Lillian Thomas Fox · 2014
In 1900, black journalist and activist Lillian Thomas Fox shattered the class ceiling. Hired by the white male-dominated and white-owned Indianapolis News, Fox became the first African-American writer for a white newspaper in Indiana. She wrote a regular column and features about the nearly 16,000 black Hoosiers then living in Indianapolis.
The Washington, D.C., based Colored American newspaper said in a Feb. 19, 1900, column, “Mrs. Lillian Thomas-Fox, of Indianapolis, Ind., a literary woman of more than ordinary ability has been placed in charge of a column on the Indianapolis News, the leading afternoon paper in Indianapolis.
“She receives a snug salary and is the first colored woman in the West who has thus been recognized by the white daily press.”
Her column, News of the Colored Folk, ran until 1915 when failing eyesight forced her retirement.
In her speech, “Women in Journalism,” before the Afro-American Press Association in August 1900, Lillian was quoted in The Indianapolis Journal newspaper saying, “No human device holds a more exalted place in mankind’s regard than does the pen.”
Attired in her fashionable Gibson Girl style, including hat and gloves, the pioneer journalist traveled to speak and write about issues of importance to blacks and the nation. Two years after leaving The News, she died from a heart attack on Aug. 29, 1917.
Wilma L. Moore, African-American history senior archivist at the Indiana Historical Society, praised her accomplishments.
“Man or woman, black or white, Lillian Thomas Fox’s feats were extraordinary, remarkable and exceptional. She was a true leader with grit. And one of those rare souls who could write about it, talk about it, and do it.”
The eldest child of the Rev. Byrd Parker, pastor of Quinn African Methodist Episcopal Church, and schoolteacher Jane Janette Johnson, Lillian was born in Chicago in 1854. In 1860, the family lived in Oshkosh, Wis.
As a superb orator, Rev. Parker started an AME church and championed civil rights before the Wisconsin legislature. He died of pneumonia April 30, 1860.
Lillian’s widowed mother then married barber Robert E. Thomas, by whom she had four more children, and Lillian began using the name Thomas, which she continued throughout her life.
According to Ball State University student Frances A. Toler’s 1978 master’s thesis, Lillian moved to Indianapolis with her mother in 1885. She soon became a highly acclaimed state and national public speaker. In 1891, Fox was hired as a reporter and correspondent editor for the Indianapolis Freeman, a nationally prominent black newspaper.
“Lillian Thomas Fox was a woman ahead of her time,” said Toler, a recently retired educator with the Federal Judicial Center, living in Silver Spring, Md. “She was the only woman on the five-member editorial staff of the Indianapolis Freeman. The Freeman, largely supported by Booker T. Washington, was an advocate for ‘Negro self-betterment through economic independence.’
“All of the writers, including Lillian, wrote in a style to advance Washington’s philosophy. Of necessity, her writing style had to change when she was hired by The Indianapolis News,” Toler continues. “What did not change was her commitment to use her skills as a journalist to dispel the notion that blacks were not willing to work for their own betterment. Perhaps in her own way, she built a bridge between the white and black communities of Indianapolis.”
In 1892, the independent and self-confident woman was the first black person from Indianapolis to take the state civil service examination for clerkship.
In 1893, she married James E. Fox, a Jamaican immigrant tailor from Pensacola, Fla. He relocated his business to Indianapolis, and Lillian retired from The Freeman. In those days, educated, middle-class women were expected to tend to homemaking.
But she continued her involvement in community organizations, attaining national prominence as a public speaker at political and religious organizations. She founded the Indianapolis Women’s Improvement Club and was an organizing member of the Indianapolis Anti-Lynching League. She was Indiana’s representative to the executive committee of the National Afro-American Council. She was also an active member of the Afro-American Council, the Negro Business League, the Atlanta Congress of Colored Women at the 1895 National Exposition and the National Association of Colored Women.
Tragedy struck in 1893 when Lillian’s mother and brother, Charles Bushrod Thomas, died within two days of each other from tuberculosis.
Fox’s anguish turned to activism. She and Indianapolis’ first black female physician, Beulah Wright Porter, co-founded the Indianapolis Women’s Improvement Club in 1903.
According to a September 1984 Indiana Magazine of History article written by University of Rhode Island associate professor of history Earline Rae Ferguson, Fox and Porter “helped the club to become a forceful advocate for African-Americans suffering with TB at a time when health care was separate and unequal.”
Calling Fox “a superb organizer,” Ferguson also credits Fox with founding the Indiana State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
Two years after their marriage, Lillian and her husband separated. He left Indianapolis after reportedly suffering business reverses. That prompted Lillian’s return to journalism. And that’s when she made journalism history by joining The Indianapolis News.
When the black community chronicler died, The Freeman wrote, “Lillian Thomas Fox worked tirelessly to ensure African-American community survival (physical, mental, holistic) and to end Jim Crow segregation. She was an original thinker and one who dare(d) to flout the dogma or philosophy be it ever so popular which do not consist with (her) cardinal principles of justice and right.”
African-American archivist Moore concurs, saying, “Lillian Thomas Fox was a progressive era journalist, an elocutionist and a club woman. A career woman and a caretaker, she sued the Southern Railroad for discrimination after she was denied seating in an area of a train for which she had paid.”
She is buried in Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery. The Indiana State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs paid for her grave marker, says Ferguson.
Moore calls Lillian Thomas Fox a leader and an advocate. “Through her newspaper and club work, she was an activist – a woman before her time, as well as a woman for all seasons.”
— by Julie Slaymaker, former president of the Indiana Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and Woman’s Press Club of Indiana