The Landscapes of Wes Montgomery

The 1860 Census Slave Schedule inventory of William Montgomery’s captives included the 25-year-old man on line four who was about the age of Green Montgomery (click for a larger image).

On August 13, 1867 Green Montgomery swore an oath of allegiance to the United States, which made him eligible to vote in Floyd County, Georgia. Montgomery had been enslaved in Floyd County, probably since his birth around 1836, and his ascent from property to voting citizen was repeated scores of times throughout the South. Numerous Indianapolis families traced their roots to ancestors like Green and his wife Adaline, who may only have been distinguished by their famous descendant, great-grandson John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery. Wes Montgomery was among the 20th century’s most prominent jazz musicians, but of course the story of Montgomery and his fellow performers reaches beyond music alone, and much of Wes Montgomery’s story mirrors familiar African-American migration patterns, employment inequalities, and urban displacement. Inevitably Wes Montgomery’s biography revolves around music, but it is impossible to understand African-American expressive culture without examining the history of families like the Montgomerys.

Embed from Getty Images

Above: The Montgomery brothers (from left, Wes, Monk, and Buddy) circa 1962 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images).

In 1860 William Montgomery owned 40 captives housed in six structures on his Floyd County plantation, and one was a 25-year-old man who was quite likely Green Montgomery. Born in South Carolina in 1783, William Montgomery moved to Georgia in the early 1830s, and in 1840 he was living in Floyd County and holding 27 captives. Green Montgomery was one of those slaves at the time Emancipation arrived, if he had not been Montgomery’s captive since birth. Like many newly freed captives, Green initially continued to farm alongside his former owner. Wes Montgomery’s ancestors on his mother’s side were also farmers in northwest Georgia in the post-Civil War period, and they would all follow a common pattern of moving first to regional urban centers and eventually migrating north.

In 1900 Wes Montgomery’s parents Thomas Montgomery and Eufala Blackman (who went by Frances) were living about 16 miles apart in Cave Spring and Rome Georgia, respectively. Thomas appeared in the 1900 census as a 10-year-old, though various primary records recorded his birth year as anywhere between 1887 and 1894; Frances was just a year removed from her birth in March, 1899. Frances’ widowed mother Henrietta, three sisters, and a brother moved to the county seat of Rome by 1900, where Green Montgomery and his wife Anna were living at 27 Wimpee Street by 1910; Thomas Montgomery and his father Craig were living on Freeman’s Ferry Road in 1910 and moved to 201 Hardy Avenue Rome sometime between 1913 and 1916. In 1916 Henrietta Blackman and her daughter were living at 20 Wimpee Street, just a few doors away from Green Montgomery.

In about 1917 Wes’ father Thomas was probably the first of his family and future in-laws to migrate to Indianapolis. It is unclear specifically why Thomas went to Indianapolis, but he may have gone for labor opportunities in the Haughville neighborhood on the city’s west side. He secured work on the eve of the war at National Malleable and Steel Casting, one of several Haughville ironworks. In June, 1882 a company owning ironworks in Cleveland and Chicago purchased Indianapolis’ Johnson Malleable Iron Company (incorporated in 1880) and renamed it Indianapolis Malleable Iron Company, subsequently incorporating in 1890 as National Malleable and Steel Casting Company.

The Haughville factory employed a broad range of White Hoosiers, European immigrants (especially Slovenians), and African Americans until its closing in 1962, but it had a history of color line tensions. In October, 1901, for instance, a circle of White laborers in the factory went on strike against continued employment of Black laborers after the death of a White laborer was blamed on an African American. The Indianapolis News suggested that “racial prejudice has been apparent at the plant for some time,” concluding that existing tension had been amplified by the shooting. On November 8th the White strikers abandoned their cause and returned to the Haughville factory, and the assailant was found guilty and received a life sentence at trial at the end of November. A year later the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette reported on a “race riot” in Haughville between “200 negroes and whites employed by the National Malleable Casting Co. There has been bitter race feeling between them for several years and trouble has frequently broken out.”

Thomas Montgomery first settled at 1030 North Traub Avenue before he was drafted, and he served from April to July, 1918 in Kentucky. Frances’ mother Henrietta was living just down the street at 1054 North Traub in 1918, and her brother Frank was working in the foundry. Frances must have joined them, because on March 8, 1919 she and Thomas were married in Indianapolis. The newlyweds were living on 1002 North Pershing Avenue on the near-Westside in 1920, and after his military service Thomas returned to work just blocks away at Malleable Castings; his second son William Howard’s 1921 birth certificate identified his occupation as “ash shoveler.” They would move to 1116 North Miley in 1925. The couple’s first child Thomas Montgomery Jr. was born in January, 1920, followed by William Howard (“Monk”) in October, 1921; John Leslie (“Wes”) in March, 1923; Charity Frances in June 1925 (she would die in infancy); Ervena Marie in August, 1927; and Charles (“Buddy”) in 1930.

The first evidence of the Montgomery household’s musicality came in 1926, when the Indianapolis Recorder’s Malleable Castings news column noted that “The Blackburn Quartette met at the home of Tom Montgomery Saturday night for rehearsal. The quartet is making a specialty of folk songs.” The composition of the group is unknown, but it may have been led by an Indianapolis musician named Maurice Blackburn, who lived on West 12th Street in 1926; Blackburn moved to Chicago in about 1928, where he played before moving to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was playing in an orchestra in 1930.

Much of the lore that Wes Montgomery and his brothers were untutored musicians risks ignoring the ways music shaped the siblings’ childhood. In 1997 Buddy Montgomery was interviewed by Ted Panken and remembered that “there was music in my soul from the time I was born. My folks weren’t musicians, but they were singers and…you know, they were church people. When I say `music in my soul,’ that’s what I meant, because there has always been music in my family.” Wes Montgomery histories often suggest that Montgomery simply picked up a guitar in about 1943 for the first time, and that was indeed his introduction to electric guitar, but Wes had been given a four-string tenor guitar (probably by his brother Monk) and was playing it as early as 1934 or 1935. Wes Montgomery himself contributed to this image, saying in 1963 that “I can’t read music, I never studied music. Technically I don’t know what I’m doing. You know, I never took guitar lessons. I never was taught how to play the instrument. I just picked it up by listening to records and then figuring things out by myself.”

The Montgomerys were living on North Miley Street in April, 1930 when the census keeper visited, and the neighborhood was universally Black. Most of the neighboring men were working in a foundry, and like Thomas Montgomery it was in most cases certainly Malleable Castings; the remainder were likewise in factory labor (e.g., one neighbor was a “hog killer” in the Kingan and Company Pork and Beef Packers plant).

The Montgomery’s youngest son and last child Charles (“Buddy”) was just two months old when the census keeper visited, but within the next year Thomas and Frances separated. In 1931, Frances was living with her mother Henrietta Blackman at 1050 North Sheffield, which was in Haughville only a few blocks from the Montgomerys’ former home on Miley Street. Ervena Marie Montgomery was living with her mother and brother Buddy through the 1930s and 1940s, when they lived at several different addresses in Haughville. Frances married a foundry worker, Lavester Arrington, in October, 1939.

