African-American Undertakers in the Circle City

In 1887 John J. Thornton’s undertaking shop on West Market Street appeared on this Sanborn map just off Monument Circle (note building marked “Coffins” in center of image; click for an expanded view).

In March, 1880 the Indianapolis News proclaimed that “Indianapolis now has a colored undertaker.” The newspaper did not identify that undertaker, but it certainly was George H. Woodford, who opened an undertaker’s shop on Indiana Avenue. George Woodford was part of a nationwide movement to professionalize undertaking and mortuary services in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. In the midst of turn-of-the-century racial segregation, African-American undertakers had little direct competition with White undertakers as death and the Black body were increasingly ceded to African-American entrepreneurs. African-American undertakers appealed to African Americans’ reverence for a proper burial while recognizing that White undertakers were much less likely to dignify Black death. Consequently, after the turn of the century, undertakers ranked among Indianapolis’ most prominent African-American entrepreneurs.

Before the Civil War, local craftspeople often constructed caskets; families prepared the deceased for burial; and many people were buried in modest family cemeteries, especially in rural settings. This began to shift in the late-19th century with the emergence of chemical embalming, an industry marketing funerary material goods, professional undertaking courses and schools, and the shift from home-based funerals to funeral parlors. Embalming began to be practiced on a wide scale for the first time during the Civil War, when it was used to prevent the decomposition of soldiers being shipped home for burial. Perhaps the most influential example of embalming was the preservation of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse as his body was escorted to Illinois over several weeks in 1865 (including a stop in Indianapolis on April 30). Undertakers’ schools began to teach embalming and burial practices in the late-19th century, and in 1882 the National Funeral Directors Association was formed to advocate for professionalization of the trade.

The Circle City’s first African-American undertaker, George Woodford, was born into captivity in about 1846 in Wayne County, Kentucky. After Emancipation Woodford enlisted in the Union Army on September 8, 1864 at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, and he served in the Fifth United States Colored Cavalry. Woodford was almost certainly one of the 80 African-American soldiers in Company E who were attacked near Simpsonville, Kentucky on January 23, 1865, an ambush that left about 22 of the soldiers dead. Woodford married Tieney Williams in Louisville in 1875, and the newlyweds migrated north to Indianapolis by early 1876.

In 1880 Woodford began to operate an undertaker’s shop on Indiana Avenue, first where the One America Building sits today and then a block away at the northwest corner of Indiana Avenue and New York Street (now the 300 block of Indiana Avenue). Yet on April 29, 1882 the Indianapolis Leader noted that Woodford was ill and “grave doubts of his recovery are entertained”; the Indianapolis News reported on the same day that he had in fact died. Woodford was buried at Crown Hill in services conducted by his fellow members of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, but the city did not appear to have another African-American undertaker. In 1886 John J. Thornton probably became the city’s second African-American undertaker when he opened his shop on West Market Street just a block east of the Indiana State House. Yet like his predecessor George Woodford, Thornton died soon after in October, 1888.

This April, 1905 ad for Cassius M Clay Willis’ funeral home noted the firm was managed with his daughter Beulah Willis. Beulah had graduated from an embalming program, one of many women active in the management of early 20th-century funeral homes. The 23-year-old Beulah died just a month after this ad appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder.

At the turn of the century, a circle of professionally trained undertakers established several longstanding African-American funeral homes. Cassius M. Clay Willis came to Indianapolis in about 1875 and established his undertaking firm in 1890. Willis graduated from a Massachusetts School of Embalming course in 1895, possibly taking the course with the embalming schools’ traveling instructors, who conducted such courses in places like Terre Haute. Willis’ first undertaking shop from 1890 to 1913 was in the Odd Fellows’ Building on what is today the 500 block of Indiana Avenue, and in April 1913 he purchased an existing double at 622-624 North West Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Street) and moved his business there the following August.

In October, 1900 Willis hired another professionally trained undertaker, Lucas B. Willis (no relation to Cassius Willis), and Lucas Willis would remain a prominent Indianapolis undertaker until his death in 1930. Lucas Willis began his career working for Thomas K. Robb’s undertaking firm in Frankfort, Kentucky before coming to work for CMC Willis in October, 1900. Lucas B. Willis completed a course in the Massachusetts College of Embalming in 1898 and received instruction at the Renouard Training School for Embalming.

