Hidden Heritage on Martin Luther King, Jr, Street

In January, 1937 William Lane died in a hit-and-run accident in the 1000 block of North West Street (now known as Martin Luther King, Jr Street).  The 56-year old Lane had returned to his home at 1044 North West Street before realizing he had forgotten to purchase pepper. Lane headed back out to the grocery and was returning with pepper in hand when a car hit him and killed Lane instantly.

A 2016 Google image of the 1000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Street (click for a larger view). The building on the left of the image is Dunbar Court Apartments, which opened in March, 1922 and erased three of the four building once on the west side of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street, now known as North West Street.

A 2016 Google image of the 1000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Street (click for a larger view). The building on the left of the image is Dunbar Court Apartments, which opened in 1922 and erased three of the four building once on the west side of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street, now known as North West Street.

Nobody who is familiar with this stretch of road today would be surprised at the lethality of that streetscape.  The once-settled neighborhood is now a confluence of interstate off-ramps built in the 1960s that empty onto constantly re-engineered streets that struggle to accommodate busy traffic.  Once part of a walkable neighborhood of homes, stores, churches, and schools, the 1000 block of MLK Street now seems designed simply to serve cars.  Not much more than a dirt path in the mid-19th century, the block is now a mostly invisible space on the way to and from state government complexes, the Indiana University Medical Center, and IUPUI.

When William Lane died the neighborhood along MLK Street was a central but more modestly trafficked thoroughfare sitting just south of Crispus Attucks High School.  William and Virginia Lane’s home still sits at the corner of North West and 11th Streets, now known as Martin Luther King Jr Street and Oscar Robertson Boulevard respectively.  Many of the surrounding homes were removed by urban renewal projects and interstate construction that began after World War II, but the Lanes’ home has been spared in part because it is now part of the Ransom Place Conservation District.  Yet few of the thousands of people driving by the house each day likely notice the homes that tenaciously hang on in the 1000 block of Martin Luther King, Jr. Street. Continue reading

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Forgotten Memorials and Ignored Tragedy: Inside Memorial Grove

A circa 1860-1865 image of Lew Wallace (from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).

A circa 1860-1865 image of Lew Wallace (from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).

In the woods north of Indianapolis Parks’ Municipal Gardens sits a modest memorial to the 11th Indiana Volunteer Regiment.  The memorial to the Union regiment and its original leader—Lew Wallace, best known as the author of Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ—was unveiled at the site of the former Camp Robinson in September, 1914.  Forty-two surviving members of the regiment attended the unveiling at the site where they had originally camped in 1861 before going to the front.  Today the 11th Regiment monument is hidden in woods known as the Memorial Grove, and very few people visit the Riverside Park site overlooking the White River or even know it exists (for details, see Ryan Hamlett’s 2013 Historic Indianapolis discussion of the 11th Regiment monument).

In this 2015 Google image aerial view Memorial Grove at the intersection of Cold Springs Road and Lafayette Road, just north of the Indianapolis Parks Building known as now as Municipal Gardens.

In this 2015 Google image aerial view Memorial Grove is the woods at the intersection of Cold Springs Road and Lafayette Road, just north of the Indianapolis Parks Building now known as Municipal Gardens.

The woods surrounding the 11th Regiment memorial conceal an even more unsettling and unknown story ignored for nearly a century.  Almost eight years after the monument was unveiled the body of George Tompkins was found in the surrounding woods.  Tompkins was among the African Americans who migrated to Indianapolis from the South, probably leaving Frankfort, Kentucky around 1920.  In 1910 Tompkins was living with his uncle and aunt Robert and Fannie Smith in Frankfort, where the eight-year-old was in school.  Tompkins apparently was raised by the Smiths since infancy, and he was living with them in Frankfort as late as 1917.

The Smiths came to Indianapolis after World War I and were living on Colton Street on the present-day IUPUI campus in 1920.  They had moved a few blocks away to Holborn Street not long before their nephew’s death.  After Tompkins’ death the Smiths told the Indianapolis News that they had raised him since he was nine months old and his mother had been dead for “many years.”  Tompkins had been working at the Fairmount Glass Works until two weeks before his death; an official at the glass factory told the newspaper that Tompkins had quit after receiving word from Kentucky that his mother was gravely ill and he was going south to visit her.

The March 17, 1922 Indianapolis Star initially proclaimed the death of George Tompkins a lynching in this headline.

The March 17, 1922 Indianapolis Star initially proclaimed the death of George Tompkins a lynching in this headline.

