“Not an agreeable neighbor”: Industry and Development in West Indianapolis

This advertisement for the Indianapolis Abattoir appeared in the Indianapolis news in April 1908 (click for an expanded view).

In September 1889 The Indianapolis News provided a laudatory albeit graphic description of the Indianapolis Abattoir’s slaughterhouse operations in West Indianapolis. Incorporated in September 1882, the Morris Street plant focused purely on slaughtering animals for processing by wholesale butchers, and in 1889 they expanded their factory to meat packing as well in their location “on the west bank of the river, a few hundred yards south of the Morris street bridge.” The News admitted that “complaint is made that the abattoir pollutes the river and that it is not an agreeable neighbor.” The slaughterhouse was simply one of a host of industrial factories to emerge in West Indianapolis in the late 19th century alongside a rapidly growing residential neighborhood of laborers working in those factories. Today many of those factories have abandoned West Indianapolis, leaving swaths of space vacant in the heart of the city, but developing these neighborhoods has been punctuated by a problematic environmental legacy, more than a century of dismissive treatment by the city, and ill-conceived development schemes. This week one of the latest development plans for the largest tract in West Indianapolis was again delayed, and the neighborhood is once more starting anew advocating thoughtful design that recognizes West Indianapolis’ distinctive heritage.

In 1889 a series of early industries were already clustered in West Indianapolis and on the White River. They included Kingan and Company (on the east bank of the river at the green arrow); the Indianapolis Abattoir (blue arrow); the Indianapolis Stockyards (red arrow); and the city’s landfill at Seller’s Farm at the yellow arrow to the south). (click on image for expanded view;  original here)

One dimension of West Indianapolis’ heritage inevitably is the environmental impact of more than a century of industrial production that has long been contested by West Indianapolis residents. The Indianapolis Abattoir was located near the city’s stockyards, which opened in November 1877 on “three acres of land on the west side of the river at the old Vincennes crossing.” The stockyards sat at the southern end of Kentucky Avenue, eventually expanding to 147 acres on the eve of World War II before declining in the 1950s and finally closing in the 1990s. The stockyards gave Indianapolis two massive meat packing plants on each side of the White River: the Kingan and Company plant opened on the eastern shores of the White River opposite West Indianapolis in November, 1863. By the 1890s Kingan and Company built stock pens, box manufacturing, and a water purifying plant on the west side of the river directly opposite their Maryland Street factory. By the turn of the century the meat packing plants concentrated between Washington and Morris Streets were pouring an enormous amount of waste into the White River and contributing to a cloud of industrial smoke hanging over West Indianapolis. In February 1873 a report to the Indianapolis City Council estimated that 6191 tons of animal offal was already being discarded in the city annually, and “this immense amount of animal matter must either rot on the ground or in our streams of water as it does now, filling the air with its poisonous vapors, or some provision must be made by which it can be converted into grease, fertilizing agents, and other articles of value.”

West Indianapolis’ industrialization was fueled by the arrival of railroad lines that cut through the community in the second half of the 19th century. The 73-mile Terre Haute and Indianapolis railroad was built in 1851, with its line crossing the White River through West Indianapolis at Louisiana Street (compare rail lines on the 1855 Condit Map and the 1870 Luther R. Martin Map of Indianapolis). Seven railroad lines ran into Indianapolis three years later, with a second rail line crossing the White River into West Indianapolis at Georgia Street. These arteries through West Indianapolis would become prime industrial locations in the late 19th century, and residential neighborhoods surrounding these industrial workplaces would grow at the same moment.

While West Indianapolis was often painted as a “blighted” industrial expanse (and sometimes still is painted with the same caricatures), it was initially a planned suburban landscape somewhat idealistically designed to co-exist with surrounding industrial spaces. The expanse between West Washington Street and Oliver Avenue was mostly unsettled in 1880 except for rail lines crossing through the space, and most of the property was held by the Nicholas McCarty estate until the late-19th century. The 20th-century streetscape had been outlined and unevenly settled by about 1889. Oliver Avenue, for instance, was cut east-west by 1875, and it would become West Indianapolis’ central artery with some residents and businesses scattered along the street by the late 1870s. In September 1887 The Indianapolis News enthused about the growth of West Indianapolis, indicating that “Over eighty houses have been built there this year. Mr. McCarty has made two large additions, carefully and amply improved with graded and graveled streets and sidewalks. …  Fully 100 new residences and 500 residents, or an addition of 25 per cent., will increase the importance of our western suburb this season.” The Indianapolis News reported in November 1891 that “When Nicholas McCarty, the former owner of the land, laid out a town and began selling additions he decided that every street should have shade trees. That plan has been religiously adhered to and trees adorn every street in the suburb.” In June 1894 The Indianapolis News indicated that “River avenue, in West Indianapolis, is lined on both sides its whole length with full-grown maple trees, and there are in it some pretty homes.”

The maple trees were commonly invoked by West Indianapolis champions of residential development, and their importance was confirmed in 1890 when West Indianapolis residents were alarmed that maple trees that graced the neighborhood were dying because of insects. The Secretary of the City’s Board of Health indicated in June, 1890 that “over fifty fine maple trees have been destroyed in two years” in West Indianapolis. Again a year later The Indianapolis News reported that the “West Indianapolis people look with alarm at the increase in the numbers of scale bugs which are swarming over the thousands of maple trees that beautify the streets of the town.” Most of these trees appear to have been removed by development by the 1920s.

