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

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

This post also appeared on my blog Archaeology and Material Culture

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

In October 1907 this five-foot high concrete “spite fence” separating Woodruff Place from modest neighboring homes appeared in The Indianapolis Star.

The newly organized North Capitol Avenue neighbors initially tried to discourage the Meriwethers from moving in by making Lucien Meriwether “an offer exceeding [the] price he paid for it.” However, Meriwether and his family rebuffed the Protective Association’s offer, and the Association admitted to the Indianapolis Star that they financed the “spite fences” around the Meriwethers’ home. The fences surrounding the Meriwethers’ home were a novel mechanism to discourage African-American residential integration. Most examples of “spite fences” were the product of feuding neighbors rather than racist division (for instance, compare this 1902 case on Dugdale Street, a 1904 case on Indianapolis’ south side, and this very early Boston example dated to 1852). At least one early 20th-century Indianapolis wall was intended to separate bourgeois homes from surrounding working-class housing: in 1907 a five-foot concrete wall topped with an iron fence was built separating the wealthy residents of Woodruff Place from newly built cottages on Tecumseh Street.

The North Capitol Avenue neighborhood along Fall Creek began to be subdivided and developed in about 1889, and it was a uniformly White residential neighborhood in 1920. The Meriwethers’ arrival triggered a frenzied defense of the neighborhoods’ exclusivity, even though the Meriwethers were African-American bourgeoisie. Lucien Meriwether’s mother Ella Wilcox Meriwether moved her children to Indianapolis from Kentucky in 1908 after the death of her husband. Ella had been a teacher in Guthrie, Kentucky, and she brought her family to Indianapolis seeking a better education for her children. The family would indeed become enormously well-educated, with six of the children earning Master’s degrees. Lucien Meriwether, for instance, trained at the Indiana University School of Dentistry and became a dentist, as did his brother Sirdastion, and the brothers served in World War One; the four Meriwether daughters all became teachers.

After the enormous fences were built around the Meriwether home, Lucien Meriwether took the Slutzkys and Mary Grooms to court, suing his neighbors for $10,000, and he secured an injunction against fences taller than six feet. Grooms, though, was undeterred by the injunction, and she extended the height of her fence several feet the day after an Indianapolis court barred further construction. As the case awaited a hearing the Protective Association’s President, Ira Holmes, told the Indianapolis Star that “another house in the same block has been sold to a colored family…. [and] should the residents be unable to prevent the sale, more fencing methods will be attempted.” Two days later, fences began to be erected around that second African-American home at 2246 North Capitol, where Allen Charles Simms had moved. The Simms’ eight-room home across the street from the Meriwether home had been advertised for sale in early June, and when Simms rebuffed the neighbors’ effort to purchase the property they began to erect fences around the Simms’ home.

In April 1921 The Indianapolis Star reported that the fences around the Meriwethers’ home must be removed.

In April 1921 a judge ruled in favor of Meriwether and awarded him $150 from Grooms and $350 from the Slutzkys. The court ruled that the fences must be reduced to six-feet in height by the following day. Ira Holmes defiantly declared that “the Capitol Avenue Protective Association would stand behind the fight to prevent colored people from moving northward on North Capitol avenue, and the appeal of the decision … was but one of the steps to be taken to uphold the stand of the organization against the colored citizens.” However, Grooms and the Slutzkys’ appeal to have their case reviewed failed in January 1923, and the Meriwether family would remain in the home until the 1960s.

The 1920s have a well-deserved reputation for Ku Klux Klan influence in Indianapolis, but much of the lobbying for residential segregation was conducted by rather typical men and women like the Meriwethers’ neighbors. For instance, the Meriwethers’ fence-building neighbor Gabriel Slutzky did not seem to be a stereotypical Klan foot soldier. Slutzky’s parents migrated from Russia in about 1882, and Gabriel Slutzky was born in 1884, when his family was living on South Meridian Street in Indianapolis. Gabriel’s father Henry was a charter member of Knesses Israel synagogue, which began construction of its synagogue at Eddy and Merrill Streets in April 1892 with Henry Slutzky as a member of the “committee on decoration.” Knesses Israel, sometimes referred to as the “Russian Shul” because of its predominately Russian membership, was among a handful of Orthodox southside synagogues until it closed in 1961, eventually merging with Sharah Tefilla and Ezras Achim to form the United Orthodox Hebrew Congregation in 1966.

