China Remixed: Showin Wetzen Hsu, BA 1909

As part of China Remixed, a campus-wide initiative to celebrate Chinese culture, the Indiana University Archives is celebrating the long history of Chinese students at IU with a series of blog posts and an exhibit in the lobby of the Wells Library.

Showin Wetzen Hsu, 1930

Showin Wetzen Hsu was the first Chinese student to graduate from Indiana University, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in History in 1909. Hsu came to the US in 1905 and studied at the University of California until the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire compelled university officials to end the academic year early. He transferred to the University of Illinois, where he stayed for 2 years, but decided to continue his studies IU in 1908 to specialize in Political Science, International Law, and Diplomacy under professors he admired.

Showin Wetzen Hsu’s War Service Record detailing his judicial service in China until 1919

Shortly after graduation, in 1909, Hsu was recalled to China to serve as a law compiler in the Councilor’s department. Hsu rose through the ranks of the Chinese government quickly between 1911 and 1930. Hsu earned a master’s degree in 1911 and was appointed secretary of the Ministry of Education.  In 1912, Hsu was involved in transitioning the Chinese government from an imperial dynasty to a republic after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, a group that held power for more than 250 years. In 1912, the president of the newly established Republic of China appointed Hsu to serve as a justice of the Supreme Court of China. Hsu served in many high-level governmental and judicial capacities during his long career.

Letter from Showin Wetzen Hsu to President William Lowe Bryan, November 20, 1916 written on stationary from the Supreme Court of China

Hsu fondly remembered his time at IU even after his return to China. He corresponded with President William Lowe Bryan, donated money to IU causes, and frequently communicated with the IU Alumni Office. In October 1909, Hsu wrote a letter to William Lowe Bryan stating, “For the last whole academic year, I enjoyed my work in your university very much. I have been always proud of being the first Chinese graduate in Indiana and in the near future if I should be able enough to do any thing for my country is of course all due to your great supervision of our alma mater.” In January 1916, Hsu wrote to the Alumni Office to say that, although there were not enough IU graduates in Peking to hold a Foundation Day reunion, his thoughts were with his alma mater.

Pages four and five of letter from Showin Wetzen Hsu to IU President William Lowe Bryan, October 12, 1909: “I have been  always proud of being the first Chinese graduate in Indiana.”

Showin Wetzen Hsu paved the way for many Chinese students to attend Indiana University. Within 10 years, more than 10 Chinese students would find their way to IU.

Feel free to contact the Indiana University Archives if you would like to learn more about the history of Chinese students at IU.

The Legendary Prankster: Leon Varjian

It’s April Fools’ Day, which means that it’s officially the 42nd anniversary of the first-ever Banana Olympics held on the Indiana University campus. As ridiculous as it sounds, yes, it was a very real event—and a political one, at that, as it was held as a fundraiser for the campaign of graduate Leon Varjian, who in 1975 was running for mayor of Bloomington. Some of the very, very serious campaign promises included: turning Indiana University into a theme park similar to Disney Land called “IU-Land,” constructing a giant Monopoly board in downtown Bloomington around the Courthouse Square, a 100% unemployment rate (as everyone will become, instead, a civil servant, taking over new posts such as the town drunk or the resident derelict), carpeting all of the sidewalks, and replacing all of the parking meters with bubble gum machines. Still don’t believe me? Have a look for yourself:

Yes, Leon Varjian was a real person, and a real clown (okay, not a literal clown, but he was a hilarious guy.) Unfortunately, Varjian passed away in 2015, but the archives recently received his papers from his time in Bloomington. I’ve been given the task of processing them, and it’s been one of the most fun projects I’ve ever had during my time at the archives. Several times during the processing of these papers I’ve been caught in an unstoppable fit of giggles.

Right-click on the image to open it in a new tab, zoom in and read the article. Trust me, it’s worth it.