The City of Indianapolis has used the 19th-century Seller’s Farm tract along Harding Street in West Indianapolis as for waste management. It appears in this 1927 map in the lower left (southwest) corner of the map. (click for expanded view)

Odor and pollution would produce a continual chorus of complaints into the 21st century. In February 1873 the Indianapolis City Council recommended the purchase of a landfill property at Sellers Farm, which lay between the White River and Eagle Creek at the very southwest reaches of West Indianapolis (where Harding Street now crosses the White River). Even after establishing Sellers Farm as the city’s dump, an enormous amount of pollutants continued to be dumped into the White River, and in June 1874 The Evening News complained that the “stenches from the mouth of the Kentucky avenue sewer are reported by residents in the locality to be almost unbearable. And as if these purtrescent [sic] odors were not enough, loads of garbage and all kinds of filth are deposited on the river bank, near the spot, notwithstanding the ordinance requiring all offal to be taken to the Sellers Farm.” In January 1884 The Indianapolis News described the odors of Sellers Farm as “the quintessence of vile odors” and reported that “a score of last summer’s dead cows and horses lay scattered about.”

In November, 1892 the city of Indianapolis was the defendant in a suit brought by 45 residents, “all residents of West Indianapolis, [who] ask $2,500 damages against the city for maintaining a nuisance.” The residents’ suit against the city complained that “there are many hot days and sultry nights during the summer when the stench from this municipal nuisance spreads over the entire city, almost suffocating the southern wards, and penetrating with sickening effect those which lie to the north.” The plaintiffs “allege that there is a sickening, disgusting and unhealthy effluvium and noxious vapors arising at all hours of the night and day which permeate the atmosphere and penetrate into every room of their dwellings.” Just over a week later an Indianapolis law firm indicated that it was “preparing one hundred more complaints to be filed against the city by citizens of West Indianapolis for alleged damages on account of Sellers farm.” It is unclear how those cases were resolved, but in 1921 West Indianapolis residents again filed a suit against the city seeking to close Sellers Farm (the plaintiffs dropped the case in January 1922). In August 1922 a coalition of West Indianapolis residents collected 4000 signatures advocating for disannexation from the city of Indianapolis in opposition to the continued pollution at Sellers Farm, part of a secession movement in West Indianapolis that had begun the previous year.

In 1902 Parry Manufacturing had established its massive buggy factory in West Indianapolis, where the GM Stamping Plant would later be located.

In 1900 one of the city’s most prominent factories was established when Parry Manufacturing purchased a West Indianapolis tract. David M. Parry and his brother Thomas H. Parry launched the Parry Manufacturing Company in Rushville, Indiana in 1882 after David purchased a small carriage shop. The buggy manufacturing company rapidly expanded and relocated to Indianapolis in 1886. Their South Illinois Street factory began experimenting with the manufacturing of automobiles in about 1892. The Horseless Age reported in 1895 that “Parry Manufacturing Co., light wagon manufacturers, Indianapolis, Ind., have been experimenting on motor vehicles for three or four years past. They are building several different types of wagons.” In 1896 The Horseless Age noted that David Parry had “recently returned from France, where he inspected the latest improvements in motor vehicles. This company has been at work upon the problem for several years, and expects to soon to be in the market with a practical vehicle.” In January 1900 the company announced plans to produce and sell automobiles, and Parry hoped to be selling automobiles in 1901, telling The Indianapolis News that “We will make all sorts of autos, from pleasure rigs through the list, embracing ambulances, prison vans, patrol wagons and heavy delivery trucks.” Parry confirmed to The Indianapolis News that he hoped to build a new factory in West Indianapolis, noting that “the site for the new plant has not been decided upon as yet, but it will probably be in West Indianapolis. We have a deal on foot for securing a tract of land lying along the Vandalia tracks there, and we think now that the deal will go through.”

West Indianapolis’ auto factories included the Nordyke and Marmon plant, shown here in 1907. The company produced its first auto in about August 1903 at the factory at the corner of Kentucky Avenue and Morris Street. (click for expanded view)

The Motor Age reported in March 1900 that the Parry company “has definitely decided to erect its new carriage and automobile factory,” and in April 1900 The Indianapolis Journal confirmed that “the deal was consummated.” All reports agreed that the new factory would be on a scale rarely if ever witnessed in Indianapolis: “The new buildings are to be of stone and brick and substantial in character and on the most extensive scale of any manufacturing plant in this city. The Parry Manufacturing Company now gives employment to 1,400 men and is unable to fill its orders, and when in the new buildings expects to employ at least two thousand people; and as the machinery will be largely new and of the most approved design the company expects to increase its production 50 per cent.” In June 1900 Parry secured permission to construct new rail line to the factory site, enthusiastically proclaiming that “The works were never before so pressed with orders, and one of the proprietors says they must have more room than the present buildings give them that they may increase their production.”

The Standard Wheel Company’s Overland auto was being manufactured in West Indianapolis at 1170 Division Street when this ad appeared in  The Horseless Age in 1905.  The firm was purchased by David Parry and moved to the northeast corner of Oliver Avenue and Drover Street in 1907(click for expanded view)

Much of the landscape around Parry’s factory would be part of the earliest automobile manufacturing. In January 1905 the Overland Automobile Company moved to the Standard Wheel Company’s factory alongside Parry Manufacturing at 1170 Division Street, where they were advertising Overlands. But by year’s end The Horseless Age reported that “The Standard Wheel Company abandoned the manufacture of automobiles on December 1. … The factory at Indianapolis will be closed.” With the firm in danger of closing, Parry bought its controlling interest. In July 1907 Parry announced that he was constructing a new factory for the Overland Automobiles on “the west bank of the White River, adjoining Parry Manufacturing Company. … along the bank for two squares north of Oliver avenue.” However, Parry nearly went bankrupt himself in 1907, and in January 1908 Overland was purchased by John North Willys. In 1908 Motor Age toured Indianapolis automobile factories and was shocked by the insubstantial Overland factory at the northeast corner of Drover and Oliver Avenues. In the midst of its lingering debts Overland was “literally building machines in large tents grouped about the factory precincts and every available inch of ground space is crammed with men who are being persuaded to do their utmost to bear their part in the production of the Overland success—for it has been a success, this little machine. … On the dusty, bumpy road that runs past the factory doors test cars tear up and down just as hard as the men driving can send them.” The firm regained its footing and was managing four separate Indianapolis production spaces in February 1909. In addition to the West Indianapolis plant at Drover and Oliver, in September 1908 Overland purchased the 15th Street factory that had formerly belong to the Marion Motor Car Company. In September 1909 the firm changed its name to Willys-Overland Company and announced that it expected to produce about 9000 cars in 1910 in the Indianapolis factory alone.

