This post is dedicated to Tom Flynn—freethinker, friend, and keeper of the Ingersoll flame.
On July 22, 1899, Hoosier Eugene Victor Debs, a radical labor organizer and the future socialist party candidate for president, published a tribute to one of his biggest influences and close friends—the orator and freethinkerRobert Green Ingersoll. Known as the “Great Agnostic” for his decades-long public critique of organized religion, Ingersoll became the leader of the “Golden Age of Freethought” in the United States, a movement dedicated to secularism that began after the Civil War and ended around World War I. His death on July 21, 1899, at the age of 65, left an irreplaceable void in the hearts of many who saw Ingersoll as the leader of a new rationalist awakening in America.
For 23 years it has been my privilege to know Colonel Ingersoll, and the announcement of his sudden death is so touching and shocking to me that I can hardly bring myself to realize the awful calamity. Like thousands of others who personally knew Colonel Ingersoll, I loved him as if he had been my elder brother. He was, without doubt, the most lovable character, the tenderest and greatest soul I have ever known.
He also noted the amount of charity work Ingersoll did, both for organizations and for individuals, such as a woman he aided after the financial collapse of her father and abandonment by her church. “Such incidents of kindness to the distressed and help to the needy,” Debs observed, “might be multiplied indefinitely, for Colonel Ingersoll’s whole life was replete with them and they constitute a religion compared with which all creeds and dogmas become meaningless and empty phrases.”
Later, on January 17, 1900, Debs wrote to Ingersoll’s publisher C.P. Farrell that “I have never loved another mortal as I have loved Robert Ingersoll, and I never shall another.” While this language may seem a bit saccharine for us today, Debs meant every word of it. From his initial meetings with Ingersoll as a young man in Terre Haute, Indiana to the Great Agnostic’s defense of him during the Pullman railroad workers strike of 1894, Eugene Debs always felt a deep kinship with the heretical orator. While they took different spiritual tracks—with Ingersoll a dedicated agnostic and Debs a social-gospel Christian—both saw the importance of caring for others in this life, despite what might come after, and believed in the power of human reason as a vehicle for transcending outmoded superstitions. Debs learned the power of effective oratory from Ingersoll, routinely citing him as one of his biggest rhetorical influences. Ingersoll also had views on labor and capital that went far beyond the traditional liberalism of his day, something that likely played a role in the radicalization of Debs. As such, their unique friendship left a lasting imprint on American life during the turn of the twentieth century.
They first met in the spring of 1878, after Debs invited Ingersoll to give a lecture to the Occidental Literary Club in Terre Haute, an organization that the former helped organize. The Terre Haute Weekly Gazette reported on May 2, 1878 that Ingersoll’s oration the previous evening was on the “religion of the past, present, and future” and noted that “Mr. Ingersoll was introduced by Mr. E. V. Debs, in well chosen and well delivered words.” Years later, in his “Recollections on Ingersoll” (1917), Debs reflected on his first encounter with the legendary orator. In fact, the lecture that Ingersoll gave that evening, according to Debs, was one of his most important, “The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child.” In it, Ingersoll excoriates those who held humanity in the bondage of superstition and called for freedom of intellectual development. As he declared, “This is my doctrine: Give every other human being every right you claim for yourself. Keep your mind open to the influences of nature. Receive new thoughts with hospitality. Let us advance.” Debs was amazed by this speech. Writing decades later, “Never until that night had I heard real oratory; never before had I listened enthralled to such a flow of genuine eloquence.” Ingersoll’s words, which “pleaded for every right and protested against every wrong,” galvanized the budding orator and political activist.
Also in 1878, Ingersoll used his considerable speaking talents towards another issue of grave importance: the condition of labor. While it would be too much to say that Ingersoll was a socialist like Debs, he was nevertheless a socially-conscious liberal Republican who understood the inequities between workers and owners in a capitalist society. In a speech entitled “Hard Times and the Way Out,” delivered in Boston, Massachusetts on October 20, 1878, Ingersoll laid out his views on the subject. While he reiterated his belief that “there is no conflict, and can be no conflict, in the United States between capital and labor,” he nevertheless chastised the capitalists who would impugn the dignity and quality of life of their laborers. “The man who wants others to work to such an extent that their lives are burdens, is utterly heartless,” he bellowed to the crowd in Boston. He also called for the use of improved technology to lower the overall workday. Additionally, in a passage that could’ve been composed by Eugene V. Debs decades later, Ingersoll declared:
I sympathize with every honest effort made by the children of labor to improve their condition. That is a poorly governed country in which those who do the most have the least. There is something wrong when men are obliged to beg for leave to toil. We are not yet a civilized people; when we are, pauperism and crime will vanish from our land.
Years later, in 1894, Eugene V. Debs and the American Railway Union (ARU) led a massive labor strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company in the outskirts of Chicago. Approximately 2,000 employees walked off the job in May, demanding an end to the 33 1/3% pay cut they took the year prior. When the strikes escalated into violence, largely due to the aggressive tactics of the Chicago police, the United States Court in Chicago filed an injunction against Debs and the ARU. The injunction claimed that Debs, as head of the ARU, violated federal law by “block[ing] the progress of the United States mails,” the Indianapolis Journal reported. Debs was later arrested for his actions, using legendary civil rights attorney Clarence Darrow for his defense. Some speculated at the time that Robert Ingersoll, himself a lawyer, would defend Debs in court, but that never came to pass. Instead, Ingersoll defended Debs in the court of public opinion, when the press reported his previous treatment for alcoholism in an effort to discredit his cause.
