Lillian Fox and the Establishment of the Oak Hill Tuberculosis Camp

Living in a time when Madame C.J. Walker was building her business empire, the exploits and efforts of Lillian Thomas Fox are sometimes hidden in the background, and not as well know in Indianapolis. Fox was born in Chicago in 1866 and then lived with her family in Wisconsin before moving to Indianapolis in 1885. Fox had an active life in Indianapolis, and she was perhaps most widely known for her journalism career, which started with the Indianapolis Freeman in 1891 where she worked as a reporter and editor.

In 1893, Lillian met James E. Fox, tailor, whom she married that same year. After their marriage, Lillian stepped away from her position with the Freeman and although she was active in various community groups. Lillian returned to her journalism roots around 1900 when she began to work for the Indianapolis News, one of the city’s major dailies, and was the author of a long running African American focused column alternatively called News [or Notes] of the Colored Folk or News in Colored Circles. This unprecedented position added to her journalistic stature from her previous stint at the Freeman, although her byline did not appear on the column. The column ran for over a decade, concluding in 1914 when Fox's failing eyesight forced her to suspend the column.


(Note: There was conflict between sources whether Lillian Fox began work for the News after she and her husband separated in 1895 or after his death in 1898. As noted in the records below, she continued to use the name Fox)

However, her journalistic activities were only one component of Fox’s busy life in Indianapolis. As noted, she was very involved in various community groups, especially in the African American community club and church social scenes in Indianapolis at the turn of the century. She was a founding member of the Anti-Lynching League and was a delegate to the National Afro-American Council. Perhaps most notably, in 1903 she founded the Women’s Improvement Club, or “WIC,” a literary club with a fairly exclusive membership (only 20 members), which expanded its activities into social efforts and community outreach in the Indianapolis area.


The Indiana Historical Society maintains the papers from Women's Improvement Club, although those records have not been digitized. The below image is from the 1910 minutes for the organization, and shows the membership list for that year (Thanks to the IHS staff who assisted in obtaining digital copies of these pages). Note Lillian Fox as number nine on the list, residing at 631 W. North Street, a location which is currently occupied by an IUPUI parking garage, about 700 feet to the west of the Madam Walker Theater. Beulah Porter, a partner in the founding of WIC, and the first female African American physician to practice in Indianapolis, is also on the membership list (among other prominent African American women from the club scene of the time).

Credit: Indiana Historical Society, M0432

One cause taken up by the WIC was an effort to combat tuberculosis in the African American community in Indianapolis. Earline Rae Ferguson, in her article, The Women’s Improvement Club Indianapolis: Black Women Pioneers in Tuberculosis Work 1903-1938, noted a report in the Monthly Bulletin of the Indiana State Department of Health that there were 184.2 tuberculosis deaths per 100,000 African American residents in the state, compared to 111.2 for white residents. Poor housing and sanitary conditions in African American neighborhoods in Indianapolis, in addition to the lack of services, contributed to increased levels of tuberculosis in the city.

Credit: Indiana Historical Society, C2194

In Indianapolis, public resources were developed to combat tuberculosis, in addition to the efforts of private benevolent organizations. In many cases, these efforts excluded African American patients, or their care was limited to an absolute minimum. The impact of tuberculosis had hit close to home for Lillian Fox in 1894, when her brother and mother both died of the disease within a week of each other. Whether this spurred Fox’s future efforts through the WIC is not clear, although it could have been a consideration.

To address the need for tuberculosis treatment options for African Americans, WIC moved forward community outreach and education programs, as well as opening a fresh air camp in 1905, where patients could undergo treatment for tuberculosis while being exposed to the benefits of fresh air and the outdoors. As discussed in the Fairview Park Summer Mission blog posting from 2018, these fresh air camps were seen as an effective treatment for a variety of ailments, especially those rooted in the overcrowded and less than healthful conditions in early 20th century urban environments. The fresh air was meant to rejuvenate and strengthen a person, and hopefully make them able to resist disease.

The location chosen for the WIC camp was in the Oak Hill area of Indianapolis, on the northeast side of the city, in what is today the Brightwood neighborhood. Sometimes referred to Fletcher’s Oak Hill addition, the land in that area of the city had long belonged to the Fletcher family, before being subdivided, and is centered around the intersections of Hillside and Keystone with 25th Street. One parcel was owned by William Haueisen, a local businessman, who allowed the WIC to use the land for their camp (#103 in the map below).

Credit: IUPUI, Indianapolis Baist Atlas Plan # 22, 1908

The Oak Hill Camp was limited in its physical size, and the size of its operations, with reports of around a dozen patients being treated at any given time. Often the camp was only opened for a few months out of the year. On October 2, 1909, the Indianapolis News reported that the camp had just closed for season, after opening in early July. The News further noted that "[t]he class of the patients has bene[sic] changed during the last season, no tubercular patients being admitted to the camp," an emphasis that year on rejuvenating at-risk individuals or those susceptible to the disease. On May 8, 1915, the Indianapolis Recorder described the work of the WIC and the Oak Hill camp:


"Very few colored people in this city and throughout this State are aware of the work done by the Women's Improvement Club in its fight against the terrible ravages of tuberculosis among our people. Much good has been accomplished although their work has wrought many hardships upon its faithful promoters. Often from the crowded and squalid homes in the city to the Camp on Oak Hill, studded with its great trees and sanitary tents, these unfortunate persons, cut down often in the prime of life and oftener in their youth, have been given a chance to regain health by living in God's out of doors breathing the fresh pure air..."


