Content Note: This video reproduces a panel of art depicting the Ku Klux Klan. It appears at 10:55 in the video and continues to 11:55. Viewer discretion is advised.
Thomas Hart Benton, one of America’s premier artists during the twentieth century, painted series of murals about Indiana for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. A controversial collection of artworks, the Indiana Murals engaged viewers in a dialogue about Indiana’s complex history—a dialogue that continues to this day. The murals stayed in storage of the Indiana State Fairgrounds until someone believed they deserved a new home. That someone was Herman B Wells, the newly elected president of Indiana University.
Music: “Fresno Alley” by Josh Lippi & The Overtimers, “Lazy Boy Blues” by Unicorn Heads, “Progressive Moments” by Ugonna Onyekwe, “Creeping Spiders” by Nat Keefe & BeatMower, and “Plenty Step” by Freedom Trail Studio
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
Usually we use the Hoosier State Chronicles blog to tell you stories about Hoosiers and the State of Indiana by using local newspapers. For this project, we are examining world events through the eyes of the Hoosier newspaper reader. Because many of these articles were reported through the Associated Press and United Press news services, what we are really seeing is not just what Hoosiers knew, but what the average American knew, about the events leading up to the Holocaust.
Over the next several months, we will be contributing newspaper articles to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s project titled History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust. Using digitized newspapers mainly accessible via Hoosier State Chronicles, we are looking at key events suggested for research by the museum to see what Hoosiers knew when. The overall goal of the project is to contribute to the scholarship on how American media reported and under-reported Nazi atrocities. Anyone can submit their research; find out how at History Unfolded.
In retrospect, it’s hard to understand how the world could possibly not know that the Nazis were planning a horrific “Final Solution” to their “Jewish problem.” The signs were everywhere and the Nazis were not quiet about their intentions, but most people could not have imagined the unprecedented mass murder that would become known as the Holocaust. However, the average Hoosier, like Americans everywhere, had access to more than enough clues in their daily newspaper. On August 9, 1935, the (Indianapolis) Jewish Postquoted this foreboding statement from Joseph Goebbels, director of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry: “No foreign protest will prevent Germany from annihilating the Jew – the enemy of the German state. The next few weeks will show what we will do to the Jews.” The Post also reported that “Reichministers [Bernhard] Rust and [Karl Hermann] Frank added fuel to the flames with addresses at Essen and Cologne promising that the government will not compromise on its present racial policy and that no let-up can be expected until the Jew is completely eliminated from German life.”
While they did not hide their goal of eliminating the German Jews, Nazi leaders bristled at criticism from the Allied powers who they blamed for many of their problems after WWI. In the same speech in which he spoke of “annihilating the Jew,” Goebbels complained about the treatment of Germany in foreign press. Goebbels stated: “Whenever someone looks cross-eyed at a Jew on the Kurfuerstendamm [a popular street in Berlin], there is a hullabaloo from London to Peiping. But why does the foreign press insist on converging on Germany? Let it cease about the world and it will readily find topics of greater urgency.”
This theme of encouraging the world to mind its own business was often an effective one. Before the horrors of the concentration camps came to light, some African American newspapers even agreed. After all, black Americans had reason to fear persecution and even lynching by their neighbors and couldn’t trust their own government to protect them. Prominent African American newspapers asked: how could the U.S. throw stones, when it systematically denied rights and opportunities to its citizens based on race?
On September 14, 1935, the Indianapolis Recorder printed a brief but telling article on this point. The Recorder quoted Julius Streicher, the publisher of an anti-Semitic, Nazi propaganda newspaper, reporting that Streicher “took occasion to advise the Southern States of the American Union to mend their own vicious ways before attempting to point a finger of scorn at the misdeeds of others.” The paper quoted Streicher regarding lynching in the South: “We do not kill Jews in Germany . . . we have other ways of punishing them.” The Recorder then responded to his comments saying that while the “ugly plight of Jews in Germany” should not be discounted, Streicher’s words “should be solid food for thought” for Americans. The Recorder concluded, “Yes, Americans should set about putting their own house in order before telling Germany what to do about her own affairs.” Despite Streicher’s claims, the Nazi party was already moving towards the systematic killing of Jews and the Nuremberg Laws would soon provide them the legal framework needed to intensify persecution by codifying racial antisemitism.