In 1908 Motor Age visited the Overland “factory” on Drover Street and found cars being manufactured in tents.

Parry Manufacturing continued to produce buggies, and by 1916 their production shifted to truck bodies and cabs. In 1916 the factory by one measure covered 67 acres and 1.5 million square foot of factory floor space, when its claim to fame was that it was “the world’s largest carriage factory.” In September 1919 Parry Manufacturing was consolidated with Martin Truck and Body, forming the Martin-Parry Corporation.      The West Indianapolis company made truck bodies for auto companies including Ford and Willys-Overland before the Indianapolis plant was acquired by Chevrolet in October, 1930 (Martin-Parry continued in business at other locations).

Chevrolet expected the Indianapolis factory to employ 600 people in the production of commercial bodies for Chevrolet vehicles. The plant announced plans for a significant expansion in September 1935, when the site was bordered by Henry Street, Division Street, White River Boulevard, and the Pennsylvania Railroad line. The expansion was placed under the direction of architect Albert Kahn, and the Kahn-designed plant was dedicated in December 1936. The Indianapolis Star considered the plant “as fine an example of modern industrial architecture as can be found in the country,” and the new factory had the distinction of including a fully functioning hospital unit. Kahn would subsequently design an expansion to the RCA factory in Indianapolis on East LaSalle Street in 1939, and in February 1942 he would again design industrial space in West Indianapolis when it was announced he would execute the design for the Curtiss-Wright propeller factory at 1231 West Morris Street (the factory closed at war’s end and was sold to Eli Lilly in March 1946).

In 1958 the city’s Central Business District Plan provided a tentative shadow for an interstate highway that would run east-west across the White River and cross at Ray Street. In 1966 the businesses and residences along West Ray Street remained much as they had been for a century or more, but the path of the freeway razed the 1300 and 1400 blocks of West Ray Street (part of West Indianapolis referred to as the Valley). In 1966 the city directory identified 29 households in the 1300 block of West Ray Street.  By the time the 1967 city directory listings were recorded the state had begun to purchase properties along West Ray Street. In 1967 the city directory identified 15 households on West Ray Street’s 1300 block, and another 13 houses were identified as “vacant,” suggesting they had been purchased by the State. In 1968, just seven homes remained in the 1300 block of West Ray, where Mabel L. Edwards (1316 West Ray Street), Dewie N Turner (1320 West Ray Street), J.C. Cross (1346 West Ray Street), Charles B Doss (1349 West Ray Street), John Povtis (1357 West Ray Street), and Clyde L. White (1357 West Ray Street) were the final residents still in their homes. In 1969 not one household remained on the 1300 block of West Ray Street. In August 1973 The Indianapolis Star reported that “I-70 from Harding to a massive interchange to be built at Capitol Avenue and Illinois Street is either under construction or complete in some areas where bridges are needed.” The state announced in October 1974 that they anticipated I-70 from Harding Street to East Street would be completed in October 1975, and traffic was using the section of I-70 through West Indianapolis in September 1975.

In 1978 a Lilly Foundation report and funding pledge spurred Indianapolis to begin planning a park that would straddle the White River at the Washington Street Bridge. Mayor William Hudnut celebrated the plans for the White River State Park in his January 1979 State of the City address, but he “warned dissident neighborhood groups they will not succeed by arguing instead of trying to solve their problems. `To these groups I say, work with us, not against us.’” By 1982 the west side of the River was targeted for construction of a zoo, and planners eventually decided to re-route Washington Street across a new bridge slightly south of where it had been since the 1830’s. Rather than have it pass through the center of the zoo, the newly routed Washington Street ran south of the zoo along the railroad lines north of the General motors stamping plant, re-joining the 1830’s Washington Street at Bloomington Street (which became White River Parkway West Drive) just east of Harding Street. That plan eventually turned the 1916 Benjamin Luten Washington Street bridge into a pedestrian walkway. A proposal to construct a 750-foot tower (“Indiana Tower”), family amusement park, and “performing arts quadrangle” on the east shore of the White River at Washington Street were eventually shelved (compare Jordan Ryan’s study of the ambitious plans for the White River State Park).

At a January 1979 meeting of a joint state House-Senate committee creating the White River State Park Commission State Representative E. Henry Lamkin told his colleagues that “the only residential areas likely to be directly affected would be a few residences on the IPI [i.e., IUPUI] campus already owned by the university. He said adjacent residential areas would probably increase in value because of the development.” Nevertheless, the space for the zoo did require purchasing private property in Stringtown, and in January 1984 Greely Street resident Clarence McIntire complained to The Indianapolis Star that he did not want to move, saying “`I don’t want to leave. …. I’d rather die.’” That month another Star article indicated that White River Park construction was well underway, suggesting that “Those who live and work on the near-Westside of Indianapolis know it as a force that is ripping out homes and other buildings along Washington Street and in Stringtown. … For four years, the White River Park Development Commission has been buying property and planning for the 267 acre, $200 million park that will straddle White River and reshape the west end of downtown Indianapolis.” In February 1984 The Indianapolis News  acknowledged that “Some portions of Stringtown already have been purchased outright for the park,” and a month later a study by the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development concluded that “there will be no negative impact on neighborhoods on the west side of the park.” Construction on the relocation of West Washington Street began in May 1984, and the zoo opened in June 1988.