After separating from his wife Thomas Montgomery moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he first appeared in the city directory in 1932 living at 186 St. Clair Avenue, and he was accompanied by his three oldest sons Thomas Jr., William (Monk), and John (Wes). The boys’ father Thomas Sr. worked into the mid-1950s as a truck driver for a local produce firm. Wes’ grandmother Henrietta (that is, Frances’ mother) died in Indianapolis in 1938, and his oldest brother Thomas died in about 1939. When the census taker came to Thomas Montgomery’s home at 497 Grove Street in Columbus in 1940, Monk was a salesman in a coal yard who was recorded as having completed eight grade; Wes was in school and had completed seventh grade.

Wes Montgomery was recorded by a Columbus census enumerator on April 10, 1940, and he returned to Indianapolis afterward in 1940, where he was almost certainly living with his mother. In 1943 the Indianapolis city directory included a John W. Montgomery living at 1102 North Pershing—probably the initial W was for Wes, since this was the same address as Wes’ mother and her husband Lavester Arrington—and Wes was working at Enterprise Iron and Fence Company, an East 24th Street foundry established in 1883.

In 1950 Wes and Serene Montgomery, his mother Frances and her husband Lavester, and Wes’ sister Lavena and his brother Buddy were all living at 1217 Cornell Street (at the black arrow).

In February 1943 Wes married Serene Miles, who was born in Canton Mississippi in about 1924. Serene and her parents had moved to Indianapolis from Mississippi in 1939, and in 1940 they were living at 320 Blake Street. Wes and Serene first moved in with Frances and Lavester Arrington in Haughville, and they moved to the east side on 1217 Cornell Street in about 1946 (now under the North Split “mixing bowl” interchange of Interstates 65 and 70). Wes’ sister Ervena was living at Cornell Avenue when she graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in 1947. The two-story home at 1217 Cornell was subdivided, and Wes, Serene, and their children were sometimes listed as living in 1217 ½ Cornell Street. The Arrington and Montgomery home backed onto the railway lines for the Chicago, Indianapolis, and Louisville Railway (also known as the Monon Railroad) in an area of modest residential homes alongside scattered warehouses and coal and lumber yards using the railroad connection. In 1947 Wes Montgomery was sharing a home with Frances Arrington at 1217 ½ Cornell Street. Buddy and Ervena were also sharing the home with Wes’ family, their mother, and Lavester Arrington, who was working at National Malleable. Frances Arrington was living at 1217 Cornell Street when she died in May, 1950.

Wes Montgomery said in 1961 that he took up guitar when he was 19 years old, saying he first began to play six-string electric guitar “right after I got married” (i.e., February 1943). In 1967 he remembered that “I was 19, had just gotten married and was working as a welder in Indianapolis when I decided to buy a guitar.” Montgomery was largely a self-taught guitarist, but he later indicated that “there was a cat in Indianapolis named Alex Stevens [sic]. He played guitar, and he was about the toughest cat I heard around our vicinity, and I tried to get him to show me a few things.” That was Alec C. Stephens, who was born in Indianapolis in 1922 and played the celebrated Sunset Terrace in March 1940. He performed in Florida for much of the 1950s and was still playing at his death in 1988.

On July 22, 1944 Ruby Shelton’s newly opened 440 Club advertised for local talent, and Wes Montgomery was one of the local musicians who subsequently performed at the club.

Wes Montgomery’s first public performances came at the 440 Club at 440 Indiana Avenue. Montgomery remembered in a 1961 interview that he began playing solos by Charlie Christian around 1943, and “about six or eight months after I started playing I had taken all the solos off the record and got a job in a club just playing them. I’d play Charlie Christian’s solos, then lay out. Then a cat heard me and hired me for the Club 440.” That cat may have been Millard (Mel) Lee, who led the 440 Club band; however, it also could have been Ruby Shelton, who managed the 440 Club, or Toots Hoy, who played at the club and did much of the 440 Club booking. Ruben Byron “Ruby” Shelton was a fixture of the Avenue landscape, a ragtime pianist, vaudeville performer, and club manager for 60 years. Born in Indianapolis in 1879, Shelton began to play with the Tennessee Warblers traveling show by 1892 and partnered with Indianapolis’ Harry Fidler around 1907, with The San Francisco Call concluding in 1912 that “of all the colored comedians appearing in vaudeville, Harry Fidler and Byron Shelton are the most original and popular.”

In November 1944 the Rhumboogie Club featured Four Kings and a Jack, which included Wes Montgomery.

In June, 1944 Shelton opened the 440 Club with Palmer Richardson, for whom Shelton managed the P and P Club (i.e., Popularity and Pleasure). A month after his 440 Club opened Shelton began advertising in The Indianapolis Recorder, indicating “talent wanted” for the Club; Montgomery probably played Shelton’s club sometime in summer 1944. Montgomery was playing with some local bands very soon afterward. In August 1950 the Indianapolis Recorder noted that at the outset of his career “Wes played with the Four Kings and A. Jack.” In September 1944 Four Kings and a Jack played a show at the Camp Atterbury military base south of Indianapolis, and the band included “Carl Maynard, Jack Bridges, Emerson Senora, Wm. Cox and Wesley Montgomery.” In November 1944 the band played the Rhumboogie club at 536 ½ Indiana Avenue, and an advertisement for the band’s show has a band picture that may include Wes Montgomery. Montgomery subsequently was playing a host of other clubs such as the Ritz, where he met Jimmy Coe in 1945. The Ritz opened in 1944 at the corner of Indiana and Senate Avenues until it moved to 2648 North Harding Street in November 1957.

On January 5, 1946 The Indianapolis Recorder contained this ad for William Benbow’s “All-American Brownskin Models,” who toured with Millard Lee’s band, which probably included Wes Montgomery.

Montgomery told DownBeat’s Ralph Gleason in 1961 that he first toured with the Brownskin Models and then Snookum Russell. Various versions of the Brownskin Models Revue had been touring since 1925 as a musical troupe featuring dancing, comedy, music, and beautiful African-American women. The Brownskin Models appeared at Indianapolis’ Tomlinson Hall in September, 1945, but Indianapolis vaudeville veteran William Benbow launched his own version of the “All American Brownskin Models” show beginning in January, 1946. It seems likely that Montgomery traveled with Benbow’s show, because he told Ralph Gleason in 1961 that he had been playing in Indianapolis with “Mel Lee—he’s the piano player for B.B. King,” and Millard Lee led Benbow’s Brownskin Models band (and did later play with B.B. King). Isaac “Snookum” Russell toured nearly continuously from 1934 onward, often playing Indianapolis venues including the Sunset Terrace, the Indiana Avenue home to the Ferguson Brothers Agency that managed Russell beginning in about 1941. His band appeared at Tomlinson Hall with the King Cole Trio in 1946 and toured in 1946 and 1947, when Montgomery probably played some dates with Russell.

In May 1948 Wes was invited to tour with Lionel Hampton, a tour that would have taken Montgomery through much of the South in Fall 1948, and Wes continued to play with Hampton through 1950. In 1949 the Indianapolis city directory listed Wes as head of household at 1217 ½ Cornell, and he returned from touring with the Hampton band in January, 1950. From about 1951 to 1956 he was working at P.R. Mallory and Company, a battery and electric component producer, where he was a cafeteria worker in 1951 and a “store keeper” in 1954. In 1957-1958 he was working for Indianapolis’ Polk’s Dairy, which was just a few blocks away on 16th Street. In 1959 Wes appeared in the city directory as a musician for the first time.

