Hoosiers: A definitive new history of Indiana


Indiana has changed not through revolution but gradually, through evolution. At least, that's what James H. Madison argued in his 1986 book The Indiana Way: A State History. Madison's book became a classic, impressing some readers in high places. Former Governor Mitch Daniels loved to quote from it in his speeches and called it "the definitive history of our state."

Not any more. Madison's recently published Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana surpasses his old one in just about every way. "People say, 'I have a copy of The Indiana Way," Madison tells NUVO in a coffee shop near IU's Bloomington campus, where he is an emeritus professor of history. "And I say throw it away — don't even put it in used bookstores."

One of Hoosiers' many innovations is the inclusion of often marginalized perspectives: women, Native Americans, working-class Hoosiers. This isn't just the George Rogers Clark greatest hits. Hoosiers starts with the glaciers, which made our state flat and fertile. It takes you inside the cabins and lives of Indiana's earliest pioneers, like an African American who arrived in 1831. "If you could be here," he wrote to his family in the south. "I could go with you in some fields that would make you open your eyes."

Madison continues his story up through the age of Michael Jackson and Milan High School. And while our 21st century Indiana can feel like it's in the middle of some pretty heated revolutions — thanks in part to assertive leaders like Daniels — Madison always describes them in a clear and erudite style. Hoosiers doesn't pick sides. It simply presents them, all of them, without ever getting too worked up — and in that respect, it feels like a very Hoosier book indeed.

NUVO: What drew you to write about our state's past?

James Madison: I sort of fell into Indiana history. No one decides to be a historian of Indiana. But I feel very fortunate that I did. I grew up in Pennsylvania and came to I.U. for graduate school. I came back there to teach in the mid '70s, and the history department needed someone to edit the Indiana Magazine of History and to teach a course on Indiana history. So I started doing both, and those students really taught me what the important questions were.

NUVO: The idea of states as a defining concept can seem a little strange. After all, your new book starts with the Ice Age, long before Indiana ever existed, and today people can seem more attached to their country or political party than to their home state. So why do states matter?

Madison: Clearly, we live in a globalized society. No one needs to argue that point. But the fact that states are important is something many people don't understand. Kurt Vonnegut once said, "If you open a window and make love to the world ... your story will get pneumonia." It's better to make love to a particular place, and once you pay attention to states they become very important, especially in terms of politics.

Beyond that we in Indiana are blessed — some would say cursed — with an identity. Most states don't have that to the extent we do. We call ourselves "Hoosiers," and behind that nickname, which has been around since the 1830s, is a set of values. A lot of what I do in this book is say, Who are these people, these Hoosiers? Where do they come from? How have they changed over the last 200 years?

NUVO: So what makes Hoosiers different than, say, Kentuckians, who are in many spots only a river away?

Madison: It's hard not to descend into triteness, and of course there are lots of exceptions. But the mainstream Hoosier has always been someone who lives in terms of moderation, of comfort, someone who's reluctant to change, who believes that no one is above me and no one is below me.

Now compare that to Kentucky. We never want to forget that Kentucky was a slave state, and while that might seem so long ago that it doesn't matter, it does. Indiana is less tolerant of class differences than Kentucky. There have always been the well off and the not so well off, and in Kentucky that hierarchy was and is more acceptable — something you saw in slavery, in horse farms, in all sorts of traditions you don't see in our state.

NUVO: You mentioned those exceptions to mainstream Hoosiers, and your new book includes a bunch of them.

Madison: That's one of its biggest differences, and I worked very hard on it. We just know more now. When I wrote The Indiana Way, for instance, there was barely anything you could call women's history. There's now a lot more — still not enough, but more. So while the old stories of Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison are still in my new book, they now include fresh angles. I can write with more details and quotations from Native Americans as individuals. I can challenge the default assumption that pioneers were white. Because in Indiana there were many communities of African American pioneers.

