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