The Heritage of Racism and Medicine in Indianapolis

In 1958, eight of the graduates of the Indiana University School of Medicine’s first graduating class posed for this image. Clarence Lucas Sr. is s
2nd from the right in the front row (image IUPUI Special Collections, click for larger image).

In May 1908 the Indiana University School of Medicine graduated its first class, and the graduates included Clarence Augustus Lucas. Lucas had come to Indianapolis in 1904 to study at the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons before he completed three years at the Medical College of Indiana, a Purdue University-affiliated medical school that was absorbed by Indiana University in April 1908. Lucas graduated in May 1908 and is today considered the first African-American graduate of the Indiana University School of Medicine. There is certainly reason for Indiana University to take pride in their alumnus, and there is much to celebrate about Lucas’ service to the community and his career in the face of anti-Black racism. Nevertheless, his history is punctuated by persistent structural racism and personal dehumanization that illuminates the ways racism has been embedded in medical training and African-American health care since Emancipation. Clarence Lucas’ story is not simply a historical artifact; instead, it is consequential today because the heritage of race, medical training, and public health care in Indianapolis profoundly shapes contemporary experiences of health care across the color line.

In October 1910 this ad for Joseph H. Ward’s Sanitarium and Nurses Training School appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder (click for larger image).

Most African Americans’ medical care that would today warrant hospitalization was administered at home well into the 20th century. Family members, midwives, alternative medicine practitioners, and root doctors treated African Americans alongside a small circle of licensed medical doctors; in 1923, for instance, The Indianapolis Colored Directory and Year Book identified 15 physicians serving more than 34,000 African-American residents. Indianapolis’ City Hospital admitted Black patients and reserved a modest number of beds for African-American patients, but no African-American physicians could attend patients in the hospital. There were several small African-American hospitals, but they had perhaps 50 beds between them. Joseph Ward graduated from the city’s Physio-Medical College in 1897 and then completed a degree at the Medical College of Indiana in 1900, and he was admitting patients to his private Ward’s Sanitarium hospital by August 1906 (perhaps as early as 1905). An August 1909 description of the Sanitarium attached to Ward’s home indicated that it had 16 beds. In March 1912 Ward announced his plan to merge his hospital with the Sisters of Charity Hospital. Planning for the Sisters of Charity Hospital began in October 1909, a lot was purchased at Missouri and 15th Streets a year later, and the hospital opened there in June 1911. The third hospital for African Americans was Lincoln Hospital, which was established in 1909 by a group of African-American physicians whose Board of Managers included Clarence Lucas. The 20-bed hospital at 1101 North Senate could accommodate 17 patients, and its surgery had been outfitted with funding from Indianapolis Motor Speedway co-founder Carl G. Fisher. Nevertheless, the hospital would close in 1915. The three modest hospitals could hardly address the medical care for a rapidly expanding African-American community.

In June 1910 the Indianapolis News‘ pictures of the six City Hospital interns included Clarence A. Lucas.

Clarence Lucas was born in Huntington, West Virginia in November 1884 and was probably living in Piketon, Ohio in the late 1880s. The 1900 census recorded him living in Piketon with his mother Anne’s parents Abraham and Mary Jackson (when Clarence graduated in 1908 most newspapers indicated his home was Piketon). Lucas likely arrived in Indianapolis for his medical training in 1904, and in 1905 he was living at 427 West Vermont Street. In May 1908 Lucas graduated, and shortly afterward he was part of a group of recently graduated physicians tested to assume six interne positions at Indianapolis’ City Hospital. On June 1st the Indianapolis News confirmed that Lucas had secured one of the positions, reporting that “Much interest of an unusual nature attaches to the list of City Hospital internes, as it includes the name of a negro,  Dr. Clarence Lucas. Dr. Lucas took sixth place in the competitive examination.”

Sumner Furniss became the first African-American interne in Jun 1894, when this image appeared in the Indianapolis News.

Lucas became just the second African-American interne at City Hospital, following Sumner Furniss in 1894. When Furniss reported to City Hospital in June 1894 the Hospital Superintendent reported that four patients “had already entered their objections to being attended by a colored physician.” Yet several prominent White physicians insisted Furniss was qualified and should assume his interne position, and the Indianapolis Journal editorialized that the “time has passed when an educated colored man who shows qualifications of a high order can be set aside for public duties because negro blood courses his veins. If there are men or women in the hospital who feel that they cannot serve with Dr. Furniss because his skin is a little darker than theirs, they can resign.”

In 1911 Lawrence Aldridge Lewis topped the exams for City Hospital internes (Indianapolis Star 16 April 1911).

Despite such seemingly progressive sentiments, racial segregation increased in the early 20th century, and just four African-American physicians interned at City Hospital between Lucas’ appointment and 1917. Lawrence Aldridge Lewis entered the IU School of Medicine in 1907, graduated in the class of 1911, and became an interne in April 1911. Lewis practiced in Indianapolis until his death in 1964. The other three had long medical careers but did not work in the Circle City. Albert Buford Cleage, for instance, graduated from the IUSM and became a City Hospital interne in 1910 before moving to Michigan in 1914. Howard Randall Thompson graduated from IUSM in June 1913, became a City Hospital intern, and returned to practice in Evansville in 1914, where he died in 1929. After his entrance exams, William Walden Gibbs was selected as a City Hospital interne in 1917, but he was required to agree to eat with other Black employees in a segregated dining space “and to treat only those colored patients who might be assigned to him.” Gibbs initially accepted those terms, but the White interns served notice at the beginning of June that they refused to work alongside Gibbs, and on June 15th the White physicians walked out. Gibbs resigned and a week later the NAACP met to petition for Gibbs’ reinstatement. A group of African Americans met with the Board of Health, but Gibbs abandoned the effort and moved to Chicago in 1919, and he eventually became Joe Louis’ family physician; Gibbs died in February 1948.

In 1910 more than half of Indianapolis’ African-American M.D.s were part of the Lincoln Hospital Executive Committee, including Clarence Lucas Sr.

Clarence Lucas established a private practice after his City Hospital internship, and in his family’s hands the practice would continue in the city’s near-Westside into the 1990s. In 1910 Lincoln Hospital counted Lucas among the city’s 19 African-American physicians, nearly all of whom had been trained in a legion of proprietary medical schools in the late 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century. The city’s earliest African-American physician, Samuel A. Elbert, was born free in Maryland in 1832 and came to Indianapolis after the Civil War. He graduated from the Indiana Medical College in 1871 and died in July 1902. Sumner Alexander Furniss established his practice in 1895 after becoming City Hospital’s first African-American interne in 1894, and he would become Indianapolis’ first African-American City Councilman in 1917. Born in Mississippi in 1874, Furniss and his parents moved to Indianapolis in about 1883, where his father William was a public school teacher. Sumner received his medical degree from the Medical College of Indiana in 1894 and continued to practice in the city until his death in 1953. His brother Henry Watson Furniss finished his medical training as well as a pharmaceutical degree at Howard University in 1895. In 1898 he became the US consul in Bahia, Brazil and in 1905 he became the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Haiti (that is, the US Chief of Mission), serving until 1913. Born in North Carolina in 1872, Joseph Henry Ward finished his medical training in Indianapolis at the Physio-Medical School of Indiana.

