THH Episode 36: Giving Voice: Dr. Nadia Brown

Transcript for Giving Voice: Dr. Nadia Brown

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Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice.

On today’s installment of Giving Voice, I talk with Nadia E. Brown, a University Faculty Scholar and Associate Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Purdue University. She specializes in Black women’s politics and holds a graduate certificate in women’s and gender studies. Dr. Brown’s research interests lay broadly in identity politics, legislative studies, and Black women’s studies. Her award-winning book, Sisters in the Statehouse: Black Women and Legislative Decision Making, is how I first came across her work. In this episode, we talk about intersectionality, political representation, and how representation in our country is shifting at this very moment.

And now, Giving Voice.

[intro music]

Beckley: Nadia, thank you so much for being with us today. I really appreciate you taking time out of your schedule to speak with us.

Brown:  I’m thrilled. Thank you so much for having me.

Beckley: Awesome. So, I think that to get started, we can kind of start with your work – can you talk a little bit about the work you’ve done with intersectionality and politics? And maybe even give a little bit of a definition for intersectionality. I feel like it’s a big word that is intimidating, but kind of has a simple explanation.

Brown: Sure, yes, so intersectionality is a term that was originally coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is a law professor, to really describe the ways that Black women and other marginalized women by race, ethnicity, or class status have difficulty accessing legal remedies to discrimination that they face. And intersectionality is described as the intersections in which – like a street, right? Like, with the intersections in which one meets – racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, and if a car accident were to happen in the middle of that street – in the middle of that intersection – can we blame the outcome on a car coming down racism road, or is it the car coming down sexism road? But if it happens at the middle of that intersection, is it not the confluence of all those different identities that form the multiple layers of oppression?

And intersectionality comes to us, really, out of this Black feminist home truth: that Black women do not have the luxury of fighting racism or sexism – that they must do both, and that they have a unique identity because of these combined influences of race, sex, class, age, sexual orientation, nativity. And all of these identities make up this one singular identity.

So, in my work, I look at Black women as undertheorized political subjects and use political science to understand how they think and how they operate in our democracy. My work primarily focuses on Black women political elites, mostly elected officials and candidates. However, I’ve started to branch out and do some work in mass political behavior – so what do every day Black women think and how do they relate that to political phenomenon? But I’ve also started to reach out to start to do some broader, I think, more fun work in some ways, on popular culture. And what this work really seeks to do is to challenge the narrative that we can understand through only a race, or a gender, or a class, or a generational viewpoint, how people experience politics and policy. And instead my work wants to make this intervention and say, “no, it’s a lot more complicated – it’s a lot more messy and nuanced.” We have to understand the roles that these other identities play to understand and interact with political phenomenon.

Beckley: That’s great – it sounds like really interesting work. So, kind of going back to our main topic for our main episode, we talked about women’s suffrage in Indiana and women’s suffrage in general. I was wondering – the women who were fighting for that suffrage, they often stated that they wanted the vote in order to enact some of the issues that are more directly related to them and that they felt that they could influence some of those issues better, obviously, with the vote than without. And I was wondering – when women did get the vote, they were able to enact some of those measures – and now that you see – now that we see – more Black women than ever being elected to political positions, what kind of issues do you see them working towards, what are they representing? What are their specific life experiences kind of pushing them to push for?

Brown: Yea, that’s a really important question. Because most times, my research shows that most times policy makers are trying to solve a problem that is informed through their own worldview, okay, so how are we going to think about a political problem that will require a policy solution? And most times, it’s animated out of our own lived experiences or those of others that we’ve come in contact with. And what my research has found is that issues that Black women face are often not championed by white women or Black men. So again, this idea that sharing a race or gender identity will lead elected officials to a set of policy prescriptions that will be impactful for a particular group is just not the case.

So, in my first book, Sisters in the State House, I give an example of domestic violence policy where Black women saw domestic violence advocacy as really failing to prioritize the needs of Black women as survivors and victims. And again, it wasn’t that the elected officials that were not Black women had any kind of malice or ill will – they just had these blind spots up. They didn’t see how domestic violence legislation that they were passing trying to help victims of domestic violence, in many ways, could have unintentional consequences and hurt Black women.

So, an example of that was gun measures, right? And trying to protect people – domestic violence victims – from having guns in the house. But the younger Black women legislators in my study showed that most often the guns that are used against Black women, in terms of intimidation or violence are often not registered in the first place, and if they are registered, they’re usually registered in the name of women, right? So, having their own registered gun used against them.

A more clear cut, kind of easy to see issue happened in the Maryland State Legislature where Maryland had quotas for businesses that should to business with the state. They had quotas for women and quotas for minorities, and this was a long-standing policy in the state for almost 30 years and the state really prided itself on trying to open up avenues for women and minority business owners. And Black women, once elected, came in and said, “What about Black women business owners? Do they fill out the forms as a woman contractor or as a minority contractor?” And the state really scratched their heads here and thought, “Well, this is really a personal issue. Maybe women – Black women – can decide which they want to do. Let them figure out how they want to be assigned.” And this put undue mechanisms that Black women contractors had to go through. Which meant that these women had to go talk to the gendered quota side and say, “Hey, do you guys have any room? Okay, you know, great, we’ll file with you.” Or, if they said no, they’d have to go over to the race side and they’d say, “Hey, contractors who are filling out these forms for being a minority, do you have room over here?” And if they didn’t, they’d have to go back and figure something else out. And so what the Black women legislators said, “Why don’t we just make an exception – or changes the law, so that Black women and women of color don’t have to do all of this extra leg work and that there are quotas written within both this minority and women’s quotas for contracts?”

So, when I started doing this research, it was so telling because the chair of the subcommittee that had worked so hard to put forward these minority contractors as a minority business enterprise was so proud of his work. I mean – I still see his smile when he’s describing to me how he got this through the state legislature and the work he did to expand this program. And when I asked him to talk about challenges that women of color face, he was just crestfallen and he said, “Yea, maybe that’s something.” And kind of abruptly stopped the interview at that point. So, again, I don’t think that anyone was trying to be – you know, have some kind of ill will or bad intention, it was just an oversight. And so, we see that these things happen time and time again in policy making because legislators in a deliberative body in our democracy, come from us, come from our people. And we bring our life experiences into government and if you are only around a certain subset of people, or if you’ve only seen a certain set of experiences, there is a tendency to think that there is not a problem if it doesn’t happen to you or to those that you are most intimately connected with.

And this project that I’m working on now, with the CROWN Act, which is an act that would ban legal discrimination based on the way that Afro-textured hair naturally grows out of people’s heads. And the legislators told me that they held community events, these kind of open town halls where constituents came in and wanted to talk about their own experiences with having their natural Afro-textured hair and being discriminated against. And in some ways it was cathartic for constituents to come in, particularly I was told a story about young med students who were really pushing for this bill in New Jersey because they were afraid that they would not be seen as professional and that they would be unlikely to match – what would this mean for their careers when they had done everything right? You know, go to school, work hard, all those things. And now to be on the precipice of the beginning of their careers and to say, “Well, I might not be able to find a job.” And so, the legislators who help these town halls said it did two things. One, it was cathartic for community members to kind of talk about and explain their challenges with hair. Then, to also have legislators convene this and want to find a way to try to solve this problem. But the other thing that was so eye opening was that legislators who do not have afro-textured hair or do not represent communities with large numbers of people with afro-textured hair said that they never thought that this was a problem. And seeing the outpouring of people who came to tell their stories, who came to implore government officials to do something about this, really changed their mind.

And so, this book that I’m working on now around hair and politics really illuminates how much we, as communities, are still in silos. As people of color, we don’t do hair in public places, you know, we don’t take out braids. So, these are things that majority communities don’t know much about, so had not thought about hair discrimination as a racial issue, right, as part of expanding anti-discrimination things. So, things that were on the books, weather it was with the U.S. military, from school districts, from employers, from other industries like the airlines and food service industries, that had all of these discriminatory policies on the books that said those with Afro-textured hair cannot wear braids, cannot wear dread locks, or would be subject to fines, suspensions, expulsions, for wearing their hair in ways that are culturally significant and can grow and protect ones hair. That was really out of step, right? But without having Black women at the forefront pushing this CROWN Act, this bill would never have happened, and right now, the bill has made its way through 23 states that have either pre-filed or filed this bill.  But it just shows that without other voices at the table, we miss the opportunity to legislate on things that are disproportionately hurting people that have been historically marginalized from politics and policy creation.

Beckley: Absolutely, and I think what you said about not having those experiences yourself – it’s not necessarily that you are intentionally discriminating or intentionally overlooking these issues, it’s just that if you haven’t lived it, you just might not know that it’s even an issue for a lot of people. I know that as a white woman myself, I might not have ever known that natural textured hair is something to be discriminated against until I started looking into the natural hair movement. It’s just so mind-blowing that something as little to me, or, should be to anybody, as wearing your hair as it naturally grows out of your head, can be discriminated against, that’s just kind of mind-blowing, I think to a lot of people. And it shouldn’t be because it happens every day.

Brown: Right. You hit the nail on the head. These are the kind of experiences that require legislation and that require policy makers to take a proactive stance, because they’ve been overlooked for so long, and, again, like you said, this is not something that is done out of malice, but it’s just a blind spot, right? These are spaces where, without walking in someone else’s shoes, we’re ignorant to their experiences and how politics and policies might marginalize them.

Beckley:  Absolutely, and I think that that is one reason that equal representation in government is obviously so very important, because having equal representation in government also means having equal representation of life experiences, and I know that we are very far away from equal representation right now. I was wondering if you see a path forward to help shift that a little bit. And in your studies, have you seen a path that we can take to help even things up a little bit?

Brown: Yea, so I am more optimistic than I have been in a very long time about equal representation. Which sounds so ironic in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a presidency where the country has become much more divided, but on the sheer numbers side, right, we’re seeing more women that are running for elected office and for the first time in about 10-15 years, we’re seeing more Republican women running for this upcoming 2020 election. The Republican Party has really been hemorrhaging women’s voices and women in leadership and Republican women in the early ‘90s were really a safeguard – again not framing these women as feminists for as championing women’s rights as we see them more popularly, but really in stopping some conservative or really Republican far-right policies that would be detrimental to women’s health and to children’s wellbeing.