The other important thing to remember is that these exceptions also show us how the mainstream was actually a mainstream. By the end of the 19th century, there was an Indiana way of doing art, politics, and commerce. And Hoosiers were very proud of that. But when it came to people who where not part of that identity — of that tribe, if you will — there was sometimes opposition to even imagining them as part of the community. They were rejected.

NUVO: One example you discuss in depth is the Ku Klux Klan — though your discussion is not what many readers will expect.

Madison: This is where I become a Hoosier patriot, when people slam Indiana as a "Klan state." In Indiana, the Klan wasn't interested in African Americans. They were interested in Catholics. That's hard to understand today, but in the 1920s, Catholics were outsiders. We have lots of new scholarship on this topic, and I can write with confidence about who joined the Klan and why. Their enemy was the Catholic Hoosier. They wanted to save America from sin and debauchery — that music, that dancing, that alcohol. To them, Catholics were a part of that. But today most people have forgotten this. They just label Indiana a Klan state, which obviously has very negative connotations. It shuts down further conversation.

READ: An excerpt from Hoosiers regarding the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana

NUVO: It seems like we're holding on to some of the traditional Hoosier mentality — calm and careful, though also resistant to change. Back in 2012, a Republican State Rep fired off an email accusing the Girl Scouts of "indoctrinating" with liberal ideas. So House Speaker Brian Bosma coolly took the floor and began munching on some Thin Mints. While reading your book, I remembered that episode and thought, "That is so Indiana."

Madison: You're exactly right, and I could have used that example. That is still the Indiana way, at least in part. We like to be nice — that's one of our traditions. But Bosma also found a very effective way to make his point.

NUVO: And yet, at the same time, we now have state reps who are savaging the Girl Scouts! Is Indiana abandoning its evolutionary approach?

Madison: In America, change in the last 30 years has come fast and furious, and traditional Hoosiers have struggled with those changes perhaps more than many Americans have. The old timers, for instance, were shocked by Richard Lugar's defeat in 2012. Richard Mourdock coming out, the way he did, was to some an affront to Indiana traditions. But I don't know that we've seen a clear shift. Nothing will ever stay the same, but I'd like to think these traditions are so deep and so strong that they will remain.

NUVO: Right now, education seems to be the most revolutionary topic of all.

Madison: Yes, but I'd like to think in part it's the personalities, particularly with the new governor's office and the new state superintendent's office going at each other in a way that's a colossal waste of taxpayer resources. Will different leaders have different outcomes? I sure hope so.

Still, we're always going to have problems with schools. You have to remember that education was on the agenda in 1816, when they wrote Indiana's state constitution. You also have to remember that Indiana moves very slowly. Today, Pre-K education is a no brainer, but it's still taking a long time. I think we can take some comfort from history. There were serious and real attempts to reform our schools in the 1840s, and those changes had big consequences. But they were incremental. It wasn't until the 1890s that Indiana passed its first comprehensive and compulsory education law.

NUVO: How do you plan to keep educating Hoosiers about their past?

Madison: Well, it looks like the Indiana Public Broadcasting folks are going to put together a documentary based on my new book. God willing, I'll soon be standing on Lake Michigan or outside the courthouse in Corydon, spouting off about Indiana history. But I'm an Indiana history missionary — I want to convert the pagans. I'm willing to do whatever it takes, and a book is one step, but there are many other ways to do it.


From Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana:

A Klan State?

The questions are still asked: “Isn’t Indiana a Klan state?” “Didn’t Klansmen lynch African Americans?” “Weren’t Hoosiers racist rednecks in robes?” Such questions follow from a wrongheaded understanding that misleads rather than enlightens.

Misunderstanding of the Indiana Klan of the 1920s derives partly from confusion over the where and when. There have been three Klans in American history. The third and last formed in the 1960s to stand against the civil rights movement. It was a true hate group, composed in Indiana of a very small number of ignorant racists. Still, when they marched, these Klan members attracted attention. Television cameras could not resist a Klan event, particularly if it included a burning cross. Klan hatred could sting, but the group’s effect was slight, even ridiculous. A Klan rally at the Statehouse in 1999 brought five hundred police officers, media cameras, fifty anti-Klan protesters, and thirteen Klan members shouting “White Power” through a puny public address sys- tem. Another event in Charlestown brought similar attention to the four participating Klansmen and a crowd that drowned them out by singing “We Shall Overcome.”

The Klan that stood against racial equality in the late twentieth century was a bit like the first Klan. That Klan, which appeared in the South after the Civil War and was led by Confederate veterans, sought to end northern Reconstruction and to deny freedom to former slaves. It had no presence in the North.

It was the second Klan, the one of the 1920s, that was Indiana’s Klan, and it was radically different from the first and third. For a long time many pretended that this Klan was nothing but a few silly and ignorant rubes being manipulated by sharp outsiders. This “Hoosier rube thesis” makes the Klan story a sidebar of little relevance to the mainstream of Indiana history. Another long-time tendency was simply to ignore the Klan. Down to the 1970s, history books and museums tiptoed around the uncomfortable subject. A significant step occurred in 1980 when the Allen County–Fort Wayne Historical Society displayed a Klan robe, but cautiously prepared the way with “prededication receptions for targeted community groups.” Surviving Klan membership lists proved more difficult than robes. When a Noblesville resident found such a list in a local barn in 1995, he passed the hot potato to the Hamilton County Historical Society, causing considerable discussion and media attention. Many thought the membership list “meant some embarrassment, some shame, for our community.” It proved difficult for residents to come to terms with the meaning of the hooded order’s popularity.

And popular the Klan was. It began in the South but soon moved north, building strength from Pennsylvania to Oregon and enjoying its strongest appeal in the Midwest. Millions of Americans joined. Beginning in 1920, Indiana offered one of its most successful recruiting fields. One scholar who has analyzed membership lists estimated that one-quarter or more of the state’s native-born white men joined, as did thousands of women.

One contemporary observer claimed that the organization was “almost exclusively composed of the hill-billies, the Great Unteachables.” This early version of the Hoosier rube thesis comforted some, but it was not true. Klansmen came from cities, towns, and farms, more from central and northern Indiana than from southern. Members included ministers, mayors, shopkeepers, and factory workers, mostly ordinary people from the wide middle of society. Most were hardworking, respectable Hoosiers. Oftentimes they were comfortable removing their hoods to pose for a photograph. At Klan initiation ceremonies, hundreds of men bowed to their knees and removed their cloth workingmen’s caps and businessmen’s fedoras to swear their allegiance. These were mainstream Hoosiers, not a fringe group.

Women joined too. Klan women exerted persuasive moral force, although some Klansmen demanded that they maintain their proper and separate role centered on home and family. One of the most effective Klan recruiters was Daisy Douglas Barr, an eloquent speaker and determined organizer. Her Quaker beliefs, social activism, and self-interest led her to the prohibition crusade and then to the Klan.

Klan men and women marched behind the cross and the flag to express their core values of Christianity and patriotism. These white-robed citizens were all Protestants: Methodists, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Quakers, and all other mainline denominations. Their burning cross symbolized Christ as the light of the world, the purification by fire, the beacon of truth. The insignia on their robe contained a white cross set in a red circle. In the middle of the cross was a drop of blood, symbolizing the blood shed by Christ. The white robe and mask represented the purity of Protestantism and the white race. The mask hid individual identity not only to protect members from their enemies but to diminish the individual in the selfless community of Christian fellowship. Such fervent and genuine religious belief was the foundation of the Klan’s appeal to Hoosiers.

The spark for the Klan’s fire was the conviction that a deepening spiritual and civic decline threatened God and country. Many thought the greatest remedy for moral decay was prohibition enforcement. Saloons, dance halls, and bootleggers were viewed as the primary causes of adultery, crime, and declining family values. The Klan worked closely with the Anti-Saloon League to insist on enforcement and to pass in 1925 the Wright Bone Dry Law. One of the most repressive measures ever enacted by the state, the law made it illegal to possess even empty bottles or kegs that might have contained liquor (the smell was sufficient evidence). First-time violators received a thirty-day jail sentence.

Threats to God and country required a more muscular display of patriotism. Among the general expressions of this sentiment was the formation of the American Legion, a rapidly growing veterans’ organization with its state and national headquarters in Indianapolis. Construction of the massive World War Memorial in the capital city provided additional opportunity for proud Hoosiers to glory in the exceptional qualities of their state and nation.

The rallying cry for many patriots was 100 percent Americanism. White, Protestant Americans were true Americans standing against a dangerous surge of racial and ethnic pluralism. One spokesperson asserted that “there are nations and races that can never by any process of education or assimilation become Americanized, and we have deter- mined that the time shall come when there will be no place in America for people who cannot think in terms of Americanism.”

Catholics seemed particularly dangerous. The Klan dug up centuries of anti-Catholic propaganda to showcase the menace. Catholicism was a foreign religion; its adherents were of German and Irish origins, devoted to alcohol, and subservient to a hierarchical clergy. This was not a church of individual freedom and American democracy. The pope in Rome told them what to do. The pages of the Indianapolis Klan newspaper, the Fiery Cross, were filled with allegations about immoral priests and Catholic conspirators attempting to tear down Protestant America. One Protestant minister spoke for many when he said that Catholics “cannot continue allegiance to the Pope of Rome and still be loyal to the institutions of America.”

Immigrants were a related threat, particularly eastern and southern Europeans. Many were radicals, labor agitators, and Bolsheviks. They were ignorant wets standing against the dry crusade. Kokomo’s Chamber of Commerce promoted the town in 1923 as a “city of Americans” with “less than 3% foreign element.” The editor of the town’s newspaper wrote that “marriages in which American-born girls become wives of foreign-born men are fruitful not only of unhappiness but of tragedy.” With the approval of many, Congress passed a new law in 1924 that severely restricted immigration.

The Klan also picked up on antisemitic traditions. Jews were certainly un-Christian and sometimes un-American. Here the Klan could highlight the centrality of Jesus to its beliefs as it played on the usual stereotypes. Klan propaganda could be viciously antisemitic, but the harsh edges were often smoothed so that Jewish Hoosiers sometimes felt little different from their Protestant neighbors.

Finally, the Klan excluded African Americans. By the 1920s, new scientific racial theories mixed with decades of tradition to argue the inferiority of black Hoosiers. Building on old anxieties about race mixing, a Lake County Klan official complained to the governor in 1924 about a boxing match that featured “Jack Johnson, famous Negro white slaver . . . who’s [sic] open boast . . . is that he can get any white woman he wants.” In Evansville’s red light district, the Klan reported, “white women and colored men danced and drank together.” More serious was the danger caused by expanding black neighborhoods. White citizens near such areas in Indianapolis eagerly joined the Klan, though it was the White Supremacy League and related citizens’ groups that pushed earliest and hardest for more segregation in housing and public schools.

The Klan at Work

With God on their side and the American flag flying, Klan members set to work to redeem America. The widespread assumption that hooded men used the lynch rope is wrong. There is not a single documented Klan lynching in Indiana. Nor is there a known Klan murder of any sort. Violence was not the Klan way. There were a few bombings attributed to Klan members and some beatings, but their primary method mixed intimidation with persuasion.

Intimidation began with the organization’s secrecy and demeanor. Sometimes members used the cross as a warning, burned in a front yard or soaped on a window screen. Sometimes they left a bundle of switches on the porch of a wife abuser. Threats of boycotts pushed some businessmen to join or buy ads in the Fiery Cross. The Klan newspaper published the names of Catholic businesses so that Protestants would not patronize them. Several local Klans organized “Trade with Klansmen” campaigns that also included boycotting Jewish businesses. The Fiery Cross often listed names of evildoers, such as men “claiming to be taxi drivers, [but who] are in reality nothing but booze peddlers and pimps for prostitutes” or a woman who ran “a blind tiger and house of assignation.”

