This week Indianapolis Monthly sounded a familiar celebration of downtown living when it nostalgically remembered the city’s first “urban pioneers” who settled historic homes in the wake of postwar urban renewal. The enthusiasm for new urbanites, rehabilitating historic properties, and fresh development are typical threads of 21st-century city boosterism. Such rhetoric fancies that young well-educated bourgeois will reclaim the city from ruins, optimistically envisioning a future urban landscape of “apartment dog parks and rooftop pools.” Indianapolis Monthly’s enthusiasm for a radically transformed urban core is not at all unique and not necessarily completely misplaced. Nevertheless, its celebration of “urban pioneers” and development ignores the heritage of postwar urban displacement and evades the structural inequality that makes gentrification possible.
Indianapolis Monthly’s unvarnished celebration of development extends postwar urban renewal rhetoric and has its roots in late-19th century nationalist ideologies. The metaphor of new urbanites as “pioneers” evokes an imagination of America most clearly articulated at the end of the 19th century by historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner argued that American history and our very national personality are rooted in our experience of the American frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” Pioneers stood at the boundary of the frontier, where they appropriated “free land” based on a distinctively American individualism, self-reliance, ambition, and egalitarianism rooted in our presumed right to secure land and entertain the potential for prosperity.
When contemporary urban champions invoke the metaphors of frontier, pioneer, and wilderness they are participating in a longstanding discourse that assumes that transformations in the city and the nation’s broader spatial and social fabric are wrought in the interests of America. Observers have long described and rationalized urban renewal and transformation using that same language. In 1957, for instance, Baltimore’s The Sun indicated that “urban renewal has been described as the new American frontier.” The Sun invoked concepts that would have been familiar to Turner when it referred to the residents of one Baltimore block as “urban pioneers” who are “an example of the pioneering spirit, in the old sense of men and women working for themselves to create a better, brighter life though in a new-style wilderness of blight, an asphalt jungle. Without that spirit of self-help and individual initiative, the whole expensive machinery of urban renewal may grind away for years without changing more than the external appearances of slum housing.” The Sun’s analysis circumspectly approved urban renewal projects while it celebrated the residents who it presumed had sufficient initiative, ambition, and commitment to revive the dying city.
Most of the popular discourse on the transformation of urban communities came after the earliest postwar wave of urban displacement, highway construction, and city planning scattered long-term residential communities and accelerated the decline of historic homes. A 1978 article on the urban “housing frontier” proclaimed that the “mayhem the urban pioneer finds in most loft buildings is as difficult to clear as the wilderness tackled 200 years ago by less urban-minded pilgrims.” Some of those challenges were practical (e.g., aging structures), but the popular press focused much of its attention on criminality and slum stereotypes. A 1975 article repeated a theme common to many accounts of urban pioneers when it described the challenge of rehabilitating present-day slums, detailing a Dallas neighborhood that “is no longer the fashionable part of the city that it was at the turn of the century. There are more bars there than in most residential areas. Robberies often go unreported. City codes enforcement is lax, mainly because violations are not reported by its inhabitants–the aging, the minorities, and poor whites.” In 1989 an Indianapolis Star columnist repeated these themes when it headlined an article on urban neighborhoods as “Urban pioneers live in fear of crossfire.” The column concluded that a “massive two-story frame dwelling” settled by a family of “urban pioneers … seems like a mirage in a neighborhood of broken windows and vacant lots and scruffy cars full of idle young dudes.”