During the 1950s Montgomery and his brothers played numerous Indianapolis venues ranging from Indiana Avenue clubs to more unconventional performance spaces. In September, 1950, for instance, they and drummer Willis Kirk headlined a Be Bop Society concert at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, and in July 1952 they played Central State Hospital. The Indianapolis News’ Charlie Davis reported that the YWCA benefit featured the “Montgomery Quartet, as hot an outfit as these parts have seen in many a moon.” The brothers played with a wide range of different lineups. In November, 1957, for instance, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that the brothers were playing with Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson: “Montgomery Johnson, four all stars, are playing six nites a week at the Tropic Club. Believe it or not, the cats are wailing without a piano, and they really sound good.” Johnson was born in 1927, the son of musician James Dupee, and Pookie honed his craft in the Crispus Attucks music program. Johnson told Lissa Fleming May in 2003 that he first heard Wes Montgomery play in 1944 at the 440 Club, and he would play with the Montgomerys and various other musicians between about 1950 and 1956. Johnson and Monk Montgomery played with drummer Sonny Johnson’s band at the Turf Club in 1954, and the Montgomerys and Johnson played several long engagements at the Turf Club in the late 1950s.

Both Monk and Buddy were accomplished musicians, playing together as well as in other bands throughout the postwar period. Monk Montgomery had played with the Be Bop Society in September, 1948 (a band that included his brother Buddy and Wes’ mentor Alec Stephens) and again in a series of January 1949 “Jazz at the Auditorium” shows. In January 1949 Monk was playing an extended engagement at the Tropic Club at 2039 East 10th Street, where he was apparently one of two Black musicians in the club’s orchestra in August 1952 (In March 1954 Wes would also play the Tropic Club).

Like Wes several years earlier, Monk began to tour with Lionel Hampton beginning in January 1953, and during that tour Monk began to experiment with the electric bass. Monk became famed for being an innovator on the electric bass, but for those with subscription access, Brian F. Wright’s paper on Montgomery and the adoption of the electric bass paints a fascinating picture of Montgomery’s reluctance to begin playing the newly introduced electric bass when he joined Hampton’s band. Hampton’s band may have been playing the Fender Precision Bass as early as December 1951, when an Iowa paper described the band’s “very low pitched bass guitar”; in May 1952 The Pittsburgh Courier reported that “Lionel Hampton, always on the look-see for something new in the way of modern sound, has given a heavier, fuller tone to his tremendous orchestra with the introduction of the Fender Bass, a new electronic instrument destined to replace the popular bass.” The Courier suggested that the “instrument looks like a freakish conception of an electric guitar.” Despite his initial reluctance to adopt the electric bass, in July 1953 Monk became perhaps the first jazz guitarist to record electric bass, playing on four tracks on the Art Farmer Septet album, which was released in 1956. In September 1953 the bass was well-received as Monk traveled with Hampton’s band to Norway and then on to stops including Sweden, the Netherlands, France, and northern Africa before returning in December, 1953.

The youngest Montgomery brother Buddy first toured in 1948 with a band led by Jimmy Coe. Coe graduated from Crispus Attucks in 1938 and met Wes in about 1945. In 1997 Buddy Montgomery recounted that Coe was leading a band in 1948 that had “another Blues piano player, I think, who was scheduled to go, and couldn’t make it, so I was asked to go. … I’d just gotten started; I’d only been playing for about six months or so. But he thought I was good enough to go, so I went, and it was a very enjoyable experience for me. It was down South. My first time.” This likely was the 1948 tour on which Coe accompanied Tiny Bradshaw.

In June, 1954 Duke Ellington played the Turf Bar with Sonny Johnson’s quintette, which included Monk Montgomery and Pookie Johnson in the band.

The brothers played a host of Indianapolis clubs and ventured out of the city into neighboring communities like Muncie (1952). In addition to scattered jam sessions, they played long engagements at some local clubs. In 1955-1957, for instance, Monk appeared in the Indianapolis city directory as “musician Turf Bar,” apparently playing there in a semi-permanent gig while living at 3048 North Kenwood Avenue; in 1957, his brother Buddy was also listed as “musician Turf Bar.” The Turf Bar (sometimes called the Turf Club) at 2320 West 16th Street lay just over the 16th Street bridge into Haughville, a neighborhood that the Montgomerys knew well from their childhood, and by September 1954 the Johnson-Montgomery band was playing the Turf Bar and would remain fixtures through the 1950s.

The Embassy opened on December 26, 1926.

The Turf Bar began life as the Embassy Restaurant. Fred “Pop” Junemann opened Ye Auto Stop restaurant in August 1919, promising “music at all times,” and in 1925 he opened the Embassy Restaurant a few doors away in the building that would become the Turf Bar. After Junemann’s death in 1934 the Embassy continued to feature musicians and dancing, and it became the Turf Bar in May, 1939. The Turf Bar was primarily a restaurant and saloon that went through a series of owners until it changed ownership in May, 1953 and began once again featuring musicians. In June 1954 the bar featured its first national artists when it hosted the Duke Ellington Orchestra with Sonny Johnson’s band, which included Monk Montgomery, Pookie Johnson, and Gene Fowlkes.

In October 1959 the Indianapolis Recorder noted that “the fabulous Wes Montgomery Trio is currently at the Turf Club nitely,” and in February 1960 Wes was playing the Turf Club when its owner Mildred Thompson was arrested for refusing to seat an African-American party. In March she again refused to admit African-American customers, saying that it was “`because it would hurt our business.’” She told a group seeking entrance to the club that “`We’d prefer not to serve Negroes here: it’s bad for the business’” and argued that “‘Every business has a right to refuse service to whoever it wants.’” On April 9 the Indianapolis Recorder reported that the “management of the Turf Club has made its position unmistakably clear. Already adamant in its refusal to accord equal service to Negro patrons, the management reacted to a weekend picket at the establishment at 16th and Lafayette Road by unfurling a Confederate flag.” By 1960 public accommodations like the Turf Club had been legally integrated, but the club was among the many venues that resisted such law despite featuring African-American artists, and in May, 1960 Thompson was cleared of discrimination charges. However, it appears that Wes Montgomery did not again play the Turf Club (Buddy’s band returned in August 1968, a band that included his brother Monk). The club became a pizza restaurant in September, 1972, and since about 1987 it has been an adult dance club.

Monk formed a band in Indianapolis in 1956, and in December 1956 or January 1957 he, Buddy, and drummer Ben “Benny” Caldwell Barth drove to Seattle, where they were joined by pianist Richard Crabtree for a three-month gig starting January 14, 1957. Buddy’s wife convinced the band to adopt the name the Mastersounds, and they played Washington clubs and then traveled to San Francisco to play the Jazz Showcase club. In 1958 neither Monk nor Buddy appeared in the Indianapolis City Directory, and they would never be permanent residents of Indianapolis again. Their sister Ervena had married George Herman Floyd in May 1957, and in 1958 she was living at 3046 ½ North Kenwood, next door to the home she had shared with her brothers the year before.

After this September 7, 1959 show, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley went to see the show of Wes Montgomery at the Missile Room. Ten days later he urged Riverside Records producer Orrin Keepnews to sign Montgomery.