An article in the July 9, 1894 issue of the Jersey City News reported that Dr. Thomas S. Robertson treated Debs in 1892 for “neurasthenia” and “dipsomania,” terms used in the era to describe anxiety due to spinal cord injury and alcoholism, respectively. To help his friend, Ingersoll had written a letter of introduction for Debs to Dr. Robertson, as he had used the physician’s services before. The article quotes Dr. Robertson at length, who claimed that Debs suffered from exhaustion, which had been exacerbated by drinking, but he had improved in the two years since. When asked if Debs was of sound mind, Dr. Robertson said, “in ordinary times, yes, but he is likely to be carried away by excitement and enthusiasm.” In essence, Debs suffered from what today we might call stress-induced anxiety, which became more pronounced by substance abuse. However, it is important to note that charges of alcoholism were common in this era, and Debs might have exhibited symptoms of it without ever being intoxicated.
Sensing the intention of the press with this story, Ingersoll released a statement to the Philadelphia Observer, later reprinted in the Unionville, Nevada Silver State on August 27, 1894. In it, he stood up for his friend and the causes he fought for. “I have known Mr. Debs for about twelve years,” Ingersoll said, and “I believe, [he] is a perfectly sincere man—very enthusiastic in the cause of labor—and his sympathies are all with the workingman.” When asked about Debs’s drinking, Ingersoll pushed back on the claims, saying “I never met him when he appeared to be under the influence of stimulants. He was always in good health and in full possession of his faculties.” He also commented on the attempts at scandal in the newspapers, adding that his “testimony is important in view of gossip and denunciation that everywhere attend the public mention of the strike leader.” In one of Debs’ darkest hours, when his character and cause came under fire, Ingersoll publicly defended his friend and challenged the claims made against him. Such was the nature of their bond.
While Robert Ingersoll certainly influenced Debs on the importance of oratory and the cause of labor, he also left a profound intellectual influence on the future socialist. Early in his life, Debs developed an iconoclastic view of religion, which primed him for a rewarding relationship with Ingersoll. In conversations with Larry Karsner, published in book form in 1922, Debs reflected on the event that made him weary of organized religion. At the age of 15, Debs attended a sermon at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Terre Haute. The priest’s vivid descriptions of hell, with a “thousand demons and devils with horns and bristling tails, clutching pitchforks, steeped in brimstone,” completely soured him on institutionalized Christianity. “I left that church with rich and royal hatred of the priest as a person, and a loathing for the church as an institution,” Debs said, “and I vowed that I would never go inside a church again.” Furthermore, when asked by Karsner if he was a disbeliever at that time, Debs replied, “Oh yes, a strong one.”
He furthered his views on hell in a February 19, 1880 article in the Terre Haute Weekly Gazette. “I do not believe in hell as a place of torment or punishment after death,” he wrote, “. . . the hell of popular conception exists solely in the imagination.” He further argues that while the idea of hell may have served a beneficial function in the past, “as soon, however, as people become good enough to be just and honorable for the simple satisfaction it affords them, and avoid evil for the same reason, then there is no further necessity of hell.” With these words, Debs actually echoed much of what Ingersoll said on the subject in an 1878 lecture. “The idea of a hell,” Ingersoll noted, “was born of revenge and brutality on the one side, and cowardice on the other. In my judgment the American people are too brave, too charitable, too generous, too magnanimous, to believe in the infamous dogma of an eternal hell.”
While the doctrine of hell and the strictures of the church left Debs cold, he nevertheless adopted a liberal, nondenominational form of Christianity later in his life, one molded by his exposure to Ingersoll and freethought. In a 1917 article entitled “Jesus the Supreme Leader,” published in the Call Magazine and later reprinted in pamphlet form, Debs shared his thoughts on the prophet from Nazareth. Debs saw Christ not as a distant, ethereal presence, but rather as a revolutionary figure whose own humanity made him divine. “Jesus was not divine because he was less human than his fellow-men,” he wrote, “but for the opposite reason, that he was supremely human, and it is this of which his divinity consists, the fullness and perfection of him as an intellectual, moral and spiritual human being.” He placed Jesus in the same pantheon of transformative figures as abolitionist John Brown, President Abraham Lincoln, and philosopher Karl Marx.
For Debs, Christ’s appeal to “love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” was the same in spirit as Marx’s famous dictum in the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of all countries unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.” Both statements are about solidarity—of people coming together, helping one another, and fighting for a better world. In this sense, Debs interpreted Christ like many humanists and non-sectarian Christians do today—as a deeply human figure that preached love, peace, and harmony with others.
While Debs and Ingersoll did not share the exact same views on Christianity, they did share a commitment to secularism, tolerance, freethought, and social justice. Debs would parlay his knowledge from Ingersoll and others into a successful political career, running five times on the socialist party ticket and earning nearly a million votes in 1920 while imprisoned for speaking out against America’s involvement in WWI. As Ingersoll was the leader of the “Golden Age of Freethought,” Debs was the leader of the “Golden Age of American Socialism,” with thousands attending his speeches and joining socialist organizations. Despite their friendship being tragically cut short by Robert Ingersoll’s death in 1899, Debs honored the legacy of the Great Agnostic for the rest of his life. Writing in his “Recollections of Ingersoll” in 1917, Debs said:
He was absolutely true to the highest principles of his exalted character and to the loftiest aspirations of his own unfettered soul. He bore the crudest misrepresentation, the foulest abuse, the vilest calumny, and the most heartless persecution without resentment or complaint. He measured up to his true stature in every hour of trial, he served with fidelity and without compromise to the last hour of his noble life, he paid in full the price of his unswerving integrity to his own soul, and each passing century to come will add fresh luster to his immortal fame.
In studying their lives and their friendship, one might say these words for Robert Green Ingersoll could equally apply to Eugene Victor Debs.
