Harriette Bailey Conn: A Groundbreaking Life and Career

Note: Many of the posts on this blog also appear as article in the Butler Tarkington Neighborhood Association newsletter. Such is the case of this post, about a remarkable person and civil servant, who also called Butler-Tarkington home. The spring edition of the BTNA newsletter will feature a version of this post.


Recently, the Indiana History Bureau dedicated a new historical marker near the intersection of Capital Avenue and Washington Street in downtown Indianapolis. The marker is dedicated to Harriette Bailey Conn, and while the marker is well outside the bounds of Butler-Tarkington, it still has a neighborhood connection. Mrs. Conn led a remarkable life, and for over a decade lived at 308 Northern Avenue in Butler-Tarkington.

Harriette Bailey Conn Indianapolis history Butler Tarkington
Indiana State Library Photograph Collection

Conn graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in 1937 near the top of her class, and as a member of the National Honor Society (one source noted she graduated at the age of 14). She went on to attend Talladega College in Alabama, where she studied English and speech, and graduated in 1941. In 1950, at the age of 28, she enrolled at the Indiana University Law School in Indianapolis. Her father, R.L. Bailey, had also been a prominent attorney in Indianapolis. He had passed away in 1940, but in a multi-page spread in the Indianapolis Star Magazine in 1973 (part of their “Hoosier in Profile” feature by Susan Lennis), Conn recalled that “[m]y father had intended for me to be an attorney when I was young. His guidance led me to take Latin history and other courses that he thought would be helpful at Attucks.” She attended night classes at IU, and balancing school with raising her six children was what she called a “family project,” including help from her mother and brother. The law school reported Conn as the first African American female graduate from the school and she was admitted to the Indiana bar to practice law on June 15, 1955.


Crispus Attucks Indianapolis History
Program for the Tenth Annual Commencement of the Crispus Attucks High School, 1937

Following her graduation from law school, and a brief stint in private practice with her father’s former law partner, Conn embarked upon a career in public serve, and in October of 1955, she was appointed as a deputy attorney general for the state of Indiana under then Attorney General Edwin K. Steers. Many of the local media reports about her achievement also mentioned that Conn had seven children, and that she had continued to balance her household while in law school. The Indianapolis Recorder, in a front-page story on October 8, 1955, lauding Conn’s achievement, also noted that her course of study at IU Indianapolis law school had been “interrupted several times for family reasons.” While at the attorney general’s office, Conn handled extradition cases, Civil Rights Commission matters, advised represented various public retirements funds. She kept this position for 10 years, until 1965.


In 1965 Conn left the attorney general’s office and opened her own law practice, in association with two other attorneys, Jane Hunt Davis and Marie Theresa Lauck, and also worked as an abstractor for the predecessor of the Indiana Department of Transportation. In July of 1965 she served as a deputy prosecutor in Marion County. However, it didn’t take long for Conn, a lifelong Republican, to become the subject of speculation about a possible run for judicial office. On July 18, 1965, the Indianapolis Star reported that if Conn won a judicial seat, she would be Marion County’s first female judge. However, Conn instead directed her efforts towards running for state representative in the 1966 election, a position that she won.


While in the General Assembly, Conn authored several bills, including those focused on civil liberties, and property rights for women. In 1967 she authored a bill which would expand a woman’s abortion rights, which she told the Star in 1973 brought her the most “notoriety,” and was an issue that she felt was a moral matter, and not a legal one. The bill passed both the Indiana House and Senate but was then vetoed by Governor Robert Branigan. Conn told the Indianapolis Star that the bill “would have been an opportunity for the state to give women as much right of control over their own bodies as over their own property.” She also told the Star that while she had not expected the veto, she was not shocked. She concluded by noting that “[n]ow nobody can say people are unaware of the need for liberalized abortion laws. It was at least an educational venture.” Conn ran for re-election in 1968, and once again won her seat. She was featured in a special full-color insert into the Indianapolis News promoting Marion County Republicans. The full insert is available for viewing at this link, courtesy of the Institute for Civic Leadership and Mayoral Archives at the University of Indianapolis. An enhanced graphic of the pages from this section which detailed the Republican candidates for House of Representatives, with Conn highlighted, is pictured below.


While serving in the legislature Conn also held a position as attorney for the city of Indianapolis, as she was not permitted to remain in her prosecutor role while serving in the General Assembly. In this position she advised the city council, and worked on various projects, including matters related to the Indianapolis Human Right Commission. The letters below, again a part of the Mayoral Archives at the University of Indianapolis, detail a small piece of her work for the commission and involve a letter she wrote to then Mayor Richard Lugar regarding modifications to the ordinances which governed the city's Human Rights Commission:


Conn’s legislative career, and her role as a city attorney, came to a close in March of 1970, when she appointed to the position of the public defender for the state of Indiana, becoming the first female to hold that position. The appointment was made by then Chief Justice Mel Thornburg of the Indiana Supreme Court, following her predecessor’s resignation. As a result of this appointment, Conn had to resign her seat in the General Assembly and withdraw as a candidate in the May 1970 primary election. In her role as public defender, Conn would provide appeal services to imprisoned inmates seeking to challenge their sentence. In an interview with the Indianapolis Star on March 29, 1970, Conn recognized the difficulty of her role, noting that “I can’t come in expecting a high percentage of victories, but I’ll feel it’s worthwhile if I can correct cases in which there has been a denial of rights.” Statistics quoted by the Star indicated more than 90% of the appeals filed by inmates were found to be without merit. Despite this difficulty, Conn still believed that the public defender was “a job society owes to people who have been deprived of their freedom.”