Wes Montgomery hagiography typically argues that he was discovered at the Missile Room, a West Street club that opened in May 1958. The club at 518 North West Street did indeed feature Montgomery in its first live shows, and in the audience for one of those shows in September 1958 was saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley. Riverside Records’ producer Orrin Keepnews later confirmed that Adderley met with him in his New York office on September 17, 1959 and urged Keepnews to sign Montgomery. Adderly had played Indianapolis’ Claypool Hotel on September 7th in a show that included George Shearing, Thelonius Monk, and Chet Baker. After shows in Cincinnati September 10th and Chicago September 11th they were back in New York by September 17th, where Keepnews indicated Adderly had told him about Montgomery, so it is likely his memory of being told about Montgomery on September 17th was reasonably accurate. Montgomery’s first Riverside release was The Wes Montgomery Trio, which was recorded in October 1959 and came out before the end of the year.

Embed from Getty Images

Wes Montgomery appeared in this Riverside Records promotional image around 1960 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Image).

Keepnews said that on almost the same day Adderley visited him, he read an influential Gunther Schuller article that celebrated Indianapolis jazz in the September 1959 issue of Jazz Review (on pages 48-50 of this PDF). Indianapolis musician David Baker recalled in a 2000 interview that “My big band–1959 we won the Notre Dame Jazz Festival. … Gunther Schuller was in–playing French horn in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. While he was down here [Bloomington], we entertained them with the big band. He heard me, and he wrote the article–I took him up to hear Wes Montgomery at the Missile Room. That’s when he wrote the article called … ‘Indiana Renaissance.’ It was about my big band and about Wes Montgomery.” Schuller provided an enormously effusive tribute to Montgomery, who he said “is an extraordinarily spectacular guitarist. Listening to his solos is like teetering continually at the edge of a brink. His playing at its peak becomes unbearably exciting, to the point where one feels unable to muster sufficient physical endurance to outlast it.” Baker recounted that “I took him to hear Wes while he was here. He couldn’t believe that. It was Wes Montgomery, Paul Parker, and Melvin Rhyne. They were playing at an after-hours club called the Missile Room, which was right across the street from the Walker Theater–well, right across the street there was a funeral home, and then the next one was the Missile Room.” (The funeral home Baker recalled was the People’s Funeral Home at 526 North West Street).

Montgomery would spend most of his life in Indianapolis, and Schuller lamented that Montgomery and many of his Avenue jazz peers were not especially well-known beyond local circles: “At first thought, it seems a shame for jazz in general, and for those of us who would appreciate his playing, that Wes Montgomery cannot be heard in New York.” However, Schuller quite presciently concluded that “I have a sneaking suspicion that playing in an after-hours place in Indianapolis (as he did the night I heard him) is better for Wes Montgomery and jazz in general than almost anything I can think of. In Indianapolis, a city which evidently no self-respecting name group would deign to visit, there is a real place and need for Wes Montgomery—which, come to think of it, probably accounts to some extent for the fact that he seems to be one of the most well-adjusted, happy musicians I have met in years.”

In February 1960 music critic Charles Hanna celebrated The Wes Montgomery Trio album and indicated that “Most nights he works with organist Melvin Rhyne and drummer Paul Parker in Indianapolis’ Turf club and at the Missile room after hours. Buddy and Monk worked the Turf room with Wes before they went to the west coast several years ago.” By that point in 1960 none of the Montgomery Brothers was living in Indianapolis as their primary residence, and in the Fall of 1960 all three brothers were living in Berkeley California but touring regularly (e.g., their busy 1961 tour schedule included Philadelphia in January 1961, Detroit in February, Pittsburgh in June, Detroit again in August, back in Berkeley in October, and Kansas City in November).

In January 1962 Serene was back in Indianapolis for the birth of a son in Methodist Hospital that was reported in the Indianapolis Recorder on January 20th, and on January 29th the brothers played a show in Syracuse. In March, 1963 the Oakland Tribune reported that Wes was visiting Oakland before “returning to Indianapolis,” and on March 29th he was playing Indianapolis’ Prince Hall Mason’s lodge. While Wes did not appear in the 1963 Indianapolis city directory, Serene was listed as living at 1217 Cornell and working as a packer at the Hygrade meat packing plant. Wes was apparently visiting Indianapolis regularly (e.g., he was playing the Hub Bub Lounge at 124 West 30th Street in August 1963, and Buddy and his own band would play the same club in September), but he was still doing some touring, visiting San Francisco in June, Detroit in November, and Philadelphia in December.

By the time this picture was taken in 1972, all the homes on Cornell Street–and the street itself–had been razed, including the Montgomery’s former home at the red arrow. This is today the “north split” confluence of Interstates 65 and 70.

By the early 1960s plans for an inner-city highway were targeting Cornell Street and many of the surrounding neighborhoods, and in 1964 the home at 1217 Cornell Street was vacant. Wes and Serene Montgomery moved to a home at 641 West 44th Street near Butler University that was listed for sale in the Indianapolis Star in June 1963 as an “American colonial in choice loc overlooking Butler campus.” The home was listed as sold November 24, 1963, and the previous resident had moved out by May 1964, so Wes, Serene, and their seven children probably were in the home in early 1964, if not late 1963. Wes and Serene appeared as residents of the home in the 1965 directory, which listed his occupation as “musician Wes Montgomery Trio.”

After the Montgomerys moved from 1217 Cornell it was never a residence again. By 1967 most of the homes on the street were vacant, and by 1969, only one vacant house was standing in the 1200 block of Cornell Avenue. In 1972 the footprint for the contemporary North Split interchange between I-65 and I-70 had razed all of the streetscape and the homes that once lined Cornell.

Wes was a well-established international star by 1967 and had signed with A&M Records, so he was consistently in the Los Angeles area for recordings and live performances: he played the Hollywood Bowl in July; he performed with Nina Simone and Dick Gregory several nights later at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium; he played for a month beginning August 8th at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, California; and he and his brothers played together at Shelly’s Manne Hole in Hollywood in October. Yet Montgomery continued to spend time in Indianapolis and perform locally, including a May 1967 show with Cannonball Adderley at the Murat Theatre, and a November 1967 performance with Addereley at Butler University’s Clowes Hall, just blocks from the Montgomery home on West 44th Street.

Wes Montgomery’s last performances were in June 1968 in Phoenix.

Montgomery was touring at the start of 1968, playing in Minneapolis and New York City in January, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in February; Cincinnati, Gary Indiana, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles in March; Philadelphia and Kansas City in April; Philadelphia and Chicago in May;  Anaheim May 28th-June 2nd; and Phoenix on June 3-5. The Phoenix show at Caesar’s Forum would be his last public performance. Montgomery returned home to Indianapolis in preparation for a busy summer in which he was scheduled to play the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival on June 23 and then the Hampton Virginia Jazz Festival June 27-29.

Montgomery was at his home on West 44th Street on June 15 when he woke up feeling ill and collapsed after a heart attack, and at 10:40 AM he was pronounced dead at Methodist Hospital. Montgomery’s funeral service was in Puritan Baptist Church. Puritan Baptist Church was founded in 1944 at 2611 Annette Street, they had moved just a few doors away to 945 Roache Street by 1951, and in 1968 they were worshipping a block from their original location at 872 West 27th Street. Montgomery’s brothers Monk and Buddy were among the pallbearers as Wes Montgomery’s casket was taken to New Crown Cemetery. Montgomery’s father Thomas had been buried there in 1956.  Monk and Buddy remained active performers for decades after the death of their 45-year-old brother. Monk died in May 1982 and is buried in Las Vegas. Buddy moved to Milwaukee after Wes’ death and then back to California in the 1980s, where he died in May 2009 in Palmdale, California.