There was relatively little professional oversight of undertakers around the turn of the century, and some problematic practices persisted. The most shocking Indianapolis example came in 1902, when a series of freshly buried bodies were discovered missing from the Anderson Cemetery on East 10th Street. Estella Middleton, a 15-year-old African American, was living on Gladstone Street in August, 1902, when she was struck with typhoid fever and died August 28th. Middleton was buried in the Anderson Cemetery by CMC Willis, but in September her grave was found disturbed, and Middleton’s body was found in the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons where it was being used for medical students’ training.

Middleton was re-buried in the Anderson Cemetery, but it instantly became clear many more graves had been emptied. The Central College of Physician and Surgeons was one of three medical schools in Indianapolis, two of which eventually joined with other schools and became part of the Indiana University School of Medicine in 1908. After the discovery of Middleton’s body, Demonstrator of Anatomy Joseph C. Alexander was found to have secured at least two stolen corpses, and apparently the grave robbers had been provisioning medical schools for some time: suspects Garfield Buckner and John McEndree had been suspected of grave robbing the poor farm and Mt. Jackson cemeteries in 1900; they escaped prosecution, but police were suspicious because Buckner was working for one of the city’s medical colleges.

Alexander had obtained the bodies from a team of African-American grave diggers that included Rufus Cantrell, an African American who worked for CMC Willis, and James Harvey, an embalmer who had been employed by Willis. Cantrell and his partners confirmed that Willis had been party to the crimes and had arranged for bodies to be supplied to Alexander for $30 a body. The suspects claimed that in 1900 Willis even provided the body of one of the grave robbers’ own wives to Alexander without burial.

The grave robbers soon implicated a series of cemetery sextons and a Central College intern and the janitor, and they acknowledged they had robbed many cemeteries throughout central Indiana (including cemeteries in Fishers, Jones Chapel Cemetery on present-day West 56th Street, Pleasant Hill Cemetery near Trader’s Point, and Holy Cross/St. Joseph Cemetery on the southside). More bodies were thieved from Mt. Jackson than any other cemetery. Cantrell admitted that “he and the other negroes visited Mt. Jackson cemetery almost every time anyone was buried in the place. `We pretty near cleaned that place out,’ he said. `I don’t believe we missed any body that has been planted there since July.’” In October bone remains found in the college were suspected of being stolen cadavers that were burnt to conceal evidence, and four bodies from robbed graves were discovered bagged in an Indianapolis alley; burial shrouds were found in the college as well. Nevertheless, Alexander escaped with a hung jury the following February, and he was never re-tried. Cantrell was sentenced to the State Reformatory in Jeffersonville, and several of his grave-digging colleagues also served prison time.

Cassius MC Willis continued to run one of the city’s most prominent African-American funeral homes after escaping without jail time, moving from Indiana Avenue to North West Street in 1913. The funeral home on North West Street (which sat in the same block as Madam CJ Walker’s home) continued to be run by Willis’ son Herbert after Cassius’ death in 1920. Herbert died in 1952 and the funeral home had its last services in 2009. The building stands today, connected to newly constructed apartments.

James Shelton and Lucas Willis appeared in this August 1905 ad in the Recorder the year after they established their partnership (click for expanded view).

Lucas Willis remained with CMC Willis’ firm until Lucas established a competing funeral home with James N. Shelton in 1904. Shelton received some training at Harvey Medical College, a co-ed evening school in Chicago that trained working-class students, and he graduated from the Chicago School of Embalming in 1900. Shelton’s wife Mayme also completed an embalming course in Chicago in 1901. Shelton first managed an Indianapolis undertaker’s business with Ola Homer Morgan from December, 1900 until August, 1904, when he and Lucas Willis formed the firm Shelton and Willis. In 1905 the pair was forced to note in advertisements in the Indianapolis Recorder that they were “not connected in any way with CMC Willis undertaking establishment.”

In the early 20th century, James Shelton was among the most prominent African-American undertakers in national professional circles. The National Funeral Directors Association formed in 1882, but its membership was officially segregated in 1912; it did not accept African-American members until 1970. The National Negro Business League was formed in 1900 by Booker T. Washington to promote African-American commercial and marketing enterprises, and funeral directors would always be prominent in the League. James Shelton attended its national meetings in 1907, 1909, 1910, 1911, and 1913 (and likely other years as well). In 1907 a group of funeral directors in the League formed the National Negro Funeral Directors Association, the same year that Shelton and St. Louis undertaker W.C. Gordon delivered a paper “The Undertaking Business.” Two years later Shelton was the group’s Secretary, and Lucas B. Willis was serving on its Executive Board.

Shelton was one of 16 Hoosiers to attend the 1910 National Negro Business League meeting in New York as part of a delegation that included his famous neighbor Madam C.J. Walker. During Shelton’s report at the 1911 convention as Secretary of the National Negro Funeral Directors Association he proclaimed that African-American funeral directors “receive ninety-five per cent of the patronage of the colored people in the communities in which they live.” Two years later Shelton again spoke at the convention and argued that “I say the time has come when we ought to make it impossible for any white man to bury a Negro in any community in which you live.”

Lucas Willis was likewise actively engaged in national African-American funeral directors’ associations. In September, 1905 Willis was elected Vice-President of the Colored Interstate Funeral Directors Association, which was apparently one of a patchwork of early state and regional funeral directors associations. Willis served on the Executive Board of the National Negro Funeral Directors Association when it first formed in 1907, but National Negro Business League influence waned by World War I, and new African-American undertakers’ groups began to form. The Independent National Funeral Directors Association formed in September, 1924, and Willis became its Secretary when 31 African-American funeral directors met in Chicago in 1925. In 1927 Willis was one of three Indianapolis undertakers to meet with the group in Cincinnati, and the organization remains active today as the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association.

James Shelton ran this ad not long after he began to operate an independent funeral home on Indiana Avenue, where he had once shared space with Lucas WIllis.

James Shelton and Lucas Willis ran a funeral home on Indiana Avenue until July, 1914, when they parted ways to run funeral homes in their own names. Shelton continued to manage his funeral home on Indiana Avenue at the location he had shared with Lucas, and he remained there until his death in 1921. Lucas Willis opened his own funeral home on West Michigan Street and would remain active in national African-American funeral associations. In 1915 Shelton and Willis’ former embalmer Shirley H. Winfrey partnered with undertaker Andrew W. Breckenridge in a funeral home at 517 North West Street, where Breckenridge and George W. Lee had opened a funeral home the year before. Breckenridge had been an undertaker in Xenia, Ohio between about 1902 and 1910, and Winfrey had been an undertaker in Terre Haute.

The Peoples Burial Company ran this patriotic ad in 1934 paying homage to their founder Henry Dunn, whose widow Lula was running the funeral home. They had recently hired William Lester Craig, who would establish his own funeral home on the near-Southside in 1936 (click for expanded view).

By the time of Lucas Willis’ death in 1930 the number of African-American funeral directors in Indianapolis had increased significantly. For instance, People’s Funeral Company was founded in 1919 by Henry Dunn and his wife Lula Jackson Dunn, and Lula Dunn became perhaps the first licensed African-American female mortician in Indiana. Since the turn of the century, every funeral home had female attendants, including CMC Willis’ daughter Beulah Willis and Ola H. Morgan’s wife Fanny. Lula Dunn was employing William Lester Craig by 1934. In 1936 William and his brother Joseph opened a funeral home on the near-Southside at 1002 South Senate. The Craig Funeral Home was erased by the construction of interstate and moved to 826 South Capitol Street in February, 1968. William Lester Craig died in November, 1974, and his son William Martin Craig assumed management of the firm. Less than a year later the funeral home was displaced for the second time by interstate construction, and the family firm moved to 3447 North College Avenue in November, 1975, where they remain in business today.

The Craig Funeral Home has moved twice in the face of interstate construction in the 1960 and 1970s. In November, 1975 they announced their second move to North Capitol Street, where they remain today.

