustered the holiday bill, but, on October 18, the Senate once again took the bill up for consideration. A distinguished reporter for Time, Neil MacNeil described Helms’s unpopular antics that day. Helms had prepared an inch-thick packet for each senator condemning Dr. King as a “near-communist.” It included:

‘a sampling of the 65,000 documents on [K]ing recently released by the FBI, just about all purporting the FBI’s dark suspicions of commie conspiracy by this ‘scoundrel,’ as one of the FBI’s own referred to King.’

Helms’s claims infuriated Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) because they relied on invoking the memory of Senator Kennedy’s deceased brothers—former President John Kennedy and former U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy—against King. Kennedy was “appalled at [Helms’] attempt to misappropriate the memory” of his brothers and “misuse it as part of this smear campaign.” Senator Bill Bradley (D- New Jersey) joined Kennedy’s rebuttal by calling out Helms’s racism on the floor of the Senate and contending that Helms and others who opposed the King holiday bill “are playing up to Old Jim Crow and all of us know it.” Helms’s dramatic performance in the Senate against the holiday bill had the opposite effect from what he had intended. In fact, Southern senators together ended up voting for the bill in a higher percentage than the Senate overall.

The next day, at an October 19 press conference, Reagan further explained his reluctance to support the bill. Asked if he agreed with Senator Helms’s accusations that Dr. King was a Communist sympathizer, Reagan responded, “We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we?” His comment referred to a judge’s 1977 order to keep wiretap records of Dr. King sealed. Wiretaps of Dr. King had first been approved twenty years prior by Robert Kennedy when he was U.S. Attorney General. U.S. District Judge John Lewis Smith, Jr. ruled that the records would remain sealed, not until 2018 as Reagan mistakenly claimed, but until 2027 for a total of fifty years. However, President Reagan acknowledged in a private letter to former New Hampshire Governor Meldrim Thomson in early October that he retained reservations about King’s alleged Communist ties, and wrote that regarding King, “the perception of too many people is based on an image, not reality.”

[Munster] Times, August 28, 1983, accessed Newspapers.com.
After fifteen years of struggling to commemorate King with a federal holiday, why did the effort finally succeed in 1983? It was the culmination of several factors that together resulted in sufficient pressure on the Washington establishment. Wonder’s wildly successful “Happy Birthday” pulled a lot of weight to raise the public profile of the holiday demand. Mrs. King’s perennial work advocating for the holiday kept the issue in the public eye.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. According to House.gov, “This hand bill, noting the anniversary of King’s 1968 assassination, sought to rally public support for the creation of the holiday.”

Support was gaining ground around the country; by 1983 eighteen states had enacted some form of holiday in honor of Dr. King. Politicians could see the tide of public support turning in favor of the holiday, and their positions on the holiday became something of a litmus test for a politician’s support of civil rights.

After Helms’s acrimonious presentation in late October, Mrs. King gave an interview, published in the Alexandria, Louisiana Town Talk, saying that it was obvious since Reagan’s election that:

‘he has systematically ignored the concerns of black people . . .  These conservatives try to dress up what they’re doing [by attempting to block the King holiday bill] . . . They are against equal rights for black people. The motivation behind this is certainly strongly racial.’

Town Talk noted that “Mrs. King said she suspects Helms’s actions prompted a number of opposed senators to vote for the bill for fear of being allied with him.” Some editorials and letters-to-the-editor alleged that Reagan ultimately supported and signed the King holiday bill to secure African American votes in his 1984 reelection campaign. In August 1983, Mrs. King had helped organize a rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, at which King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Americans attended; all speakers called on Reagan to sign the MLKJ Day bill.

Indianapolis Star, August 28, 1983, accessed Newspapers.com.

Hall was busy building support among her colleagues for the holiday; she spent the summer of 1983 on the phone with legislators to whip votes. As chair of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population, Hall led several hearings called to measure Americans’ support of a holiday in memory of King’s legacy. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, “among those who testified in favor of the holiday were House Speaker Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.), singer Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King.” Additionally, a change in the bill potentially helped its chances by addressing a key concern of its opponents—the cost of opening government offices twice in one week. At some point between when Conyers introduced the bill in January 1981 and when Hall introduced the bill in the summer of 1983, the bill text was changed to propose that the holiday be celebrated every third Monday in January, rather than on King’s birth date of January 15.

After the House passed the bill on August 2, Hall was quoted in the Indianapolis News with an insight about her motivation:

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

For Hall, the King holiday bill was about affirming America’s commitment to King’s mission of civil rights. It would be another two and a half months of political debate before the Senate passed the bill. 