So, I am excited to see that. I’m excited, really, on the Democratic side, about the number of women of color that are running. The number of Black women in particular are outpacing other demographic groups of women of color and women that are running on the Democratic side. So, I think that there is hope that average, everyday citizens are seeing that they have something to contribute to politics and are willing to offer themselves up for service. The Women’s March in 2016 – excuse me, 2017 – was the largest single day march, protest, in American history, and has been a sustained movement. The organic Black Lives Matter march and the continued spotlight on the murder of Breanna Taylor that has helped Americans have a conversation on state sponsored violence on Black women kind of vis a vi the say her name movement but in some ways just the spotlight on Breonna Taylor and that has helped us think about other Black women. These are things that are changing the national conversation.

And then, couple this with the Me Too Movement, which was started by a Black woman, Tarana Burke, to really talk about sexual violence towards women of color, and particularly economically marginalized women of color in urban areas, have changed politics and policy, right? Me Too and sexual harassment is at the forefront. Candidates are having to talk about this. Joe Biden, as we know, has vowed to name a woman as his vice-presidential nominee. There’s a large, large push to have him pick a woman of color. And I think none of this would have been possible without the social movements and average everyday citizens saying enough is enough. I’m going to run. I don’t see my issues, my voice, people in my community, people that care about things that animate my life in national politics or in state and local politics, are now stepping up.

So, again, I’m positive, I’m optimistic. The downside – the tremendous downside is, well, what will this look like in reality? I think there’s going to be so many problems with voting that there might be a lot of delays and confusion and opportunity for controlling, white patriarchal, white supremist figures to step in and kind of de-legitimate our election process and to kind of call into question the validity of these candidates and the will of the people.

Beckley:  So, it sounds like overall optimistic, but still cautious of what that might bring in and some of the problems that we might run into in the future.

Brown: Yes. That’s a good way to put it.

Beckley: I think that we’re going to end on that note. I really appreciate you talking with me and taking the time out of your day to discuss some of these issues and I really appreciate your time.

Brown: No problem. This was really enjoyable, and I am happy to do this.

Beckley: Well, thank you again.

Brown: Thanks, Lindsey.

Beckley: Once again, I want to take the time to thank Dr. Brown to take the time to talk with me. If you’re interested in Dr. Brown’s work, we’ve posted links to where you can find it in our show notes, which can be found at blog.history.in.gov. We’ll be back later this month with the second installment of our Indiana women’s suffrage series. In the meantime, follow the Indiana Historical Bureau on Facebook and Twitter for daily doses of Indiana history tidbits. Subscribe, rate, and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening.

Show Notes Giving Voice: Dr. Nadia Brown

To learn more about Dr. Brown’s work, visit her website here.

THH Episode 29: History Relevance 101

Transcript of History Relevance 101

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Written by Lindsey Beckley, based on talks given by IHB staff members Dr. Michella Marino and Jill Weiss Simins

Produced by Jill Weiss Simins

Beckley: What do you expect out of a museum? A chronological recounting of a specific facet of history? Old stuff with little labels telling you what it is and where it’s from? Around the nation, museums, historical societies, and other cultural institutions are going beyond the expected to meet the varied needs of different communities. In Brooklyn, New York, the Weeksville Heritage Center hosts a Farmers Market, a program started after the community around the center was designated a food desert. Just outside of Washington D.C., on the morning after the 2016 presidential election, staff at President Lincoln’s Cottage decided to stay open late to act as a forum, sending out the following message on their social media platforms:

Voice Actor: We recognize that people are expressing a need to come together peacefully when we are a House Divided. As a National Monument, where Lincoln came to deal with epic division and chaos in our country, we are committed to providing a secular place of reflection and serving as your beacon of hope. Our lights are on for you. All of you.

Beckley: And right here in Indiana, when state legislators in the General Assembly enter their chambers, one of the first things they see are monitors displaying important stories from Indiana history – stories that show the influence of yesterday’s lawmakers and that may, in turn, offer lessons for today’s decisions. Produced through a partnership between IHB and the Indiana State Archives, this project, called Indiana History in Session, is an attempt to remind legislators of the legacy they’re creating each day.

These programs are nothing alike – they have different audiences, different run times, different methods, and different goals – but they all go beyond what is typically expected of historical institutions. They all address current issues using historical context. They show why history is relevant and the impact history has on our everyday lives. In this episode, we’ll be discussing the history relevance campaign, which is the movement behind some of the most innovative programming in the field today.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

As you may have guessed, this episode is going to be a little bit different from our usual fare. Last Fall, IHB partnered with the National Council on Public History and Conner Prairie Interactive History Park to host a history relevance workshop. Public historians from organizations in Indiana and surrounding states gathered for a day of hard questions, discussions, and (we hope) ideas on how to infuse the practice of history relevance into their organizations. Today, we’re bringing those same discussions to our listeners – both those who are in the public history field and those who are just interested in history.

We hope that public historians use this episode as an introduction to the History Relevance movement – something to spark inspiration in our fellow educators. But these ideas aren’t just for those of us working in the field – they’re for everyone. We hope that through the course of this episode, you think about what you expect from your historical institutions – and what you should expect. We’re going to lay out our case for why history is just as important to the modern world as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That’s right. We’re taking on the almighty STEM right here and now.

But before we get to that, we should get ourselves acquainted with the origins of the History Relevance Campaign. Throughout this episode you’ll be hearing from leading figures in the movement, Tim Grove and Richard Josey, both history consultants who led the workshop last fall – some of the audio is of a bit lower quality than you might be used to, but the content is worth it. First, I’ll let Tim Grove give you a little run down of the history of history relevance:

Grove audio from workshop:  It all started here, actually, in Indianapolis at History Leadership Institute. I was in town and we started talking about it one night. And it was – I guess it was 2012 because the movie Lincoln was out and I was saying you know, lots of people are going to see the movie Lincoln but a lot of those people don’t visit historic sites, don’t go to museums. You know, what’s up with that? People do like history. They claim to like history. They’re interested in their own genealogy, their own past. Why are we not engaging them more?

I was working at the National Air and Space Museum at the time, which is a unique place because it focuses on history and science. It’s a history of technology museum but depending on who you ask, people would say its science. They do have hard core planetary science research going on – a division devoted to that – so they are science but they’re also history of technology. But at the time, the secretary of the Smithsonian was focused on STEM and he kept talking about STEM and he had just made this proclamation that we’re now going to focus on STEAM, and add the “a.” And that was just too much for me.

So I went on a rant with my colleagues in Indianapolis and I said, you know, why is history always left out? And that’s not a new question. In no way is it a new question. It’s not a new conversation. We’ve had this conversation before. But whatever we’re doing is not working. We need to do more.

If you think about history as a brand and STEM as a brand, which we started doing – this little group started talking about the branding aspect of it – STEM has a huge strong brand, right? And history doesn’t. So this group started talking about how can we raise the brand of history, the profile of history?

Beckley:  How do you go about changing the perception of something as broad as history? How do you “re-brand” a discipline that is thousands of years old? First, you need to understand what the current perception is.

Voice Actor: History is real simple. You know what history is? It’s what happened.

Beckley: That’s conservative political commentator Rush Limbaugh’s view of it. And that’s what a lot of people think – history is simply an accounting of names and dates and events. But it’s not. That’s just the past – a series of facts strung together – and that perception of history has been making high schoolers and college freshmen loathe the subject for a century. This is the brand we’re trying to change. But how did we get to this brand in the first place?

Well, that’s a question with a complicated answer. Let me just pull one thread out and examine it for our purposes here. Dutch Historian Pieter Geyl defined history as “an argument without an end.” Not facts in a book. Not labels in a museum. An argument. Historians are constantly revisiting previously “settled” topics, and bringing new perspectives and new evidence, with them. They revise history. Politicians and the media throw around “revisionism” like a dirty word. But that’s history. Learning and revising is the whole idea of history. If history didn’t change – if it were simply “what happened,” then there wouldn’t need to be more than one book written about any one topic. There wouldn’t be a 34 foot tower of books at the Ford Theater Education Center– each telling a slightly different version of “what happened” – all dedicated to the life and times of one man – President Abraham Lincoln.

You may be thinking, “But surely, not every one of the books in that tower tells the true story of Lincoln’s life, right?” And while I haven’t actually read more than 10 or 15 of the books in that tower, I can tell you that no, not every one of them is factually correct through and through. Not every interpretation is equal. And there is scholarly consensus on certain facts. For instance, historians generally agree that Abraham Lincoln was our 16th president. It’s when you’re fleshing out the story that interpretations can vary. But that’s why history, and a better understanding of what history actually is, is so important.

Every day, we, as historians, and you, as human beings living in the world, encounter claims – whether they be on the news, in a dusty filing cabinet, or on social media. And with each new claim we encounter, we have to choose whether or not we are going to trust the source it’s coming from and thus believe the claim being made. In order to do this, we need to engage in “historical thinking,” a type of critical thinking that can be learned through the “doing” of history.

Tim Grove, who we heard from earlier, lays out five key elements of historical thinking in his article, “Historical Thinking is an Unnatural Act,” from the Spring 2016 issue of History News.

Voice Actor: One: Multiple Perspectives

Beckley: Always keep in mind that there are several ways to look at a story – whose perspective are you seeing? Whose is missing?

Voice Actor: Two: Analysis of Primary Sources

Beckley: Think about what claims are being made in the source. What claims are left out? Given your prior knowledge of the topic and other sources, do these claims seem valid?

Voice Actor: Three: Sourcing

Beckley: What are the questions related to the source? Why was this document, photograph, video –  or whatever it may be –  produced? Why did it get saved? Who created it? What were their biases? These questions surrounding sources could be endless.

Voice Actor: Four: Context

Beckley: What else was happening around these events that could impact your understanding of the story? What led up to the events being told? Were there unseen influences? Context can completely change a story.

Voice Actor: Five: Claim/Evidence Connection

Beckley: Is the claim you’ve encountered based on evidence? Does the source provide that evidence? If not, why?

In short, historical thinking is turning a critical eye on sources being presented to you. We all come into each situation, whether that’s reading a historical document or deciding who to vote for in an election, with preconceived notions, opinions, and biases. It’s nearly impossible to be completely neutral, but when we employ historical thinking, it makes that a little more achievable. And it’s okay if we change our minds on a topic as we go along – that just means we’re learning and growing!

