Detroit, Michigan, March 30, 1965. Two men meet at a small press conference before the funeral of a slain civil rights activist. Their meeting seems like an unlikely pairing for us today—one a slick haired, brash, and controversial labor leader and the other a measured, eloquent, and inspirational pastor who had galvanized the civil rights movement. The former was there to present a check for $25,000 for the latter’s work on racial equality. Their stories varied tremendously but, at this moment, they intersected, manifesting all the complicated and contradictory impulses of American life during the middle of the twentieth century. Those two men were Jimmy Hoffa and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Music: “The Things That Keep Us Here” by Monomyth, “Almost A Year Ago” by John Deley and the 41 Players, “Crate Digger” by Gunnar Olsen, “Crimson Fly” by Huma-Huma, “Dreamer” by Hazy, “Eternity” by Lahar, and “I Am OK” by Vishmak
Nearly thirty years ago, Indiana produced two stand-out high schools talents, Alan Henderson and Glenn Robinson, Jr., whose basketball careers followed very similar paths. Henderson and Robinson were both All-Americans, top contenders for the state high school MVP title, Mr. Basketball, and led both their teams to a match-up for the Indiana state finals. While many newspapers discussed their individual journeys and on-court battles, the Indianapolis Recorder often compared their personal merits, leading to a discussion in the newspaper over what it meant to be a student-athlete, role model, and worthy of the state’s highest sports awards. The Recorder held Henderson up as the ideal student-athlete who did not receive the acclaim of his rival but should have, while diminishing Robinson’s awards and championships due to ongoing academic struggles.
The Indianapolis Recorder is the longest running African American newspaper in Indianapolis: it was first published in 1896 and is still running today. It also is one of the rare contemporary newspapers in Hoosier State Chronicles, giving us a unique insight into current relevant issues. Although the focus of the newspaper was general news stories that affected the black community of Indianapolis, it often became a source for African American news throughout the entire state, including sports.
Henderson was born in Morgantown, West Virginia, but his family eventually moved to Indianapolis. He attended Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, a Catholic high school with high academic standards on the North Side of Indianapolis. He made his first appearance in the Recorder during his sophomore year of high school in a sectional win over Ben Davis High School, where he led his team with 25 points and 16 rebounds.[i] The team lost the Regional finals the next week to the Lawrence North Wildcats, led by standout Eric Montross.[ii] While Henderson received only a scant mention in his junior season, a 1990 article in the Recorder covered his accomplishments and the expectations of his family going into his senior season:
His parents placed a high priority on his academic success: basketball came second. His father was a former football player for Marshall University and was drafted by the Baltimore Colts but also became an accomplished cardiologist and, as he stated in the article, ‘I expect great things out of him intellectually. . . I feel he can do a lot more in life than entertain.’[iii]
For his part, Henderson excelled both in the classroom and on the court. Not only did he maintain a “3.7 grade point average” and “a Scholastic Aptitude Test score of better than 1300,” but he was an impressive player for Brebeuf. Playing a combination of power forward and center, the 6’9” Henderson averaged nearly 30 points a game his senior year. At that point, he was a contender for Mr. Basketball, the highest individual award in men’s high school basketball in Indiana. He signed with Indiana University over other powerhouse programs like Georgetown, Duke, and Purdue. In addition to his size and rebounding prowess, Henderson’s extraordinary scoring ability pushed him above Indianapolis greats Oscar Robertson and George McGinnis for the Marion County All-Time points record:
The Recorder, unlike many larger Indiana papers, rarely devoted extensive coverage to a specific high school team or player. However, they occasionally reported on prominent games throughout Henderson’s senior season, including another hyped sectional matchup with Ben Davis, which Brebeuf won in overtime. Three weeks later, wins over Shelbyville and Terre Haute South sent the team to the state championship. Despite a leg injury in the tournament, Henderson was ready to compete. With the state title and Henderson’s title of Mr. Basketball on the line, Brebeuf faced the all-black Gary Roosevelt High School and their own potential Mr. Basketball, Glenn Robinson, Jr.
Robinson took a much different path to a state title. Born in Gary, Robinson grew up without the advantages Henderson enjoyed. His father was absent for his entire childhood, leaving Robinson to be raised by his mother Christine Bridgeman. [iv] Robinson was a hard worker, taking on jobs throughout high school and during his time at Purdue, where he worked as a welder during the summers. One Indianapolis Star article from 1991 detailed his development in Gary, Indiana, from establishing his basketball skills on the playgrounds of the city to his preparations for college:
According to the article, Robinson was talented and beloved in Gary, but struggled academically, which may have hurt his future basketball career.
One LA Times article discussed an interaction between Robinson, his mother, and Robinson’s Gary Roosevelt coach, Ron Heflin. Despite Robinson’s struggles in school, the article highlights the support (and tough love) provided by his mother:
When Robinson struggled with his grades as a Roosevelt sophomore, (Christine) Bridgeman stormed into Heflin’s office, son in tow, and vowed to pull him off the team if his marks didn’t improve. The fiery woman, no taller than 5-6 or so, pointed a finger in her son’s face.
In the Plaiss and Plaiss book focusing on the 1990-1991 Indiana high school basketball season, entitled The Road to Indianapolis, Heflin discusses the reasons for Robinson’s academic issues:
“Glenn was fine academically,” Heflin said, “until later last year. His grades began falling then. And that was because of too much emphasis on basketball. He was spreading himself too thin. He was playing on two AAU teams and was readying himself for an exhibition game against the Russians. He didn’t miss any school, but when he did try to study, he was too tired. He’s got the head for it, he just needs to apply it to books as well as ball.”[vi]
Robinson first appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder in 1990, during his junior year. The Gary Roosevelt team had been successful both his freshmen and sophomore years, but was ranked third in the state in the Associated Press poll of Indiana men’s high school teams for his junior season. Unfortunately, a loss to Anderson that year in the state semi-finals dashed a run to the championship game. This led to Robinson’s senior season, where the deep Gary Roosevelt team was ranked first in the state, (bolstered by several talented returning teammates), and Robinson was one of the top college prospects in his class. Like Henderson, Robinson was recruited heavily by in-state rivals IU and Purdue, but, by November, Robinson chose to play for Purdue.
Despite the success of Gary Roosevelt and Robinson, their next appearance in the Recorder was their first loss to another highly ranked team, the Martinsville Artisans, on January 5, 1991.
While this was a difficult loss for the team, it would also be their last of the regular season. Gary entered the final four with a 29-1 record against some of the best competition in the state. After their win over Whitko High School, the stage was set for two of the top players in Indiana on the two best teams in the state to face off.
Despite a low-scoring first half, Gary Roosevelt ran away with the championship in a 51-32 win over Brebeuf. Robinson outscored Henderson 22 to 14, and was lauded in the Recorder for his performance. When it came time for Mr. Basketball to be named, opinions were split amongst different newspapers, but it was apparent that the state finals played a central part in the voting. David Kasey of the Kokomo Tribune noted that the Indianapolis Star had “only received 15 percent of the ballots by Friday,” six days before the deadline and one day before the end of the state tournament.[vii] One popular idea in many papers was that Robinson and Henderson should split the award as co- Mr. Basketball, but when April 7 approached, the Indianapolis Star announced Glenn Robinson, Jr. as the sole winner for 1991.
Indianapolis Recorder sports writer Jim Nelson was strongly in favor of the Indianapolis local, Henderson, winning the award. Nelson called out the low voting numbers between the 1991 Mr. Basketball award between Robinson and Henderson compared to votes the year before between two white players, Eric Montross and Bedford-North Lawrence’s Damon Bailey, Henderson’s future teammate at IU.[viii] The other issue Nelson highlighted was that most of the votes were placed following the state tournament, a single game that Nelson stated reflected unfairly on Henderson, whom he determined to have carried a larger load to the state championship than Robinson did in Gary. It is notable that Robinson winning Mr. Basketball was only mentioned in a commentary about why Henderson was more deserving of the award, and that the byline featuring this was significantly smaller than the headline of Henderson being named the Recorder Player of the Year:
While the title Mr. Basketball was important, the motivation to succeed on the court outweighed accolades. Following his state championship victory, Robinson stated in a press conference: “I did not care about winning Mr. Basketball… I would have traded Mr. Basketball to win the state championship.”[ix] Henderson also commented on the contest for the award: “Hopefully I’ll get Mr. Basketball… But if I don’t it’ll give me more incentive to work harder.”[x]
Despite the anticipated carry-over between the Henderson and Robinson rivalry at IU and Purdue, this did not take place their freshman year. [xi] Robinson’s SAT and ACT scores ruled him ineligible to play his first season at Purdue under Proposition 48, an NCAA rule regulating minimum student academic requirements for student athletes. Recorder reporter Nelson argued in a July 13th column, following Robinson being declared ineligible, that high schools should bear the responsibility for the failure of student athletes like Robinson to qualify academically for college sports. He believed that high schools should address the problem before the students head on to college where they then are immediately declared ineligible. Nelson promoted the idea that high school teams be penalized the next year if their graduating players failed to pass college requirements. He argued that this solution would change the system, especially if an upcoming star player had to sit out for a year “because a history teacher did a poor job of educating last year’s Mr. Basketball.”
Following Nelson’s criticism of Robinson in the summer of 1991, he took an obvious parting shot at the end of the season to both Robinson and Steve Nicodemus, then playing for Michigan State, for underwhelming contributions to their programs while Henderson was praised for his successful first year at Indiana University.[xii] Then, in July of 1992, an article entitled “Black athletes often unprepared for the classroom of life,” the first of a three part series on African American athletes, Nelson again compares the academic success of Henderson with Robinson:
Robinson, who was voted Indiana’s Mr. Basketball award in 1991, just barely failed to meet the NCAA qualifying mark and had to sit out his first year at Purdue. Henderson nearly doubled the NCAA qualifying standard for freshmen on the Scholastic Aptitude Test for athletic participation, and went on to have an outstanding freshman year at IU, both on the court and in the classroom.[xiii]
Henderson was extremely successful at IU. Playing with a talented roster, the team made it to the NCAA Final Four in his freshman season, (faltering only after an injury to Henderson ended his tournament run), and finished in the top eight and sixteen of the tournament over the next two seasons, respectively. He was an immediate contributor to the team, starting nearly every game his freshman and sophomore years, but did not become a leader of the team until National Player of the Year Calbert Cheaney graduated after Henderson’s sophomore year.