Like many industrial producers in the Midwest’s “rust belt,” General Motors began to close plants in the 1980s. By Fall 2007 GM confirmed that it anticipated closing or selling the Indianapolis factory by 2011, and in June 2009 GM announced that it was contemplating speeding up plant closures. The closing came in June 2011, and as it approached the city began to hatch numerous plans to re-claim the tract as industrial production, mixed residential and retail space, and a variety of city facilities on what The Indianapolis Star described as “101 acres of blight.” The sale of the property was handled by a trust known as RACER (Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response) that was selling 89 former GM production facilities. The city decreed that the property could not be sold to a developer without a firm redevelopment proposal, and no buyers stepped forward. By June 2013 the absence of any potential buyers spurred a demolition of the factory, which was intended to make the property more desirable. In 2014 Mayor Greg Ballard became the most prominent advocate for building a Criminal Justice Center on the stamping plant site, which would include 34 courts and a 3500-bed jail. In August 2014 The Indianapolis Star admitted that “The complex has faced resistance from residents in the neighborhood,” and a series of public meetings were orchestrated to market the project, but resident “Rahnae Napoleon said the neighborhood is far from supportive. `We were basically told it was coming whether we like it or not. … We never had a voice. We are now trying to make the best of what they are serving up to us.’”

In August 2014 a proposal was made to build a 15,000-seat amphitheater called “The Stamp” on the stamping plant site that would incorporate the Albert Kahn structural remains. The theater plan was intended to exist alongside the proposed criminal justice center, and The Indianapolis Star’s columnist Erika Smith interviewed residents of the Valley neighborhood and concluded that they were “disgusted by the idea—and understandably so.” Rahnae Napoleon told Smith that “`It’s like we’re the armpit of the city. … We are treated like we don’t count.’” But the President of Indianapolis’ chapter of the American Institute of Architects enthused that “When I heard that a new amphitheater was coming to Downtown, I have to admit, I got a little excited.”

The amphitheater’s developer hoped to break ground for the project in Spring 2015, and the city identified a developer for the Criminal Justice Center in December 2014. But in April 2015 an exasperated Mayor Greg Ballard ranted in The Indianapolis Star that the project had been delayed by “more than 240 briefings and public meetings,” and he worried that alienating the project developer risked embarrassing the city: “Who, in the future, will want to work with a city that walks away from a high-quality, committed bid?” In May 2015 the proposal was tabled by the City-County Council, essentially reading its death rites, and the agreement to sell a portion of the tract for an amphitheater also died.

In January 2017 a city study concluded that residents hoped a development of the property would open up access to the White River and include more convenient roadway access. RACER accepted a new round of bids for the property in March 2017, and four developers submitted bids. In May, 2017 it was announced that Ambrose Property Group had agreed to purchase the tract with plans to develop over “1300 residential units, 2.75 million square feet of office space, 100,000 square feet of retail, and a hotel would make up the $1.4 billion neighborhood,” and the city pledged $8 million for infrastructural improvements. Four months after Ambrose agreed to purchase the property a national frenzy was started by Amazon when it announced that it proposed establishing a second national headquarters and was accepting offers from American cities. Indianapolis champions pointed to the stamping plant property as an ideal tract matching Amazon’s conditions. In January 2018 a shortlist of 20 finalists was announced that included Indianapolis, but in November Amazon announced that Indianapolis had not been selected. A month later the Lilly Endowment awarded a series of grants that included one to the Central Indiana Community Foundation to fund a search for a firm to develop a design for the former stamping plant. In May 2019 Ambrose announced that three design groups had been selected to present their proposals for the redevelopment of the stamping plant, with a juried competition to subsequently select the final designer from amongst the three firms Hood Design Studio, SCAPE, and Snøhetta .

However, that search for a development design for the former stamping plant was abruptly postponed last week when Ambrose Property declared that it had decided “to focus our business on e-commerce and industrial development both in Indianapolis and nationally. We believe that a focused approach on one segment of real estate development is best for our investors, our clients, employees and the communities where we invest. As part of this decision, we plan to pursue the sale of our mixed-use and office projects,” including the 103-acre stamping plant site. Consequently, the neighborhood within walking distance of downtown remains in place alongside these factory sites, the interstate, and industrial producers including Eli Lilly and Ingredion that remain in West Indianapolis along the south side of the interstate. Inevitably the stamping plant and the fate of the neighborhood again rests on the negotiations those residents have with disinterested city planners, self-interested developers, and short-sighted architects for whom the stamping plant is a blank slate instead of a rich neighborhood heritage.

My research in West Indianapolis was supported by the Waterside Design Competition. The opinions expressed here are mine alone.


1889 Atlas of Indianapolis and Marion County, West Part of Center Township, Indiana State Library Digital Collection

Nordyke and Marmon 1907 Catalog, Indiana State Library

Overland Auto advertisement The Horseless Age 5 July 1905

Parry Manufacturing Company 1902 image Journal Handbook of Indianapolis, Indianapolis History Collection IUPUI University Library




Poetry and African-American Life in West Indianapolis

This post was co-authored with Jonathan Howe, West Indianapolis Neighborhood Congress and owner CityDump Records

In 1907 Aaron Thompson’s Harvest of Thoughts included this image of the author.

