Landscapes of Freedom: Indianapolis Residents in the WPA Slave Narratives

Scholars have long appreciated that slavery profoundly shaped America well beyond the South and long after bondage and segregation were outlawed.  Indianapolis was one of scores of American communities where former captives settled and constructed new lives, but by the eve of World War II only a handful of African Americans survived from a century when those former captives had personally witnessed enslavement, national and global wars, and anti-Black segregation.  In the late 1930’s, many corners of American society were not especially interested in reflectively assessing slavery’s lasting heritage: just three-quarters of a century after slavery, bondage still was an awkward reality evaded by a society that persistently defended White privilege.

In the midst of the Depression, though, the Federal Writer’s Project launched one of the nation’s most ambitious oral historical projects when it embarked on what is usually referred to as the Works Progress Administration Slave Narratives.  Over 2300 African Americans were interviewed by WPA researchers, including 69 interviews with Indiana residents.  Of those 69 Indiana memoirists, 21 were living in Indianapolis and interviewed in 1937 and 1938.  Over 2016-2017 Invisible Indianapolis will include some stories about these last surviving witnesses to captivity, examine their Indianapolis experiences, and suggest how their stories can shape the ways we see life along the color line in central Indiana.


“She could hardly talk of the happenings of the early days”: Remembering Captivity with Parthenia Rollins

on November 1, 1952 an obituary for Parthenia Rollins included this image of her.

On November 1, 1952 an obituary for Parthenia Rollins included this image of her (click for an expended image}.

In December 1938 Parthenia Rollins sat down in her Indianapolis home for an interview with Anna Wells Pritchett.  Pritchett’s two-page summary of the interview perhaps lacked much of the subtlety we might have found in a verbatim transcription of Rollins’ own speech, but it nevertheless described several horrific experiences from Rollins’ childhood enslaved in Kentucky.  It ended with Rollins acknowledging to Pritchett that she witnessed cruelty that “would make your hair stand on ends.”  Pritchett herself presciently grasped the nearly inexpressible suffering at the heart of Rollins’ experiences over nearly 80 years before, noting that Rollins “said she could hardly talk of the happenings of the early days, because of the awful things her folks had to go through.”

Parthenia Rollins was born in Scott County, Kentucky around 1853, and her experience of captivity was shared by many African Americans who eventually found their way to Indianapolis.  Rollins’ earliest memories came from her childhood on the slaveholding of Edward B. DuVall.   Born in about 1817, DuVall had been living with his family in 1850, but after DuVall married Martha Jane Mothershead in 1854 he apparently began to manage his own farm north of Lexington.  Scott County birth records indicate Duvall had two enslaved girls born the same year he was married (one in June to a mother named Emily and the other in July to a mother named Milly), and it is perhaps possible that one of those women was Parthenia.  After the outbreak of the Civil War, DuVall enlisted in the Kentucky Volunteer Calvary in September, 1862, but he was proclaimed a deserter a month later and does not appear to have returned to service.  Pritchett suggested that Rollins characterized DuVall as “always very kind to all his slaves, never whipping any of the adults, but [he] often whipped the children to correct them, never beating them.”  Nevertheless, Pritchett’s interview summary outlined quite horrific experiences including the murder of captive infants, and while five free Blacks were living in the DuVall household as domestic laborers in 1870, they did not include Parthenia Rollins.

Like many newly freed captives, Parthenia initially lived in the South before joining the Great Migration.  Rollins lived in Kentucky roughly four decades as a free person, but she moved from Scott County before Edward DuVall died in 1870.  By 1880 Parthenia had found her way to Pembroke, in southwestern Christian County Kentucky about 230 miles from Scott County.  In 1880 she was living with her husband Ras (Erasmus) Rollins, who was recorded as a 60 year old in the 1880 census, and he died sometime between 1880 and 1900.  Parthenia had six children by 1900, when she was living in nearby Hopkinsville.  Her daughter Sarah and son Willie were living with their widowed mother in 1900, and Sarah herself married Alexander Wagner around 1902; however, Sarah would become a widow by the time Parthenia moved to Indianapolis in about 1908 with Sarah, her son Rollins Wagner, and her nephew (Parthenia’s grandson) Ras Thomas.

As with many migrations north, it is not entirely clear why Parthenia and her family decided to move to Indianapolis.  Some migrants came to join family members who had already gone north, including some of the Indianapolis memoirists who were interviewed for the Slave Narratives.  However, others never had an especially concrete plan beyond fleeing retrenched late-19th century racism.  Like many other migrants at the start of the 20th century, the household members assumed relatively typical Black labor positions in the Circle City, with Parthenia appearing in the 1910 census as a cook working for a private family, her daughter Sarah as a laundress, and grandson Rollins working in a bowling alley.

On February 12, 1910, Madam Walker ran two ads in the African-American newspaper The Indianapolis Recorder, including this one offering her services.

On February 12, 1910, Madam Walker ran two ads in the African-American newspaper The Indianapolis Recorder, including this one offering her services (click for an expanded view).

Among the many fascinating dimensions of Parthenia Rollins’ life was her relationship with Madam CJ Walker, who Rollins likely first met around 1910.  Born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana in 1867, Walker moved her hair care treatment firm to Indianapolis in 1910 with her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker.  Sarah Walker came to the city intent on expanding her company and Walker beauty system, advertising in the Indianapolis Recorder on February 12, 1910.  It is unclear what confluence of factors or fate brought Walker and Rollins together or exactly when Rollins formally began to work for the Walker Company, but Rollins probably began to work for Madam C.J. Walker as a cook and house keeper soon after Walker arrived.