The new holiday was slated to be officially celebrated for the first time in 1986. However, Hall and other invested parties wanted to ensure that the country’s first federal Martin Luther King Jr. Day would be suitably celebrated. To that end, Hall introduced legislation in 1984 to establish a commission that would “work to encourage appropriate ceremonies and activities.” The legislation passed, but Hall lost her reelection campaign that year and was unable to fully participate on the committee. Regardless, in part because of Hall’s initiative, that first observance in 1986 was successful.

Stevie Wonder and Coretta Scott King, 1984, courtesy of Medium.com.

In Hall’s district, Gary held a celebration called “The Dream that Lives” at the Genesis Convention Center. Some state capitals, including Indianapolis, held commemorative marches and rallies. Officials unveiled a new statue of Dr. King in Birmingham, Alabama, where the leader was arrested in 1963 for marching in protest against the treatment of African Americans. In Washington, D.C., Wonder led a reception at the Kennedy Center with other musicians. Reverend Jesse Jackson spoke to congregants in Atlanta where Dr. King was minister, and then led a vigil at Dr. King’s grave. Mrs. King led a reception at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center, also in Atlanta.

Representative Hall knew the value of the Civil Rights Movement first hand. Born in Mississippi in 1938, Hall was barred from voting under Jim Crow laws. She moved her family to Gary, Indiana in 1960, seeking better opportunities. Her first vote ever cast was for John F. Kennedy during the presidential race that year. Hall was trained as a school teacher at Indiana University and she taught social studies in Gary public schools. As a politically engaged citizen, Hall campaigned to elect Mayor Hatcher and ran a successful campaign herself when in 1974 she won a seat in the Indiana House of Representatives. Two years later, she ran for Indiana Senate and won. Hall and Julia Carson, elected at the same time, were the first Black women elected to the state senate. While in the Indiana General Assembly, Hall supported education measures, healthcare reform, labor interests, and protections for women, such as sponsoring a measure to “fund emergency hospital treatment for rape victims,” including those who could not afford to pay.

Rep. Hall, courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hall was still serving as Indiana state senator in 1982 when Representative Benjamin passed away and Mayor Hatcher nominated her to complete Benjamin’s term. She made history in November 1982, when in the same election she won the campaign to complete Benjamin’s term, as well as being elected to her own two year term, becoming the first African American to represent Indiana in Congress. However, Hall lost her bid for reelection during the 1984 primaries to Peter Visclosky, a former aide of Rep. Benjamin who still holds the seat today. Hall ran for Congress again in 1986, this time with the endorsement of Mrs. King. Although she failed to regain the congressional seat, Hall remained active in politics. In 1987, Hall was elected Gary city clerk, a position she held until 2003 when she resigned amid scandal after an indictment on mail fraud, extortion, and racketeering charges. In June 1989, Dr. King’s son Martin King III wrote to Hall supporting her consideration of running again for Congress.

Hall passed away in Gary in 2012. The establishment of the federal Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday law was Hall’s crowning achievement. Her success built upon a fifteen-year-long struggle to establish a national holiday in honor of Dr. King. The Indiana General Assembly passed a state law in mid-1989 establishing the Dr. King holiday for state workers, but it was not until 2000 that all fifty states instituted a holiday in memory of Dr. King for state employees.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has endured despite the struggle to create it. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a bill sponsored by Senator Harris Wofford (D-Pennsylvania) and Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia) that established Martin Luther King Day as a day of service, encouraging wide participation in volunteer activities. Inspired by King’s words that “everyone can be great because everyone can serve,” the change was envisioned as a way to honor King’s legacy with service to others. Today, Martin Luther King Day is celebrated across the country and politicians’ 1983 votes on it continue to serve as a civil rights litmus test.

Mark your calendars for the April 2019 dedication ceremony of a state historical marker in Gary commemorating Representative Hall and the origins of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Click here for a bibliography of sources used in this post and the forthcoming historical marker.

“Blacks Must Wage Two Wars:” The Freeman Field Uprising & WWII Desegregation

Registration at Freeman Field in 1944, courtesy of the Indiana State Archives.

The 1948 desegregation of US armed forces can be partially attributed to a bellwether protest at Indiana’s Freeman Field in the spring of 1945. Here, officers of the African American 477th Bombardment Group challenged the unlawful exclusion of blacks from officers’ club, resulting in their arrest. The uprising immediately gained the attention of the War Department, NAACP, and lawmakers such as Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg. The refusal of more than 100 black officer’s to comply with “Jim Crow” policies underlined the broader push for civil rights in the World War II era.