After bartending in his father’s saloon, Gabriel opened his own liquor store and saloon in 1912 on the overwhelmingly African-American Indiana Avenue. Gabriel advertised his new liquor store in the African-American newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder and indicated that “I respectfully ask the colored men of the city to come in and inspect my place and the goods and prices offered” (the enterprise went bankrupt in March 1917). In March, 1940 (10 years after Slutzky’s death) an Indianapolis Recorder article pointed out the irony of Slutzky managing a business in the African-American near-Westside and then resisting an African-American neighbor: “Many years ago [in] the case of Mary Grooms, et al. versus Meriwether … one Gabriel Slutsky [sic], a Jew who had allegedly operated a business establishment in Indiana Avenue at one time, catering particularly to colored, objected to Dr. Lucian B. Meriwether as a neighbor and built a high fence about his home.”

North Capitol Protective Association President Ira M. Holmes had a more sorted history. Holmes was a criminal defense lawyer who began to practice in 1898, and a 1950 obituary described him as “Among the last of the old school of legal stalwarts, who often resorted to fisticuffs to back up their contention.” Holmes was living at 2164 North Capitol Street in 1921, and he was just a few doors away from Lucien Meriwether’s family in 1922 at 2149 North Capitol (he eventually moved to 510 North Meridian in 1924). Holmes defended “hundreds of bootleggers” during Prohibition, but his most infamous client was D.C. Stephenson. Indiana Klan Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson had spearheaded the Indiana Klan’s rapid growth and wide-reaching influence in the early 1920s, but his downfall came after a March, 1925 rape, kidnapping, and assault that ended in the death of Madge Oberholtzer in April 1925. Holmes served as Stephenson’s criminal defense lawyer in his 1925 trial, which ended with a 2nd-degree murder conviction against Stephenson in November 1925 (Holmes also defended Stephenson’s bodyguards Earl Klinck and Earl Gentry in the same Oberholtzer trial, both of whom were found innocent).

Like nearly all of the inter-war neighborhood associations, the Capitol Avenue Protective Association was a very short-lived group; they joined with the Mapleton Civic Organization and North Central Civic Association in December, 1920 advocating racial segregation of the school system, but after their unsuccessful defense of residential segregation the Capitol Avenue Protective Association disappeared; nearly all of its members had moved to other exclusively White neighborhoods.

In December 1922 Daisydean Deeds’ White Supremacy League advertised a membership meeting in the Ku Klux Klan newspaper The Fiery Cross.

Yet another group, the White Supremacy League, first appeared in the local press in June, 1922, when they and the Mapleton Civic Association jointly appeared before the Indianapolis school board urging public school segregation. The founder of the White Supremacy League was Mrs. Otto Deeds, who wrote poetry under her own name, Daisydean Deeds. She held membership meetings in her home with her son Paul serving as Secretary, and in December, 1922 a meeting of the group at the Deeds’ home was covered by the Klan’s newspaper, The Fiery Cross. The Klan newspaper reported that the League was “in need of some big, red-blooded all white gentlemen to serve on its board … We already have lawyers, merchants, court Judges, governors, United States and state senators, and several splendid, fearless white men who are members and have welcomed such an opportunity–that of membership in the White Supremacy League–to express themselves.” In a long January 1923 defense of White supremacy and segregation, Deeds wrote in The Fiery Cross that an appropriate resolution to “the race problem …  will fittingly confine both races separately into their own distinctive realms of literacy, morality, sociology and politics. It can be accomplished no other way.” Members of the White Supremacy League pledged not to employ Blacks or shop at stores that employed Blacks, a pledge that the Mapleton Civic Association also agreed to in March, 1924. However, Deeds’ organization appeared to fall inactive in 1923.