As John H. Holliday strolled through Indianapolis’s Hungarian Quarter, he observed windows caked with grime, street corners lined with rubbish, and the toothy grin of fences whose boards had been pried off and used for fuel. While reporting on the nearby “Kingan District,” Holliday watched plumes of smoke cling to the meat packing plant, for which the area was named. The philanthropist and businessman noted that in the district “boards take the place of window-panes, doors are without knobs and locks, large holes are in the floors, and the filthy walls are minus much of the plastering.” Houses swollen with residents threatened outbreaks of typhoid fever and tuberculosis.
Those unfortunate enough to live in these conditions were primarily men from Romania, Serbia, Macedonia, and Hungary who hoped to provide a better life for family still living in the “Old World.” Alarmed by what he witnessed, Holliday published his report “The Life of Our Foreign Population” around 1908. He hoped to raise awareness about the neighborhoods’ dilapidation, which, in his opinion, had been wrought by landlords’ rent gouging, the city’s failure to provide sanitation and plumbing, and immigrants’ inherent slovenliness (a common prejudice at the time). Holliday feared that disease and overcrowding in immigrant neighborhoods could spill into other Indianapolis communities. Perhaps a bigger threat to contain was the immigrants’ susceptibility to political radicalism, given the squalor in which they had been reduced to living. Holliday wrote, “If permitted to live in the present manner, they will be bad citizens.”
Motivated by a desire to both aid and control immigrants, a coalition of local businessmen-including Holliday-philanthropists, and city officials formed the Immigrant Aid Association in 1911. Later that year, the association established the Foreign House on 617 West Pearl Street, which provided newcomers with social services like child care and communal baths, but also worked to assimilate and “Americanize” them. The Foreign House reflected the dual purposes of immigrant settlements in this period: what historian Ruth Hutchinson Crocker called “a mixture of protection and coercion.”
The first week of April 1908 was one of discord for northern Indiana. Hundreds of immigrant laborers stormed the Lake County Superior Court, “crying for bread” after the closing of Calumet Region mills. In Hammond, armed immigrants drilled together, causing police to fear the emergence of a riot. In neighboring Indiana Harbor, masses of desperate immigrants, many living in destitution, thronged the streets in search of employment. Blood spilled in Syracuse, when Hungarian laborers stabbed Sandusky Portland Cement Co. employee Bert Cripe. Apparently this was retribution for local employers’ refusal to hire Romanians, Hungarians, and “other laborers of the same class.” The stabbing set off a sequence of street fights between immigrants and locals, and resulted in the bombing of a hotel where laborers stayed. The Indianapolis News reported that the explosion “wrecked a portion of the building, shattered many windows, and not only terrified the occupants, but also the citizens of the town and country.”
These alarming events made an impression on a nameless employee at Indianapolis’s Foreign House, who referenced the Indianapolis News article in the margin of a ledger three years after the foment. The employee seemed acutely aware of the potential for unrest if the basic needs of Indianapolis’s estimated 20,000 immigrants went unmet.
According to Crocker, by 1910, 80% of Indianapolis’s newcomers had originated from Romania, Serbia, and Macedonia. Many of those who had recently settled in the Hoosier capital had migrated from Detroit, Kentucky, and Chicago, in search of jobs. Many Americans viewed such immigrants with derision, believing, as Holliday did, that they “‘differ greatly in enterprise and intelligence from the average American citizen. They possess little pride in their personal appearance and live in dirt and squalor.'” The 1911 Dillingham Commission Reports, funded by Congress to justify restrictive immigration policies, was designed to validate these beliefs. Using various studies and eugenics reports, the commission “scientifically” concluded that Eastern and Southern Europeans were incapable of assimilating and thereby diluted American society.
Reflecting the Report’s conclusions, a 1911 South Bend Tribune piece noted urgently, “A big portion of the immigrants are undesirable—very undesirable. . . . Markthis. If we don’t begin to really exclude undesirable immigration, the Anglo-Saxon in this Government will be submerged.” Its author continued that these “undesirables” would “soon become voters. Men who need votes see to that.” The founders of Indianapolis’s Foreign House hoped to bring together various nationalities, as their isolation made them a “political and cultural menace.”
In fact, the House’s very foundations belied the American ideals of business philanthropy and civic volunteerism. Kingan & Co. essentially donated the settlement’s structure, the local community funded citizenship classes, and work was furnished partly through “personal subscriptions and the assistance of teachers who have volunteered their services.” The settlement house would be modeled after YMCAs, offering baths, “reading and smoking rooms,” a health clinic, and night classes in which patrons could learn English. Additionally, civics courses and an information bureau, where “all the dialects of the foreign population will be spoken,” helped immigrants understand American laws and navigate the citizenship process.
These classes were crucial, as ignorance about American customs resulted in many newcomers placing their money and trust in corner saloons, whose owners often mismanaged or pocketed the funds. Immigrant Aid Association officers hoped that “opportunities for grafting and theft among the gullible class of foreigners will be reduced when the settlement house is in working order.” An understanding of the English language and the legal system could also help challenge the stereotype that immigrants were criminals because most offenses were committed due to their “ignorance of the law.” Furthermore, the Star noted in 1914 that, according to those in charge, classes about American government “have given the students an increased earning capacity and have been of great benefit in fitting them for work in this country.”
Questions about their intellectual aptitude persisted, as noted by the Indianapolis Star‘s 1915 observation of immigrants in night school: “It is an interesting sight to watch the swarthy men bending over their books and making awkward attempts to follow the pronunciation of their teachers.” Despite such evaluations, it is clear than many immigrants were grateful for the quality of education afforded in America. As relayed by an interpreter and printed pejoratively in the Indianapolis Star, a young Macedonian man who had recently arrived to Indianapolis “says he thankful most for the education he is gettin’ in America. He wants to bring father and mother here to free country.”
