Julia May Porter Carson was the first African American and woman to be elected to Congress from Indianapolis. Born in Louisville, Kentucky to a single mother (Velma Porter) on July 8, 1938, Carson and her mother moved to Indianapolis when she was young. To help her family, Carson took on odd jobs while she attended public school in Indianapolis. She waited tables, helped farmers with harvesting crops, and delivered newspapers.
In 1955, Carson graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis. She married shortly after graduating high school and had two children, Sam and Tonya. Carson divorced while her children were still young and pursued an education at Marion University in Indianapolis and Indiana University at Bloomington.
In 1965, Carson was working as a secretary for the United Auto Workers, one of the largest and most diverse union organizations in the country, when she met Indiana Representative Andy Jacobs. Soon after their first meeting, Carson began working for Jacobs as his caseworker and district aid. She worked for Jacobs until 1972, when a state representative seat opened. Jacobs encouraged Carson to run for the State Legislature, but Carson had her reservations about running for office. In an interview, Jacobs remembered sitting in Carson’s living room convincing her to run, saying, “Come on kid, this is the time to step up.”
Carson ultimately decided to run for office, and she was elected to the House of State Representatives in Indianapolis in 1973. During her time in the State legislature, she served as assistant minority caucus chair until she was elected to the State Senate in 1978. She then served in the Indiana Senate until 1990. During her time in the Senate, Carson sat on the finance committee and eventually held the position of minority whip, also known as minority leader.
After serving in the Indiana Senate, Carson went on to be elected as the Center Township Trustee in Marion County in 1991. This involved her administering welfare payments to the poor in Indianapolis. In this position, she gained a reputation for serving the poor and fighting to have their rights heard. In 1996, Carson’s old friend Jacobs retired from Congress. This led to Carson receiving Jacobs’ endorsement for her to run for his old seat. Carson being elected in Jacobs’ district was a challenge: 68% of the population were white and conservative-leaning. In the general election, Carson was up against Republican Virginia Blakenbaker, who was more liberal-leaning like Carson. During her campaign, Carson is remembered for saying, “I am not your African American candidate. I am the Democratic candidate for Congress. I don’t allow my opponents to stereotype me and confine me to a certain segment of the population.” Carson went on to win 53% of the vote.
While serving in office, Carson faced several medical obstacles. In fact, after first being elected to Congress, Carson underwent heart surgery and was even sworn into office from her hospital bed on January 9, 1997. However, her health problems did not stop her from accomplishing many projects during her six-terms in Congress. She served on the veteran’s affairs, finance, and transportation and infrastructure committees. Carson was also known for fighting for the poor, as a proponent of women’s rights, and an advocate for civil rights. One of her accomplishments involved authoring a bill during the 106th Congress (1999-2001). This bill involved awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to Rosa Parks, a prominent civil rights activist. The bill was introduced on February 4, Rosa Parks’ 86th birthday. The House voted for Carson’s bill 424 to 1. The bill moved onto the Senate where it passed unanimously. In an interview, Carson was tearful and said how proud she was, however, not for her bill being passed, “but the honor Rosa Parks brought to this whole nation.”
In 2007, Carson’s health became an issue once more. Along with having asthma and diabetes, Carson was diagnosed with lung cancer. On December 15, 2007, she passed away at 69. However, her legacy continues to live on. Her grandson, André Carson, serves in his grandmother’s congressional seat to this day. A bust of Julia Carson was also created in her honor, and is currently located at the Indiana Statehouse, on the third floor, facing the east/north corner of the building. The work she did for her community and nation is not forgotten and her story continues to live on.