Aspiring African-American medical students had increasingly fewer options for training in the 20th century. In 1910 the Carnegie Foundation’s enormously influential study Medical Education in the United States and Canada ensured the segregation of medical training and a paucity of Black physicians for a century. Known as the Flexner Report, author Abraham Flexner was enlisted to professionalize medical training, visiting all 155 medical schools in operation in 1909. Flexner advocated reducing those 155 schools to just 31 institutions, and he championed the elimination of all but two African-American medical schools: that decree would leave just Howard University Medical School and Meharry Medical College as institutions training a significant number of Black medical professionals. Those two institutions trained three-quarters of the nation’s Black doctors in the subsequent half-century. The Flexner Report assumed Black physicians would exclusively treat Black patients in a segregated society, and Flexner voiced a commonplace White wariness of the public health dangers posed by African Americans, arguing that “The practice of the negro physician will be limited to his own race, which in its turn will be cared for better by good negro physicians than by poor white ones. But the physical well-being of the negro is not only of moment to the negro himself. Ten million of them live in close contact with 60 million whites. …. The negro must be educated not only for his sake, but for ours. He is, as far as human eye can see, a permanent factor in the nation. He has his rights and due and value as an individual; but he has, besides, the tremendous importance that belongs to a potential source of infection and contagion.” The segregation of medical schools and interne opportunities ensured a very modest number of African-American physicians into the 21st century.

Clarence Lucas Sr. in his Indianapolis office (courtesy Lynn Lucas-Fehm).

Clarence Lucas married teacher Carrie Heston in June 1912, and they were living at 2008 Bellefontaine Street in July 1913 when their daughter Carolyn Heston Lucas was born and son Clarence Lucas Jr followed in December 1914. The family was living there in April 1930 when the census recorded the neighborhood’s demography and identified the Lucases as the only Black family in the immediate area. In December the family purchased a home at 3934 Central Avenue, “in the heart of what is known as Indianapolis’ well-to-do district,” which was an exclusively White neighborhood. Lucas bought the home from White physician Clark E. Orders, and the Indianapolis Recorder suggested without explanation that “Dr. Orders sold the home to `spite’ the neighborhood.” A week after moving into the home, the Central Avenue neighbors met and formed the Northside Protective Association, one of a series of inter-war Indianapolis neighborhood collectives lobbying against residential integration. The exclusively White neighborhood group on Central Avenue “unanimously decided at the meeting that should Dr. Lucas and the latter’s family persist in living in their recently purchased home, the league would see to it that ever Negro employed in domestic service within the district is discharged forthwith.” A committee of the White neighbors including Indianapolis Real Estate Board President and future Indiana House of Representative member Thomas E. Grinslade met with Lucas at his North West Street office. The Lucas family surrendered their Central Avenue home and returned to their former residence on Bellefontaine Street, where they remained until moving to East Riverside Drive in about 1953.

In 1989 the 75-year-old Carolyn Lucas Dickson was still practicing when the Indianapolis Star reported on the practice.

Both of Clarence and Carrie’s children became physicians. Daughter Carolyn Lucas married in 1938 and completed her medical degree at Howard University in 1939. In about 1947 she began to practice alongside her father at 501 North West Street, almost certainly the first African-American female MD in Indianapolis. She practiced into the 1990s and died in September 2010. Like his father, Clarence Lucas Jr. was an Indiana University School of Medicine student who graduated in June 1940. In the 22 years after William Gibbs’ 1917 interne appointment ended, no African-American physician had interned at City Hospital. In August 1930, White physician and 1928 interne John Albert Egan voiced a commonplace resistance to integration when he told the Indianapolis Star that “The City hospital, in my opinion, is the greatest single blessing the colored population of Indianapolis enjoy. … I think every white or colored reader will agree that the maintenance of a nursing staff would be impossible at the hospital if colored doctors were admitted. Nurses would not train and work with them.”

When City Hospital tried to enforce racial segregation of Clarence Lucas, Jr., 22 of his fellow internes wrote that they “do not object to eating at the same table with Dr. Lucas.” Nevertheless, hospital administrators and the Mayor ended Lucas’ interne appointment, and he completed his internship at Homer Phillips Hospital in St Louis (courtesy Lynn Lucas-Fehm).

Despite such sentiments, Clarence Lucas Jr. became the next City Hospital interne in November 1939. In July 1940, though, Lucas was dismissed after “he refused to eat in a dining room set aside for Negro internes.” Lucas told the Indianapolis Star that “`I am not interested in dining with white persons or having them dine with me. … But I do object to being subjected to indignities other internes do not have to suffer. I expected that certain phases of the medical services at the hospital would be closed to me but I did not expect that kind of discrimination.’” Twenty-two of Lucas’ fellow internes signed a petition that they did not object to dining with Lucas, but in August Mayor Reginald Sullivan upheld the dismissal of Lucas, concluding that “`There’s been a lot of friction between Dr. Lucas and the other internes all along.’” When African-American hospital orderly William Powell advocated for Lucas, Powell was also fired and accused of “creating disorder.”

In an interesting wrinkle, Clarence Lucas Sr. may not have been the only African-American graduate of the Indiana School of Medicine in 1908. In her 2016 study African-American Hospitals and Health Care in Early Twentieth Century Indianapolis, Indiana, 1894-1917, Norma B. Erickson recognized that Lucas’ fellow graduates included Alfred Hudson Hendricks. The vast majority of primary documentary evidence indicates Hendricks was African American. Hendricks was born in Georgia in 1882 and identified in the 1900 census as Black, and when Alfred and his wife Hazel had a son in 1908 the Indiana birth certificate identified the parents as Colored. Hazel’s father Henry Hart was a well-known African-American musician, and Alfred Hendricks’ office in 1910 was in the heart of the African-American community in the 1200 block of North West Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Street). Alfred and Hazel divorced between 1920 and 1925, and when Hazel died in an auto accident in 1935, the death certificate identified her as Colored (IPS School 37 was named after the former teacher and Principal before closing in 2009). Nevertheless, in 1910 the census recorded Alfred Hendricks as White, as did his 1967 death certificate, the 1940 census, and his 1917 World War One draft registration. Those inconsistencies suggest Alfred Hendricks simply was perceived by some primary record keepers as mixed race or even White. He almost certainly deserves some recognition as sharing the status as one of the first African-American graduates of the IU School of Medicine.