Many of these urban resettlement narratives cast the urban pioneer as a zealous defender of the nation’s historic fabric. In 2002 the President Emerita of Northern Arizona University wrote a column in the Arizona Republic describing herself as “an explorer by birth” who began to explore Phoenix neighborhoods after “a visit to Northern Arizona University’s leased offices” made her question “what the older residential neighborhoods of Phoenix were like before suburban sprawl.” She romanticized that she had since been “exploring central Phoenix’s residential streets through the eyes of a seasoned `urban pioneer.’ In the 1970s, when I worked in Manhattan, I participated in the rebirth of Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, Brooklyn’s historic and majestic brownstone neighborhoods. A decade later, I witnessed a similar rebirth of residential neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., such as Capitol Hill and Dupont Circle.” Her excitement for the historic homes that had survived urban renewal around her University’s offices did not illuminate the University’s role in that displacement, but her theme of “rebirth” fueled by new residents is common in “urban revitalization” discourses painting new residents as selflessly resurrecting historic neighborhoods.
Indianapolis Monthly’s assessment of downtown living in the Circle City sounds many of these same notes. The magazine describes a city that was not necessarily in ruins as much as it suffered from decline and banality, suggesting “downtown Indianapolis was a drowsy concrete hamlet that sleepwalked during the day and hit the snooze button at night.” In Indianapolis Monthly’s history of the city, in the early 1980s Mayor William Hudnut spearheaded the construction of Circle Centre Mall (which opened in September 1995) and championed a series of projects like securing the Colts in 1984 that “gave downtown a pulse, but he couldn’t give it a heart.” That “heart” came from the stream of new urbanites who moved into the city and “evangelized about the opportunity downtown.” Indianapolis Monthly acknowledges that most of these new “residents are Millennials and empty nesters, either affluent or disciplined enough to afford the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment.” It is not entirely clear how “discipline” functions in urban transformation, but the magazine inventories a host of likely attractions like professional sports, motorized scooters, and microbreweries (which the magazine describes as “America’s barometer of urban hipness”).
Indianapolis Monthly’s effort to celebrate the people who have moved downtown is perhaps heartfelt, but like nearly all gentrification discourses it strategically evades the structural forces that gutted the postwar city and ignores the working-class and African-American residents who continue to be displaced after an uninterrupted half-century of urban renewal. A host of “placemaking” projects and re-imaginations of the city share an aversion to acknowledging the ways urban renewal displaced a broad range of working-class and African-American communities, and like much of the urban design that followed postwar displacement the discussion about heritage, materiality, and place has often ignored descendant communities as well as contemporary stakeholders. Rather than imagine the city as a “frontier” to be colonized by affluent millennials seeking luxury rentals where they can live the experience economy, perhaps many of these new urbanites are seeking a place rooted in concrete heritage and contemporary equity.
In January 1923 the Westview Baptist Church at Belmont and Jones Street heralded an evening “KKK sermon” dubbed “The Truth About the Ku Klux Klan: Is It An American Institution?” The lecture by its Pastor J. Luther Jones was advertised in The Fiery Cross, the Klan’s Indianapolis-based newspaper, and there is no evidence that the church or its Pastor were particularly unusual in their public color line politics. The Klan’s story is well-known in Indiana history, but relatively little attention has been focused on the individuals who were members of the hooded order, and J. Luther Jones was probably typical of the many people who were at least publicly sympathetic to the Klan’s nationalist provincialism. The Klan’s secrecy makes it predictably challenging to identify individual Klansmen (or the women and children in its auxiliary chapters), but in the 1920s many Indianapolis residents were unapologetic about their allegiance to the Invisible Empire, and some residents were identified as Klansmen in period documents. In 1925 there were probably about 166,000 Hoosiers paying Klan dues, and research indicates that the 1920’s Klan represented every socioeconomic class and was strongest in central and northern Indiana (compare Lawrence Moore’s 1991 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928). The Klan was not an aberration as much as it was simply an enormously popular civic organization expressing the sentiments of many Hoosiers.
Many of the earliest Klan members were identified in 1923 by the American Unity League’s weekly newspaper Tolerance, which was perhaps the most vocal critic of the Indiana Klan. In early 1923 the newspaper stole a list of the first 12,000 Klan members and identified many of these Klan members, who included city officials, public servants, and prominent community figures. On March 31, 1923 the Indianapolis Star reprinted the names of 69 Indianapolis residents identified as Klansmen by Tolerance (starting here and ending here). Indiana Republican Party chair Lawrence Lyons was the most prominent person identified by Tolerance, and he immediately sent a letter to the American Unity League that was published in the Indianapolis Star renouncing his membership in the Klan.