America’s involvement in WWII exposed the great disparity between the fight for freedom abroad and the treatment of African Americans at home. In 1945, The Pittsburgh Courier alleged that it was difficult to understand how President Harry S. Truman’s administration “can claim to be prosecuting a war to bring democracy to all of the world when it will not enforce its own orders supposedly establishing democracy in its own country.” Similarly, Hoosier businessman and Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie expressed concern with the treatment of African Americans in the Armed Forces. In his 1944 article “Citizens of Negro Blood” for Collier’s Magazine, Willkie stated that World War II “has made us conscious of the contradictions between our treatment of our Negro minority and the ideals for which we are fighting. The equitable treatment of racial minorities in America is basic to our chance for a just and lasting peace.” Roberta West Nicholson, Indiana state legislator and daughter-in-law of Hoosier author Meredith Nicholson, worked with the Indianapolis Servicemen’s Center during WWII and observed the same type of discrimination at Camp Atterbury. She successfully fought for black servicemen’s rights to utilize the exact same amenities and recreational facilities as their white counterparts, lamenting “It’s difficult to believe, but this is true; because the Army itself was segregated.”

Indianapolis Recorder, April 7, 1945, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Discrimination forced African Americans to fight to even be admitted to the Army Air Corps, which was an exclusively white organization until the late 1930s. According to James Allison’s “Mutiny at Freeman Field,” with the outbreak of global war, the Army revised its policy and recruited black units, but kept them segregated from white counterparts. The Air Corps sponsored flight schools for African Americans due to pressure from Congress and NAACP leaders, but accepted none of their graduates, despite exemplary records. Allison noted that “Countervailing pressures from politicians seeking the black vote and enterprising blacks who threatened to sue resulted in an Air Corps decision to form an African American fighter squadron” in 1941. The squadron, designated the “Tuskegee Airmen,” was trained at Alabama’s Tuskegee Field and produced a formidable combat record.

Unlike the Tuskegee squadron, the 477th Bombardment Group was trained at a base in Seymour, Indiana that included white servicemen. The group was first established at Selfridge Field near Detroit, under the command of white officer Colonel Robert W. Selway. The group was transferred to Kentucky’s Godman Field as the result of racial tension and protest similar to that which later occurred at Freeman Field. The 477th was then moved to the Freeman Field air base in March 1945 to train with better facilities. The Indianapolis Recorder noted in April that:

Arrival of the group here stimulated open hostility on the part of tradesmen in the nearby town of Seymour . . . Most of the trades people announced they would furnish no service or sell commodities to the new arrivals at Freeman Field. Negro residents of Seymour, less than 100 in number, are striving valiantly to meet the needs of the soldiers.

Freeman Field Airport and Industrial Field, 1947, Indiana Historical Society, Digital Images Collection.

These men, many of whom were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart, encountered racial discrimination from white servicemen at Freeman Field. Little had changed regarding their treatment since WWI, during which African American entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker and her sales agents wrote a letter to President Woodrow Wilson officially condemning the mistreatment of black troops. According to the Recorder, African American officers at Freeman were denied entry into the air base’s tennis courts, swimming pool, and “swanky” officer’s club after 5 p.m. by Officer Selway, who created a “superficial classification that prevented their enjoyment of facilities established for commissioned personnel.” This classification violated Army Regulation 210-10, which prohibited the racial segregation of officers at army camps. According to Allison, black officers mobilized to challenge the discriminatory action, meeting in hangars to plan a peaceful protest.

On April 5, 1945, Selway learned of the plan and ordered a provost marshal to guard the club and turn away black servicemen. At the end of the night, 61 officers were arrested for attempting to enter the club, three of whom faced a jury in July for “jostling a provost marshall [sic].” On the 7th and 8th, more officers were arrested for attempted entry of the club. In a move that could further institutionalize segregation, Selway pressured black officers to “sign a statement that attested to their understanding of the order that had established one club for trainees and the other for supervisory personnel” (Allison). Officers were read an Article of War threatening death for failure to obey command and then issued a direct order to sign. Undeterred, 101 officers refused to sign and were subsequently arrested and sent back to Godman Field. According to Historian Emma Lou Thornbrough, a commander of a local black American Legion Post asserted “Blacks must wage two wars-one against the Axis powers, the other for full citizenship at home.” The Freeman Field officers did just that.

Officers, Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, circa March 1945, Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 3, Folder 68, Indiana Historical Society.