And when we use this kind of solid historical thinking as a method for understanding a current issue, interest, or problem – whether it’s examining your family’s roots or the roots of the healthcare debate – we make history relevant to today. We call this application HISTORY RELEVANCE. And this – the application of historical thinking outside of the field of history – is what makes history – real history – so important, even if it is hard to fit into the STEM acronym.

So, we’ve established, I hope, that history is useful. But are people interested?

According to Norman Burns, the President and CEO of Conner Prairie, who spoke at the History Relevance workshop, they are.

Burns’s audio from workshop:  Ninety-one percent of Americans think it’s important to learn about history to build a strong foundation for the future, and that curiosity in history is expanding in generations across the nation. And I found this very encouraging, especially with millennials. Fifty-five percent of millennials say they’re more curious about history today than they were even last year.

Beckley: So – history is useful. People are interested and growing more so every day. We just need to work on our branding and outreach to connect the two. And that’s where the history relevance campaign comes in.

Historical organizations, libraries, and museums across the country, like those discussed at the top of this episode, are participating in the campaign, which is attempting to communicate the value of history to the public. The goal is to use historical thinking skills to address contemporary issues and recognize how history has value in our daily lives. To this end, the campaign has identified several ways that history is valuable to us today. The values are split into three different categories. First, is the value of history to ourselves – to each and every one of us – at a personal level. Within this category are identity and critical thinking. Here’s what the value statement says on those topics:

Voice Actor: Identity – History is valuable to ourselves at a personal level. When we look into the stories of our families and our communities, we find stories of sacrifice and achievement of injustice and triumph that can shape our personal views and the values that guide us through our own lives.

Critical Thinking – History leads to personal development of life skills. It teaches us to evaluate evidence, consider multiple perspectives, develop contextual understanding, and it provides historical perspective. It teaches us to interpret and communicate complex ideas clearly and coherently.

Beckley: The next category is Communities – how is history of value to the community in which that history took place? Again, from the values statement:

Voice Actor: Vibrant Communities – a place becomes a community when it is wrapped in memory. When we tell and commemorate our histories we open up discussions with our neighbors and recognize our responsibilities to each other.

Economic Development – When communities build strong heritage institutions and a sense of historical character in neighborhoods they become desirable destinations. This attracts tourism, revenue, and business opportunities and builds the local economy.

Beckley: The final category, and perhaps the one most often overlooked or misunderstood: What is the value of history to our future? How do these two diametrically opposed ideas, “history” and “the future,” interact with each other? The values statement lists three distinct ways in which history is valuable to our future (and not one of them is that “history is a circle” or that it repeats itself).

Voice Actor: Engaged Citizens – Democracy thrives where people both actively express their opinions but also listen to others who may disagree. Building these discussions on a historical foundation can clarify misconceptions, reveal complexities in arguments, ground views in evidence, and provide ideas for solutions.

Leadership – History shows us examples of effective leaders and role models who we can learn from and who can inspire us to become today’s leaders. Looking to leaders of the past can help guide today’s leaders’ values and ideals.

Legacy – When we value history, we preserve history. And this preserved historical knowledge is crucial to preserving democracy. Through the documents, artifacts, images and stories that we save, we provide a foundation for future generations to understand what it means to be a part of the civic community.

Beckley: At the top of the episode, we mentioned a few examples of History Relevance in action. Now, let’s take some time to go over a few more inspiring examples of how the campaign is influencing work – both around the nation and right here in Indiana. As we go through these, keep in mind those values we just went over – Identity, Critical Thinking, Vibrant Communities, Economic Development, Engaged Citizens, Leadership, and Legacy. We’ll go back to this list to see which of these values are most obviously present in each one.

During the history relevance workshop, Richard Josey added a few additional aspects of relevance to think about when looking at an institution or project.

Josey’s audio from workshop:  I want you all to think about relevance in three different spheres, or in three different ways. The relevance of history to society, which lends itself to sort of that big picture – the macro, if you will. The relevance of an organization to its community – and when we think about the community, let’s define that not just in a geographic sense, you know, in geographic terms. But in all the different ways in which – how we think about your organization’s community. And also the relevance of an organization to the individuals it engages through its exhibitions. Through its mission. Through its programs and the like.

Beckley: So, keeping both the values and those spheres in mind, let’s see what history relevance looks like in action. First, let’s start with the national stage. At our relevance workshop, Tim Grove and Richard Josey brought in some really strong examples of organizations doing this work. The first example is an advertisement from the Tenement Museum in New York City, which tells stories from the 1860s to the 1930s of immigrant families who lived in the building where the museum is located.

Audio from advertisement:  America is a great nation. It’s lived through these amazing advancements, right – the Civil War, the Great Depression. We remember the politicians, you know, we remember the people who are thrust into power and leave their legacy. But it’s people that live through those events. It’s people that die in those wars. It’s people that build the bridges. The stories we tell are about those people, and not that many places tell those stories.

What we do here at the Tenement Museum is we collect the stories of ordinary new Americans – people starting their lives here. And we see what they did to survive.

We’re going to go into that building – 97 Orchard. It was built at the same time as Lincoln was president.

It was important to me that the Tenement Museum become a storytelling museum. People remember stories much more than facts. If the facts are hung onto the tree of a story they become relevant – they become memorable.

Ruth’s genius was to identify an abandoned tenement – a condemned building – as a museum. In effect to put up a sign and say this is a place where we can tell America’s most important story.

The mission of the museum is to engage people in the power of the past to make them think about the present.

Beckley: The ad goes on to show docents leading groups of attentive adults and spellbound school children through the spaces once occupied by the people who built New York – the construction workers, the seamstresses, and the factory workers. Then, toward the end, there’s this:

Audio from advertisement:   I had this Chinese immigrant who came and after the tour I said does anybody have anything to say about what they saw? And this Chinese woman, she goes, “I never knew that this happened in New York in the past and that people lived this way and now I see my own life in a completely different light.

Beckley: What a powerful reminder of what history, when done right, can do. I think that’s every public historian’s dream, right? Change lives through the power of history. And that’s happening at the Tenement Museum. Now let’s relate it back to what we’ve covered today.

When thinking back to those spheres Josey covered – relevance to society, to community, and to the individual – in this case, the relevance of the Tenement Museum to each of those spheres comes from the same place. They tell the stories of people who are often forgotten by history. Now, I’m not an immigrant but I do connect with that – it’s very unlikely that my name will ever appear in the pages of a history book or on a panel in a museum, and the same is true for the vast majority of people in the world. And yet, we are the ones who build the world. We live and work and love here. Yes, the Tenement Museum is telling the story of immigrant families who lived in their building. But, in a way, they’re also telling my story, or at the very least, one I can connect to. And when people can connect to a story, they can empathize with the people in the story. Creating empathy is the first step to creating acceptance and if just a portion of the 200,000 annual visitors to the Tenement Museum are impacted in this way, well, that’s a fantastic example of history having a tangible effect on the present.

Now let’s turn to the values we went through earlier. Which of those seven values are most prominently featured here? First and foremost, is Identity. They’re redefining who we might see as our founders. Yes, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and the men at the Philadelphia Convention framed the Constitution. But it was the masses who lived out those sentiments, who fought to preserve them, endeavored to extend them to all, and who came to America seeking them. Thoughts like those can really affect your personal identity and shift your mindset if you let them.

Also very prominent in the Tenement Museum are the values of Creating Vibrant Communities and Economic Development. The founders of the museum took a boarded up, crumbling building that was more likely to be condemned than to become a tourist destination and turned it into one of the most innovative museums in the nation. And they did that through telling the history of the community surrounding it. They now lead neighborhood walking tours that tell the history of the broader community and offer English Language Workshops in which new immigrants, just like immigrants from all times, learn the language of the nation they’ve chosen to call home.

I could go on and on about the importance of the Tenement Museum and its use of History Relevance but I want to turn to another example.

We’ve talked about History Relevance on the national stage but this is Talking Hoosier History so – let’s talk about history relevance in Indiana. Actually, let’s talk about History Relevance right here, on this show. You might recognize that we often end our show with a section talking about how the topic of that episode is still affecting Hoosiers today – whether that’s tying redlining to gentrification or the story of a formerly enslaved family to the present state of the American judicial system. And we try to choose topics that are a little bit off of the beaten path, or at least take a new approach to familiar stories. That’s not an accident. We aren’t telling these stories just to tell them. We want to challenge our listeners’ understanding of our history and of what the lasting effects of that history are on their fellow Hoosiers. We hope that all of our listeners come away from each episode with a new perspective on our past and a better understanding of how that past effects our present and our future.

Now, I’m going to turn to another program here at IHB – the Indiana state historical marker program. The marker program is one of IHB’s central programs and my boss, Dr. Michella Marino, talked at our workshop about how we are working to keep this 80-year-old program relevant.

Before we go to that clip, let me give just a brief overview of the program. Putting up a historical marker is a collaborative effort between IHB and the community. A community member or organization applies for a marker. We evaluate the applications, approve those which qualify, conduct additional research on the topic, work with the applicant on the text that will be on the marker, and then once it’s installed, we come together to dedicate the marker, along with the community.

During her talk, Dr. Marino covered a few examples of IHB’s use of historical relevance in this program. I’m just going to pull one example out of her talk. In 2019, IHB installed a marker for the free black settlement, called the Sugar Creek Community, in Boone County in rural Indiana. And in 2020, we’ll dedicate another marker to the Weaver Settlement in Grant County, which was also a free black community settled in the mid-1800s.

Marino’s audio from workshop: But today I want to focus on how this marker in particular returns history to the landscape, and directly hits on History Relevance components of Identity, Community, Engaged Citizenship, and even Ecotourism.

So these markers in particular challenge a long held belief that there isn’t much Black history in Indiana until the Great Migration or we’re focused on Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis. And that later on in the 20th century, Black people are moving into white spaces. This is partly because of Article 13 in the 1851 Indiana Constitution that bans Black people from moving into the State of Indiana.

But through research, we know that there were vibrant African American communities across the State of Indiana very early on in the state’s development. So, Black settlements were founded in the 1830s, 1840s, 1850s, and even after Article 13 is put into place. So by including and marking these stories, Indiana history is no longer one of Black people moving into white spaces – they were Black spaces to begin with.

Beckley: Something important to note about these communities is that oftentimes, there are very few physical remnants of them left. The houses, churches, and businesses have been converted or torn down and the descendants of those settlers have moved away. But those descendants, along with the current residents of those towns, are invested in preserving that history, giving IHB the opportunity to return some of that story to the landscape in the form of a marker.

