Invisible Indianapolis

Orphans across the Color Line: The Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children


In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan’s Home (click for an expanded view).

In the 1890s the Lessenberry and Edmonds families were among the scores of African Americans migrating to Indianapolis.  The two Kentucky families were part of a wave of African Americans who swelled the Circle City’s population in the early 20th century.  Fueled by post-Emancipation optimism as well as a sober acknowledgment of Jim Crow racism, many African-American families went north to cities like Indianapolis.  James Edmonds and his three children came to Indianapolis in 1890, and Price and Amy Lessenberry and their four children followed in 1898.  The families were compelled to contend with Hoosier racism and segregation in their new home, and they were among the many newcomers whose lives were transformed by impoverishment and a segregated social service system.

A migration wave in the wake of the Civil War first exposed Indianapolis’ lack of institutional support for the newly freed African Americans who escaped north.  Unsettled by homeless, impoverished, and often-ill African-American newcomers, Indianapolis’ Friends (Quakers) resolved in 1869 to organize an African-American orphanage (compare the histories by Thomas Cowger and John Ramsbottom as well as the Indiana Historical Society collection guide).  In 1870 the Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children opened at Mississippi and 12th Streets (eventually re-named Senate Avenue and 21st Street, respectively).

The 1887 Sanborn Insurance map showed the orphanage at the corners of 12th Street (now 21st St.) and Mississippi Street (later renamed Senate Avenue). The map noted that the Marion County Workhouse lay immediately west of the orphanage (click for an expanded view).

A central mission of the Asylum for Friendless Colored Children was to care for children left abandoned, sometimes referred to as “waifs.”  However, many of the children who came to the facility were technically not orphaned; rather, parents or surviving family members were often impoverished or beset by illness themselves and needed assistance until they were able to care for their children or could enlist family members to do so.  Others were brought to the orphanage by courts or the police.  For children with no families, the orphanage sought out adopting families or placed children in indentures on Indiana farms, with the adopting family agreeing to standards of care, an agreement for at least four months school attendance, and compulsory church attendance.

An 1892 newspaper image of the orphanage (click for an expanded view).

However, relatively few children were ever successfully placed with adopting families.  John Ramsbottom’s study of the orphanage’s admission records between 1904 and 1921 found that only 187 of 451 admitted children were placed even once, and most of them returned to the facility.  In October, 1872, for instance, six-year-old Belle Roe first came to the orphanage, with admission records indicating that her mother was dead and her father had been missing two years.  After returning from a temporary placement in 1873, Roe went to live with John and Emeline Losey in May 1874 but was back in the orphanage in October.  She then went to a Henry County household in February, 1875, but returned within a week “in poor health.”  In May, 1875 she was in another Indianapolis home a week before being returned “in very poor health.”  She recovered sufficiently by December, 1875 to be placed with Olav Kirkeberg, the Pastor of the Evangelical Danish Lutheran Church on New Jersey Street, but Belle was back on January 5, 1876.  In May she went to live on a farm in Switz City but was back in a week.  In July, 1876 the Asylum finally sent the 12-year-old Roe to the Marion County poor farm.

In about 1923 these two infants were photographed at the Asylum (image General Photograph Collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana State Library) (click for an expanded view).

The orphanage had just 18 “inmates” in its first year; in September 1874 it counted 40 children at the facility; and in 1880 the census found 40 children being held in the orphanage.  However, the number of children in the orphanage rapidly increased.  In 1883, for instance, 123 children were cared for in the asylum; in 1891 the orphanage reported it had cared for 141 children; and in 1892 it cared for 126 children.  The structure was meant to hold 100 children at most, and it would remain over-crowded from the late-19th century until its closing.

While most city residents seemed inclined to look on the Friends’ work as heartfelt benevolence, the Asylum was a target of some African Americans’ criticism.  In 1928 African-American Arnold H. Maloney painted a dark picture of the facility, indicating that “children were packed like sardines into the miserable dormitories.  Their beds were shuck mattresses and their pillows were not.  Old and young were herded together.  The poor youngsters were underfed and over-punished. The devices used to punish remind one of the days of the Inquisition.  Some of them were kept all day in straight jackets and many were sent to bed in that day—a position that did not allow their hands which were crossed, to move.  Adhesive plaster was pasted over their mouth to compel quietude.  These were dark days.  Colored people were not made welcome as visitors and the children were not permitted to talk with them over the fence.  Well do I recall the cold reception given me when, as Vicar of the Episcopal Church, I felt it my duty to visit the home. The yard was a regular mud hole when wet and a boulder lot when dry.  It boasted not a single tree; not a bench on which to sit. Offers made by the city play ground authorities to equip the yard for the children were promptly turned down by the superintendent.”

These young women posed at the orphanage around 1923 wearing dresses they had made (image General Photograph Collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana State Library) (click for an expanded view).

