Community and Corner Stores in Indianapolis’ Near-Westside

In the mid 19th-century Benjamin Drew interviewed scores of former slaves who had escaped to Canada, interviews that became the heart of his 1856 study A North-Side View of Slavery,The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada.  One of the communities Drew visited was St. Catharine’s, Ontario, which he described as “the peaceful home of hundreds of the colored race.  Of the population of about six thousand, it is estimated that eight hundred are of African descent. Nearly all the adult colored people have at some time been slaves.”  Roughly 12 miles from the American border along the Niagara River, St. Catharines had been home to Black loyalists after the Revolution and subsequently became a focus of abolitionist activism as well as the final destination for many escapees on the Underground Railroad.

Ransom Place's "pocket park" at the corner of Camp Street and West St. Clair during its June 19, 2016 dedication.

Ransom Place’s “pocket park” at the corner of Camp Street and West St. Clair during its June 19, 2016 dedication (click for expanded view).

One of the people of color born in St. Catharine’s settlement was Martha J. Miller, who was born in about 1871.  Miller eventually would live in Indianapolis for 35 years, where she managed a corner store for almost two decades.  The store she managed stood on the corner of Camp and St. Clair Streets in a neighborhood now known as Ransom Place, among the only surviving residential neighborhoods from the historically African-American near-Westside.  The store no longer stands, but this month with the support of Keep Indianapolis Beautiful the lot was dedicated as a “pocket park.”  Miller was one of scores of people who migrated to Indianapolis, and her story as an aspiring merchant and a Midwestern transplant was similar to that of many of her neighbors in the Circle City.

Just a half-century after the Emancipation of African-American captives, on June 30, 1909 Miller began a migration to the US, arriving in Detroit bound for Indianapolis.  Miller was described as an “African-Black” school teacher who had never been to the US, but she indicated that she was traveling to Indianapolis.  Miller’s immigration papers indicated that her parents were born in Canada, so they may have descended from Black loyalists, Underground Railroad escapees, or Canadian captives (enslavement was limited in scale but still legal in Canada until 1833).

The Indianapolis News included this image of William Curry in a June 9, 1903 about his service aboard the Indianapolis to Evansville train route.

The Indianapolis News included this image of William Curry in a June 9, 1903 story about his service aboard the Indianapolis to Evansville train route (click for expanded view).

Miller was bound for the home of William N. Curry, an African-American Pullman porter born in Alabama in about 1851, almost certainly in captivity.  Curry moved to Evansville, Indiana in about 1875 and then on to Indianapolis in 1889, when he began to work as a railroad porter on the train from Indianapolis to Evansville.  In 1903 the Indianapolis News indicated that Curry “has the remarkable record of being on that run almost continuously for fourteen years, and it is said of him that he has a speaking acquaintance with almost every man, woman, and child on the line of the railroad between the two cities. … He knows more prominent men than any other colored man in the State and enjoys the friendship of them all.”  Curry took in boarders in his Indianapolis home, and somehow his connections crossed with Martha Miller in Canada.

In 1887 a Sanborn insurance map showed the frame store at the corner of Camp and West St. Clair Streets for the first time.

In 1887 a Sanborn insurance map showed the frame store at the corner of Camp and West St. Clair Streets for the first time (click for expanded view).

Miller assumed the management of the Ransom Place store by 1911, and by that time it had already been operating continuously for 25 years.  The first house in present-day Ransom Place was built right after the Civil War, but very little construction was done in the neighborhood before the 1880s.  The first documentation of a building at the corner of Camp and St. Clair Streets came in January, 1884, when the Indianapolis News advertised a “top delivery wagon, cheap” for sale at the newly constructed bakery of John Lotz.  Lotz had grown up in Cincinnati, where his German-born parents had settled by John’s birth in 1846.  John was a harness maker, a trade he continued when he initially arrived in Indianapolis with his wife Mary around 1878.  While the remainder of the structure’s life was spent as a corner store, Lotz managed a bakery on Camp Street from 1884 to 1887.

This "97 LICENSED HUCKSTER" medal was recovered in archaeological excavations at the store in 2000. It almost certainly belonged to William Smith, who was a street peddler during the period his wife Mary was managing the Camp Street store in their names (click for expanded view).

This “97 LICENSED HUCKSTER” medal was recovered in archaeological excavations at the store in 2000. It almost certainly belonged to William Smith, who was a street peddler in 1897 during the period his wife Mary was managing the Camp Street store in their names (click for expanded view).

