From the 1880s through the early 1960s, local papers printed something called “society columns.” These articles featured short run-downs of the professional doings, social affairs, travel plans, health and pithy opinions of everyday Munsonians.
On Feb. 28, 1899, for instance, the Muncie Evening Press reported in their “Personal and Society” column that “Charles M. Kimbrough and JR Marsh are in Cincinnati on business for the Indiana Bridge Company.” My grandmother once made a trip to Fairmount in 1942 and the Muncie Morning Star mentioned it in an August society piece, “Mrs. Harry Flook of Muncie, the former Miss June Roth, spent the week-end in Fairmount as a guest of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. W.J. Roth.”
If such accounts seem banal to you, that’s because they were, incredibly so. But before you judge them immaterially vapid, take a second look at any social media feed for basically the same content. Photos and video are the only real difference, that and opinions on social media generally aren’t pithy but ponderous screeds. Nothing’s changed, we just tittle-tattle and open in ever more sophisticated ways.
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For local historians, society columns offer deep, esoteric dives into Muncie’s history. Did you know that on Nov. 25, 1896 “Mrs. WR Youse entertained the Cooking club on Monday evening?” You’ll be happy to learn that “Miss Charlotte Bishop was accepted as a member.” How delightful.
The ugly side of this reporting was often sexism and omission of the poor. The columns were also segregated, which seems bizarre to me but demonstrative of the ridiculous lengths white Americans go to enforce racism. Romantic, Black reporters wrote society pieces about Muncie’s African American community throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For instance, 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 Oct. 24 that, “Reverend and Mrs. Ira Hendon, Miss Lucille Miller, Mrs. Lewis, Mrs. Lulu Webb of Indianapolis, and the Reverend HA King of Anderson were among those who were in the city to attend the funeral of Mrs. Stella Pettiford.”
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The earliest local African American society column I’ve found was “Our Colored Citizens,” published sporadically in the early 1880s by The Muncie Daily Times. It’s not clear who wrote it, as bylines weren’t common then. Although the first iterations were humorously ascribed, “By You Know.” Muncie’s 1880 population was a measurer 5,219 people. The same census counted 187 Munsonians of color. Given the community’s size, I’m guessing most readers of the Times knew exactly who “You Know” was.
There’s only about 60 of these columns, so I read them all. The series yields fascinating slices of everyday life from Muncie’s pre-gas boom black community.
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 occurs among the colored people. So, now, if you want to keep posted as to the doings and the sayings, subscribe for The Times.”
The column often reported on new business and commercial activity. On Feb. 11, “Mrs. John Morin and Miss Pearce opened a hairdressing salon on Main Street. These ladies are quite tasteful in their arrangement.” A month later, Maggie Morin became sole proprietor, “having purchased Miss Pearce’s interest.”
Bethel AME, our city’s first church organized by Black Munsonians, was featured prominently in the series. On March 12, 1880, “the supper at the AME last evening was superior to anything of the kind that has come to our notice for a long time. It was first-class in every particular and a decided success.”
An ongoing motif included reports about a group of street musicians performing about town that year, known initially as “The Gang” and later, the “Long Nines.” On Jan. 31, the musicians, “two in number, are requested to call again on West Main Street, as their vocal and instrumental music is highly appreciated in that portion of the city,” though with a caveat, “please don’t come quite so early.” The Long Nines’ popularity grew substantially and by November, “the singing of those scattered serenaders fragrance throughout the moonlight.”
Unlike the society columns of the 20th century, their 19th century predecessors included sayings, editorial musings and intriguing nuggets of everyday culture. Munsonians learned on Groundhog’s Day that the “newest Muncie phrase for describing a rival” was “horrid little thing, without a set of bangs to her name.” On Feb. 7, the author mused, “the barber that carries eggs in his pockets ought not to sit on them.”
The column featured the travel details of many residents, like Sam Shoecraft. In February he visited his family in Grant County. Shoecraft “wrote a letter to the columnist, stating ‘that he is having a fine time generally 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, an African American farming settlement nearby in Randolph County. Maps today label it “Scott’s Corner” and place it between Modoc and Farmland on Highway 1. In addition to early Black settlers, some freedom-seekers escaping southern plantations made home at Cabin Creek, 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 nearby Richmond, Muncie, and New Castle lured successive generations away from farming. But in 1880, when “Our Colored Citizens” was published, dozens of Black farmers still lived along the Cabin Creek.
On Feb. 16, the column reported that “William Henry Horden Moore of Cabin Creek is in the city, the guest of Mrs. Artiss.” On April 1, “The Rev. Smith returned home from Cabin Creek yesterday, and reports everything in a flourishing condition.”
The column also didn’t shy from reporting illustrative stories of Muncie’s racism. On March 30, “a colored gentleman from Cabin Creek happened to be in the city rather late one evening last week…he went to one of our so-called hostelries and asked for lodging.” The night clerk refused him a room and offered the barn instead. The columnist was furious, “we have this to say, we will most assuredly remember you.”
There’s much more to explore in this series, so I’ll return to it in future ByGone Muncie columns. But for now, I’ll close with this sage advice from the column: “If the shoe pinches, you don’t squeal, but shake ’em off.”
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.