Robinson, meanwhile, made up for missing his freshman season in a hurry with a tremendous sophomore campaign, averaging over 24 points and 9 rebounds, and helping Purdue to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament. By his junior year, he improved to over 30 points a game and 10 rebounds while leading his team to a 29-5 record in the regular season. The team was ranked first in their region for the NCAA tournament, and advanced to the Elite Eight that year. Robinson’s individual efforts earned him the National Player of the Year award (the first Purdue player since its namesake, Indiana-born John R. Wooden) and the Naismith Award, along with several other accolades. Known as “The Big Dog,” Robinson was considered the top college player in the country and declared for the 1994 NBA Draft, where he was selected first overall by the Milwaukee Bucks.
Despite Nelson’s criticism of Robinson in previous issues of the Indianapolis Recorder, sports writer James M. Keough, Jr., who covered the Brebeuf vs. Roosevelt game, wrote several positive articles on Robinson leading up to and following the draft, including a feature on Robinson following his selection:
Henderson, meanwhile, waited one more year to graduate from IU. By his senior season, Henderson was amongst the greatest statistical leaders in Indiana University history and led his team to the NCAA tournament, but they failed to advance past the first round. His success in the classroom was also impressive, graduating in 1995 with a degree in Biology and was offered admittance to Indiana University medical school. A month later, he was drafted 16th overall in the first round of the NBA draft by the Atlanta Hawks. The Recorder also featured Henderson’s draft process on July 1 of 1995:
Both players went on to long careers in the NBA. Robinson was a star for the Milwaukee Bucks over eight seasons, signing the largest rookie contract in NBA history and earning NBA Rookie First-Team recognition. Though he was only able to lead the team to the Eastern Conference Finals, he eventually won a championship during his final season in 2005 with the San Antonio Spurs, following stints in Atlanta and Philadelphia. Henderson also spent eight seasons with the team that drafted him, the Atlanta Hawks, and won the Most Improved Player award during the 1997-1998 season. He and Robinson were briefly teammates in Atlanta during the 2002-2003 season before both were traded over the next two years. Henderson played for Dallas, Cleveland, and Philadelphia before retiring in 2007.
While the Recorder occasionally mentioned Robinson during his time in the NBA, it was often his legacy in Indiana or in games against the Pacers. Henderson, however, was mentioned frequently in his rookie season and over the next decade for his work with youth basketball camps in Indianapolis with his former high school, Brebeuf.
Henderson and Robinson seemed to be competitors, but bore no ill-will towards each other. Robinson, in an interview with the Munster Times following the trade to Atlanta, stated that he and Henderson were on good terms:
Now I can play with my ‘Indiana’ buddy, Alan Henderson… I’m an Indiana guy too. It’s not always been Alan Henderson against Glenn Robinson. We don’t hate each other. In fact, me and Alan talked in high school about maybe playing together at Purdue. That’s a national championship team if there ever was one.[xiv]
“History just keeps bringing us together,” Robinson said. “We’ve always been everywhere together. The state game. McDonald’s All-American game. The Indiana-Kentucky games. College then the NBA. It’s great that we’re coming back together one more time like this.”
Despite the perceived rivalry between the two competitors, each seemed to represent different things within the pages of the Recorder. Henderson was heralded for his academic record and accomplished college career, but never received the same basketball accolades as Robinson. Robinson, meanwhile, was an elite talent who rose from a challenging background to stardom, which also made him an easier target for individuals critical of the ‘athletics over academic success’ mindset. Despite this, each deserves recognition for their long history of success in all levels of basketball, and as a classic representation of Indiana basketball.
[ii] Montross was a highly recruited high school player (Newspapers.com subscription required) whose Lawrence North team won the state championship the next year in 1989. He later played for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for four seasons, and was drafted 9th overall in the 1994 NBA draft.
[viii] Aside from the title of Mr. Basketball, Henderson was also in contention for the Arthur L. Trester award for “mental attitude, scholarship, leadership and athletic ability in basketball.” Despite his strong record of scholarship, sportsmanship, and athletic prowess, the award in 1991 was presented to Whitko’s Steve Nicodemus prior to the state championship. Jim Nelson’s commentary on March 30th argued that Henderson and his teammate Otis Gordon were far more deserving academically than Nicodemus. Additionally, he noted that only three African American players had ever received the award, which has been handed out annually since 1916, and suggested that a racial component played a part in the omissions.
[xi] A planned team-up of Henderson and Robinson over the summer of 1991 did not take place. Both players were scheduled to represent the state on the same team in the annual Indiana-Kentucky All-Star High School game, but Henderson chose not to compete due to prior commitments. According to the June 22, 1991 issue of the Kokomo Tribune, Henderson was forced by the All-Star committee to choose between playing in the All-Star game and speaking at a regional conference for the Jack & Jill of America organization, an African American organization Henderson was affiliated with since his freshman year of high school. Henderson chose to attend the conference rather than competing in the game.
Header Photo by Mike Fender of the Indianapolis Star.
Original image from Gannett: https://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/c8dc096d68fffb477a951d6caa48153f1a252deb/c=0-0-1194-1592/local/-/media/2016/12/05/INGroup/Indianapolis/636165622199008196-runnerup-06.JPG?width=534&height=712&fit=crop
Indiana, a state claimed as “free” from its statehood in 1816, was nevertheless the 7th highest non-southern state with racial terror lynchings, with 18 separate incidents. When searching through Indiana newspapers, many stories emerge of outlaw vigilantes who terrorized and brutalized African-Americans, sometimes for nothing more than alleged crimes. Since many were lynched before they received equal justice under the law, many of their lives ended tragically through injustice under the lariat.
While the vast majority of lynching occurred in the south, a sizable portion occurred in the Midwest. Indiana, a state claimed as “free” from its statehood in 1816, was nevertheless the 7th highest non-southern state with racial terror lynchings, with 18 separate incidents. One way historians have uncovered these horrific crimes is with newspapers. When searching through Indiana papers, many stories emerge of outlaw vigilantes who terrorized and brutalized African-Americans, sometimes for nothing more than alleged crimes. Since many were lynched before they received equal justice under the law, many of their lives ended tragically through injustice under the lariat.
One of the earliest lynchings in Indiana newspapers was chronicled by the Marshall County Republican on November 23, 1871. Three African-Americans, whose names were only given as “Johnson, Davis, and Taylor,” were accused of the murder of the Park family in Henryville, Clark County. Matthew Clegg, “a shystering lawyer” from Henryville, had a dispute with the Parks and when he likely had them murdered, he pushed the blame to the three local African-American men. When the grand jury couldn’t find enough evidence to indict them, the local vigilance committee took matters into their own hands. They broke through the jail, grabbed the three men, placed nooses around their neck, and dragged them through the street. They were then strung up next to each other on a tree. The Republican described their bodies in painful detail; Taylor’s description was the most gruesome: “His form was nude, save the slight remnants of a white shirt that was stretched across his lower limbs, while the hangman’s knot under his chin threw his head back in, a gasping movement, and his white teeth and distended lips grinned with a fiend-like scowl . . . .” It is unclear from the newspaper account if anyone was tried for the lynching.
In 1886, the Indiana State Sentinel reported the lynching of Holly Epps, who had been accused of the murder of a local farmer in Greene County. Around 12:50 on the morning of January 18, a “crowd of masked men” brandishing “sledgehammers and various other implements” descended on the Knox County jail. After failing to cajole the sheriff to open the door, the horde broke in, smashed through the jail cell, and dragged Epps out into the cold of night. Using the closest tree they could find, the mob strung Epps up and “for fully fifteen minutes he struggled for life, when death came to his relief.” The mob left his hanging remains on the courthouse grounds to be found by the county prosecutor. The sentiment of the citizens of the county, as recorded by the Sentinel, was one of satisfaction. “Citizens of all classes justify the lynching, and the moral sentiment is that the Greene County vigilants did a justifiable act in summarily removing the fiend from the face of the earth,” the Sentinel commented. The lynch mob were never prosecuted for their actions.
The 1889 lynching of Peter Willis in northern Kosciusko County received weird and contradictory coverage in the Indianapolis Journal. In its July 22, 1889 issue, the Journal ran a nondescript blurb about Willis’s lynching at the hands of a mob after he was charged with assaulting a little girl. The South Bend Tribune and the Indiana State Sentinel also ran stories with the same details. Then six days later, completely disregarding its previous coverage, the Journal published an editorial claiming “the assault and lynching episode referred to by the Sentinel [as well as the Tribune] never occurred, and is wholly an imaginary tragedy . . . .” The editorial further noted that “the only truth contained in the item is the superfluous information concerning the geographical location of Kosciusko county, which it says ‘is not in Mississippi or South Carolina,’ . . . and the further assertion that ‘it is the banner Republican county of Indiana.’” There’s nothing named Kosciusko in South Carolina and only a town named that in Mississippi; it was the Sentinel’s and Tribune’s way of saying it was in Indiana and highlighting that this can happen in the north. If the Journal thought they could drive a wedge of doubt through their phrasing, they were wrong. Furthermore, the fact that a county has Republican leanings says nothing about whether a lynching can occur there. This editorial was likely a political device to stave off criticism against a northern, Republican-leaning Indiana county. Sadly, it was misleading people about the unlawful execution of a person who had not yet been proven guilty in a court of law.
The beginning of the new century brought with it the same kinds of lawlessness that led to lynching, despite the Indiana General Assembly passing anti-lynching laws in 1899 and 1901. George Moore, an African American accused of assaulting two women and fleeing law enforcement, was lynched on the evening of November 20, 1902. He was “hanged to a telephone pole” in Sullivan County after a mob of roughly 40 men fought against the sheriff’s department. Moore had been a fugitive, attempting an escape to Illinois when he was captured by authorities in Lawrenceville, Illinois. The mob “beat him over the head with their weapons” before they hanged him. Governor Winfield T. Durbin was troubled by the situation and tried to stop it, but the requisite military and law enforcement officers couldn’t get there in time. It was another instance of mob violence instead of real justice, and the Indianapolis Journal said as much two days later in an editorial. “It is no excuse for mob law to say that the legal penalty in such cases is inadequate,” the Journal declared, “That is not for any mob or any community to say. If the penalty is not severe enough let the law be changed in a regular way, but while the law stands it should be observed.”