On Thursday March 16, 1922 Tompkins left the Smiths’ home on Holborn Street, and at noon his “still warm” body was found in the woods near the 11th Regiment Memorial.  The Indianapolis News reported that Tompkins “was suspended from a tree by a rope around his neck and with his hands tied behind him” with a handkerchief.  Police believed that Tompkins had been murdered elsewhere and then moved to the woods in Riverside Park, where his body had been hung.  The body was covered with dirt, suggesting Tompkins had been dragged by the taut rope, but detectives on the scene included a contingent that championed the theory that Tompkins’ death was a suicide.  Proponents of that suicide theory believed Tompkins “may have looped the handkerchief around one wrist and tied the knot in it before strangling himself.

Two days after Tompkins' death the Indianapolis coroner's office ruled his death was a suicide.

Two days after Tompkins’ death the Indianapolis coroner’s office ruled his death was a suicide.

The city’s Coroner concluded on the scene that Tompkins had been murdered, but early 20th-century officials were reluctant to label African American deaths as lynchings, especially within the city limits.  Surviving descriptions of the scene are not especially detailed, and perhaps Tompkins had not been strangled at the scene or died as a result of hanging in the Riverside woods.  However, lynching scenes routinely were mined for souvenirs, including rope, bonfires, trees, and even victims’ bodies, and there is a suggestive hint that this might have opened in the woods along Cold Springs Road: the Indianapolis News observed in passing that “four or five of the small limbs on the side of the tree on which the body was found had been cut off apparently with a small pen knife.”  Harvey Young has detailed how many lynching scenes were dismembered by souvenir hunters.  Indiana’s most infamous lynching of two men in Marion, Indiana in August, 1930 was chronicled with a shocking photograph of the two lifeless victims, and two women in the foreground appear to be holding swatches of fabric that probably were keepsakes torn from the victims’ bodies.

Tompkins’ body was autopsied on March 18th by Deputy Coroner George R. Christian, and the death certificate identified the place of death as “Robinson’s Camp,” referring to Camp Robinson.  The cause of death was ruled to be “strangulation by hanging from neck.”  However, Christian’s surprising verdict was the death was a suicide.  Like so many African-American deaths in 20th-century Indianapolis, Tompkins’ death was quickly ignored, with not a word about the case again appearing in the local White press after March 17th (unfortunately, the city’s African-American newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder, does not have surviving copies from this period).  Tompkins was laid to rest in Floral Park Cemetery.

George Tompkins’ death has been submerged in a commonplace historical amnesia about racist violence, ironically effaced in the same woods where some of the soldiers who had fought for Black freedom have also been forgotten.  Such landscapes of racist violence have been similarly effaced throughout the country, and perhaps a memorial to Tompkins risks being forgotten as the nearby 11th Regiment memorial has been.  Nevertheless,reviving the memory of George Tompkins’ tragic death hopefully contributes to a discussion that dignifies his life and acknowledges a shameful history.

 

References

Dora Apel
2004 Imagery of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob.  Rutgers University Press, Piscataway, New Jersey.

 

James M. Davidson and Edward Gonzalez-Tennant

2008 A Potential Archaeology of Rosewood, Florida: The Process of Remembering a Community and a TragedyThe SAA Archaeological Record 8(1):13-16.

 

Jacqueline Goldsby

2006 A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

 

James H. Madison

2001 A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America.  Palgrave McMillan, New York.

 

Stewart Emory Tolnay, E. M. Beck

1995 A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930.  University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

 

Harvey Young

2005 The Black Body as Souvenir in American LynchingTheatre Journal 57:639–657.

 

Image

Matthew Brady image of Lew Wallace from U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The Landscapes of Chinese Immigration in the Circle City

In 2008 Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard suggested that the Circle City build a Chinatown to celebrate the “cultural flavor of Indianapolis” and “showcase its diversity.”  Ballard’s proposal was an unfunded musing that was not especially focused on celebrating Chinese culture; the Mayor was instead aspiring to craft a tourist-friendly Chinese district in reach of downtown on the city’s near-Southside.  Nothing has ever come of Ballard’s idea, and perhaps it is because the city has no historically Chinese neighborhood and has been the home to relatively few Chinese immigrants.  In 1880—on the eve of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first of a series of laws strictly regulating overseas Chinese immigration—Indianapolis had just 14 residents who were born in China to Chinese parents; in 1910 that population swelled to 43 residents, in 1930 it was 39, and in 1940 it was 20.  Nevertheless, some Chinese immigrants did come to Indianapolis, and they and their families were part of city affairs throughout the early 20th century.

In the 19th century segregated Chinese communities emerged throughout much of the West.  The earliest of these communities were based in Gold Rush and railroad centers like San Francisco, and these Chinese neighborhoods were often referred to as “Chinatowns.”   Cities like Chicago and Detroit had similar communities emerge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Chinese immigrants went eastward searching for new social and economic opportunities or simply fleeing West coast xenophobia.

E Lung's North Delaware Street laundry and home appeared in the 1898 Sanborn insurance map.

E Lung’s North Delaware Street laundry and home appeared in the 1898 Sanborn insurance map (click for expanded image).

Nearly all of the earliest Chinese immigrants to Indianapolis ran laundries, a pattern that was typical of Chinese laborers throughout the US well into the 20th century.  Wah Lee’s laundry on South Illinois Street was probably the first Chinese laundry in Indianapolis, opening in May 1873 (and receiving a fine in August for constructing a wooden building in violation of the city’s fire code).  In the 1874 city directory, two of the four laundries in the directory were Chinese managed, including Wah Lee’s laundry and Sang Lee’s laundry on Virginia Avenue. Continue reading

The Last Holdouts: Community Displacement and Urban Renewal on the IUPUI Campus

In April, 1980 the home at 725 West vermont Street sat in the center of this picture of the IUPUI campus. 311 Bright Street stood just to its south at the right side of the image (click for larger image).

In April, 1980 the home at 725 West vermont Street sat in the center of this picture of the IUPUI campus. 311 Bright Street stood just to its south at the right side of the image (click for larger image).

In 1874 the first residents moved into 311 Bright Street in Indianapolis’ near-Westside.  The modest frame house sat in the midst of a neighborhood that rapidly emerged after the Civil War.  It sat across the street from Garden Baptist Church, which opened in 1872, alongside 36 houses in the two blocks between New York and Michigan Streets.

The same year the house was built on Bright Street Ira Johnson was born in Cassville, Georgia.  Johnson, his wife Lillian, and their 13 children worked on farms in and around Bartow County, Georgia for more than 50 years.  Lillian died in 1923, and in about 1930 Ira Johnson moved to Indianapolis.  In 1944–75 years after the home at 311 Bright Street was built–Johnson moved into it.

By the time of his death in December, 1974, the 100-year-old Johnson was one of the last residents of Bright Street.  The neighborhood had been depopulated after 1960 by Indiana University as it acquired the property that eventually became the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). Continue reading

Cycling and Racism in Early 20th-Century Indianapolis

Jeremy Lahey and Paul R. Mullins 

AJuly 2, 1898 ad in the Indianapolis News hailed the opening of the Newby Oval velodrome.

A July 2, 1898 ad in the Indianapolis News hailed the opening of the Newby Oval velodrome (click on thumbnail for larger image).

Bicycling captured the national imagination in the late-19th century, and Indianapolis residents were among the scores of Americans who embraced bicycling for transportation, recreation, and sport.  By 1896 bicycling was sufficiently popular in Indianapolis that the Indianapolis News predicted the city would have “over fifteen thousand wheelmen and wheelwomen” that summer.  A year later the paper reported that the canal towpath was clogged on weekends with recreational cyclists riding from the city to Fairview Park and Broad Ripple.  While many Americans took to bikes for recreational riding, a bike race was held at the State Fair in 1881, and by the 1890s bike races were a staple of the local sports pages.  In 1898, Arthur Newby opened a velodrome on Central Avenue known as Newby Oval, where the League of American Wheelmen held their state championships in 1898. Continue reading

Remembering Captivity at the Alpha Home for Aged Colored Women

An 1892 Indianapolis News image of the Alpha Home for Aged Color Women, when it was located on Darwin Street.

An 1892 Indianapolis News image of the Alpha Home for Aged Color Women, when it was located on Darwin Street.

In May, 1887 an Indianapolis News reporter toured the Alpha Home for Aged Colored Women, which had opened a year earlier in a home on Darwin Street “for the purpose of providing a home for indigent and aged colored women.”  The Alpha Home was among a host of Progressive social service institutions that emerged in late-19th century communities to serve impoverished families, parentless children, and destitute elders.  The most vulnerable new Hoosiers after the Civil War included African-American elders who often were unable to work, had no surviving family, and lacked any medical care at all.  Unlike many of its peer social agencies run by churches, hospitals, social groups, and in some cases the state, Alpha Home was founded and long managed by African-American women to care for their most elderly neighbors who had survived captivity, and Alpha Home’s residents provide a unique voice for more than a century of African-American life.

In July, 1886 the Indianapolis News reported on the opening of the Alpha Home (click for an expanded view).

In July, 1886 the Indianapolis News reported on the opening of the Alpha Home (click for an expanded view).

