Firefighting and the Color Line in the Circle City

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

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

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

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

Thomas Smith’s body was taken to Hose Company 16 on the way to Crown Hill (Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection).

A month later Smith was driving the wagon through the intersection of 16th Street and College Avenue on the morning of November 8, 1911, where the wagon carrying Smith, Thomas Howard, Clarence Miller, and Emil Rugenstein was struck by a street car. Miller and Rugenstein escaped serious injury in the street car accident and would continue to be lifelong fire fighters. Miller received recognition for his heroism during the 1913 flood and he became a Captain before his death in July 1932. Emil Rugenstein had emigrated from Germany as a three-year-old in 1889, and he had been substituting at the African-American House 16 on the November, 1911 morning when the accident occurred. He served the Indianapolis Fire Department until his retirement in 1951, and he died in 1968.

Captain Howard and Lieutenant Smith had served together since May, 1876, when they became two of Indianapolis’ first four African-American firefighters, but their careers came to an end with the 1911 streetcar collision. Thomas Howard broke his hip and was permanently disabled, retiring a year later. Thomas Smith died instantly, becoming the first African-American fire fighter to die in the line of service in Indianapolis.

At the time of their 1911 accident, Thomas Howard had served alongside Thomas Smith since 1876. Howard was disabled by the accident and retired shortly afterward (Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection).

Smith and Howard had become two of the first four African-American firemen in Indianapolis in 1876. On May 20, 1876 the Indianapolis News reported that “At a meeting of the Fire board yesterday afternoon Thomas Smith, Robert Baxter, Wm. Howard and James Groves, colored, were given appointments in the department and assigned duty at the no. 9 hose reel house on St. Joe’s street.” (The newspaper only got Thomas Smith’s name correct: the other three fire fighters were Thomas Howard, Robert B. Braxton, and James P.D. Graves.) Like many more American fire departments, Indianapolis’ force was segregated along the color line from its inception. Nine days after introducing the first four African-American fire fighters to the force, Chief W.O. Sherwood segregated the Number 9 fire house by transferring the White fire fighters from the house. The Indianapolis News was skeptical about the remaining four African-American fire fighters: “This leaves the colored brigade in full possession of the St. Joe street house, and it remains to be seen whether they can properly manage matters if left to themselves.”

Many of the earliest African-American fire fighters were probably born into captivity and migrated north after the Civil War. Thomas Smith was born in Kentucky in about 1843, almost certainly as a captive, and James P.D. Graves likewise was born in Kentucky before Emancipation and was likely enslaved. Graves arrived in Indianapolis in about 1869; Smith first appeared in Indianapolis a year later in 1870, when he and a woman identified as Mary Smith were living on Bright Street. Mary may have been Mary Melvina Gavin, who Thomas married in November, 1881.

Samuel Taylor served during the Civil War as a body servant for Robert Sanford Foster, shown here in about 1863 (Civil War glass negative collection, Library of Congress).

Like Smith and Graves, Samuel Taylor had been born into captivity in Kentucky, and Taylor would eventually become an Indianapolis fire fighter in 1879. Taylor secured his freedom during the war, and around 1863 Samuel Taylor had become the personal “body servant” for the 13th Regiment Indiana Infantry’s commander Robert Sanford Foster. Foster returned to his Indianapolis home after the war, and Taylor first appeared in city records a decade later in 1876.

Three of the first four African-American firefighters were at least temporarily dismissed from their positions at some point in their careers. Fire department positions were political appointees, and virtually all of the African-American fire fighters were Republicans subject to dismissal by Democratic city officials. James P.D. Graves, for instance, lost his position in May, 1880. Braxton and Smith likewise were dismissed (Braxton in 1884 and Smith in 1899), but each contested their release and was reinstated. After he was released in 1880, Graves went on to manage a saloon on North Street for a short time after leaving the fire department, and after marrying in February 1881 he and his wife left Indianapolis for Chicago, where he died in 1892. Taylor was hired in 1879 and replaced Graves in 1880, serving until his death of consumption in 1895.