In January 1926 The Indianapolis Recorder published the names of the officers of the White People’s Protective League.

In January 1926 another neighborhood collective was formed to defend the segregation of a neighborhood just north of the Meriwethers’ home. Circulars were sent to realtors by a group of residents along West 29th and 30th Streets calling themselves the White Peoples’ Protective League and indicating that “the purpose of the league was for segregation of races.” A White resident along West 29th Street had reached an agreement to sell their home to an African American, and the White Peoples’ Protective League was formed to advocate for segregation. The group’s Vice-President, Omer S. Whiteman, acknowledged to The Indianapolis News that it sent “out a statement to real estate dealers, lawyers and others, designed to reflect conditions as we find them. There are about 30,000 white people in the territory immediately affected. Believing that it is good for neither the whites nor the blacks for the two races to commingle, we are interested in creating sentiment against the introduction of black citizens into white territory. …. All the people, more than 1,000 in number, who have already signed the league’s declaration are peace-lovers, headed by the ministers in their communities.”

Many of the White Peoples’ League members were certainly affiliated with or at least sympathetic to the Klan, but in January 1926 the Klan was in a moment of transition in Indiana. On the one hand, they were fresh off a clean sweep of the 1925 Indianapolis elections, led by Klan-backed Mayor John Duvall (Duvall quickly began installing Klan members in appointments; e.g., he named the Exalted Cyclops of Marion County Klan No. 3 George Elliott the new Superintendent of Parks). On the other hand, two weeks after the election former Indiana Klan Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson was convicted of murder for the March, 1925 Madge Oberholtzer sexual assault and murder. The unrepentant Stephenson eroded much of the Klan’s support, and he fully expected Klan-backed Governor Edward L. Jackson to intercede and release him from jail. When he was not released, Stephenson publicly revealed the extent of graft he had engineered in city and state government. A series of 1927 newspaper stories resulted in Duvall being convicted of accepting illegal campaign contributions and resigning from office, and it was revealed that the Mayor had agreed that Stephenson would have the right to review and approve all his appointees. Duvall’s attorney was Ira Holmes, the North Capitol Protective Association President who also defended Stephenson, and Holmes made an unsuccessful attempt to fill the vacated Mayoral position after Duvall’s resignation. Governor Edward Jackson was accused of bribery, but he escaped conviction and completed his term.

A 1901 history of famous men of Jay County, Indiana included this picture of future White Peoples’ Protective League President Omer S. Whiteman.

The most vocal member of the White Peoples’ Protective League may have been Vice-President Omer Whiteman, an Indiana University-trained lawyer from a prominent Jay County, Indiana family. He was a public school advocate, a member of the Presbyterian Church in his hometown of Portland Indiana as well as Tabernacle Presbyterian in Indianapolis, and a lifelong temperance champion (he ran for Governor on a “Dry” ticket in 1940). In January 1926 he was living at 354 West 29th Street, not far from the League President Royal B. Spellman at 506 West 29th Street; Vice-President Ada Colvin Booth lived a street away at 145 West 30th Street.

The White Peoples’ Protective League attempted to legalize segregation by championing an ordinance decreeing that in a majority White or Black neighborhood a prospective buyer from the minority racial group was required to secure the consent of their neighbors (more or less the same approach was first tried in Baltimore in 1910 in a code often known as the West Ordinance, which was among a series of similar codes declared unconstitutional in 1917).