The new Alpha Home care facility was dedicated July 6, 1886, “in Fletcher’s Oak Hill addition, and the house, which Mrs. Merritt had built, will accommodate seven or eight persons and is well arranged.”  The home on Darwin Street was donated by Paulina McClung Merritt, whose husband George managed the George Merritt and Company wool mill.  The New York-born Quaker was closely linked to post-war philanthropy in the Circle City: after the Civil War, Merritt improved the former muster grounds now known as Military Park, he served on the Indiana Sanitary Commission, and he was instrumental in the establishment of the State Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home in Knightstown, Indiana.

In March, 1900 this image of the Alpha Home facility on Darwin Street appeared in the Indianapolis News.

In March, 1900 this image of the Alpha Home facility on Darwin Street appeared in the Indianapolis News.

Merritt’s wife was an active philanthropist as well.  She apparently was enlisted to support the Alpha Home cause by Eliza Goff, a former captive who was “for years a servant of Mrs. Merritt, the donor of the home.”  Goff formed the initial Alpha Home association in 1879, and “after many years of discouragement” Merritt purchased a lot and contributed the new building in 1886.  A year after it opened the Indianapolis News reporter waxed poetic about the home, indicating that the “place is so located as to catch all the sunshine, and has a pleasant, home-like appearance. On either side of the walk leading to the door are flower beds, and the yard is clean and well kept. … The room was neatly carpeted and famished.  Over the mantel hung a steel engraving of Abraham Lincoln and a likeness of General Grant in colors.” Continue reading

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.” Continue reading

Sewers and Outhouses in the 20th Century Near-Westside

Howard Fieber's September, 1941 photograph of the two-story outhouse in the lot at 458-460 Agnes Street. The outhouse sat where the Campus Center's book store is today (click image for larger version).

Howard Fieber’s September, 1941 photograph of the two-story outhouse in the lot at 458-460 Agnes Street. The outhouse sat where the Campus Center’s book store is today (click image for larger version).

In September, 1941 Indianapolis realtor Howard Fieber photographed a distinctive tower in the back yard of the home at 458-460 Agnes Street.  The block is today occupied by the IUPUI Campus Center, and the street is now known as University Boulevard.  Fieber’s picture has often been the source of curiosity, depicting an unusual and somewhat ingenious two-story outhouse that was built around 1913.  Outhouses covered the 19th and 20th-century landscape in the years leading up to modern sewers, but this was almost certainly the city’s only two-story outhouse.  The two-story toilet is indeed fascinating, but it also reveals how many Indianapolis neighborhoods were denied modern utility services for a century.

The outhouse had probably not been in use long when it appeared in this 1914 Sanborn Insurance company map (click for larger version).

The outhouse had probably not been in use long when it appeared in this 1914 Sanborn Insurance company map (click for larger version).

The first residents moved into 458-460 Agnes Street in 1875, and for about 35 years the owners of the home dug conventional outhouses in the back yard.  Outhouses were typically simple holes dug in residential back yards and lined with barrels.  However, by the late-19th century the ill effects of outdoor toilets were well-known and most cities embarked on sanitary reforms (compare an 1881 discussion of sanitation and typhoid in Indianapolis).  Indianapolis developed its first privy ordinances in 1873 regulating construction, privy cleaning, and odor control, and most of these codes continued to be in effect into the 20th century. Continue reading

Maintaining Affluence: Service Labor among Indianapolis’ Elite

Throughout the 20th century the exclusive residential community of Crows Nest was home to some of Indianapolis’ most prominent families.  Not surprisingly, narratives of the neighborhood have focused on the neighborhood’s opulent homes and the famous families who have called it home for a century.  Yet the mansions and formal landscapes in Crows Nest demanded a significant service labor staff of cooks, butlers, chauffeurs, gardeners, and housekeepers who maintained the literal appearances of affluence and managed a unique social and material world for the city’s elite.  While we know quite a lot about Crows Nest’s home owners, architects, and landscape designers, we know nearly nothing about the service laborers who made Crows Nest and maintained it and many other affluent neighborhoods.

Built in 1930, Eli Lilly's Sunset lane estate was mdoeled on his grandfather's Maryland plantation (image courtesy Nyttend, wikimedia).

Built in 1930, Eli Lilly’s Sunset lane estate was modeled on his grandfather’s Maryland plantation (image courtesy Nyttend, wikimedia).

Until the early 20th century, Crows Nest lay in a scatter of farms along present-day Kessler Boulevard west of the White River.  In the late 19th century urbanites sometimes swam and relaxed along the White River banks near Crows Nest, but the area and the Crows Nest bluff was sparsely inhabited farmland (and a small cemetery from that period still survives today).  In 1904-1905 the first estate in the area was built by Indianapolis Brewing Company President Albert Lieber.  In 1910 Dr. Albert Cole and his wife Ruth moved into a home at 5801 Sunset Lane, and they were followed by Warren H. and Jane Simmons in 1914. Continue reading

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. Continue reading