Ida P. Hagan, born in 1888 near the Pinkston Freedom Settlement in Dubois County, has a story that for so long has been withering with time. Hagan was the first African American female postmistress in Indiana in 1904 when Dr. Alois G. Wollenmann appointed her as his assistant in the post office. She was just 16 years old.
Now, more than a century later, some of the state’s leaders, headed by Sen. Mike Braun, are trying to take Hagan’s story to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a Smithsonian Institution museum in Washington, D.C.
Hagan lived in the Pinkston Freedom Settlement, an African American settlement founded by her great-grandfather. It was near the town of Ferdinand, where Dr. Wollenmann — who was also a pharmacist and physician — needed help with his businesses and kids after his wife died giving birth.
That Dr. Wollenmann appointed Hagan assistant postmistress was controversial in Ferdinand, a town settled in southern Dubois County in 1840 by mostly German-speaking people from central Europe. The town’s people wondered why Hagan, a young Black girl, was chosen over scores of white girls who also applied.
“There was a lot of animosity, and hatred in some cases,” said Glenda Steele, who spent about six years researching Hagan’s life and accomplishments, “that a white girl wasn’t chosen.”
A 1904 article in the Jasper Herald read: “Our postmaster in Ferdinand has taken Miss Ida Hagan (colored) as his deputy. The citizens of Ferdinand do not appreciate it much.” The story goes into a poem that includes the N-word.
But Hagan persevered. Aside from helping Dr. Wollenmann in the post office, she also helped him take care of his kids. Hagan stayed with Dr. Wollenmann Monday through Friday and then went back to the settlement on the weekends. She took the time to learn German and converted to Catholicism, which led some in Ferdinand to at least respect her more.
Hagan also helped Dr. Wollenmann in his pharmacy, and she received her license in January 1909, almost five months before her 21st birthday, significant because it was standard that one needed to be at least 21 years old to be licensed. Along with her accomplishment as postmistress, Hagan was also Indiana’s first documented African American female pharmacist. She studied pharmacy at the Winona Technical Institute of Indiana, now Butler University.
Steele said there’s a theory that Dr. Wollenmann chose Hagan as his assistant in large part because she wasn’t a Democrat like most of the people in Ferdinand. Steele said she would “put a lot of stock” into that idea. Dr. Wollenmann was a Republican, and so were the Hagans. Dr. Wollenmann vowed against having a Democrat as his assistant as long as he was there.
No matter the reason, Hagan was good at her job. When Dr. Wollenmann died in 1912 at the age of 48, eight years after she became his assistant, Hagan was appointed to be Ferdinand’s next postmistress.
Hagan didn’t stay in that role for long — only about three months — before marrying Alfred Roberts, a typesetter for the Recorder, and moving to Indianapolis. But Hagan’s legacy had been long established by then. She was a bright, kind and helpful person who endured through racist rhetoric from her own town’s people to serve as their postmistress and a pharmacist. And she was a trailblazer all the while.
Hagan remarried in 1926 and moved north to Gary. She later moved to Detroit, where she found a calling for union activism. Hagan died in Detroit on Feb. 3, 1978.
“It’s unreal,” Steele said of Hagan’s life. “… She had a lot of challenges in life, but as we go forth with this, you’ll see that she was always determined. I think she did it in the right way because she handled herself properly.”
Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.