Antisemitism before the rise of the Third Reich can be generally described as discrimination against Jewish people for their religious views. Nazi ideology, however, refocused antisemitism by creating racial theories that defined Jewish people as a race separate from Aryan people. According to this ideology, Jews were now identified not as people subscribing to a particular religion, but as members of a race who could be identified through blood and genealogy.
Nazis had to use genealogy (that is determining whether a person had Jewish ancestors) to define a person as a Jew because there is no science behind identifying Jews racially. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), “the Nazis had long sought a legal definition that identified Jews not by religious affiliation but according to racial antisemitism” because “Jews in Germany were not easy to identify by sight.” While some Jewish Germans continued traditional religious practices and wore distinctive clothing, most Jews in the 1930s looked the same as any other modern German man or woman. However, if they could codify this racial antisemitism by passing it into law, Nazis would have “the legal framework for the systematic persecution of Jews in Germany.”
This was Hitler’s goal in September 1935 when he called the Reichstag, or Nazi Parliament, to convene in Nuremberg in the midst of a Nazi party rally. Newspapers across Indiana announced the convening of the Reichstag, albeit without the illuminating quotes published by the Jewish Post. However, an AP article that ran September 13, 1935 in the (Columbus) Republic noted that the Reichstag’s meeting during the Nazi party rally meant that “the party and the state are identical.”
In other words, the Nazi party was now the German government. In a move that symbolized this solidification of party and government, Hitler prepared to declare the “nazi swastika flag . . . the one and only flag of the Third Reich” at the Reichstag meeting, according to an International News Service (INS) article published by the (Hammond) Times. The article continued to report that Hitler wished to demonstrate “the complete unity of the German state and the nazi party.” Thus, by the fall of 1935, there were no longer any government officials with the power to defend the rights of the Jewish people of Germany.
On September 15, 1935, Hitler announced the two laws, which together are known as the Nuremberg Race Laws: the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. According to the USHMM, the Reich Citizenship Law declared that only people of “German or kindred blood” were German citizens. The law also declared that “Jews were a race defined by birth and by blood,” not religion. Anyone, even Christians, with Jewish grandparents or parents was considered Jewish. The law declared that they were no longer German citizens and had no rights, but were instead “subjects of the state.” The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor outlawed marriage and sexual relationships between “Aryan” Germans and Jewish Germans. Violating this law was condemned as “race defilement” and punishable with imprisonment or deportation to concentration camps. (Read the complete text of the laws through the USHMM here).
Indiana newspapers printed wire service articles on the announcement of the laws, but many missed their significance. For example, the Daily Clintonian (from Clinton, Indiana) ran a United Press (UP) article that focused on the promises of peace made by Hitler in his speech before the Reichstag. The article stated: “From the world standpoint his reference to peace was of paramount importance. It appeared to say plainly that Germany would not encourage Benito Mussolini’s ambitions and would adopt an attitude of neutrality similar to the United States.” However, in the same speech where he promised peace, Hitler threatened Lithuania. The article also naively interpreted the exclusion of Jews from German society as an opportunity for them, stating that “Germany’s new, drastic restrictive laws against the Jews will make it possible for them to have their own community life in Germany.” However, even this misguided article clearly printed the new laws, noting that Jews were no longer German citizens with rights but instead “state subjects.”
On the same day, the (Seymour) Tribune printed an Associated Press (AP) article that more accurately conveyed the significance of the Nuremburg Laws under the headline “Jews Placed in Medieval Status.” The newspaper reported on the specifics of the laws and that “Aryan citizens . . . will be separated sharply from ‘belongers to the state.’” Perhaps most foreboding, the article mentioned that Nazis hoped the rest of their ideology would become law in a similar manner. The article stated: “These acts inspired Der Fuhrer’s followers with the hope that the rest of the Nazi tenets would be translated into practical politics, step by step, just as fast as political expedience permitted.” To that end, the Reichstag gave Hermann Goring (the highest ranking Nazi official after Hitler) the power “to summon it into session at will” to create new laws. According to an AP article ran by the Kokomo Tribune also on September 16, Hitler concluded his speech by threatening “to enact even more stringent laws if today’s legislation fails to solve the Jewish problem.”