First Lieutenant Quentin P. Smith was among those who refused to sign and recalled “‘I thought, ‘Oh my God this can’t be happening . . . He had given me a direct order to sign. I had finished college and all I had to do was just stay alive and I’ll be a general. I had no voice then'” (1992, Merrillville Times). After refusing to sign, he was escorted to his barracks at gunpoint and held under arrest for twelve days. In a document endorsed by Smith on April 25, he contended “The cited regulation appeared and still appears to be a ‘Jim Crow’ regulation” and that he:

could not, and cannot understand how Medical Officers, qualified as Flight Surgeons and having completed all required Army medical training and having completed years of private medical practice could have been classified as ‘trainee’ personnel unless the distinction were solely one of color.

He added he wished to indicate “his unshakeable belief that racial bias is Fascistic, un-American, and directly contrary to the ideas for which he is willing to fight and die.”

Quentin P. Smith (center) with honor graduates of Class 45-A, Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, circa March 1945, Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 3, Folder 68, Indiana Historical Society.

The Recorder reported that “The mass arrest which is believed unprecedented in the history of the Army has this post in an uproar and has disrupted the entire training program of the 477th Bombardment group.” By the 26th, it appeared that the uprising was beginning to influence Army policy, as the newspaper noted that “Officials of the Public Regulations Bureau of the department in Washington admitted momentous changes are being considered as result of an investigation of conditions surrounding” the incident. On April 28, The Pittsburgh Courier called for the immediate release and “return to duty” of the arrested men and that “Anything less will be a travesty on justice.”

Administrative reprimand of Smith by Selway, courtesy of Clanin Collection, M0783, Box 38, Folder 3, Indiana Historical Society.
Roger C. Terry, courtesy of indianamilitary.org

Following public outcry and the efforts of the NAACP, all were released and served with an administrative reprimand, with the exception of three men. The Recorder noted on June 30, that Selway had been replaced with African American Colonel B.O. Davis Jr. However, the three men arrested for “jostling” an officer continued to be confined and were prohibited from obtaining counsel. In July, a jury acquitted Lt. Marsden A. Thompson and Lt. Shirley R. Clinton of “disobedience of a direct order,” along with Lt. Roger C. Terry, although he was found guilty of “jostling” an officer and forced to pay $150. In 1995, the Air Force set aside Terry’s conviction. In an Indianapolis Star article, Terry declared that this removed the weight he had been carrying since the ordeal and that “What came off my back was that all my hatred went away. All of it.”

Although their military records remained tarnished until the 1990s, the black airmen’s protest significantly influenced President Truman’s decision to desegregate the armed forces on July 26, 1948. In negating Terry’s conviction, former assistant secretary of the Air Force concluded that the Freeman mutiny was crucial to military integration and a “‘giant step for equality.'”

Before Rosa Parks: Laura Fisher’s 1927 Fight Against “Jim Crowism”

Greyhound Bus, 1929, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society, W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection.

On November 19, 1927 Laura Fisher boarded a Greyhound Bus at a station in Richmond, Indiana. The African American passenger, destined for her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, felt ill and took a seat at the front of the bus where it was warmest. This infuriated the Cincinnati bus driver Glen Branoski, described in the newspapers as “of foreign descent,” who demanded Fisher sit in the back of the bus in the section he had designated as “negro.” After refusing to move, Branoski ejected Fisher from the bus. According to a November 29, 1927 article in the Richmond Item, Fisher re-entered the bus, which prompted Branoski to call police headquarters. The Richmond Palladium [originally the Palladium and Sun-Telegram] noted that he demanded that the police remove her, citing that “Jim Crow rule” was “provided by the [bus] company.” Even though Greyhound was headquartered in Duluth, Minnesota, the growing interstate bus line needed to be mindful of the regional laws regarding segregation.

Jim Crow laws “came to mean any state law passed in the South that established different rules for blacks and whites. Jim Crow laws were based on the theory of white supremacy and were a reaction to [Civil War] Reconstruction.” Historian Richard B. Pierce noted that Indiana “did not have as complete a system of Jim Crow” as southern states, although it “did have its own unique brand of discrimination.” In Fisher’s case, the police station cited that “state laws did not legalize such discrimination and the police department had no authority to help” Branoski enforce the bus line policy.