However, nobody in the Tolerance inventory denied their membership in the Invisible Empire, and there were very few other public repercussions of the Klan affiliation among the 69 Indianapolis Klansmen. In April, for instance, Mayor Lew Shank indicated that it was up to the Police Chief to determine if the seven Indianapolis detectives and a patrolman identified as Klansmen could continue their service, and there is no evidence that any of the eight were reprimanded. The only one of the 69 Klansmen to lose his job apparently was Paul P. Sullivan, the Bell Captain at the Claypool Hotel, who (according to The Fiery Cross) refused to sign a statement affirming that he was not and had never been a Klan member. The Fiery Cross complained that Sullivan’s firing was attributable to “pressure of Roman Catholic and Jewish people whom it is understood predominate and represent a large portion of the patronage of the Claypool hotel.”
Tolerance singled out the eight Methodist preachers in the list of 69 men, though there is no evidence that Klan xenophobia was unique to Methodists. For instance, Luther Jones’ Westview Baptist, the West Morris Street Christian Church at 1534 West Morris Street, and the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church on Division Street were among the West Indianapolis churches whose “100% American” social events were reported by The Fiery Cross. The only West Indianapolis Pastor in the Tolerance list was Claude L. Griffith, who became Pastor of the Blaine Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church at 1427 Blaine Avenue in 1916. Born in Illinois in 1875, Griffith came to Blaine Avenue from Poseyville, Indiana, where had been a Pastor in a Methodist Episcopal church. Griffith lived in West Indianapolis at 1245 Shepard Street, just blocks from Luther Jones’ Westview Baptist Church. The First M.E. Church was re-named Blaine Avenue M.E. Church in 1905, and Griffith became Pastor of the Church in 1916. Griffith may have left little evidence of his Klan membership, but he clearly was associated with Klansmen and appeared at the hooded order’s social functions through the 1920’s. For instance, at the August 1924 dedication of the Belmont Avenue United Brethren Church, The Fiery Cross reported that Griffith preached at an evening service following an afternoon talk by Judge Charles Orbison. Orbison was among the most prominent figures in Indiana Klandom, serving as legal counsel to the American Saloon League, the federal Prohibition director in Indiana between 1919 and 1921, Chosen Potentate of the Murat Temple, and Grand Master of the Grand Masonic Lodge of Indiana, but he was perhaps best known as the Indiana Klan’s legal counsel and a member of the “Imperial Kloncilium,” the Imperial Wizard’s highest advisory board. Orbison had been identified as a Klansman by Tolerance, but like virtually everybody on the Tolerance list Orbison made no public response and continued his advocacy for Klan causes. Orbison was the lawyer defending the Klan in 1928 when the Attorney General’s office attempted to make the group illegal, with the Indianapolis Star identifying Orbison as the “national vice president of the Klan.” Orbison’s death in July 1933 was greeted by effusive obituaries in the state and national press, but as with everybody in the Tolerance inventory not a word was spoken of his lifelong advocacy for the hooded order.
Claude Griffith became Pastor of the Morris Street M.E. Church at 329 East Morris Street by 1925. Like many Klansmen, Griffith was a zealous advocate for Prohibition and a host of moral causes, and when he retired in 1934 he became an officer of the Indiana Anti-Saloon League. Such activism against minor vices was typical of public Klan moralism. In 1923, for instance, a coalition of Klan members and West Indianapolis neighbors billing themselves as the “West Indianapolis Law Enforcement League” were patrolling pool halls and soda shops that were believed to be illegally selling alcohol. In March 1923 The Indianapolis News reported that like the hooded order’s ranks the League’s membership was secret, indicating that “the organization, the names and officers of which have not been made public, was formed a few weeks ago to watch for and report law violations in the district.” In April The Fiery Cross repeated an article from The Indianapolis Star from four days earlier that the league was “formed among church members” and planned to hire detectives to monitor West Indianapolis bootlegging. The League even petitioned the city to give it genuine police powers, but in May the city rebuffed the request.