In December 1902 The Indianapolis Recorder hailed the arrival in the Circle City of African-American poet Aaron Belford Thompson, noting that “Although Mr. Thompson is a young man still in his twenties, he is the author of two books of poems, `Echoes of Spring,’ price 36 cents, and`Morning Songs,’ price 25 cents, which has given much credit in the literary world.”

Thompson was among a circle of African-American writers and artists in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis, and when he arrived in Indianapolis and married Luella Dudley in June 1902 the newlyweds settled in the heart of the African-American near-Westside at 728 West 12th Street (postwar Flanner House homes stand there today). Continue reading

Displacement and Discontent: Uprooting a Neighborhood

This piece was written with Alyssa Meyer and Kyle Turner

In 1975 a photographer for the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana (now Indiana Landmarks) took this picture of 402 North California Street seven years after George and Marjorie Watkins had been displaced from the home (click for a larger image; image courtesy Indiana Landmarks Central Canal & IUPUI Image Collection).

For 46 years chiropractor George Chester Watkins and his wife Marjorie treated patients at their home at 402 North California Street. The Watkins moved into the home in 1921, but like thousands of their neighbors they were forced to move when Indiana University purchased the properties along California Street. The Watkins moved in 1968, and in 1974 Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana (now known as Indiana Landmarks) studied the near-Westside neighborhoods along the Central Canal for their potential as a National Register historic district. In 1975 a Landmarks’ photographer took pictures of the Watkins’ former home and office (the full archive is available here). The Landmarks fieldwork was published in 1975 as The Lower Central Canal: A Preservation Program, and the study termed the still-standing home at 402 North California as “a good example of Colonial Revival design.” However, George and Marjorie Watkins’ home fell to the wrecking ball in 1977, and all of the surrounding homes would be razed by the early 1980’s. Continue reading

Racist Spite and Residential Segregation: Housing and the Color Line in Inter-War Indianapolis

The Meriwethers’ future home at 2257 North Capitol (at red arrow) was about a decade old when it appeared on this 1898 Sanborn Insurance map.

This post also appeared on my blog Archaeology and Material Culture

On July 15, 1920 massive fences were erected on each side of Lucien Meriwethers’ home at 2257 North Capitol Avenue: to the south, Gabriel and Goldie Slutzky erected a 10’ high fence, and to the north Mary Grooms built a six-foot fence. Meriwether was an African-American dentist, and his purchase of the property in May 1920 made his family the first people of color to settle on North Capitol. The Meriwethers’ White neighbors instantly banded together to form the North Capitol Protective Association, one of many inter-war neighborhood collectives championing residential segregation. These little neighborhood groups rarely figure prominently in histories of racism in Indianapolis, which have tended to justifiably focus on the Ku Klux Klan’s rapid growth and collapse in the 1920s (compare Emma Lou Thornbrough’s 1961 Klan analysis; Kenneth T. Jackson’s 1967 study, The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930; and the definitive Indiana study, Leonard Moore’s 1997 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928). Nevertheless, these rather anonymous neighborhood associations were influential advocates for segregation in the 1920s and 1930s. Continue reading

Visual Memory and Urban Displacement

This also appears on my blog Archaeology and Material Culture

Ralph Louis Temple’s 1940’s painting of Minerva Street;click for a larger image (image courtesy Cecilia Boler and Reginald Temple).

Around World War II artist Ralph Louis Temple painted a series of oil studies of his Indianapolis neighborhood. Temple’s family had lived on Minerva Street since 1866, when Ralph’s great grandfather Carter Temple Sr. came to the Circle City. Ralph Temple’s painting featured the double at 546-548 Minerva Street, the neighboring corner home at 550 Minerva, and William D. McCoy Public School 24 in the background along North Street. Carter Temple Jr.’s granddaughter Cecelia was still living in the home at 550 Minerva Street in 1978, the last of a century of Temple family to live on Minerva Street. Her brother Ralph’s paintings of the neighborhood cast it in a quite different light than the dominant rhetoric and imagery that aspired to displace families like the Temples.

The house at 550 Minerva Street in the late-1970’s (Indiana Landmarks Central Canal & IUPUI Image Collection).

There are numerous images of the neighborhood in the postwar period, when it was one of many historically African-American urban communities that were gradually being displaced by a host of renewal schemes. The Temples’ home for more than a century would fall to the wrecking ball when Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) was expanding in the late 1970’s. The city of Indianapolis was simultaneously razing a host of businesses along Indiana Avenue, and in the 1960’s the interstate was being constructed through the predominately African-American near-Westside while it sliced through much of the eastside and southside as well. As blocks of buildings fell along Indiana Avenue in the 1970’s the city also lobbied for the demolition of Lockefield Gardens, which closed in 1976. Lockefield was a segregated Public Works Administration community that opened in 1938 across the street from 550 Minerva Street, with School 24 in its midst. In July, 1983 demolition finally removed all but seven of the original Lockefield buildings. Continue reading

The Landscapes of Wes Montgomery

The 1860 Census Slave Schedule inventory of William Montgomery’s captives included the 25-year-old man on line four who was about the age of Green Montgomery (click for a larger image).

On August 13, 1867 Green Montgomery swore an oath of allegiance to the United States, which made him eligible to vote in Floyd County, Georgia. Montgomery had been enslaved in Floyd County, probably since his birth around 1836, and his ascent from property to voting citizen was repeated scores of times throughout the South. Numerous Indianapolis families traced their roots to ancestors like Green and his wife Adaline, who may only have been distinguished by their famous descendant, great-grandson John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery. Wes Montgomery was among the 20th century’s most prominent jazz musicians, but of course the story of Montgomery and his fellow performers reaches beyond music alone, and much of Wes Montgomery’s story mirrors familiar African-American migration patterns, employment inequalities, and urban displacement. Inevitably Wes Montgomery’s biography revolves around music, but it is impossible to understand African-American expressive culture without examining the history of families like the Montgomerys.

Embed from Getty Images

Above: The Montgomery brothers (from left, Wes, Monk, and Buddy) circa 1962 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images).

In 1860 William Montgomery owned 40 captives housed in six structures on his Floyd County plantation, and one was a 25-year-old man who was quite likely Green Montgomery. Born in South Carolina in 1783, William Montgomery moved to Georgia in the early 1830s, and in 1840 he was living in Floyd County and holding 27 captives. Green Montgomery was one of those slaves at the time Emancipation arrived, if he had not been Montgomery’s captive since birth. Like many newly freed captives, Green initially continued to farm alongside his former owner. Wes Montgomery’s ancestors on his mother’s side were also farmers in northwest Georgia in the post-Civil War period, and they would all follow a common pattern of moving first to regional urban centers and eventually migrating north. Continue reading

“I am Just Tired”: The Voices of Slavery in Indianapolis

In 1939 the Indianapolis Recorder reported on the death of John Henry Gibson, who had been enslaved in North Carolina over 70 years before. In the days before his death Gibson had refused to eat, telling his son “`I am just tired and want to rest’ … Sunday morning he was found dead by his son, alone and unattended. The deputy coroner said he died from starvation.” Gibson was one of 21 Indianapolis residents interviewed in 1937 and 1938 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project oral histories usually referred to as the Slave Narratives. These 21 oral historical voices were part of a landmark study including 61 interviews conducted in Indiana.

For about 40 years John Henry Gibson lived on Maxwell Street (at the red arrow in the lower left), in the shadow of the City Hospital (later the Indiana University Medical Center). Between about 1875 and 1939, Gibson lived in homes somewhere on this 1915 map (click for a larger image).

Gibson was quite possibly the oldest of the Indianapolis research subjects. Gibson acknowledged he did not know his birthdate; most 19th and early 20th century primary records placed his birthdate around 1837, and at his death in February 1939 the Indianapolis Recorder suggested Gibson was 115 years old. It is unlikely Gibson was 115, and a few records suggested he was not born until 1850, but he may well have been a century old when he was interviewed in 1938. Candus Richardson was born about a decade after Gibson, but when she died on October 10, 1955 she was the last of the Indianapolis’ Slave Narrative captives to die. Born in Mississippi in 1847, Candus Richardson (sometimes spelled Candice or Candies) did not come to Indianapolis until about World War I. At her death the 108-year-old certainly must have been among the Circle City’s final surviving captives. Continue reading

Color and Conformity: Race and Integration in the Suburbs

In February 1961 Indianapolis, Indiana’s Jewish Community Center held a public discussion panel on “The Negro as Suburban Neighbor.” The surrounding northside community was home to several of the city’s earliest African-American suburbs, but many of those neighborhoods were resistant to integration. Despite its open membership policy, the JCC also did not count a single African American among its members.

Reginald Bruce appeared in the August 19, 1944 Indianapolis Recorder (click for expanded view).

Dr. Reginald Bruce was among the guests asked to speak on behalf of the northwestern suburbs’ African-American residents. In November, 1960 Reginald and Mary Bruce reached an agreement to purchase a home at 5752 Grandiose Drive. The Bruces were the first to integrate the newly built homes along Grandiose Drive. Bruce told the group at the JCC that since moving to Grandiose Drive “his family has been harassed by threatening phone calls and gunshots through the window since moving into the predominately white area.” Some White audience members vigorously opposed integration of the neighborhood, and one complained that the meeting had been rigged by the NAACP.

The Bruces’ experience integrating the northwestern Indianapolis suburbs would be repeated all over the country. That story of suburban integration—long acknowledged in African-American experience but unrecognized by most White suburbanites–is beginning to be told in popular cultural narratives. The suburbs have long been a staple of mainstream cinema, variously painted as disabling assimilation (The Stepford Wives), emotional repression (American Beauty), creative boredom (Grosse Point Blank), profound sadness (The Virgin Suicides), or the prosaic magnet for inexplicable phenomena (Poltergeist, Coneheads, Edward Scissorhands, etc). However, the story of suburban segregation has rarely been told in films. Continue reading

Firefighting and the Color Line in the Circle City

In the late 1870’s, Indianapolis’ first four African-American firefighters posed for this picture at Hose Company 9 on St. Joseph’s Street. From left to right Thomas Smith, Thomas Howard, James P.D. Graves, and Robert Braxton (click on image for larger view).

In October, 1911 the Indianapolis Board of Public Safety toured Indianapolis’ fire houses including the segregated African-American Hose Company Number 16 at 16th Street and Ashland Avenue (now Carrollton Avenue; see a Google map here). The property for what was originally the Hose Reel Company Number 9 fire house was purchased in June, 1880 for $1150. When the segregated African-American fire house was completed a year later, a visitor from the Indianapolis Leader was given a tour by the African-American firefighters, and the journalist was “completely astonished at the magnificence of the enterior [sic]. The walls are clothed with paper of elegant pattern and the floors are covered with linoleum and fine Brussels carpet. Their bed room resembles the grand parlor of some of our pollatial [sic] residences more than it does the sleeping room of [a] fireman.”

