This piece was written with Alyssa Meyer and Kyle Turner
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.
Many of the residents uprooted by the establishment of Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis were distressed by the neighborhood’s displacement, and after living on California Street almost a half century the despondent George Watkins continued to visit the neighborhood. On November 6, 1977 Watkins disappeared on one of these visits after he “was last seen by his wife at about 11 p.m. when he left his home at 526 E. 22nd wearing a pair of print pajamas, a pair of dark trousers over them, gray socks, and house shoes.” An intensive search failed to find the elderly chiropractor, but in March his body was recovered in Fall Creek along Montcalm Street. The Indianapolis Recorder reported that “Dr. Watkins reportedly had been dispondent [sic] for several years since he was forced to move from his Westside home at 402 N. California, where he maintained offices for 46 years. Authorities said that he often wanted to return to his old home, non-existant [sic] today and part of the mass Indiana University-Purdue University complex.” The Indianapolis Star echoed this sentiment that “Dr. Watkins moved to Indianapolis 60 years ago and had lived in a double at 402 North California Street 46 years. … Redevelopment of the area `forced us to move, something he never got over,’ Mrs. Watkins said.”
Born in 1895, George Watkins grew up in Brazil, Indiana as one of 20 children born to Richard and Mary Watkins. Richard and Mary came to Brazil in the 1870s from Richmond, Virginia, where they likely had been enslaved in the final years of slavery. Richard became a miner in the coal mines around Brazil, and several of his sons would also work in the same mines. On Christmas Day 1901 George’s 19-year-old brother Theodore shot and killed their father, telling police that he had been defending his mother after the father assaulted his wife. Theodore escaped prosecution, and in 1910 he and George were among seven siblings still living with their mother in Brazil. In 1910, 12 of the 20 Watkins children had already died, and George’s 15-year-old brother Charley would die in 1911 of what the Brazil Daily Times reported to be an “over-indulgence in sweet apple cider.”
In about 1917 George Watkins moved to Indianapolis, where he was working as a live-in houseman for widow Catherine McGurty, who lived at 119 East 33rd Street. McGurty had herself come to Indianapolis from Brazil, where she had married Peter McGurty in 1910, so it is possible that she knew George Watkins from Brazil. Watkins served in France in World War I and returned to McGurty’s employment after the war until his marriage to Marjorie Kathryn Cook in February 1921. Marjorie was an only child of Walter and Blanche Cook. Marjorie’ s father was a guard for a Fletcher Savings and Trust armored truck for about 20 years, and his daughter Marjorie became a public school teacher in about 1919.
Advertisements in The Indianapolis News in January 1921 included a notice seeking “Colored Buyers” for a home at 402 North California that was described as an 11-room “modern” duplex, and soon afterward the newlywed Watkins were living there. George was initially working as a postal carrier, but in 1924 he had begun his life’s work as a chiropractor. George’s brother Theodore was living with George and Marjorie in 1923 and would be living just a few doors away at 412 North California Street when Theodore died in 1948. George’s youngest brother James eventually moved to Indianapolis in about 1939 and was living a few blocks from George and Marjorie when James died in 1950.
The Watkins were part of a wide range of social organizations. For instance, George and Marjorie were both active in the YMCA and YWCA respectively. They traveled to Paris for the Centennial conference of the YMCA in 1955, the same year George served as the Chair for the 1955 Senate Avenue YMCA membership campaign. A year later he led the fundraising team for a new YMCA to be built at 10th Street and Fall Creek Parkway (which opened in September 1959). Watkins was also a Prince Hall Mason and a member of the Ancient Egyptian Order, Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (often referred to as the Shriners).
One of George Watkins’ most distinctive community activities was his advocacy for an African-American baseball team. In August 1936 Watkins and Joseph Johnson joined a group at the Senate Avenue YMCA to form the new Negro American League, which would be represented by a team initially called the Indianapolis Athletics. Johnson became the first President of the Athletics in January 1937, with Hershel Ballard the Vice-President, Watkins the Secretary-Treasurer, and Earl Smith the Business Manager. When the team began play as the A’s in May 1937 its primary financiers were Johnson and Chicago entrepreneur Jesse Thornton, with staff including “Dr. G.C. Watkins. W. Elder Clay, William E. Smith, Herschel Ballard, and Luther Thornton of Chicago. The club has its legal advisor, Atty. R. L. Brokenburr who drew up the five-year partnership which has an option of continuing for another five years.” The team played a season with a record of 17-20-1 in 1937, and in August 1937 the Indianapolis A’s was incorporated “to promote interest in baseball among colored people.” The organization identified its home as 402 North California Street, with George Watkins, Joseph Johnson, and Hershel Ballard as the three founding directors. However, 1937 proved to be the Athletics’ only season.
George and Marjorie would manage a chiropractic and physiotherapy office from their California Street duplex until they were displaced in 1968, and they would continue their practice at their new home on East 22nd Street for several years afterward. Marjorie Watkins was still living on East 22nd Street in 1982 when she was struck by a car at the intersection of Washington and Meridian Streets, and she died by week’s end. By the time of George Watkins’ death in November 1977 their California Street home had been razed for an IUPUI parking lot. This week that parking lot is finally being closed for construction of a building to be known as Innovation Hall.
George Watkins’ unhappiness with being uprooted from his home of nearly a half-century was repeated scores of times across the near-Westside, just as it was repeated by countless more families displaced by postwar urban renewal projects throughout the country. Watkins’ connection to the neighborhood after most of the homes had been razed was not at all unique, but such discontent has rarely been part of the narrative of displacement in the near-Westside. In the midst of celebratory stories of the University history George and Marjorie Watkins’ stories provide a reminder of the deep roots many people had to the same landscape for more than a century.