It is a common notion that lynching, much like racism, was a southern phenomenon in the United States. These select stories from Indiana newspapers illustrate just how wrong that notion is. The prejudice that people felt motivated them to take the law into their own hands, with disastrous consequences. Justice should be applied by democratic institutions, not by mob rule. That’s how we ensure the principle of equality under the law. But animus against African Americans was stronger than the virtue of justice. As a group of preachers declared in a 1910 article for the Indianapolis Recorder:
. . . so long as wild men will be permitted to roam at will with ropes, shot and torch, so long will a cloud of national shame hang over the government. It is known that almost all of the lynched are members of the colored race, and in many instances the color of their skin is their only crime. It is also known that in the section of the country where almost all this barbarous and un-Christian practice is loved and cherished the colored people have no voice at the courts of mercy.
In knowing these stories, we can begin the process of healing. It will neither be swift, nor easy, but it is vital for our democracy. We owe it to the names engraved on each corten steel beam in Montgomery, Alabama, of at least 18 are from the Hoosier state.
Thanks for watching. Please click “like” in you enjoyed this video and make sure to subscribe to keep updated on all new videos. To learn more about Flossie Bailey, check out Nicole Poletika’s article from the Indiana History Blog. Learn about other stories of lynching at Chronicling America and Hoosier State Chronicles. The links are in the description. Finally, have you visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice? Were you aware of lynchings in Indiana before? What do you think we can do today to advance peace and justice? Leave your answers in the comments below. We want to hear from YOU.
Articles from Chronicling America and Hoosier State Chronicles
Despite its status as a free state in the federal union, Indiana maintained a complicated relationship with the institution of slavery. The Northwest Territory, incorporated in 1787, banned slavery under Article VI of the Articles of Compact. Nevertheless, enslaved people were allowed in the region well after lawmakers organized the Indiana Territory in 1800. As historians John D. Barnhart and Dorothy L. Riker noted, there were an estimated 15 people enslaved in and around Vincennes in 1800. This number only represented a fraction of the 135 slaves enumerated in the 1800 census. When Indiana joined the Union as a free state in 1816, pockets of slave-holding citizens remained well into the 1830s.
Making matters more complicated, Indiana ratified a new constitution in 1851 that included Article XIII, which prohibited new settlement of African Americans into the state. Article XIII also encouraged colonization of African Americans already living in the state. The Indiana General Assembly even passed legislation creating a fund for the implementation of colonization in 1852. It stayed on the books until 1865. This, along with a litany of “black codes,” limited the civil rights of free African Americans and harsher penalties for African Americans seeking freedom. As historian Emma Lou Thornbrough observed, Indiana’s policies exhibited an “intense racial prejudice” and a fear of free, African American labor. One window into understanding complex history of fugitive slaves is by analyzing newspapers. Ads for runaways, fugitive slave narratives, and court case proceedings permeate Indiana’s historic newspapers. This blog will unearth some of the stories in Indiana newspapers that document the long and uneasy history of African American freedom seekers in the Hoosier state.
Runaway advertisements predominantly chronicled fugitive slavery in Indiana newspapers during the antebellum period. These ads would provide the slave’s name, age, a physical description, their last known whereabouts, and a reward from their owner. One of the earliest ads comes from the September 18, 1804 issue of the Indiana Gazette, while Indiana was still a territory. It described two slaves, Sam and Rebeccah, who had run away from their owner in New Bourbon, Louisiana. Sam was in his late twenties and apparently had burns on his feet. Rebeccah was a decade younger than Sam and “was born black, but has since turned white, except a few black spots.” This might have been a case of vitiligo, a skin pigment disorder. In any event, their owner offered a fifty dollar reward for “any person who will apprehend and bring back said negroes, or lodge them in any jail so that the owner may get them.”
On December 9, 1807, the Western Sun ran a similar ad with a small, etched illustration of a runaway slave. Slaveholder John Taylor offered thirty dollars for the capture and return of three slaves (two men and one woman) who had taken two horses and some extra clothes. “Whoever secures the above negroes,” Taylor said, “shall have the above reward, and all reasonable charges if taken within the state; or ninety dollars, if out of the state . . . .”
These ads escalated after Indiana’s statehood in 1816, leading to expansions of the role of local officials. As Emma Lou Thornbrough noted, African Americans “were sometimes arrested and jailed on the suspicion that they were fugitives enough though no one had advertised them.” For example, the Western Sun & General Advertiser published a runaway ad on June 27, 1818 asking for the return of Archibald Murphey, a fugitive from Tennessee who had been captured in Posey County. Sheriff James Robb, and not Murphey’s supposed owner, took it upon himself to run an ad for the runaway’s return. “The owner is requested to come forward [,] pay charges, and take him away,” the ad demanded.
Owners understood the precarious nature of retrieving their slaves, so some resorted to long ad campaigns in multiple newspapers. A slave named Brister fled Barren County, Kentucky in 1822, likely carrying free papers and traveling north to Ohio. His owner offered a $100 reward for his return for at least three months in the Western Sun & General Advertiser. He had also advertised in the Cincinnati Inquisitor, Vincennes Inquirer, Brookville Enquirer, Vandalia Intelligencer, and Edwardsville Spectator.
Other ads provided physical descriptions that indicated the toll of slavery on a human being. Two runaways, named Ben and Reuben, suffered from multiple ailments. Ben had his ears clipped “for robbing a boat on the Ohio river” while Reuben lived with a missing finger and a strained hip. Lewis, a fugitive from Limestone County, Alabama, had a “cut across one of his hands” that caused “one finger to be a little stiff.” They could also be rather graphic. The Leavenworth Arena posted an ad in its July 9, 1840 issue requesting the return of a slave named Smallwood, who scarred his ankles from a mishap with a riding horse; reportedly a “trace chain” wrapped around his legs, “tearing off the flesh.” The pain these men, among many others, endured from the years of their bondage was sadly treated as mere details in these advertisements.
While ads represented a substantial portion of newspaper coverage, articles and court proceedings also provided detail about the calamitous lives of fugitive slaves. First, court cases provide essential insight into the legal procedures regarding fugitive slaves before the Civil War. The Western Sun & General Advertiserpublished the court proceedings of one such case in its November 21, 1818 issue. John L. Chastian, a Kentucky slaveholder, claimed a woman named Susan as his slave and issued a warrant for her return. Corydon judge Benjamin Parke ruled in favor of Chastian on the grounds that Susan had not sufficiently demonstrated her claim to freedom and the motion for a continuance on this question was overruled. Even if Susan had been a free person, the legal system provided substantial benefits to the slaveholders, and since she could not demonstrate her freedom, she was therefore obligated to the claimant.
As for abolitionists, they faced court challenges as well. In 1843, Quaker Jonathan Swain stood before a grand jury in Union Circuit Court, “to testify in regard to harboring fugitive slaves, and assisting in their flight to Canada.” When asked to testify, Swain refused on grounds of conscience. The judge in the case granted him two days to reconsider his choice. When Swain returned, “he duly presented himself before the Judge, Bible under his arm, and declared his readiness to abide the decision and sentence of the Court.” The judge cited Swain in contempt and jailed him, “there to remain until he would affirm, or should be otherwise discharged.” This episode was one of many that demonstrated the intense religious and moral convictions of Quakers and their resistance to slavery.
By contrast, many of those who sought slaves faced little challenge. The Evansville Tri-Weekly Journal reported that Thomas Hardy and John Smith, on trial in the Circuit Court of Gibson County for kidnapping, were acquitted of all charges. The judge’s ruling hinged only on a fugitive slave notice. This notice provided “sufficient authority for any person to arrest such fugitive and take him to his master.” As with the case involving Susan, the alleged slaves procured in this case received less legal protection than the two vigilantes that captured them. These trends continued well into the 1850s through the end of the Civil War.
Second, numerous articles and narratives concerning fugitive slaves and free persons claimed as fugitives were published during the antebellum period. The passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, of which Indiana kept its obligation to enforce, exacerbated coverage. Some articles were merely short notices, explaining that a certain number of alleged fugitive slaves were passing through a town or getting to a particular destination. The Evansville Daily Journalran a brief description in 1859 about two men “who had the appearance of escaped slaves, came upon the Evansville road, last night, and passed on to Indianapolis.” It was also reported that they “had a white adviser with them on the cars,” supposedly a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. In another piece, the Journal wrote uncharitably about a “stampede of slaves” that:
. . . left their master’s roofs, escaped to the Licking river where they lashed together several canoes, and in disguise they rowed down the Licking river to the Ohio and crossed, where they disembarked and made a circuitous route to the northern part of Cincinnati.
After their travel to Cincinnati, the twenty-three fugitives began their route to Canada via the Underground Railroad.
Conductors of the Underground Railroad also faced arrest for the aid of fugitive slaves. Another article from the Evansville Journal chronicled the arrest of a man known simply as “Brown” who aided four female slaves to an Underground Railroad stop at Petersburgh, Indiana. A US Marshal and a local Sheriff “charge[d] on the ‘worthy conductor,’ and he surrendered.” The officers returned Brown to the Henderson jail for processing. It was later discovered that he received $200 from a free African American for his last job. The Journal described Brown as a “notorious abolitionist, and if guilty of the thieving philanthropy with which he is charged, deserved punishment.” Indiana’s free state status did not lessen the prejudice against African Americans and abolitionists; it only obscured it.
One of the more elaborate, yet challenging methods fugitive slaves used to seek freedom involved shipping boxes. The Evansville Daily Journalreported of a fugitive slave captured aboard the steamer Portsmouth, a shipping vessel traveling from Nashville to Cincinnati. He was in the box, “doubled up like a jack-knife,” for five days before authorities discovered him and took the appropriate actions. The ship docked at Covington, Kentucky and they “placed the negro in jail to await the requisition of his owner.” It was learned later that the fugitive slave had an agreement with a widow to move to Ohio on condition that he work for her for a year. “He had fulfilled his part of the contract,” the Journal wrote, “and she was performing her stipulations, and would have enabled him to escape had it not been for the unlucky accident.” This story was also covered in the Terre Haute Daily Union and similar stories ran in later issues of the Journal, the Nashville Daily Patriot, and the Richmond Palladium.