Varjian showed up in Bloomington in 1972, and from that moment on, nothing was the same. Originally hoping to receive his graduate degree in mathematics, he ended up with that and more—a reputation for being the funny man on campus. He was politically active from the start, running first for student government representing the “Birthday Party,” then for mayor of Bloomington on the “Fun City” ticket, and finally for IU Trustee on an equally ridiculous, nonsensical platform. I’m not sure if he won a seat on the student government, but he tragically did not become mayor of Bloomington (coming in third out of four candidates with 776 votes) or the IU Trustee. But if I’ve learned anything about Varjian from his papers, it’s that he was certainly a politically active and opinionated person, even if his campaigns weren’t serious at all. He collected numerous newspapers and clippings with political stories and held onto documents he received from the “War Tax Resistance” in the early 70’s. I have an inkling that he did want to make a difference, and his campaigns did in their own way. Larry A. Conrad, Indiana’s Secretary of State at the time, certainly seemed to think so.

He was smart, too. You can tell by the hundreds of loose leaf papers found in this collection that have free-form notes scribbled over them, which you could probably glean something from if you had the time and patience to make sense out of them. The notes could be anything from political notes to song lyrics to article ideas for one of the several publications he was involved with, such as Fun City. Fun City was an alternative publication that ran from 1975 to at least 1976, but probably discontinued after that when Varjian left Bloomington to pursue a short-lived career as a computer programmer in D.C. Anyone remember seeing one of the 13,000 weekly copies of this floating around on campus?

Some of the other publications he might have had a hand in were The Daily Stupid and The Daily Horrible-Terrible, both of which we have copies of in this collection. They were mock versions of the Indiana Daily Student and The Herald Times that came out annually, filled with satire articles and parodies. If you come in to see the collection, I recommend giving them a read.

When he left D.C. after only a short time, he returned to school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his trickster ways gained national fame. He teamed up with friend Jim Mallon (future executive producer of Mystery Science Theater 3000) and pulled off a couple of enormous (albeit harmless) pranks. They covered historic Bascom Hill with a thousand pink flamingos for a fundraiser and put a huge replica of the Statue of Liberty’s head and torch on Lake Mendota while it was frozen over.

 

Imagine the time they spent planning this.

So today, on April Fools’ Day, we remember and celebrate prankster legend Leon Varjian. He certainly brought a smile to my face– and I think he brought about laughter and happiness during a time when America desperately needed a little sunshine. I’ve had a great time processing this collection, and I only wish I could have met the man himself.

The John and Hilda Jay Family Papers

Doubtless, you’ve at least once wondered what historians would assume about your historical setting based on something you’ve left behind. Every day, we write something down, we send an e-mail, we file away something important, or we send a quick text to a friend. Our habits of communication–perhaps unknowingly– document specific snapshots of the world at the time of creation. And this has always been the case, although we’re much more digitized in today’s age than we used to be. So imagine you’ve written a letter to your sweetheart every day over a span of quite a few years. You may not realize it, but the subtle trends of history may have been written into your words.

jay001

jay002

This is what makes a collection like the John and Hilda Jay family papers so priceless: its ability to provide a series of snapshots through which we can study history, while also revealing the rich, fascinating details of a unique family. The collection, donated to the archives by Ms. Ellen Jay, consists primarily of a series of letters, the bulk of which were written between her parents, John and Hilda Jay, between the years of 1939-1946. John and Hilda were both IU alumni, John graduating in 1941 and Hilda graduating in 1945.  They began their relationship during their time together at school, and married in 1942– a union that was hastened due to the country’s new involvement in World War II and the potential of John being called to duty.

That particular chapter of their story began on December 7th, 1941, when the Japanese attacked by bombing Pearl Harbor. At the time, the couple was separated; Hilda continued her schoolwork at IU, and John was in Connecticut beginning his career at the Remington Arms Company. Their letters suggest that they did, eventually, intend to marry, but more than likely not until after Hilda had completed her degree. Then, the news of the bombing sent waves of media response across the country.

jay006

On December 7th, 1941, Hilda wrote to her sweetheart: “I hardly know what to write you tonight. Just as we all came out from the concert we were encountered by news boys shouting “Extra-etc.” There was a rush to get the papers, then a grim, determined calmness evident…I wonder what the result of this will be so far as we are concerned.”

And the day after, John responded: “Well, we’re actually in it now. It has happened so fast I can hardly get over the shock. I had begun to feel that we wouldn’t get into war for at least 6 months yet, and possibly a year, when, bingo, the radio flashes word that Japan was bombing Hawaii.…The thing that hurts worst now is what’s going to happen to us. I hope we can pull through it, but gad, what a lot of faith it takes to think about even pulling through it.”

Evidence from their letters suggests that the entire family was trying to approach the question of what to do– postpone the marriage until after the war is over, or hurry it along before John is called away? There were unquestionably thousands of young couples in the same predicament across the country at that time. Plans had to be put on hold or rushed. Hilda’s mother suggested that she wait until “after this is all over.” Hilda, however, confided in a letter to John on December 13th that she didn’t see that happening: “Now as for how I look at it. This thing is going on for years–plenty of them…I’m not sure it would be wise to say ‘after this is all over’ for I think that is never…I think it all depends on what sort of service you get yourself into.” The uncertainty of the situation gripped tightly onto their plans for the future.

As it turns out, they decided to get married in July of 1942. Hilda would give up, or at least postpone, her education for the sake of their new marriage and move to Connecticut with her husband. This situation lasted for about a year before John was enlisted into the U.S. Navy in 1944. They stationed him at the Portsmouth Navy Shipyard, where he remained until boarding the U.S.S. Washington. With her husband off serving, Hilda returned to school at I.U. and was able to complete her degree by 1945.

The letters from John’s time aboard the U.S.S. Washington reveal telling anecdotes about Navy life during World War II. For instance, read below a description that John wrote after finding out about Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s surrender in May 1945:

jay013

This excerpt illustrates John’s personal feelings on the matter, as well as the discourse between Navy men immediately following the announcement.

The Jay family papers has more to offer than just a glimpse at life during World War II; the entirety of the collection spans from the early 20th century to the early 21st century, featuring letters written by several members of the Jay family, including their children, Ellen and Sarah. Ellen and Sarah also attended IU during the 1960s, and much like their parents, maintained correspondence with their own parents during their time apart. This extensive, interesting collection is brimming with both local and global history throughout crucial moments in the past.

Contact the IU Archives, to schedule a visit to view the John and Hilda Jay family papers.

Sincerely Yours: Byron Armstrong Denounces Labeling

“Any practice which tends to divide off American citizens is certainly inconsistent with progressive democratic ideals, and must pass.”

It’s been a little over a hundred years since the founding of Kappa Alpha Psi, one of the first fraternities for African Americans, and the organization is still thriving today. Since its founding, the fraternity has been known for its acceptance of all members, no matter their race, religious affiliation, or national origins. Many people might not know that a few dedicated young men of color founded the first chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi right here at Indiana University in 1911. Founder Byron K. Armstrong, among others, sought out a welcoming, friendly environment for the organization of African Americans on campus.

Armstrong was originally from Westfield, Indiana, but attended Howard University in Washington D.C. until around 1910 when he visited his cousin, Irven Armstrong, at the IU campus. Impressed with the educational opportunities given by IU, he and a friend he met at Howard, Elder Watson Diggs, transferred. The two of them were among only ten African American students at IU at the time. White students mostly ignored their presence, and they had few opportunities to gather in recreational groups or sports (any sport that involved physical contact was off-limits). Thus, the concept of a fraternity of their own easily caught interest. They organized Kappa Alpha Nu (a forerunner of Kappa Alpha Psi) in 1911 with Diggs as the permanent chairman (Polemarch), Armstrong the sergeant at arms (Keeper of the Records), and John Lee as the secretary (Strategus). Other founders were Guy Levis Grant, Ezra D. Alexander, Edward G. Irvin, Paul W. Caine, Marcus Peter Blakemore, Henry T. Asher, and George Edmunds. Many of the founders went on to have illustrious careers.

Byron, in particular, completed his Master’s degree at Columbia University by 1914, served as the Dean of Education for Langston University from 1921-1927 and 1931-1935, and continued the spread of new chapters of Kappa Alpha Psi to other campuses. However, there comes a time when every alumni has to order up a copy of their transcript in order to continue with their professional career. Byron ordered his in 1935– the same year he received the Laurel Wreath award, the highest honor given by the fraternity– only to be unpleasantly taken aback by the words “colored student” printed onto it.

The archives are in possession of the President’s Office correspondence from 1913-1937, which contains the exchange between Armstrong and the office.

 

It reads:

Your letter of the 17th has reached me. I note that the transcript of my work is slightly unlike the others that you have sent me in that it bears the word colored on it. I suppose this is for your own record, but such a label is a distinct handicap to me in many [cases]. I am therefore asking that in the future you please leave this notation off since it was not on the original.

While it has no connection with this matter I have recently learned that the University has shut colored students out of the Indiana Union. If this is true it is very unfair and certainly is not in keeping with a great University. As I am always loyal to Indiana I hope that the day will come when the University can once again return to the ideals of a great democratic University.

The response from the President’s Office indicated they believed they had good reason to keep “colored student” written on the transcript, but did not address his second concern at all.

I returned to my office this morning after several weeks illness at home. My secretary, Miss Dillman, showed me your letter of recent date. Our plan of marking the word ‘colored’ on the cards of colored people is merely for the purpose of giving us information as to who each person is. For instance we have had several cases where four persons have had the same name, still more where three have had the same name, and in a great many cases two have had the same name. It is important in issuing photostatic copies of records or giving recommendations that we have the right person in mind. It is no reflection whatever on colored people to have their cards designated ‘colored’. We try to treat everybody here the same way, regardless of color, politics, or religion.

Not entirely satisfied with that response, Armstrong wrote again:

Your letter of the 18th has reached me and I am sorry to bother you further concerning the matter, but since I am sure you do not fully understand my reasons for writing you concerning this matter, I beg to write to you again.

I may say that I have objections to your designation of ‘colored’ on your private transcript because I certainly do regard it as a label.

My reasons for objecting to this word on any copy used out of your office are as follows:

1. Many jobs will be closed to me because of such a designation, due to race prejudice.

2. I am sure you do not wish to be party to any such handicapping of one of your graduates, regardless of color.

3. This is not a common practice among the greater universities in the progressive sections of America.

4. There are other methods of identification of students without the use of such a stigma.

5. Any such practice is certainly not in keeping with the spirit of Indiana I once knew, and knowing you as I do, I am sure you would not approve of this matter.

6. Any practice which tends to divide off American citizens is certainly inconsistent with progressive democratic ideals, and must pass.

7. Finally, it seems to me Indiana in recent years has pursued many policies of segregation which may in part explain why our university rated as it did in the Educational Record for July, 1934; because no university is greater than its ideals.

Armstrong wouldn’t stand for being racially stereotyped by his future employers, although it is unclear whether IU granted him new transcripts without the “colored student” indicator or not. In my previous article about mathematician Elbert F. Cox, I mentioned that he had the same indicator on his transcripts, though he ordered his earlier than this one for Armstrong. We don’t know precisely when IU stopped including that on their transcripts; our guess would be around the student population boom following World War II.

But Armstrong couldn’t be held back from success. He went on to earn his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Michigan, and taught in several states around the country. Kappa Alpha Psi still thrives today, and credits Armstrong as a founder on its web site.

Remembering Elbert F. Cox: African American Excellence in Mathematics

Throughout IU’s history, there have been countless examples of greatness and outstanding achievement by its African American students. It is important to remember those students who, despite being faced with overwhelming social challenges due to their race, made ripples through academia that have lasted for years. For this year’s Black History Month, we remember one of those students whose accomplishments made it possible for others to strive towards the same goal: Elbert F. Cox. Cox was the first African American in the country, and allegedly the entire world, to receive his PhD in mathematics, but not before receiving his undergraduate degree from IU.

Racial Tensions in Evansville

Cox was born on December 5th, 1895 in Evansville, Indiana. Evansville, like a majority of the towns at the time, had a segregated school system that saw African American students receiving an inadequate, underfunded education. But Evansville may have been even more racially divided than many of the other towns in Indiana, and the tensions between black and white citizens would come to a violent head more than once during Cox’s lifetime. A four-day race riot in 1903 occurred when a mob of white citizens stormed the county jail after the murder of a white policeman, which resulted in 12 deaths and could only be stopped when the Indiana governor called in a militia of 300 men to subdue it. Later, in 1920, the Ku Klux Klan would make its Indiana headquarters in Evansville.

Still, Cox’s family was among those who did not flee the city after the riot in 1903. They lived in a racially mixed neighborhood called Baptistown, where a majority of African Americans lived in Evansville at the time. Despite the adversity they faced from the white community, Cox had positive role models in Evansville. He could look up to the black teachers in his school, who promoted literacy and education. It is also possible that his father (one of his most essential inspirations) was a key reason for them to remain there after the riot, as he served as principal and educator for schools in Evansville and would do so for up to 50 years.

Indiana University and the Euclidean Circle

From Evansville, Cox made his journey to Indiana University in 1913 to study physics and mathematics. The math department at IU had several noteworthy professors at the time who would shape his education and help with his later academic endeavors. Some of his most influential educators were mathematics instructors/professors Cora Hennel, Schuyler Davisson, and Tobias Dantzig, who were all involved in some way with IU’s Euclidean Circle.

The Euclidean Circle photo from the 1916 Arbutus. Cox, Hennel, Davisson, and Dantzig are all pictured here.

The purpose of the Euclidean Circle was to organize the faculty and students within the mathematics department, discuss mathematical questions, and share information. They initiated Cox on March 15th, 1915 as the first African American student to the group.

Cox also made his place within other organizations such as the Physics Club, where he acted as secretary in his senior year. That year his brother, Alvalon, also joined him in the club. The African American fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, accepted him in 1915. He truly had an abundance of positive influences here at IU—but he, and the other African American students, still faced unfair treatment in different aspects of their education. His transcripts would read “colored student” across the top. He would be listed at the end of the graduates in the Arbutus in 1917, along with the other three African American graduates. And finally, he would be denied membership in the honor society Phi Beta Kappa despite his outstanding academic achievements. It is possible that they denied him purely because of his race. That being said, Cox (understandably) may have had mixed feelings about IU by the time he left.

Cornell’s Perfect Fit

Cox spent some of his time after IU as a math and physics teacher in the segregated schools of Henderson, Kentucky. In a letter to IU President William Lowe Bryan, he revealed that he had been inducted into military service and requested a letter of recommendation. This service would take him to Des Moines, Iowa and France for around nine months.

He later told his sons that he enjoyed being in the military and serving his country.

From there, he went to Shaw University in North Carolina for three years as a professor of the sciences and eventually became the head of the Department of Natural Science. However, by 1921, he was ready to further his education, and began the application process for a doctoral program at Cornell University.

Two of those professors from IU who had guided him during his time as an undergrad were happy to provide him with letters of recommendation during his application process. Davisson wrote in his letter, “[Cox] surpasses any colored man I have known as a student in mathematics.” Dantzig wrote two letters, worried that Cox would have “certain difficulties…because of the fact that he is of the colored race,” but that Cox would “develop into a man of whom the American mathematical world may be justly proud.” With these recommendations, Cox was able to gain acceptance after another candidate dropped from the competition.

The founder and the first president of Cornell University made sure that Cornell would be a perfect fit for Cox. Ezra Cornell (1807-1874) founded the university with hopes that it would provide equal opportunities for all who wished to be educated, and greatly opposed the practice of slavery. Andrew Dickson White (1832-1918), the first president of Cornell, promoted the admittance of both women and people of color into his university.

Cox was granted his PhD degree on September 26th, 1925. He completed a dissertation, which he published in the Tohoku Mathematical Journal in Sendai, Japan (after being declined by publishers in England and Germany) nine years after his graduation. One of his professors suggested publishing abroad to help legitimize his position as the first African-American in the world to receive his PhD in mathematics.

Life Beyond Cornell

Cox didn’t receive as much recognition during his life as he did after he passed away in 1969, but he was the first African American to be admitted into the American Mathematical Society. He worked as a professor at West Virginia State College (which was then an all-black institution) and then later Howard University in Washington D.C. Unfortunately, many scholars and professors refused to recognize his thesis as legitimate.

Regardless, he was said to be a popular professor who enjoyed his career. In 1954, he became the head of the mathematics department at Howard University. For many students, he would have acted as that same role model that his black teachers in Evansville were to him half a century earlier. After his death, he gained recognition as an African American pioneer of mathematics, and to this day is still thanked for the boundaries that he broke.