African-American funeral homes gradually found themselves in competition with historically segregated White funeral homes after the 1950s, but many African-American funeral homes remained viable and trusted community institutions into the 21st century. Nevertheless, chains have swallowed up much of the family based funeral home trade. Historically African-American communities have also been displaced after World War II by urban renewal and highway construction—forces that twice forced the Craig Funeral Home to relocate—and the communities along Indiana Avenue or the near-Southside have been completely uprooted.  Just as much of the landscape of African-American Indianapolis is now razed and invisible to many contemporary people, the heritage of more than a century of African-American undertakers and funeral homes risks being lost as well.



LaTrese Evette Adkins

2003 “And who has the body?”: The historical significance of African American funerary display. PhD Dissertation, Michigan State University.


Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis L. Peck (editors)

2009 Encyclopedia of Death & the Human Experience. 2 vols. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California.


Christopher Leevy Johnson

2004 Undertakings: The politics of African -American funeral directing.  Phd Dissertation, University of South Carolina.


Gary Laderman

2003 Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America.  Oxford University Press, New York.


Charles William McCurdy

1896 Embalming and Embalming Fluids. The Post-Graduate and Wooster Quarterly 39:175-258.


William Henry Porter, Jr.

1958 Middleville Morticians: Some Social Implications of Change in the Funeral Business in a Southern City.  PhD Dissertation, Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College.


Suzanne E. Smith

2010 To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African-American Way of Death.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Shirley Winfrey and Andrew Breckenridge ran this ad for their North West Street funeral home in 1916

Indianapolis’ Ahmadi Muslims in the 1920s and 1930s

This is the second of two posts on 20th-century Muslim heritage in Indianapolis that come to us from Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, Edward E. Curtis IV. Click on Indianapolis’ Homegrown Islam: The Moorish Science Temple of America for the first post.

Mirzā Ghulām Ahmad (1835-1908), the founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam (click on image for expanded view).

In 1930, national Muslim missionary Sufi Bengalee came to visit the small, but growing community of Muslims in Indianapolis devoted to the teachings of a Punjabi religious leader named Ghulam Ahmad. Bengalee was the American missionary for the Ahmadiyya movement, which was one of the first modern, international Muslim movements to gain a significant number of converts among non-Muslim populations, especially in the West. The Ahmadiyya were a reform-minded group that emphasized the peaceful nature of Islam and eschewed polygyny. It was named after its founder, Ghulam Ahmad, whom many followers believed was the Messiah and the Mahdi, the rightly-guided figure in Islamic tradition who will appear on earth to preach justice before the Day of Judgment. Some followers also thought Ghulam Ahmad to be a prophet, a belief that was and is rejected by most of the world’s Muslims—whether Sunni or Shi‘a—who believe that Muhammad of Arabia (d. 632 CE) was God’s final prophet. But before Sunni or Shi‘a Muslims had established a congregation in Indianapolis, it was Ahmadi Muslims who were encouraging Hoosiers to convert—and doing so across Indianapolis’ stark color line. Continue reading

Indianapolis’ Homegrown Islam: The Moorish Science Temple of America

This week’s post comes to us from Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, Edward E. Curtis IV

In May, 1939 the Moorish Science Temple advertised a Decoration Day (Memorial Day) dance in the Indianapolis Knights of Pythias Hall (click for an expanded view).

In the 1930s some African-American Hoosiers helped to establish a completely new form of Islamic religion. The Moorish Science Temple of America (MST) was one of many new religious movements of the interwar period.  Begun in 1920s Chicago by Timothy Drew, who became known as Noble Drew Ali, the MST called on African Americans to have pride in themselves, advocated for equal rights, and preached the values of hard work and self-reliance. Noble Drew Ali taught that African Americans had forgotten their true heritage as followers of Islam. According to him, they had also forgotten their true racial and national identities. There was no such thing as a Black race, Ali proclaimed, insisting instead that African Americans were part of the Asian race. He said that their true national origins were Moorish–from Morocco. As Moors and Asians, he declared, they should abandon Christianity, which he said was the natural religion of White people, and re-claim the religion of Islam, which he defined as the natural religion for all non-white people. Believing that African Americans had adopted incorrect and ultimately harmful ideas about who they were, Ali was calling for nothing less than a wholesale change in black identity. Continue reading

Orphans across the Color Line: The Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children

In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan's Home.

In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan’s Home (click for an expanded view).

In the 1890s the Lessenberry and Edmonds families were among the scores of African Americans migrating to Indianapolis.  The two Kentucky families were part of a wave of African Americans who swelled the Circle City’s population in the early 20th century.  Fueled by post-Emancipation optimism as well as a sober acknowledgment of Jim Crow racism, many African-American families went north to cities like Indianapolis.  James Edmonds and his three children came to Indianapolis in 1890, and Price and Amy Lessenberry and their four children followed in 1898.  The families were compelled to contend with Hoosier racism and segregation in their new home, and they were among the many newcomers whose lives were transformed by impoverishment and a segregated social service system.

A migration wave in the wake of the Civil War first exposed Indianapolis’ lack of institutional support for the newly freed African Americans who escaped north.  Unsettled by homeless, impoverished, and often-ill African-American newcomers, Indianapolis’ Friends (Quakers) resolved in 1869 to organize an African-American orphanage (compare the histories by Thomas Cowger and John Ramsbottom as well as the Indiana Historical Society collection guide).  In 1870 the Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children opened at Mississippi and 12th Streets (eventually re-named Senate Avenue and 21st Street, respectively). Continue reading

Migration to Indianapolis’ Near-Southside in the Late-19th Century

A 2016 aerial view of Indianapolis and the near-Southside.

A 2016 aerial view of Indianapolis and the near-Southside (click for expanded view; for aerial views of the neighborhood in 1962, 1972, and today scroll to the end of this post).

In January 1886 the Indianapolis News mourned the loss of the final tree from the “dense forest that once filled Pogue’s Creek bottom … on the bank of the new cut on Morris street.”  While trees had long been removed from the city’s original Mile Square, “south of the old boundary of South street … the woods maintained their primeval density.”  After Europeans arrived in Indianapolis, that forest on Indianapolis’ near-Southside was punctuated by a scatter of small farms and pastures.  These included a hemp farm managed by of one of Indianapolis’ first European settlers, Nicholas McCarty.  McCarty opened one of the city’s first general stores in 1823, and around 1840 his entrepreneurial ventures included “a hemp mill and rotting vats—just south of Ray street.”

This 1855 map provides one of the earliest images of the near-Southside. Both McCarty Street and contemporary South Meridian Street were dirt roads, and some lots were included in the map at the southwest corner of the two streets (click for expanded view).

This 1855 map provides one of the earliest cartographic images of the near-Southside. Both McCarty Street and contemporary South Meridian Street were dirt roads.  Some lots were included in the map at the southwest corner of the two streets, but most of them had not yet been settled (click for expanded view).

By the time the final tree fell on the near-Southside in 1886, businesses, workplaces, and homes lined South Meridian Street and side streets like Ray Street, where McCarty’s hemp mill once stood.  In 1855 South Meridian (initially referred to as Bluff Road) was a dirt road that extended south from McCarty Street (Bluff Road today refers to the street that extends southwest off South Meridian near Adler).  In 1858 present-day South Meridian was graded and graveled, and a scatter of new residents, stores, and workplaces soon occupied the street extending south from McCarty Street. Continue reading

“The Way of the Transgressor”: Hard Labor and Incarceration in the Marion County Workhouse

As inmates entered the Marion County Workhouse, a sign sounded the Biblical warning that “The Way of the Transgressor is Hard.”  Indianapolis’ workhouse opened in 1885 with a philosophy that hard labor was the path to rehabilitation.  Most inmates pulverized a massive rock pile producing gravel for local roadways, but inmates also worked a large garden and maintained the workhouse as cooks, janitors, barbers, and laundresses.  The facility at the corner of 21st and North West Streets (the latter now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Street) was part of a complex landscape of incarceration in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis in which discipline was imposed by a network of orphanages, jails, asylums, and a poorhouse.

Many American communities constructed workhouses, and this 1866 image was of a woman arriving in New York's Blackwell's Island (image NYPL).

Many American communities constructed workhouses, and this 1866 image was of a woman arriving in New York’s Blackwell’s Island (image NYPL).

The workhouse was intended to house inmates who were convicted of modest crimes and had received short sentences.  In the years after the Civil War, Indianapolis’ workhouse proponents lamented that such petty criminals were prone to vagrancy, fueling a persistent “tramp problem.”  In 1875, for instance, the Indianapolis News argued that the “necessity of a work-house is too apparent to require enlarging upon.  The vagrants who loaf about the streets and saloons, the tramps who beg from house to house and watch an opportunity to steal, the drunken creatures who are brought into court daily, the able-bodied gamblers who range the streets and public resorts in search of victims or who hide in their dens until the chance to rob comes; these, and all the worthless and vicious who prey upon society, shall find a place in the work-house.”  In December, 1883 the News lamented that the County jail was over-crowded with “professional loafers or tramps” who “come here in winter from all quarters, for the reason that they know they will be sheltered at the expense of the state, and can not be made to work.” Continue reading

Hidden Heritage on Martin Luther King, Jr, Street

In January, 1937 William Lane died in a hit-and-run accident in the 1000 block of North West Street (now known as Martin Luther King, Jr Street).  The 56-year old Lane had returned to his home at 1044 North West Street before realizing he had forgotten to purchase pepper. Lane headed back out to the grocery and was returning with pepper in hand when a car hit him and killed Lane instantly.

A 2016 Google image of the 1000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Street (click for a larger view). The building on the left of the image is Dunbar Court Apartments, which opened in March, 1922 and erased three of the four building once on the west side of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street, now known as North West Street.

A 2016 Google image of the 1000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Street (click for a larger view). The building on the left of the image is Dunbar Court Apartments, which opened in 1922 and erased three of the four building once on the west side of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street, now known as North West Street.

Nobody who is familiar with this stretch of road today would be surprised at the lethality of that streetscape.  The once-settled neighborhood is now a confluence of interstate off-ramps built in the 1960s that empty onto constantly re-engineered streets that struggle to accommodate busy traffic.  Once part of a walkable neighborhood of homes, stores, churches, and schools, the 1000 block of MLK Street now seems designed simply to serve cars.  Not much more than a dirt path in the mid-19th century, the block is now a mostly invisible space on the way to and from state government complexes, the Indiana University Medical Center, and IUPUI.

When William Lane died the neighborhood along MLK Street was a central but more modestly trafficked thoroughfare sitting just south of Crispus Attucks High School.  William and Virginia Lane’s home still sits at the corner of North West and 11th Streets, now known as Martin Luther King Jr Street and Oscar Robertson Boulevard respectively.  Many of the surrounding homes were removed by urban renewal projects and interstate construction that began after World War II, but the Lanes’ home has been spared in part because it is now part of the Ransom Place Conservation District.  Yet few of the thousands of people driving by the house each day likely notice the homes that tenaciously hang on in the 1000 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Street. Continue reading

Forgotten Memorials and Ignored Tragedy: Inside Memorial Grove

A circa 1860-1865 image of Lew Wallace (from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).

A circa 1860-1865 image of Lew Wallace (from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).

In the woods north of Indianapolis Parks’ Municipal Gardens sits a modest memorial to the 11th Indiana Volunteer Regiment.  The memorial to the Union regiment and its original leader—Lew Wallace, best known as the author of Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ—was unveiled at the site of the former Camp Robinson in September, 1914.  Forty-two surviving members of the regiment attended the unveiling at the site where they had originally camped in 1861 before going to the front.  Today the 11th Regiment monument is hidden in woods known as the Memorial Grove, and very few people visit the Riverside Park site overlooking the White River or even know it exists (for details, see Ryan Hamlett’s 2013 Historic Indianapolis discussion of the 11th Regiment monument).

In this 2015 Google image aerial view Memorial Grove at the intersection of Cold Springs Road and Lafayette Road, just north of the Indianapolis Parks Building known as now as Municipal Gardens.

In this 2015 Google image aerial view Memorial Grove is the woods at the intersection of Cold Springs Road and Lafayette Road, just north of the Indianapolis Parks Building now known as Municipal Gardens.

The woods surrounding the 11th Regiment memorial conceal an even more unsettling and unknown story ignored for nearly a century.  Almost eight years after the monument was unveiled the body of George Tompkins was found in the surrounding woods.  Tompkins was among the African Americans who migrated to Indianapolis from the South, probably leaving Frankfort, Kentucky around 1920.  In 1910 Tompkins was living with his uncle and aunt Robert and Fannie Smith in Frankfort, where the eight-year-old was in school.  Tompkins apparently was raised by the Smiths since infancy, and he was living with them in Frankfort as late as 1917.

The Smiths came to Indianapolis after World War I and were living on Colton Street on the present-day IUPUI campus in 1920.  They had moved a few blocks away to Holborn Street not long before their nephew’s death.  After Tompkins’ death the Smiths told the Indianapolis News that they had raised him since he was nine months old and his mother had been dead for “many years.”  Tompkins had been working at the Fairmount Glass Works until two weeks before his death; an official at the glass factory told the newspaper that Tompkins had quit after receiving word from Kentucky that his mother was gravely ill and he was going south to visit her.

The March 17, 1922 Indianapolis Star initially proclaimed the death of George Tompkins a lynching in this headline.

The March 17, 1922 Indianapolis Star initially proclaimed the death of George Tompkins a lynching in this headline.

On Thursday March 16, 1922 Tompkins left the Smiths’ home on Holborn Street, and at noon his “still warm” body was found in the woods near the 11th Regiment Memorial.  The Indianapolis News reported that Tompkins “was suspended from a tree by a rope around his neck and with his hands tied behind him” with a handkerchief.  Police believed that Tompkins had been murdered elsewhere and then moved to the woods in Riverside Park, where his body had been hung.  The body was covered with dirt, suggesting Tompkins had been dragged by the taut rope, but detectives on the scene included a contingent that championed the theory that Tompkins’ death was a suicide.  Proponents of that suicide theory believed Tompkins “may have looped the handkerchief around one wrist and tied the knot in it before strangling himself.

Two days after Tompkins' death the Indianapolis coroner's office ruled his death was a suicide.

Two days after Tompkins’ death the Indianapolis coroner’s office ruled his death was a suicide.

The city’s Coroner concluded on the scene that Tompkins had been murdered, but early 20th-century officials were reluctant to label African American deaths as lynchings, especially within the city limits.  Surviving descriptions of the scene are not especially detailed, and perhaps Tompkins had not been strangled at the scene or died as a result of hanging in the Riverside woods.  However, lynching scenes routinely were mined for souvenirs, including rope, bonfires, trees, and even victims’ bodies, and there is a suggestive hint that this might have opened in the woods along Cold Springs Road: the Indianapolis News observed in passing that “four or five of the small limbs on the side of the tree on which the body was found had been cut off apparently with a small pen knife.”  Harvey Young has detailed how many lynching scenes were dismembered by souvenir hunters.  Indiana’s most infamous lynching of two men in Marion, Indiana in August, 1930 was chronicled with a shocking photograph of the two lifeless victims, and two women in the foreground appear to be holding swatches of fabric that probably were keepsakes torn from the victims’ bodies.

Tompkins’ body was autopsied on March 18th by Deputy Coroner George R. Christian, and the death certificate identified the place of death as “Robinson’s Camp,” referring to Camp Robinson.  The cause of death was ruled to be “strangulation by hanging from neck.”  However, Christian’s surprising verdict was the death was a suicide.  Like so many African-American deaths in 20th-century Indianapolis, Tompkins’ death was quickly ignored, with not a word about the case again appearing in the local White press after March 17th (unfortunately, the city’s African-American newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder, does not have surviving copies from this period).  Tompkins was laid to rest in Floral Park Cemetery.

George Tompkins’ death has been submerged in a commonplace historical amnesia about racist violence, ironically effaced in the same woods where some of the soldiers who had fought for Black freedom have also been forgotten.  Such landscapes of racist violence have been similarly effaced throughout the country, and perhaps a memorial to Tompkins risks being forgotten as the nearby 11th Regiment memorial has been.  Nevertheless,reviving the memory of George Tompkins’ tragic death hopefully contributes to a discussion that dignifies his life and acknowledges a shameful history.