In the absence of much surviving historical architecture, musical landscapes have often figured as rather anonymous backdrops, and much of the city Wes Montgomery knew is today radically different than it was just a half century ago. Nevertheless, the broad range of Indianapolis’ music places Montgomery and his peers knew still has a story to be told and even preserved on the contemporary landscape.

Embed from Getty Images

Above: Wes Montgomery performs with his brothers Monk and Buddy at the Five Spot nightclub , New York City January 23, 1961


Elspeth H. Brown

2014 The Commodification of Aesthetic Feeling: Race, Sexuality, and the 1920s Stage Model. Feminist Studies 40(1): 65-97.


Reno De Stefano

1996 Wes Montgomery’s improvisational style (1959-1963): The Riverside years. PhD Dissertation, Universite de Montreal.


Preston Lauterbach

2011 The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘N’ Roll. W.W. Norton and Company, New York.


Lissa Fleming May

2005 Early Musical Development of Selected African American Jazz Musicians in Indianapolis in the 1930s and 1940s. Journal of Historical Research in Music Education 27(1): 21-32. (subscription access)


Duncan Schiedt

1977 The Jazz State of Indiana. Duncan P. Schiedt, Pittsboro, Indiana.


Shawn Salmon

2011 Imitation, assimilation, and innovation: Charlie Christian’s influence on Wes Montgomery’s improvisational style in his early recordings (1957–1960). PhD Dissertation, Ball State University.


David Leander Williams

2014 Indianapolis Jazz: The Masters, Legends and Legacy of Indiana Avenue. The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina.


Brian F. Wright

2014 “A Bastard Instrument”: The Fender Precision Bass, Monk Montgomery, and Jazz in the 1950s. Jazz Perspectives 8(3): 281–303. (subscription access)



Montgomery Brothers image circa 1962 Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Montgomery Brothers January 1961 performance image by Sam Falk/New York Times Co./Getty Images.

Wes Montgomery Riverside Records promotional image Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


Color and Conformity: Race and Integration in the Suburbs

In February 1961 Indianapolis, Indiana’s Jewish Community Center held a public discussion panel on “The Negro as Suburban Neighbor.” The surrounding northside community was home to several of the city’s earliest African-American suburbs, but many of those neighborhoods were resistant to integration. Despite its open membership policy, the JCC also did not count a single African American among its members.

Reginald Bruce appeared in the August 19, 1944 Indianapolis Recorder (click for expanded view).

Dr. Reginald Bruce was among the guests asked to speak on behalf of the northwestern suburbs’ African-American residents. In November, 1960 Reginald and Mary Bruce reached an agreement to purchase a home at 5752 Grandiose Drive. The Bruces were the first to integrate the newly built homes along Grandiose Drive. Bruce told the group at the JCC that since moving to Grandiose Drive “his family has been harassed by threatening phone calls and gunshots through the window since moving into the predominately white area.” Some White audience members vigorously opposed integration of the neighborhood, and one complained that the meeting had been rigged by the NAACP.

The Bruces’ experience integrating the northwestern Indianapolis suburbs would be repeated all over the country. That story of suburban integration—long acknowledged in African-American experience but unrecognized by most White suburbanites–is beginning to be told in popular cultural narratives. The suburbs have long been a staple of mainstream cinema, variously painted as disabling assimilation (The Stepford Wives), emotional repression (American Beauty), creative boredom (Grosse Point Blank), profound sadness (The Virgin Suicides), or the prosaic magnet for inexplicable phenomena (Poltergeist, Coneheads, Edward Scissorhands, etc). However, the story of suburban segregation has rarely been told in films.

A 1955 image illustrated the ideological vision of a typical suburban family (Getty images).

Last weekend Suburbicon debuted at the Venice Film Festival, and George Clooney’s movie (which opens in the US in October) is distinguished by its ambition to tell the story of racism and integration in suburbia. The film takes its inspiration from the integration of Levittown, Pennsylvania, one of William Levitt’s seven suburban communities. The Levittowns were the model for interchangeable, assembly-line produced housing on the urban periphery, so they are often rhetorical foils for suburban narratives in popular culture and historiography alike. The most unsettling implications of Clooney’s film are that it is an utterly commonplace historical tale: the story of the integration of the Levittown outside Philadelphia in 1957 could be told in any American community.

In 1947 this sign greeted prospective homeowners to the Long Island Levittown (Getty Images).

William Levitt purchased property in the Philadelphia suburbs in 1951, and by 1958 the firm he had inherited from his father had built 17,311 homes. Abraham Levitt and his sons William and Alfred built their first suburban community on Long Island between 1947 and 1951, eventually constructing 17,447 homes there. Levittown homes had racially restrictive covenants that decreed home owners could not rent or sell to Blacks, so the Long Island Levittown may well have been the largest White segregated community on the face of the planet. Postwar suburban housing was made possible by Federal Housing Authority loan programs and a dense network of local codes and informal practices that explicitly segregated the suburban frontier, including the Levittowns. A 1948 Supreme Court ruling found covenants in places like Levittown illegal, and nearly all other segregation practices also became illegal in the next decade (there is a massive scholarship on Levittowns and race and segregation in the Levitt suburbs—compare Herbert Gans’ 1967 The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community, Dianne Harris’ edited volume Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania or David Kushner’s Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb).

William Levitt posed reading a ticker tape machine in 1963 (Getty Images).

Nevertheless, William Levitt resisted court-ordered integration, arguing that Whites would not agree to live in integrated communities. In August 1954 Levitt’s most famous comment on the integration of Levittown communities came to the Saturday Evening Post. Levitt explained that “The negroes in America are trying to do in four hundred years what the Jews have not accomplished in six thousand. As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice. But, by various means, I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then ninety to ninety-five percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude not ours. We did not create it, and cannot cure it.  As a company, our position is simply this: we can solve a housing problem, or we can solve a racial problem. But we cannot combine the two.” Levitt was perhaps not especially committed to segregation, instead blaming xenophobia on his White tenants. When the Post reporter intoned that integration was inevitable, Levitt responded that “If that should happen, there is nothing I can, or would, do about it.”

When the Myers moved into Levittown they required police protection, and this officer was injured during one of the vigils (Getty Images).

Suburbicon adapts the story of William and Daisy Myers, who broke the color barrier in the Philadelphia suburban Levittown. In 1957 a Jewish couple sold their property in the Pennsylvania Levittown to the Myers. Neighbors immediately began a campaign to displace the Myers spearheaded by a group calling itself the Levittown Betterment Committee who organized curbside vigils at the home, displayed Confederate flags, threw stones through the Myers’ windows, painted “KKK” on a neighbor’s house, and burnt a cross in a nearby yard (compare the fascinating 1957 documentary “Crisis in Levittown”).

Reginald Bruce’s 1942 Crispus Attucks High School yearbook entry (Crispus Attucks Museum).

The Myers’ story was certainly enormously public, but it was in many ways a commonplace experience repeated in numerous other American communities. Indianapolis, Indiana had African-American suburbs emerge in the city’s northwestside in the postwar period, but when African Americans moved into White neighborhoods their arrival was greeted with resistance and even violence. For instance, Reginald Alexander Bruce was born in Indianapolis in March, 1925 to Charles and Agnes Bruce. Charles Bruce had come to Indianapolis with his wife Virginia around 1902 from Cedarville, Ohio. Charles married Virginia in 1898, and he married Agnes Smith in April, 1917. Charles and Agnes’ son Reginald was born in the midst of one of the city’s most systematic embraces of xenophobia. In 1926, Indianapolis passed a racial zoning ordinance backed by the White People’s Protective League, and when that was declared unconstitutional neighborhoods like that around Butler University resolved to bar African Americans by other means. Perhaps the most famous impact of 1920s segregation in the Circle City was the creation of a segregated Black high school, and Reginald graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in 1942.

