Ida Hagan: A life of firsts documented by family friend

Glenda Steele, a former St. Henry resident and awarded journalist, has created a documentary piece that highlights the life of a remarkable Dubois County native, Ida Hagan.

Ida Hagan

Ida was a resident of the Pinkston Freedom Settlement. The settlement, located near the current location of the Huntingburg Conservation Club, was founded by her great-grandfather, Emmanuel Pinkston, Sr., in 1840, as an African American community.

The settlement of about 13 separate family names eventually died away but Steele, whose maiden name is Becher, has a family connection to the Pinkston family as well as Ida’s family.

“I have heard stories about the Pinkston Freedom Settlement and its residents all my life,” Steele wrote in an email. “My grandfather, Henry Uebelhor, owned a general merchandise store in St. Henry. The settlers would bring their produce etc. (sic) to grandpa’s store and he would sell it. In addition to Ben Hagan and Larkin Pinkston traveling the community in their own wagon, grandpa sold it on his huckster as well.”

Ben Hagan was Ida’s father.

The connection between the two families was strong. Besides the commercial relationship, Henry Uebelhor’s family and the Hagans and Pinkstons were friends. The ties ran deep as Henry made efforts to help the families in their times of need.

In Steele’s documentation regarding the relationship, she relates a story of a time when her grandfather sent a calf to the Hagan and Pinkston families. The calf was delivered by ten-year-old Robert Schwinghamer Jr., Henry Uebelhor’s grandson, who later joined NASA and was renowned for his work in the space materials programs that helped create the space shuttle.

Robert’s recollection in the Uebelhor memory book includes a description of the calf becoming upset at being hauled over in a truck with young Robert holding it. “It went OK for a couple of miles, then the calf started jumping around, stepping on my bare feet, then finally defecating all over me! That was the last straw! I let go of the halter and the calf jumped out of the pickup. I got Lee to stop and we had to go out in the field and catch the damn thing,” wrote Schwinghammer before relating how gratifying it was to finally deliver the calf to the families.

The family support was reciprocated generationally.

“When grandpa could not find anyone to help him care for my grandmother and their four youngest children when the flu epidemic broke out (1918) Ida was the only one in the area who came to help,” said Steele, “and she remained until all were well. She returned several years later when grandpa had hurt his leg badly and needed assistance.”

With the family connection, Steele became interested in Ida’s accomplishments as she was reviewing letters from Ida to her grandfather when he was living in the Providence Home in Jasper in his later years. Through these letters, she realized the extent of the friendships between the families.

“I realized the friendship that had developed not only between my grandparents and the Hagans and Pinkstons but with the entire Uebelhor family,” she wrote. “I never had the privilege of meeting her, but heard many stories about her from my mother, Imelda (Milt) (Uebelhor) Becher,” Steele explained. “Mother knew her from childhood and spoke of her kindness towards everyone and the Uebelhor family, especially her father, Henry.” 

In researching these relationships, she found Ida’s amazing story of accomplishments and decided to put together the documentation.

Young Ida Hagan

Without diving in too deeply, here is a brief synopsis of Ida’s amazing life.

Ida attended school and then completed high school at Huntingburg High School after attending a single year. She was the first African American to graduate from a Dubois County school.

When Ida was 15, she was hired by Dr. Alois Wollenman to help the Ferdinand physician and pharmacist with the families two boys and other household duties. Ida also helped him with his practice and at the Ferdinand Post Office of which Wollenman was the postmaster.

He later appointed her as an assistant postmistress to the Ferdinand Post Office making her the first female assistant postmistress in Indiana. However, the appointment was met with some objection from the public who objected based on the color of her skin as well as her not being a resident of Ferdinand.

A letter writing campaign in local newspapers followed with demands for Dr. Wollenman to be removed as postmaster. In one of the few articles that included an interview of Ida, she stated, “people are glad to see me working in their houses but I cannot see why they object to my working as a deputy in the post office.

The uproar eventually died down and Ida made even more headway into local relations when she learned to speak German while helping Dr. Wollenman with his patients.

After a few years of serving as Dr. Wollenman’s physician and pharmacy assistant as well as completing a home course in pharmacy from Winona Technical Institute in Indianapolis — the precursor to Butler University — Ida became a pharmacist around 1908 at the age of 20. This was a year earlier than the State allowed but she was likely given an exemption due to the short time before she would turn 21.

This likely made her youngest female pharmacist ever licensed according to Steele’s research.

When Wollenmann’s died in 1912, Ida became temporary postmistress making her the first postmistress in the state — and possibly the country.

She later married and ended up in Indianapolis where she helped her husband, Alfred Roberts, establish several drug stores in the city before the two separated.

Ida then married Sidney Whitaker in 1926 and the couple lived in Detroit where Ida remained active. She became the president of the Detroit Division of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) was founded by elder statesman and civil rights leader, A. Philip Randolph, as the first predominantly African-American labor union. The auxiliary is known for its effort in making the union the first successful national black trade union in the nation.

She also took part in a march in Detroit in 1965 in connection with the marchers in Selma, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. In one of her few quotes found in news stories, speaking about the march, the 76-year-old Ida told the Detroit Free Press, “I just hope and pray that this is an awakening for those who don’t know what we’re up against.”

Ida Priscilla (Hagan) (Roberts) (Whitaker) died on February 3, 1978, in Detroit, Mich.

Mrs. Nancy Williams, wife of Michigan’s governor took time out several days ago to be
the principal speaker at a tea served at the Lucy Thurman Brancy YMCA by ladies of the
International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.  Shown offering congratulations are Mrs. Ida P. Whitaker (left) and Mrs. Mattie Brown (right). Detroit Tribune 1935-1966, June 14, 1952, page 10, image 10.

For Steele, these and the other accomplishments outlined in her work exemplify a life well lived.

“What Ida accomplished as a young girl is truly exceptional, and we now know when she left Ferdinand she never quit serving her fellow man – white or black, young or old, male or female,” Steele said. “One must recognize that she was a young woman of spirit and determination who set high goals for herself and achieved much against great odds throughout her entire life.”

Steele hopes her work draws light upon Ida Hagan’s lifetime of achievements.

I am hoping that Ida P. (Hagan) (Roberts) Whitaker will be honored and recognized for her many accomplishments,” Steele said. “She had many ‘firsts’ in her life.”

The result of her research is being serialized in the Ferdinand News (see the introduction on page 7 of last week’s issue here). They will continue to publish Steele’s work in future issues.

The Dubois County Museum in Jasper holds a display of the work on Ida and material should be available at the Jasper Library as well as the Ferdinand Library. Ida’s Story has been sent to the National Institution on History of Pharmacy as well as the University of South Florida’s Pharmacy’s Department who is conducting a nationwide research program on African American female pharmacists. 

Meanwhile, the Uebelhors continue to maintain the Pinkston Cemetery in recognition of that relationship that helped to build the foundation for Ida’s many accomplishments.

2 Responses to Ida Hagan: A life of firsts documented by family friend

  1. Mary Ann Verkamp June 11, 2019 at 1:40 pm #

    What an amazing story of an intelligent and compassionate woman! I would have loved to have known her!

    • Latota Reed June 18, 2019 at 3:01 pm #

      I am learning more about this amazing woman by tracing my family’s history. I am honored to be a relative on my maternal grandmother’s side (now deceased).

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