Hoosier Hall of Fame: O, Pioneers!
Indiana wears its frontier heritage proudly. But the groundbreaking didn’t stop at felling trees and building log cabins, as the legacies of these remarkable favorite sons and daughters attest.
This article is part of Indianapolis Monthly’s 2016 Indiana Bicentennial coverage, which includes our list of the 200 Hoosier Hall of Fame picks, designated throughout in bold or highlighted. For more on this celebration of the state’s first two centuries, click here.
After a tour of American vineyards (including Thomas Jefferson’s), Swiss emigre John James Dufour finally coaxed a hybrid grapevine—one that had the flavor of the Old Country and pest-resistance to the new—to flourish in a corner of southeast Indiana known as “New Switzerland” then and Switzerland County now. At his peak, Dufour bottled 20,000 gallons a year, making his the first successful U.S. winemaking operation. Production slowed with the rise of whiskey, but Dufour cemented his legacy by writing The American Vine-Dresser’s Guide, a manual for others attempting the same.
Imagine leaving the comfort of your beloved homeland at the age of 41 for a vast, unforgiving wilderness—it would require a little faith, right? In 1840, Saint Theodora Guerin did just that, moving from France to Terre Haute to open a convent and a slew of schools on the Indiana frontier, including what is now known as Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, the oldest Catholic liberal-arts institution in the U.S. In the 16 years before she died, Guerin proved she had gumption as well as faith, battling poverty, hunger, constant illness, and anti-Catholic sentiment, all to educate women around the state. No wonder she became the first saint from Indiana in 2006 (and only the eighth from America).
FIRST PUBLIC-EDUCATION REFORMER
While the 1816 state constitution promised public education “as soon as circumstances permit,” it wasn’t until the 1840 census revealed a shameful truth—only one in seven Hoosiers could read—that people took the issue seriously. Caleb Mills championed the cause, resulting in the 1852 Free School Law, the first measure to implement a public school system.
FASTEST CYCLIST IN THE WORLD
Beloved by the bicycle-crazed turn-of-the-century public, and vilified by his predominantly white competition, cyclist Marshall “Major” Taylor was the first African-American athlete to win a world championship outside of boxing and to set world records. As a boy, he received a bike from an Indianapolis family with whom he lived as a friend to their son. When he began winning, Taylor encountered racism at every turn, often being relegated to blacks-only clubs; Indy’s Capital City track banned him after he set his first unofficial world record in 1896. He later found adoring hometown crowds in the city, which, in 1982, christened the Major Taylor Velodrome, its first publicly funded facility named after a black person.
FIRST FOOD ACTIVISTS
No crying over spilt milk, fine. But what about spoiled milk? Thanks to a trio of reformers, Indiana set the tone for public health and food safety. Dr. John Hurty, director of the Indiana State Board of Health, got a slew of state bills passed that served as models for the nation, including the 1899 Pure Food and Drug Law, which prohibited the sale of contaminated food and drugs. Around the same time, Hoosiers Albert Beveridge, a U.S. Senator, and Harvey Wiley, a Purdue professor who became the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief chemist, influenced President Theodore Roosevelt to sign two laws to protect citizens: the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which allowed an early version of the Food and Drug Administration—of which Wiley would become the first director—to regulate those industries.
One visit to a derelict Evansville tenement full of the city’s poor set socialite Albion Fellows Bacon on a path toward housing reform. She influenced state and national policy with her lobbying—a stark reversal for a woman who once said she avoided politics because she wanted her life to “exclude every ugly or blighted thing.” Evansville’s city council passed her tenement-regulation bill in 1907. She then pressured lawmakers to pass a statewide version, one that she got beefed up later with provisions for running water and waste disposal, making the state a national leader in housing reform.
Mary Kay who? One generation past slavery, former Louisiana sharecropper Sarah Breedlove—who became Madam C.J. Walker after a marriage—not only built a beauty-products empire inspired by her own hair troubles but used her influence to hire and empower other black women. Lured to Indy by its reputation as a manufacturing hub, Walker’s company expanded to include a factory, beauty school, salon, and research laboratory, making her the country’s first self-made (and the first black) female millionaire. She spread the riches, from the local YMCA to the NAACP, and left her papers to the Indiana Historical Society, which works with the Madame Walker Theatre Center to put on exhibits.
Along with other prominent Hoosier suffragettes, May Wright Sewall lobbied for women’s rights at home—where she founded the Indianapolis Equal Suffrage Society and allied with national figures like Susan B. Anthony—and abroad. Sewall died just before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, but she was instrumental in its momentum, uniting various factions into the International Council of Women and the American National Council of Women. She also influenced a generation through her Girls’ Classical School in Indianapolis, teaching subjects typically reserved for boys, and set the wheels in motion for the Indianapolis Museum of Art (through her Art Association of Indianapolis), the Propylaeum, and the Contemporary Club, the first society in town where men and women were equal members.
Before Bill Garrett, segregation in Big Ten basketball was an unwritten rule: white starters only. But thanks to pressure from Indy YMCA head Faburn DeFrantz and IU president Herman B Wells, coach Branch McCracken brought on Garrett, who’d just led an integrated Shelbyville team to the 1947 state title. Garrett paid off the decision, becoming the conference’s first regular black starter, an All-American, one of the earliest black players drafted into the NBA, and head coach at Crispus Attucks High.
Rising from a Michigan City childhood spent in poverty, Richard Hatcher climbed to the highest office in Gary in 1967, becoming one of the first two black U.S. mayors ever elected. The IU grad’s five terms of service in that role receive mixed reviews—he brought in millions of federal dollars for the likes of better housing and empowered black businesses, while white flight and the decline of the steel industry led population and employment to drop and crime to spike. But Hatcher’s election and championing of civil rights—from restaurant sit-ins to his organization of the first National Black Political Convention—inspired nationwide.
In the late 1980s, a Nightline reporter asked Ryan White, “Who’s your best friend?” White, a Kokomo teenager with weary eyes, answered, “I don’t have one.” The question was meant to evoke sympathy, but White never saw himself as a sympathetic figure: “I just want to go to school and be like everybody else.” He couldn’t, though. A hemophiliac, White had been infected with HIV from a tainted blood transfusion in 1984, and he was kicked out of school in Russiaville because parents feared the virus might spread to their kids. His family fought to get him back in, and when he was readmitted in 1987, he received death threats, and a gunshot was fired into his house. Undaunted, White served as a face of AIDS worldwide—a gutsy decision when doctors were telling patients to keep the diagnosis a secret. He inspired courage in others who had the disease—as well as many more who did not. His legacy includes the Ryan White Care Act of 1990, enacted shortly after his death and now the largest federal program for people with AIDS and no income.
Since Twyla Tharp (named after a Muncie fair “pig princess”) founded her dance company in 1965, the Portland, Indiana, native has won worldwide acclaim (and a couple of Emmys and a Tony) for her choreography: 160 pieces and counting for movies, TV specials, musicals, ballets, and more. Tharp’s genrefusing moves—including for the first “crossover” ballet, 1973’s Deuce Coupe, with music by The Beach Boys—have pushed dance in new directions, from the movie Hair to Movin’ Out, a Broadway collaboration with Billy Joel.
Illustrations by John Kenzie