In 1908 the newly created Indiana University School of Medicine took this picture of 24 members of its first graduating class.

Like many other universities, the Medical School photographed its graduates in 1908, the first of over 100 graduating classes in the Indiana University School of Medicine. The Indiana University register of graduates identified 70 students who were awarded a 1908 IU Medical Degree, but only 24 students grace the class photograph. The graduating class image of the “clinical department” may have excluded students who had not received their full clinical coursework in the Indianapolis clinical training. Neither Lucas nor Hendricks appeared in the image, and that may be because some of their training was not at IU. Nevertheless, like many universities the Indiana University historical narrative that celebrates Lucas (and does not recognize Hendricks) tends to evade the ways racism in medical schools shaped African-American health into the 21st century. Contemporary community attitudes toward public health, the Medical School, and the city’s medical facilities are all shaped by that heritage, and serving the community today requires acknowledging that deep-seated histories of anti-Black racism inevitably shape present-day experiences of health care. Recognizing this history acknowledges institutional complicity in racism and admits that heritage shapes contemporary experience.


Carolyn M. Brady

1996 Indianapolis at the Time of the Great Migration, 1900-1920Black History News and Notes 65.

Walter J. Daly

2002 The Origins of President Bryan’s Medical School. Indiana Magazine of History

98 (4): 265-284. (subscription access)

Norma B. Erickson

2016 African-American Hospitals and Health Care in Early Twentieth Century Indianapolis, Indiana, 1894-1917. Master’s Thesis, Department of History Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.

Murray N. Hadley

1931 Medical Educational Institutions in Indiana. Indiana Magazine of History 27 (4): 307-315. (subscription access)

Louis W. Sullivan and Ilana Suez Mittman

2010 The State of Diversity in the Health Professions a Century After Flexner. Academic Medicine 85 (2): 246-253.



1958 Indiana University School of Medicine Alumni image from IUPUI Special Collections and Archives.

Contagion and Urbanization: Epidemic Disease and City Planning in Indianapolis’ Near-Westside

This photograph dated February 21 1903 was probably taken in a pesthouse on the grounds of City Hospital (click for an expanded image, IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives).

In November 1903 the city of Indianapolis resolved to build a new “pest house” to hold epidemic disease patients in an isolated location. This was simply the latest in a string of quarantine facilities the city had built to hold epidemic disease victims since the Civil War. Like all cities Indianapolis had a long 19th-century history of smallpox, measles, and cholera, with contagious disease outbreaks in 1847-1848, 1855, 1864, 1883-1884, 1894, 1899, and 1902. Coronoavirus serves as a 21st-century reminder that the uncertainty of communicable disease and public quarantine were once a common dimension of everyday life. Contagious disease imposed a persistent uneasiness that the apprehensive 19th-century city hoped to manage without upsetting commerce, industrial and residential expansion, and bourgeois public health. Between the mid-19th century and 1930s residents struck by contagious disease were secluded from public space in the Riverside neighborhood in the near-Westside even as the city encouraged industrial expansion, residential speculation, and the growth of segregated leisure spaces in the same neighborhoods. Over 150 years of contagious disease management by the city is still reflected on the present-day landscape in demographic and settlement neighborhoods in Indianapolis’ near-Westside, which is an artifact of the 19th and 20th-century confluence of contagion, class, and industrial and residential growth.

The Riverside neighborhood streetscape in 1889. The Fall Creek pesthouse at the red arrow 1; City Hospital is #2 (construction began 1857);  the Indianapolis Water Company pumping station is #3 (opened 1901); and the Cerealine Manufacturing  is #4 (opened 1892). Click on image for larger picture, click on Riverside Base Map for a Google Map version, and click here for original.

Before the Civil War virtually all healthcare was conducted at home, including contagious disease quarantine, and such practices would persist into the 20th century. Antebellum municipal hospitals and almshouses were relatively uncommon institutions outside of major cities, and they almost exclusively treated the indigent. In 1833 Indianapolis’ first Board of Health recommended construction of a hospital, but the idea was rejected as being too expensive (compare Katherine Mandusic McDonell’s 1983 history of the City Hospital). The hospital proposal was revisited in 1847-1848 during a smallpox epidemic (though the extent of the illness was disputed), and four acres were purchased expressly for a quarantine pesthouse. Pesthouses were modest temporary structures that quarantined those with communicable diseases, sometimes providing some medical treatment but in many cases simply holding patients to prevent the spread of contagion. A smallpox tax was imposed to fund the Indianapolis pesthouse’s construction, but in March 1848 a city government committee concluded that the need for a pesthouse and tax funding should be put to a vote, directing “the City Council to suspend operations in building a Lazar house or hospital” (“Lazar house” was a term that usually referred to leprosy quarantine houses). In April 1849 a City Council candidate captured widespread public resistance to funding the pesthouse when he complained that “much of the people’s money has been wasted in wild visionary schemes, such as laying the foundations for small-pox hospitals.” The debt-saddled project finally was abandoned in August 1849 and tax payments were returned to the handful of people who had actually made them.

Nevertheless, property for the City Hospital was purchased in March 1855, and construction on City Hospital was underway in 1857. Residents remained reluctant to place health care in hospitals rather than homes, and in October 1859 the un-completed building still needed a roof. It stood empty when wounded soldiers began to be treated at the hospital by May 1861, and in March 1862 the City Council agreed the Union Army could manage the hospital “so long as the rebellion exists.”

This 1908 map shows the pesthouse (at the red arrow) built on the same lot where a pesthouse was first built in 1864 (click to expand image, 1908 Baist Map).

