As a young man versed in the law, Freeman Ransom sat onboard a train with plans to start a new life in Gary, Indiana.
It was 1910 and the Great Migration of African-Americans escaping hard times in the South for the promised opportunities of the North was underway. Ransom was leaving behind his boyhood home in Mississippi for northwest Indiana but a chance conversation made him change his plans.
According to family lore, Ransom met Madam C.J. Walker during the journey. The successful African-American businesswoman, who had based her hair care enterprise in Indianapolis, convinced the young attorney to get off the train a few stops early.
Ransom put down roots in the Circle City, establishing a private practice as a lawyer and, with his wife, Nettie, raising a family of five boys and one girl. He also provided legal counsel for the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co. and eventually expanded his duties to managing the business as well as helping Walker and her daughter, A’Lelia, handle their family affairs.
His third son, Willard “Mike” Ransom, followed him into the law, becoming an attorney and setting up a practice in Indianapolis.
Beyond their professional work representing clients and settling disputes, the Ransom pair pushed for equal opportunities and equal treatment for minorities. Both were active in the community, sitting on boards of businesses and nonprofits. They participated in politics, with Freeman Ransom serving on the city council and Willard Ransom helping to get the 1949 Hunter-Binder “Fair Schools” bill, a desegregation measure, through the Indiana Legislature.
Their advocacy for civil rights in the early- and mid-20th century came with danger. Lynchings, riots and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan were part of life for African-Americans.
“It would have been a lot easier to sit and do nothing but I think it’s safe to say, they didn’t sit and do nothing,” said Wilma Moore, Indiana Historical Society senior archivist of African-American history.
A fuller picture of the legacy of father and son is coming into view thanks to a donation of Ransom family papers made by Willard Ransom’s daughter, Judith Ransom-Lewis, to the historical society. The collection, cataloged and stored at the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center in Indianapolis, includes professional correspondences, personal letters, court filings, newspaper articles and photographs spanning from 1912 to 2011.
The papers had been stored in Ransom-Lewis’ garage, brought to her Indianapolis home when her mother came to live there in 1999. Thanksgiving of 2014, she piled boxes of the documents into her car and drove to Atlanta to spend the holiday with her brother Philip. The family devoted the long weekend to looking through the artifacts from their father and grandfather’s lives.
The siblings decided in order to preserve this part of their family’s history and enable others to learn about the lives of prominent African-Americans in Indianapolis, the papers needed to be turned over to the historical society.
“I think these types of things should be shared,” Ransom-Lewis said.
From the yellowed typewritten letters dated in the early 1900s, Freeman Ransom emerges as a lawyer who used courtesy and respect to gently get people to do the right thing.
To the owner of a cleaning and dyeing plant on 20th Street that was polluting the local neighborhood, he wrote in 1913, “… the general opinion is that you are not the kind of man who would maintain such a plant in such a building, with such inadequate draining, etc., against the wishes, health, and comfort of residents of said street.” A couple years later, Freeman Ransom approached a Louisville bookstore owner, W.K. Stewart, who had denied service to an African-American woman. The two traded letters over the summer of 1918 with the owner defending his actions by arguing even if he allowed minorities to patronize his business, few would want his merchandise.
Freeman Ransom responded that he appreciated the owner’s position but he went on to point out the injustice of treating others differently at a time when World War I was raging. “… it appears to me,” he wrote, “that prejudice, because of race, is such a mean, little, and low thing, especially at this time when men of all nations are fighting together for one cause with one end and one purpose … .”
Willard Ransom emulated his father in fighting racial discrimination. Among his civic work, he is credited with reviving the Indianapolis chapter of the NAACP and served as state president from 1947 to 1951. During that time, he organized sit-ins and protest marches to get businesses to comply with Indiana’s rarely used 1885 Civil Rights Law.
He attended Crispus Attucks High School, the all-black school in the city, and went on to graduate summa cum laude from Harvard Law School where he was the only African-American in a class of 300.
In a handwritten letter to his parents dated Sept. 5, 1945, Willard Ransom, who was serving as the first African-American in the judge advocate general section of the U.S. Army Air Corps, noted race still separated him from the other soldiers. Although he told his mom and dad he had experienced no problems, he said his colleagues did not understand the damage caused by racial prejudice.
“There has been no discrimination in any case – none whatsoever,” he wrote. “Of course, I doubt if I would be here if there had because I would protest and they would no doubt ship me out.”
Legacy beyond the law
Ransom-Lewis remembered her father as a man who loved the law. He did not talk about his cases around the dinner table, but he challenged his children to think and to be prepared. He wanted them to not judge others but instead try to help people to the best of their ability.
The father and son’s effort to make life better for others makes them an important part of Indianapolis history, Moore said. By working to end exclusion from jobs, neighborhoods and schools, Freeman and Willard Ransom helped open doors for many.
When solo practitioner Danielle Gregory opens her law office each morning, she exemplifies the impact Willard Ransom continues to have.
Nearing high school graduation, Gregory was nominated for the Wes Montgomery Scholarship, given to outstanding Indianapolis students in the arts and business. Gregory joined the other candidates for the roundtable interview and immediately felt out of place. She was wearing an old Easter dress that was just a little too small and, unlike the other students who came from two-parent homes, she was being raised by her grandmother and aunt.
On a break in the interview process, she was heading to the restroom when she ran into Willard Ransom who was part of the committee selecting the scholarship winners.
“You do realize you have a right to be here,” he told her. “You deserve to be here.”
Gregory has no memory of the rest of the day but she did win the scholarship which helped pay for her degree from Ball State University and encouraged her to go to Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
She credits Willard Ransom with convincing the committee to award her the scholarship.
“I know behind closed doors he had to fight for me,” she said.•