Marino’s audio from workshop: So, again, we’re highlighting Identity through the marker, we’re hoping to inform and create an engaged citizenship by bringing in multiple perspectives, we’re showing a misperception about Black migration to the state in this story. And also markers can spur Ecotourism. A lot of people stop to read these still. They drive around the countryside looking for them. And we’ve heard multiple times about people planning their vacations or trips around the markers themselves. Which – good for them. I like Florida but whatever – you know, people can do whatever.

Beckley: So, markers in general, and these markers in particular, can add to a community’s understanding of its identity, get citizens engaged with preserving their own history, and even bring tourist dollars into the town – whether the trip was planned around markers from the beginning or a family stopped to read a marker and decided to stay for lunch at the café across the street.

Here we have a medium that, on its face, seems a little antiquated– historical markers are far from the high tech interactive and immersive exhibits at some museums – but we’re still able to infuse the values of the History Relevance Campaign into them and tell a compelling and relevant story because IHB as a whole has dedicated ourselves to doing so. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.

That’s one of the results of embracing the History Relevance Campaign. Historical institutions can change themselves and their values just by learning how to make history relevant to their audience. And when history is relevant to your audience, they are more likely to think deeply about what they have learned and more likely to return to your institution for more.

And the results of exposing our audiences to history relevance are even more profound. When visitors are presented with different perspectives and challenging ideas, they are presented with the opportunity to practice the fine art of critical thinking and to grow as people. And if enough institutions are committed to doing this, and enough visitors are exposed to this kind of mindset, we can change lives and, if we want to be ambitious, we can change the world.

Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of IHB, a division of the Indiana State Library. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley, adapted from talks given by Dr. Michella Marino and Jill Weiss Simins. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. A special thanks to the National Council on Public History and Conner Prairie for partnering with us on the History Relevance workshop and to Tim Grove and Richard Josey for taking the time to walk us through the concepts behind history relevance. And, of course, thanks to Justin Clark for lending his voice to the show. You can find more resources about the History Relevance Campaign, the projects we mentioned in this episode, and other sources in our show notes which can be found at blog.history.in.gov. Find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes for History Relevance 101

The majority of this episode was based on talks given by Jill Weiss Simins and Dr. Michella Marino, along with the History Relevance Workshop led by Richard Josey and Tim Grove.

Learn more about the History Relevance Campaign here.

See the Value of History statement here.

Learn more about the Weeksville Heritage Center farmers market here.

Learn more about the programming at the President Lincoln’s Cottage here.

THH Episode 28: Giving Voice: Chris Newell

Transcript of Giving Voice: Chris Newell

Jump to Show Notes

Beckley: I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Giving Voice, from Talking Hoosier History.

Today on Giving Voice, I talk with Chris Newall, co-founder and Director of Education for the Akomawt Educational Initiative. In our last full episode, we covered roughly the first half of the life of Tenskwatawa, or The Prophet. Throughout the episode, we talked about danger of relying on sources produced in large by white colonizers to tell Native history, and how IHB and other history organizations are learning to broaden our ideas of what a source can be to include more Native voices in Native history.

To give you some more information on this topic and some context about why it’s so important, we knew we wanted to speak with someone who is working to bring these issues to light every day, and Chris Newall and the Akomawt Educational Initiative are doing just that.

And now, Giving Voice.

[Talking Hoosier History Theme Music]

Beckley: We’re here today with Chris Newell from the Akomawt Educational Initiative and I’m gonna let you go ahead and introduce yourself, Chris.

Newell: Hi, Lindsey, hi everybody! My name’s Chris Newell and I’m a cofounder – one of three cofounders – of the Akomawt Educational Initiative. We’re located in the southeast corner of Connecticut, based out of Ledyard, Connecticut but we have roots all over Indian Country. I am originally Passamaquoddy from [place name], which is known as the Indian Township Preservation in Maine and live in Mashantucket and work at the Pequot Museum and do a lot of work – a lot of the focus of what we do is working with the Indigenous histories, helping with places that want to teach them in a culturally competent fashion to do so and hopefully create some resources, change some thinking in the future and make sure that when we talk about Indigenous histories that we include the voice of Indigenous people. So that’s the focus of what we do at Akomawt.

And just a little background – Akomawt is a Passamaquoddy word. It comes from my language. It translates in English to the snowshoe path. It’s the symbol of our mission. Essentially, in the winter time, up in my territory, the snow shoe path was how you got out to where you needed to do work. When you needed to get back home, you found it again and traversed back on it. The more you used it, the easier it becomes to use and every season it renews. So that’s what we think about when we think about the educational initiative that we have brought forth here, is creating new learning paths for people to engage with Native content in a way that will be impactful as well as culturally competent, you know, trying to erase some of the old habits of Indigenous history in colonial spaces that have crept up and are still pervasive to this day.

Beckley: That’s great. And I know that we really admire your work. I know that one of the people here at the Historical Bureau saw you at the National Council on Public History and came back and we had a lot of really good conversations from that so, thank you for the work you’re doing and you continue to do and thank you for being here, of course.

Newell: Oh yea, absolutely love being here.

Beckley: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about those old habits you had mentioned. What are some of the habits that you were seeing and still see that you want to address with your initiative?

Newell:  So, when it comes to museums, you know, essentially museums are places that were created by the colonization of America so when it comes to Indigenous histories told in museums, museums are essentially really colonial artifacts. Places of public history are oftentimes colonial artifacts and oftentimes tell the history of Indigenous people through that lens. American anthropology has a long history from the time it was founded of doing things like collecting human body parts, collecting material culture, and portraying a myth of saving the idea of the vanishing Indian, back in the early days of anthropology. Thoughts have changed over time but, you know, that’s kind of the basis of how these spaces were created in the first place and how a lot of these earlier books were created. And, so, there are some things that – some habits that were created back then. A lot of times, the use of generalized terminology – so Native, Native American, American Indian – to kind of put all Native peoples under one umbrella oftentimes appears and it’s not clear enough to a lot of people that there are literally, in existence right now in America, 573 separate, sovereign Native communities recognized by the government and over 1000 Native communities just in general in America – we’re not talking Canada and other places.

So there’s a really complex – there’s a serious complexity when it comes to Indigenous histories and when it comes to Indigenous contemporary issues and things of the sort. And unfortunately, museums generally still give the kind of general impression that we can put everything under the box of American Indian or Native American. If you visit a fine arts museum that has collections of fine art from around the world, literally all the Americans – the art of Americas – are usually places in one small room. So all of these 1000 different communities being represented in one small room. You know, it’s just – it give the general idea that we can put everything in one box and everything fits there when in fact there is no box that can contain the complexity of Native existence as well as our history and our arts and our cultural ways. So those old habits still exit today. We see changes happening when we see places like the MET have gotten rid of their Native American collection and have incorporated their Native American find art into their American wing. That was a big move there from a major museum of kind of rethinking how we present Native art as simply art, rather than cultural artifacts.

Also, the idea at a lot of public historical places, of presenting Native peoples as only existing in the past. That’s another old habit that is kind of pervasive today. I work at a major Native museum, and it’s not uncommon for a 4th grader to come into our museum, have a Native educator in front of them, and the first question they ask is, innocently, “When the Natives were alive …” and that’s how they begin their question. So there is literally a section – a significant portion of the population – that sees us as all dead and gone and vanished. And it’s largely due to the way public history is taught and the way it approaches Native Histories as if we are still having to be saved from being vanished, rather than incorporating the very vibrant ways that we have found ways to exist in the modern times and kept our culture alive and been very dynamic through history. And also, involved with all of American history.

That’s another thing with the story of America is that Native people are often so left out. And yet, the American Revolution was largely aided by Native peoples. All the way from that time – the industrial revolution was largely aided by work efforts in Native communities and things of that sort. And military times – you know, Native people have participated in the military in higher numbers per-capita than any other ethnicity in the United states and as a result, Native cultures were actually used in military structure and strategy to overcome things such as the code talkers from about 33 different tribes during World War II, which was a big part of the success of America in that war. So, in the story of America, Native people are, unfortunately, often let out as if we are a separate part of something else. And those are things that we at Akomawt are looking to address and looking to bring all together, so when we’re talking about the history of this land, we don’t just start at the time of colonization and think of it as only 400 or so years old. But rather, we think about people living on this land back 13,000 years at least, which includes Indigenous history as well and not erase that part of the history of this land here. Because Native people did exist here and thrive and subsist in a sustained fashion well – for millennia prior to any colonization. So, the idea that colonization saved Native people in some form is also something that we look to address as well. You know, so we really want to give Native perspective to a lot of these things. And that includes bringing Native voices and changing the framework by which Native history is taught inside of these colonial artifacts of public history such as museums to present them in a different framework that would expand the thinking outside of that box that we are constantly put inside of.

Beckley: That’s great. I know that we at the Historical Bureau have been  thinking a lot about that and trying to come to terms with what we’ve done in the past and how we can improve ourselves going forward. And I think one of the major, I wouldn’t say blocks, but one of our – something that intimidates us about going forward is that, as public historians, we’ve gone through school. We’ve gone through, you know, some of us up to PhD level and all of it is learning how to use primary sources and how to read primary sources. And when we think of primary sources, we primarily think of written materials, weather that be documents or newspapers – things like that. Obviously, a lot of Native history isn’t written down in the same way European history was. And if it is, it was probably written by a European person. What are some of the sources that you turn to, to look at Native history?

Newell: Ok, so, the sources that I look forward to are really those conversations that I have in Native communities talking to people that have history there through multiple multiple multiple generations. And oftentimes, there are a lot of stories – a lot of oral histories that you can delve into that can really teach you a lot, especially when it comes to Native perspectives. So things like the name of the land, prior to colonization. Prior to the renaming of it. How did Native people name different aspect of land or the land that they live on? What was the lens that they viewed land through? So language is an important tool – so important for the view into the Native perspective. Native languages are so different from the English language. And that’s one of the things that I’ve delved into the most. So that requires from people that are language speakers and people that have that frame of mind of thinking through and Indigenous lens though language. And those are oftentimes elders, but not always, so sometimes you’ve got to spend some time and you’ve got to search out who is the respected person and who has these stories. Have conversations and just kind of let things come out as naturally as they would.

