Outstanding Indiana African Americans Worthy of Black History Month Praise

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Vernon A. Williams
Vernon A. Williams

By Vernon A. Williams

While there are great Black Americans who have contributed to the landscape of this nation in significant ways – who are located from coast to coast – we often ignore or minimize the significant achievements of historymakers with roots right here in the Hoosier State.

Many of them are more highly regarded away from home for the accomplishments of their lives and careers. Toward that end, this column—throughout the month of February—will spotlight a few of those individuals and their work.

Some are living and many have completed their earthly assignments. But they are all worthy of acknowledgement, for when we honor our greats, we honor ourselves. This week we will reflect on the lives of a giant of industry and philanthropist Bill Mays, along with two female pillars of governmental society in Indiana, Katie Hall and Julia Carson.

Not only should those who knew these greats reflect on their work but all of us should help our children, and grandchildren and great grandchildren know who they are in order to know what young Blacks are capable of, the heights to which they can ascend.

They are worthy. 

KATIE B. HALL

Katie Beatrice Hall (April 3, 1938 – February 20, 2012) was an American educator in Gary, Indiana, and a politician who served as a U.S. Representative from Indiana from 1982 to 1985. When Hall was sworn into federal office on November 2, 1982, she became the first Black woman from Indiana elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hall represented Indiana’s 1st Congressional District in the final months of the 97th Congress and for an entire two-year term in the 98th Congress from 1983 to 1985.

She is best known for sponsoring legislation and leading efforts on the floor of the U.S. House in 1983 to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday after previous efforts had failed. H.R. 3706 to establish the third Monday in January as a federal holiday in King’s honor was introduced in July 1983 and passed in the House on August 2, 1983. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law on November 2, 1983.

Prior to her election to the U.S. House, Hall served in the Indiana House of Representatives from 1974 to 1976 and as a member of the Indiana Senate from 1976 to 1982. She was also a delegate to the Democratic Mini Convention in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1978; chairperson of the Lake County, Indiana, Democratic Committee from 1978 to 1980; and chairperson of the Indiana State Democratic Convention in 1980.

Hall was defeated in her bid for re-election to the U.S. Congress in the Democratic primary May 1984, narrowly losing to Peter Visclosky by 2,367 votes. After serving in Congress, Hall was vice chairperson of the Gary Housing Board of Commissioners. In 1985 she became the City Clerk of Gary; she resigned the position in January 2003. She retired from teaching in the Gary public schools in 2004.

WILLIAM G. “BILL” MAYS

The son of two schoolteachers, William G. Mays was born in Evansville, Indiana, December 4, 1945. Mays graduated from Evansville Lincoln High School in 1963 and then went on to Indiana University in Bloomington, where he majored in Chemistry. In 1970, William Mays was offered a Consortium Fellowship for advanced studies. He accepted the award and applied it to graduate studies in Marketing and Finance at Indiana University, from which he received an M.B.A. in 1973.

After graduating, Mays worked at Cummins Engine Company in Columbus, Indiana, for four years where he served as assistant to the president. Mays was then offered the opportunity as president of Specialty Chemicals, a small distribution company in Indianapolis. During his three years as president, he increased the company’s sales from $300,000 to over $5 million.

William Mays left Specialty Chemicals in 1980 and became an entrepreneur, founding his own business, Mays Chemical Company. Mays Chemical Company, Inc., which specializes in providing chemical products to the food, pharmaceutical and automotive industries, began in 1980 as a one-person operation. Mays processed and filled each order himself. Over the years the company grew to include facilities in Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit and Cincinnati. Mays Chemical Company won numerous awards for excellence.

William Mays owned The Indianapolis Recorder and is the former majority owner of the Hoosier Radio and Television Properties, which include WAV-TV53, HOT 96.3 FM, WGGR 106.7 FM and WIRE. He had significant interests in several other small businesses, including a property management firm, several golf courses and construction companies.

Mays was an iconic philanthropist and served as an “angel investor” to facilitate business ambitions of numerous local entrepreneurs. He had a big heart!

In 1995, Mays enjoyed the exceptional honor of carrying the Olympic flame through Indianapolis. He was a lifetime member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. Mays passed away on December 4, 2014.

JULIA M. CARSON

Julia May Carson (July 8, 1938 – December 15, 2007) was a member of the United States House of Representatives for Indiana’s 7th Congressional District from 1997 until her death in 2007 (numbered as the 10th District from 1997 to 2003). Carson was the first woman and first African American to represent Indianapolis in the U.S. Congress. She was also the second African-American woman elected to Congress from Indiana, after Katie Hall.

In 1965, while working as a secretary at UAW Local 550, Carson was hired by newly elected Congressman Andrew Jacobs Jr., a Democrat, to do casework in his Indianapolis office. When his own electoral prospects looked dim in 1972 (which turned out to be a Republican landslide), Jacobs encouraged Carson to run for the Indiana House of Representatives, which she did. She won election from the central Indianapolis district in 1972, and re-election. She served as a delegate for four years and rose to become assistant minority caucus chair.

In 1976, at the urging of fellow Democrats, Carson arranged for prominent local businessman and fellow Democrat Joseph W. Summers to run for her house seat, as she successfully ran for the Indiana Senate. She won re-election and ultimately served in the Indiana Senate for 14 years, sitting on its finance committee and eventually holding the minority whip position before retiring in 1990. Carson and Katie Hall (a fellow Democrat but from Lake County who also won election that year) became the first African-American women to win election to the Indiana Senate.

In 1990 Carson won election as the Trustee for Center Township (downtown Indianapolis). Carson assumed responsibility for running welfare in central Indianapolis, and instituted a workfare program. During Carson’s six years as the Center Township Trustee, she created a $6 million surplus and erased the office’s $20 million debt.

During her life, Carson was named the Indianapolis Star Woman of the Year in 1974 and 1991, and was inducted into the Indiana Public Schools Hall of Fame in 2006. A commemorative bust honoring her was unveiled in the Indiana Statehouse in 2014, and she was also remembered during Indiana’s celebration of Women’s History Month in 2015. Indianapolis named its local government center to honor Carson in 1997 and its transit center to honor her in 2016. Ivy Tech Community College named its new library and community space in Indianapolis to honor Carson.

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