The 1887 Sanborn Insurance Company map of Hose Company Number 9, which was opened in 1881 and became Company 16 in 1897. The station was closed in 1937.

In an early March 1891 survey of city employees by party, Howard and Smith identified themselves as Republican, as did the two hosemen Sam Taylor and Jesse Ringgold. By the end of March 1891, though, Ringgold was released under pressure from Democratic council members. Ringgold would go on to serve in a segregated unit in the Spanish-American War and die in a Veteran’s Home in Ohio in 1923.

Clarence Miller survived the 1911 streetcar accident and went on to serve until his death in 1932 (Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection).

The new African-American fire fighters learned their trade from scratch. In June 1876 the Indianapolis News observed that the “colored fire boys need practical drilling in laying out hose and attaching nozzle. They are quick enough in hitching up and getting out.” Smith was a driver of the horse-drawn fire carriages throughout his 35-year career, and carriage accidents added to the existing danger of fighting fires. In January 1892, for instance, the wagon Smith was driving over-turned on Meridian Street, but bruises to Smith were the most serious injuries. In May 1899, the fire carriage collided with a wagon near Capitol and 16th Street (where Thomas Smith was later killed in 1911), killing the horse that was drawing the wagon. On one of Smith’s days off in March, 1902 Thomas Howard was one of three men aboard a wagon that was hit by a train at the 16th Street crossing of the Monon railway, killing a horse but miraculously sparing the lives of the fire fighters.

A 1905 inventory of Hose Company 16 included Thomas Howard, Samuel Dorsey, Thomas Smith, John Allen, and George Wallace (Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection).

During John Allen’s life as a fire fighter he survived exceptionally unpleasant injuries while continually fighting the political vagaries of African-American employment in a White-controlled fire department. Born in Kentucky, Allen was hired in May 1889 to replace Robert Braxton. In July 1899 Allen was injured when a hose broke loose, striking him in the face and breaking his nose as he fell from a ladder and broke both arms. Six weeks later Allen returned to service but one arm remained disabled, and in February the Board of Safety dismissed Allen and refused to grant him a pension. The Indianapolis News reported that Allen “said his family was actually suffering for food, and that part of the time there was no fire in the house.” At the end of February Allen petitioned to be returned to service, and a physician stepped forward to testify that one of Allen’s broken wrists had been incorrectly set; Allen also refuted the Board of Safety’s accusation that he had been drunk during his service. The Board of Safety refused to reinstate Allen, and in June 1900 he sued the city accusing the police surgeon who had treated him of malpractice. Allen was finally reinstated to the force in October, 1901, but two weeks later on October 23, 1901 Allen was nearly crushed in a collapsing structure on Park Avenue. Allen once again recovered and returned to the force, being promoted to Lieutenant in 1912. In April 1913 Allen was injured when his wagon was struck by a car, and in January 1914 Allen was demoted from Lieutenant back to Private.

An 1898 Sanborn map view of Engine House 16, which had just been re-numbered a year before.

In July 1914 the Indianapolis News reported that “almost every man, woman and child, who has been a resident of the north side in the last twenty-three years, has known or come in touch with John Allen.” Nevertheless, Allen was suspended, ostensibly because 35-40 African Americans were “clamoring for places in the fire department,” and with an election approaching Mayor Joseph Bell hoped to extend some patronage positions to appease Democratic voters. The newspaper lamented that “old John, almost heartbroken, has been going among his friends asking for them to use their influence with Mayor Bell to save his job for him.” When Allen’s case was reviewed he was accused of meeting women in the firehouse, a charge that was refuted in a letter signed by 98 people. Allen was once more reinstated as a substitute fireman in December, 1915, and in October 1920 he fell two stories “and injured his spine and shoulder so severely that he was unconscious for some time.” Allen apparently returned to the firehouse after recuperation, but by 1923 he was no longer serving, and he died in 1926.

