Indiana Avenue: The Ethnic Cleansing of Black Indianapolis

INDY VOICES
Blog Post
Wikimedia Commons
Feb. 4, 2020

During its heyday, Indiana Avenue was the center of Black culture in Indianapolis. During the Jazz Era legends like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald played alongside locals like the Hampton Sisters and Wes Montgomery at the 30-plus clubs in the neighborhood. "The Avenue" was also home to the headquarters of Madam C. J. Walker’s majestic theater and haircare manufacturing company, prominent Black churches, Black newspapers, and Black-owned businesses. It was also the site of one of the first Federal housing projects in America--Lockefield Gardens--which boasted indoor plumbing for all 748 units, shops, a school and plenty of wide open green spaces for residents. When it opened in 1938 even white families wanted to move there. Today, little of the original architecture and few of the original family homes remain.

So, what happened?

Indiana Avenue began to decline as the Mecca of Black culture in Indianapolis in the late 1950s when racial equity improved and blacks started moving to white neighborhoods. Variations of that last line are found in most narratives, historical markers, and retellings by Indianapolis institutions -- and, if true, would be refreshing...that despite its poor record on civil rights, Indiana was ahead of the curve at one time. Unfortunately, the truth about why Blacks left Indiana Avenue has nothing to do with integration and greater racial equity, and everything to do with racism and the planned ethnic cleansing of over 400 acres of Black neighborhoods. The philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But when we repeat harmful, revisionist retellings of the past not only do we repeat the same mistakes, we enable future mistakes. Today Indianapolis is a diverse, multi-ethnic city with a 30% black population and a total non-White population of 45%. The city continues to face extreme economic and health disparities between races. If these issues of equity are to ever be addressed, we need a deeper understanding of what happened in the not-so-distant past in order to move forward. To understand and combat inequity in Indianapolis, we must learn more about what Indiana Avenue actually was, how it existed and what/who really brought about its demise.

The Rise of Indiana Avenue

Indiana Avenue was as much a “Black Wall Street” as it was an "Indianapolis Harlem.” It was both an internationally known center of Black music during the Jazz Age and a regional center of Black commerce and entrepreneurship. Technically, Indiana Avenue is just one of four diagonal streets radiating from the center of town. But it was way more than just an Avenue; symbolically and culturally, it was an organism.

Wes Montgomery

The Avenue was a mile of businesses that catered to Black residents. Black-owned business, churches, bars, night clubs, theaters, and homes. Indiana Avenue itself was surrounded by some 400–500 acres of Black neighborhoods. By the early 1900s, some of these neighborhoods went as far south as Washington Street and a far north as 16th Street. "Indiana Avenue" was more than a single neighborhood: it was the spine of a whole collection of Black neighborhoods, with a few pockets of immigrant enclaves in the mix. Each neighborhood had its own homes, shops, churches and infrastructure. While, yes, White European immigrants also settled amidst Black residents, the city was merely a few decades old before Black leadership stepped up to develop a largely undeveloped area. In basic terms, The Avenue and many surrounding Black neighborhoods weren’t the product of a previous generation of European settlement left after a white flight. It was intentionally built by and for the Black community.

Indiana's 20th Century story is not one of civil rights and racial equity. One of the last lynchings in America happened in Marion, Indiana, and the Indiana Ku Klux Klan boasted 250,000 members at the height of its mainstream popularity in the 1920s. That 1920s membership role included the Governor, Mayor of Indianapolis, over half the elected member of the Indiana General Assembly and many other high-ranking local and state officials. So it should be no surprise that, in Indiana Avenue's earliest days, Blacks and immigrants were largely left alone on the Avenue because the Central Canal bisecting the area was known to carry malaria.

Still, the area thrived. The first known Black-owned businesses opened on the Avenue in 1865. By 1870, 974 Blacks (about one-third of the city’s Black population) called it home. By 1873 Black police officers and firefighters were being hired by the city to keep the Avenue and surrounding canal neighborhoods safe. In 1910, the Avenue's most famous resident arrived.