While the Foreign House introduced men to American cultural and political norms through these courses, immigrant women were indoctrinated through home visits by Foreign House staff. Ellen Hanes, resident secretary of the organization, made 2,714 trips to women’s homes in 1913, “teaching the care of children and teaching domestic economy as practiced by American housewives.” Historian Ruth Hutchinson Crocker contended that such services:
were the medium for teaching ‘correct’ ideas about a variety of subjects, from the meaning of citizenship to the best way to cook potatoes; thus they always involved the abandonment by immigrant women of traditional ways of doing things.
In addition to providing instruction about American customs, the House offered a space for fellowship and recreation. Likely feeling isolated in their new country, immigrants could socialize there and enjoy musical programs, as well as literary clubs with fellow newcomers. They could don costumes from their homeland, often “rich and heavy with gold and embroidery,” and perform folk dances and native music. Conversely, much of the entertainment centered around American patriotism, like a program for George Washington’s birthday, in which men dressed like the first president and women the first lady. The Indianapolis Star noted, “Probably at no place in Indianapolis are holidays celebrated more earnestly.” Crocker contended that this blended programming “showed the settlement in the dual role of Americanizer and preserver of immigrant culture.”
Recreational opportunities also lowered the possibility that immigrants would become a societal “liability.” One man who dropped by the house said, “‘We used play poker and go saloon and dance when we come Indianapolis. . . but now we read home books in our library, read English, do athletes, play music and do like Americans.'”
America’s entry into World War I in 1917 intensified suspicion of immigrants and spurred questions about their loyalty. This hostility impacted foreign institutions like Indianapolis’s German-language paper, the Täglicher Telegraph und Tribüne, which, despite trying to present balanced war coverage, ceased publication by 1918. In the years following World War I, the Foreign House was “practically abandoned,” perhaps another victim of xenophobia surfacing from the war’s wake. The emerging nationalist impulse likely accounted for the organization’s name change. The Foreign House became the American Settlement House in 1923, when the organization merged with the Cosmopolitan Mission and moved to 511 Maryland Street (where the Indiana Convention Center now sits).
Post-war labor strikes, anarchists’ bombing of American leaders, and fears that Eastern European immigrants would replicate the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution increased suspicion of and reduced support for immigrants. It also helped inspire the 1924 Immigration Act, which set an annual immigrant quota of 150,000 and drastically curtailed admittance of people from “undesirable” countries. A sense of isolation must have intensified for Indianapolis’s immigrants, now deprived of the settlement house’s resources and contending with renewed nativism. That is until Mary Rigg, a young, idealistic social worker was put in command of the American Settlement House in 1923. While conducting research for her thesis about the settlement, Rigg developed an affinity and deep empathy for its visitors. She began to envision a robust image of their future. With the assistance of the House, immigrant neighborhoods blossomed with colorful flowerbeds, giggling children shimmied up gleaming jungle gyms, and neighbors shared the bounties of a communal garden.
The goal would not simply be to help newcomers find employment, obtain citizenship papers, or avoid disease, but to experience, as Rigg stated, “true neighborliness,” where they “could play the game of daily living together in peace and harmony.” Rigg would be chief architect of this idyllic vision, in which immigrants could taste the fruits of capitalism, while embracing their native customs, language, and dress. After all, she believed that living “in a country in which we have the privilege of climbing higher” applied to its immigrants and that it was the settlement’s responsibility to help them ascend its steps. 
* Read Part II to learn how “Mother” Mary helped engineer a vibrant urban community and hear from those who thrived in it.
*All newspapers were accessed via Newspapers.com.
 Sarah Wagner, “From Settlement House to Slum Clearance: Social Reform in an Immigrant Neighborhood,” 1-4 in 1911-2001: Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center, 90 Years of Service, given to the author by Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center staff.
 Ruth Hutchinson Crocker, Social Work and Social Order: The Settlement Movement in Two Industrial Cities, 1889-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 47.
 Wagner, 2-6.
 Crocker, 49.
 “Foreign Quarters in City to be Improved,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1911, 16.
 “Foreigners Clamoring for Something to Eat,” Indianapolis News, April 8, 1908, 8.; “Riot at Syracuse Ends without Loss of Life,” Indianapolis News, April 8, 1908, 8.
 “The Latin Will Overcome the Anglo-Saxon in this Country in a Few Year,” South Bend Tribune, January 5, 1911, 3.
 Crocker, 48.
 Wagner, 6.; Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1915, 3.; “Library Orders Foreign Works,” Indianapolis Star, April 19, 1914, 51.; Quotation from “Members of Civic League Criticise [sic] School Board in Not Giving Assistance,” Indianapolis Star, January 7, 1913, 9.
 “Foreign Quarters in City to be Improved,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1911, 16.
 “Advise Foreigners to Avoid Saloons,” Indianapolis Star, October 7, 1911, 7.; “Foreign Quarters in City to be Improved,” Indianapolis News, July 29, 1911, 16.; “Members of Civic League Criticise [sic] School Board in Not Giving Assistance,” Indianapolis Star, January 7, 1913, 9.
 “Advise Foreigners to Avoid Saloons,” Indianapolis Star, October 7, 1911, 7.
 “Scope of Night Schools for Foreigners Broadened,” Indianapolis Star, August 13, 1914, 16.
 “Thankful to be Free,” Indianapolis Star, December 1, 1911, 8.; Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1915, 3.
 “Advise Foreigners to Avoid Saloons,” Indianapolis Star, October 7, 1911, 7.
Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.
 Crocker, 59.
 Indianapolis Star, February 21, 1915, 3.; “School Popular with Foreigners,” Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.
