In the 1930s some African-American Hoosiers helped to establish a completely new form of Islamic religion. The Moorish Science Temple of America (MST) was one of many new religious movements of the interwar period. Begun in 1920s Chicago by Timothy Drew, who became known as Noble Drew Ali, the MST called on African Americans to have pride in themselves, advocated for equal rights, and preached the values of hard work and self-reliance. Noble Drew Ali taught that African Americans had forgotten their true heritage as followers of Islam. According to him, they had also forgotten their true racial and national identities. There was no such thing as a Black race, Ali proclaimed, insisting instead that African Americans were part of the Asian race. He said that their true national origins were Moorish–from Morocco. As Moors and Asians, he declared, they should abandon Christianity, which he said was the natural religion of White people, and re-claim the religion of Islam, which he defined as the natural religion for all non-white people. Believing that African Americans had adopted incorrect and ultimately harmful ideas about who they were, Ali was calling for nothing less than a wholesale change in black identity. Continue reading
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). Continue reading
In January 1886 the Indianapolis News mourned the loss of the final tree from the “dense forest that once filled Pogue’s Creek bottom … on the bank of the new cut on Morris street.” While trees had long been removed from the city’s original Mile Square, “south of the old boundary of South street … the woods maintained their primeval density.” After Europeans arrived in Indianapolis, that forest on Indianapolis’ near-Southside was punctuated by a scatter of small farms and pastures. These included a hemp farm managed by of one of Indianapolis’ first European settlers, Nicholas McCarty. McCarty opened one of the city’s first general stores in 1823, and around 1840 his entrepreneurial ventures included “a hemp mill and rotting vats—just south of Ray street.”
By the time the final tree fell on the near-Southside in 1886, businesses, workplaces, and homes lined South Meridian Street and side streets like Ray Street, where McCarty’s hemp mill once stood. In 1855 South Meridian (initially referred to as Bluff Road) was a dirt road that extended south from McCarty Street (Bluff Road today refers to the street that extends southwest off South Meridian near Adler). In 1858 present-day South Meridian was graded and graveled, and a scatter of new residents, stores, and workplaces soon occupied the street extending south from McCarty Street. Continue reading
As inmates entered the Marion County Workhouse, a sign sounded the Biblical warning that “The Way of the Transgressor is Hard.” Indianapolis’ workhouse opened in 1885 with a philosophy that hard labor was the path to rehabilitation. Most inmates pulverized a massive rock pile producing gravel for local roadways, but inmates also worked a large garden and maintained the workhouse as cooks, janitors, barbers, and laundresses. The facility at the corner of 21st and North West Streets (the latter now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Street) was part of a complex landscape of incarceration in turn-of-the-century Indianapolis in which discipline was imposed by a network of orphanages, jails, asylums, and a poorhouse.
The workhouse was intended to house inmates who were convicted of modest crimes and had received short sentences. In the years after the Civil War, Indianapolis’ workhouse proponents lamented that such petty criminals were prone to vagrancy, fueling a persistent “tramp problem.” In 1875, for instance, the Indianapolis News argued that the “necessity of a work-house is too apparent to require enlarging upon. The vagrants who loaf about the streets and saloons, the tramps who beg from house to house and watch an opportunity to steal, the drunken creatures who are brought into court daily, the able-bodied gamblers who range the streets and public resorts in search of victims or who hide in their dens until the chance to rob comes; these, and all the worthless and vicious who prey upon society, shall find a place in the work-house.” In December, 1883 the News lamented that the County jail was over-crowded with “professional loafers or tramps” who “come here in winter from all quarters, for the reason that they know they will be sheltered at the expense of the state, and can not be made to work.” Continue reading
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.
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
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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 Tragedy. The SAA Archaeological Record 8(1):13-16.
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.
2005 The Black Body as Souvenir in American Lynching. Theatre Journal 57:639–657.
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.
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
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
Jeremy Lahey and Paul R. Mullins
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
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.
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.
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