Onsite at the camp, tents and temporary buildings were used to house patients and provide treatments. In 1905, the camp started with three tents, and materials for the establishment of the camp was donated by various local businesses. No maps were located which actually noted the camp (the Haueisen property noted above is the closest I could get to the location), although the temporary nature of the development at the site may be the cause of this.


In 1909, the minutes of the WIC noted that the club had wanted to construct permanent cottages on the site, although they needed permission of Haueisen to do so. Ada Harris was the chairwoman of the committee charged with obtaining permission for the cottages. Unfortunately, she reported on June 3, 1910 (as reflected in the minutes for that meeting), that Haueisen was traveling out of the city, and his son "would not make any promises until he had consulted his father." Ida Bryant, another member, argued that she did not think there was any risk to constructing the cottages without permission, as long as the WIC had the means to do so. The minutes noted that Lillian Fox indicated that she understood there to be enough funds, although the treasurer then reported there was only enough for one cottage, although she then said the club "can do as they please with the funds," and then tendered her resignation. It does not appear the permanent cottages were built.

The limitation of the size and facilities for the camp may have been partially due to the size of the available land, but also the financial support for the camp and treatment was in a constant state want. WIC's financial records for 1910 show $25.00 in disbursements in support of the camp, out of a total of $101 disbursements made that year. Note the various disbursements, including to the camp, made to Lillian Fox during this year.

Credit: Indiana Historical Society, M0432

Fundraisers were regularly run to help raise money for the camp. On March 27, 1909, the Indianapolis Star reported that a play called “The Dance of the Faries” would be presented at the Flanner Guild Hall for the benefit of the WIC and “its fresh air camp on Oak Hill.” The article further noted that the desire of WIC was to expand the operations of the camp in order to maintain a “rest mission” that was “on the order of the Fairview settlement,” a reference to the Summer Mission at Fairview Park.

Indianapolis Recorder, July 12, 1913

That same month in 1909, a performance of the play “Hiawatha” was held, with proceeds directed towards the construction of the permanent cabin referenced above. $300 was raised from this performance. A friendly baseball game between the staffs of the Indianapolis Freeman and Indianapolis Recorder was advertised in the latter on July 12, 1913, with the proceeds of the game to benefit the Oak Hill camp. Admission was 10 cents, although I could not locate the result of the game. Additional funds were received from the local Red Cross chapter and direct donations from other businesses and citizens.

Eventually, in 1916, financial stressors, along with the ever-advancing development of Indianapolis into the area around the camp, forced its closure. Ferguson notes a growing trend away from institutional care for tuberculosis patients, and an emphasis on home-based care also may have contributed to the camp’s elimination. Additionally, the camp was only open during the warm summer months, which limited the services that WIC could provide. Ferguson further described how after the camp was closed, the WIC focused its efforts to more year-round activities. like home visits, education, and social work targeting tuberculosis.

Lillian Thompson Fox passed away in 1917, not long after the camp’s closure. Her obituary in the News noted her work for the paper, her involvement with the WIC, and that she was "prominently identified with all welfare work among the colored people of the city." Today, the land where the Oak Hill camp was located is part of an office park, less than half a mile northwest of the Interstate 70 and Keystone Avenue Interchange. The land which held the camp actually remained mostly undeveloped as a vegetated lot until the mid-2000's, when it was developed. The image below shows the area where the camp was located as it appears today. The red outline is the location of the camp and the Haueisen property. The I-70/Keystone interchange is in the bottom right hand corner of the image.



Sources

Ferguson, Earline Rae, Lillian Thomas Fox, Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame, https://ijhf.org/fox-lillian-thomas

Indianapolis Recorder, May 8, 1915, July 12, 1913, December 26, 1914


Indianapolis Star, March 27, 1909, April 30, 1909, April 25, 1915

Indianapolis News, March 31, 1909, October 2, 1909, August 5, 1905, August 29, 1917


Ferguson, E. (1987) Lillian Thomas Fox: Indianapolis Journalist and Community Leader, Black History News and Notes, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p16797coll66/id/97/rec/1


Ferguson, E. (1988). The Woman's Improvement Club of Indianapolis: Black Women Pioneers in Tuberculosis Work, 1903–1938. Indiana Magazine of History, 84(3), 237-261. Retrieved August 13, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/27791176


Note: The above source is an excellent in-depth look at the Oak Hill camp and tuberculosis efforts in Indiana by the WIC.

Women’s Improvement Club Papers, 1909-1965, Indiana Historical Society, M0432, https://indianahistory.org/wp-content/uploads/womans-improvement-club-collection-1909-1965.pdf


Warren, Stanley (2008) Tuberculosis: The White Plaque, Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Spring 2008, Volume 20, Number 2, http://images.indianahistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/p16797coll39/id/4409


Oak Hill Tuberculosis Open Air Camp (image), Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/V0002/id/5928/rec/38




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