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Archives - 2020


The Hoosier History Live archives are now organized by year. See the links above for all 10 years of our show descriptions and resources.

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The legacy of Indy native James Baskett and Song of the South

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(January 11, 2020) Even specialists in African-African history could be forgiven for drawing a blank at the mention of the name of Indianapolis native James Baskett. In spite of being the first black male actor to win an Oscar - for a role in which he sang a song that also won an Academy Award - Baskett's place in the annals of African-American history seems to be largely forgotten.

In 1948 James Baskett received an honorary Academy Award for his role in Disney's Song of the South. That's because the role for which Baskett won his honorary Oscar was that of Uncle Remus in the much maligned, now virtually banned film Song of the South. The Disney musical was a modest hit when it was released in 1946, but changing sensibilities about race over the past three quarters of a century have made the film toxic to the image-conscious studio.

Disney chose not to release the film for home viewing during the 1980s VCR boom; nor did they cash in on a DVD release in recent decades. With the 2019 advent of the Disney+ streaming service, Song of the South has once again found itself locked out of the Magic Kingdom. 

And not without good cause. Film critics and historians have condemned the film's sweetly nostalgic portrayal of the social hierarchy of the post-Civil War, Reconstruction-era South. As Guardian film blogger Xan Brooks put it recently, "the film trades in a dubious form of myth-making - implying that African-Americans stuck below the Mason-Dixon line were a cheerful bunch who liked nothing better than going fishing, spinning tall tales and looking after white folks' kids."

The very title of the film and its focus on song can be viewed as perpetuating a racist myth. As 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass - who himself escaped slavery - commented, the singing of enslaved people in the Southern United States was not evidence of their contentment or happiness.

"It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake," Douglas wrote. "Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy."

Brer Rabbit in Song of the South. The origin of the character can be traced to folklore in native African cultures.But does the film deserve to be virtually banned, especially when a novel like Gone with the Wind and its 1939 film adaption - with all their racial stereotyping, glorification of white privilege and perpetuation of the myth of the "happy slave" - are still held up as classics?

Does Song of the South have anything to offer the modern viewer? Does the legacy of Hoosier James Baskett deserve to be reevaluated? 

To explore these questions and more, Hoosier History Live associate producer and guest host Mick Armbruster is joined in studio by two guests. They are:
  • Film historian Eric Grayson, who specializes in the collection and preservation of vintage films;
  • and Ophelia Wellington, director of Freetown Village, a living history museum she founded in 1982 out of a desire to teach African American history.

We also look into how Baskett's portrayal of the Uncle Remus character might teach us something about the role of folklore in African-American culture, and explore how the content of his tales - with their focus on the archetypal trickster Brer Rabbit - can be traced back to folklore found among native cultures in Africa.

And while our discussion may not leave listeners whistling "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," we hope it does give them an appreciation of the legacy of James Baskett and a more nuanced understanding of the film he starred in.

Roadtrip: Corydon in southern Indiana

The original state Capitol building in Corydon, Ind., which served as Indiana's government center from 1816 to 1825. Courtesy Indiana State Museum.

Guest Roadtripper Jeff Kamm, author and teacher at Zionsville Community Schools, invites us to travel to the southern border of the Hoosier state - and go back in time 200 years - to visit Corydon, Ind.

As Jeff explains, Corydon was founded in 1808 and served as the capital of the Indiana Territory from 1813 until the milestone year of 1816, when Indiana became a state. The town's status as state capital lasted only until 1825, however, when that designation shifted north to Indianapolis.

While visiting Corydon, Jeff suggests you explore the historic Corydon Capitol building that served as the original Statehouse from 1816-1825. You can also check out the Constitution Elm, where delegates drafted Indiana's first state constitution. The tree has long since died, but the trunk has been preserved and encased in a large sandstone monument.

Civil War buffs will want to visit the site of the only Civil War battle fought in Indiana; along with Gettysburg, it's one of only two Civil War battlefields on Northern soil. The Battle of Corydon Memorial Park is located just south of town and remains largely unchanged from when the battle was fought in July of 1863, when Morgan's Raiders crossed the Ohio River into Indiana and continued their way northeast into Ohio.

Don't miss this step back in time with Jeff!


History Mystery

Our mystery Hollywood Hoosier (second from left) was hired by Orson Welles (kneeling) to work on the films Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.

Sound of the South was released in 1946. Just a few years earlier, in 1942, the novel The Magnificent Ambersons by Indiana author Booth Tarkington was made into a film by director Orson Welles. Welles hired a young man from Indiana with whom he had worked on Citizen Kane to be editor of The Magnificent Ambersons. After filming was complete and Welles was out of the country, the studio put pressure on the Indiana-born editor to shorten the film drastically and even give it a different ending. Welles was furious and blamed the editor for "destroying" the film. 

Question: Who was the Indiana-born editor who drastically altered the original version of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons?