 Crocker, 58.
Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.; “School Popular with Foreigners,” Indianapolis Star, September 13, 1914, 38.
 Crocker, 60.; German Newspapers’ Demise historical marker, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Bureau.; “Xenophobia: Closing the Door,” The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, accessed pluralism.org.
 Crocker, 60-61.; Wagner, 7-8.
 “Sacco & Vanzetti: The Red Scare of 1919-1920,” accessed Mass.gov.; “The Immigration Act of 1924,” Historical Highlights, History, Art & Archives: United States House of Representatives, accessed history.house.gov.; David E. Hamilton, “The Red Scare and Civil Liberties,” accessed Bill of Rights Institute.
 Crocker, 60-65.; Master’s thesis, Mary Rigg, A.B., “A Survey of the Foreigners in the American Settlement District of Indianapolis,” (Indiana University, 1925), Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center Records.; Bertha Scott, “Mary Rigg Busier Since ‘Retirement,'” Indianapolis News, November 3, 1961, 22.; Laura A. Smith, “Garden and Home First Wish of New Americans,” Indianapolis Star, July 6, 1924, 36.; Letter, Mary Rigg, Executive Director, Southwest Social Centre to Mr. Joseph Bright, President, City Council, May 15, 1953, Mary Rigg Neighborhood Center Records.
This post is the second part of a two-part article. Read Part One for background information on labor shortage claims by larger agricultural companies and the work of Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wickard.
The U. S. government began importing Mexican laborers to work on American farms almost immediately after Secretary of Agriculture (and Carroll County native) Claude Wickard successfully negotiated with the Mexican government to begin what became known as the Bracero Program. The first workers arrived in the fall of 1942 and by February 1943, approximately 4,000 Mexicans were at work on farms in the American Southwest. Thousands more were employed by the railroad industry in the name of war preparedness. East Coast growers and processors soon demanded access to foreign workers and the federal government again complied. By April 1943, the program included Jamaican and Bahamian workers as well. By early 1944 bracero were at work laying railroad tracks and picking and canning produce in the Hoosier state.*
Thus far, histories of the Bracero Program have focused on the West and Southwest, touching on East Coast dairy workers, and neglecting the Midwest altogether. This is not only a gap in historiography, its a bizarre one, considering the Midwest’s role as the corn belt or breadbasket. It’s the region that has long fed much of the United States, and during WWII, the world. As economists, policy advisers, and policymakers look to historians’ studies of the Bracero Program as the root of current immigration and agricultural policies, it’s especially important to include the important agricultural region of the Midwest. Examining the stories available in Indiana newspapers is a good first step toward creating a more complete picture of the issue.
Alternative Labor in the Cornbelt
Even before the arrival of the braceros, Indiana newspapers reported on Wickard’s agreement with Mexico and anticipated the effect of the workers’ arrival. The Tipton Daily Tribune focused on the assertion that braceros would be imported “only when domestic workers are not available to meet the demand” and would “not replace other workers.” The article also detailed the guarantees negotiated by the Mexican government intended to protect the braceros: their wages would match prevailing local rates with a minimum wage of 30 cents an hour; they were guaranteed employment for at least three-fourths of their stay in any area; and the U. S. government was responsible for their transportation back to Mexico at the end of their employment.
The Bremen Enquirer added information on living conditions, noting that employers must guarantee “adequate housing, health and sanitary facilities.” This meant only three workers or a four-person family could live in a twelve by fourteen foot space with “facilities for cooking, sleeping, laundry, bathing, and adequate sanitary toilets and means of waste disposal.” Most newspapers reiterated statements on the shortage of workers caused by the war effort [see Part One] and patriotically supported the importation of workers from Mexico to help feed the troops. When the workers actually arrived in their hometown, however, the Hoosier response was mixed.
Mexican farm workers first arrived to work on Indiana farms managed by large companies with profitable government contracts. In May 1944, the Argos Reflector reported that the H. J. Heinz Co. had leased a three hundred acre farm north of Argos in Marshall County, “as part of their program to insure delivery of war time food commitments.” According to the Reflector, this was the Heinz Co.’s “largest venture in the country.” The article reported that 114 acres of the farm was planted with cucumbers, “one of the largest items of the company’s list of 57 processed foods.” The Argos reported that the company produced “about half” of the cucumbers provided to the U. S. navy where “pickles are an everyday part of the sailor’s menu.”
The Reflector reported that the company was constructing forty “bunk houses” for “an estimated 200 Mexican field laborers.” The article stated that the workers would harvest the cucumber crop and then would be offered jobs “in the tomato fields.” This Marshall County newspaper described the laborers both as “Mexicans” and “migrant workers” and so it is unclear if they were imported Mexican workers or migratory Mexican-American workers.* However, the fact that the company was building housing, implies that they were fulfilling the contract requirements for government-placed bracero workers. It’s possible that Heinz was using both migratory labor and braceros. It’s also possible that the Argos Reflector did not or could not distinguish between workers from Mexico and migrant workers of Mexican heritage.
While I have yet to uncover WWII-era interviews from Indiana based workers that might tell us about their experience, we can get a feel for how they were living from newspaper coverage. Newspapers reported that the braceros preferred outdoor farm work as opposed to work inside the canneries. The Reflector attributed this to their supposed preference for working outside, as if that were a trait of all Mexican people. Putting such a stereotype to one side, reading between the lines, and placing this information in context, however, we can draw some conclusions about their labor conditions. Peeling tomatoes, canning, and running label machines would have been monotonous and the large boilers likely made the work extremely hot and uncomfortable. Newspapers reported that the “200 field laborers” employed by Heinz were “selected for industrious and good conduct.” It’s highly likely that part of “good conduct” was not complaining about conditions.