Reginald Bruce had been in ROTC at Attucks, and in March 1944 he completed nine weeks of primary flight training with the 66th Army Air Force at Moton Field. The Alabama airfield was the base for the African-American pilots who became collectively known as the Tuskegee Airmen. In August 1944 Bruce graduated from flight training as part of a class of 14 men trained to fly twin-engine aircraft (medium bombers). Bruce was sent to Douglas Air Field in Arizona, where he was a Flight Officer on B-25s. Bruce was one of 14 Tuskegee Airmen from Indianapolis (see Tuskegee Airmen Indianapolis Chapter word file), and the local pilots including Reginald Bruce would be part of public discussions of the airmen’s legacy into the 1970s. Arthur Carter, the last of the 14 Indianapolis Tuskegee Airmen, died in 2015.

Reginald married Aurelia Jane Stuart in Marion County in 1945, and in 1947 Reginald and his wife were living with Reginald’s parents on Edgemont Avenue. Reginald was a student, and in 1952 Bruce completed his medical training at Indiana University. The young doctor became the resident physician at the Muscatuck State School in 1953, and after a year at Muscatuck Bruce opened a general practice in Indianapolis in July 1954.

After separating from his wife, Reginald remarried and he and his wife Mary attempted to purchase a new home. Apparently their first effort in about 1958 met with failure when “the couple all but succeeded in purchasing a home in the first block east of Butler University on Blue Ridge Road. That was before any Negro had moved onto Blue Ridge. (The first block is still all-white.) In that case, the deal fell through when the seller learned of the Bruces’ racial composition as the check was going through the bank.” In 1960 they successfully purchased the Grandiose Drive home, and despite the harassment and violence directed at the family they remained there until 1967. Perhaps influenced by his own experience of housing discrimination, in January 1961 Reginald Bruce became the co-Chair of the NAACP Indianapolis chapter’s Housing Committee with the Jewish Community Center’s Irving Levine.

In March 1966 the Indianapolis Recorder reported on Reginald and Mary Bruce’s effort to purchase a home on the northeastside.

The Bruces’ experience of housing discrimination did not end with their experiences on Blue Ridge Road and Grandiose Drive. In January 1966 the Bruces put their Grandiose Drive home up for sale in anticipation of a move into another northern Indianapolis suburb. The builders of a northeastside home on Brendonridge Court, John E. and James P. Dugan, were offered the sale price for the home by the Bruce’s real estate agent, and the Dugans accepted $1000 as a down payment. However, the following day the Dugans informed the Bruces’ agent that the home had been sold, apparently when they realized Reginald Bruce was African American (his wife was White). Mary and Reginald Bruce filed a complaint with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission against John E. Dugan, and in March, 1966 a Marion County Judge granted an injunction against the Dugans preventing them from selling the home until a court hearing. John Dugan filed a counter-complaint seeking $20,000 in damages. The Bruces dropped the charges in June, 1966, and a month later the Grandiose Drive home was on the market heralding the home’s fallout shelter, intercom system, and paneled family room. In 1967 the Bruces had moved to a home on North Illinois Street.

After 19 years in private practice, Reginald Bruce began a radiology residency in August 1973. After divorcing Mary Bruce, Reginald remarried Carolyn Marie Corrington in 1976. Bruce moved to Mattoon, Illinois by the late 1980s, then to the St. Louis suburb of Alton, Illinois, and he finally moved from there to Lake Havasu City Arizona in 1995, where he died in 1997.

The Jewish Community Center did not have a single African-American member when Bruce spoke about his effort to secure housing in 1961. When an audience member spoke out against integration, Joseph Tobak rose and said that “’You say, I like Negroes, but.’ I heard the same thing in Poland 40 years ago—‘We like Jews, but.’ Then came Hitler and his mass murders.” Tobak had indeed left Poland in 1921, eventually opening a liquor store in 1938 on the predominately African-American Northwestern Street, and Tobak’s store did not close until he retired in 1970. We do not know how Reginald Bruce felt about his lifelong experience attempting to secure a measure of equality, but in the wake of that 1961 meeting the JCC did indeed begin to integrate, and much of the northwestside would become home to more African Americans. Perhaps the acknowledgement of Reginald Bruce and William and Daisy Myers stories can start discussions about the depth of such racism and its impact on the contemporary housing landscape.


David B. Bittan

1958 Ordeal in Levittown. Look 19 August.


Charles E. Frances

2008 The Tuskegee Airmen: The Men who Changed a Nation. Branden Books, Boston.


Herbert Gans

1967 The Levittowners: Ways of Life and Politics in a New Suburban Community. Columbia University Press, New York.


Dianne Harris, editor

2010 Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.


David Kushner

2009 Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights in America’s Legendary Suburb. Walker and Company, New York.



1957 Integration Troubles Beset Northern Town. 2 September 43(10): 43-44, 46.


Craig Thompson

1954 Growing Pains of a Brand-New City. Saturday Evening Post 227 (6): 26-27, 71-72. (subscription access)


James J. Wyatt

2012 Covering Suburbia: Newspapers, Suburbanization, and Social Change in the Postwar Philadelphia Region, 1945-1982. PhD Dissertation, Temple University.


House for sale, circa 1955 image from Getty Images
Officer Down Levittown 1957 image from Getty Images
Levittown New York 1947 Drive Carefully sign image from Getty Images
Reginald Bruce Crispus Attucks yearbook 1942 image from Crispus Attucks Museum
William Levitt reads ticker tape 1963 image from Getty Images

African-American Undertakers in the Circle City

In 1887 John J. Thornton’s undertaking shop on West Market Street appeared on this Sanborn map just off Monument Circle (note building marked “Coffins” in center of image; click for an expanded view).

In March, 1880 the Indianapolis News proclaimed that “Indianapolis now has a colored undertaker.” The newspaper did not identify that undertaker, but it certainly was George H. Woodford, who opened an undertaker’s shop on Indiana Avenue. George Woodford was part of a nationwide movement to professionalize undertaking and mortuary services in the late-19th and early 20th centuries. In the midst of turn-of-the-century racial segregation, African-American undertakers had little direct competition with White undertakers as death and the Black body were increasingly ceded to African-American entrepreneurs. African-American undertakers appealed to African Americans’ reverence for a proper burial while recognizing that White undertakers were much less likely to dignify Black death. Consequently, after the turn of the century, undertakers ranked among Indianapolis’ most prominent African-American entrepreneurs.

Before the Civil War, local craftspeople often constructed caskets; families prepared the deceased for burial; and many people were buried in modest family cemeteries, especially in rural settings. This began to shift in the late-19th century with the emergence of chemical embalming, an industry marketing funerary material goods, professional undertaking courses and schools, and the shift from home-based funerals to funeral parlors. Embalming began to be practiced on a wide scale for the first time during the Civil War, when it was used to prevent the decomposition of soldiers being shipped home for burial. Perhaps the most influential example of embalming was the preservation of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse as his body was escorted to Illinois over several weeks in 1865 (including a stop in Indianapolis on April 30). Undertakers’ schools began to teach embalming and burial practices in the late-19th century, and in 1882 the National Funeral Directors Association was formed to advocate for professionalization of the trade.