Robert Braxton was buried somewhere in Crown Hill’s section 35 in 1889.

Three of the city’s four original African-American firefighters Braxton (1889), Smith (1911), Howard (1921) were all buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. Robert Braxton served until his death of consumption in March, 1889; Smith died in the 1911 accident; and Thomas Howard retired after the 1911 accident and died in 1921. Both Braxton and Howard were laid to rest without markers and remain in unmarked graves today (John Allen and Clarence W. Miller are likewise in unmarked Crown Hill graves).

After Melvina Smith’s burial in 1929, Thomas Smith was moved to a resting place alongside her in Crown Hill.

Thomas Smith was originally buried in 1911 in a section reserved for people who could only afford a single lot. Smith’s widow Mary Melvina Smith died in Vancouver, British Columbia in June, 1929, where she had been staying with her son Grant Smith. Mary’s daughter Ida Smith joined her brother Grant for the train trip returning Mary to Indianapolis for burial in Crown Hill. Melvina Smith was buried in a lot that had been purchased in 1909 by Samuel J. McClure, an African-American merchant policeman who had his wife Catherine buried there in 1909; he would later be buried there as well in 1920. McClure had been appointed to the merchant police (a private security force) in July, 1881, but it is not clear how he came to share his Crown Hill lot with Melvina Smith. After her burial, in 1930 her husband Thomas was moved from his lot to rest beside her, where both of them remain today.

Thomas Smith’s service is today commemorated in the Heroes of Public Safety section of Crown Hill with this memorial.

Nearly a century after Thomas Smith’s death, in 2009 the Indianapolis Black Firefighters Association dedicated a memorial to Thomas Smith at Crown Hill. Today Smith is recognized in the cemetery’s Heroes of Public Safety section. The fire house he worked in from 1881 until it was closed as a firehouse in 1937 still stands today, and the intersection where Smith died a block away remains a busy city artery today.

 

Images

Clarence W. Miller 1909 image from Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection

Emil Rugenstein 1926 image from Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection

Hose Company 9 circa 1876-1880 image from Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection

Indianapolis Fire Houses circa 1877 Hose Company No. 9 image Indianapolis Firefighters Museum; Manuscripts and Rare Books Division of the Indiana State Library

Gen. Robert S. Foster, Col. 13th Ind Inf From Indiana image Civil War glass negative collection (Library of Congress)

Thomas Smith 1909 image from Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection

Thomas Smith Funeral 1911 image from Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection

Thomas Howard 1909 image from Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection

 

References

Indianapolis Fire Department

1893 History of the Indianapolis Fire Force. Baker-Randolph, Indianapolis.

1905 Roster of the Fire Force and Time of Service of Each Member.

Ca. 1912 Official Review Indianapolis Fire Department year ending Nineteen Hundred Eleven

nd Timeline 1818-1913

Suburbanization and the Color Line along Grandview Drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

References

Gotham, Kevin Fox

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

 

Hulse, Lamont J.

1994 Neighborhoods and Communities. In The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis, David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, editors, pp.132-141. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

 

Jackson, Kenneth T.

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

 

Lands, LeeAnn

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

 

Wiese, Andrew

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

 

Landscapes of Ill Fame: Prostitution in the Turn-of-the-Century Circle City

In 1898 the Sanborn Insurance map identified a string of brothels labeled “Female Boardinghouses” on East Court Street (click for expanded view).

In 1910 the census enumerator recorded 13 households in the 500 block of East Court Street, and every address was described as a “house of ill fame.”  Houses of prostitution had existed in Indianapolis since at least the mid-19th century alongside street walkers plying what has sometimes been dubbed the “world’s oldest profession.” Thirty-eight women were living on East Court Street as prostitutes in 1910, and another 10 women were identified as keepers of houses of ill fame. The East Court Street block between East and Liberty Streets (now a parking lot) was one of the city’s most prominent red light districts at the turn of the century and part of a long commercial sex trade in the Circle City.

