Rushing in with 2007’s snow storm, Black History Month is upon us once again. As a native Hoosier and avid reader, I am keenly aware of Indiana’s extensive Black history. Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting one of Indiana’s great Black Hoosier Americans, Marion H. Stuart, founder and proprietor of Stuart’s Moving and Storage Company. Out of a desire to return to school for the fall semester and with $74.00 in his pocket, Stuart purchased his first truck from an auto dealer, with a promise to pay the $11.00 balance in a few weeks. His plan was to do some light hauling and moving during the summer of 1935. But with hard work and dedication, his company was born and continues to flourish. What started out as a one man operation has grown into one of Indiana’s largest moving and storage companies. Today, Stuart’s Moving and Storage boasts a fleet of trucks, a huge warehouse and dozens of employees.
During one of my visits with Mr. Stuart, he graciously rendered a copy of a book entitled Great Black Hoosier Americans. He stated the book contained valuable narratives on numerous Hoosiers of African decent that over time made their own contributions to Indiana. We often hear about the better known history makers such as Madame C.J. Walker, who single-handedly created a hair supply dynasty during the early 1900’s and went on to become the first self-made Black female millionaire. Another great was Wes Montgomery. He was born in Indianapolis, Indiana and later went on to become one of the world’s most prolific jazz guitarists. Lastly, there was the great “Mr. Basketball”, Oscar Robertson. Standing at six feet, five inches, the “Big O” was often regarded as the best “small man” in professional basketball, particularly in view of his extraordinary scoring and playmaking skills. These amazing individuals made a profound impact on Indiana and are fondly regarded as prolific forerunners.
Notwithstanding, there are other Black Hoosier greats who may be lesser known, but managed to etch out their own place in history. Anita Lucette DeFrantz was the daughter of Robert and Anita DeFrantz, two distinguished contributors to the Indianapolis community. In October 1952 and at the tender age of eighteen months, Anita was stricken with Cerebellar encephalitis. With sheer determination, Anita overcame her illness and went on to accomplish several remarkable feats. Some of them include graduating with honors with a degree in Political Philosophy in 1974 and being elected by her peers to serve a two-year term on the Connecticut College Board of Trustees. Additionally, she was accepted into law school at the University of Pennsylvania. While attending college, she became a member of the Vesper Women’s Boat Club. This led to National competition and eventually, the international competition at Notingham, England in 1975 as a member of the United States Women’s Tours with Coxswain. Later, she went on to become one of the first women to enter into rowing competition in the 1976 Olympics. She served as the second stroke in the Olympic Women’s United States Sweep Eight and won a bronze medal.
Mr. Starling W. James traveled from Kansas where he worked as an educator and activist for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to Indianapolis. Immediately, he recognized a need in his new town. From this need, he founded the Federation of Associated Clubs in Indianapolis and received its incorporation documents on June 11, 1939. Along with James Brown and Daisy Phelps, they served as the original trustees to the organization whose mission was to enhance the civic, economic and political advancement of Black people. The Federation of Associated Clubs made many strides in all these areas, but most notably were the creation of the Cable Award given yearly to a Black person for their commendable service to the Black community and they were involved with getting the downtown theatre doors open to Blacks, who for years were not allowed to attend. Additionally, the organization helped expose its members and the community-at-large to eminent speakers and personalities to broaden and shape the experience of those who genuinely cared, aided in the overall improvement of housing options for African Americans and demanded jobs in the defense plants during World War II. They also played an integral part in getting Black people hired by Indiana Bell Telephone Company.
Mary Southern, a widowed mother of ten children became the first recipient of the annual Cable Award and was chosen from a field of fifty-two nominees. In 1939, she was revered for her unwavering efforts to increase the size of an overcrowded Crispus Attacks High School, the only high school open to Blacks. She also served in various civic organizations and projects that worked to improve the safety and welfare of children in their segregated schools.
Out of an innate desire and responsibility, Luther C. Hicks, wrote Great Black Hoosier Americans in 1977 to acknowledge and to educate people from all walks of life of how Black Americans managed to rise above self and make a lasting contribution for generations to come. Moreover, he mentioned how the Black youth were suffering from an identity crisis and a lack of personal motivation during that time in history. This issue still persists into the twenty-first century. He knows not who he is, because he can find no sense of pride in being what he is. He is unable “to cast down his bucket where he is because he feels it below his dignity to handle a bucket.”
These remarkable trailblazers lived unique lives and were able to succeed where many thought they would fail. Their driven personalities bare witness to us all and provide an important lesson to the entire world. They made people believe that anything is possible, as long as we are willing to put forth perseverance and dedication. The world is our oyster and the possibilities are endless. And, to that end, I extend my gratitude to all of the Great Black Hoosier Americans.