From the 1880s to the early 1960s, local newspapers printed what are called “society columns”. These articles presented brief summaries of the professional activities, social affairs, travel plans, health, and concise opinions of everyday Munsonians.
On February 28, 1899, for example, the Muncie Evening Press reported in its “Personal and Society” column that “Charles M. Kimbrough and JR Marsh are in Cincinnati on business for the Indiana Bridge Company.” My grandmother once took a trip to Fairmount in 1942 and the Muncie Morning Star mentioned it in an August Society article, “Mrs. Harry Flook of Muncie, the former Miss June Roth, spent the weekend at Fairmount as a guest of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. WJ Roth.
If such stories seem banal to you, it is because they were incredibly so. But before you judge them immaterially tasteless, take a second look at any social media feed for essentially the same content. Photos and video are the only real difference, and opinions on social media are usually not concise but weighty. Nothing has changed, we are just chatting and giving our opinion in ever more sophisticated ways.
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For local historians, the society columns offer deep and esoteric dives into Muncie’s history. Did you know that on November 25, 1896 “Mrs. WR Youse entertained the cooking club Monday night? You will be happy to hear that “Miss Charlotte Bishop has been accepted as a member”. How delicious.
The ugly side of these reports was often the sexism and the omission of the poor. The columns were also separated, which seems odd to me but demonstrative of the ridiculous lengths white Americans go to enforce racism. Nonetheless, black journalists wrote society stories about Muncie’s African-American community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, Stella Pettiford wrote “In Colored Circles” for the Evening Press from 1922 until her untimely death in 1925. Her successor, Mrs. MC Robbins, wrote in the same column on October 24 that “the Reverend and Mrs. Ira Hendon, Miss Lucille Miller, Mrs. Lewis, Mrs. Lulu Webb of Indianapolis and the Reverend H. A. King of Anderson were among those in town to attend Mrs. Stella Pettiford’s funeral.
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The first chronicle of local African-American society I found was “Our Colored Citizens,” published sporadically in the early 1880s by the Muncie Daily Times. It is not known who wrote it, as signatures were not common at the time. Although early iterations were humorously attributed, “By You Know”. Muncie’s population in 1880 was only 5,219 people. The same census counted 187 Munsonians of color. Given the size of the community, I guess most Times readers knew exactly who “You Know” was.
There are only about 60 of these columns, so I’ve read them all. The series gives fascinating slices of daily life in Muncie’s black community before the gas boom.
On the first day of the column, January 29, 1880, the author wrote that “The readers of The Times may rest assured that they will have all the news that passes among colored people. So, now, if you want to keep up to date with what’s going on, subscribe to The Times.
The column often reported on new business and commercial activity. On February 11, “Mrs. John Morin and Miss Pearce opened a hair salon on Main Street. These ladies are tasteful in their arrangement. A month later Maggie Morin became sole proprietor, “having bought the interest of Miss Pearce”.
Featured prominently in the series was Bethel AME, our town’s first church organized by Black Munsonians. On March 12, 1880, “last night’s AME supper was superior to anything that has come down to us for a long time. It was first class in every detail and a decisive success.
An ongoing motif included reports of a group of street musicians performing in the city that year, initially known as “The Gang” and later, the “Long Nines”. On January 31, the musicians, “two in number, are asked to call back on West Main Street, as their vocal and instrumental music is much appreciated in this part of town”, but with a caveat, “if please don’t come so early. The popularity of the Long Nines increased dramatically, and in November, “the singing of these serenades spread the fragrance of the moonlight”.
Unlike the worldly chronicles of the 20th century, their 19th century predecessors included sayings, editorial musings, and intriguing nuggets of everyday culture. Munsonians learned on Groundhog Day that Muncie’s “new phrase to describe a rival” was “an awful little thing, without a fringe to her name.” On February 7, the author reflected, “the barber who carries eggs in his pockets should not sit on them.”
The column featured travel details for many residents, like Sam Shoecraft. In February, he visited his family in Grant County. Shoecraft “wrote a letter to the columnist, stating ‘he generally has a good time and goes fishing every day’.” He concluded with an idiom, “suckers don’t bite, only bass.”
The series also reported Munsonians visiting and receiving visitors from Cabin Creek, a nearby African-American farming settlement in Randolph County. Today’s maps call it “Scott’s Corner” and place it between Modoc and Farmland on Highway 1. In addition to early black settlers, some freedom seekers fleeing southern plantations made Cabin Creek their home, one of three such settlements in Randolph County. Cabin Creek’s growth slowed with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Then, after the Civil War, steady work in the vicinity of Richmond, Muncie and New Castle drew successive generations away from the Agriculture. But in 1880, when “Our Colored Citizens” was published, dozens of black farmers still lived along Cabin Creek.
On February 16, the column reported that “William Henry Horden Moore of Cabin Creek is in town, guest of Mrs. Artiss.” On April 1, “Reverend Smith returned home from Cabin Creek yesterday and reports all in thriving condition.”
The column also didn’t shy away from reporting stories illustrating Muncie’s racism. On March 30, “a colored man from Cabin Creek happened to be in town quite late one evening last week…he went to one of our so-called inns and asked for lodging.” The watchman refused him a room and offered him the barn instead. The columnist was furious, “we have this to say, we will most certainly remember you.”
There’s a lot more to explore in this series, so I’ll come back to that in future ByGone Muncie columns. But for now, I’ll end with this wise column advice: “If the shoe pinches, you don’t squeal, but shake them.”
Chris Flook is a board member of the Delaware County Historical Society and is the author of “Lost Towns of Delaware County, Indiana” and “Native Americans of East-Central Indiana”. For more information about the Delaware County Historical Society, visit delawarecountyhistory.org.