For the most part, Indiana newspapers were quiet in the days following the announcement of the Nuremburg Laws. The Indianapolis Jewish post was not. On September 20, 1935, in an article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, writer and editor Boris Smolar criticized other newspapers for putting a positive spin on Hitler’s address to the Reichstag and for focusing on Hitler’s orders to Nazi officials prohibiting “individual acts of terrorism against Jews” as opposed to the real message of the address: Jews had lost even basic rights. Smolar’s criticism could be directly applied to the aforementioned UP article in the Daily Clintonian which posited that Jews would be able to have their own community now that they were officially separated from the rest of Germany. However, while Hitler was promising protection for Jews, the Nazis were in reality relentlessly persecuting them. Smolar wrote:
The press generally hails the new laws relegating the Jews back to the medieval ghetto and warns the Jews not to make the necessary revision threatened by Hitler in his address to the Reichstag. Newspapers point out that these laws give the Jews official protection . . . Meanwhile, reports indicate that the campaign to deprive the Jews of food is going ahead apace . . . In other fields too, the campaign to segregate the Jews goes on relentlessly.
Smolar’s greatest fear however was that “the Jews will be held as hostages” if foreign countries including the United States continued their economic boycott.
In the same issue, the Jewish Post reprinted an editorial from the Indianapolis News bluntly stating that Hitler’s address to the Reichstag cleared up many misconceptions that might remain about separation between Germany and the Nazi party or any thoughts that Hitler would tone down the anti-Semitism or become more moderate once his power was established. The News stated:
Such doubt as recently existed as to whether the Nazi swastika was to be regarded as the German national emblem has been removed by the Reichstag’s declaration Sunday that the Nazi swastika is to be the flag of the Reich and nation. Whatever doubt existed as to whether Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism was as great as in the earlier days of his rise to power was also removed. . . The speech of Hitler to the Reichstag, however, and the measures promptly adopted at his urgence, give little support to those who had hoped for moderation. By these new enactments citizenship is denied the Jews. . . These enactments and the fanatical declarations so often made by Hitler and repeated by him Sunday, attributing virtually all of Germany’s troubles to the machinations of a race singled out for opprobrium can hardly tend to create confidence in the prospective sanity of a government completely under his control.
Other Indiana newspapers seemed slow to grasp the significance of the Nuremberg laws or even report on the announcement. For example, the Hammond Times did not report on the laws until November 15, two months after their enactment. However, Indiana newspapers did continue to report on the growing threat of Hitler’s Reich and on the debate over whether the United States should participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. What very few Hoosiers or Indiana newspapers were talking about, however, was how to help the people seeking refuge from the oppressive Nazi regime.
Not everyone remained silent, however. Hoosier James G. McDonald worked for most of his life to awaken the world’s conscience to the plight of German Jews seeking aid and refuge. In meetings and in letters to foreign leaders, the League of Nations, high-ranking diplomats, leading businessmen, newspaper editors, and President Franklin Roosevelt, McDonald expressed his fears for how the Nazis were planning to solve the “Jewish problem” and pleaded the case of German refugees. Fortunately his letters and journals from this period (published by Indiana University and the USHMM as Advocate for the Doomed and Refugees and Rescue) can be combined with newspaper articles to help us understand the work of one brave Hoosier at this time of crisis.
James Grover McDonald grew up in Albany, Indiana, attended Indiana University and Harvard, and returned to IU to teach from 1914-1918. In 1919, he became chairman of the League of Free Nations Association which worked to encourage the United States to join the League of Nations. The League of Free Nations Association soon evolved into the Foreign Policy Association and McDonald remained at its head until October 1933 when he accepted the position of High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations. He was given the almost impossible task or finding homes for refugees from Germany.