During a wartime smallpox outbreak in January 1864, historian Ignatius Brown indicated that the city opened a pesthouse “two miles north-west of town. … After the war the government turned the house over to the city, and the ground was afterward bought and deeded to the city” in December 1865. In 1894 the Indianapolis Journal alluded to the same facility when it reported that the “pesthouse buildings and grounds occupied nine acres on the banks of Fall creek in the vicinity of Indiana avenue …. The present buildings were erected, and have been but little used except during one smallpox epidemic over ten years ago.” The location Brown and the Indianapolis Journal identified lay along Fall Creek just north of the Indiana Avenue bridge crossing Fall Creek (along the eastern side of present-day Milburn Street). The surrounding area north of Indiana Avenue to roughly 21st Street is today part of the Riverside neighborhood, which had very little residential development until the end of the 19th century. Residential growth and real estate speculation began after the Belt Line Railroad was extended through the neighborhood in 1877 and a host of industrial workplaces emerged along the rail lines. Planning was simultaneously underway for Riverside Park (land purchases began in 1898). Green space was planned to include the tract around the Indianapolis Water Company, where facilities began to be built in 1881 and a new pumping station opened in 1901. Plans for a series of winding roads with a central fountain on the water company grounds were eventually abandoned, as was a 1900 proposal to run a subway to Riverside Park, but in 1907 a city booster described the water company’s 252 acres as “parkland.” In 1903 the private Riverside Amusement Park opened on the north end of Riverside Park. The Coney Island-style park was the scene of scores of school and family events for generations, but the aggressively segregationist park limited those events to White visitors and eventually closed at the end of the 1970 season (cf. a 2006 paper that discusses the single day a year Riverside admitted Black guests [PDF] on “milk cap day”).

A contemporary google map view facing north of the former Cerealine Manufacturing Company site reflects the site continues to be a factory 128 years after opening (click to expand image, original Google Map image here).

The Cerealine Manufacturing Company became the major industrial presence in the neighborhood when it opened a factory near Fall Creek north of West 18th Street in 1892. A modest scatter of residential housing emerged along the factory, and real estate speculators began planning suburbs alongside nearby Riverside Park over the subsequent decade. Company founder Joseph Gent was honored with the naming of Gent Avenue alongside the new factory, and the neighborhood reaching south to the confluence of Fall Creek and Indiana Avenue was initially known as “Cerealinetown” in homage to the factory. In 1904, though, residents began to refer to their neighborhood as Riverside Place, and residents formed a Riverside Place Improvement Club (which became Riverside Civic League by 1911). In 1908 residents opposed naming the new School 44 at Sugar Grove Avenue and 21st Street “Cerealinetown school,” and they convinced the city to name the school Riverside School. There was no longer any attachment to the Cerealinetown place name because in 1902 American Cerealine had been consolidated into the American Hominy Company. Factories remain there today, but the Cerealinetown place name rapidly disappeared.

The Civil War pesthouse along Fall Creek was razed and re-constructed in 1871. Pesthouses were intermittently located in ephemeral structures or tents at the City Hospital in the late 1880s and 1890s, and in 1891 the Board of Public Health complained that the Fall Creek pesthouse was “subject to yearly overflow and the buildings are worthless and beyond repair.” In 1893 the Board of Health suggested moving the patients to the Marion County Poor Farm along North Tibbs Avenue (south of Lafayette Road, roughly where James Foster Gaines Park is today). The county would only pledge $1,000 to a new pesthouse at the County Poor Farm, though, so the city abandoned the proposal.

A City Hospital attendant posed with the smallpox ambulance, circa 1905-1908 ( IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives).

As residential neighborhoods emerged near the pesthouse and proposed pesthouse sites, residents resisted the detention facilities. In March 1894, for instance, the city resolved to build a pesthouse “on the site of the old pesthouse” along Fall Creek. Alarmed by the proposal to rebuild the pesthouse in their neighborhood, a “delegation of citizens living in the vicinity of the cerealine works called on the County Commissioners yesterday with a vigorous protest against the proposed location of the pesthouse.” Pesthouse buildings that had been built after the Civil War were still standing on the tract, but they had not been used since about 1891, and in April 1894 the city set them aflame. Despite the protests of the Cerealinetown residents, on April 21 1894 a new pesthouse began to be built on posts that would elevate the structure five feet above the ground surface, a response to recurrent flooding along Fall Creek.

In February 1904 the Indianapolis Star included this map of the newly reconstructed pesthouse’s location at the red arrow (click to expand image).

Yet by 1898 the Mayor already described the 1894 pesthouse as “entirely unfitted for the purpose for which it was intended,” and in December 1902 the city proposed building a new pesthouse west of City Hospital. The new pesthouse was intended to replace a frame building and tent that had been holding about 20 patients in the City Hospital yard, and its patients were suspected of infecting hospital patients and employees. In late December 1902 a contingent of alarmed City Hospital neighbors advocated for instead placing the pesthouse in the former Cerealinetown location when it “asked the mayor to use the site of the old pesthouse rather than the one selected next to the hospital” (that is, the “old” location was along Fall Creek where the pesthouse structure elevated above the surface had been built in 1894). Former City Hospital Superintendent William Wishard also voiced his opposition to placing the pesthouse alongside the hospital because it would risk spreading disease to the hospital patients. In July 1903 the city still hoped to build a new pesthouse west of the City Hospital, and that proposal was greeted with a lawsuit from Maxwell Street resident Mary Watters. Watters and her husband Robert had moved to Maxwell Street by 1895, where they and their nine children were living within a block of the proposed pesthouse. The Watters abandoned their suit when the city decided against the Hospital location, and they were still living in the Maxwell Street home when Robert died in 1925.

A circa 1865 image of the Indianapolis City Hospital (IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives).

In July 1903 the city engineer visited the site of the old pesthouse along Fall Creek, expressing concern that it would be susceptible to flooding and was not sufficiently far removed from nearby homes. By November 1903, though, the city had abandoned their plans to build a new pesthouse alongside the City Hospital, and a delegation of Cerealinetown residents protested to Mayor Charles Bookwalter when it became clear he “would likely choose the old pest-house site at Cerealinetown for the new pesthouse.” The Mayor had promised during his campaign not to build a pesthouse in the neighborhood, but the city owned the 11-acre property in Cerealinetown along West 14th Street and could build a structure there with the modest $4,400 allocation by the City Council. On November 15, 1903 Bookwalter tried to comfort the Cerealinetown group when he told them that “the pesthouse would be surrounded by a very high fence and that it would be surrounded by trees and would be just as pretty as such a place could be made.”

When construction crews began to build a new pesthouse in January 1904, they were startled to find a burial of an earlier pesthouse victim. (Indianapolis News 15 January 1904)

When builders began construction January 15, they were surprised to uncover a coffin containing “a colored woman who died of smallpox at the old pesthouse which was burned several years ago [that is, in April 1894]. It was decided to cement over the coffin and allow it to remain in its first resting place. The building is being erected over the grave.” The former pesthouse Superintendent told the Indianapolis Journal that the body had been buried “about eight years ago” and that at least “three unclaimed bodies were buried” around the penthouse. There certainly were more graves scattered about the pest house. In 1892 the Indianapolis News reported that “On the city pet-house grounds …. right on the banks of Fall creek, are two lonely graves. Who sleep in them, even [former Superintendent James] Coleman does not remember. They were small-pox patients. The burial place is not marked. It is lost under the tin cans and other rubbish dumped there by the unknowing.”