Thomas Smith’s 1909 Indianapolis Fire Department photograph (Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection)

Thirty years after the Leader’s 1881 visit, one of the city’s oldest veteran fire fighters, Thomas S. Smith, was still serving in the same fire house, which had become Hose Company Number 16 in 1897. When the Public Safety officials visited in 1911, an alarm sounded and Smith demonstrated his skills driving the horse-drawn wagons. The African-American newspaper The Freeman reported that the “steeds went rushing forth at a fast clip and they were no sooner in the harness than Thomas Smith, who has been in the service for thirty-five years, and who is one of the oldest men in the fire department, was on the seat urging the horses down the street. The team almost collided with a farm wagon, but Smith managed to swerve them from the road in time to prevent a smashup. The exhibition was highly praised by the investigators.” Continue reading

Suburbanization and the Color Line along Grandview Drive

The 1937 Home Owners Loan Corporation map of Indianapolis identified neighborhoods that were “high risk” for loans in red, which included all the city’s African-American neighborhoods (click on map for larger view).

Few dimensions of contemporary Indianapolis’ landscape could be less invisible than the suburban homes that ring the city in nearly every direction. As in many cities, the population of Indianapolis swelled during World War II, with laborers migrating to industrial workplaces throughout the city and military labor at Fort Benjamin Harrison (PDF). Between 1940 and 1942, 9000 new homes were built in Speedway and Warren Township to support wartime workforces on the city’s margins, and another 52,000 homes were built in the city in the 1950’s. However, very few of them became homes to African Americans; even wealthy African Americans were systematically excluded from federal loans, and White realtors almost universally resisted neighborhood integration.

In March, 1919 the Indianapolis Heights neighborhood on West Washington Street advertised “Lots sold to white people only.”

Postwar suburbanization is often painted as an ocean of interchangeable tract housing fronted by White nuclear families. Many of the post-war Indianapolis suburbs were indeed almost universally White, a pattern common throughout the country. This was a direct reflection of federal policy that expressly segregated the nation. Federal Housing Administration loans were provided to 10 million new homeowners between 1946 and 1953, but the FHA required suburban planners to restrict the sale of homes to Whites, a practice often referred to as “redlining” (for a fascinating comparative study, see Redlining Richmond). The FHA specifically decreed that if “a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” The FHA considered Black residents “adverse influences,” and they explicitly rejected loans in racially mixed neighborhoods and considered nearly all Black neighborhoods too risky for mortgage insurance.

Nevertheless, Andrew Weise’s study Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century has documented a rich African-American suburban heritage; one in six African Americans who moved north between 1910 and 1930 moved to a suburb, and in 1940 one-fifth of African Americans living in metropolises could be classed as suburbanites. Yet from World War I to 1970 the African-American share of the national suburban population was always numerically modest, rising from 3% to about 5%.

Seventeen homes were advertised in the Indianapolis Recorder in 1950 along Greenbrier Lane on the eastside.

African Americans settled in a handful of suburban neighborhoods in places like Indianapolis. On the near-Eastside, for instance, Tobey Developers managed several suburbs including Kingsly Terrace and Douglas Park Homes, which lay just east of Douglass Park in the early 1960s. Seventeen homes in a nearby neighborhood along Greenbrier Lane had been advertised in the Indianapolis Recorder in August, 1950. Oak View opened in that same neighborhood in 1961, with one of the city’s most prominent African-American realty professionals, W.T. Ray, as the sales agent. Twin Oaks opened in 1963 on the Southside beside Bethel Park.  In 1965 Green Acres advertised to African Americans for a Southside community on Troy Avenue, now alongside Interstate-65. On the northwestside Cold Spring Heights began clearing lots near 44th Street and Knollton in 1969.  Many of these neighborhoods have survived, and a handful of first-generation settlers continue to live in their homes a half-century after moving in. (This flickr page includes a sample of advertisements from the Indianapolis Recorder for African-American suburbs in the Circle City).

In January, 1936 Henry Greer advertised holiday specials at his North West Street liquor store.

Perhaps the best-known of these African-American suburbs was in Washington Township near what is today 64th Street and Grandview Drive. The first African American residents along the northern stretches of Grandview Drive were Henry L. and Della Greer. Henry Greer served in the Army in World War I and married Della Wilson in 1926. Henry Greer opened a liquor Store on North West Street in December, 1935, and his wife Della Wilson Greer was an art teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where she taught for 20 years beginning in 1936.

The Greers moved to Grandview Drive by June, 1946, when the Indianapolis Recorder reported on a reception at their Washington Township “country home”: 10 miles from the city center, the home is now surrounded by neighborhoods in all directions, but Grandview was still a dirt road, and most of the present-day suburban home lots were farm fields after the war. A small plate at the gate identified the 3500-square foot, five-bedroom home as “Shangrila.” Dr. Edward Paul Thomas and Ruby Leah Thomas became their neighbors around 1952, settling in the home immediately south of the Greers at 6235 Grandview Drive.

This advertisement for Augusta Way appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder in January, 1956.

The surrounding landscape would eventually be the heart of a series of predominately African-American suburbs that included Augusta Way, Grandview Estates, Northshire Estates, and Greer-Dell Estates. In 1955 developers and realtors began constructing the first of these communities, Augusta Way, a “modern suburb” directly across from the Greers’ home on Grandview Drive. A December advertisement heralded 88 available lots in the Augusta Way subdivision bordered by 62nd, Coburn, and 64th Streets and Grandview Drive. African American realtor C.J. Hughes acknowledged that the community was a response to suburban segregation, telling the Indianapolis Recorder that “`This subdivision meets the demands of many particular people and families with middle incomes and higher who want good modern homes in locations commensurate with their investments.’” A 1956 advertisement clumsily acknowledged the class exclusivity in Augusta Way, noting the community had “Reasonable Restrictions.” (This page links to a PDF inventory of some of the earliest residents in the Grandview neighborhood.)

WT Ray ran this ad for Augusta Way in May, 1956.