Most of the pastors identified as Klansmen did not acknowledge their sympathies to the Invisible Empire in the press, but William Henry Brightmire was unapologetically proud of his Klan membership. In December 1922 The Fiery Cross reported that Brightmire, Pastor of Indianapolis’ Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church, had been publicly identified as a Klansman and “received numerous letters from men who desired to join the society.” A month later Brightmire appeared as a featured speaker at a Klan rally in Decauter, Illinois, and in April The Fiery Cross reported that “Rev. Wm. H. Brightmire will address a 100% American meeting held at Hillside Christian church.”
Brightmire was born in 1862 in Huntington County, Indiana, and between 1884 and 1917 he served congregations in Elkhart, Sheridan, and Evansville as well as Ohio congregations in Dayton, Cleveland, and Akron. In late 1917 Brightmire came to Indianapolis where he became Pastor of the Maple Road Methodist Episcopal Church, and then a year later he was named Pastor of Fletcher Place ME Church. By the time Brightmire was identified as a Klansmen in Tolerance in March 1923, he was Pastor of Wesley ME Church at the corner of West New York and North Elder Streets in Haughville. Brightmire continued to lecture for Klan causes or at Klan events through summer 1923, events that sometimes bore the apparent support of his church: in July, for instance, The Fiery Cross advertised a “fiery cross demonstration and lawn social” to be held under the “auspices [of] Wesley ME Church—Pastor Brightmire.” In August Brightmire presided over a Klansman’s funeral, but in September Indiana’s Methodist Episcopal conference met and the Indianapolis News reported that “Leave of absence has been granted W. H. Brightmire. pastor of Wesley Chapel, and he was left without an assignment.”
Brightmire’s ministerial career was over, but he continued to advocate for the Klan. In October 1924 The Fiery Cross referred to Brightmire as the “Imperial Lecturer,”and when Brightmire was called as a witness at a 1926 trial The Indianapolis Star called him a “former national Ku Klux Klan lecturer.” In September 1928 Brightmire appeared at an Indianapolis meeting organized by the Klan, with the “former Methodist minister” accusing Democratic Presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith of being “wet” and reviving support for the Klan. Brightmire accepted membership applications after his lecture, but the Klan had collapsed as a political force in the wake of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson’s 1925 murder conviction and Stephenson’s subsequent revelations of the Klan’s bribery and control of Indiana politics. Nevertheless, Brightmire told his Indianapolis audience that the Klan “was here to stay.” By his 1928 appearance Brightmire had become critical of Stephenson’s foray into politics, and the former Pastor concluded that and that “’The Ku Klux Klan is not going into politics again. … We only stand for the things that are clean.’” In January 1929 Brightmire registered as a lobbyist for the “Indianapolis Protestant Club,” but there is no evidence Brightmire or the Klan maintained their legislative influence, and in 1931 he and his wife moved to Evanston Illinois to live with a son. Brightmire preached at his former Indianapolis churches when visiting the Circle City in the 1930s, and he died in November 1939.
The Methodist pastors included in Tolerance’s Klan members list mostly left a much less clear record of their allegiance to the Klan. Delbert L. Thomas was Pastor of the Barth Place ME Church when he was revealed to be a member of the Invisible Empire. Thomas was born in Michigan in about 1860 and became Pastor of the Merritt Place ME Church in 1909. Merritt Place united two former congregations on Indianapolis’ near-Westside, the Blackford Street M.E. church and the California Street M.E. church. The new congregation constructed a church in the same neighborhood at the corner of California and New York Streets that was dedicated in September 1911, and after that dedication Thomas was re-assigned to First Methodist Church in Seymour. Thomas was a Pastor in Aurora, Indiana in 1920 and came to Indianapolis’ Barth Place ME Church in 1923, where he was when Tolerance included him amongst the Klan Pastors in the city. In September 1924 Thomas was replaced at Barth Place ME Church, and he moved to Warsaw Indiana where he died in 1933.