The history of the Edmonds children is perhaps a marked example of the lives of orphanage residents.  James Edmonds and his three children moved to Indianapolis in 1890, a year after the death of James’ wife Fannie Duvall Edmonds, and they settled into a modest home on Brooker’s Alley (near 13th Street and Senate Avenue).  In January, 1891, Edmonds first brought the children to the orphanage after he became too ill to work and lost his job.  Edmonds may have become desperate when he brought Dora, Virgil, and Raymond to the orphanage and agreed to “pay what he can when he gets work.”  The children returned to their father’s home soon after, but in July he again brought Virgil and Raymond back, only to reclaim them six days later.  Such seasonal care for children was not uncommon, and many of the children in the orphanage appeared in its registration books on multiple occasions.

In January, 1892 the three Edmonds children were again brought to the orphanage.  The siblings apparently were still in the orphanage in May when their father was shot, apparently in an accidental shooting that the Indianapolis Journal deemed “idiotic horse-play.”  James survived the gunshot to his ribs, and in July, 1893 he married Katie Venable.  Katie brought the children home 11 days after their wedding; nevertheless, in September Virgil and Raymond were brought back to the Asylum by their father, who agreed to pay .25 a week for their support.

An 1898 image of the Asylum (north is the left side of the image) (click for an expanded view).

Katie brought Dora back to the orphanage to join her brothers in November, 1893, again agreeing to pay .25 a week for her upkeep.  In May, 1894 Katie brought Dora home, and in June she brought her two brothers home.  In August, 1894 all three of the children were once more brought to the orphanage, and in September Virgil was sent “to a home in Noblesville.”  That Noblesville home might have been a family member, but the orphanage routinely placed children with farm families throughout the region.  In June, 1895 Dora and Raymond were removed from the orphanage by their stepmother a last time, and none of the children again appeared in the orphanage.

James Edmonds died sometime between 1898 and 1900.  His son Raymond died of consumption at age 15, his death certificate indicating his occupation was “school boy.”  Dora Edmonds married Daniel Benjamin Pendleton in 1914, and she worked as a domestic throughout her life.  She and Daniel lived on North West Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Street) for decades, just a few blocks from the orphanage.  Five days before Dora was to be recognized as Mt. Zion Baptist Church’s oldest congregant she died in 1972.  It is unclear how long her brother Virgil lived in Noblesville, but he was living in Indianapolis by 1907 and moved into the home on Brooker Alley in 1910.  Virgil had moved to Chicago by 1930, where he died in 1946.

The orphanage was a well-established institution by the time Price Lessenberry and his children arrived in the Circle City in 1899.  Price was born in Glasgow, Kentucky around 1860.  In 1870 he was living in the household of a White farmer, James E. Lessenberry, who probably had once enslaved Price.  Price married Annie Dorsey in Louisville in November, 1887, and the couple and their two sons—William (born 1896) and Charles (born 1890)–moved to Indianapolis in about 1898.  The family lived in a series of homes scattered throughout the near-Westside, and in 1900 they had a son Theodore and in 1905 they had a son Samuel.

This group of boy scouts posed at the Asylum around 1923 (image General Photograph Collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana State Library) (click for an expanded view).

In February, 1904 Board of Health inspector Martin Murphy visited Price and Amy Lessenberry’s home on West 11th street.  The 1904 visit to the Lessenberry’s home would normally have passed without notice, but it was reported by the Indianapolis Journal because Murphy found two of the Lessenberry children were named after Presidents: three-year-old Theodore Roosevelt Lessenberry and eight-year-old William McKinley Lessenberry.  The Lessenberrys’ Presidential monikers perhaps seemed a quaint if not surprising show of African-American patriotism in a moment of expanding racist segregation.  Yet many African Americans were deeply invested in democratic ideals, if not its everyday practice, and the Presidential names perhaps reflected the Lessenberrys’ patriotic optimism.

The Indianapolis News’ article on the Lessenberrys noted that the visit had been spurred by Theodore’s serious typhoid fever, a disease that struck many of his neighbors.  Theodore’s illness probably was especially unsettling to his parents, who had lost at least three children by 1900.  Many African-American families who migrated to Indianapolis experienced similar tragedies, but Theodore survived his 1904 illness.

In October, 1900 this newspaper photograph depicted the dining room in the orphanage (click for an expanded view).

Annie Dorsey Lessenberry died in November, 1906, and apparently the family’s fortunes declined in the wake of her death.  In June, 1907 the newly created Juvenile Court committed the three youngest Lessenberry children to the Asylum for Friendless Colored Children.  The Asylum admission records do not indicate why the children were taken, but they initially indicated they were trying to locate relatives in Kentucky; a week later Price was instructed to take his family to Louisville.  The orphanage did not take youth older than 14, and Charles was almost 17 when his three younger brothers entered the orphanage.  Charles did go to Louisville, but in 1908 Price was living just a few blocks from the orphanage where his sons continued to be held.  He married Julia Cole in May, 1909, but in 1910 his three youngest sons were three years into a term in the orphanage.