Sadly, the ultimate risk for a fugitive slave was death, and Indiana newspapers chronicled these events as well. The Crawfordsville Weekly Journal published an article on August 16, 1855 detailing the death of a fugitive slave by drowning. It appeared to the authorities that the fugitive, resting near Sugar Creek in Crawfordsville, was discovered by a group of men and questioned about his status. Under pressure, the fugitive leaped into the water and tried to flee, which spurred one man to shoot off his gun in an attempt to stop him. As the Journal wrote, “this alarmed the negro, and he plunged beneath the waters, and continued to rise and then dive, until exhausted, and he sank to rise no more until life was extinct.” His body was discovered a few days later. While some deemed his death a mere drowning, others thought it more “suspicious.” The Journal continued:
Putting the most favorable construction on the circumstances, there was a reckless trifling with human life which nothing can justify. He was doubtless a fugitive, but they knew it not, and had no right to arrest him or threaten his life. They knew of no crime of which he had been guilty, and only suspected him of an earnest longing after that freedom for which the human heart ever pants; and because he acted upon this feeling, so natural and so strong, they threaten to tie and imprison, and when struggling with overwhelming waters, he is threatened with being shot if he does not return ; and then when strength and life were fast failing, stretched not forth a helping hand to save him from immediate death.
If the facts as stated be true, (of which we have no doubt,) there is high criminality, of which the laws of our country should take cognizance; and when the news of the negroe’s [sic] death shall have reached his owner, he will doubtless prosecute those men; it may be for murder in the second degree, or at least for the value of the slave.
The Journal eloquently elucidated why the application of fugitive slave laws, especially by vigilante citizens, harmed the civil rights and lives of both free people and those still in servitude (of which there were a mere few).
Free African Americans additionally faced threats to their lives and livelihood from the enforcement of fugitive slave laws. A well-known instance in Indiana regarded the arrest and release of John Freeman. Arrested and jailed on June 21, 1853, Freeman faced a charge from Pleasant Ellington of Missouri that he was one of his slaves. Freeman hired a legal team and after a lengthy trial that testified to his status as a free-born African American, he was released on August 27, 1853. It turned out that Ellington misidentified Freeman as a slave named Sam, who fled from servitude in Greenup County, Kentucky and likely escaped to Canada. Due to the diminution of his character, Freeman sued Ellington in civil court for 10,000; it was later ruled in favor of Freeman and he received $2,000 and additional unnamed damages. What Freeman experienced is but a snapshot into how fugitive slave laws harmed the rights of free people as well as slaves.
After the Civil War began, fugitive slaves continued to elicit concern, and coverage, in Indiana newspapers. In the spring of 1861, the Sentinel reprinted a piece from the Jeffersonville Democrat about the rise of fugitive slaves traveling through the Ohio River region: “the number of fugitive slaves caught on the Indiana side of the river, and returned to Kentucky within the past three months, is greater than that of any like period during the past ten years.” Kentucky’s government still offered a reward of $150 for each returned slave. That summer, the Indiana State Guardpublished President Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts on the issue. Lincoln, in a manner characteristic of his own political calculus, declared that Union soldiers were not “obliged to leave their legitimate military business to pursue and return fugitive slaves” but also cautioned that “the army is under no obligation to protect them, and will not encourage nor interfere with them in their flight.” The new President offered a nuanced position that possibly placated the Border States while satisfying the abolitionist wing of his own party. Realistically, it was a long way away from the Emancipation Proclamation.
The end of the Civil War brought the end of slavery as a federally-protected policy, and thus eliminated the need for fugitive slave laws. Their end brought a larger fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence’s commitment to the proposition that “all men are created equal.” Yet, the history of fugitive slaves often fell into tales of folklore and hyperbole. Looking at a primary source like newspapers helps to dispel many of the myths and provides nuance to the controversial subject of human enslavement in the United States. These stories represent a small fraction of the larger narrative about American slavery. To learn more, visit the Library of Congress’ page about fugitive slave ads in historical newspapers: https://www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics/fugitiveAds.html. You can also search Hoosier State Chronicles for more fugitive slave ads and articles.
Many African Americans fled the city in fear for their lives. Vanderburgh County historian Dr. Darrel Bigham wrote, “”The violence had a profound influence on black Evansville. Aside from property damage and threats to personal safety of hundreds of blacks, it blunted the development of the business and professional community.”
As a response to the violence, Governor Winfield T. Durbin ordered the Indiana National Guard to Evansville to restore order. Troops patrolled the city for nearly a week before withdrawing from the city on the morning of July 10. Brown died in jail on July 31 as a consequence of a gunshot wound in his lung sustained during his altercation with patrolman Massey.
Below are newspaper clippings from throughout the country chronicling the riot and its aftermath. Clicking on any of the headline clippings will take you to digitized copies of the full articles.
The New York Times recently ran a piece about its long and interesting history of wedding notices, specifically its first notice published on September 18, 1851. Sarah Mullett and John Grant were married by the Reverend Thomas P. Tyler at Trinity Episcopal Church in Fredonia, New York on September 10, 1851. It got us at Hoosier State Chronicles thinking about wedding notices in our neck of the woods. Throughout the decades, newspapers from all across Indiana published wedding notices, sometimes before the wedding and sometimes after, and occasionally with extended coverage of the ceremony. In this blog, we will take you through a few notices to give you a sense of how Indiana newspapers covered Hoosiers tying the knot.
One of the earliest wedding notices that we found came from the Vincennes Indiana Gazette on October 23, 1804, before Indiana’s statehood. During these early years of Indiana papers, the wedding notices were fairly basic, often only sharing the exact details of the wedding and nothing else. Here’s the exact text from the Indiana Gazette:
MARRIED, On Sunday evening last, Mr. John M’Gowan to the amiable Miss Sally Baltis, both of this county [Knox County].
Besides the word “amiable,” this notice contains very little information, despite the couple being local. Similar wedding notices were published in the Vincennes Western Sunin 1810 and 1814 and the Charlestown Indiana Intelligencer in 1825.
Early Indiana papers also published breaches of marriage. For example, a piece in the December 14, 1816 issue of the Western Sun noted that a “breach of marriage promise, between Margaret Logan, plaintiff, and Rob[er]t Gray defendant, was yesterday tried in the Court of Common Pleas of this county [Knox County].” The trial resulted in a “verdict for $1,000 [in] damages—the sum claimed in the declaration,” likely going back to Logan.
Another common tradition in the early years of wedding notices was the use of the subheading “hymeneal,” meaning “nuptial.” Sadly, one of the early uses in the Indiana Republican misspelled the word as “hymenial,” which is a type of fungus. Nevertheless, papers like the Republican used the term during the early half of the nineteenth century, as a way to group a few wedding notices into a single piece. The Republican hymeneal from 1817 (with the misspelling) provided notices for two weddings, separated by an anonymously authored poem:
Not Eden with its shades and flowers,
Was Paradise till women smil’d; –
Then what’s this dreary world of ours,
Without creation’s loveliest child.
In an April 27, 1838 issue of the Brookville American, another Hymeneal, spelled right this time, ran on the third page. Four separate weddings from both Indiana and Ohio make up the column. One particular wedding announcement went out late, so it came with an “apology to the parties . . . that it was mislaid.”
By the 1870s and 1880s, the notices kept the same style but lost some the century’s earlier pretensions. For example, the term “hymeneal” went to the wayside, in favor of a more generic “announcements” section. This is exactly how the Indianapolis News published a wedding notice in its February 12, 1885 issue.
That’s not to say there were not outliers. One of the most interesting newspapers available in Hoosier State Chronicles is the Smithville-based Name It and Take It!. A rather obscure paper, it only ran a few months in 1897 before folding. In the June 25, 1897 issue, a wedding noticed was published under the heading of “ROMANTIC!”, the use of an exclamation point being the standard practice on nearly every piece in the notices section. “The Rev. A. S. [Alexander “Sandy”] Baker married a couple on short notice last Saturday, in the clerks [sic] office at Bloomington. The contracting parties were: John Worley, and Catherine Adams,” the paper reported. Based on the exclamation point heading, the paper wanted you to be as excited for the couple as they apparently were.
By the early 20th century, some wedding pieces became slightly more irreverent, like human interest stories you might read in your local paper. In the July 16, 1908 issue of the Richmond Palladium, an article ran entitled “Married in Shirt Waist and Skirt.” Ted Hall, “a young business man of St. Louis,” arrived in the city, quickly proposed to “Miss Nettie Lamar,” and they were married the same day. As the paper noted, the “ceremony was set in such a short time that the bride had to be married in shirt waist and skirt.” This would be the equivalent of a young lady getting married in a pair of capris and a t-shirt today, which is quaint, even charming.
The Indianapolis News during the 1910s provided a large section of its paper to marriage notices, with notifications from all over the state. This trend continued well into the 1920s, as exemplified in an April 29, 1929 issue of the Greencastle Herald. One particular nicety that the Herald extended to the newly-wedded couples was delaying the publication of the notices, after an arrangement with the county clerk.
Other newspapers gave their wedding notice section clever titles. In a 1939 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder, the paper named its section “In Dan Cupid’s Files,” and provided nine separate notices (one was an engagement). One interesting notice noted that “Miss Ella Louise Freeman and L. C. Phelps were secretly married in Chicago” the previous March and then intended to “reside in Philadelphia.” This notice brings up so many questions. Why were they “secretly married?” What necessitated that chain of events? How did their parents feel about it? These would be great topics of research for a more in-depth analysis of wedding notices. However, that is outside the scope of this short tour.
Some wedding notices were so detailed that they warranted a front-page publication. This was the case with a notice published in the August 16, 1940 issue of the Dale News. Robert J. Lubbehusen, a U. S. Navy officer, and Miss Frances Fuchs, “second daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ed Fuchs of St. Meinrad, Ind.” were “quietly married in the Abbey Church” in St. Meinrad. The unincorporated community of St. Meinrad houses a monastery and church for Benedictine monks. As their website describes, “Saint Meinrad Archabbey was founded in 1854 by monks from Einsiedeln Abbey in Switzerland. They came to southern Indiana at the request of a local priest who was seeking help to serve the pastoral needs of the growing German-speaking Catholic population and to prepare local men to be priests.” The small town newspaper published this notice on the first page, which was probably otherwise a slow news week. Additionally, Lubbenhusen’s active service in the Navy, roughly a year out from American involvement in WWII, may have inspired a front-page notice.