Prostitution probably was always an element of the early cityscape, but some of the earliest evidence for houses of prostitution comes in the 1850s.  In February, 1857, for instance, the Daily State Sentinel reported on a shooting at a house of ill fame in the “western part of the city” near the canal.  The brothel was managed by “a notorious woman” named Martha Noble, and in July, her establishment became the target of mob justice when Noble’s brothel was set afire by a mob of more than 200 people. Moral indignation was often directed at vices like prostitution, gambling, and drinking, but it rarely was acted out as impromptu justice. After Noble’s house was destroyed the city took some members of the mob to court, where witnesses testified that “the furniture was taken into the middle of the street and burnt.” Participants admitted they “understood that there was to be a cleaning out of the houses of prostitution.” The Daily State Sentinel reported that “there have been several recent demonstrations upon houses of ill fame in various parts of the city,” and the Sentinel lamented the mob justice: “it is the universal voice of all good citizens that these occurrences are becoming too frequent of late.” Nevertheless, a month later several more bordellos were attacked, and in March 1859 a group attacked another bordello only to be “driven off by the women.”

In 1863 Indianapolis passed what was perhaps its first law regulating “public decency, morality, and order,” but houses of prostitution dotted 19th and early 20th century Indianapolis.  In 1863, for example, Ann Coburn was arrested for keeping a “disorderly liquor house,” and two years later she was arrested for “keeping a house of ill fame” on North Noble Street, which lay just east of East Street and Massachusetts Avenue. Not far away, Mollie Green was arrested in 1865 for keeping a “bagnio” (one of many period terms for houses of prostitution) on New Jersey Street, one of a series of early brothels located along the eastern boundaries of the original Mile Square that was platted in 1821.

George Ellington’s 1869 study of New York City’s underworld included this image of the prostitute Cora G.

Houses of prostitution were located in nearly every reach of the city.  In 1866, for instance, Alice McDonald was arrested for managing a house of ill fame on West Market Street where the Indiana State House was built in 1888. After the Civil War, Louisa Watson managed a “sporting house” in the home she shared with husband Jehu Morris Watson facing the canal on North Missouri Street (the Senate Avenue parking garage sits there today). Louisa’s husband started the war as a drummer in the Indiana 13th Infantry, with whom he was wounded in Virginia in 1861; by war’s end he was with the Indiana 9th Cavalry serving under Eli Lilly and he ended the war as a Corporal. In 1870, his wife Louisa was one of four prostitutes living with him on North Missouri Street.  Three years later, Morris stole all of Louisa’s earnings following an argument, and a month later the Indianapolis News reported that “Morris Watson, a `dod burn’ sinner, whose wife keeps a house of prostitution on the canal, entered a plea of guilty to the charge of whipping her”; Morris only paid a fine because Louisa did not testify against him. The Watsons’ history of domestic violence continued in November when “Morris Watson cashed $26.65 to-day for indulging in the innocent pastime of larruping his wife.”

Moral crusaders would persistently take aim on houses of prostitution, including Louisa Watson’s North Missouri Street house. In September, 1874 a series of houses of prostitution near the Canal were raided by the police at the insistence of Garden Baptist Church Trustee William Powell, a neighbor who “is determined upon eradicating the evil in that neighborhood.” Formed in 1872, the church sat on Bright Street just north of New York Street (now the IUPUI campus) and was active in the temperance movement while crusading against vices in the surrounding near-Westside. Powell was subsequently attacked in the street, and Morris Watson went to Powell’s home and threatened his family. Louisa’s brothel was subsequently raided after Powell complained about Morris’ attempted intimidation, and Powell requested the Police protect his home from threatened arson; a year later prostitutes were still hounding him in the street. Meanwhile, domestic violence continued in the Watson home, where in February 1875 “Morris Watson, the beast, was fined ten dollars for whipping his wife.” The Watsons were still living in their North Missouri home in 1880, but Morris subsequently appears to have been living alone in the home, and he remarried in 1890.