So oral histories for me are a bit part of what drives me because a lot of what they tell is not written down and what writing it down would do is kind of photograph it and freeze it in time because the stories do change over time, but that’s also part of the history. Viewing how to stories do change over time as well. So there is a way to view oral history that you can gain knowledge from that can be factual. But there is a method for viewing oral history that really takes some experience. You really need to be able to talk to a lot of people that have these histories and kind of get a sense of what a broad swath of how they’re viewing things, rather than just talking to one single person, which is the same as looking at one single primary – a piece of paper – a primary source document. It’s really the perspective of one person. So it’s kind of a failure of a primary document is that it does give an accurate photograph of that person’s view at that time. But it’s only that person and we’re not getting the swath of information across a broad perspective of people. So that’s why for me oral histories are one of the ways that I go and also I pay attention to the particular language. And just to give you a window into how different that is – the English language, when it was introduced to this land when the English arrived – has the blueprint of England. The ideas of land improvement – and I’m gonna put quotes around that word improvement – in 17th century English knowledge meant cutting down trees, planning crops, raising cows, chickens, and pigs – which are very different from the 13,000 years of sustainable farming and hunting practices and fishing practices that Native people had done for millennia. And would actually destroy the environment, upset the natural balance of things. And we’re currently still living under that and so that’s not sustainable here. You know, we’re seeing America return to Indigenous ways of knowing. So the Indigenous language has words that – of viewing land as property, and even viewing people as property. In the Algonquin language, at least in my language, land is not considered something that we can possess as an object. In fact, when we pick up a handful of dirt, the way we translate what would be the English equivalent of dirt really translates to “the molecules of our ancestors,” which shows Indigenous knowledge of the cycle of life and the science of all of that. And under that framework, with that translation, we see land as literally life. So if you pick up a handful of what would be in English dirt and you let that to fall out of your hand, that’s literally in our viewpoint, the molecules of your ancestors falling to the earth or literally life falling out of your hand and back to the earth. Therefore, how can you own life – if your framework, you cannot. And the land sustains everybody, not just people, but all animals, all life, is sustained by the land. Therefore, in our viewpoint, it cannot be owned. A lot of Native languages have similar kinds of concepts in them in that land is oftentimes considered in some shape or form alive. Or a version of substance. So elders, oral history, and language especially. Very very important to pay attention to the language of the people that lived on that land for thousands of years and have an intimate knowledge of it and developed a language around the way the land required them to live – to really have a knowledge of that history there. So please be sure you include knowledge of language and language keepers when talking about Native history there because of the importance of the framework.

Beckley: That is incredibly interesting. I have, of course, heard through my traditional education all about “Native people didn’t believe in land ownership,” but I never heard anybody, I don’t think, explain why they didn’t believe that. It’s always kind of a given of “of course they didn’t believe that. We believed that and they were different so that’s why.” Thank you for explaining that. That’s incredibly interesting to me.

Newell: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. Absolutely.

 Beckley: I wanted to ask if you think that our current methods of historiography are adequate for doing Native history. They’re just so based in a Eurocentric worldview and they’re roots are in Europe. So I want to know if you think that we just need to rethink the very foundations of how we’re doing history or is there a way to make our methods fit in with doing Native history?

Newell: Yea, so we really do need some radical thinking amongst historiographers and the way that we retell histories. And sometimes, in historical tellings we really try to achieve objectivity, which has its own merit and is valuable in its own right. However, there is something to be said for the subjective history. So to tell a story from a Native perspective completely is going to have a completely different ring to it than the primary source document history that was likely written by early Americans or people of European ancestry. And so, that’s one of the ways that we can rethink the way that we do these things. And technology is really affording us ways to bring back or to rethink how we do things. Some of these old things – one of the things that would often happen is that a lot of these things that were kept in collections were actually kept in the collection and you had to have special access to get to a collection to get that knowledge. And guess what? Some of that knowledge that was recorded by Europeans and early Americans is actually really factually and very valuable to Native communities who, through colonization, have in some way shape or form maybe have been forced to lose that knowledge. And by keeping it from native communities, you’re actually putting a block in front of them from getting a sense of sovereignty for themselves. Which includes not just self-governance, but also sovereignty in the way they tell their history.

For them to be able to look at those documents and then for them to be able to frame that information through their lens now allows historiographers who are largely translating it from one point of view, to see an opposing point of view, and when it comes to objectivity – that’s how we’re going to get to a more objective route there is by hearing both sides, which sometimes are opposed to one another. Which is totally find because not all things in history are very clear cut and we should discuss and debate. But we should also make sure that we are including all perspectives while we’re doing so and be aware when we’re not. So those are all things to consider for going forward there. And also creating long term relationships with tribal communities. For these colonial spaces of public history telling, that is such an important thing as well because when you bring a Native perspective into your museum, you can – there are ways to re frame the work essentially, decolonizing your museum. I know we use that term a lot these days, “decolonizing,” that’s really a way of re framing things back to an Indigenous perspective. My preferred word, when it’s applicable in actually re-indiginizing. So, what we’re doing is we’re taking a colonial space telling a story from a colonial perspective, and we’re going to take that history and then re-indiginize it because prior to colonization, this is the way the history was told was through an Indigenous lens, just not in a museum. So we’re taking that history and we’re re-indiginizing it through that fashion.

Beckley:  So, for our last question, I think it might be a little bit redundant, but I keep on – I hear you talk about the importance of community engagement and including Native perspectives. Can you just elaborate on why it is so important to do these things and why it’s important for everybody who’s listening to be thinking about some of these questions?

Newell: Absolutely, So, in native communities, there is a lot of knowledge that gets passed down through the generations, and these types of things – that type of knowledge being passed down – doesn’t get a degree passed with it. There’s not a piece of paper that goes with that knowledge and these people become respected knowledge keepers in their communities. And when we approach these communities and we find these knowledge keepers and we’re going to bring them into these academic or public history spaces – the common thing is, if we were to bring in another academic, we would pay them for their service of research or knowledge in helping that institution to accumulate – we should also think of Native knowledge keepers who don’t have a master’s degree of a PhD to be on the same level of knowledge as somebody with a masters or PhD. It’s just that they have that level of knowledge on their own community and therefore, we should compensate them appropriately when we do involve their knowledge. Too often, one of the old habits of old anthropologists was to go into a Native community, extract knowledge, not give any compensation to the people they extracted the knowledge from, and then leave the community, write books, and develop careers based on what they have extracted from that community. And that really needs to change. There really needs to be some collaboration. Some equity. If we go back to the presentation that we did for NCPH, there really needs to be some equity in the collaboration and these colonial spaces really need to recognize Native knowledge keepers on the same level as the PhD’s that they have in their institutions and make sure that we treat their knowledge equally as well as compensate them properly because in this modern day world, unfortunately we cannot live necessarily off the lands we used to, and therefore, the use of money to get food and things – that’s what we all live under these days. Therefore, we should consider these traditional people with that compensation or, possibly maybe doing something for the community if they would choose not to have money because some of these people don’t want money. So when that happens, there should be some sort of give and take going with the community as well to acknowledge what is that, to make sure we’re lifting it up and putting it on the same level as those that would write about it that come from outside the communities.

Beckley: Thank you. I think, Chris, I think we’re running up against our time limit here but I wanted to give you an opportunity to say anything that you wanted to say that I’ve left out – address any concerns that you have, or just promote yourself or your institute.

Newell: So, yes, once again we are the Akomawt Educational Initiative. You can find our website at www.akomawt.org. That’s the Passamaquoddy spelling. I know that the “k” sounds like a “g,” so that Akomawt, but it is a “k” in there. So, you can find out more information about what we’re doing and what we’re up to. We’re also on social media at Akomawt, on twitter at Akomawt as well as on Facebook, and those are the places that you can really see an up-to-date of what we’re up to in real time. And we have some other things that are coming up in the near future so follow our social media and keep an eye on our efforts – one of the things that we’re looking to do in the very near future is provide a database for Native American mascots for people who want to have conversations about that and to see the data about those schools and which ones have changed and all of the information. And in the future, possibly, a Native sourced website on treaties. So, once again, a very subjective history – we’re going to let tribes tell their own view of how treaties were historically signed with the U.S. government or with British government history. So, get a different side of the story as well. So that’s things you can look forward to from Akomawt. We look forward to this work – this is really something we’re all impassioned about, endawnis, Jason and I feel very strongly about this work and thank you so much for having us here to bring our voice to your podcast.

Once again, I want to thank Chris for taking the time to talk with us for this segment. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, or Native history in general, we will include a link to a great reading list compiled by Akomawt in our show notes, which you can find by going to blog.history.in.gov and clicking on Talking Hoosier History at the top.

We’ll be back next month with another episode of Talking Hoosier History. In the meantime, follow IHB on Facebook and twitter for daily doses of Indiana History tidbits. Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes for Giving Voice: Chris Newell:

Learn more about the Akomawt Educational Initiative at their website: akomawt.org.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, or Native history in general, Akomawt has put together a phenomenal resource list, including websites, books and more. Find it here.

In the episode, Chris mentioned a database for Native American mascots that Akomawt was working on. In the intervening time since we spoke, that database has gone live and is a greats resource to learn about the history surrounding Native American Mascots, the conversations going on about the topic and ways to approach conversations on the topic. You can see that here.

THH Episode 25: Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle

Transcript of Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle

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Written by Lindsey Beckley

Produced by Jill Weiss Simins

Voice actor reading from newspaper: The town of Andrews [Indiana] . . . is much disturbed over the result of several spiritualistic séances, which have been held there by a medium named Johnson.

The first séance was held last Saturday night. At the meeting the terrible wreck at Keller’s station some years ago was called up. The five men killed in that wreck, including Trainmaster Wilcox, were talked to, and the noise made by the fated train, the puffing of the engine and the crash of the wreck were plainly reproduced. Those who were present in the room were terribly frightened, so realistic was the scene. A second séance was held at the residence of Robert Hart, with twenty people present. At this séance there were the customary exhibitions of tambourine playing, bell ringing, etc. While the bell was ringing someone requested that it be thrown, and it was hurled across the room with great violence, breaking a lamp chimney in its flight. After the séance was over the medium requested his audience never again to ask the spirits to throw anything, because that was one thing they always did when commanded.