When construction of the pesthouse was set to begin in 1904, an injunction against the pesthouse construction was secured by West 14th Street neighbor Ellen Fletcher. In an ironic twist, in 1902 Fletcher lived on Maxwell Street just two blocks from the City Hospital pesthouse, and the widow moved to West 14th Street in 1903, where her new home sat 380 feet from the newly proposed pesthouse. On January 15th 1904 (the same day the pesthouse grave was uncovered) Fletcher complained that construction had begun and that “all the lumber and brick for the construction of the pesthouse is on the ground, which is staked off.”

The city intended to condemn Fletcher’s home and a series of neighboring lots (almost all unoccupied) along the north side of West 14th Street. When Fletcher filed her injunction the city complained “that after the condemnation proceedings had been commenced the plaintiff moved her house to the rear of her lot in order that it might be within the 500 feet.” Fletcher reached an agreement to sell her property January 29th, just a week after Fall Creek flooded: the Indianapolis Star reported that the “lower part of Cerealinetown was flooded” and the “proposed site of the city pesthouse was under a foot and a half of water.”

Before the floodwaters had even receded, Fletcher’s neighbor John Walters filed suit to prevent the pesthouse’s construction. Walters was born into captivity in Kentucky in 1839, where he had enlisted to join the United States Colored Troops in 1864. After the war Walters moved first to Louisville and then to Indianapolis in 1877 before moving near the 14th Street pesthouse site in 1900. The residential neighborhoods to the east along Indiana Avenue would become predominately African American at the turn of the century, and Walters was living in a very modest home in 1904, but the surrounding neighborhood remained predominately White into the 1930s. On February 2 1904 Walters sought an injunction against the pesthouse’s construction, as his next-door neighbor Ellen Fletcher had just weeks before. Two days later weary city attorneys argued that “the city has possessed the pesthouse site for over fifty years and that it is the best site obtainable for the erection of a pesthouse.” The city settled with Walters and his wife Roxy and purchased their home February 9th.

At the end of March 1904 the newly built pesthouse was flooded for the second time in three months, and the Indianapolis Star reported that neighbors were “gleeful” that it was surrounded by several feet of water and accessible only by boat. Charles Williamson lived a block away at 1410 Montcalm Street and wrote the Indianapolis News April 4th that the “present high water has demonstrated that those who opposed locating the pesthouse at its present site were correct.”

Despite these unhappy neighbors, the pesthouse had found its final home along the banks of Fall Creek and would remain near the intersection of West 14th Street and Milburn Street for another 30 years. In 1908 the Board of State Charities reported that the “pest house is an old frame building nearly half a mile from the hospital. It does fairly well, apparently, but some better provision for smallpox cases ought sooner or later to be made.” Nine years later a comprehensive study of Indianapolis’ city services found a contagious disease hospital neighboring City Hospital as well as the pesthouse, but the two facilities were in poor condition and catering mostly to impoverished patients. The report indicated that “Indianapolis seems to have assumed or retained an indefensible attitude towards victims of infection. It seems to consider persons infected with smallpox or any of the common contagious diseases as having forfeited all rights to the consideration given to other sick persons. While a comfortable addition has been built to the general hospital, the pesthouse and the ramshackle `annex’ have been retained.”

In 1911 James Dietz became the superintendent for the Detention Hospital and his wife Sophia became the matron. Both were still working at the pesthouse when James died in January 1932, and Sophia remained the nurse matron of the pesthouse until 1933. When James died the Indianapolis News acknowledged shifting public health practices when it indicated that “in recent years since science has reduced smallpox almost to the minimum, there frequently were long periods of time when there were no patients. Less and less money was appropriated for the upkeep of the hospital and it now has become badly in need of repair.”

In October 1931 the Indianapolis Times included an image of James and Sophia Dietz in front of the pesthouse as the city planned for its closing.

Many hospitals created communicable disease wards after World War I and during the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic, and vaccinations had made enormous headway against contagious diseases. In January 1925 12 patients were in the pesthouse and another 48 were under quarantine in the midst of a smallpox outbreak, but in 1930 columnist Frederick Landis acknowledged that “nobody is excited these days on reading that smallpox has broken out. … thanks to the constant labors of medical science this and other plagues which slew our ancestors have been controlled or banished from the land.” In October 1931 the Indianapolis Times echoed the pesthouse’s imminent death rites and indicated the “last patient left the pesthouse seven weeks ago.” In July 1932 the Indianapolis Star advocated abolishing the pesthouse, arguing that Indianapolis “maintains a pest-house on property north of the City hospital at an annual cost of more than $2,000. Only a few cases are treated there each year, and the little use to which the structure is put does not justify the expenditure.” The law requiring local pesthouses was rescinded a month later, and the Indianapolis pesthouse closed.

The presence of the pesthouse, the Cerealine factory, busy railroad lines, and the Indianapolis Water Company ensured that much of the space close to downtown Indianapolis would never become densely settled neighborhoods. Eventually housing emerged in the Riverside neighborhood along the eastern edge of the park, but smaller clusters of more modest housing were sprinkled around the Cerealine factory and west of the pesthouse. Residential expansion was checked in part by the Indianapolis Water Company holdings, which included a wide swath of property around the pumping house and encircled Perry Stadium, where the first game was played September 5, 1931. The pesthouse’s location in the midst of this area certainly was not the sole factor shaping residents’ willingness to settle in the Riverside neighborhood, but city planners and public health managers clearly imagined the near-Westside as something other than a settled residential community.


1903 Pesthouse interior image from IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives

Circa 1865 City Hospital image from IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives

City Hospital ambulance circa 1905-1908 image from IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives

Indianapolis City Hospital Exterior, ca. 1865 image from IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives

“The First Klansman”: Xenophobia, Faith, and Redemption in the Indiana Klan

Charles Gunsolus in 1930.

In October 1922 Reverend Charles H. Gunsolus delivered the sermon “The Truth About the Ku Klux Klan” at Indianapolis’ Union Congregationalist Church. In a spirited defense of the hooded order against the Indianapolis Mayor, Police, and press, Gunsolus argued that “`The Ku Klux Klan is putting the church back on its feet. Christ was the first klansman and was crucified for saying what He believed. If Christ were here this morning the chances are He would speak on the same thing I am speaking about.’” Taking aim on his fellow clergy while repeating the Klan attack on Catholicism, Gunsolus suggested that “there are klansmen in every church audience in the city, and when these ministers refuse to preach the truth they know it. The ministers have failed to present the truth. The purpose of the Klan is to bring all churches and organizations against the Catholics together. … If you want to know what the Ku Klux Klan is doing, don’t read the Indianapolis newspapers. The newspapers are in the hands and clutches of the Roman Catholic church. They will not give forth the truth.”