The Circle City’s first African-American undertaker, George Woodford, was born into captivity in about 1846 in Wayne County, Kentucky. After Emancipation Woodford enlisted in the Union Army on September 8, 1864 at Camp Nelson, Kentucky, and he served in the Fifth United States Colored Cavalry. Woodford was almost certainly one of the 80 African-American soldiers in Company E who were attacked near Simpsonville, Kentucky on January 23, 1865, an ambush that left about 22 of the soldiers dead. Woodford married Tieney Williams in Louisville in 1875, and the newlyweds migrated north to Indianapolis by early 1876.

In 1880 Woodford began to operate an undertaker’s shop on Indiana Avenue, first where the One America Building sits today and then a block away at the northwest corner of Indiana Avenue and New York Street (now the 300 block of Indiana Avenue). Yet on April 29, 1882 the Indianapolis Leader noted that Woodford was ill and “grave doubts of his recovery are entertained”; the Indianapolis News reported on the same day that he had in fact died. Woodford was buried at Crown Hill in services conducted by his fellow members of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, but the city did not appear to have another African-American undertaker. In 1886 John J. Thornton probably became the city’s second African-American undertaker when he opened his shop on West Market Street just a block east of the Indiana State House. Yet like his predecessor George Woodford, Thornton died soon after in October, 1888.

This April, 1905 ad for Cassius M Clay Willis’ funeral home noted the firm was managed with his daughter Beulah Willis. Beulah had graduated from an embalming program, one of many women active in the management of early 20th-century funeral homes. The 23-year-old Beulah died just a month after this ad appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder.

At the turn of the century, a circle of professionally trained undertakers established several longstanding African-American funeral homes. Cassius M. Clay Willis came to Indianapolis in about 1875 and established his undertaking firm in 1890. Willis graduated from a Massachusetts School of Embalming course in 1895, possibly taking the course with the embalming schools’ traveling instructors, who conducted such courses in places like Terre Haute. Willis’ first undertaking shop from 1890 to 1913 was in the Odd Fellows’ Building on what is today the 500 block of Indiana Avenue, and in April 1913 he purchased an existing double at 622-624 North West Street (now Martin Luther King Jr. Street) and moved his business there the following August.

In October, 1900 Willis hired another professionally trained undertaker, Lucas B. Willis (no relation to Cassius Willis), and Lucas Willis would remain a prominent Indianapolis undertaker until his death in 1930. Lucas Willis began his career working for Thomas K. Robb’s undertaking firm in Frankfort, Kentucky before coming to work for CMC Willis in October, 1900. Lucas B. Willis completed a course in the Massachusetts College of Embalming in 1898 and received instruction at the Renouard Training School for Embalming.

There was relatively little professional oversight of undertakers around the turn of the century, and some problematic practices persisted. The most shocking Indianapolis example came in 1902, when a series of freshly buried bodies were discovered missing from the Anderson Cemetery on East 10th Street. Estella Middleton, a 15-year-old African American, was living on Gladstone Street in August, 1902, when she was struck with typhoid fever and died August 28th. Middleton was buried in the Anderson Cemetery by CMC Willis, but in September her grave was found disturbed, and Middleton’s body was found in the Central College of Physicians and Surgeons where it was being used for medical students’ training.

Middleton was re-buried in the Anderson Cemetery, but it instantly became clear many more graves had been emptied. The Central College of Physician and Surgeons was one of three medical schools in Indianapolis, two of which eventually joined with other schools and became part of the Indiana University School of Medicine in 1908. After the discovery of Middleton’s body, Demonstrator of Anatomy Joseph C. Alexander was found to have secured at least two stolen corpses, and apparently the grave robbers had been provisioning medical schools for some time: suspects Garfield Buckner and John McEndree had been suspected of grave robbing the poor farm and Mt. Jackson cemeteries in 1900; they escaped prosecution, but police were suspicious because Buckner was working for one of the city’s medical colleges.

Alexander had obtained the bodies from a team of African-American grave diggers that included Rufus Cantrell, an African American who worked for CMC Willis, and James Harvey, an embalmer who had been employed by Willis. Cantrell and his partners confirmed that Willis had been party to the crimes and had arranged for bodies to be supplied to Alexander for $30 a body. The suspects claimed that in 1900 Willis even provided the body of one of the grave robbers’ own wives to Alexander without burial.

The grave robbers soon implicated a series of cemetery sextons and a Central College intern and the janitor, and they acknowledged they had robbed many cemeteries throughout central Indiana (including cemeteries in Fishers, Jones Chapel Cemetery on present-day West 56th Street, Pleasant Hill Cemetery near Trader’s Point, and Holy Cross/St. Joseph Cemetery on the southside). More bodies were thieved from Mt. Jackson than any other cemetery. Cantrell admitted that “he and the other negroes visited Mt. Jackson cemetery almost every time anyone was buried in the place. `We pretty near cleaned that place out,’ he said. `I don’t believe we missed any body that has been planted there since July.’” In October bone remains found in the college were suspected of being stolen cadavers that were burnt to conceal evidence, and four bodies from robbed graves were discovered bagged in an Indianapolis alley; burial shrouds were found in the college as well. Nevertheless, Alexander escaped with a hung jury the following February, and he was never re-tried. Cantrell was sentenced to the State Reformatory in Jeffersonville, and several of his grave-digging colleagues also served prison time.

Cassius MC Willis continued to run one of the city’s most prominent African-American funeral homes after escaping without jail time, moving from Indiana Avenue to North West Street in 1913. The funeral home on North West Street (which sat in the same block as Madam CJ Walker’s home) continued to be run by Willis’ son Herbert after Cassius’ death in 1920. Herbert died in 1952 and the funeral home had its last services in 2009. The building stands today, connected to newly constructed apartments.

James Shelton and Lucas Willis appeared in this August 1905 ad in the Recorder the year after they established their partnership (click for expanded view).

Lucas Willis remained with CMC Willis’ firm until Lucas established a competing funeral home with James N. Shelton in 1904. Shelton received some training at Harvey Medical College, a co-ed evening school in Chicago that trained working-class students, and he graduated from the Chicago School of Embalming in 1900. Shelton’s wife Mayme also completed an embalming course in Chicago in 1901. Shelton first managed an Indianapolis undertaker’s business with Ola Homer Morgan from December, 1900 until August, 1904, when he and Lucas Willis formed the firm Shelton and Willis. In 1905 the pair was forced to note in advertisements in the Indianapolis Recorder that they were “not connected in any way with CMC Willis undertaking establishment.”

In the early 20th century, James Shelton was among the most prominent African-American undertakers in national professional circles. The National Funeral Directors Association formed in 1882, but its membership was officially segregated in 1912; it did not accept African-American members until 1970. The National Negro Business League was formed in 1900 by Booker T. Washington to promote African-American commercial and marketing enterprises, and funeral directors would always be prominent in the League. James Shelton attended its national meetings in 1907, 1909, 1910, 1911, and 1913 (and likely other years as well). In 1907 a group of funeral directors in the League formed the National Negro Funeral Directors Association, the same year that Shelton and St. Louis undertaker W.C. Gordon delivered a paper “The Undertaking Business.” Two years later Shelton was the group’s Secretary, and Lucas B. Willis was serving on its Executive Board.

