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.

Sources

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.

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