A red-light district never emerged in the late-19th century near-Westside, but Watson’s house of prostitution was one of a scatter of such venues located along the Canal and through the near-Westside. For example, Elizabeth Kouble Ault was living with her husband Christopher in Kokomo in 1860, but three months after joining the Union cause in December, 1861 Christopher died in Nashville, Tennessee. Elizabeth moved to Indianapolis in 1867, and initially she settled on Minerva Street, along New York Street in the neighborhood that is now the IUPUI campus. A year later Ault appeared in the city directory as a seamstress and had moved a block away to Blake Street, where she was living at the intersection of Blake and New York Streets. She appeared in the 1870 census as a prostitute living with her 13-year-old daughter Emma; her neighbor Clara Fischel also appeared in the census as a prostitute but like Ault she was listed as a seamstress in city directories.

In the 1890s there were two “red-light” districts in Indianapolis. One was on East Court Street at the blue arrow and the other was near the intersection of Senate Avenue and Georgia Street at the red arrow (click for a full-sized image).

Ault moved to the near-Eastside in 1873, where a concentration of houses of prostitution began to emerge in the late 1870s, and these would eventually center around East Court Street by the mid-1880s. In 1873 Ault was going by Kate and managing a cigar and tobacco shop on East Washington Street between Noble and East Streets. The Washington Street store was simultaneously hawking cigars and sex for about three years. The Washington Street venue was described by the Indianapolis Journal in 1873 as an “unpretending little store” where “a woman known as Kate Ault sells tobacco and cigars, and back of a little screen, are domiciled a number of the genus `Nymph du Pave,’ who eke out a precarious existence by displaying their charms to the male visitors who may chance to patronize the house.”

“Nymph du Pave” was one of the many terms used to refer to prostitutes, and it often was reserved for street walkers, who probably were working from and in Ault’s store.  George Ellington’s 1869 study of women of New York City’s “underworld” distinguished street-walking “Nymphs du Pave” from prostitutes who worked in more stylishly appointed brothels. Ellington hyperbolically characterized the former as a “lower order” of prostitutes who “have reached despair in their career, and have abandoned themselves, soul and body, to the fate that controls them. They have no thought for the future and try to forget the past. They taste vice in its lowest forms and spend their time in dissipation.” Such street walkers also were referred to as “wandering” women; for example, in September, 1877 “two inmates of Kate Ault’s house were arraigned in the city court this morning as wandering prostitutes.” In about 1876 Ault moved her house to South Pennsylvania Street a block from the train station, and prostitutes living in Ault’s house probably were catering to customers on the streets around the train station as well as at Ault’s house.

The desperation of some women working as prostitutes was documented in a string of suicides and suicide attempts. In 1873, for instance, one of the women working as a prostitute in Ault’s bordello attempted suicide, but she was saved when physicians pumped her stomach after a morphine overdose. Two years earlier Terre Haute prostitute Jennie Hope died after an intentional overdose of morphine. Hope appeared in the 1870 Indianapolis census as a prostitute in Louisa Watson’s North Missouri Street “sporting house.” Hope had moved to Terre Haute, where she was living in a boarding house; an Indianapolis woman had opened the house four weeks earlier, and the Daily Wabash Express was certain it was being operated as a bordello.

By 1910 nearly every woman living on East Court Street was identified as a prostitute in a “house of ill fame.”