William Everett Cissna was Pastor of the West Washington Street M.E. Church at Warman and West Washington when he was identified as a member of the hooded order. Born in 1877, Cissna had been a school teacher in southern Indiana at the turn of the century and became a Methodist Pastor in 1908, coming to the West Washington Street church as its Pastor in about 1918. Cissna moved from the West Washington Street church to a Kentucky congregation in 1925, where he eventually returned to teaching and wrote two religious tracts before his death in 1968.
Nearly all of these Pastors escaped any apparent repercussions from their unmasking as Klansmen. Ray A. Ragsdale was Pastor of the Brightwood ME Church when he was revealed to be a Klan member in 1923. Ragsdale became a Pastor in Vincennes early in the 20th century, and like many fellow Methodists and later Klansmen he was active in the prohibition movement; at a September 1908 Methodist conference on prohibition and local option laws, for instance, Ragsdale was part of a Vincennes quartet to perform the tune “The Saloon Must Go.” During World War I Ragsdale was Pastor of Broad Ripple ME Church and assumed the same position at Brightwood in 1919. On the eve of his unmasking as a Klansman in late March 1923, Ragsdale’s Brightwood ME Church had as its featured speaker William H. Brightmire speaking on “Christian citizenship.” Brightmire’s affiliations with the Klan were certainly public knowledge, and the event was advertised in The Fiery Cross. In July the Brightwood ME Church had a “100% ice cream social” at the church that likewise was reported in the Klan’s newspaper, but Ragsdale would remain a prominent figure in Indiana Methodism. In December 1923 Ragsdale was elected President of the Methodist Minsters’ Association of Indianapolis. Ragsdale became Pastor at the Fletcher Place ME Church in September 1925, and at his death in 1941 Ragsdale was a Pastor in a Methodist church in New Albany.
After hosting a Klan lecture at his Westview Baptist Church in January 1923, in July Pastor Luther Jones proposed to have a ceremony at his church at which a cross would be burnt on the church’s lawn. The day before the event, Jones secured a fireworks permit from the city and acknowledged that “he understood there was a plan to burn a fiery cross, emblematic of the Ku Klux Klan, at the lawn fete.” By the next day, an 18-foot cross wrapped in oil-soaked burlap had been set into a posthole in the church’s lawn in preparation for the evening’s conflagration, but the cross-burning would violate the fireworks permit. When police arrived to stop the cross-burning a crowd of 7000 to 10,000 people had already gathered, greeting the police “with hisses and catcalls and cries of `Set a match to it,’ and `Don’t let the cops stop us.’” Jones was compelled to encourage the crowd to hold the cross-burning at a rural location, and he led a parade out West Morris Street where the cross was set afire. Upon returning to Belmont Street three smaller crosses were set aflame within view of the church in nearby Rhodius Park.
John Luther Jones may have been relatively typical in his sympathies to the Klan, even though there is no evidence he was a dues-paying member. Jones was born in Tennessee in 1887 and was a minister living in Mishawaka Indiana when he first married in 1907. He had moved to Lenawee County Michigan by 1910, where he identified himself in the census as a “Free Baptist” minister, probably a Freewill Baptist congregation. After his wife died in 1915 Jones re-married and was serving as a minister in Indiana, and after moving to 545 North Tibbs Street in Haughville in about 1919 Jones became Pastor of Westview Baptist Church in 1921. By 1926 Jones was no longer Pastor at Westview Baptist, and the family had moved to Peoria Illinois by 1930, where Jones worked for the Caterpillar Company as a tool designer and retired in 1943. Luther Jones moved to California in about 1952, where he was struck by a car and killed in November 1968.
The most surprising dimension of the Klan’s 1920s popularity was not necessarily clergymen’s membership in the hooded order; instead, the more unsettling reality is that the Klan was never an aberration to an overall history of democracy and Hoosier civility or limited to a particular range of residents. Instead, it was cut from a rather familiar provincialism, nationalist fervor, and uneasiness with the erosion of White privilege that found followers in a host of neighborhoods representing a wide range of backgrounds. Those Klansmen and their families practiced their faith in many different churches, so the record of Methodists is not especially unique. Many of these churches have disappeared, but others became part of contemporary congregations in a city where many of the earliest Klan-sympathetic churches still stand. These 69 people are not deviants from Hoosier values as much as they are part of a national pattern of xenophobia that remains part of contemporary life, and their history becomes more compelling if we can see this Klan landscape and heritage within broader patterns of provincialism, xenophobia, and racism.
On July 15, 1920 massive fences were erected on each side of Lucien Meriwethers’ home at 2257 North Capitol Avenue: to the south, Gabriel and Goldie Slutzky erected a 10’ high fence, and to the north Mary Grooms built a six-foot fence. Meriwether was an African-American dentist, and his purchase of the property in May 1920 made his family the first people of color to settle on North Capitol. The Meriwethers’ White neighbors instantly banded together to form the North Capitol Protective Association, one of many inter-war neighborhood collectives championing residential segregation. These little neighborhood groups rarely figure prominently in histories of racism in Indianapolis, which have tended to justifiably focus on the Ku Klux Klan’s rapid growth and collapse in the 1920s (compare Emma Lou Thornbrough’s 1961 Klan analysis; Kenneth T. Jackson’s 1967 study, The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930; and the definitive Indiana study, Leonard Moore’s 1997 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928). Nevertheless, these rather anonymous neighborhood associations were influential advocates for segregation in the 1920s and 1930s.
The newly organized North Capitol Avenue neighbors initially tried to discourage the Meriwethers from moving in by making Lucien Meriwether “an offer exceeding [the] price he paid for it.” However, Meriwether and his family rebuffed the Protective Association’s offer, and the Association admitted to the Indianapolis Star that they financed the “spite fences” around the Meriwethers’ home. The fences surrounding the Meriwethers’ home were a novel mechanism to discourage African-American residential integration. Most examples of “spite fences” were the product of feuding neighbors rather than racist division (for instance, compare this 1902 case on Dugdale Street, a 1904 case on Indianapolis’ south side, and this very early Boston example dated to 1852). At least one early 20th-century Indianapolis wall was intended to separate bourgeois homes from surrounding working-class housing: in 1907 a five-foot concrete wall topped with an iron fence was built separating the wealthy residents of Woodruff Place from newly built cottages on Tecumseh Street. Read the rest of this entry
Around World War II artist Ralph Louis Temple painted a series of oil studies of his Indianapolis neighborhood. Temple’s family had lived on Minerva Street since 1866, when Ralph’s great grandfather Carter Temple Sr. came to the Circle City. Ralph Temple’s painting featured the double at 546-548 Minerva Street, the neighboring corner home at 550 Minerva, and William D. McCoy Public School 24 in the background along North Street. Carter Temple Jr.’s granddaughter Cecelia was still living in the home at 550 Minerva Street in 1978, the last of a century of Temple family to live on Minerva Street. Her brother Ralph’s paintings of the neighborhood cast it in a quite different light than the dominant rhetoric and imagery that aspired to displace families like the Temples.
There are numerous images of the neighborhood in the postwar period, when it was one of many historically African-American urban communities that were gradually being displaced by a host of renewal schemes. The Temples’ home for more than a century would fall to the wrecking ball when Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) was expanding in the late 1970’s. The city of Indianapolis was simultaneously razing a host of businesses along Indiana Avenue, and in the 1960’s the interstate was being constructed through the predominately African-American near-Westside while it sliced through much of the eastside and southside as well. As blocks of buildings fell along Indiana Avenue in the 1970’s the city also lobbied for the demolition of Lockefield Gardens, which closed in 1976. Lockefield was a segregated Public Works Administration community that opened in 1938 across the street from 550 Minerva Street, with School 24 in its midst. In July, 1983 demolition finally removed all but seven of the original Lockefield buildings. Read the rest of this entry
In 1908 Confederate Veteran reported that a “movement was inaugurated to erect a monument on the campus of the University at Chapel Hill to the boys who put aside their books and doffed uniforms, shouldered their guns, and went to the front in defense of a cause their fathers knew to be right.” That ambition to commemorate the University’s Confederate heritage placed Chapel Hill among many early 20th-century Southern communities memorializing the vanquished Confederacy. A thousand people eventually gathered in June, 1913 “under the oaks of the University campus” to dedicate the memorial to the University of North Carolina’s Confederate soldiers, one of 23 Confederate monuments dedicated in the US in 1913. That monument today known as “Silent Sam” was one of 185 monuments erected at the height of Confederate memorialization between 1909 and 1913 (compare the Southern Poverty Law Center’s inventory of Confederate monuments Google doc). The Chapel Hill dedication came a half century after Gettysburg, when Jim Crow segregation was firmly entrenched in the South and a spirit of White reconciliation characterized much of the spirit of public discourse between North and South. A month after the Chapel Hill ceremony, Confederate veterans (including several Chapel Hill speakers) would gather at Gettysburg with their former combatants in one of the most public statements of shifting regional sentiments and White reconciliation.
Last week that Chapel Hill monument was toppled during a protest, and activism to remove the monument reveals some familiar divides over Confederate material heritage while it reflects the distinctive 21st-century contours of that discourse. On the one hand, the discussion in Chapel Hill illuminates how digitized historical data has shaped an increasingly well-informed discourse over the Confederacy’s memorial landscape. We know an enormous amount about the men and women who spearheaded the movement to erect the Chapel Hill memorial as well as the history of the monument space in the subsequent century, primarily because of the UNC Archives’ thorough documentation of the monument’s heritage. On the other hand, much of the defense of such monuments remains firmly committed to the same neo-Confederate ideology that was hatched in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, and the University and many of North Carolina’s highest elected officials have been reluctant if not militantly resistant to uprooting the monument. Read the rest of this entry
This week Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) celebrated the impending construction of five “gateways” to campus, architectural features designed to identify the campus boundaries as students, staff, and visitors enter the near-Westside university. The most prominent gateway will be at West and Michigan Streets, a 52′-tall limestone and steel monolith that will be lit at night and be neighbored two blocks south by a more modest marker at New York and West Streets. Alongside these gateways a “series of landscape mounds along West Street between the two gateway markers also will visually distinguish the campus from the surrounding city.” This exercise in placemaking takes its aesthetic inspiration from the campus itself, invoking the architectural forms of the University Library (designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, completed in 1994), Campus Center (SmithGroup JJR, 2008), and Eskenazi Hall (Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf, 2005). The gateways aspire to fashion a material landscape stylistically consistent with these existing buildings, though the media coverage of the gateways has featured the sheer scale of the monoliths, which are “large enough to be seen from an airplane.” Chancellor Nasser Paydar exalted that “anyone on a plane approaching Indianapolis, we want them to see this is how proud they are with this campus.” Read the rest of this entry
In 1915 Tom Brooks was murdered in Somerville, Tennessee by a mob of 100-200 White men. Brooks had been accused of murdering a wealthy White planter and his plantation manager, and when he was being returned to Somerville to stand trial a week later, a mob seized him from police. The vigilantes took Brooks to a nearby railroad bridge where he was hung, and Brooks’ murder was followed by a commonplace ritual of photographing the victim. Arkansas’ Batesville Daily Guard was among the newspapers that reported “when the news spread that there was a negro hanging beneath the bridge, all the town folk of Fayette [County] turned out to view the work of the mob. Hundreds of kodaks clicked all morning at the scene and picture card photographers installed a portable printing plant on the ground and reaped a harvest in selling postcards showing a photograph of the lynched negro” (compare press coverage including The Crisis, Nashville’s The Tennessean, and Vicksburg, Mississippi’s The Daily Herald).