Beckley: Scenes such as this, described in the July 11, 1893 issue of the Indianapolis News, were more common place in the Hoosier state than you might imagine at this time. By the late 19th century, American Spiritualism had swept the nation, including Indiana. And if you look past the spectacle described in that article – the tambourine playing, bell ringing, and flying furniture – you can glimpse the complexities surrounding Spiritualist beliefs. That story, like so many stories in Spiritualism, begins with tragedy. Five local men were killed in a dreadful accident, and here were their neighbors and friends still trying to find closure by calling them back from the dead. In this episode, we’ll explore a movement that meant different things to different people. For some, a night of entertainment. For others, a coping mechanism for unbearable grief.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.

Beckley: American Spiritualism, as opposed to spiritualism in the general sense of the word, was a religious movement based in the belief that not only do spirits exist, but they’re able and willing to communicate with the living through mediums. The root of the movement can be traced to the spring of 1848 when the Fox family began to hear knocking noises coming from the walls of their Hydesville, New York home. As the knockings continued, two of the Fox children, Margaret and Catherine, discovered that they could communicate with what they had come to believe was a spirit. Soon, the sisters took this new-found talent to nearby Rochester, New York, where they met prominent Quaker abolitionists Isaac and Amy Post.

In turn, the Posts introduced the young women and their ability to communicate with spirits to their prominent Quaker, Abolitionist, and Methodist friends. Through this network, Spiritualist beliefs were introduced into the highly mobile upper crust of East Coast society. This, alongside the accessible nature of the new movement which replaced the hierarchy and specialized facilities of other religions with a more informal structure, allowed Spiritualism to spread rapidly. Just months after the initial rappings were heard in Hydesville, there were thousands of so called “spirit circles” communicating with sprits in drawing rooms and kitchens up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Spirit circles, or séances, were a part of Spiritualism from the very beginning. Early séances conducted by the Fox sisters were described by historian David Chapman.

Voice actor reading from Chapman: Séances would begin with a prayer, while the party sat around a wooden table in a darkened room. If a spirit made its presence felt, participants could ask it yes-or-no questions, or the spirit might ‘call for the alphabet’ by knocking five times in rapid succession. If this happened someone would recite the alphabet until a knock was heard on a particular letter. This would be repeated until words and sentences were spelled out. The spirits had to be treated with great respect, or else they might refuse to participate.

Beckley: Soon, public demonstrations where hundreds of people gathered to witness the Fox sisters communicating with the spirits were organized.

[Eerie music]

Beckley: This is yet another factor in the rapid dissemination of American Spiritualism – each and every person who attended a séance or public demonstration was able to go back to their home town and hold a similar circle in their own home, with their own friends, who could in turn repeat the pattern, spreading the movement even further.

In this way, Spiritualism quickly reached the Midwest. By the mid-1850s, less than a decade after the Fox Sisters first made contact with the spirits in upstate New York, Spiritualism was fairly widespread in Indiana. It’s hard to estimate the number of practitioners since there was no formal system of reporting, but one historian claims that by the 1860s, 90% of Angola, Indiana residents were practicing Spiritualists. Of course, that’s an extreme case and the rest of the state was by no means majority-Spiritualist, but it shows how deeply the new religion had permeated Hoosier society. To get an idea of what at least some Indiana spirit circles were like, let’s look at Charles Cathcart, a judge and ex-congressman turned spiritualist.

[Music box music]

Beckley: Originally a skeptic, Cathcart attended his first spirit circle at the home of Mr. Poston of La Porte County, Indiana, with the goal of exposing the fraud he was sure was taking place there. The séances held at this particular circle were much different from those held by the Fox sisters which I described earlier – you see this a lot in Spiritualism since there was no official church structure and practitioners were able to just kind of make things up as they went along. The Poston circle, styled after circles held in Ohio, was a lively affair, similar to that described in the newspaper article at the top of the show.

[Dramatic music]

Beckley: Cathcart arrived to the séance armed with a homemade device that, when deployed, would light up the room in a flash. The lights were put out and the show started with a spirit referred to as “old king” taking up a bass drum. Cathcart deployed his flash device and described what he saw next in the Spiritual Telegraph, a New York-based spiritualist newspaper.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: What a picture for an artist! . . . [I] witnessed the stick beating the drum as if handled from above, and no mortal nearer than about eight feet of it! After striking a few blows by itself, in the light, the stick rose yet higher and leisurely, a curve in the air, gingerly fell on the shoulder of Miss Poston.

Beckley: With this shocking turn of events, Cathcart was a convert. He started his own spirit circle, also in LaPorte County, which was attended by many of his affluent acquaintances. Unsurprisingly, given the theatrical nature of his first encounter with Spiritualism, Cathcart’s own circles were quite showy with flying furniture, disembodied voices, and a veritable ensemble of spirits playing everything from a triangle to the guitar.  Obviously, this strain of Spiritualism is much closer to entertainment than to the expression of grief it was for many others. This included May Wright Sewall, who is better known as Indiana’s preeminent suffragist.

In 1895, Sewall’s husband and work partner, Theodore Lovett Sewall died. In the wake of his death, she wrote:

Voice actor reading from Sewall: Unlike many bereaved, I did not seek to forget my sorrow or him whose removal had caused it; on the contrary, I strove to keep the memory of him always present in my own mind.

Beckley: This reluctance to “move on” or forget is prevalent in many who eventually find themselves face to face with a medium, attempting to contact the dead. So it was with Sewall. In August 1897, after delivering a suffrage speech at Lily Dale, one of the largest Spiritualist camps in the country, a series of misfortunes stranded her in the camp for several days. During that time, she met with a medium, a meeting which she describes in her book Neither Dead Nor Sleeping.

Voice actor reading from Sewall: In that sitting, quite contrary to my own expectations, and equally so to any conscious desire, I received letters written upon slates which I had carefully selected from a high pile of apparently quite new and empty ones, had carefully sponged off, tied together with my own handkerchief, and held in my own hands, no other hand touching them. These letters, when read later in my room. . . were found to contain perfectly coherent, intelligent and characteristic replies to questions which I had written upon bits of paper that had not passed out of my hands.

Beckley: From that first experience, Sewall began visiting mediums on a regular basis and kept in regular communication with her deceased husband for the remaining two decades of her life. This was a something she did not share publicly. Neither Dead Nor Sleeping wasn’t published until July, 1920, twenty-three years after she first made contact with her deceased husband. In it, she revealed her Spiritualist beliefs and experiences and laid out her reasons for that belief.

The book was fairly well received, being heralded as an exceptionally logical exploration of the practice of Spiritualism, if a surprising subject for a woman of Sewall’s esteemed reputation to write on. But just two months after its release, with the revelation of Sewall’s convictions still fresh in the minds of Americans, Sewall died in Indianapolis. Her death following so close on the heels of Neither Dead Nor Sleeping resulted in the majority of her obituaries giving an inordinate amount of weight to that part of her life, leaving some of her very impressive accomplishments in the shadows.

Of course, Sewall wasn’t the only prominent Hoosier Spiritualist. Long before Neither Dead Nor Sleeping revealed May Wright Sewall as a convert, Dr. John and Mary Westerfield of Anderson, Indiana, were introduced to the movement. This introduction would eventually lead to the establishment of what would become one of the nation’s most prominent Spiritualist centers.

In 1855, John’s and Mary’s only son, John Jr. died at the age of fourteen. The couple, who organized lectures on various topics of a scientific and pseudo-scientific nature, were already familiar with the idea of Spiritualism. So, perhaps it was natural that they turned to the comfort offered by mediums in their grief. Over the next months, many of those who had attended their lecture series also converted to Spiritualism and this small group began to advocate for a state-wide organization of Spiritualists.

[Music]

Beckley: Alongside this effort to organize, the Westerfields also began searching for a location for a Spiritualist camp, where believers could congregate and commune.

[Music]

Beckley: From these efforts, the Indiana Association of Spiritualists was founded in the late 1880s, and in 1890, thirty acres of land was purchased in Chesterfield, Indiana where their Spiritualist camp – Camp Chesterfield – was established.

If you’re imagining a small, backwoods operation, you’re mistaken. When the camp opened, there was a dining hall, lodging house, two séance rooms, a few small cottages, and a tent auditorium structure that seated 500 people. By 1895, an office building, Bazaar building, stables, a grocery store, an ice cream parlor, and a wooden auditorium building had been added to the site, showing a phenomenal amount of growth.

This was far from the last growth spurt that the camp experienced. Under the leadership of Mable Riffle, the camp reached its zenith in the 1920s. Two fully furnished hotels were constructed, as well as a chapel, several more cottages, and a decorative outdoor area. By 1927, the six week season at Champ Chesterfield was drawing an average of 20,000 people. Some of these visitors came seeking the thrill of communing with the spirits and others looking to reach deceased loved ones during a time a grief, illustrated by the increase in attendance in the wake of both World War I and World War II.

Throughout its history, Camp Chesterfield hosted mediums with a wide variety of different Spiritualistic abilities. These included materializing mediumship, a phenomena where a medium summons the physical form of a spirit, and spirit photography, in which the forms of dead loved ones can be seen in the presence of their living family members. And also slate writing, or writing done without the aid of human hands – usually on a slate using chalk.

Yet, not everyone who experienced these supposedly otherworldly happenings were convinced by their experiences at the camp.

[Music]

Beckley: In 1925, at the height of its popularity, reporter Virginia Swain attended the camp and participated in several séances, which seem to have quite missed the mark on all accounts. The first of a long series of articles written about her time there starts.

Voice actor reading from newspaper: I have met a brother whom I had never heard of before. Nevertheless he died in my arms six months ago – he told me so himself!

Beckley: She goes on to detail a long list of almost laughably bad readings she received at the camp, but even more damaging than the bad press – she reported the perceived fraud to the police and on the very same day her first article ran, news of a mass arrest of 14 mediums was reported. The charges were dropped just weeks later, but the exposé and the arrests left a wake of soured public sentiment in its wake.

In 1960, scandal arose once again when Tom O’Neill, editor of the popular Spiritualist magazine the Psychic Observer and researcher Dr. Andriga Puharrich uncovered fraud while trying to capture the first motion pictures of the materialization of a spirit. With the full knowledge and permission of the mediums conducting the séance, the two men took an infrared camera into the séance room. Looking through the lens of the camera, they saw that what in the dark had looked to be wispy figures emerging from nowhere were actually workers of the camp entering the séance room from a hidden door.

When these findings, and the images captured during the séance, were published in the Psychic Observer under the headline “Fraud Uncovered at Chesterfield Spiritualism Camp,” something rather surprising happened. It was O’Neill, rather than the camp, that came under fire, with droves of advertisers dropping their support for the magazine, eventually leading to its demise. I suppose that’s a clear demonstration of just how deeply adherents to Spiritualism hold their beliefs.