The White Peoples’ Protective League proposed an approach that was not substantively different than Baltimore’s, arguing that a new resident must win the approval of their neighbors before they could actually live in a home they had otherwise purchased legally. The Protective League began to draft legislation in early 1926, eager to prevent an African American from moving into a home purchased on West 29th Street (directly across the street from Royal Spellman’s home). On February 9, 1926 Omer Whiteman wrote to The Indianapolis News and reported that “A suit in damages has been filed against a white seller and the colored buyer by a near-by property owner. It is contended that while a white person may have the right to sell his property in a white neighborhood to a colored person, and the colored person may have the right to buy, each is liable to all the property owners in the neighborhood if depreciation in values of properties follows.” Royal Spellman was quoted in the Indianapolis Recorder arguing that “`Passage of the ordinance will stabilize real estate values, and give honest citizens confidence in city officials.’”

In March, 1926 the Indianapolis City Council passed an ordinance that in neighborhoods occupied principally by White or Black residents a property could not be sold without the consent of the other property owners. The law began to work its way through judicial reviews, and in February 1927 Whiteman orchestrated a meeting at Tomlinson Hall in favor of the enacted segregation ordinance, where speakers championing the ordinance included Rev. Harvey H. Sheldon, pastor of the Fountain Street Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Joseph Granville Moore, pastor of the Capitol Avenue M. E. Church. The Indianapolis ordinance was modeled on a New Orleans law, and in March 1927 that New Orleans law was struck down by the Supreme Court. Indianapolis ordinance proponents recognized their law likewise became illegal.

On July 9, 1927 the real estate sales listings included this notice for the sale of 501 West 29th Street.

With the segregation ordinance rejected, on July 10, 1927 Horace O. Wright purchased a home at 501 West 29th Street. Wright was a White realtor who apparently purchased the West 29th Street home for $5000 from owner Louis Escol on behalf of an African-American couple, William and Dona Hill Goodwin. When Escol’s neighbors learned that he was planning to sell the home, Escol received a series of letters “from the White People’s Protective League concerning the sale of the property to Negro buyers. … And these letters ranged from threats of intimidation, to entreaties to Mr. Escol, not to sell the property to Negroes. Mr. Escol also stated in substance that members of the White People’s Protective League had pledged themselves not to permit Negroes to live on, or North of Twenty-ninth St.” Nevertheless, on July 10th Escol sold the property to Wright.

William Goodwin was born in Alabama in about 1885 and came to Indianapolis around the turn of the century. Goodwin married another Alabama migrant Tempie Marks in Indianapolis in 1903, but the couple had divorced by 1910. Ohio-born Dona Hill came to Indianapolis around 1910, where she married William in August 1911. William became a fireman in 1922, when the couple was living in an apartment house at the corner of Boulevard Place and 21st Street (where the Ruth Lilly Health Education Center is located today).

Within a week of moving into their new home, on July 18th the Goodwins’ home was fire-bombed by an explosive thrown from the window of a passing car. By July 30th the Indianapolis Recorder complained that the Indianapolis Police had made no efforts to identify the bombers and “started a Citizens’ Investigation Fund. And if the people are interested enough in a matter that concerns all citizens, soon or late, it is expected a sufficient fund will be raised shortly to make a private investigation that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the guilty parties.” However, the bombers were never identified. In October, 1927 Royal and Mary Spellman sued the Goodwins as well as Horace O. Wright, Louis Escol, and the Lorenz Schmidt and Sons realty firm, but by month’s end the Spellmans’ case was dismissed. William Goodwin was living in the home at his death in 1933, and his wife Dona would manage a catering business from the home and lived there until shortly before her death in 1973.

In July 1929 the founder of the White Supremacy League was managing a beauty shop from her home on East Michigan Street.