Gunsolus was scarcely the only Hoosier clergyman to cast his lot with the Klan (all Protestant clergy received honorary membership in the Klan), and his attraction to the Invisible Empire placed him among a vast number of White Hoosiers in one of Indiana’s most shameful moments of xenophobia. For two years at the height of the Klan’s power and popularity in Indiana Gunsolus would be among its most vocal champions. Gunsolus would grace the pulpit of the pro-Klan Brightwood Congregational Church many times in 1923 and 1924 (and direct the women’s “Gunsolus All-American Orchestra” that performed at Brightwood). Brightwood proudly proclaimed in February 1923 that it had “the most beautiful and only haloed fiery cross in Indiana. Come and see it burn.” In June 1923 he headlined a “100 percent” American rally and cross burning at Brightwood at which Gunsolus introduced Indiana Secretary of State Edward Jackson, who had close Klan connections and would become Governor in 1925. In July 1923, Gunsolus preached at Brightwood and afterwards the church held “a fiery cross ice cream social on the church lawn.” The cross-burning and Gunsolus’ sermon came at the height of the Ku Klux Klan’s popularity in Indiana, punctuated on July 4th 1923 by a Kokomo rally that gathered 100,000 members of the hooded order.

Gunsolus was among a vast number of White Hoosiers who embraced the Klan in the 1920s, their specific reasons for joining, quietly supporting, or simply tolerating the Invisible Empire now lost to memory. The anti-Black racism and xenophobia that fueled the Klan’s popularity certainly conceals a vast breadth of personal narratives, and Charles Gunsolus’ life story paints a complicated picture of xenophobia, the Klan, and perhaps the ways some former Klansmen redeemed themselves.

Fred Gunsolus in an undated Indianapolis Police Department image (Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department Collection)

Charles Henry Gunsolus was born at 515 Blake Street in August 1893. Gunsolus’ father was born in Ohio in about 1857 as Wilhelm Rabe. Rabe married in 1871 and had six children before abandoning his family and going to Deadwood Colorado in 1880. Rabe met Mary Jane Felumlee in Colorado, where he was probably using a pseudonym, and she later recounted that they married in Cleveland in February 1883. She said they came to Indianapolis in July 1883, and they had moved into the home on Blake Street in 1889. Gunsolus became a police officer in February 1895, but in December 1896 one of Frederick Gunsolus’ sons from his first marriage revealed Gunsolus’ history to the Police. The former Wilhelm Rabe’s past was apparently news to his second wife, but he married her once more in December 1896 under his legal name and then legally changed his name to Gunsolus.

Their son Charles would first win note as a musician. In February 1901 Gunsolus performed on piano at the People’s Congregational Church Sunday School, and in March 1907 the young Gunsolus was performing on violin with an amateur group in Indianapolis theatres. The Indianapolis Star concluded that “the lad shows remarkable talent. He answered one encore by playing `The Star Spangled Banner’ holding the violin bow in his mouth.” Gunsolus would play in the band at Manual High School in 1909 and perform in the high school’s orchestra in 1913. In 1914 he appeared in the city directory as a student living at 515 Blake Street, possibly when he began to take classes at Butler College (now Butler University). In June 1930 Gunsolus received two Butler degrees, a Master of Arts degree as well as a Master of Divinity degree. His 1930 Thesis An Investigation into Theories of Metempsychosis examined reincarnation in a vast breadth of ancient cultures.

Gunsolus’ first appearance at the Fourth Christian Church probably came when this appeared in the Indianapolis News in September 1916

In September 1916 Gunsolus became the Pastor at Fourth Christian Church. The church had formed in June 1868, moving to a building at Blake and New York Streets in November 1868, meeting next on Indiana Avenue, and then building a church on Fayette Street that opened January 1, 1871. In 1877 the congregation built a new church on North West Street, just a block west of Fayette Street. That neighborhood changed quite dramatically in the first decade of the 20th century, when African American migrants spilled into the near-Westside and settled in the neighborhoods along and around Indiana Avenue. Fourth Christian may have been reacting to the demographic transformation in August 1909 when the Pastor and about 25 members withdrew from the congregation seeking “a more congenial location.” In October the breakaway congregation, Centenary Christian, counted 81 members at its new location at 10th and Rural Streets. A year later the Fourth Christian congregation was contemplating reuniting with the Centenary members when they acknowledged that “for several years the Fourth congregation has felt that it would eventually be necessary to change its location and a year or two ago it was arranged that the new church would be at Rural and Tenth streets.” Yet despite voting to sell the North West Street Church and move in 1910, the congregation remained on North West Street when Charles Gunsolus became Pastor in 1916, and Gunsolus would serve as the church’s Pastor between September 1916 and October 1919. Gunsolus first preached at Speedway Christian Church in August 1920, and he resigned as the Speedway congregation’s Pastor in January 1921.

The July 6, 1923 Fiery Cross included this ad for Charles Gunsolus’ Studio of Music.

Gunsolus may have first preached at Brightwood Congregational Church in February 1923, when the Klan’s newspaper The Fiery Cross first advertised his Brightwood sermons, and he remained its Pastor until at least February 1924. At the end of February The Fiery Cross reported that Gunsolus was preaching at the Spiritualist Church of Truth, with the Klan paper encouraging readers to “Come and learn the truth about spiritualism. … Kome! Kome! Kome!”

In March 1924 the Indianapolis News included this notice for a Gunsolus sermon at the Spiritualist Church of Truth.

Gunsolus’ move to the Spiritualist Church punctuated his interest in spiritualism, which appears to have begun in the early 1920s. Spiritualism emerged in the mid-19th century as a religious movement focused on the spirit world of the dead that can speak to living people, and Gunsolus’ February 1924 sermon was followed by a medium who delivered “spirit messages.” A month earlier Gunsolus delivered one of his last sermons at Brightwood on “The Truth About Spiritualism.” He told The Fiery Cross that “after ten years of study and investigation I am convinced that spiritualism is true. I have gathered enough facts and statistics from my many friends in Indiana to prove its veracity to any doubter or sceptic. Spiritualists and those interested along physical research lines are especially invited to attend.”

In December 1924 Gunsolus told the Indianapolis Star that he expected Christ to return when the millennium arrived.