In the mid-1880s a series of newly built homes along East Court Street quickly became home to the city’s most prominent concentration of brothels. In 1884 only two houses stood on East Court Street between East and Liberty Streets, but three years later there were eight residences in the city directory. In June, 1886 an East Court Street “bagnio”was raided, and in July two street walkers were arrested on the street, providing  the first records of prostitution on East Court Street. One of the longest-lived houses was run by Nellie Ryder, who managed a house on East Court Street for 20 years. Ryder was first living there in 1887 with Emma Levering and Bessie Moore. Ryder’s husband Joseph had died in a train accident in November, 1881, and she probably began to manage a house of prostitution when she moved to the East Court Street home in 1887. Ryder’s house was raided by the police in September, 1894, and she paid a $10 fine while four women working for her paid fines between $20 and $5 and two male customers paid $10 fines. In 1900 a traveling carpet salesman committed suicide in Ryder’s resort, his pockets containing letters from his family in Scotland.

In 1887 Ryder’s neighbor Maggie Jackson was managing a “resort” (another term for a brothel).  A Cincinnati man searching for his lost wife found her working at “Maggie Jackson’s resort, on East Court street, and begged her to return home with him, but [he] was unwilling to pay $40 indebtedness which she had contracted with the Jackson woman. Finally it was arranged that she should remain where she was, while he would sue for divorce.” Carrie White’s neighboring establishment was likewise troubled by an angry husband in 1887, when a disturbance of the peace charge was brought against a husband who arrived at White’s brothel and “threw stones over the transom because his wife would not come out to see him.”

In 1915 most of the East Court residences were still identified as brothels (click for expanded view).

In the early 1890s a few working-class households were interspersed in the 500-block of East Court Street brothels, but in 1898 the Sanborn Insurance Company map of the street identified nearly every structure on the street as a “Female Boardinghouse.” At least 10 of the 16 homes in the 1899 city directory were brothels, and a few more brothels had emerged in surrounding blocks. By 1898, for instance, the 400 block of East Court Street just to the west likewise included some brothels, and at least one brothel had been established on neighboring East Street.

East Court may have been appealing for the trade because it was neighbored by heavily trafficked streets. A block south of East Court Street, East Washington Street was lined with stores and constant foot traffic by the turn of the century, and the Marion County Court House (built in 1876) sat just two blocks west. In October 1876 Belle Shannon’s house on East Washington Street was raided, with the Indianapolis News reporting that “Seventeen violators of the ill-fame law, principally garnered from the Belle Shannon ranche, on East Washington street, were pulled last night by the police, and at a late hour this forenoon the motley crew were undergoing trial in the city court. They are a hard lot, taken at best, and rejoice in such fictitious names as `Summer complaint,’ `Openbottom,’ etc.”  When John Roder’s saloon on East Washington Street applied for a liquor license in 1880 it was home to two prostitutes.

Prostitutes often worked in and around the train station. By 1880, for instance, Belle Shannon had opened a cigar and candy shop on South Street neighboring the train station, and the residents in her home included one prostitute who was certainly continuing Shannon’s East Washington Street trade. Since at least 1872 her neighbor Nellie Carney had been running a house of prostitution amidst the concentration of stores and saloons on South Street. In September 1879 “a crowd of inmates and visitors captured at Nellie Carney’s bagino [sic] on South street, plead guilty at long range.” Somebody paid court fines for the arrested women with a piece of jewelry, with the newspaper noting that “the marshal sports a magnificent cluster diamond ring, put up for $86.75 fines and costs against the girls.” A year later Carney and five other women were living at the address, and all were identified by the census enumerator as prostitutes.

In 1898 brothels were scattered along Senate Avenue and Georgia Street (click for expanded view).