Shelton was one of 16 Hoosiers to attend the 1910 National Negro Business League meeting in New York as part of a delegation that included his famous neighbor Madam C.J. Walker. During Shelton’s report at the 1911 convention as Secretary of the National Negro Funeral Directors Association he proclaimed that African-American funeral directors “receive ninety-five per cent of the patronage of the colored people in the communities in which they live.” Two years later Shelton again spoke at the convention and argued that “I say the time has come when we ought to make it impossible for any white man to bury a Negro in any community in which you live.”

Lucas Willis was likewise actively engaged in national African-American funeral directors’ associations. In September, 1905 Willis was elected Vice-President of the Colored Interstate Funeral Directors Association, which was apparently one of a patchwork of early state and regional funeral directors associations. Willis served on the Executive Board of the National Negro Funeral Directors Association when it first formed in 1907, but National Negro Business League influence waned by World War I, and new African-American undertakers’ groups began to form. The Independent National Funeral Directors Association formed in September, 1924, and Willis became its Secretary when 31 African-American funeral directors met in Chicago in 1925. In 1927 Willis was one of three Indianapolis undertakers to meet with the group in Cincinnati, and the organization remains active today as the National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association.

James Shelton ran this ad not long after he began to operate an independent funeral home on Indiana Avenue, where he had once shared space with Lucas WIllis.

James Shelton and Lucas Willis ran a funeral home on Indiana Avenue until July, 1914, when they parted ways to run funeral homes in their own names. Shelton continued to manage his funeral home on Indiana Avenue at the location he had shared with Lucas, and he remained there until his death in 1921. Lucas Willis opened his own funeral home on West Michigan Street and would remain active in national African-American funeral associations. In 1915 Shelton and Willis’ former embalmer Shirley H. Winfrey partnered with undertaker Andrew W. Breckenridge in a funeral home at 517 North West Street, where Breckenridge and George W. Lee had opened a funeral home the year before. Breckenridge had been an undertaker in Xenia, Ohio between about 1902 and 1910, and Winfrey had been an undertaker in Terre Haute.

The Peoples Burial Company ran this patriotic ad in 1934 paying homage to their founder Henry Dunn, whose widow Lula was running the funeral home. They had recently hired William Lester Craig, who would establish his own funeral home on the near-Southside in 1936 (click for expanded view).

By the time of Lucas Willis’ death in 1930 the number of African-American funeral directors in Indianapolis had increased significantly. For instance, People’s Funeral Company was founded in 1919 by Henry Dunn and his wife Lula Jackson Dunn, and Lula Dunn became perhaps the first licensed African-American female mortician in Indiana. Since the turn of the century, every funeral home had female attendants, including CMC Willis’ daughter Beulah Willis and Ola H. Morgan’s wife Fanny. Lula Dunn was employing William Lester Craig by 1934. In 1936 William and his brother Joseph opened a funeral home on the near-Southside at 1002 South Senate. The Craig Funeral Home was erased by the construction of interstate and moved to 826 South Capitol Street in February, 1968. William Lester Craig died in November, 1974, and his son William Martin Craig assumed management of the firm. Less than a year later the funeral home was displaced for the second time by interstate construction, and the family firm moved to 3447 North College Avenue in November, 1975, where they remain in business today.

The Craig Funeral Home has moved twice in the face of interstate construction in the 1960 and 1970s. In November, 1975 they announced their second move to North Capitol Street, where they remain today.

African-American funeral homes gradually found themselves in competition with historically segregated White funeral homes after the 1950s, but many African-American funeral homes remained viable and trusted community institutions into the 21st century. Nevertheless, chains have swallowed up much of the family based funeral home trade. Historically African-American communities have also been displaced after World War II by urban renewal and highway construction—forces that twice forced the Craig Funeral Home to relocate—and the communities along Indiana Avenue or the near-Southside have been completely uprooted.  Just as much of the landscape of African-American Indianapolis is now razed and invisible to many contemporary people, the heritage of more than a century of African-American undertakers and funeral homes risks being lost as well.



LaTrese Evette Adkins

2003 “And who has the body?”: The historical significance of African American funerary display. PhD Dissertation, Michigan State University.


Clifton D. Bryant and Dennis L. Peck (editors)

2009 Encyclopedia of Death & the Human Experience. 2 vols. Sage, Thousand Oaks, California.


Christopher Leevy Johnson

2004 Undertakings: The politics of African -American funeral directing.  Phd Dissertation, University of South Carolina.


Gary Laderman

2003 Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America.  Oxford University Press, New York.


Charles William McCurdy

1896 Embalming and Embalming Fluids. The Post-Graduate and Wooster Quarterly 39:175-258.


William Henry Porter, Jr.

1958 Middleville Morticians: Some Social Implications of Change in the Funeral Business in a Southern City.  PhD Dissertation, Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College.


Suzanne E. Smith

2010 To Serve the Living: Funeral Directors and the African-American Way of Death.  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Shirley Winfrey and Andrew Breckenridge ran this ad for their North West Street funeral home in 1916

Indianapolis’ Ahmadi Muslims in the 1920s and 1930s

This is the second of two posts on 20th-century Muslim heritage in Indianapolis that come to us from Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, Edward E. Curtis IV. Click on Indianapolis’ Homegrown Islam: The Moorish Science Temple of America for the first post.

Mirzā Ghulām Ahmad (1835-1908), the founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam (click on image for expanded view).

In 1930, national Muslim missionary Sufi Bengalee came to visit the small, but growing community of Muslims in Indianapolis devoted to the teachings of a Punjabi religious leader named Ghulam Ahmad. Bengalee was the American missionary for the Ahmadiyya movement, which was one of the first modern, international Muslim movements to gain a significant number of converts among non-Muslim populations, especially in the West. The Ahmadiyya were a reform-minded group that emphasized the peaceful nature of Islam and eschewed polygyny. It was named after its founder, Ghulam Ahmad, whom many followers believed was the Messiah and the Mahdi, the rightly-guided figure in Islamic tradition who will appear on earth to preach justice before the Day of Judgment. Some followers also thought Ghulam Ahmad to be a prophet, a belief that was and is rejected by most of the world’s Muslims—whether Sunni or Shi‘a—who believe that Muhammad of Arabia (d. 632 CE) was God’s final prophet. But before Sunni or Shi‘a Muslims had established a congregation in Indianapolis, it was Ahmadi Muslims who were encouraging Hoosiers to convert—and doing so across Indianapolis’ stark color line. Continue reading

Indianapolis’ Homegrown Islam: The Moorish Science Temple of America

This week’s post comes to us from Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI, Edward E. Curtis IV

In May, 1939 the Moorish Science Temple advertised a Decoration Day (Memorial Day) dance in the Indianapolis Knights of Pythias Hall (click for an expanded view).

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

Orphans across the Color Line: The Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children

In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan's Home.

In July, 1892 the Indianapolis News provided this imaginative picture of children at the Colored Orphan’s Home (click for an expanded view).

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

“The Way of the Transgressor”: Hard Labor and Incarceration in the Marion County Workhouse

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.

Many American communities constructed workhouses, and this 1866 image was of a woman arriving in New York's Blackwell's Island (image NYPL).

Many American communities constructed workhouses, and this 1866 image was of a woman arriving in New York’s Blackwell’s Island (image NYPL).

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

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