Perhaps the worst blow to the camp came in 1976, when medium Lamar Keene wrote his exposé The Psychic Mafia, in which he laid bare allegations of widespread fraud throughout the camp. According to his claims, there were rooms full of tens of thousands of notecards with information on every person who had ever had a reading at the camp. He told stories of stealing, pickpocketing, and more, all in the name of a good spiritualist reading.

But, of course, even this exposé didn’t spell the end for Champ Chesterfield, which is now considered to be the longest continually active Spiritualist camp in the nation. The camp, like Spiritualism itself, has persisted through scandal, bad press, and more. Today, the camp is a mixture of American Spiritualism, with several resident mediums available for readings, New Age Spiritualism, with meditation retreats and Tai Chi classes, and a training center for up and coming Spiritualist leaders.

Even outside of historical camps like Chesterfield, of which there are a handful left scattered across the country, we still hear the echoes of Spiritualism in modern America. Take, for instance, mediums such as TLC’s “Long Island Medium,” Theresa Caputo, or if you’re a 90s kid like me, Sylvia Brown. Like the Fox sisters in the mid-1800s, these women mix entertainment with amateur grief counseling, helping people through difficult times by giving them the chance to communicate with lost loved ones. Or, if one wants to be cynical about it, using people’s grief for financial gain and personal fame.

But that’s what makes Spiritualism such a wonderfully complex topic. It can be a coping mechanism. It can be entertainment. It has film-flam men and sincere practitioners. Some people feel genuinely helped, and others feel helplessly duped. And we didn’t even get to this, but it was led, in large, by women and had close ties with both the abolition and women’s suffrage movements. But many of its practitioners, like May Wright Sewall, were tarnished by their association with it. Spiritualism is often used as an entry point into ghost stories and ghastly tales, something to be trotted out for Halloween and then put back into the closet with the paper skeletons on November 1, but that paints a much more one dimensional picture of it than in reality. Join us in two weeks when we dig further into this topic with Ball State University professor Rachel Smith, who studies the intersection of Spiritualism and feminism.

[THH theme music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. If you would like to see my sources for this episode, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Thank you to Justin Clark and Dr. Michella Marino of IHB for lending their voices to today’s episode. Find us on Facebook and Twitter at the Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to Subscribe, rate and review Talking Hoosier History wherever you get your podcasts.

Thanks for Listening.

Show Notes for Spiritualism: Beyond the Spectacle

Braude, Ann, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women’s Rights in Nineteenth-Century America, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Britten, Emma Hardinge, Modern American Spiritualism, New York: MDCCCLXX,

Chapin, David, “Exploring Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane, and the Antebellum Culture of Curiosity, Amhurst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004.

Keene, M. Lamar, The Psychic Mafia, Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1997.

Sewall, May Wright, Neither Dead Nor Sleeping, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1920.

Newspapers

                “Events in Hoosierdom,” Indianapolis News, July 11, 1893, 6.

“Mediums Under Bond After Raid,” Muncie Evening Press, August 24, 1925, 1.

Websites

                “Camp Chesterfield: A Spiritual Center of Light,” campchesterfield.net.

 

THH Episode 21: From Redlining to Better Homes: The Better Homes of South Bend Housing Cooperative

Jump to Show Notes

Hear an interview with Mike Jackson, who live in the neighborhood built by Better Homes here. 

Transcript for From Redlining to Better Homes

[Birds Chirping, Neighborhood Sounds]

Beckley: Dr. Bernard Vagner and his wife Audrey moved to South Bend, Indiana in January, 1949. The young couple had decided to lease some rooms in a house while familiarizing themselves with their new city. But by that summer, it was time to start looking for a place of their own. After being shown several properties that left much to be desired, they decided that perhaps building their own home would be a better option. And they were in luck – there were two lots available on the corner of Campeau Street in a nice neighborhood. According to the Vagner’s attorney, the landowner was very anxious to sell. And she must have been for when the couple arrived to look at the land, she showed up with the deeds in-hand, apparently ready to make a deal that very day.

That is, until she saw the couple. As soon as she laid eyes on the pair, she started making excuses – “the neighbors might not like it.” “My husband wouldn’t approve.” And so on. What she hadn’t realized until that moment was that the Vagner’s were African American. And in the US in 1949, that meant that many neighborhoods were closed to them, whether they had the money to buy a home there or not.

The Vagner’s weren’t able to purchase a home that year. In fact, it took them until June of 1955 to find a house – that’s nearly 6 years of searching…just to find someone willing to sell them property. At this same time, similar experiences drove 22 families also in South Bend, to come together to confront this racist exclusion and build a community for themselves – a community called Better Homes of South Bend. In this episode, we’ll explain and examine the role redlining has played in our state’s history and tell the story of Better Homes of South Bend, which was created for the precise purpose of defeating redlining.

I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History

Newsreel: It was just one of the New Deal’s idealistic programs that changed the face of the nation.

Beckley: On August 1, 1933 seventeen thousand people stood in line in front of the newly opened Home Owners Loan Corporation office in Chicago. The Home Owners Loan Corporation, or HOLC, was a newly formed government-sponsored organization – part the New Deal – formed to address the ongoing foreclosure crisis in America. To do this, HOLC was offering long-term, low interest rate home mortgage loans for both refinancing existing mortgages and financing new home purchases.

Newsreel: Home ownership is the basis of a happy, contented family life. And now, through the use of the national housing act ensured mortgage, it’s brought within the reach of all citizens on a monthly payment plan no greater than rent.

Beckley: This meant that many Americans, for the first time in their lives, had the opportunity to own their own home, rather than renting. Many white Americans, that is.

[Music]

Beckley: In the 3 decades after the establishment of HOLC, just 2 percent of all loans went to non-white families. Various methods were employed to exclude minorities from receiving home loans, but among the most effective and infamous were the Residential Security Maps. These maps, kept secret and only discovered by historians in the 1980s, are considered the basis for the widespread, systematic denial of housing loans for Black Americans, known as redlining, a term referring to officials drawing red lines around specific neighborhoods.

HOLC began research for the maps in the mid-1930s. Working with local realtors and banks, the organization painstakingly divided 239 American cities, including what were then the 7 largest cities in Indiana – Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Gary, Muncie, Terre Haute, Evansville, and South Bend –  into neighborhoods, assigning each neighborhood a grade of “A” through “D.” “A” being what they considered to be the best, and “D” the worst – kind of like school. Each grade corresponded with a color on the security map – green for “A,” blue for “B,” yellow for “C,” and red for “D.”

Many features of a neighborhood were considered when assigning these grades. Building type and age, proximity to shopping and business districts, sales histories…and “infiltration of inharmonious racial groups.” The Underwriting Manual, which served as a comprehensive guide to those deciding who was to receive HOLC loans stated that:

Voice actor reading from HOLC handbook:  “If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in [home] values.”

Beckley: If the valuator judged an area to even be in danger of “infiltration,” they were instructed to downgrade the rating of the whole neighborhood. And those ratings were incredibly important. White families seeking a mortgage in a green or blue area were nearly always approved. In yellow areas, the chances of approval dropped dramatically. And if were looking to purchase a property in a red area, their chances were slim to none. For Black families, the possibility of obtaining a mortgage in any area was close to zero.

If you’re Black, you can only live in specific all black neighborhoods. Banks won’t approve mortgages for any homes in that area due to redlining. But you can’t get a loan for a house in other neighborhoods because you’re Black. Ta-Nehisi Coates quotes Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro’s books Black Wealth / White Wealth on this topic:

Voice Actor:  “African Americans who desired and were able to afford home ownership found themselves consigned to central-city communities where their investments were affected by the “self-fulfilling prophecies” of the FHA appraisers: cut off from sources of new investment[,] their homes and communities deteriorated and lost value in comparison to those homes and communities that FHA appraisers deemed desirable.”

Beckley: Making it even more difficult for minority families to purchase property, many neighborhoods had what were called racially restrictive covenants. These covenants were written into the deed for the property, and they could be very specific about who could and could not purchase the home in the future.

Voice Actor: “No person other than one of the Caucasian race shall reside on any of said described premises excepting that a domestic servant in the actual employ of an occupant may reside in the home of his master.”

“Said tract shall not be sold, leased, or rented to any person or persons other than of white race nor shall any person or persons other than of white race use or occupy said tract.”

Beckley:  Both of those are examples of real covenants in deeds from the 1930s and 40s in Seattle, Washington. Similar covenants existed across America.

[Music]

Beckley: Together, redlining and racially restrictive covenants all but excluded minority families from participating in the American dream. The dream owning a home that could be passed down through the generations. This has had long term effects – access to home mortgage loans is an underpinning of wealth building in America, meaning that these practices hindered the upward mobility of all Black Americans. In fact, Mapping Inequality states that:

Voice Actor:  “More than a half-century of research has shown housing to be for the twentieth century what slavery was to the antebellum period, namely the broad foundation of both American prosperity and racial inequality.”

Beckley: In the early 1950s in South Bend, Indiana, 23 families challenged this inequality with bravery and ingenuity.

Most of South Bend’s African American population had arrived during the Great Migration, a period from around 1916 to 1970 when many Black Americans moved from the rural south to northern cities to fill the need for industrial workers during the first and second world wars.

Newsreel: America is many things to many people.

Beckley: Before this time, very few Black families lived in South Bend.

Newsreel: It’s all races, creeds, and religions.

Beckley: Those few families of color who did live in the city lived alongside their white neighbors, without much segregation.

Newsreel: Freedom to own property.

Beckley: As the black population began to rise, though, this changed dramatically.

By the time the families we’ll be following for this episode were living and working in South Bend, Jim Crowism, a term used to describe the racist attitudes, policies and laws from the late 1800s to the 1960s, was a strong force in cities throughout America, including South Bend. In Better Homes of South Bend, author Gabrielle Robinson writes of the Black citizens of her city:

Voice actor reading from Better Homes of South Bend: “They met Jim Crow at every step; whether they were at work… or at home…whether they were shopping and served only after white customers had been helped or could enter city hotels and restaurants only as bellboys and waiters.”

Beckley: Decades of redlining had forced the majority of South Bend’s Black population into rentals in the area surrounding the Studebaker plant, which was also one of the main employers of African Americans in South Bend. In two developments just one block from the immense, smoking factory – Maggie’s Court and Horse’s Alley – 54 families were crowded together in 44 small rental houses.