A second concentration of houses of prostitution emerged around 1890 along South Mississippi Street (now known as South Senate), where the Indiana Convention Center sits today. In 1898 seven residences in the 100 block of South Senate Street were identified by Sanborn company mappers as “female boarding houses”; two more were located on adjoining West Georgia Street, and at least one more was around the corner at 308 West Maryland. These included the brothel of Fanny Wiley, which was based in several locations in the neighborhood from the 1880s until 1907. Fanny’s husband Charles St. Clair was probably first living in Indianapolis in 1882, when the Terre Haute newspaper described St. Clair’s West Market Street saloon (where the State House sits today) as “a very low-down dive of a saloon in Indianapolis, which has its principal patronage from depraved colored men. Above the saloon is a negro gambling den. It is such a place as would make a man fear for his life while in it.” After St. Clair was accused of murder in 1887, the Indianapolis Journal indicated that “St. Clair has been known as a criminal of the worst kind.” The Terre Haute Weekly Gazette had an even more damning appraisal of St. Clair, noting that “It is a pity he could not be hanged. He is a scalawag of the worst description and his being at large is a standing menace to everybody, even the thieves who train with him.”

St. Clair did indeed have a long criminal history that included a two year sentence for burglary and larceny in 1866-1868, a three year sentence in the State Prison between 1872 and 1875, and just over a year on petit larceny in 1902-1903. His wife Jennie Wynings St. Clair was managing a Terre Haute brothel in 1877, and Fanny Wiley may have been her alias. Charles sold a $1000 real estate tract in Terre Haute in September, 1882 to pay his bail on charges of conspiracy to wreck a passenger train. St. Clair was managing a saloon in Indianapolis in 1882, and he subsequently ran a host of saloons on Washington, Wabash, and West Streets.

Fanny Wiley began managing a Circle City brothel in the 1880s. The confirmation of that came in 1890, when she was sentenced to a four-and-a-half year term in the State Reformatory, convicted of holding a young woman against her will as a prostitute. Wiley lured young, mostly rural women into prostitution, including a Muncie 16-year-old. The teenager’s father found her in Wiley’s resort and returned her home, where she subsequently committed suicide and spurred the state to prosecute her. Wiley fell ill in the State Reformatory and was being held in its hospital in March, 1892 when the Reformatory burnt, sending Wiley to the City Hospital. She received a medical parole in May, 1892 so surgery could be performed on her, and while she continued to complain of complications the following April the Governor’s Office demanded she be returned to the Reformatory to serve the remainder of her sentence.

Wiley was once more running a brothel in 1898 on West Georgia Street, and she moved to South Senate in 1901. In 1902 she was again accused of entrapping young women to serve in her brothel. Two women answered ads for domestic labor positions at Wiley’s South Senate brothel, where they were provided “the regulation dress of the resort.” The women attempted to escape, but Wiley “threatened to have them arrested. … One of the threats used was that if they did not stay a letter would be written advising their folks at home of the life they were leading.” Wiley did send such a letter to their families after they escaped and went to the police, but at trial Wiley was fined just $25 for the offense after the court determined that the two young women “were disreputable characters before they entered the place.”  Wiley continued to manage a brothel and was last living on South Senate in 1907.

Women of color had been street walkers and worked in some mixed-race houses of prostitution since the mid-19th century. In 1880, for instance, a 36-year old African-American prostitute going by the name Anna Johnson was one of seven prostitutes in the brothel of Maria Mabb, who also employed two African-American servants. Maria Miller was using the alias Mabb when she came to Indianapolis from Ohio by 1867. She was managing brothels by 1873, when she was referred to as “The Queen” after providing a diamond ring to bail out five of her prostitutes. Mabb’s South East Street neighbor was Sheriff John T. Pressley, a reflection of many officials’ disinterest in prosecuting prostitution and minor vices. Mabb ran brothels throughout the city from the early 1870s until her death in 1901.

Perhaps the earliest Black brothel was located at 318 West Georgia Street. In 1910 Marie Marks’ house was home to her and three other prostitutes, all identified by the census enumerator as Mulatto, and the home had certainly been a resort since the late 19th century. Nancy Elliott had been living in the home since about 1898, almost certainly always running it as a brothel, and when a 33-year-old prostitute Lena Bethel died in the home in February, 1902 Elliott served as the informant for the death certificate. Marie Marks began running the brothel by 1907, but between 1911 and 1914 the residences along West Georgia were transformed into warehouses.