In August 1944, the Indianapolis Star reflected the national claim that there were “critical shortages of farm labor” and stated that emergency workers were needed in several Indiana counties. The paper reported that sixty “Mexican workers” arrived in Starke County the previous week “to assist with the pickle crop.” The State Supervisor of Emergency Labor stated that 100 more Mexican workers would be assigned to farms in that county. The Star reported that twenty-five Mexican laborers would soon be at work in Wells County, also in picking cucumbers to be processed into pickles.
The Star made it clear that these were bracero workers and differentiated “Mexican workers” and “migrant workers.” After reporting the statistics for the “Mexican workers,” the paper noted that “further assistance is expected from an estimated 500 migrant families from Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri.” We know even less about the experiences of these Mexican workers. The only thing we know for sure from this Star article is that they made $3.10 to $3.50 per day. However, the official bracero agreement did not put restrictions on hours.
Also in August 1944, an article in the Alexandria Times-Tribune reported that “several truck loaders [sic] of Mexican workers” were arriving in Grant County “to assist with the harvest there.” The Times-Tribune reported a local labor shortage in the “tomato growing belt” and the need for emergency workers. Again, we know little about the workers’ experience. However, the Reflector, the Star, and the Times-Tribune all mentioned the seasonal opening of the canneries in concert with the arrival of Mexican workers. While it is not always clear if the workers were migrant or bracero, it is clear that the Indiana canneries were benefiting from their inexpensive, non-unionized labor.* In fact, in September 1945, the Elwood Call-Leader reported that “some 20 Mexican workers face deportation in Crown Point.” The men, who had been “employed in and around Kokomo,” were charged with “having failed to comply with regulations under which they were imported as workers.” This failure to “comply” could have been legitimate, but it could also refer to worker complaints about working or living conditions, mistreatment, or unfair pay.
An August 29, 1945, an article in the (Seymour) Tribune raises some flags about worker mistreatment. The newspaper reported: “The Vincennes Packing Company here has twelve Mexican farm workers which they secured, and have housed in the building adjoining their plant.” This plant, which also canned tomato products, told the paper that “while these men were secured . . . for the use and convenience of their own growers, these men can be used at other farm work when they are not otherwise busy.” Again, in the same article, the manager of the company stated that while the Mexican workers were employed “to get tomatoes picked, and other canning crops taken care of . . . they can be used at other farm work when not needed for tomato picking.” It was mainly large companies that could afford to transport, house, and pay the guest workers, not small farmers. However, the large company farms and processors of Indiana were surrounded by small family farms. This Tribune article seems like a thinly-veiled advertisement to local farmers announcing that the packing company was willing to hire out their workers. The question begging to be asked is: who made money off this arrangement, the company or the workers? Nothing can be definitively concluded from this article, but the repeated declaration of the workers’ availability does seem suspect.
“Open Your Hearts”: Railroad Braceros and Hoosier Response
Mexican railroad workers were also essential to the war effort as increased transportation was necessary to ship supplies from the heartland to the front lines. The response to the arrival of Mexican railroad workers by Indiana communities ranged from attempts to run them out of the neighborhood and pin local crimes on them to wholehearted welcome and support.
In Irvington, just east of Indianapolis, a small but vocal group of prominent citizens made it clear that they did not want Mexican laborers living in their neighborhood and especially not in the historic home of an important nineteenth century politician. Ironically, the politician whose home the residents suddenly wanted to save after years of neglect belonged to George Washington Julian, an important abolitionist who advocated for the civil rights of all people regardless of race or gender. In an 1855 speech on immigration Julian stated:
“Let them come . . . let them have a welcome on these shores. Their motive is a very natural and at the same time honorable one, — that of bettering their lot. . . To proscribe him on account of his birthplace is mean and cowardly as to proscribe him for his religious faith or color of his skin. It is the rankest injustice, the most downright inhumanity.”
Irvington residents, however, didn’t internalize the lessons of the man they claimed to revere. The Indianapolis News reported in January 5, 1944 that “Historic Irvington was up in arms” over plans to house Mexican workers of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the Julian home. W. O. Teufil, local superintendent of the railroad, stated that the company had acquired the property and began renovating it to house twenty workers. He stated, “We certainly will make the property more presentable than it has been. Its historic value will not be destroyed. We simply plan to return it to the livable condition to which it once was.”
An Irvington city councilman, however, claimed that turning it into a boarding house would create a zoning violation, and the president of the Irvington Union of Clubs stated that the organization would “begin an immediate inquiry to learn the details of the plan in the hope that it could be stopped.” Teufil expressed his surprise to the opposition and stated: “These are not to be outlaw workers or anything of that sort.”
On January 8, the Indianapolis News reported that the city “began preparing legal action to oust from twenty to thirty Mexican workers for the Pennsylvania railroad from the historic George W. Julian home.” Despite the fact that the railroad had gotten over a thousand dollars worth of permits, the city building commissioner notified the railroad that they had not obtained proper permits for renovation and that they needed to evacuate the workers.
In strong contrast to his neighbors, an Irvington resident named M. B. McLaughlin wrote a statement for the News condemning the behavior of those working to remove the Mexican workers from the Julian home through the false pretenses of zoning ordinances. He wrote:
Whether or not you realize it, you are selling short your sons, brothers, husbands on far fighting fronts by your proposed action in closing the Julian home . . . These strangers have come to do a vital job which, ultimately, may mean life, not death, for your dear ones . . . How proud your service men would be . . . if you would open your hearts and hearths to strangers among you.