That year Madam C. J. Walker relocated her business to the Avenue and utilized local talent in labor and leadership to quickly build a worldwide business empire. At the time of her death in 1919 she was considered the wealthiest self-made woman of any race in America, with a manufacturing operation that lasted 70 years. Walker raised funds to build Black branch of the YMCA on Senate Avenue and began development of the Walker Building. Sometimes called the Walker Theatre, it is a four-story multi-use building that housed the world headquarters of Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, a beauty school and salon, a ballroom, an auditorium/movie theater, a drugstore, a coffee shop, and professional offices. The theater, still standing today, incorporated African, Egyptian and Moorish Designs and is one of the few remaining African-Art Deco buildings in the U.S.

Madame Walker Building

Madam Walker wasn’t the first or last to commission great new buildings for black commerce and culture. By 1867 Second Baptist built its new church on West Michigan Avenue, followed by Bethel AME’s three-story church on West Vermont in 1869. Both congregations remained in their original locations for over 100 years and long after the surrounding neighborhood disappeared. The Colored Knights of Pythias built their three-story Grand Lodge on Senate in 1910 and many more businesses and organizations built their own buildings in the surrounding black neighborhoods. Business was booming but it was the residents of Indiana Avenue who added the most valuable elements of all: housing stock, community leadership, and the potential for multigenerational wealth.

The Black community contributed mightily to the economy of Indianapolis even if they weren’t all wealthy enough to leave behind a building as their legacy. There were many white-owned manufacturing enterprises in and around the Indiana Avenue neighborhoods that made use of cheap Black labor. Acme-Evans’ nine-story state-of-the-art mill (the largest in Indiana at the time) had a 90% Black workforce, including my great-grandfather Porteus Boyd who worked there for 39 years. Acme-Evans workforce was 90% Black. Then there was Kingan and Company, one of the largest meat packing companies in the world, with an industrial complex straddling the White River that employed 500 Black workers by 1945. According to the 1940 census, my great-grandfather made the modern equivalent of less than $15,000 a year with a family to support, which appears to be the norm at the time.

While the collection of Indiana Avenue neighborhoods thrived in its own way, the area would never generate as much tax revenue or look as shiny and new as white communities. Discriminatory practices and “redlining" were common, meant that denying Blacks access to loans and other financial services was held up--even endorsed--by regulations and laws. The Fair Housing Act wouldn't be signed until 1968 and, even then, had uneven impact. And so, even its heyday, the Avenue had a well-worn look since home- and business-owners didn’t have easy access to capital for improvements or expansion. Eventually, the Indianapolis Police Department began to raid establishments that attracted too many whites on the Avenue. The Chief of Police even publicly stated in 1939 that it was his intention to enforce segregation on the Avenue. The crackdown stemmed the flow of visitor dollars, meaning that money grew tighter for even the most successful Avenue owners. It was during this era of enforced segregation that the Avenue’s jazz scene began to slow down a bit. Many clubs closed. Many illegal gambling spots did not. In the absence of official financial access, the role was often fulfilled by bootleggers, drug dealers, bookies, boosters/fencing operations, and pimps. This did wonders for the status of "criminals," elevating their profiles as bankers and philanthropists in the black community. These underworld figures financially supported intramural sports teams and youth programs, loaned money for emergency home repairs, and provided auto loans business loans. This naturally caused more frustration on the part of city government as it gave the impression that the Black community on the Avenue supported the criminal element. In reality, these relationships and trade-offs were forced by white supremacy from the start.

The So-Called “Decline of Indiana Avenue”

Most narratives of Indiana Avenue history point to a decline starting in the 1950s with integration or increased racial equity. These false narratives make it seem that Blacks willingly abandoned their own neighborhoods and cultural district to live in some post-racial, integrated Indianapolis.

Attucks

Despite all the talk of improving racial equity and integration the facts are this: the U.S. Justice Department filed suit in Federal Court against the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) for segregation in 1968. The Justice Department fought the school system for years, eventually finding IPS guilty of racial segregation for drawing its school boundaries to take advantage of segregated housing. Judge S. Hugh Dillon forced school integration with a court order for busing that lasted 35 years in Indianapolis. Ironically IPS segregation was worse at the end of those 35 years than at the start. In fact, Indianapolis remained among the top 10 segregated cities in America [per housing data] until around 2010, when it dropped to number 11. At 11 Indianapolis still beat out Washington D.C., Baltimore, Boston and even Memphis, Tennessee (American Community Survey). None of these facts support the narrative that groups of Black residents--of any class--moved in large numbers to integrated, welcoming white neighborhoods... because few neighborhoods remained integrated for long. In reality, Indianapolis was segregated into smaller sections. Statistics show that Blacks did move into new areas in the 1950s but many of those neighborhoods were already experiencing white flight and were in the path of I-65 and I-70. During this era we see many original Indiana Avenue residents--having moved to new neighborhoods in the late 1950s--experiencing white flight entire block wiped out by Interstate construction within 5 years. Meanwhile, back on Indiana, continued redlining made it difficult for the next generation of Blacks to get home loans to buy homes in the neighborhood at all.

But even with all of this shuffling and relocation, the real driver behind Black population decline on the Avenue had yet to take hold.

Total Annihilation by IUPUI, City of Indianapolis and White Supremacy

The Avenue wasn’t the only place Blacks lived in Indianapolis but it was the center of Black culture and had always been punctuated with severe housing shortages. These shortages left even some middle class Blacks paying exorbitant rents for substandard living conditions by the early 1900s. In 1935, 383 homes that were considered “slum housing” by the city were leveled and Federal funds were used to create Lockefield Gardens. Lockefield was a well-designed 748-unit housing complex featuring spacious rooms, open green spaces, playgrounds, a school and storefronts exclusively for Blacks. But while the new units helped relieve some housing pressure, they didn’t solve the housing stock problem. In-migration and the Baby Boom grew the population of Indianapolis overall, and the Black community even more rapidly. From 1950 – 1960 the Black Indianapolis population grew by over 34,000, while the White population grew far more slowly. Black families who couldn't access Lockefield were in a tough spot. So, as it turns out, were long-term residents who were making due expanding the housing stock the only ways limited resources and racist practices would allow.

Eisenhower on Indiana Avenue

It was during this period of population boom that Indiana University's boundaries began eating away at the surrounding Black community to expand its University Medical Center. The University's Indianapolis presence (just west of downtown) had been growing since it opened its medical school in the early 1900s. In fact, Black property was being taken over by the University as early as the 1920s, although property acquisition slowed and stopped during the Depression and World War II. The pace would quicken when, in 1956, Indiana University’s Medical Center prompted the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission to declare almost 38 acres of neighborhoods as blighted and substandard. The University then moved to purchase the land and “relocate” residents, by eminent domain if necessary. Indiana Avenue was under attack, and quality housing stock dwindled. The cost was high.

Nothing underscores the urgency of the housing shortage more than the death of two toddlers in a 1956 electrical fire in a substandard apartment tacked on to the back of a duplex. The children lived with their mother at 614-6 Douglass Street in the shabbily constructed three-room addition, which was literally partitioned with cardboard. The site later became home to Indiana University - Purdue University dorms. The victims’ mother put the children to bed and left to make a phone call to hire an electrician to fix the electrical problem she’d been complaining to the landlord about for a week. My then elderly great-grandparents and young newlywed grandparents lived at the front of the duplex. They realized the back of the house was on fire as just my grandmother was cooking dinner. My great-grandfather and grandfather smashed in the door to the shared bathroom but were beaten back by the flames and unable to save the two toddlers. When the mother returned home from making her call, both of her children were already dead. The Indianapolis Recorder, the city’s leading black newspaper, reported that the tragedy “brought the death toll to 13 Negro children killed in the last 18 months by house fires,” and that the Fire Chief put the blame squarely on the landlord.

Unsafe conditions were often a result of the housing crunch, exacerbated by a growing Black population and redlining, which inhibited both repairs and home loans. As demand for Black housing reached a fever pitch, Indiana University was overtaking entire neighborhoods. Homeowners and landlords subsequently began to rush to meet housing needs without the capacity to do so safely. As dire as the safe housing landscape was, things were about to get much worse.

Racism in Housing

In 1957 Indiana announced its plans to run an interstate highway through the middle of the Indiana Avenue neighborhoods in Indianapolis. Shortly thereafter, in 1958, the Department of Metropolitan Development released its redevelopment plans for the area, supporting the interstate displacement and devoting most of the remaining neighborhoods to an Indiana University Medical campus expansion and a new warehouse district. The redevelopment plan acknowledged the need for mass relocation and showed fantastical drawings depicting white people flying to the re-imagined central business district in helicopters. The plan acknowledged that downtown businesses were having a rough time, and hoped that the highway and increased parking (thanks to demolitions) would reinvigorate the entire central business district. This wasn’t just idle doodling; at the time of the plan’s release, the city had already begun buying up property around the Avenue. Plans like the 1958 redevelopment plan are often studied today by urban planning students as an example of what not to do to spur economic development in urban areas.

Then, when it looked as if things couldn’t get worse, Indiana University--already stockpiling available property in the nearby community--realized that it needed more space, for extension programs and plans for an urban research campus. That campus would become Indiana University - Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) campus and it was set to be an enormous undertaking...and use of downtown-adjacent space. In the mid-1960s, the university acquired and demolished properties at a rapid clip, seeking to promote an accelerated relocation of residents from the mostly-Black neighborhoods surrounding it. Entire neighborhoods were gutted and, soon after, converted to parking lots. Eminent domain under the guise of “slum clearance” was a frequently used blunt instrument of the displacement. Eventually, with so many neighborhoods partially demolished, homeowners and property owners were now eager to unload now valueless homes on mostly empty blocks. Some who had the determination and resources to stay and protest did so, and their homes eventually became islands in a great sea of parking lots of IUPUI.

After IU moved to take ownership of the Lockefield Gardens housing complex in 1964,The Indianapolis Recorder reports that residents successfully organized direct resistance. But by 1969, the housing situation was dire and the neighborhood began to look as if it was beyond preserving as the Department of Highways began displacing thousands on the northern section of the Indiana Avenue area. The situation came to a head that summer, with two days of rioting on the Avenue by the remaining Black residents. Watching the neighborhood “go up like a tinderbox” (Recorder). IUPUI recognized that they were partly responsible for the misery and despair unfolding on their doorstep. Using interviews and informants among Indiana residents, university and city leadership came to understand the role that forced redevelopment had plated in seeding unrest during a particularly volatile moment for the nation’s Black neighborhoods. IUPUI acknowledges its role in the displacement in a confidential memo dated January 16, 1970, that describes remaining residents as a newly organized, considerable force. The memo reads, in part:

“In fact, as social and commercial services disappear from the neighborhood, tenants and homeowners are asking if the City and the University are not making the area so barren that people are forced to move out rather than ‘die on the vine.’ Institutions are behaving in ways which look like the same old obstacles which poor Black folk have experienced over past years. There is some local bitterness about the ‘paternalistic’ approach common to organizations purporting to serve the neighborhood. The white or ‘giving’ group usually selects the local leadership it will work with, and secondly the group selects the service it thinks the neighborhood needs. People are no longer willing to appear grateful for things they never asked for…..
Four informants indicated that when homeowners (and to some extent renters) are faced with loss of their home or displacement from familiar environs, anger and resentment are intense, and strong emotional outbreaks are (likely) to be centered around economic and non-economic matters. This phenomenon has been verified by a number of urban renewal studies…….
The suffering is increased for persons from a lower class neighborhood because they often lack the surplus of personal or economic resources necessary for coping with such a major disruption….
Since the purchase payments made to displaced homeowners and small businessmen are often inadequate for replacement at current values….”

There’s much more to the memo and it is utterly heart-wrenching to read. The memo is just a glimpse into a deliberate continued displacement effort that was essentially driving Blacks to become refugees in a city they’d helped build for 100 years. The Dean writing the memo seemed distressed by the human suffering caused by IUPUI annihilating a century of black neighborhoods and culture, but understood that he had a job to do. By the mid-1970s, Indiana Avenue and its surrounding neighborhoods had become as blighted as the city had falsely claimed many years before...a decline that began with City, University and State authorities.

In recent decades, Republican and Democratic mayors alike confronted and made moves to address the violent displacement of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Mayors teased the Black community with talk of redevelopment, but by the 1980s most of the actual streets once a part of the thriving Indiana Avenue district no longer existed. Over half of Lockefield Gardens was mowed down to build University Boulevard and expand Wishard Hospital (now Eskenazi Health). Remaining landmarks like The Walker Building, Crispus Attucks High School and some remaining homes in Ransom Place are essentially relics…fading but persistent ties to a thriving Black community. Between the expansive IUPUI campus, a large financial office building (One America Square), parking garages, Canal-side development and highway construction, the Indiana Avenue neighborhoods bare little resemblance to their storied past.

Madame Walker Theatre Indianapolis

Epilogue

The destruction of the Indiana Avenue neighborhoods amounts to the decimation of 100 years of Black neighborhoods and culture. It is traumatic to the entire Indianapolis Black community whether they lived or worked there or not. Many one-time Indiana Avenue-area Black homeowners and business owners couldn't relocate for the price of their original investments. And so business owners became employees, homeowners became tenants, and both groups were robbed of their ability to leave intergenerational capacity, stability, or wealth to their children.The destruction of the Avenue robbed future generations of the ability to even see more than one or two black businesses on a block at a time, or to see themselves in the faces of large groups of entrepreneurs and business owners. 400-500 acres of Black history was wiped out. 12,000 (or more) people were displaced. And it happened as a result of a plan coordinated by universities, hospitals, city leaders and state government. All of these are public institutions, making it a cruel twist of irony that the Black community had helped finance their own annihilation simply by participating in the American economy.

Revisionist narratives don’t allow new generations of civic leadership to learn from past mistakes, let alone quantify the effect it has on modern Black Indianapolis. How can economic and community (re)development plans for the Black community work if all the institutional partners, leaders, politicians, and people fundamentally are clueless about ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide of a Black cultural and business center? It was less than 60 years ago and directly affected three whole generations who lived through it, not to mention two more generations raised in the aftermath. Beyond the moral implications, current data show many racial disparities that suggest that Black Indianapolis has never recovered from ethnic cleansing. Black Homeownership is at 39% and there were only 1,025 Black businesses with employees in the entire greater metro area as of 2016. The issue of upwardly mobile Blacks being unable to get home loans and repair loans in the predominantly Black neighborhoods they already live in still exists. When they’re forced to leave Black neighborhoods for slightly more integrated middle class neighborhoods just to get a home loan, a false narrative persists: no one wants to live in a Black neighborhood. As if it was ever even a choice for most.

Understanding our history -- and how the financial system, tax code, and development incentives are built on top of Jim Crow laws of the past -- is key . And it’s not happening. This begs the question: when will the civic leadership as a whole be willing to come together to take radical action to help breakdown its walls of systemic racism like it came together to build them? When will institutions come together to support Black neighborhoods with the intensity that they came together in the past to destroy them?

Images of Crispus Attucks and President Eisenhower courtesy of the James Fox Collection - Indiana Historical Society.

New America Indianapolis is committed to exploring economic equity through residents' voices. If you have something to share, please contact Molly Martin. Have a reaction or response? Head to Twitter, find @mollygmartin and tag #NAIndyVoices.