Many of the people who directed and fueled neighborhood segregation returned to rather normal everyday lives in which their histories were apparently never examined. For instance, when the White Supremacy League dissolved Daisydean Deeds began to manage a beauty shop in 1929 from her home at 2507 East Michigan Street. She ran for office unsuccessfully three times: in 1930 as State Representative on a fiercely Republican dry platform; again in 1942; and once more in 1944. She contributed recipes to newspapers as early as 1930, had a recipe appear in a nationally syndicated column in 1931, was featured in a 1954 Indianapolis News cooking column, and had a recipe reprinted in The Indianapolis News in 1992, 32 years after her death. Deeds wrote an enormous number of Letters to the Editor of Indianapolis newspapers throughout her life, sounding in on relaxed divorce codes in 1935; decrying “anti-American” speech by communists, National Socialists, and fascists in 1938; advocating deportation of all suspected communists and other “un-American” groups including labor union leaders in 1939; championing Native American fishing rights in 1939; complaining about sugar rationing in 1946; and celebrating in 1952 that prayer had fueled Republican election victories and ended the “long 20 years’ stretch of arbitrary, un-American and unconstitutional Democratic dictatorship that won this election” (leading one reader to respond that “If eating well and having money in the bank is un-American, then perhaps she is right”). At her death in 1960, the Indianapolis Star called Deeds a “civic leader” and did not include the White Supremacy League in her lifework.

The diligent if not violent defense of homogeneous White neighborhoods was repeated throughout Indianapolis throughout the 20th century. A host of rather prosaic men and women in otherwise un-spectacular neighborhoods were the vanguard of residential segregation, conducting cycles of violence, failed suits and legislation, devious real estate practices, and federal policy. Ultimately they failed to absolutely stop African-American neighborhoods’ expansion, but they shaped 20th-century residential patterns in ways that continue to shape the 21st-century landscape.



Kenneth T. Jackson

1967 The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930. Oxford University Press, New York.


Leonard J. Moore

1991 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.


Garrett Power

1983 Apartheid Baltimore Style: the Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910-1913. Maryland Law Review 42(2):289-329.


Emma Lou Thornbrough

1961 Segregation in Indiana During the Klan Era of the 1920’s. Mississippi Valley Historical Review 47(4): 594-618.


Visual Memory and Urban Displacement

This also appears on my blog Archaeology and Material Culture

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

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

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

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

The Landscapes of Wes Montgomery

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

Color and Conformity: Race and Integration in the Suburbs

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

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

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

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

A 1955 image illustrated the ideological vision of a typical suburban family (Getty images).

Last weekend Suburbicon debuted at the Venice Film Festival, and George Clooney’s movie (which opens in the US in October) is distinguished by its ambition to tell the story of racism and integration in suburbia. The film takes its inspiration from the integration of Levittown, Pennsylvania, one of William Levitt’s seven suburban communities. The Levittowns were the model for interchangeable, assembly-line produced housing on the urban periphery, so they are often rhetorical foils for suburban narratives in popular culture and historiography alike. The most unsettling implications of Clooney’s film are that it is an utterly commonplace historical tale: the story of the integration of the Levittown outside Philadelphia in 1957 could be told in any American community.

In 1947 this sign greeted prospective homeowners to the Long Island Levittown (Getty Images).

William Levitt purchased property in the Philadelphia suburbs in 1951, and by 1958 the firm he had inherited from his father had built 17,311 homes. Abraham Levitt and his sons William and Alfred built their first suburban community on Long Island between 1947 and 1951, eventually constructing 17,447 homes there. Levittown homes had racially restrictive covenants that decreed home owners could not rent or sell to Blacks, so the Long Island Levittown may well have been the largest White segregated community on the face of the planet. Postwar suburban housing was made possible by Federal Housing Authority loan programs and a dense network of local codes and informal practices that explicitly segregated the suburban frontier, including the Levittowns. A 1948 Supreme Court ruling found covenants in places like Levittown illegal, and nearly all other segregation practices also became illegal in the next decade (there is a massive scholarship on Levittowns and race and segregation in the Levitt suburbs—compare Herbert Gans’ 1967 The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community, Dianne Harris’ edited volume Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania or David Kushner’s Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb).

William Levitt posed reading a ticker tape machine in 1963 (Getty Images).

Nevertheless, William Levitt resisted court-ordered integration, arguing that Whites would not agree to live in integrated communities. In August 1954 Levitt’s most famous comment on the integration of Levittown communities came to the Saturday Evening Post. Levitt explained that “The negroes in America are trying to do in four hundred years what the Jews have not accomplished in six thousand. As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice. But, by various means, I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then ninety to ninety-five percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude not ours. We did not create it, and cannot cure it.  As a company, our position is simply this: we can solve a housing problem, or we can solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two.” Levitt was perhaps not especially committed to segregation, instead blaming xenophobia on his White tenants. When the Post reporter intoned that integration was inevitable, Levitt responded that “If that should happen, there is nothing I can, or would, do about it.”

When the Myers moved into Levittown they required police protection, and this officer was injured during one of the vigils (Getty Images).

Suburbicon adapts the story of William and Daisy Myers, who broke the color barrier in the Philadelphia suburban Levittown. In 1957 a Jewish couple sold their property in the Pennsylvania Levittown to the Myers. Neighbors immediately began a campaign to displace the Myers spearheaded by a group calling itself the Levittown Betterment Committee who organized curbside vigils at the home, displayed Confederate flags, threw stones through the Myers’ windows, painted “KKK” on a neighbor’s house, and burnt a cross in a nearby yard (compare the fascinating 1957 documentary “Crisis in Levittown”).

Reginald Bruce’s 1942 Crispus Attucks High School yearbook entry (Crispus Attucks Museum).

The Myers’ story was certainly enormously public, but it was in many ways a commonplace experience repeated in numerous other American communities. Indianapolis, Indiana had African-American suburbs emerge in the city’s northwestside in the postwar period, but when African Americans moved into White neighborhoods their arrival was greeted with resistance and even violence. For instance, Reginald Alexander Bruce was born in Indianapolis in March, 1925 to Charles and Agnes Bruce. Charles Bruce had come to Indianapolis with his wife Virginia around 1902 from Cedarville, Ohio. Charles married Virginia in 1898, and he married Agnes Smith in April, 1917. Charles and Agnes’ son Reginald was born in the midst of one of the city’s most systematic embraces of xenophobia. In 1926, Indianapolis passed a racial zoning ordinance backed by the White People’s Protective League, and when that was declared unconstitutional neighborhoods like that around Butler University resolved to bar African Americans by other means. Perhaps the most famous impact of 1920s segregation in the Circle City was the creation of a segregated Black high school, and Reginald graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in 1942.

Reginald Bruce had been in ROTC at Attucks, and in March 1944 he completed nine weeks of primary flight training with the 66th Army Air Force at Moton Field. The Alabama airfield was the base for the African-American pilots who became collectively known as the Tuskegee Airmen. In August 1944 Bruce graduated from flight training as part of a class of 14 men trained to fly twin-engine aircraft (medium bombers). Bruce was sent to Douglas Air Field in Arizona, where he was a Flight Officer on B-25s. Bruce was one of 14 Tuskegee Airmen from Indianapolis (see Tuskegee Airmen Indianapolis Chapter word file), and the local pilots including Reginald Bruce would be part of public discussions of the airmen’s legacy into the 1970s. Arthur Carter, the last of the 14 Indianapolis Tuskegee Airmen, died in 2015.

Reginald married Aurelia Jane Stuart in Marion County in 1945, and in 1947 Reginald and his wife were living with Reginald’s parents on Edgemont Avenue. Reginald was a student, and in 1952 Bruce completed his medical training at Indiana University. The young doctor became the resident physician at the Muscatuck State School in 1953, and after a year at Muscatuck Bruce opened a general practice in Indianapolis in July 1954.

After separating from his wife, Reginald remarried and he and his wife Mary attempted to purchase a new home. Apparently their first effort in about 1958 met with failure when “the couple all but succeeded in purchasing a home in the first block east of Butler University on Blue Ridge Road. That was before any Negro had moved onto Blue Ridge. (The first block is still all-white.) In that case, the deal fell through when the seller learned of the Bruces’ racial composition as the check was going through the bank.” In 1960 they successfully purchased the Grandiose Drive home, and despite the harassment and violence directed at the family they remained there until 1967. Perhaps influenced by his own experience of housing discrimination, in January 1961 Reginald Bruce became the co-Chair of the NAACP Indianapolis chapter’s Housing Committee with the Jewish Community Center’s Irving Levine.

In March 1966 the Indianapolis Recorder reported on Reginald and Mary Bruce’s effort to purchase a home on the northeastside.

The Bruces’ experience of housing discrimination did not end with their experiences on Blue Ridge Road and Grandiose Drive. In January 1966 the Bruces put their Grandiose Drive home up for sale in anticipation of a move into another northern Indianapolis suburb. The builders of a northeastside home on Brendonridge Court, John E. and James P. Dugan, were offered the sale price for the home by the Bruce’s real estate agent, and the Dugans accepted $1000 as a down payment. However, the following day the Dugans informed the Bruces’ agent that the home had been sold, apparently when they realized Reginald Bruce was African American (his wife was White). Mary and Reginald Bruce filed a complaint with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission against John E. Dugan, and in March, 1966 a Marion County Judge granted an injunction against the Dugans preventing them from selling the home until a court hearing. John Dugan filed a counter-complaint seeking $20,000 in damages. The Bruces dropped the charges in June, 1966, and a month later the Grandiose Drive home was on the market heralding the home’s fallout shelter, intercom system, and paneled family room. In 1967 the Bruces had moved to a home on North Illinois Street.

After 19 years in private practice, Reginald Bruce began a radiology residency in August 1973. After divorcing Mary Bruce, Reginald remarried Carolyn Marie Corrington in 1976. Bruce moved to Mattoon, Illinois by the late 1980s, then to the St. Louis suburb of Alton, Illinois, and he finally moved from there to Lake Havasu City Arizona in 1995, where he died in 1997.

The Jewish Community Center did not have a single African-American member when Bruce spoke about his effort to secure housing in 1961. When an audience member spoke out against integration, Joseph Tobak rose and said that “’You say, I like Negroes, but.’ I heard the same thing in Poland 40 years ago—‘We like Jews, but.’ Then came Hitler and his mass murders.” Tobak had indeed left Poland in 1921, eventually opening a liquor store in 1938 on the predominately African-American Northwestern Street, and Tobak’s store did not close until he retired in 1970. We do not know how Reginald Bruce felt about his lifelong experience attempting to secure a measure of equality, but in the wake of that 1961 meeting the JCC did indeed begin to integrate, and much of the northwestside would become home to more African Americans. Perhaps the acknowledgement of Reginald Bruce and William and Daisy Myers stories can start discussions about the depth of such racism and its impact on the contemporary housing landscape.


David B. Bittan

1958 Ordeal in Levittown. Look 19 August.


Charles E. Frances

2008 The Tuskegee Airmen: The Men who Changed a Nation. Branden Books, Boston.


Herbert Gans

1967 The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community. Columbia University Press, New York.


Dianne Harris, editor

2010 Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.


David Kushner

2009 Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb. Walker and Company, New York.



1957 Integration Troubles Beset Northern Town. 2 September 43(10): 43-44, 46.


Craig Thompson

1954 Growing Pains of a Brand-New City. Saturday Evening Post 227 (6): 26-27, 71-72. (subscription access)


James J. Wyatt

2012 Covering Suburbia: Newspapers, Suburbanization, and Social Change in the Postwar Philadelphia Region, 1945-1982. PhD Dissertation, Temple University.


House for sale, circa 1955 image from Getty Images
Officer Down Levittown 1957 image from Getty Images
Levittown New York 1947 Drive Carefully sign image from Getty Images
Reginald Bruce Crispus Attucks yearbook 1942 image from Crispus Attucks Museum
William Levitt reads ticker tape 1963 image from Getty Images

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.



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



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.



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.



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