Madam Walker ran this ad seeking boarders in September, 1910 (click for an expanded view).

Madam Walker ran this ad seeking boarders in September, 1910 (click for an expanded view).

Walker began renting a home at 640 North West Street (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Street) in 1910, and Rollins certainly worked for Walker at the North West Street home.  In September, 1910 Walker advertised in the Indianapolis Recorder seeking boarders in the home, advertising accommodations for “Four congenial lady roomers, teachers preferred, modern house, 640 N. West street.”  She already had at least one boarder in 1911, a student Howard Thompson, and by 1912 she secured at least two teachers, sisters Clara Perry and Maude Perry.  The Perrys came to Indianapolis from Mattoon, Illinois in about 1911, and when they became Walker’s boarders in 1912 Clara and Maude were teachers at Public Schools 24 and 26 respectively.  Later in their lives they would come to know Rollins’ interviewer Anna Pritchett; among 18 WPA fieldworkers in Indiana, Pritchett was the sole African-American interviewer and a teacher at Public School 17, where Clara Perry later taught.

An August, 1911 announcement for Madam Walker's new laboratory on North West Street (click for an expanded view)

An August, 1911 announcement for Madam Walker’s new laboratory on North West Street (click for an expanded view)

In August, 1911 Walker announced the business she was building at the North West Street location, indicating that “Madam Walker has just completed her beautiful laboratory in the rear of her residence at 640 N. West street. The finest owned and operated for colored in America. The doors will be thrown open Wednesday for inspection by the general public. All persons spending $1.00 will receive a box of Madame Walkers Wonderful Hair Grower.” The Walker home was just a couple blocks from Parthenia Rollins’ homes at 619 and then 625 North Blackford Street (now IUPUI parking lots); the family lived at 619 North Blackford from 1908 until 1911, and then at 625 from 1912 until about 1917.

Walker purchased a lot and existing home at 841 Camp Street perhaps as early as 1910 as one of a handful of local investment properties.  A home had stood at the Camp Street address since the 19th century, but in about 1916 a second structure was built in the backyard along the alleyway, which was referred to as Utica Street.  By 1917 Rollins’ family was living in that newly built home at the rear of 841 Camp Street.  Parthenia Rollins and her family were the first residents, and both she and her daughter remained its residents for the remainder of their lives.

At about the same time Parthenia Rollins was moving into the home on Utica Street, Walker herself moved to Harlem and left Rollins as part of her Indianapolis staff.  Walker would never return to Indianapolis as a full-time resident again, and in May, 1919 she died.  The fourth item in her will prepared two years earlier indicated “I direct that Parthenia Rawlins [sic] be paid five dollars a week for the rest of her natural life and that sufficient funds be set aside for her funeral and burial expenses” (in an interesting June, 1919 article on the will, the Dallas Express stated that same passage read “Item 4: Gives Parthenia Rawlins [sic], known as Grandma, $5.00 a week for the rest of her natural life and sets aside sufficient money for her funeral and burial expenses” (PDF here).  The reference to Rollins as “Grandma” would later be repeated in her own newspaper obituaries.

In the 1923 Walker Company payroll Rollins was listed as one of 38 employees working for the firm.  Thirty-two of the employees were women of color, a pattern that Walker established herself and that would remain a company hallmark long after she died.  Rollins was receiving $13 a month in 1923.  When she was interviewed by Anna Pritchett in 1938, Rollins was living with her daughter Sarah and grandson Rollins Wagner in the home at the rear of 841 Camp Street.  In 1948, Rollins was recognized by the company during its yearly anniversary commemoration of Madam Walker, with the Indianapolis Recorder indicating she had received nearly $13,000 from the estate of Madam Walker.  Much of Walker’s significance was linked to her philanthropy and activism during her life, and Rollins was sometimes presented as an example of how that work continued after Madam Walker’s death.

When Parthenia Rollins died in October, 1952 local newspapers were most focused on her age.  For instance, the Indianapolis Recorder placed her age at 107 and indicated she “lived in her native Kentucky during the Civil War and remembered many stirring events of the war.  She had heard Abraham Lincoln speak on several occasions.”  The newspaper made no reference to captivity and may well not have known about her participation in the WPA Slave Narratives project.  Rollins was laid to rest in Indianapolis’ Floral Park Cemetery, where her daughter Sarah joined her just two months later.  While their neighborhood on Camp Street remains remarkably well-preserved today their own home was razed around 1970.

For more WPA Slave Narratives compare the post on Robert Howard, an Alpha Home resident who was interviewed in January, 1938.

This February 12, 1910 ad was simply one of the earliest of many Walker company ads.

This February 12, 1910 ad was simply one of the earliest of many Walker company ads.


One thought on “Landscapes of Freedom: Indianapolis Residents in the WPA Slave Narratives

  1. I just found your blog today and I am enjoying it. My grandparents and other relatives lived in Indianapolis in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I recently found my great grandmother, Anna Reed’s brother who was a member of the USCT. I sent for his pension file and this month am writing about a person in his file each day, as he lived in Indianapolis when he filed for the pension, they are all residents, most with roots in Kentucky. Today I was looking for information about the neighborhood they lived in,2715 N. Capital St. I know that the area you are writing about doesn’t cover that house location but my grandfather’s people lived in the area covered.
    Finding Eliza


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