By the 1950s, photographs became a more standard practice for wedding notices in Indiana papers. The Jewish Post ran a full-page wedding notices section with mostly photographs of happily-wedded couples either leaving on their honeymoon, walking down the aisle together after the ceremony, or cutting their cake. Alongside the couples, the Post also published the names of their photographers, Miner-Baker and Julius Marx. Not only did this give credit where credit was due, but it was great advertising for the photographers. Engaged couples could see these nice photos in the paper and then follow up with Marx or Miner-Baker to have them photograph their unions. The wedding notice as advertisement represents another interesting development in Indiana wedding notices.
The last three wedding notices on this tour of history, from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s respectively, indicate that while wedding notices have changed since the beginning of Indiana’s history, they maintained a basic structure. The September 23, 1960 page of wedding notices from the Jewish Postprovided the same familial and logistical information, but it also included details on the bride’s dress. The bride, Elayne Rosanne Kroot:
. . . appeared in a formal-length gown of pure silk peau de soie of ivory color, trimmed with re-embroidered hand-clipped Alencon lace highlighted by matching seed pearls and crystals forming an Empire bodice.
This notice’s level of detail contrasted the more direct, less detailed notice for another couple on the same page. (The wedding notice in the August 24, 1979 Jewish Post also displays a shorter, more direct style.) This contrast suggests a subtle distinction of class, where the longer, more detailed notice cost more to publish than the shorter notice. Again, this would be a great avenue for future research.
Our last notice page comes from the June 23, 1984 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder. These notices might be the most complete notices we will unpack in our journey. The notices are detailed, with logistical information, details on the bride’s dresses, the musical arrangements (including songs played), and a rough timeline of the entire ceremony and reception. These were also paired with photographs of the happy couples. To see the most modern representation of wedding notices, this is one of the best examples from Hoosier State Chronicles.
With that, our trip though Indiana’s wedding notices has come to an end. If you’d like to see more notices, head over to Hoosier State Chronicles. If you search “wedding” or “married,” you get literally thousands of hits, from nearly 200 years of Indiana newspapers. There’s certainly more than a fair share of Hoosier weddings to explore.
Historians of blues music and folk culture consider Mamie Smith to be the first African American woman to record blues vocals. In 1921, only a year after this historic recording, Smith performed to sold-out crowds in Indiana. Newspapers covered the release of Smith’s records and her Indiana performances extensively. We were interested especially in a spring 1921 performance by this African-American star in Richmond, Indiana, a Ku Klux Klan stronghold at the time.
Before 1920, African American entertainer Mamie Smith, who was born in Cincinnati, worked in Harlem as a chorus girl and cabaret singer. Here she met the black pianist, singer, and composer Perry Bradford who had found success in theater and minstrel circuits in New York. Bradford, who was interested in preserving African-American musical traditions in recordings, convinced Fred Hager, recording director of the obscure label OKeh Records to take a chance on recording Mamie Smith. Bradford convinced Hager that African American music lovers were an untapped market and that “they will buy records if recorded by one of their own, because we are the only folks that can sing and interpret hot jazz songs just off the griddle correctly.”
In February 1920, Smith recorded “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” for OKeh Records. Blues music historians consider this to be the first blues recording by an African American woman. Record producer Hager received boycott threats if he recorded Smith or any other African American singer. In the face of the controversy, Bradford convinced Hager to continue backing Smith, as opposed to the white singer Sophie Tucker, who Hager was alternatively considering. Bradford recalled:
Mr. Hager got a far-off look in his eyes and seemed somewhat worried, because of the many threatening letters he had received from some Northern and Southern pressure groups warning him not to have any truck with colored girls in the recording field. If he did, OKeh Products – phonograph machines and records – would be boycotted. May God bless Mr. Hager, for despite the many threats, it took a man with plenty of nerves and guts to buck those powerful groups and make the historical decision which would echo aroun’ the world. He pried open that old ‘prejudiced door’ for the first colored girl, Mamie Smith, so she could squeeze into the large horn – and shout with her strong contralto voice.
Smith recorded another set of songs penned by Bradford for Okeh in August of 1920. The track “Crazy Blues” became massively popular and in less than a year the record sold over a million copies. According to long-time music writer Jas Obercht, Smith’s “Crazy Blues” “could be heard coming from the open windows of virtually any black neighborhood in America.” Okeh Records called it “a surprise smash hit.” According to New Orleans jazz musician Danny Barker:
There was a great appeal amongst black people and whites who loved this blues business to buy records and buy phonographs. Every family had a phonograph in their house, specifically behind Mamie Smith’s first record.
This was certainly true in Indiana.
Indiana newspapers ran ads for Mamie Smith’s records not long after the release of “Crazy Blues.” Often the ads for Smith’s records were also attempts to sell phonographs as Barker mentioned in the above quote. A downtown Indianapolis music store ran this advertisement in the Indianapolis News in November:
The C. W. Copp Music Shop ran an advertisement in the South Bend News-Times in December for the hit “Crazy Blues,” but also let an interested public know that they stocked other Mamie Smith records. Hoosier interest in Smith’s records continued into the new year. In March of 1921, the same South Bend music shop ran several advertisements for five new Smith records and the Hammond Times ran an advertisement for Okeh Records releases, featuring Smith, and to sell listeners the phonograph to play them on:
According to Obrecht, Mamie Smith recorded 22 songs this year and “between sessions, she kept a grueling schedule of concert appearances.” The Talking Machine World magazine reported that Smith and a revue of entertainers were going to perform in all the major U.S. cities. By April 1921, many Hoosier music fans were familiar with Mamie Smith, as we can see from the newspaper ads. So when the news broke that she was booked to play in Indiana, the coverage continued almost daily until the performance.
According to the Talking Machine World she performed in Indianapolis and Evansville on this tour, but a search of Hoosier State Chronicles and our recent work to digitize the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram shows that she also performed to sold out crowds in Richmond and South Bend. This is especially interesting considering 1920s Richmond was only about 5% African American, while perhaps as many as 45% of white males belonged at some point to Whitewater Klan #60, an active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. We wondered, what brought Smith to Richmond and how was she received?
The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram ran a notice of Smith’s Saturday, April 23, 1921 performance at the Coliseum for weeks before the date. Here are some great examples:
On April 21, 1921 alone there were three ads for Smith’s upcoming performance and records, including this extensive listing of popular songs:
Advertisements were not the only coverage of Smith’s upcoming appearance in Richmond. On April 18, 1921 the Richmond Palladium Sun-Telegram reported on the “forthcoming appearance here of Mamie Smith, the popular phonograph star of the colored race, and her All-Star Jazz Revue next Saturday night at the Coliseum,” and called it “the greatest jazz concert that has ever been sent on tour.” The newspaper called Smith “a phonograph star of the first rank” and claimed that she “has done more than any other singer perhaps in America to popularize the genuine ‘blues’ song of the day.” The writer continued to laud Smith for her ability to make songs into “living, potent things charged with a pulsing and individual rhythm.” The paper reported that the popularity of her record had made Richmond residents excited to see her perform live and that they were expecting a “sold-out house when she reaches this city.”
Perhaps the most interesting article in the Palladium was the one that appeared the following day, April 19, and covered not Smith but the revue company traveling with her. Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds were the headlining, crowd-drawing act, but her tour included other acts as well: dancers, vaudevillian comedians, and minstrel performers. The appearance of a newly-minted blues and jazz star on the same stage as the historically popular minstrel performers marks and intersection of trends in African American music and performance history. While minstrel performers had both conformed to stereotypes out of employment necessity and defied them through their self-presentation (learn more), Mamie Smith’s rise to stardom ushered in a new era of music divas who presented themselves as upper class, educated, rich, and demanding of respect.
While blues music had been performed in the American South since the very beginning of the twentieth century, no one had made recordings of it before, largely due to racism and the assumption that African-Americans couldn’t – or wouldn’t – buy record players or 78s. “Crazy Blues” changed all that, sparking a mad scramble among record execs to record blues divas. The stars they promoted in this short-lived era of “classic blues” were not the down-home country singers who’d record later in the Roaring Twenties, but the glittering, glamorous, and savvy veterans of tent shows, minstrel troupes, and the vaudeville stage. These mavericks defied stereotypes…
As if in response to this very idea, on April 22 the Palladium followed the coverage of the revue with an article detailing the glamorous appearance and presentation of Smith. The newspaper stated that through her record royalties “the popular young colored star is enabled to indulge her fancy in the latest creations both from Paris and New York, and in each city in which she has appeared a gasp of astonishment has greeted her every appearance, for her gowns are described as riots of color and beauty.”
In a telling sentence, the article called Smith “one of the most gorgeously dressed stars of the musical comedy world.” This notes both the respect for her appearance and success and a misunderstanding of her role in music history. While African American music fans were connecting to Smith’s sincere and authentic portrayal of the blues music that they grew up with, this white Midwestern newspaper still saw her as part of the vaudeville and perhaps even minstrel genres — understandably perhaps since it was marketed as such. While Smith had come from such a tradition, through her work with the blues and and jazz performers she had transcended her past. Black newspapers understood her importance much earlier than white newspapers. On March 13, 1920, the Chicago Defender wrote:
Well, you’ve all heard the famous stars of the white race chirping their stuff on the different makes of phonograph records . . . but we have never – up to now – been able to hear one of our own ladies deliver the canned goods. Now we have the pleasure of being able to say that at last they have recognized the fact that we are here for their service; the OKeh Phonograph Company has initiated the idea by engaging the handsome, popular and capable vocalist, Mamie Gardner Smith.
Similarly, the African American gospel, jazz, and blues music Thomas A. Dorseyexplained, “Colored singing and playing artists are riding to fame and fortune with the current popular demand for ‘blues’ disk recordings and because of the recognized fact that only a Negro can do justice to the native indigo ditties such artists are in demand.”
There were African American audience members at the Richmond performance, who likely had a better understanding of the significance of Smith’s success. The Richmond PalladiumSun-Telegram reported: “The best seats are selling fast from the plat at Weisbrod Music company as white and colored folk alike are wager to see and hear the ‘Queen of the Blues,’ a capacity house is predicted for Saturday night.”
Unfortunately, there are no extant issues of the historic African American newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder for this period. It would be interesting to explore the differences in the coverage of Smith’s performances between a white and black newspaper and perhaps this could be accomplished using the Chicago Defender, but is outside the scope of this post.
As expected, Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds sold-out the Richmond Coliseum, which held 2,500 people, for the April 23, 1921 performance. The next year, the KKK also sold-out the same venue. The Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegramreported on December 12, 1922 that a crowd awaiting a Klan rally “taxed the space at the Coliseum waiting for the ceremonies quite a long time before the Klansmen finally arrived.” So how was the white population of Richmond able to enjoy an African American musician one year and then attend a Klan rally the next?
While this contradiction may seem surprising, there was (and some argue still is) a tendency for white Americans to de-contextualize African American music from African American culture. That is, the white residents of Richmond were able to appreciate black music while continuing to oppress black people. There has been much written on this topic (two good places to start are Imamu Amiri Baraka‘s The Music: reflections on Jazz and Blues and Perry Hall’s “African American Music: Dynamics of Appropriation and Innovation“) and an extensive analysis of Smith’s career through this lens is outside the scope of this post. However, advertisements continued after her performance, from which we can draw that she was a hit regardless of why. Notice the advertisement claims that there was “a capacity audience.”
While we were unable to find an article reviewing the Richmond performance or the crowd’s reception, it likely went well because she returned to Indiana the next month. On May 31, 1921, she performed to another capacity crowd at the Oliver Theater in South Bend. The South Bend News-Times covered her performance in much the same manner as the Richmond Palladium. The paper noted in various articles, her fame, her genius, and her status as “the first colored girl artist to attain world-wide fame as a singer and phonograph record star.”
Mamie Smith’s importance to music history is hard to overstate, according to a story on NPR’s All Things Considered for which famed activist Angela Davis (now a professor at University of California/Santa Cruz ) was interviewed. Davis summed up Smith’s importance succinctly:
“The recording of ‘Crazy Blues’ led the way for the professionalization of black music, for the black entertainment industry, and indeed for the immense popularity of black music today.”
This election year, there has been a lot of talk of third-party candidates, like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. However, this election cycle is hardly the first to celebrate third-party candidates for President. American presidential history is rich with third-party candidates, such as Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign against Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush or Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy in 2000. From the Hoosier state there was Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate who received nearly a million votes in the 1912 election. Yet, it is arguable that the most successful third-party run for the presidency was by someone who had already been president.
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president, mounted an unprecedented third-term campaign for the office on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912. Known colloquially as the “Bull Moose Party,” Roosevelt’s campaign for the office was heavily chronicled by progressive newspapers here in Indiana, particularly the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram. From August 5-7, 1912, the Progressive Party met in Chicago to both nominate Roosevelt for the presidency and establish a new political party, one founded on what Roosevelt called the “Square Deal.” As historian Lewis L. Gould explained, Roosevelt believed that “the federal government must do more to supervise large corporations, improve the lot of women and children who worked long hours for low wages in industry, and conserve natural resources.”
Roosevelt’s decision to run stemmed from his disappointment at the cautiousness and conservatism of his former cabinet member and hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft. Taft came into office in 1909 arguing for Roosevelt’s ideals, but had since moved towards to the limited government and pro-business attitudes of Republican Party insiders, or so Roosevelt believed. It was this disappointment which motivated Roosevelt to usurp the Republican nomination from Taft and reassert his influence on the party. When the Republicans rejected him in favor of Taft in June of 1912, Roosevelt vowed to begin a new party. Thus, the Progressive Party was born.
The convention began on August 5, and the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram wrote about the party’s platform, which, among other proposals, demanded “that the light publicity be thrown upon scales of wages and other labor matters” as well as “old-age pensions.” Rudolph G. Leeds, long-time owner and editor of the Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, enthusiastically supported Roosevelt and was elected “national committeeman . . . by the Indiana progressive delegation.” Roosevelt himself arrived to Chicago on that day and reportedly received “the greatest reception any man ever received in Windy City.” When asked to speak, the former president spoke of the “birth of a new party” and that “the day of the boss, of crooked politicians behind the boss and people who are owned by the boss and crooked politicians has passed forever.”
The next day, August 6, Roosevelt announced his contention for the party’s presidential nomination. His running mate was Hiram W. Johnson, senator from California and one of the Progressive Party’s founders. In his speech, known as the “Confession of Faith,” Roosevelt reiterated his position from his remarks the day before. “Our fight,” Roosevelt declared, “is a fundamental fight against both of the old corrupt party machines, for both are under the dominion of the plunder league of the professional politicians who are controlled and sustained by the great beneficiaries of privilege and reaction.” In terms of policy, Roosevelt argued for more workplace and wage protections for labor, further regulations of trusts and large corporations, assistance to farmers, and wilderness conservation.
To Roosevelt, his nomination was bigger than just one election. It was a “crusade” against the forces of graft and corruption and in favor of the people. “Now, friends, this is my confession of faith,” clamored Roosevelt among the packed crowd in Chicago:
Now to you men, who, in your turn, have come together to spend and be spent in the endless crusade against wrong, to you who face the future resolute and confident, to you who strive in a spirit of brotherhood for the betterment of our nation, to you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind, I say in closing…We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.
Roosevelt’s “crusade” was taken to heart by the Palladium and Sun-Telegram, who wrote glowing editorials about Roosevelt and the Progressive Party. “The Progressive party,” declared one editorial, “is the moving, leading, inspiring force in the nation today. It is advancing as no other movement ever advanced in American politics.”
On August 7, the party formally nominated Roosevelt and Johnson. In his nominating speech, William A. Prendergast, comptroller of the City of New York, remarked that “He [Roosevelt] has fought the most vicious forces in American life and has conquered them . . . To such a leader the hearts of millions of American people are turning in this national crisis.” It was with this nomination that Roosevelt was given the chance to fulfill the remainder of his life’s work, to finally give the American people a “square deal.”
However, Roosevelt’s dedication to a “square deal” under the Progressive Party banner left a key demographic from being at the table: African Americans. As historian Eric J. Yellin observed, Roosevelt staked his political future on alienating the African American voters in the south, who he thought he had already lost to Taft. Due to this misnomer, Roosevelt sought to create a “shadow Republican Party in the south made up of lily-white organizations.” This resulted in the rejection of southern African American delegates from the Progressive Party convention.
Locally, the Indianapolis Recorder, a black owned and published newspaper, wrote scathing editorials in response to Roosevelt’s actions. As an August 10, 1912 editorial declared, “To the Colored men who can find it possible, after denouncing President Theodore Roosevelt as a despot, demagogue, lyncher and betrayer of the confiding Colored race, to now support him even when he leaves his own party and help him to be the founder of a new party, we say that the white world is looking on with a contemptuous smile.” Another column on August 24 noted that, “the position of Mr. Roosevelt, disfranchising the Negroes of the South in his party is a virtual indorsement [sic] of the unconstitutional disfranchising laws of the South, and we believe that he has forfeited all right of respect or support from Afro-Americans.” A minister of the AME Church and long-time Roosevelt supporter, Dr. Reverdy C. Ransom, even left the Progressive Party and publicly criticized Roosevelt’s “Negro policy and…urge[d] the Republican party to improve the situation which the Colonel has created.”
The Progressive Party decided against the colored delegates of the South, but are in favor of the colored people of the North. Theodore Roosevelt, as we understand, is in favor of a “Lily White” Government in the South, but in favor of the colored man’s recognition in the North. The trouble with his idea is that it is in the South that the colored people are complaining about the denial of political rights.
This observation highlighted Roosevelt’s central electoral gamble. By alienating southern African Americans, Roosevelt could have lost a key Republican voting bloc sympathetic to his run, all in an effort to court populist white southerners, who largely voted Democrat. In the general election in November, his calculation went exactly opposite.
In the 1912 general election on November 5, Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic nominee, won the election in a landslide, with 435 electoral votes and 41.8% of the popular vote. (Wilson’s running mate was Indiana Governor Thomas Marshall; they won the state with 43.1 percent.) Now, you may wonder: how was this a landslide? It came down to split of the Republican voting base. Roosevelt won 27.4 percent of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes while Taft won 23.2 percent of the popular vote and eight electoral votes. However, Roosevelt did end up winning a plurality of the African American voting base, but did not win the southern populist whites he had courted during the election. Wilson garnered their vote, and in turn, won the election with a clear victory.
Amid the toppling wreckage of the republican party [sic], with its historic pile crumbled into unrecognizable fragments there strides the Modern Apostle of Discontent the Arch-Egoist Theodore Roosevelt. He gazes around him on the debris with a grin and with triumphant staccato simply says—DEE-LIGHTED! ! !
This sentiment underlined what many Republican voters felt about Roosevelt’s decision to run under the Progressive banner: it had only split the party in his vain attempt to take back the reins of power.
Roosevelt’s political gamble against southern African-Americans cost him both the chance at the election and diminished his reputation as a champion of progressive ideals. Nevertheless, as Gould as argued, his third-party candidacy helped realign the political forces of the country, solidifying the Republican Party towards a more business-centric conservatism while the Democratic Party moved towards a progressivism that culminated in Theodore’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his “New Deal.” So, beyond just the electoral success, Roosevelt’s complicated third-party challenge influenced the political landscape for decades.
The “religion vs. science” debate has been a hot media sensation since 9/11. Syria’s refugee crisis is causing further argument over why some believers haven’t helped people obviously in need, though many have. But venomous debates over religion and refugees aren’t new to American history.
Black History Month reminds us that religious voices have played a profound role in American struggles for justice — with many of the most religious Americans being treated as criminals for their pains on behalf of others. Some historians have even remarked that the Civil Rights movement was “primarily a religious and spiritual movement.” The work of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, John Brown, William Wilberforce, David Livingstone, and many others drew powerfully on their interpretation of faith. In fact, you could even argue that the African and African American encounter with Christianity — and vice-versa — eventually unlocked religion for many Europeans and Americans who were only nominally Christian to begin with.
Whatever the truth there may be, radical Christianity rang out loud and clear during one of America’s (and Canada’s) first refugee crises — the exodus of fugitive slaves seeking asylum under “the North Star.” That exodus took thousands of refugees across the rural Midwest.
Abolitionist history is certainly full of iconic Christian imagery. When a slave from Virginia, Henry Brown, experienced a “heavenly vision” and decided to mail himself out of bondage in 1843, he had himself concealed inside a 3-foot by 2-foot dry goods box or “pine coffin.” Lined with wool and containing only a few biscuits and some water, the box and its occupant were carried north, delivered after a week on the road to the office of Passmore Williamson, a Quaker merchant active with the radical Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. Like a well-known Byzantine icon of Jesus, “the Man of Sorrows” — which shows Jesus rising from the dead and an equally tiny box — Henry “Box” Brown climbed out in front of a group of Philadelphia abolitionists and asked “How do you do, gentlemen?” A fabulous engraving of the event was given the name “The Resurrection of Henry Box Brown.”