The three sons were discharged sometime after 1910.  In January, 1918 Theodore was arrested in Indianapolis for carrying a concealed weapon, but by September he was working in DuPont’s Hickory, Tennessee powder plant and living at least temporarily in the Nashville Colored YMCA.  By 1929 he had moved to Pittsburgh with his wife Anna Carr Lessenberry, but Anna died of tuberculosis in 1932.  Theodore lived in Pittsburgh until his death in 1954.  William McKinley Lessenberry was living in Indianapolis’ near-Westside in the 1920s, and he was arrested in a gambling raid on Indiana Avenue in 1929.  He was admitted to the hospital in serious condition in November, 1939, and he died in February, 1940.

Price Lessenberry’s youngest son Samuel would spend most of his life in institutions. Samuel moved in with his father sometime between 1910 and 1920, but in 1920 he became an inmate at the Indiana Farm Colony for Feeble-Minded Youth in Fort Wayne.  He probably was soon after transferred to the newly created adult facility, the Indiana Farm Colony for the Feeble-Minded in Jennings County.  The adult farm colony was created by the Legislature in 1919, and in December the state announced it had acquired 2210 acres near Butlerville for the facility.  The March, 1919 legislation approving the institution did not provide an especially clear definition of “feeble-mindededness,” but it was a commonplace period term that could refer to a very wide range of conditions classed as “mental deficiencies.”  In October, 1920 the Indianapolis News invoked the institution’s footing in eugenics theory when it indicated that “the state has a great responsibility in connection with the moron and with all other classes of feeble mindedness. Many of these mental defectives spend their lives in the communities where they were born and make no serious trouble for any one.  Lax marriage laws have permitted them to marry and reproduce their kind. … Only when a revolting crime is committed by one of them does the community become aroused.”  The News was especially eager to patrol reproduction among people classed as feeble-minded: when the farm colony opened in 1920 the paper reported that the newest state benevolent institution “will care for feebleminded more than sixteen years old of both sexes.  The cottages of the farm colony groups of the two sexes will be widely separated.  The basic purpose of the institution is to assist the inmates in maintaining themselves and to provide the custodial supervision that will prevent them from bringing children into the world.”  Samuel probably never left the institution, where he was still a patient in 1940 (by when it had been re-named the Muscatatuck Colony for the Feeble Minded).  The Muscatatuck facility was closed in 2005, but there is no record of Samuel’s death.

The silbings’ oldest brother Charles moved first to Louisville and then to Toledo, Ohio, where he was living at the outset of World War I.  Charles was drafted and served in Europe in the 807th Pioneer Infantry Regiment.  Charles died on July 4, 1939.  His widow Lucy apparently kept in touch with her husband’s brothers, and she served as the informant for the coroner at Theodore’s death in 1954.

In 1927, the orphanage had moved to the eastside at the intersection of Keystone Avenue and 25th Street (click for an expanded view).

The state had been gradually assuming stewardship of orphans, and the Quakers’ orphanage gradually was becoming an artifact of a 19th-century model for benevolent institutions.  In 1918 the New York Bureau of Municipal Research was enlisted to study Indianapolis’ charitable organizations, and their study included a survey of the Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children.  They found 115 children being held in a building that “is in bad repair throughout and … is an unfit place to house over 100 children.  The rooms … are dark and forbidding and unpleasant in every particular.”  The New York reviewers concluded that “the overcrowding of sleeping quarters is abominable and should no longer be permitted.  In one room possibly twenty feet square there were eleven beds.”  They found the “medical care and nursing care are entirely inadequate.”  The visitors were perhaps most appalled to find that “a mentally defective epileptic child was found on the floor in the nursery inclosed [sic] in a wire cage in one corner of the room.”  In 1928 the city’s African-American newspaper The Indianapolis Recorder looked back on the report, arguing “the social conscience of the people of Indianapolis was aroused from slumber by revelations of the inhuman management of children in the Colored Orphans’ Home, then situated at 21st street and Boulevard place.  The extremities to which the white management went in inflicting punishment on these unfortunate children were beyond imagination. If indisputable facts had not been presented no sane person would have given credence to the stories of brutality.”

In 1948, the former Asylum buildings built in 1870 were still in use. Today the location is under Interstate-65 (click for an expanded view).

The transition to state control began soon after the Board of Municipal Research Report, with the Friends Church formally requesting the County assume management of the Asylum in November, 1920.  In 1921 the Marion County Board of Charities recommended the County assume control of the institution.  The County formally accepted control of the Asylum in January, 1922, and it moved to a new orphanage constructed at the southeast corner of Keystone Avenue and 25th Street (since razed).  The institution eventually closed in 1939.



Girls at the Colored Orphans Home circa 1923 image, Two Babies of the Colored Orphans Home circa 1923 image, and Boy Scouts of the Colored Orphans Home circa 1923 image  from General Photograph Collection, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana State Library



Cowger, Thomas W.

1992 Custodians of Social Justice: The Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children, 1870-1922Indiana Magazine of History 88:93-110.


Ramsbottom, John D.

2015 Searching for their Real Home: Dependent Black Children in Indianapolis, 1910-40.  Traces Summer:34-43.


Spears, Jean E. and Dorothy Paul

1978 Admission Record, Indianapolis Asylum For Friendless Colored Children, 1871-1900.  Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis.