Poetry and African-American Life in West Indianapolis

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

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

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

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

The 1889 Atlas of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana included many of West Indianapolis’ most familiar features. At the red arrow was the city’s stockyards; the green arrow identifying “city property” south of the city was Indianapolis’ primary landfill; and the blue arrow on the left is at Howard Street (click on image for larger map, or see the original)

In 1905 Aaron and Luella Thompson moved to Howard Street in West Indianapolis, where they would live for the remainder of their lives. The neighborhoods around Indiana Avenue were the heart of Indianapolis’ African-American community for most of a century, and narratives of African-American life in Indianapolis tend to focus on the business district, residential communities, and clubs along Indiana Avenue. Nevertheless, in the southwestern reaches of West Indianapolis Howard Street was among a handful of equally longstanding African-American neighborhoods scattered in nearly every corner of the city. Nearly all of Indiana Avenue was wiped out by postwar urban renewal, but many of the late 19th-century homes in West Indianapolis along streets including Howard, Shepard, and Pershing remain well-preserved today, and some African-American families have long called West Indianapolis home.

At the turn of the century Aaron Thompson had been writing and self-publishing poetry in his native Rossmoyne, Ohio, an African-American suburb on the outskirts of Cincinnati. In January, 1900 Washington D.C.’s The Colored American reported that “A new Richmond in the literary arena is Aaron Belford Thompson the colored janitor of the Rossmoyn [sic] Public school at Cincinnati Ohio. He is entirely self instructed. … He calls his volume `Morning Glories’ and in order to publish it he bought type set the matter up and did the printing himself.” Thompson did indeed have printing type and a press he used to self-publish his volumes, and he would continue to print his work on Howard Street into the 1920s.

West Indianapolis began to be settled when railroad lines cut through the area in the middle of the 19th century. The 73-mile Terre Haute and Indianapolis railroad was built in 1851, with its line crossing the White River through West Indianapolis at Louisiana Street (compare the 1852 Condit map and the 1870 Luther R. Martin Map of Indianapolis). Seven railroad lines ran into Indianapolis three years later, with a second rail line crossing the White River into West Indianapolis at Georgia Street. These arteries would become prime industrial locations quite rapidly after the Civil War, and residential neighborhoods surrounding these industrial workplaces would emerge in the 1870s and 1880s.

Thompson advertised himself as a speaker and entertainer in 1903 while he and Luella lived on West 12th Street.

Aaron and Luella Thompson settled in a neighborhood in the southwestern reaches of West Indianapolis that was settled beginning in the 1880s. The reaches of Howard Street where the Thompsons settled was being laid out in May 1885, when The Indianapolis News published a request for proposals for “grading and graveling the roadways and sidewalks of Howard Street, from Reisner street to Judge Hardin [sic] street.” Like most of West Indianapolis, mostly working-class families settled in these homes and worked in a vast range of industrial workplaces that had been built in West Indianapolis by the late 19th century. In November, 1877, for instance, Indianapolis’ stockyards were established on “three acres of land on the west side of the river at the old Vincennes crossingat the southern end of Kentucky Avenue. One of the centers of industrial production in West Indianapolis was established in 1900, when David Parry confirmed to The Indianapolis News that the family’s Parry Manufacturing company hoped to build a new factory for their buggy manufacturing business in West Indianapolis, noting that “the site for the new plant has not been decided upon as yet, but it will probably be in West Indianapolis” (that tract is today south of Washington Street on the west side of the White River). David M. Parry and his brother Thomas H. Parry launched the Parry Manufacturing Company in Rushville, Indiana in 1882, and the buggy manufacturing company relocated to Indianapolis in 1886, where they began experimenting with the manufacturing of automobiles in about 1892. The Horseless Age reported in 1895 that “Parry Manufacturing Co., light wagon manufacturers, Indianapolis, Ind., have been experimenting on motor vehicles for three or four years past. They are building several different types of wagons.” In January 1900 the company announced plans to produce and sell automobiles, and David Parry hoped to be selling automobiles in 1901, telling The Indianapolis News that “We will make all sorts of autos, from pleasure rigs through the list, embracing ambulances, prison vans, patrol wagons and heavy delivery trucks.” By 1916 their production had shifted to truck bodies and cabs, when its claim to fame was that it was “the world’s largest carriage factory.” In September 1919 Parry Manufacturing was consolidated with Martin Truck and Body, forming the Martin-Parry Corporation. The West Indianapolis company made truck bodies for auto companies including Ford and Willys-Overland before the Indianapolis plant was acquired by Chevrolet in October, 1930.

Like many Midwestern working-class neighborhoods built around factories, by the late-19th century industrial pollution made West Indianapolis an unpleasant and unhealthy place to live. To make everyday conditions worse, in February 1873 a report to the Indianapolis City Council recommended “the city set apart a location, remote from habitated parts, for the manufactories of animal offal,” and the city established its primary landfill at Seller’s Farm, where Harding Street now crosses the White River. In January 1884 The Indianapolis News described the odors of Sellers Farm as “the quintessence of vile odors that burden alike the June and January breezes.” In November, 1892 the city of Indianapolis was the defendant in a suit brought by 45 West Indianapolis residents who complained that “there are many hot days and sultry nights during the summer when the stench from this municipal nuisance spreads over the entire city, almost suffocating the southern wards, and penetrating with sickening effect those which lie to the north.” The plaintiffs “allege that there is a sickening, disgusting and unhealthy effluvium and noxious vapors arising at all hours of the night and day which permeate the atmosphere and penetrate into every room of their dwellings.” In August 1922 a coalition of West Indianapolis residents even collected 4000 signatures advocating for disannexation from the city of Indianapolis because of the continued pollution at Sellers Farm. An Indianapolis Wastewater Treatment plant remains there today, with Indianapolis Power and Light on the south side of the river.

A handful of African Americans settled along some of the newly cut streets west of Harding Street by the early 1890’s. In 1900, for instance, 76 people lived in 14 homes on Shepard Street’s 1400 block (between Howard and Miller Streets, compare the 1898 Sanborn Insurance Map), and 44 of those residents were identified in the census as Black. A decade later 66 people were living in the same block, and only one of those 66 residents was White. That rapid residential segregation between 1900 and 1910 mirrored a similar shift to a relatively homogeneous African-American community in the near-Westside as well, with the city becoming quite rapidly segregated across the color line. However, some blocks along Howard Street would remain homogeneously White well into the 20th century, with most African-American homes located west of Shepard Street.

In December 1905 Aaron Thompson advertised his poetry volumes in The Indianapolis Recorder

It was in the midst of this early 20th century residential segregation that Aaron and Luella Thompson moved into a home at 2121 Howard Street in 1905. Thompson advertised his services as a speaker for public events, printed business cards, and continued to write poetry at his Howard Street home, all while working in West Indianapolis foundries. Aaron Thompson was one of three siblings who wrote poetry. In 1906 The Indianapolis Recorder lauded the work of Thompson as well as his sister Priscilla, who lived in Rossmoyne and “has published a volume of poems entitled `Ethopia Lays,’ [sic] which has been well received. Miss Thompson is a talented elocutionist and her recitals meet with the approval of every audience. Her poems are smooth and original, and deal chiefly with with [sic] the joys and sorrows of her own race.” Thompson’s 1900 collection Ethiope Lays was described by her as an effort to “to picture the real side of my race . . . their patience, fortitude and forbearance.” Much of Priscilla’s collection examined the legacy of captivity (e.g., “The Old Freedman” and “Freedom at McNealy’s”), and her poem “My Father’s Story” likely narrated her father’s life as a captive in Virginia. Father John Henry Thompson and mother Clara Jane Thompson had been enslaved in Virginia and were sold to Kentucky, from where they fled to the Cincinnati suburb of Rossmoyne in about 1863. Priscilla and Aaron’s sister Clara Ann Thompson was also a poet publishing Songs from the Wayside (1908) and A Garland of Poems (1926). Like Priscilla, Clara’s poems told stories of captivity and African-American life and included many religious themes. Aaron’s sisters would live in Rossmoyne with their brother Garland throughout their lives, but both Priscilla and Clara often visited Indianapolis.

Aaron Thompson’s 1907 poem “A Deserted Homestead” described the ruins of a formerly slaveholding plantation and included this Garfield Thomas Haywood illustration.

In July 1907 Aaron Thompson published his second poetry collection, Harvest of Thoughts. The collection featured a foreword from the renowned Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley. The volume’s illustrations were done by Garfield Thomas Haywood, an Indianapolis Freeman and Indianapolis Recorder illustrator and minister who would go on to become Bishop of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (1925-1931). The Indianapolis Star applauded the new book and its endorsement by James Whitcomb Riley, noting that Thompson continued to work in West Indianapolis foundries even as he wrote poetry in his time away from the factory. The Star noted that “Working as a day laborer In the American Car & Foundry Company’s plant in West Indianapolis, he has not yet found the leisure time to devote to writing poetry which the art is popularly supposed and does require in most instances. In the grimy, athletic figure of the young negro in the foundry one would not expect to find a poet. But, in his cozy home, seated at a table covered with manuscripts and surrounded by favorite books, the budding poet is soon discovered.”

The Indianapolis Star reported on the publication of Thompson’s 1907 collection with this image illustrating Thompson’s dual life as a laborer in West Indianapolis foundries while composing poetry in the evenings in his home.

Thompson’s Harvest of Thoughts shared many of the subjects his sisters examined, but many of his poems were comedic, and his poems included a very rich description of the foodscape of the African-American South. For instance, his poem “Quit Yo’ Gobblin’” championed possum over turkey as a Thanksgiving dish, arguing that “Turk’y meat can’t cope with ‘possum./ Wan’ to know the reason why?/ ‘Possum meat is sweet an juicy,/ Turk’y meat is tough an’ dry” (also compare the feast described in “Out Among Um” and the details of African-American cuisine and African-American women cooks outlined in “A Congratulation”).