During regular trips to Germany and meetings with high ranking Nazi officials, McDonald gleaned enough to suspect that the Nazis might be planning a tragic solution to the “Jewish problem,” though he could not have predicted the extent of the coming horrors. In a trip to Berlin in 1933, McDonald had a surprising amount of access to leading Nazi officials and policy information through Hitler’s press secretary at the time, Ernst Hanfstaengl. On April 3, 1933, McDonald wrote in a letter to the Foreign Policy Administration (published in Advocate for the Doomed) about a disturbing conversation with Hanfstaengl on the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in retaliation for a foreign boycott of Nazi goods. McDonald wrote:
Eventually we reached the subject of the Jews, especially the decree just announced for Monday’s boycott. He defended it unqualifiedly, saying: “When I told Hitler of the agitation and boycott abroad, Hitler beat his fists and exclaimed, ‘Now we shall show them that we are not afraid of international Jewry. The Jews must be crushed. Their fellows abroad have played into our hands.’”
McDonald wrote that he tried to explain to Hanfstaengl that there was no international Jewish conspiracy, but that the Nazi then “launched into a terrifying account of Nazi plans.” McDonald’s letter continued to quote Hanfstaengl:
The boycott is only a beginning. It can be made to strangle all Jewish business. Slowly, implacable it can be extended with ruthless and unshakable discipline. Our plans go much further. During the [first world] war we had 1,500,000 prisoners. 60,000 Jews would be simple. Each Jew has his SA [storm trooper]. In a single night it could be finished.
Here McDonald added his own thoughts in response to Hanfstaengl’s diatribe. He wrote: “He did not explain, but I assume he meant nothing more than wholesale arrests and imprisonments.” At this point, anything more was unimaginable. Still, he was kept awake that night with an impending sense of doom. He concluded his letter by describing a late-night walk through the beautiful but troubled city:
I reached my hotel before midnight. But there could be no thought of going to bed. So I walked alone to the Unter den Lindedn (a boulevard) and the Tiergarten (a park) – a beautiful night, spring-like, bright stars, many lovers in the park, a world seemingly at peace and yet these ghastly hatreds breeding such shocking plans for heartless oppression of a whole section of the people.
Any illusion that the Nazi’s were planning anything other than the literal destruction of the Jewish people would soon disappear. Only a month later McDonald responded to a reporter-friend’s question on what he thought would happen “if there were a Franco-Polish occupation of Germany” with the answer: “Of course, I don’t know, but my guess is that the first thing would be a wholesale slaughter of the Jews” (May 16, 1933 diary entry in Advocate for the Doomed). What had happened over the previous month to change McDonald’s outlook? On April 7, 1933 he wrote in his journal:
I was at the Chancellery at 12:30 to keep my appointment with Hitler.
McDonald asked Hitler directly about the Nazi party’s policies towards the German Jewish people and recorded Hitler’s response in his journal entry for that date. Hitler responded defensively, stating that they weren’t only attacking Jews, but also communists and socialists. Hitler said that unlike the United States, Germany had previously accepted such people and therefore “cannot be blamed if we now take measures against them.” Hitler continued, “Besides, as to the Jew, why should there be such a fuss when they are thrown out of places, when hundreds of thousands of Aryan Germans are on the streets? No, the world has no just ground for complaint.”
Later, when he returned to the United States, McDonald gave more details of this meeting to the prominent Rabbi Stephen Wise. McDonald told Wise of a chilling threat from Hitler. Hitler had stated: “I will do the thing that the rest of the world would like to do. It doesn’t know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them” (Advocate for the Doomed, 48, fn 73).
Over the next several years, in his role as High Commissioner for Refugees, McDonald worked hard to alert the world of the impending catastrophe and find people willing to help the refugees. However, while the Commission was organized by the League of Nations and affiliated with it, the League provided no financial backing. He pleaded with international government leaders, religious and charitable institutions, and individuals for aid and funding. For example, On May 11, 1934, after visiting ten European and Eastern European countries and meeting with leaders encouraging them to accept refugees, McDonald told the London Jewish Chronicle:
I think we have made a beginning. There is a clearer recognition of the difficulties involved, and, at the same time, of the acute urgency of finding a solution promptly . . . If only the governments could be made to realize that the refugees would constitute advantages to the material, moral and spiritual wealth of their new homes, the task of securing the necessary permission for the refugees to stay in the older countries or to enter into the newer countries would be immeasurably easier.