Meanwhile, the city prepared legal action, and on February 23, the Indianapolis Star reported that the Pennsylvania railroad was working to repair a local gymnasium to house the workers. More Irvington residents spoke out in support of the workers aiding the Allied cause. A local resident named C. S. Brook wrote the mayor, condemning the actions of his xenophobic neighbors. He wrote: “We would state that these few do not speak for Irvington.” Fortunately for the war effort, those working to keep the Mexican workers in the Julian home won out in the end. The Indianapolis Star reported on March 23:
It was learned a ‘Good Neighbor’ policy promulgated between city officials, the Pennsylvania Railroad and Irvington residents would permit the Pennsylvania to continue housing 29 Mexican track workers in the old George W. Julian home…
In a drastically different scene, Mexican workers employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad were heartily welcomed and thanked for their labor by the World War I veterans at an American Legion post in Valparaiso. Charles Pratt Post No. 94 invited thirty-five braceros to a “Pan American Day” celebration on April 14, 1944. The (Valparaiso) Vidette-Messenger of Porter County described the event in detail and extensively quoted its host, Post Commander Franklin Burrus. The celebration began with “the advancement of the colors of both countries while legionnaires and guests stood at attention. The Hoosier attendees broke into the U. S. national anthem and when they were finished, their Mexican guests “responded with their national anthem.” Commander Burrus then welcomed them in a touching speech. He thanked the Mexican workers for their contribution to the war effort and expressed his hope that through their alliance, Mexico and the United States would grow closer in times of peace as well. Burrus continued:
We of the Legion, having served in World War 1, and some in World War 2, probably have a deeper appreciation of the need for inter-American co-operation than many other persons. We realize that you men from Mexico are certainly making an important contribution to the prosecution of this war by your present work in the great industry of railway transportation. We realize that you are away from home, in another country, separated from intimate friends and loved ones and we know what that means. Nevertheless, we hope that your experiences here will all be pleasing to you and that your country and American will both benefit by your having been here.
Luckily, we know a bit more about the workers in this story. They were in the United States for six months as a part of the bracero program’s railroad initiative. From quoted statements by their supervisor, Charles Weiss, we can glean that he greatly respected their work. Weiss told the Vidette-Messenger, “They are really making a great contribution to the war effort.” Weiss also seemed to care about the workers having a positive experience. He stated, “These men like it here and when they return to Mexico they will go as ambassadors of good will.”
Of course, these are the interpretations of an American supervisor, not a Mexican laborer. While we can’t understand the full experience of the workers from the newspapers, we can get a taste of this one festive evening. Four Mexicans “favored” the audience “with songs of their native country.” They must have performed for some time, as the newspaper reported the singing of “solos, duets and ensembles.” Fortunately, the newspaper gave the Mexican musicians’ names, several likely misspelled. These are the only names of Mexican workers that I came across in my research. They are:
J. C. Custro
After the music concluded, the group watched the movie War on the High Seas about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Vidette-Messenger reported that the evening concluded with “the serving of refreshments, following which Angelo Lopez, formerly a Mexican soldier, put on a demonstration of the manual of arms and playing the drum.”
While this is the lengthiest description of a warm Hoosier welcome for Mexican railroad workers, it is not the only such story. In January 1944, the (Cambridge City) National Road Traveler praised the work of fifty Mexicans residing just east of Cambridge City who were making “the dirt fly,” laying railroad line. The paper also reported enthusiastically on their patronage of local businesses: “The Mexican workmen have been keeping local stores busy caring for their needs while here.” So while they didn’t roll out the red carpet like Valparaiso, Cambridge City was at least accepting and grateful for the economic boost. In June 1944, the (Richmond) Palladium-Item gave an update on the “fifty Mexican young men” living “in a 12-car camp unit near Cambridge City while working on the Pennsylvania railroad line between Indianapolis and Richmond.” The newspaper reported, “Although the boys have only been here two weeks of the six months they contracted to work, most of them already have decided they want to make Indiana their home.” This would not have been true for those Mexican railroad workers stationed in Elkart, however.
In September 1945, a fifteen-year-old white girl named Sally Joan Young was raped and murdered in Elkhart. In the ensuing weeks, the Indianapolis Recorderreported that the Elkhart police and newspapers “fanned” false reports that “the crime had been committed by a Negro.” An African American man picked up on another incident was held in a nearby jail as “practically” guilty. He was “frequently and intensively questioned about the school girl slaying.” According to the Recorder:
Several Mexican railroad workers had also been arrested and grilled, by local police and the FBI, during the six-weeks attempt to pin the crime on a person of a dark-skinned racial group.
Eventually, a white man who was seen in bloodstained clothes by several witnesses, confessed to the crime. The Elkhart Truth reported:
Incidentally, it will be recalled that, when the crime was committed, there was a quick flareup of suspicion toward members of two dark-skinned races resident in Elkhart. As it turns out, the murderer was neither a Negro nor a Mexican.
In researching this topic, I found only one mention of an interpreter employed for the workers. Thus we can imagine the fear that the young men experienced as they likely received the same frequent and intensive questioning as the African American suspect by the police and the FBI.
More research is needed to examine complaints of the workers concerning injustices. Again, newspapers give us hints. In 1946, the Indianapolis Recorderreported that the Mexican government would no longer send workers to Indiana. The Mexican Minister of Labor Francisco Trujillo “cited low wages, illegal withholding of wages, poor living conditions and lack of medical care.”
Jamaican and Bahamian Workers
In April 1943, Congress passed Public Law 45 allowing the importation of workers from the Caribbean. Approximately seventy thousand Jamaicans, Barbadians, and Bahamians arrived to work on U.S. farms between the passage of the law and the end of the Farm Worker Program in 1947.