In March 1912 The Indianapolis Recorder reported on Thompson’s publications and included this grainy image of his Howard Street home.

In 1909 the Thompsons moved a few doors away to 2109 Howard Street, where they would live the remainder of their lives. On January 1, 1910 Indianapolis’ African-American newspaper The Freeman hailed Thompson’s most recent collection, indicating that “A cosy [sic] five-room cottage situated at 2109 Howard Street is the residence and property of Aaron Belford Thompson, the leading colored poet of Indiana. Here, in the early hours of morn, whilst the hum of business is still hushed by the stillness of night, this young man can be found constantly at his desk, writing rare verses which are steadily making him famous throughout the country.” In March 1912 The Indianapolis Recorder reported that Thompson had “sought various Publishing Houses to handle his manuscripts and meeting with little success, resolved within himself to do his own book publishing by so doing he met with great success literally and financially.” The newspaper noted that Thompson “purchased a cosy cottage, and erected a snug little publishing house in the rear.”

In December 1913 Thompson advertised himself for poetry readings and speaking engagements in The Indianapolis Recorder

Thompson appears to have worked in West Indianapolis industries throughout the decades he lived on Howard Street, even as he managed a printing business producing business cards and at least a handful of books. In March 1922 Luella Thompson died of the flu, and her widowed husband Aaron married Hallie Words in October 1922. Aaron Thompson was 55 years old when he died of cardiac disease in January 1929. He was buried in Rossmoyne, Ohio, where he was buried alongside his brother Samuel (who died in 1909); eventually his sister Priscilla (1942) and brother Garland (1938) were laid to rest beside him (and sister Clara died in 1949 and lies in an unmarked grave that is likely alongside her siblings).

In 1946 the city of Indianapolis mapped out its “Distribution of Negro Neighborhoods” in preparation for postwar urban renewal projects. On the southwestern reaches of West Indianapolis Howard Street and several of the neighboring roads were identified as predominately Black.

By the time of Aaron Thompson’s death Howard Street had already become a busy corridor. Howard Street would be a retail and leisure thoroughfare well into the postwar period (e.g., compare the 1940 city directory, which lists theaters, professionals, and a broad range of businesses along Howard Street). The neighborhood remained overwhelmingly segregated by race, but blocks of African Americans continued to call the area home long after World War II while White families occupied many blocks within steps of those African-American areas. In 1946 Indianapolis mapped the “Distribution of the Negroes in Indianapolis” across the city (certainly as part of postwar urban renewal planning), and that map identified African-American neighborhoods in the 1400 blocks of Shepard, Kappes, Hiatt, and Belmont, with another concentration of African-Americans living along Sheffield, Pershing Avenue, and Tremont. Interstates cut through working-class Indianapolis neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s and displaced many predominately African-American communities, but the Howard Street area escaped interstate displacement when Interstate-70 was routed through West Indianapolis along Ray Street winding just north of Rhodius Park. In August 1973 The Indianapolis Star reported that the West Indianapolis segment of the interstate “is either under construction or complete,” and traffic was using the section of I-70 through West Indianapolis in September 1975. Harding Street became a much busier artery for north-south traffic because of the new interstate route, with industrial transport and southern suburban commuters intensifying the traffic along Harding. Nevertheless, few Indianapolis neighborhoods have as deep a history of African-American residency as these blocks of West Indianapolis fanning out from the western edges of Howard Street. Certainly many stories like Aaron Thompson’s remain to be told about this area that has often escaped the attention of city historians and preservationists.


Ignatius Brown
1868 Logan’s History of Indianapolis From 1818. Logan and Company, Indianapolis.

Jacob Piatt Dunn Jr.
1910 Greater Indianapolis: The History, the Industries, the Institutions, and the People of a City of Homes. 2 volumes. Lewis Publishing, Chicago.

Nancy M. Germano
2009 A View of The Valley: The 1913 Flood in West Indianapolis. Master’s Thesis, Department of History, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.

John H.B. Nowland
1870 Early Reminiscences of Indianapolis. Sentinel Book and Job Printing House, Indianapolis.

John R. Repass
1997 History of West Indianapolis. 4 vols. Unpublished manuscript.

B.R. Sulgrove
1884 History of Indianapolis and Marion County,Indiana.  L.H. Everts and Company, Philadelphia.

Margaret Wolfer
2010 Social History of the “West Indianapolis” Section of Indianapolis, Indiana. Unpublished manuscript.


Displacement and Discontent: Uprooting a Neighborhood

This piece was written with Alyssa Meyer and Kyle Turner

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

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

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

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

This post also appeared on my blog Archaeology and Material Culture

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

Visual Memory and Urban Displacement

This also appears on my blog Archaeology and Material Culture

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

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

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

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

The Landscapes of Wes Montgomery

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

Color and Conformity: Race and Integration in the Suburbs

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

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

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

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

Firefighting and the Color Line in the Circle City

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

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

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

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

Suburbanization and the Color Line along Grandview Drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



Gotham, Kevin Fox

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


Hulse, Lamont J.

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.” Continue reading