Palladium and Sun-Telegram (Richmond), November 21, 1927, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

The Richmond Item reported that following this refusal, Branoski ejected Fisher a second time “with such violence that she was painfully injured” and then he tore up her ticket. The paper noted, “A considerable crowd collected and trouble threatened for a time, Mrs. Fisher becoming almost hysterical from fright.” Had police officers not arrived in a timely manner, the newspaper predicted, there would likely have been a riot. This unlawful attempt to enforce of Jim Crow segregation led to Branoski’s arrest the day following the incident. An Item article reported that on November 21 he plead “not guilty” to assault and battery and was released on bond, ordered to report to city court the following Monday for trial.

“Local Conditions,” Indianapolis Recorder, September 18, 1926, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Several local newspapers noted that this “Jim Crow” trial was the first racial discrimination case Richmond had encountered in many years. However, Fisher’s experience typified increasing segregation in Indiana during the mid and late 1920s. According to Emma Lou Thornbrough’s Indiana Blacks in the Twentieth Century, in 1927 a wave of racial discrimination led to the authorization or opening of segregated Indiana schools, including Indianapolis’s Crispus Attucks High School, Gary’s Roosevelt School, and Evansville’s Lincoln School. Each of these were barred from membership in the Indiana High School Athletic Association, on the grounds that the schools were not “publicly open to all” (the rule also barred parochial schools from IHSAA membership by the same rationale).  The rule was in effect until 1942, and prohibited all-black squads from competing against white teams.

Segregation also extended to recreation, housing, and medical care. According to historian James Madison, nearly every facet of Hoosier life in the post-WWI era was segregated or exclusionary, including “theaters, public parks, cemeteries, restaurants, hotels, beaches, swimming pools, orphans’ homes, hospitals, newspaper society columns, the state militia . . .” A March 15, 1927 article in the Huntington Herald demonstrates the attitudes of those Hoosiers calling for segregation, alleging “the average negro, given an inch will take a mile” and therefore “it is the negro’s mode of living that has resulted in the passage of all Jim Crow laws.”

Accessed via Hoosier State Chronicles.

However, Madison noted that “Indiana blacks did not accept discrimination and segregation without protest,” evinced by Laura Fisher’s case. On November 28, Branoski reported for trial at the city court, where he gave no testimony and plead guilty to assault and battery (Richmond Palladium). He was fined $50, plus costs, and 20 days in county jail. The bus company, which fired Branoski but paid his fines, settled out of court with Fisher and paid her $500 to sign a “release from a damage action which had been threatened.” According to the November 29 Richmond Item article, Fisher took Branoski to court with the purpose of obtaining racial justice, rather than financial settlement. One of her lawyers stated that:

‘Negro residents of the community were not asking for the imposition of any severe penalty upon Branoski, merely a vindication of equal rights of Negro passengers with white passengers on public transportation conveyances. He several times asked Branoski’s jail sentence be reduced to 10 days.’

Greyhound Bus Station in Indianapolis, 1943, courtesy of loc.gov, accessed iupui.edu, Indiana Farm Security Photographs.

In announcing the verdict, Richmond police judge Fred Pickett stated that “The Indiana law on racial discrimination is clear. It does not tolerate discrimination” (Palladium, November 29). He added “Ignoring the fact that one of the principals in this case is a white man and the other a negro woman it must be viewed solely as an aggravated, unprovoked attack by a strong man upon a woman who was both weak and ill. She was both injured and humiliated.” Judge Pickett made his opinion clear, stating “I want it to be a matter of public record that this court regards an attack made by a man upon a woman a serious offense not to be lightly condoned.”

The Richmond Item, November 29, 1927, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Although his statements seem to emphasize injustice based on gender, rather than race, the Freeport Journal-Standard of Illinois noted “that Indiana does not recognize a ‘Jim Crow’ rule was emphasized by police judge, Fred Pickett.”

Muncie Evening Press, December 9, 1927, accessed Newspapers.com.

While research efforts to locate articles about the fates of Fisher or Branoski following the trial were unfruitful, the case was referenced in a similar bus incident occurring on November 23, just four days after Fisher’s ordeal. According to a December 17, 1927 article in the Indianapolis Recorder, prominent African American business woman Helen M. Dorsey filed suit against the Blue Goose Bus Line when a driver refused to let her board the bus. Unable to make it to a conference in Kentucky on time, she “arrived too late to take care of the matters.” She therefor sought $500 in damages, the amount offered to “a passenger, Mrs. Laura Fisher, at Richmond, Ind. a few weeks ago.” These 1927 cases highlighted Indiana’s increasing segregation and the daily battles African Americans waged-and sometimes won-to obtain equal privileges.

Check back February 16 to learn about Indianapolis Public Schools, residential segregation, and forced busing in the 1970s.