In 1896 Nellie Carney had moved her brothel from South Street to East Washington Street in a home a block from the East Court Street brothels, and by 1910 she had at least 30 years experience running brothels. In 1910 Nellie Carney was a 60-year-old widow identified in the census as a keeper of a “house of ill fame” at 538 East Court Street, one of the most spacious brothels on East Court Street. Carney had six women boarding in her home who were identified as prostitutes. These women used a range of creative aliases, but the census indicated that all but two of the women working on East Court Street were born in the US: one woman working at the house of “Fannie Sells” was a Russian Jew, and Bell West’s house at 518 East Court included one English-born prostitute. Twenty-two of the 38 women identified as prostitutes indicated they had children, but none of their children were living with them on East Court Street in 1910.

The prostitutes on East Court Street came under fire from a new wave of moral crusaders in the years before World War I. For instance, Mollie Grant (also known as Mollie Rife or Mollie Reife) ran a brothel in the 400 block of East Court Street as early as 1904. In October, 1911 Dollie Gaw brought charges against Grant and a woman named Wayne Leslie, accusing them of kidnapping her when she was 16 and holding her against her will in their Indianapolis resorts. Gaw alleged that Grant held Gaw for four years in Grant’s East Court Street brothel, indicating that her clothing was taken from her and the other women to prevent escape, and those who attempted to leave were beaten severely. Nevertheless, the court decided in favor of Grant.

In 1912 the Church Federation of Indianapolis lobbied for more strict enforcement of prostitution laws, part of a perpetual cycle of moral indignation vented against prostitution, alcohol, and nearly every public leisure. City leaders would often reply to such complaints in the short term, and by July the Police Chief reported to the Indianapolis Star that “23 resorts have been vacated since January 1.” In April, 1914 an Indianapolis judge intent on intensifying the pressure on prostitutes provided the Indianapolis News with a list of the names of women running houses of prostitution and the owners of those properties, and the Church Federation lobbied successfully for a red light abatement law. In February, 1916, the red light law was invoked to file suits against 14 resorts, including those of Mollie Grant and her daughter Myrtle Burkhardt as well as five other East Court Street brothels. Grant was again raided in April, 1916, when she received yet another fine for managing the house on East Court Street.

An African-American maid in Grant’s East Court Street house, Beatrice Rink, was arrested after the April, 1916 raid, and she testified that police frequented the house on a regular basis. Consequently, it should not have been a surprise when officers John Gaughan and Herbert Smutte were found at 538 East Court Street during an August raid. The embarrassing arrest of the police officers in Grant’s house once again heightened prosecutors’ and moral crusaders’ efforts to step up policing of prostitution. In December 1916 11 women were arrested for running houses of prostitution, including four properties on East Court Street (one managed by Grant’s daughter Myrtle), two on East Market Street, and another on the Adelaide Street alley in the 400 block of East Court Street. On South Senate, Wanda Stone, Della Kimble, and Dee Bridges were also arrested. In February 1917 Gaughan and Smutte were found guilty of neglecting their duties by ignoring the prostitution on East Court Street, and they were each fined $300 and sentenced to three months prison sentences. However, the state Supreme Court repealed their sentence in January, 1918, and Gaughan continued to serve as a police officer into the 1940s.

Surveillance along East Court Street had already begun to empty the houses of prostitution by 1916, when eight brothels neighbored eight vacant structures. In 1920 Myrtle Burkhardt still was living on East Court Street, and in August, 1920 two African-American brothel keepers were arrested on East Court. In June, 1939 a woman was arrested for keeping a house of prostitution in the 600 block of East Court Street, but by that point most of the trade had moved to other neighborhoods. Today East Court Street is a parking lot and South Senate has been erased by the Indiana Convention Center, but for nearly a half-century East Court Street and South Senate were the center for a longstanding prostitution trade.

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.

 

References

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