Aggressive Klansmen revived a tradition of vigilantism that had taken form earlier in the Horse Thief Detective Association, legalized in 1852. Claiming that law officers were incompetent or in cahoots with criminals, Klan vigilantes stopped cars to search for alcohol or amorous couples. They raided gambling joints and prostitution dens.

Persuasion was the Klan’s primary method of recruiting members and exerting influence. Chief among the persuaders were Protestant ministers, many of whom praised the organization from their Sunday morning pulpits and offered thanks when a group of robed Klansmen marched down the aisle with a donation. Pamphlets and speeches also spread the word. The Klan produced sheet music of favorite songs and records at the Gennett Records studio in Richmond. Klan films were shown in downtown theaters.

Massive parades, rallies, and initiation ceremonies were signature events that harked back to the hoopla of the log cabin campaign of 1840 and the front porch campaign of 1888. Many local Klaverns had their own bands, complete with tubas and saxophones, which marched behind a car with an electrically lighted cross. Local Klans took over community celebrations. On July 4, 1924, Crawfordsville’s Klan hired several town bands and sponsored an impressive fireworks display. Elwood’s “Tin Plate Day” became “Klan Day.” A Klan barbecue in Valparaiso promised twenty brass bands, tight-wire walking, and fireworks. A parade in Noblesville brought out huge numbers of robed men and women, carrying signs that read “We are pure Americans” and “We stand for a Christian religion.” One of the largest rallies was at Kokomo’s Malfalfa Park on July 4, 1923. Thousands of white Protestants traveled long distances by car and interurban to the “Konklave in Kokomo.” Indiana’s Grand Dragon, D. C. Stephenson, arrived by airplane wearing a majestic robe. The day included a picnic along Wildcat Creek, a two-mile-long parade, several renditions of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and two cross burnings. Through such social gatherings the Klan sought to create a community of like-minded Hoosiers.

It was inevitable that such a popular organization would enter politics. The Republican Party was more sympathetic to the Klan, but many Democrats also had ties. Klan organizers published lists of candidates with details of their religion, stance on prohibition, and friendliness toward the Klan. Many local officials as well as state legislators won election in 1924 with Klan support. So did Governor Ed Jackson, a close friend of D. C. Stephenson, who showered Jackson with hunting trips, a chauffeured car, and campaign cash. After Jackson’s three-minute in- augural speech, the new governor joined Stephenson and 150 leading Republicans for a gala banquet. William Herschell recited his poem “Ain’t God Good to Indiana.” Stephenson was delighted to meet a young clerical worker named Madge Oberholtzer that night, since he greatly enjoyed the company of attractive women. “The Old Man,” as he liked to be called while still in his thirties, was now ready to let folks know that he was the law in Indiana.

Klan leaders had high hopes for the 1925 session of the general assembly, since the members were overwhelmingly Republican and, most assumed, largely sympathetic to the Klan. Of the one hundred members of the House, two were foreign born, two were Catholic. None was black or Jewish. Two were women. So great was the Klan’s potential clout that some feared a loss of party control. One Republican lamented that “ideas of race and religion now dominate political thought. Agencies and influences that were once powerful now are without influence.”

The 1925 general assembly took up a long list of Klan-backed legislation that centered on Americanization and schools. One of the most popular bills prohibited the wearing of “religious garb” in public schools, targeting Catholic nuns. The bill failed to pass, as did all of the Klan’s major proposals, excepting only the Bone Dry prohibition law, which was actually crafted by the Anti-Saloon League. Some legislators spoke against Klan bills in defense of religious or individual freedom. Important too were deep splits within Klan leadership and within the Republican Party. The session adjourned with expectations that the next general assembly would achieve great things.

Copyright by James H. Madison, published by Indiana University Press and Indiana Historical Society Press

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