McDonald’s public statements were more positive and encouraging than his private reflections and letters. By 1935, he was completely overwhelmed by the need to help the growing number of refugees, by the inadequate response by the United States and her allies, and by the worsening crisis in Germany as epitomized by the Nuremberg Laws. Since the laws went into effect in September, he had been disheartened by increasingly bleak accounts of what faced the German Jews. Speaking with prospective British financial investors in October about a possible reorganizing of the Committee and plans to secure more funding, he saw little hope. He wrote in his diary:
He [a British banker] confirmed stories I had heard from other directions about food and medical shortages, the probability of radical action in implementing the Nuremberg Laws, and the waiving of all favors on behalf of the front-line soldiers or their children. In short, he sees the situation as hopeless . . .
He was equally disheartened that private organizations, especially Jewish ones were not responding adequately in contributing to refugee aid campaigns. In a letter to New York Governor Herbert Lehman which the governor forwarded to President Roosevelt, McDonald wrote:
The Jewish communities, particularly in Great Britain and in the United States, must at last realize the truth, bitter and terrible though it is, which you and I and some of the rest of us have tried to drive home to them for more than two years – there can be no future for Jews in Germany.
The Nuremberg Laws were the last straw for McDonald. As a protest against the failure of the world to act on behalf of Jewish refugees, McDonald resigned his post as High Commissioner in a letter to the Secretary General of the League of Nations dated December 27, 1935. His lengthy letter of resignation ran in the New York Times on December 30, 1935 and was widely reprinted and commented on in the international press. (Read the entire letter.) In future posts here and at the Indiana Historical Bureau’s blog, Blogging Hoosier History, we will look closer at the important work McDonald dedicated himself to, but here we will end with an excerpt from his resignation letter in order to convey the significant turning point that was the Nuremberg Laws.
McDonald explained that since the laws had reclassified Jews as a separate race, along with the increasing intensity of their persecution, the critical problem was no longer placing Jewish refugees (as important as this still was to him) but instead intervening politically with the German state to stop the persecution. This was beyond the capabilities of an unfunded committee tenuously aligned with the League of Nations. It was time for the League and its member countries to confront Germany, peaceably but sternly “in the name of humanity and of the principles of the public law of Europe.” McDonald concluded his resignation letter thusly:
. . . I gave in my former office frequent and tangible proof of my concern that justice be done to the German people. But convinced as I am that desperate suffering in the countries adjacent to Germany, and an even more terrible human calamity with the German frontiers, are inevitable unless present tendencies in the Reich are checked or reversed, I cannot remain silent . . . When domestic policies threaten the demoralization and exile of hundreds of thousands of human beings, considerations of diplomatic correctness must yield to those of common humanity. I should be recreant if I did not call attention to the actual situation and plead that world opinion, acting through the League and its member States and other countries, move to avert the existing and impending tragedies.
James Grover McDonald continued to speak out on behalf of those persecuted by the Nazis, eventually serving as Chairman of the President’s Advisory Commission on Political Refugees under FDR. Check back here and at Blogging Hoosier History for more on McDonald’s life’s work. Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s summary of the Nuremberg Laws for more information, photographs, and the personal stories of Holocaust survivors. Don’t forget that you can also participate in the History Unfolded project. Hoosiers can also learn more about the Holocaust and its survivors through CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Advocate for the Doomed: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1932-1935 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2007).
Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1935-1945 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2009).
“Nuremberg Laws,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed USHMM.
Read the previous Hoosier State Chronicles post contributing to the History Unfolded Project on Nazi Book Burnings.
Football season is upon us. Hoosiers love their high school squads, college teams, and the Colts. Indiana residents even loved football in 1901, when the state’s past-time of basketball was still in its infancy. Read more about Indiana football at the dawn of the 20th century in the Indianapolis Journal above.