[Music]

Beckley: Those who didn’t live in that most densely populated areas often rented nearby federal defense homes.

These homes had been built to accommodate the rapidly expanding African American population during World War II and were prefabricated homes supplied, as their name suggests, by the federal government. These were meant to be temporary structures, constructed quickly and to be torn down after the war. That had never happened due to the continued lack of housing for African Americans in South Bend and the refusal of white residents to allow desegregation.

[Music]

Beckley: Even if white residents were willing to sell their homes to a Black family, they would have been hard pressed to find a realtor willing to help navigate the process. Up until 1950, the official code of ethics of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers stated,

Voice actor reading from Code of Ethics: “A realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence would clearly be detrimental to property values in the neighborhood.”

Beckley: After 1950, this portion of the code was amended to remove “race or nationality,” but that didn’t lead to any change in their practices – redlining, racially restrictive covenants, and general racism worked together to keep the Black families of South Bend from owning land in large swaths of the city.

It was in this context that several families gathered after church on Sunday, May 21, 1950 to take matters into their own hands. Their plan was to form a housing cooperative. Through this co-op, which they named Better Homes of South Bend, the families hoped to achieve what few had done before – own their own homes, outside of the industrial slums they had been relegated to for their whole lives. The idea was for them to pool their money and resources to purchase several undeveloped lots. The co-op would obtain a mortgage loan to start the construction and then each individual family would, with the co-ops help, obtain their own mortgage to finish construction.

By and large, the people of Better Homes were just like the vast majority of the Black residents in South Bend. Many had moved to the north seeking employment and better opportunities for their families. Almost all of the men worked at the Studebaker plant in one position or another. And they had all struggled to find adequate housing for their families.

Now, I’m going to get into the actual nuts and bolts of how the Better Homes of South Bend hoped to achieve their goals – bear with me, I promise the payoff is worth it.

[Music]

Beckley: Like any new organization, the members of Better Homes of South Bend started by electing officers, hiring a lawyer, and drawing up incorporation papers. Their lawyer, noted African American civil rights advocate J. Chester Allen, advised the group that forming a corporation gave them the best chance of success. So, that’s what they planned to do. He also estimated that the group would need at least $2,000 for startup money. This money came from the founding families themselves, who would pay an initial amount of $100 to secure their spot and another $300 payment as soon as they were able to. Considering one Studebaker worker reported his income as $72 per week, these sums were nothing to be scoffed at.

After the initial meeting, things moved quickly for a time. Less than a month later, they were able to successfully place an option on 26 undeveloped lots on North Elmer Street. Leroy Cobb, the youngest member of the Better Homes group, recalls the first time he saw the Elmer Street site over 60 years later. He and a friend took a bus to the area and, after getting lost, he finally set eyes on the empty street that would become his neighborhood. Little did he know that acquiring the land would be the easiest part of the process.

Every step after that was slowed by bureaucratic red tape, discriminatory practices, and the normal problems that can creep up when taking on a project of this size.

Since these were totally undeveloped lots, one of the first hurdles was getting the city to install sewage and water lines, a task that took years to complete. The next, more obvious task was to hire a contractor, but the local contracting companies were notorious for using sub-par materials for homes being built for African Americans. When they finally found what they thought was a suitable contractor, he delayed and made excuses and changed prices so often that it was hard to attribute it just to bad business practices. And later, once the families moved in, the discrimination continued. One Better Homes resident recalled that the local little league changed the borders of the district to stop just a few blocks before Elmer Street, apparently to exclude Black children.

However, there were reasons for celebration alongside the frustrations. Milestones that were scattered throughout that same time included divvying up the lots, hiring contractors, and obtaining mortgages. That last one was especially important since local banks were well known for denying black families mortgages, especially in non-black neighborhoods. Leroy Cobb recalled the meeting with the bank executives:

Voice actor: “Here I am, just a bit over twenty years old, sitting in one of those fancy board rooms and facing all these white men in their suits.”

Beckley: DeHart Hubbard was an African American man and the race relations adviser for the Federal Housing Authority. Leroy Cobbs recalled Hubbard helping the group navigate the mortgage process, saying:

“What I was really proud of was that here was a black man standing up to white executives and telling them that Better Homes wants to have a fair shake. That inspired me.”

Beckley: And really, the whole experience must have been inspiring. The process, though long and sometimes demoralizing, was ultimately successful.

[music]

Beckley: All told, 22 homes were built through the Better Homes of South Bend Co-op. The first family was able to move into their home sometime in 1952, but it wasn’t until 1954 that all Better Homes members were listed in their Elmer Street residences in city directories.

[Music. Bird song]

Beckley: Just think about what that meant to those families. They were able to obtain what had seemed unobtainable – a piece of the American dream. The families celebrated their accomplishments with a community picnic in the summer of 1954, and let me tell you, looking at the group photo from that picnic is something special. A group of well dressed, smiling people, kids fidgeting, eyes squinted in the bright light of a beautiful summer afternoon, posing with the roofs of the homes they had worked so long to secure visible in the background. It’s beautiful. And it’s lasting.

That picnic wasn’t the only community celebration in the years to come. Picnics were held every summer. There were neighborhood parades, where a King and Queen were crowned. The children grew up together – they were the only African American students to attend the nearby Marquette Elementary School, just as their families were the only African American families to live in that area of the city. The success of Better Homes went beyond the immediate reality of living in a new neighborhood though.

Home ownership is a foundation of generational wealth and security in America. The Better Homes families built more than just houses in that empty space – they built a community and, even more than that, they built a legacy. When Better Homes of South Bend author Gabrielle Robinson spoke to the children of the members of the organization, she discovered the true importance of the project. Beyond breaking color barriers or defying racism, the members created a safe, happy place for their children to grow up and those children reflected fondly on their childhoods on Elmer Street.

Voice actor: “It was a wonderful neighborhood to grow up in.”

“We had hedges between our homes, and flowers in the yard. On Saturdays you could hear the lawnmowers in the yards.”

“We were proud of where we lived.”

“You couldn’t get away with anything…On Elmer Street, I had many dads.”

Beckley: These children went on to become lawyers, teachers, principals, nurses, and more. At a time when 70-75% of African Americans in the nation graduated high school, 100% of the Better Homes children graduated and 13 went on to graduate from college. And today, some of them can still be found right there on Elmer street, living in the same one story homes with flowers in the yards and hedges on the fence line that their parents built all those years ago.

The Better Homes of South Bend Co-op was a success. It afforded those families the opportunity to live in a nice area. The children of Better Homes members integrated their schools and went on to successful professional careers. And some other families were even able to move into the same area after the Better Homes blazed the path for them. Unfortunately, this success did not spread far from those few blocks on Elmer Street.

Redlining and other exclusionary practices have left a lasting effect on South Bend. Today, 83% of families living in areas that received “D” ratings on the 1937 Security Maps fall in the low to moderate income bracket while 95% of families living in areas that received “A” ratings earn mid to upper incomes. Simply put, neighborhoods that were redlined in 1937 are economically depressed today. The same holds true for the vast majority of cities where Security Maps were developed.

In those instances where a formerly “D” rated area now contains a high number of mid to upper income earners, it is by and large the result of gentrification, which comes with its own set of problems. When an area is gentrified, the people who have lived in the area for generations – often minorities – are forced out by inflated property taxes and higher living costs. This leads to the question posed by National Community Reinvestment Coalition researcher Bruce Mitchell:

Voice actor:  “Is Gentrification promoting sustainable desegregation? Or is it just a movement towards increased segregation in the next census period?”

Beckley: If gentrification is a movement towards increased segregation, it’s likely join the likes of slavery and redlining in history books as the basis for widespread wealth building for white Americans and widespread inequality for Black Americans.

However, redlining is effecting our communities in more direct ways than its relationship with gentrification. In fact, just this year, in June of 2019, First Merchants, an Indiana based bank, settled a redlining lawsuit brought against them by the Department of Justice. Although it settled out of court, the case was strong and made it more evident than ever that redlining is more than just a footnote in history – it’s an ongoing injustice in American cities.

[Theme music]

Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. My main secondary source for the information on Better Homes of South Bend in this episode came from Gabrielle Robinson’s Better Homes of South Bend: An American Story of Courage. If you would like to see all of my sources, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. We’d like to thank Brenna young, Carrie Reiburg, Alleah Varnett of Shortridge High School, Sam Smith of Butler University, and Justin Clark of the Indiana Historical Bureau for lending their voices to the podcast. Find us on twitter and Facebook as the Indiana Historical Bureau. And please, take a moment to like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. As always, thanks for listening.

Redlining Show Notes

Jackson, Kenneth, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Lipsitz, George, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.

Robinson, Gabrielle, Better Homes of South Bend: An American Story of Courage, Charleson: The History Press, 2015.

Tindall, George and David Shi, America: A Narrative History, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Underwriting Manual: Underwriting and Valuation Procedure Under Title II of the National Housing Act, Washington D.C.: Federal Housing Administration, 1936 accessed Hathai Trust: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015018409246&view=1up&seq=5

Newspapers

                “Thousands Ask U.S. Home Loans on First Day,” Chicago Tribune, August 2, 1933, p.9.

Articles

                Mitchell, Bruce and Juan Franco, HOLC “Redlining” Maps: The Persistent Structure of Segregation and Economic Inequality, National Community Reinvestment Coalition, 2018, Accessed: https://ncrc.org/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2018/02/NCRC-Research-HOLC-10.pdf.

Welsh, Nancy, “Racially Restrictive Covenants in the United States: A Call to Action,” Agora Journal of Urban Planning and Design, 2018, Accessed: https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/143831/A_12%20Racially%20Restrictive%20Covenants%20in%20the%20US.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

Websites

                Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America: https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=5/36.721/-96.943&opacity=0.8&text=intro

                Racial Restrictive Covenants: Neighborhood by Neighborhood Restrictions Across King County, “The Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project:” https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/covenants.htm

“T-RACES: a Testbed for the Redlining Archives of California’s Exclusionary Spaces”
R. Marciano, D. Goldberg, C. Hou: http://salt.umd.edu/T-RACES/

https://www.educationnext.org/graduations-on-the-rise/

https://www.indiana-demographics.com/south-bend-demographics

Other

The Indiana Historical Bureau. “Better Homes of South Bend” Historical marker file.