This job was not an easy one, and Conn experienced victories and defeats in representing inmates in their appeals. In October of 1971, the Indiana Supreme Court reversed an armed robbery conviction for James Blackmon, a Muncie man who was serving ten years as an accomplice in an armed robbery. Conn represented Blackmon in his appeal, along with the person convicted of the actual robbery, Raymond Issacs. The Supreme Court determined that the only evidence against Blackmon was that he was seen speaking to Issacs prior to the robbery and was in a car with Issacs when the latter was arrested. The court held that “too many links are missing to allow the conviction of Blackmon to stand,” and his sentence was overturned, while Issacs’s appeal was denied.


In 1974, Conn’s office represented William Johnson, who had been convicted of first-degree murder in 1957. While Johnson had pled guilty in 1958, he attempted to reopen his case with an argument that the trial court had not established a factual basis for the plea. However, the effort was unsuccessful, and the Supreme Court upheld the conviction 5-0.


In March of 1971, Conn was appointed to the Indiana Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights. Sometime in the early 1970’s Conn moved from her Butler-Tarkington home on Northern Avenue to a new residence at 8105 Hilltop Lane, on the northeast side of the city, near Sargent and Fall Creek Roads. She continued to work as the public defender and expanded the office's staff and capacity to represent inmates. In the 1973 “Hoosier in Profile” feature in the Star, Conn was described as “soft spoken, yet her ideas are forceful and her thoughts carefully phrased for maximum impact.”


In 1974 she ran for judge in Marion County Superior Court 5. While she was noted to be “campaigning strongly,” the party choice for candidate in the primary, Myron H. Budnick, won the election. Two days after the election, with 643 of 679 pf precincts reporting, Budnick had garnered 27,744 votes to Conn’s 5,815.

Harriette Bailey Conn Indianapolis history Butler Tarkington
Indianapolis News, May 6, 1974

Conn was active in a variety of commissions and community groups in addition to her political activities. The 1973 Star profile noted her involvement in Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, the local NAACP, and was active with the Happy Gardeners Club. She also served on the Indiana Criminal Law Study Commission in the late 1970’s which addressed various issues related to criminal procedure, including categorizing wiretapping as a felony, except in a few specific circumstances. She was also in high demand as a speaker, giving presentations and speeches at numerous churches (see the announcement below) and community evets.

Harriette Bailey Conn Unitarian Church Butler Tarkington
Indianapolis News, August 28, 1971

Conn passed away on August 21, 1981. The Indianapolis Star quoted then lieutenant governor John Mutz, who had joined the General Assembly at the same time as Conn, as remembering her as “a fantastic person who through her own intelligence and sensitivity created a law practice for herself and an outstanding life of public service.” The two-sided historic marker installed at Capital Avenue and Washington Street appropriately refer to Conn as "trailblazing," and provide highlights of her life and career.




Sources


Indianapolis Recorder: October 8, 1955, September 14, 1957. March 27, 1971, August 28, 1971


Indianapolis News: June 3, 1955, March 24, 1970, November 25, 1975


Indianapolis Star: October 4, 1955, March 14, 1967, March 29, 1970, October 28, 19712, May 6, 1974, May 8, 1974, November 18, 1979, August 22, 1981


Tenth Annual Commencement of the Crispus Attucks High School (1937) Crispus Attucks Museum, https://indianamemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/CAttucks/id/6342/rec/1


Harriette Vesta Baily Conn, '55, Was IU McKinney's First African-American Female Graduate, https://mckinneylaw.iu.edu/news/releases/2018/02/harriette-vesta-baily-conn-55-was-iu-mckinneys-first-african-american-female-graduate.html


Everyday People: Harriette Bailey Conn, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Summer 2008, Volume 20, Number 3, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll39/id/6490


Harriette Bailey Conn, Indiana State Library Photograph Collection, https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/ISL_p16066coll13-4903


Harriette Bailey to Mayor Lugar, April 18, 1968, Digital Mayoral Archives, University of Indianapolis, https://uindy.historyit.com/item.php?id=355302


Mayor Lugar to Harriette Bailey Conn, April 22, 1968, Digital Mayoral Archives, University of Indianapolis, https://uindy.historyit.com/item.php?id=356481


Black History News and Notes, 1997 - Black History News and Notes, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll66/id/76/rec/1/


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