In July 1943, the Greencastle Daily Bannerreported that twenty Jamaican workers were “relieving the farm labor shortage in Gibson County.” They were at work “detasseling and hoeing hybrid corn on the 9,800 acre Princeton Farms, [the] largest agricultural unit in Indiana.” The paper reported that the workers lived in a new bunk house with separate building for the kitchen and mess hall where a Jamaican cook provided their meals. In August, the Banner followed up on the July report, stating that the Jamaicans would work for Gibson County orchard growers and then return to Princeton Farms for the corn harvest.
Again, there are few reports of their experiences in the workers own words, but we can glean some information about their lives from these newspaper reports. For example, the Banner writer interviewed Hoosiers who worked with the Jamaicans. The farm manager described them as “happy-go-lucky” but also seriously “religious.” He said they complained little as the worked. They disliked only the cold Indiana mornings and the lack of Jamaican rum. These statements reek of stereotyping, but again show us that workers were motivated to not complain because they could be repatriated without pay.
Like they did for Mexican workers, Indiana newspapers generally painted a positive picture of the Hoosier reception of Jamaican workers, relaying that they arrived to help with or even save the harvest, and ease the labor shortage. For example, the Indianapolis Star reported August 8, 1944, that thirty-two Jamaicans would soon arrive in LaPorte County to pick peaches and in nearby counties others were “at work in connection with the canning industry.”
The Alexandria Times-Tribune reported a few weeks later that a large number of Jamaicans arrived in Madison County as “emergency pickers” for the tomato fields. The article also noted that the canneries would soon begin operations, reinforcing the connection noted in Part One between the demand for inexpensive foreign labor and the Indiana tomato canneries. The Daily Clintonian, likewise, reported from Vincennes that “eighty Jamaican and Mexican agricultural workers will arrive in Knox county around May 15 to aid in production and harvesting of the 1945 tomato crop.”
In Martinsville, however, Jamaican workers had a close call with a riotous mob. The Martinsville Reportertold of “a display of mob spirit by a group of trouble makers and agitators . . . directed against the twenty or more Jamaican workers that had been sent into the county to relieve the current labor shortage.” There was apparently enough “loud talk” that the local National Guard unit armed themselves with “tear gas equipment” and sent for the state police. In the face of the show of force, “the loud mouth leaders of the agitators began to have business elsewhere.” And while the situation was diffused, the Reporter noted that “a spark at the right time might have caused grave trouble.”
Response of African American Newspapers
While many Indiana newspapers described these guest workers as saviors of harvests and important contributors to the war effort, African American newspapers saw their arrival through a different lens – the lens of available black workers who have been repeatedly denied similar jobs for a fair wage (as discussed in Part One).
The Indianapolis Recorderreported that there were plenty of agricultural commodities being produced and that the supposed labor shortage was not affecting production goals. The problem was distribution, not production or labor. The Evansville Argus took issue specifically with the guest worker program. In an editorial for the Argus, journalist Elmer Carter criticized the recent importation of workers from the Bahamas to Florida. Carter wrote,
There are a hundred thousand unemployed disinherited black and white share croppers in the South anxious to work in Florida or anywhere else.
He stated that the Southern Tenant Farmers Union offered to send 20,000 share croppers to the area in need, but the Florida growers did not want them. The union workers would have been an integrated labor force of black and white workers, so the growers would have to pay black and white laborers the same wage. Carter says the workers were rejected because the growers did not want to pay black workers the same wage as white. Instead, they wanted Bahamians because they could exploit their labor. Carter called on Secretary Wickard to “examine the motives which have prompted the Florida growers to spurn the offer of unemployed and available American workers.”
As it was correct in assessing the labor shortage myth, the Argus was again correct about the exploitation of workers. Importing foreign workers weakened the bargaining position of domestic workers in their struggle to increase their wages. However, this was not because foreign workers cost less. Employers had to pay a minimum wage and transportation as well as provide housing. The incentive was that foreign workers could not bargain or complain. If they did, they were repatriated. According to historian Cindy Hahamovitch:
The importation program was certainly more palatable to growers than the effort to relocate domestic farmworkers from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity, but it undermined farmworkers’ efforts to lift themselves out of poverty. Farmworkers who struggled to bargain up their wages after 20 years of agricultural depression found themselves thrown into competition with farmworkers from abroad who could be deported for making the very same demands.
According to the Bracero History Archive, the worker safeguards negotiated by the Mexican government worked only in theory. In practice, however, U.S. employers ignored the safeguards and many braceros “suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor.” The U.S. extended the bracero program for decades, using it not only as a supply of cheap labor but as a policy for controlling immigration. Its legacy continued to influence policy making today. Regardless of the intentions of such bureaucrats and agricultural corporations in importing labor, there is no question that these Mexican and Caribbean men made an important contribution to the Allied war effort.
* Indiana farms had used migratory workers for some time. Some of these workers may have been Americans with Mexican heritage or Mexican immigrants who came to the United States of their own accord, both legally and illegally. By using newspaper articles only, not in conversation with government records, it is not always clear if the workers described as “Mexican” were migratory workers or were workers imported by the United States government. I have noted with an “*” where the newspapers are not specific.
Bracero History Archive. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, and the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas El Paso, http://braceroarchive.org/
Calavita, Kitty. Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the I.N.S. (New York: Routeledge, 1992).
Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.
Craig, Richard B. The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.
Gamboa, Erasmo. Bracero Railroaders: The Forgotten World War II Story of Mexican Workers in the U.S. West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016).
Gamboa, Erasmo. Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947 (Austin: University of Texas, 1990).
Hahamovitch, Cindy. “The Politics of Labor Scarcity: Expediency and the Birth of the Agricultural ‘Guestworkers’ Program,” Report for the Center for Immigration Studies, December 1, 1999, accessed https//cis.org/Report/Politics-Labor-Scarcity.