Like many corner stores, the Camp Street store was long managed by women: women managed the store continuously from 1887 to 1910 and 1911 to 1928.  Some of these women ran the store’s everyday operation in their husband’s name: for instance, Mary M. Smith ran the store from 1890 to 1900 with her husband William, but Mary appeared in most primary records as a grocer herself.  William appeared in many records as a salesman or canvasser; in 2000, a metal 1897 “huckster” license (a late-19th century term for street peddlers) was recovered on the site by archaeologists, and it probably belonged to him.  The Smiths ran the store from 1890 until they acquired a new store and home at 918 Indiana Avenue in 1899.  William died in 1900 and Mary managed the Indiana Avenue grocery until 1906 with her son Othello L. Smith; like his parents, Othello also worked in groceries for his whole career.

The neighborhood surrounding the store witnessed a quite dramatic demographic shift at the turn of the century.  By the 1890’s the city’s central African-American commercial and leisure district emerged a block away along Indiana Avenue, and during the Great Migration the Avenue and surrounding residential neighborhoods like Ransom Place became predominately African-American communities (compare Carolyn Brady’s analysis of Great Migration demography in Indianapolis).  Ransom Place rapidly became an overwhelmingly African-American community after 1900, and in 1910 it had its first African-American proprietors when Maurice L. Shaffer and Lewis W. Butler managed the store a year.

In March 1915 the Indianapolis Recorder included this notice for Martha Miller's weekly Bible readings at the Camp Street store.

In March 1915 the Indianapolis Recorder included this notice for Martha Miller’s weekly Bible readings at the Camp Street store (click for expanded view).

A year later Martha Miller began a nearly 20-year management of the corner store.  The grocery apparently sold a broad range of generalized household staples ranging from canned goods to coal and ice, and like many corner venues the store became a modest social gathering space.  One hint of that social activity came from archaeological excavation of the lot in 2000, which recovered a dense assemblage of marbles, doll parts, and even a 1933-1936 Cracker Jacks Presidential coin prize around the structure, suggesting local kids likely played in the lot for more than a half-century.  Miller also hosted Bible readings in her home.  In March, 1915, for instance, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that “last night the Bible Study Class met with Miss Miller, 806 Camp Street.  The subject was `Signs of the Personal Presence of Our Lord,’ which was discussed before the scripture reading.  All persons interested are welcome.”  Like many of her neighbors, Miller had numerous boarders in her Camp Street home, with the 1920 census recording five boarders; she had six in 1930, and eight in 1940.

On June 9, 1928 this ad offered the "small corner grocery" on Camp Street for sale (click for expanded view).

On June 9, 1928 this ad offered the “small corner grocery” on Camp Street for sale (click for expanded view).

In June, 1928, though, an ad appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder advertising “For Sale—Small grocery store with one living room … 806 Camp St.”  Many modest corner stores would continue into the 1950s, but the dense network of corner stores like that on Camp Street began to decrease by 1930: initially, chain stores took a larger share of the marketplace, and in the 1930s the Depression made their trade even more unstable.  Throughout the 1930s the store primarily sold coal and ice from a structure at the rear of the lot, though Martha Miller continued to live at the home until her death in 1945.

Looking east along the Cultural Trail, with the Camp Street pocket park on the left (click for expanded view).

Looking east along the Cultural Trail, with the Camp Street pocket park on the left (click for expanded view).

The last long-term proprietors at the Camp Street address were Jesse and Edna Robinson, who began selling ice and coal at the store in 1943.  Edna died in 1953, and three years later a fire heavily damaged the house.  Jesse and his second wife Vivian continued to live at the home and sell ice from an icehouse at the rear of the lot facing West St. Clair Street until 1971.  In 1967, the Indianapolis Recorder recognized Robinson’s long career: “We salute this week our good friend and Naptown’s most popular ice man—Jesse Robinson. …  Jesse has handled the `coldest stuff in town’ (meaning ice) for 52 years … Jesse, as he is known by hundreds of friends and customers, maintains a ice house at 706 W. St. Clair St. where he also sells fishing bait.”

In 1971 the store appeared in the city directory for the last time, when James McGriff was selling ice from Jesse Robinson’s icehouse.  By that point the surrounding neighborhoods had been depopulated as urban renewal projects and highway construction had displaced many residents and most of the businesses along Indiana Avenue.  In 1972 an aerial photograph showed the lot empty, as it remained until the Ransom Place Neighborhood Association and Keep Indianapolis Beautiful restored the lot.  Today the former store is a modest corner park along the Cultural Trail and a fabulous place to begin a walk through Ransom Place to visit one of the city’s oldest historical African-American neighborhoods.

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