The Indiana Association of Spiritualists first met in 1888, and in 1924 one observer believed there were about 50 spiritualist churches in Indiana (the 1924 Indianapolis city directory identified only two Spiritualist Churches in the Circle City; there had been four in 1920 and seven in 1930). In August 1922 Gunsolus was the Pastor of the Garfield Church of Christ when he told the Indianapolis Star that the “Bible proves that there are good and evil spirits that fly around us continually.” Gunsolus was excited by a machine Thomas Alva Edison was developing that would contact spirits, and Gunsolus argued that “astrology, clairvoyance, mental telepathy and other arcane sciences of the spirit world … are a lost art.” In April 1923 he was Pastor at Brightwood when he told his congregation that “By leading a pure, clean life and by persistent prayer and concentration, it is possible to talk with spirits and angels.” In 1924 Gunsolus told his congregation that Jesus was visiting other planets and would return in AD 2000: “Preceding the second coming of Christ, the Rev. Mr. Gunsolus said that perpetual motion will be discovered; that ships would sail without fuel; that airplanes will draw their motive power from the air; that flesh and vegetarian diets will pass away and man will live only upon fruits; that disease, war and death will be wiped out.”

Spiritualism may have been at its peak of popularity in the early 1920s, but it had a host of critics. During a 1925 Circle City performance at the Murat Theatre, magician Harry Houdini called Gunsolus out from the audience. Houdini was a persistent critic of spiritualism, and as part of the showman’s attack on spiritualism he attacked Gunsolus’ claims to communicate with spirits. The newspapers reported that “Rev. Mr. Gunsolus, who was in the audience, made his way to the stage to reply to the charges. …Mr. Gunsolus declared that he is with Houdini in his effort to drive out fraudulent mediums and that he admitted that ninety-nine out of 100 mediums are fraudulent. Mr. Gunsolus evidently concluded he was outnumbered when none in the audience rallied to his support, so he finally offered Mr. Houdini his hand, which was taken, and Mr. Gunsolus bowed himself out.”

Gunsolus told the Indianapolis Star in August 1924 that he was leaving the Klan.

By the time Houdini challenged Gunsolous at the Murat the Indianapolis pastor had become alienated to the Klan. When Gunsolus defended the Klan at the Union Congregational Church in his October 1922 sermon, he suggested that “I am not a member of the klan but I am judging the klan by its acts.” Perhaps Gunsolous had never been a dues-paying member, but in August 1924 he claimed to have been “the first active minister to join the Ku Klux Klan in Indianapolis” and “said he had been a member of the Klan for two and a half years and had been officially appointed as a state lecturer.” That 1924 acknowledgement of his Klan membership came during a statement in which he announced that he was leaving the hooded order. He suggested that his faith had fueled his  separation from the hooded order, saying that “I was made the subject of ridicule and the laughing stock of klansmen because I had joined the Spiritualist faith. … I have also heard Klan speakers attack other religions besides the Spiritualists, and yet they say they stand for religious tolerance and liberty of conscience.”

Gunsolus turned his energy to the Spiritualist Church just as the Klan collapsed as a political force in 1925. In 1925 Gunsolus would appear in the Hartmann’s Who’s Who in Occult, Psychic and Spiritual Realms as one of 13 Indiana “Spiritualist Associates, Mediums, Healers and Ministers.” Gunsolus was identified as the Pastor of the American Spiritualist Church at 515 Blake Street, one of seven Spiritualist churches the guide listed in Indianapolis, and he was listed as President of the Universal Psychic Research Society.

The Central Scientific College advertised in the 1925 Hartmann’s Who’s Who in Occult, Psychic and Spiritual Realms

Gunsolus would reign over an enormous empire of degree-granting institutions. In December 1927 charges were brought against one of them, the Central Scientific College, which was based in Fargo, North Dakota but had been chartered as the Indianapolis Chiropractic School in 1922 by chiropractor Otis James Briggs. In 1925 the Hartmann’s Who’s Who had listed the Central Scientific College as based at 359 North Illinois Street, the offices of Otis Briggs. Briggs and Gunsolus were two of eight men indicted in 1927 for orchestrating a “diploma mill.” Gunsolus argued that the college’s “courses are standard and are equal to the correspondence courses put out by Columbia university and any other college.” In June 1927 Briggs had admitted to creating faked medical diplomas through his College of Drugless Physicians and “confessed that he maintained a special school for colored students at 603 North Senate avenue, many of whom were presented with certificates of graduation on completion of their short course.” Briggs was found guilty of perjury but his sentence waived provided he discontinued his university, and federal charges were abandoned in 1930. Briggs opened an office as a naturopath and chiropractor in Honolulu in 1945 but returned to Indianapolis and secured a chiropractor’s license in 1956.  Briggs was advertising in the Indianapolis Recorder in 1965 and still practicing in 1969 when he was murdered during a robbery attempt.

Gunsolus and his parents were still living on Blake Street in 1925, and the neighborhood around them had been changing since the turn of the century as increasingly more of the surrounding community was African American. In the 1920 census, every household on the 500 block of Blake Street was White except for one African-American woman and her daughter living at the rear of 523 Blake Street. Nevertheless, African Americans had been living in homes and streets just blocks away as early as the 1870s. In 1918, for instance, an African-American Spiritualist Pastor, Joel Henry Perkins, was living at 842 Blake Street, where he was Pastor of the Fourth Spiritualist Church; Perkins was providing “messages” from spirits, a staple of spiritualist practice, though in 1919 he had been arrested for fortune telling. In 1930, Perkins’ wife Josie was the Pastor for the Provident Spiritualist Church at 842 Blake Street, and she was still holding services until at least 1932. African-American spiritualists would continue to have a presence in Indianapolis, and the National Colored Spiritualist Association had its annual meeting in Indianapolis in 1939.

The Gunzolus College of Music began to advertise in the Indianapolis Recorder in December 1934. He began to spell his name Gunzolus during the 1930s.

By 1930 the near-Westside was an overwhelmingly Black community. Mary Jane Gunsolus died in 1926, and in 1930 Frederick and Charles had only one neighboring White household. Charles Gunsolus apparently underwent a transformation in his racial and social sentiments. In January 1931 a story appeared in the city’s African-American newspaper, The Indianapolis Recorder, indicating that Gunsolus “believes that all races are equal in the sight of God; and thinks that Negroes are more mystical and more spiritually minded than the white race. The Rev. Gunzolus, whose work is carried on mostly among Negroes is definitely against Jim Crow laws, lynching and other anti-Christian acts.” Gunsolus’ first advertisement in the Recorder  (which had begun to spell his name Gunzolus) appears to have been in December 1934, and he would run advertisements in the African-American newspaper until at least May 1968 (using the same picture of himself for 34 years).

A 1953 Indianapolis Recorder ad emphasized that Gunsolus would not prepare hoodoo spells.