Hint: The editor went on to have major Hollywood success, including numerous hit films and best director Oscars for West Side Story in 1962 (shared with Jerome Robbins) and Sound of Music in 1965.

The prizes this week are a gift certificate to Story Inn in Brown County, courtesy of Story Inn, and two admissions to the Indiana History Center, courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society.  


Centennial of Indy in 1920, Bicentennial era in 2020-21

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In 1920, the city of Indianapolis celebrated its centennial with pageantry; in 1971, its 150th birthday jubilee included the issue of a commemorative coin. In this show, we look back to these celebrations and also look ahead to the 2020 city bicentennial.

(January 4, 2020) With our first show of the new year, Hoosier History Live looks both backward and forward.

That's because our focus is not only on how the city of Indianapolis celebrated its 100th birthday in 1920, but also on how the Hoosier capital plans to salute its bicentennial jubilee, which kicks off in June. We also explore what happened in 1971, when Indy threw a year-long sesquicentennial (or 150th) birthday celebration.

Jeff BennettNelson's studio guest is Deputy Mayor Jeff Bennett of Indianapolis, who is a key figure in planning the upcoming events. The Indianapolis Bicentennial Commission is co-chaired by two former mayors, Greg Ballard and Bart Peterson.

In June 1920, an "Indianapolis Centennial Pageant" at the Coliseum on the Indiana State Fairgrounds consisted of seven "episodes,"  or acts, with titles such as "Coming of the Pioneers" and "Selecting a Site," according to booklets and other memorabilia distributed then. 

Reenactors portrayed such historic characters as early settlers John McCormick and George Pogue; Indiana's first governor, Jonathan Jennings; surveyor Alexander Ralston, who planned the city, and Dr. Isaac Coe, one of the first physicians to arrive in the new state capital.

The grand finale of a six-day birthday party for the city's centennial in 1920 was held at the White River. Thousands of residents lined the river banks for a band concert and enjoyed a parade of illuminated riverboats, followed by fireworks, according to the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis.

In 1971, the city's 150th birthday involved a year-long celebration that included a multimedia extravaganza at the Murat Shrine Temple (now the Murat Theatre at Old National Centre). The Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosted a special antique car parade and race. 

A note on the disparity of dates: The city's centennial was celebrated in 1920 after civic leaders decided to identify 1820 as the birth of the city because of a meeting held that year to specify the location of the new state capital. In 1971, however, the founding was defined as 1821, the year when the Indiana General Assembly approved the site and Ralston laid out the city.

Alexander Ralston created the original lat map of Indianapolis in 1821.Hoosier History Live has explored aspects of Indy's deepest history on previous programs. These have included a show in June 2019 about the earliest settlers. The guests were a descendant of McCormick (who built a cabin and tavern in what is now White River State Park) and Jordan Ryan of the Indiana Historical Society, which has launched an Indianapolis Bicentennial Project. In 2013 we explored the life of Ralston (1771-1827), a native of Scotland who helped plan Washington D.C. before coming to the Indiana wilderness and designing the city.

Our guest on this new show, Jeff Bennett, has a history degree from Indiana University and has been deputy mayor since 2016. His career includes serving as Warren Township's trustee and working at Indiana Landmarks, the historic preservation organization.

The Bicentennial that kicks off in June 2020 is being described as the celebration of an "era" because it will extend through May 2021 as a salute to historic events in both 1820 and 1821. The Bicentennial Commission already has endorsed several projects, including some being organized by Visit Indy and Indy Hub.

Jeff Bennett describes those projects during our show as well as a Bicentennial mural series sponsored by the Arts Council of Indianapolis.

Last year, city leaders also invited submissions from artists for a Bicentennial logo. The winning logo will be unveiled later in January.

Community groups, including neighborhood organizations, have been urged to submit proposals that may be endorsed as Bicentennial projects. According to Jeff, the roll-out eventually will involve an announcement every month about endorsed community projects along with partnerships involving various sports, arts, civic and cultural organizations.

History Mystery

1899 newspaper rendering of the cabin John McCormick built on the banks of the White River in 1820, in the area  that would become Indianapolis. What was the name of the town John McCormick (along with George Pogue) traveled from when he came to the site of the future state capital?  Courtesy Mike Todd.

In 1820, the earliest white settlers arrived in the isolated area - primarily swamps and marshland - that was to become Indianapolis. Both of the two first white settlers, John McCormick and George Pogue, made their way to the wilderness area from a town in eastern Indiana. That town, one of the oldest in the state, had been established in 1813. The town is named in honor of its founder, a fur trader who was a member of an influential family in early Indiana.

Question: What town did John McCormick and George Pogue leave to travel to the frontier area that became Indianapolis?

Hint: Today, the town is a city of about 12,700 people.

The prizes this week are a gift certificate to Story Inn in Brown County, courtesy of Story Inn, and four admissions to Indy’s Teen Statue of Liberty Museum on East 10th Steet, courtesy of Tim and Julie's Another Fine Mess.



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