Dora Apel
2004 Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob.  Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, New Jersey.


James M. Davidson and Edward Gonzalez-Tennant

2008 A Potential Archaeology of Rosewood, Florida: The Process of Remembering a Community and a TragedyThe SAA Archaeological Record 8(1):13-16.


Jacqueline Goldsby

2006 A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.


James H. Madison

2001 A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America.  Palgrave McMillan, New York.


Stewart Emory Tolnay, E. M. Beck

1995 A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930.  University of Illinois Press, Urbana.


Harvey Young

2005 The Black Body as Souvenir in American LynchingTheatre Journal 57:639–657.



Matthew Brady image of Lew Wallace from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The Landscapes of Chinese Immigration in the Circle City

In 2008 Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard suggested that the Circle City build a Chinatown to celebrate the “cultural flavor of Indianapolis” and “showcase its diversity.”  Ballard’s proposal was an unfunded musing that was not especially focused on celebrating Chinese culture; the Mayor was instead aspiring to craft a tourist-friendly Chinese district in reach of downtown on the city’s near-Southside.  Nothing has ever come of Ballard’s idea, and perhaps it is because the city has no historically Chinese neighborhood and has been the home to relatively few Chinese immigrants.  In 1880—on the eve of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first of a series of laws strictly regulating overseas Chinese immigration—Indianapolis had just 14 residents who were born in China to Chinese parents; in 1910 that population swelled to 43 residents, in 1930 it was 39, and in 1940 it was 20.  Nevertheless, some Chinese immigrants did come to Indianapolis, and they and their families were part of city affairs throughout the early 20th century.

In the 19th century segregated Chinese communities emerged throughout much of the West.  The earliest of these communities were based in Gold Rush and railroad centers like San Francisco, and these Chinese neighborhoods were often referred to as “Chinatowns.”   Cities like Chicago and Detroit had similar communities emerge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Chinese immigrants went eastward searching for new social and economic opportunities or simply fleeing West coast xenophobia.

E Lung's North Delaware Street laundry and home appeared in the 1898 Sanborn insurance map.

E Lung’s North Delaware Street laundry and home appeared in the 1898 Sanborn insurance map (click for expanded image).

Nearly all of the earliest Chinese immigrants to Indianapolis ran laundries, a pattern that was typical of Chinese laborers throughout the US well into the 20th century.  Wah Lee’s laundry on South Illinois Street was probably the first Chinese laundry in Indianapolis, opening in May 1873 (and receiving a fine in August for constructing a wooden building in violation of the city’s fire code).  In the 1874 city directory, two of the four laundries in the directory were Chinese managed, including Wah Lee’s laundry and Sang Lee’s laundry on Virginia Avenue. Continue reading

The Last Holdouts: Community Displacement and Urban Renewal on the IUPUI Campus

In April, 1980 the home at 725 West vermont Street sat in the center of this picture of the IUPUI campus. 311 Bright Street stood just to its south at the right side of the image (click for larger image).

In April, 1980 the home at 725 West vermont Street sat in the center of this picture of the IUPUI campus. 311 Bright Street stood just to its south at the right side of the image (click for larger image).

In 1874 the first residents moved into 311 Bright Street in Indianapolis’ near-Westside.  The modest frame house sat in the midst of a neighborhood that rapidly emerged after the Civil War.  It sat across the street from Garden Baptist Church, which opened in 1872, alongside 36 houses in the two blocks between New York and Michigan Streets.

The same year the house was built on Bright Street Ira Johnson was born in Cassville, Georgia.  Johnson, his wife Lillian, and their 13 children worked on farms in and around Bartow County, Georgia for more than 50 years.  Lillian died in 1923, and in about 1930 Ira Johnson moved to Indianapolis.  In 1944–75 years after the home at 311 Bright Street was built–Johnson moved into it.

By the time of his death in December, 1974, the 100-year-old Johnson was one of the last residents of Bright Street.  The neighborhood had been depopulated after 1960 by Indiana University as it acquired the property that eventually became the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). Continue reading