If Gunsolus had begun to conduct his work “mostly among Negroes,” he was probably serving the predominately African-American community surrounding his Blake Street home. His first Recorder ad was for his College of Music, offering up a very wide range of musical lessons and training as well as “Lectures, Lessons, Classes and Advice Given in the Bible, Religion, Phychology [sic], Metaphysics, Spiritualism, Astrology, Occult Arts, Divine and Spiritual Healing.” In 1953 a Gunsolus ad in the Recorder apparently hoped to distinguish spiritualism from hoodoo when it indicated that Gunsolus was a spiritualist and mystic but he was “NOT a Fortune Teller Or Hoodoo Worker. He Does Not Sell Luck, Charms, Voodoo Medicines, Etc.” However, Gunsolus did conduct séances and instructed people to “see, hear and talk to spirits.”

In 1945 Elsie’s Christian Spiritualist Church appeared in the church listings in the Indianapolis News.

Gunsolus’ father died in November 1934, and Charles married Elsa (“Elsie”) Nora Miers in February 1940. Elsie was first listed as a “co-worker” in a Gunsolus College of Spiritualism ad in October 1937. Perpetuating the tradition of having many different churches based at the Gunsolus house, in June 1941 Elsie Gunsolous appeared as the Pastor of the American Spiritualist Church at 515 Blake Street. Like her husband, Elsie claimed to have an enormous number of academic degrees, with “more than 50 diplomas and degrees in psychology, philosophy, astronomy and spiritualism from American and foreign universities.”

The transformation of Charles Gunsolus’ sentiments on race may have been most clearly signaled in a May 1964 letter he wrote the Indianapolis Recorder. Gunsolus wrote the newspaper advocating that every voter should “send a letter to the White House demanding that a Negro be nominated for Vice-President of the United States of America on the Democratic ticket. This man ought to be Martin Luther King. Also demand that the lieutenant governor of the state of Indiana be a Negro.” Gunsolus was still serving as a Pastor at a spiritualist church at 2001 Yandes Street and holding séances, classes, and personal consultations at his Blake Street home. Elsie died in August 1967, and Charles Gunsolus ran one of his last ads in the Recorder in May 1968, when he once again offered to administer tests in “ESP, Parapsychology, PSP, Yoga, etc.” Gunsolus ran an ad in the Indianapolis Star on June 1, 1968, offering that a “meeting in ESP will be held in your home, women’s groups or elsewhere.”

In 1978 this photo of 515 Blake Street was taken just after Gunsolus had sold the home to Indiana University (Indiana Landmarks Central Canal & IUPUI Image Collection).

By the late 1960s the home where Charles Gunsolous had lived since his birth in 1893 was in the edges midst of the IUPUI campus, which was securing property throughout the surrounding neighborhood. The Indianapolis Star visited his home in June 1971 and described Gunsolus as a “mystic, eccentric genius, seer, music teacher, Bible instructor and hypnotist.” The Star reported that Gunsolus’ “big problem these days is that Indiana University is trying to buy his ancient home, which sits on the eastern perimeter of their expansion program. Gunzolus says this is `an attempt by one school to run another out of business. I think it’s terrible,’ he added. `There is room for both our schools on the Westside, but if someone has to move, it should be I.U. I was here first.’” By 1971 many of the homes along Blake Street had been razed after their purchase by Indiana University, and the Star reported that the “Gunzolus home now is one of the few remaining on the block. It would stand out even if it were surrounded by buildings. A large sign on the front of the brown one-story home-school lists many of its occupant’s degrees and services. Inside the home is an incredible jumble of dusty boxes, thousands of yellowing books, papers, cans and other items pertaining to Gunzolus’ lifelong obsession with mystical hocus-pocus. Gunzolus claims he has more than 200 degrees and on the walls of the home are certificates from just about every mystical mail order diploma mill in the world.” Gunsolus lamented the displacement of his neighborhood, admitting that “I have to say it has been a good life up until about three years ago when they began tearing down all the houses and many of my customers moved away. Everything has gone downhill since then.” In March 1972 Gunsolus told the Star that “the university can’t begin to pay cash for what the house means in value to him. He was born there, has lived there all his life and wants to die there.” The Star indicated that in “a four-block radius there is only one other house standing. The rest have been reduced to flatland to make room for I.U. expansion.”

Gunsolus was living in his Blake Street house in September 1974 when student reporter M. William Lutholtz asked readers of IUPUI’s student newspaper The Sagamore what they knew about the neighborhoods on the edges of campus: “You drive through it every morning and evening. You know that it’s badly run down. But do you know any of the people that live around here? Do you know anything about the area that you’re spending anywhere from two to twelve hours a day?” As an example of those neighbors, Lutholtz pointed to “the University of Indianapolis at the corner of Blake Street and Michigan–not the building you’re used to seeing. The real university of Indianapolis is owned, staffed, and operated by the Reverend Dr. Charles H Gunzolus. A.B., M.A. , M.M., D Sc., Th D., Ph D . etc. At the ripe young age of 81 Dr. Gunzolus has the sole legal rights to the title University of Indianapolis, where he teaches classes in Hatha Yoga, ESP, Astrosophy, Theosophy and about thirty other courses in his home at 515 Blake Street.”

Gunsolus did indeed have a state charter claiming the title of University of Indianapolis. In 1968 Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar voted to support the establishment of a joint Indiana University and Purdue University campus in Indianapolis, and he initially championed calling it the University of Indianapolis. In January 1969, though, the Trustees of Purdue and Indiana Universities agreed to call the joint Indianapolis campus Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Gunsolus routinely railed on his claim to the title University of Indianapolis, which in 1986 was taken by the former Indiana Central University.

The new University was eager to expand into the surrounding neighborhood, including the homes along Blake Street. In April 1978 Gunsolus was among the last residents of the IUPUI campus when he accepted the University’s offer of $11,000 for his home. Gunsolus moved to the 5409 East 10th Street home of Virginia Tokopf, where he died in May 1982.

In 1974 Sagamore reporter M. William Lutholtz indicated that Gunsolus “is usually willing to talk to most people–so long as they don’t interrupt his classes.” Lutholtz ended his 1974 story on IUPUI’s neighbors and their inevitable displacement with a touching suggestion. He told his fellow students that “there are many other places around this campus and many, many people who are worth meeting. Perhaps the next time you can’t think of any thing to do around here, you’ll consider taking a walk where they live.” While Gunsolus is today dead and his house long gone, his story remains a fascinating tale of life in 20th-century Indianapolis. In the face of the commonplace caricature of universal White flight, Gunsolus’ decision to stay in the near-Westside after it became an African-American community is especially interesting given his 1920’s affection for the Klan.


Thanks to John Buescher and Lauryn Flynn for their research on Gunsolus. Hannah Ryker has written up this research in a much shorter form.

“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