The developer of the Augusta Way subdivision, George W. Malter, named W.T. Ray as a sales agent in February 1956. Ray began offering up lots for $500 down. A 1956 aerial photograph appears to reveal construction in only one lot in the subdivision, which became 1605 Kenruth Drive and was the home of W.T. Ray. Ray had a profound influence on the African-American suburbs as one of Indianapolis’ most active real estate professionals, and he was among the most influential figures in Indianapolis’ postwar African-American housing and civil rights movement. The Connecticut native spent much of his childhood in Caldwell, New Jersey, where his father was the superintendent of an apartment house. Ray studied business administration at Oberlin College and then Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and he was working in retail sales when he enlisted in the Army in 1941. Ray served in the South Pacific in World War II, where he was in the segregated 93rd Division’s Chemical Warfare unit.

A 1957 ad for an Augusta Way home at the corner of 64th and Grandview.

An October 1957 advertisement by Ray heralded a home in Augusta Way that was nearing completion for Earl and Vanessie Seymour. The advertisement’s detailed description of high-quality materials and design violates the stereotype of suburban homes simply as interchangeable architecture. The Seymours’ ranch home was “designed by architect Joseph B. Johnson” and featured “fireplaces in living room and basement recreation room, 3 bedrooms, all electric kitchen with custom built cabinets of South Carolina Birch, baked Pink finish, [and] an attractive family room off of the kitchen adds a cheerful note of informality to this comfortable home. Imperial Black Marble sills, remote control lighting and the best in plumbing fixtures typify the high quality workmanship and materials that go into homes in this Northside subdivision.”

Many of the homes along Grandview departed from the caricature of homogenous suburban architecture and interchangeable middle-class taste. In 1957, for instance, the Greers’ home was included on an Alpha Kappa Alpha Tour of Homes, and the newspaper article noted that the Greers’ home “was designed by Mrs. Greer to utilize all the phases of nature and to display her extensive collection of beautiful antiques.” A 1960 description of Frank and Georgia Stewart’s home at 6525 Grandview indicated that “Mr. and Mrs. Stewart drew and executed their own plans in building their home,” much as Della Greer had done. Like Della Greer, the Stewarts’ home featured antiques, including “an antique love seat carved from Chinese teakwood that is over 600 years old.” The house featured other conspicuous decorative goods, with the newspaper noting that “Mrs. Stewart has an affinity for wallpaper and every room is uniquely papered. . . . The master bedroom is done with a `Madame Butterfly’ and the paper in the second bedroom is called `Golden Pheasant.’ Visitors will note the kitchen wallpaper shows the calorie counts of many foods.”

In October, 1962 neighborhoods north of Augusta Way began to be constructed, including Grandview Estates.

Like many American suburbs, neighbors participated in numerous social events and were members of community groups. For instance, the Seymours were members of the Federation of Associated Clubs, an organization that lobbied for civil rights and upheld middle-class behavioral codes. Della Greer was a long-term member and secretary of the Delphinium Garden Club, whose mission was “to develop genuine appreciation for the healing power of nature’s bounty and beauty in a perplexed world.” Frank and Georgia Stewart hosted meetings of the National Idlewild Lot Owners Association, a Black resort in Michigan where Madam C.J. Walker and W.E.B. Du Bois had been among the property owners. Many other residents vacationed together at their properties at Fox Lake, a segregated resort near Angola, Indiana.

In July, 1970 Cold Spring Heights advertised lots along 44th Street north of Wynnedale.

The Grandview suburbs were sometimes rhetorically caricatured by African-American peers as an insular Black bourgeois. In 1966, Indianapolis Recorder columnist Andrew W. Ramsey complained that “many of the Negroes who have struck it rich so to speak in the post war economy decided to escape the ghetto by building split level and ranch type homes out in the suburbs. Now hundreds of Negroes live in Washington Township outside in showplace homes and gress [sic] covered acreage. As they have moved in the whites nearby have moved out to be replaced by Negroes and so we have gained another ghetto but this time it is a golden ghetto.” Ramsey lamented that the main thoroughfare “leading out to this new sepia heaven is beginning `to go colored’ so that one may pass from the inner city main ghetto out to the golden without passing too many white homes.”

In 1963 Kingsly Terrace advertised the near-Eastside community with the stories of new residents, including Mr. and Mrs. William Mason.

Ramsey’s polemics were perhaps less about suburbia than they were about segregation, and he was correct that most African-American suburbs remained racially segregated well into the 21st century. However, Ramsey and many other commentators invoked the suburbs as a rhetorical stereotype symbolizing superficial class pretentiousness. Like many observers he failed to examine why residents were attracted to the suburbs. Many of those reasons along Grandview were common to nearly any suburb: accessible schools, social links between neighbors, open space, and a community spirit were invoked in a broad range of suburbs. Some Augusta Way residents sought to escape unpleasant urban conditions, and many African Americans shared a strong notion of moral respectability and personal dignity that was under constant attack in segregated cities.

Most African Americans simply did not see any incongruity in their desire for a suburban home: they saw home ownership and personal dignity as privileges that should be extended to any disciplined and respectable citizen. Consequently, the appearance of suburban conformism was not apolitical as much as it reflected a quiet imagination of Black citizenship that was largely unexpressed beyond Grandview Drive and is often unrecognized today.


Kyle Huskins is developing this work for his Master’s Thesis research, and some of the work in this blog was done by students in my African-American Suburbia class in Spring 2016.



Gotham, Kevin Fox

2000 Urban Space, Restrictive Covenants, and the Origins of Racial Residential Segregation in a US City, 1900-1950. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24(3):616-633.


Hulse, Lamont J.

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Jackson, Kenneth T.

1985 Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Oxford University Press, New York.


Lands, LeeAnn

2009 The Culture of Property: Race, Class, and Housing Landscapes in Atlanta, 1880-1950. University of Georgia Press, Atlanta.


Wiese, Andrew

2010 Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.