(Passmore Williamson, a Pennsylvania Quaker, at Moyamensing Prison in 1855, where he was jailed for helping Jane Johnson and her two sons escape from slavery. Williamson was also an early advocate of voting rights for women.)
Several major “routes” of the Underground Railroad passed through Indiana, leading to farmhouses and barns in the Wabash Valley, the fields around Quaker-dominated Richmond and Fountain City, and the swamps and prairies north of Indianapolis. Yet Hoosiers — like other Americans — were deeply torn over whether to obey the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, a controversial law that made it illegal for any citizen to assist a runaway slave and exacted harsh penalties for helping refugees. The federal law was absolutely designed to protect humans defined as “property” and even as “livestock.”
Many Christians, of course, were slaveholders themselves, though their views often depended on whether they lived in the North or South. Northern and Southern Baptists, for example, had sharp differences of opinion on slavery. Though Methodism’s founder John Wesley wrote against human bondage in 1778, Southern Methodists often owned slaves. Ministers who didn’t take their congregation’s — or government’s — line on slavery were sometimes kicked out of the pulpit or physically attacked. At least a dozen chapels built by anti-slavery Baptists and Methodists in Jamaica were burned down by white settlers.
The religious situation was never simple. The Jesuits, whose famous South American missions were admired by Enlightenment philosophers as an experiment in earthly utopia, had long owned slaves. Just two years before Pope Gregory XVI spoke out against the slave trade in 1839, Jesuit priests in Maryland were putting slaves to work on plantations to support Georgetown University, a Catholic school built by slave labor and where students brought their slaves to class. (In 1838, the Jesuits sold thirty of them to the ex-governor of Louisiana, whose son was a student of theirs.) One Maryland priest used the Bible to defend slave ownership. Yet the Jesuits were no more guilty than the religious freethinker Thomas Jefferson, who along with forty other signers of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves while announcing “All men are created equal.” Jefferson used a blade to create a famous Bible of his own, cutting out the miracles and superstition to focus on Jesus’ ethics and morals. Jefferson, however, went to his grave a slave-owner, having thought about it for fifty years.
(The cutting-room floor of Jefferson’s Bible. Though he included Luke 12:48 — “To whomever much is given, of him much shall be required” — the master of Monticello must have been uncomfortable with the next passage, “I am come to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! …Do you suppose that I am come to send peace on earth? Nay, but a sword.” Jefferson sliced it out. As the English critic of slavery, Dr. Samuel Johnson, put it, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negros?” Contemporary science was no help to Africans. Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, the most famous American scientist of his time, commissioned the best-known daguerreotypes of African slaves to provide evidence for the old theory of “polygeny,” or “separate creation” of the human races. Originally a heretical religious theory, the scientific version was given credence by the atheists Voltaire and David Hume. Voltaire believed that whites and blacks were different species.)
Not all American Christians appreciated the politicizing of the pulpit. Under the pen name “Q.K. Philander Doesticks, P.B.,” humorist Mortimer Thomson satirized their reaction to “politico religious hash” — i.e., hyper-political sermons. “Doesticks,” who grew up in the Midwest, wrote for Horace Greeley’s anti-slavery New York Tribune and even did a famous undercover report on a huge slave sale in Savannah, Georgia, where he posed as a potential buyer to get the full scoop. Thomson received death threats for his exposé of slave auctioneering. As a satirist, he was much admired by Mark Twain.
Indiana was no stranger to this religious battle. In 1855, the year Passmore Williamson went to prison in Pennsylvania, the Reverend Thomas B. McCormick got into hot water with congregations and the law in Princeton and Mechanicsville, Indiana, two small towns between Evansville and Vincennes. Gibson’s flock were Cumberland Presbyterians, a branch mostly centered in Kentucky and Tennessee.
Princeton lay on a main line of the Underground Railroad running up the Wabash Valley. Unlike most “agents” and “stationmasters” on the Railroad, Rev. McCormick made no secret of his hatred for the Fugitive Slave Act. He actively aided runaways from Kentucky and preached on the topic of slavery and its sinfulness. A native Kentuckian himself, McCormick had been a minister in southern Indiana for fourteen years when he ran afoul of the law.
At a session of the Indiana Presbytery of the Cumberland Presbyterians, who met at Washington in Daviess County in 1855, church elders passed a resolution (17-3) stating “That it is not expedient to discuss the subject of American Slavery from the pulpit.” McCormick had just preached an anti-slavery sermon. He ignored the elders.
When the Cumberland Presbyterians tried to silence Thomas McCormick from preaching, the reverend left and joined the Congregationalists — a denominational cousin of the Presbyterians but who were more united in their condemnation of slavery. McCormick’s activity piloting fugitives north toward Michigan and Canada, however, soon got him indicted by a Kentucky grand jury.
Under the 1850 federal law, Kentucky Governor Lazarus Powell was authorized to request the governor of neighboring Indiana — a technically “free” state, though many Hoosiers were pro-slavery — to extradite any Hoosier caught helping refugees evade slave catchers, who often traipsed onto Indiana soil. Governor Joseph Wright (namesake of Wright Quadrangle at Indiana University) complied with the noxious law. Like those he helped, Rev. McCormick himself had to flee to either Ohio or Canada, as “a large sum of money was offered for his body.” McCormick ran for the governorship of Ohio in 1857 on “the Abolition ticket” and wasn’t able to return to Indiana until 1862, when Governor Oliver P. Morton assured him he would be safe here. He died in Gibson County in 1892.
Calvin Fairbank, an abolitionist and Methodist minister who ferried slaves over the Ohio, was less fortunate than McCormick. For over a decade, Fairbank helped at least forty runaways slip into the interior of Indiana, many of them making it to the farm of Levi and Catherine Coffin in Fountain City, just north of Richmond. Coffin, a Quaker from North Carolina, was called the “President” of the Underground Railroad.
In 1851, with the complicity of Governor Wright and the Clark County sheriff in Jeffersonville, Fairbank was arrested on the way to church by Kentucky marshals, who extradited him across the river to Louisville. (Some versions say he was “kidnapped.”) Fairbank eventually spent thirteen years at the old Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort, where guards mercilessly beat him and lashed him with whips, by some accounts a thousand times, by others 30,000 times. With his body broken, he moved to western New York, where he died in poverty in 1898, an almost forgotten hero of American freedom.
The great abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who lashed out at American hypocrisy, once proclaimed: “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.” The Anti-Slavery Bugle, a newspaper published in Lisbon, Ohio, quoted Douglass’ words on the fervently Baptist Newton Craig, cruel superintendent of the Kentucky State Penitentiary and Fairbank’s torturer.
According to an 1860 history of the prison, written by a friend of Captain Craig’s, the jailer’s ancestors had been imprisoned in colonial Virginia “for preaching the gospel” as dissenting Baptists, against the Anglican state church. In spite of his fervent religion, Craig, as abolitionists said, nevertheless had “the most inveterate hatred” toward “negro-stealers.” The jail-master earned a small fortune during his eleven years in charge, using convicts on nearby plantations, and is said to have “delivered long sermons to the inmates in his care.” According to a story mentioned by Frederick Douglass, he broke an expensive cane on Calvin Fairbank’s head:
(Frederick Douglass on Newton Craig. Anti-Slavery Bugle, Lisbon, Ohio, April 12, 1856.)
(Kentucky State Penitentiary. The note reads: “This is some Bird Cage. Looks like a church.” Frederick Douglass once wrote of America: “The church and the slave prison stand next to each other… [T]he church-going bell and the auctioneer’s bell chime in with each other; the pulpit and the auctioneer’s block stand in the same neighborhood.”)
Not long after Fairbank’s arrival behind bars, several other resisters joined him, including Delia Webster (a Vermont-born schoolteacher from Lexington and the only woman at the prison) and former slave Lewis Hayden. A lesser-known inmate was the Irish immigrant Thomas Brown, who with his wife Mary McClanahan Brown had posed as a traveling merchant and “notions pedlar” downstream from Evansville, Indiana. Operating on the Kentucky side of the river near Henderson, the Browns smuggled refugees under curtains in their wagon to the riverbank. Brown was arrested by marshals near the mouth of the Wabash and sentenced to a prison term in Frankfort, where he witnessed the murder of a free black man from Evansville by guards. Released in 1857, Brown wrote an exposé of the wardens, published in Indianapolis that year as Three Years in Kentucky Prisons.
By the end of the 1850s, anti-slavery voices had grown stronger than ever. The religious undertones were clear: from the fascinating dream-visions and out-of-body experiences of Harriet Tubman to the fiery Old Testament furor of John Brown. While the actions of Christians like prison warden Newton Craig and many more made Frederick Douglass’ suspicion of the churches a fair criticism, the “voice in the wilderness” was now crying strong.
A statement from a Senate report arguing that the Underground Railroad would be cause for war with a foreign nation, Evansville Daily Journal, January 23, 1861.
A reprint from the New York Express, written during the Civil War, mocking abolitionists as part of a procession leading the American people toward “the Limbo of Vanity and the Paradise of Fools,” Daily State Sentinel, October 17, 1862.
From 1917 into the 1920s, Hoosier movie-goers had a chance to see one of the most controversial — and arguably infamous — silent films ever produced, The Black Stork, later renamed Are You Fit To Marry? Identified by one film historian as among the earliest horror movies, TheBlack Stork was based on a real and gut-wrenching medical drama from 1915.
Billed as a “eugenics love story,” the movie’s script was authored by Chicago journalist, muckraker and theater critic Jack Lait. Lait worked for news mogul William Randolph Hearst, the very man who inspired the lead figure in Orson Welles’ great 1941 movie Citizen Kane. Hearst, king of American “yellow journalism,” relished controversies, which sold newspapers and theater tickets. His film company, International Film Service, produced The Black Stork.
