Research highlights Hagan as trailblazer for women


Ida Hagan photo courtesy of Glenda Steele

One of the early pioneers of women in pharmacy in Indiana got her start in Dubois County.

Ida Hagan was the first documented African American female pharmacist in the state, according to extensive research by Glenda (Becher) Steele of Plainfield. Steele was born in Huntingburg to Imelda (Uebelhor) and Raymond “Pete” Becher. Imelda had many interactions with Ida, as did her brother, Henry Uebelhor, who owned a local general store.

Steele presented her research at a private reception Friday — hosted by Sue Ellspermann and Jim Mehling, and attended by U.S. Sen. Mike Braun — at the Wollenmann House in Ferdinand.

She began researching Hagan nearly six years ago because she said no one really knew what happened to her once she left Ferdinand. And Steele’s interest in Ida was piqued from the many stories she had heard from her mother, who became pen pals with Ida.

“It’s inspiring the fact that she accomplished what she did at the time that she did,” Steele said.

Ida was born in Huntingburg near the Pinkston Freedom Settlement — which was founded by her great-grandfather — on May 24, 1888, to Benjamin Hagan Jr. and Millie (Pinkston) Hagan.

Ida made a name for herself locally before she ever left the county. She was the first African American in the county to graduate from a common school. She was also the first African American to attend high school in the county, graduating from Huntingburg High School.

Ida started working for Dr. Alois Wollenmann, a Ferdinand physician and pharmacist, when she was 15, assisting with Wollenmann’s two boys, household duties, duties at his practice and duties at the post office where Wollenmann was postmaster.

In 1904, Wollenmann appointed Ida deputy postmistress of the town. It was a controversial appointment, with some in town demanding Wollenmann’s resignation as postmaster for appointing an African American woman.

In a story published in the Logansport Daily Reporter on Aug. 15, 1906, Ida “said that people were glad to see her working in their houses and she cannot see why they object to her working as a deputy in the post office. She said that if she had known her appointment would have the storm that it has, she would not have accepted, but that now she will hold on to it...”

After Wollenmann’s death in 1912, Ida became temporary postmistress. She was the first postmistress in the state.

Meanwhile Ida took a home study course and graduated from Winona Technical Institute, now Butler University in Indianapolis, and received her pharmacist’s license in 1909 at the age of 20, even though pharmacist applicants had to be 21 at the time.

Steele believes Ida was most likely issued one since she was so close in age. This could’ve made her, Steele said, the youngest female pharmacist in the United States.

Ida eventually left Dubois County and worked as a pharmacist in Indianapolis and Gary. She married twice. Her first marriage was in 1912 to Alfred Roberts of Indianapolis. The couple divorced in 1925. Ida then married Sidney Whitaker in 1926 and the couple lived in Detroit. Whitaker died in 1970.

Through Steele’s research, she learned that Ida continued to blaze the trail for women, particularly African American women, after she left Dubois County. Ida became president of the Detroit Division of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The auxiliary is known for its effort in making the union the first successful national black trade union in the nation.

In her research, Steele found Ida quoted only three times. One of them was in a March 10, 1965, Detroit Free Press story written by John Dotson about a march in Detroit to show solidarity for marchers in Selma, Alabama, during the Civil Rights Movement.

“I just hope and pray that this is an awakening for those who don’t know what we’re up against,” said Ida, who was 76 at the time.

Steele said that quote depicts Ida’s life, and even though she said it at 76, she could have been 16 years old.

“I think that’s as true back in 1907 as it was in 1965,” Steele said.

Steele was saddened when her research didn’t turn up an obituary for Ida, who died on Feb. 3, 1978, at 89 years old.

Steele hopes her research sheds some light on the significance of Ida’s life.

“I think she can be an inspiration to a lot of young girls today, that regardless of your race or your gender, you can succeed,” Steele said. “It just takes hard work and dedication.”

Steele’s research will soon be shared by the Indiana Archives, and will eventually be at the Indiana Historical Society, Butler University and the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy. Braun also said at Friday's private event in Ferdinand that he will work diligently to get Ida's story into the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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