Many Americans today have never heard the word “eugenics,” a once-popular scientific theory spawned by Victorian understandings of evolution and heredity in the wake of Charles Darwin. The word comes from the Greek for “well-born” or “good stock” and refers to the social interpretation of scientific discoveries purporting to show how harmful genetic traits are passed on from parents to children — and how healthy children could be bred. Eugenics wasn’t strictly the same as science itself, but a social philosophy based on the discoveries of Darwin, the monk-botanist Gregor Mendel, and Darwin’s nephew, geneticist Francis Galton. Yet many scientists and doctors got involved with this social philosophy.
Once fairly mainstream, support for eugenic theories plummeted after the defeat of Hitler, its most notorious advocate. Aspects of eugenics — like the forced sterilization of repeat criminals, rapists, epileptics, the poor, and some African Americans — continued in twenty-seven American states into the 1950s and even later in a few. The last forced sterilization in the U.S. was performed in Oregon in 1981.
Indiana played an enormous role in the history of eugenics when the Hoosier State became the first to enact a compulsory sterilization law in 1907 — a law that lumped the mentally handicapped in with sex offenders, made it virtually illegal for whole classes deemed “unfit” to reproduce, segregated many of the disabled into mental hospitals, and enshrined white supremacy. Though the Indiana law was struck down in 1921, those ideas were hugely popular with many academics and activists all across the political spectrum.
Especially notable, the Indiana Eugenics Law wasn’t pushed by those designated as white racist “hillbillies.” “Poor white” Indianapolis slum-dwellers, in fact, were very much targeted by the eugenicists of the early 20th century. Promoters of these spurious theories included mainstream biologists, doctors, many reform-minded Progressives, women’s rights advocates, college presidents, even a few Christian ministers and Socialists. The list of widely-admired people who spoke out in favor of simplistic eugenic proposals included Helen Keller, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Sir Winston Churchill, Planned Parenthood’s founder Margaret Sanger, author Jack London, IU and Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, Alexander Graham Bell, and the civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois. One of the few well-known anti-eugenics crusaders was Senator William Jennings Bryan, a Christian Fundamentalist who lost caste with Progressives in the 1920s for opposing the teaching of evolution.
Eugenics, however, was neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” Americans of all political stripes supported its basic premise — the preservation of social order and the engineering of more a “humane” society. Strong support for eugenics came from Americans concerned about the proliferation of poverty and urban crime and who sought a reason to keep certain nationalities from entering the U.S. Eugenics did not begin to go out of favor until 1935, when scientists from the Carnegie Institute in Washington demonstrated the flimsiness of other scientists’ work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island. Yet even as eugenicists placed human reproduction on the level of horse- and livestock-breeding, the genetic abolition of any individual deemed “feeble-minded” — and the destruction of hereditary and sexually-transmitted diseases — was packaged as a positive goal, a social benefit to all, even to those who underwent involuntary sterilization and were occasionally killed.
Euthanasia was one component of eugenics. Alongside the “positive eugenics” campaign for “Better Babies and Fitter Families,” “negative eugenics” partly revolved around the controversial view that infants born with severe disabilities should be left to die or killed outright. In 1915, a case in Chicago plunged Americans into a heated debate about medical ethics.
That November, Dr. Harry J. Haiselden, chief surgeon at the German-American Hospital in Chicago, was faced with a tough dilemma. A woman named Anna Bollinger had just given birth to a child, John, who suffered from severe birth defects. John had no neck or right ear and suffered from a serious skin ailment, all judged to be the result of syphilis likely passed on by his father. Dr. Haiselden knew that he could save the child’s life through a surgical procedure. But since he was familiar with the conditions into which Illinois’ “feeble-minded” were thrown after birth, he convinced the child’s parents to let John die at the hospital. When the news came out that the doctor wasn’t going to perform the necessary surgery, an unknown person tried to kidnap the child and take it to another hospital. The kidnapping attempt failed and John Bollinger died.
While the Catholic Church, one of the few vocal critics of eugenics, was the only major group to initially protest the surgeon’s decision, Haiselden was soon called before a medical ethics board in Chicago. He nearly lost his medical license, but managed to keep it. Public opinion was sharply divided. Chicago social worker and suffragette Jane Addams came out against Haiselden. Short of the death penalty for murder, Addams said, no doctor had the right to be an unwilling person’s executioner. “It is not for me to decide whether a child should be put to death. If it is a defective, it should be treated as such, and be taught all it can learn,” she added.
Many of Haiselden’s critics, such as Addams, pointed out that if eugenicists had had their way, they would have killed some of the great “defectives” in history, like Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevksy, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, children’s writer Edward Lear, and even the eugenicist Harry Laughlin himself — all of them epileptics. (Biologist Laughlin, Superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor and one of the science’s greatest advocates, had suffered from epilepsy since childhood.)
Support for Dr. Haiselden, however, came from many famous social activists. Among them was Helen Keller — advocate for the disabled, a Socialist, and a eugenics supporter (at least in 1915.) Keller, who was blind and deaf since the age of one but thrived against all odds, published her views on the Haiselden case in The New Republic. She thought that children proven to be “idiots” by a “jury of expert physicians” could and perhaps should be put to death. Chicago lawyer and civil liberties crusader Clarence Darrow — who famously went up against eugenics critic William Jennings Bryan at the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial — made no bones about his support for the surgeon: “Chloroform unfit children,” Darrow said. “Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.” Indiana Socialist Eugene V. Debs also supported Haiselden’s decision.
(Clarence Darrow and Helen Keller supported Haiselden.)
Harry Haiselden held onto his job, but bolstered his position and kept the firestorm of public discussion brewing by starring as himself in a silent film based on the Bollinger case. The Black Stork came to hundreds of American theaters, including many Hoosier ones. Because public health workers and eugenicists often gave admonitory lectures before and after the movie, separate showings were offered for men and women. Young children weren’t allowed to attend, but a South Carolina minister encouraged parents to bring their teenage children — so they could see what might come from sexual promiscuity, criminality, drinking and “race mixing.” Some theater bills added the catchy subtitle: “The Scourge of Humanity.”
The movie’s plot was partly fictional and not entirely based on the 1915 Bollinger euthanasia case. TheFort Wayne Journal-Gazette gave its readers the basic story line, which came with an interesting twist near the end:
The “taint of the Black Stork” was obviously bad genes and heritable diseases. Haiselden’s silent film has been called one of the earliest horror movies, though its promoters billed it as educational and even romantic in nature. It fueled the eugenics movement’s campaign about defectives but also tackled an ethical dilemma that’s still alive today: is it ever humane to kill a person without their permission, on the grounds that the victim is doomed to live a miserable life and be only a “burden on society”?
Since American eugenics was supported by known racists and would later be directly cited by the Nazis as inspiration for their “racial science,” it’s uncomfortable to look deeper into it and realize how much turf it shares with Progressivists’ real concern for the treatment of the poor — and of mothers, some of whom would have been forced to raise severely disabled children. Some Americans thought the best way to eradicate poverty and disease was to eradicate the poor themselves by restricting their right to pass on the human “germ plasm” to the next generation. Eugenics and even euthanasia became, for some, a way to avoid social reforms. “Nurture vs. nature” lost out to inescapable hereditary destiny.
The Black Stork’s title was eventually changed to Are You Fit To Marry? It ran in theaters and roadshows well into the Roaring Twenties. It’s hard to believe that eugenicists begged Americans to ask themselves honestly if they were “fit to marry.” One wonders how many Americans voluntarily abstained from having children after deeming themselves “unfit”?
Ads show that the film was screened at at least three theaters in Indianapolis (including English’s Theatre on Monument Circle) as well as at movie halls in Fort Wayne, East Chicago, Whiting, Hammond, Evansville, Richmond and probably many other Hoosier towns.
The “eugenics photo-drama” reminded Americans of the dangers that “bad” heredity posed not only to their own families, but to the nation. When The Black Stork was shown in Elyria, Ohio, just a few months into America’s involvement in World War I, it clearly drew from the well of fear-mongering that linked crime and disease to alcohol, immigration, prostitution and rumors about German traitors and saboteurs — all clear threats to Anglo-Saxon ideals. Eugenics and euthanasia, by “saving our nation from misery and decay,” clearly got hitched to the wagon of nationalist politics. Viewing The Black Stork, like supporting the war effort, became “a solemn duty.”
German scientists were promoting “racial hygiene” long before the Nazis came to power in the 1930s. Fascism’s scientists and propagandists would also draw heavily on the work of British and American eugenicists — and point to laws like Indiana’s when opponents criticized them. Racial Hygiene, in fact, was the title of an influential textbook by Hoosier doctor Thurman B. Rice, a professor at IU Bloomington, a colleague of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and one of the founders of IU Medical School in Indianapolis. In April 1929, Rice wrote an editorial in the Indiana State Board of Health’s monthly bulletin, entitled “If I Were Mussolini,” where he supported compulsory sterilization of “defectives.”
The Black Stork wasn’t the last film about euthanasia and eugenics. In 1941, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, commissioned one of the classics of Nazi cinema, Ich klage an (I Accuse). The plot revolves around a husband who learns that his wife has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He gives her a drug that causes her death, then undergoes a trial for murder. The film’s producers argued that death was not only a right but a social duty. A tearjerker, Ich klage an was intended to soften up the German public for the Nazis’ T4 euthanasia campaign, which led to the deaths of as many as 200,000 adults and children deemed a burden to the nation. (There’s some further irony that Ich klage an’s cinematic parent, The Black Stork, was based on events at Chicago’s German-American Hospital.)
Eugenics captivated Americans and Europeans for a few more decades after the Bollinger case. British writer G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic convert and a fierce opponent of eugenics, probably deserves the last word here. Chesterton called eugenics “terrorism by tenth-rate professors.”
In his 1922 book Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State, Chesterton quipped that society has never really had all that much to fear from the “feeble-minded.” Rather, it’s the “strong-minded” who hurt society the most. Tearing into eugenics advocates in Britain, Germany and America, Chesterton spotlighted their frequent class prejudices, then skewered them brilliantly:
Why do not the promoters of the Feeble-Minded Bill call at the many grand houses in town and country where such nightmares notoriously are? Why do they not knock at the door and take the bad squire away? Why do they not ring the bell and remove the dipsomaniac prize-fighter? I do not know; and there is only one reason I can think of, which must remain a matter of speculation. When I was at school, the kind of boy who liked teasing half-wits was not the sort that stood up to bullies.
Dr. Harry J. Haiselden was involved in the deaths of at least three more disabled infants. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on vacation in Havana, Cuba, in 1919.