On April 26th the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opens in Montgomery, Alabama commemorating Brooks and over 4400 Black victims of lynching. In preparation for its opening, 60 Minutes’ Oprah Winfrey reported on the museum and the heritage of lynching, and the report included examples of the scores of lynching images that were taken during the racial terror killings of people like Tom Brooks. 60 Minutes chose to show images of lynching in prime time, even as they acknowledged that these pictures are enormously unsettling things: contemporary White audiences are perhaps ashamed to acknowledge the social tolerance for (if not acceptance of) vigilante mob murders; many people are repulsed by the images’ ghastly materiality of torture; and a few consider lynching an anomaly safely lodged in the past, if not a misrepresentation of objective history (compare David Horowitz’s argument that the museum is a “racist project” and suggestion that “many” lynching victims “were guilty of heinous crimes”). Read the rest of this entry
On December 20th, the Memphis monument dedicated to Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was quietly removed by Memphis Greenspace. The non-profit had purchased the former Forrest Park (known as Health Sciences Park since 2013) earlier that day for $1000, giving it control over the Forrest monument. For the same price the city simultaneously sold its easement on Fourth Bluff Park, which held a Jefferson Davis monument (and a less well-known bust of Confederate soldier and Memphis journalist James Harvey Mathes). With $250,000 raised from a host of unspecified sources, Memphis Greenspace removed the monuments, and they remain hidden in storage awaiting their final fate.Embed from Getty Images
Above: The pedestal for the Forrest monument remains where his statue stood since its dedication in 1905 (image Houston Cofield/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Where the Forrest and Davis monuments once stood there are now empty pedestals or foundations that frame a whole new public discussion on heritage and memory. As Confederate monuments are removed from a host of public spaces, the absences they leave confirm shifting attitudes toward Confederate heritage even as they continue to evoke neo-Confederate memory and spark White nationalist activism. On January 6th, for instance, a handful of White nationalists protested near Health Sciences Park displaying the banner “`Diversity’ = White Genocide.” Another group unable to penetrate the circle of police surrounding Health Sciences Park drove around Memphis’ freeway in a “rolling protest” waving Confederate flags; however, some of those protestors distanced themselves from the unabashed neo-Nazis who gathered at the park that once held the Forrest statue.
Dedicated in May, 1905, the Memphis Bedford Forrest monument memorialized perhaps the most polarizing of all Confederates. Forrest’s obituary in the New York Times labeled him “notoriously bloodthirsty and revengeful,” invoking Forrest’s role in the April, 1864 battle at Fort Pillow where his soldiers were accused of murdering a large number of African-American soldiers who had surrendered or were wounded. In 1880 one newspaper reported on the Forrest monument proposal and complained that “General N.B. Forrest’s treason is to be commemorated by a monument at Memphis.” Nevertheless, Forrest was celebrated by unrepentant Confederates as an unschooled but tactically brilliant field general. In 1891, Nashville’s The Daily American encouraged its readers to contribute to the Forrest monument fund, indicating that there “was no braver General in the Confederacy than N.B. Forrest; no officer more daring and heroic. The monument should be worthy of the man.” Planning for a Forrest monument began shortly after his death in 1877, and in 1901 the foundation for the statue was laid. The most sacred of all relics was buried at the monument site in November, 1904, when Forrest and his wife were exhumed and reburied at the feet of the monument’s pedestal. The couple remains buried in the park now, but it is expected that they will be re-buried in Elmwood Cemetery, where both were originally interred. Read the rest of this entry
The heroes of Confederate hagiography long laid an unchallenged claim to Southern public spaces and American White imagination. However, few if any Confederates immortalized in the rebellion’s memorial landscape are still viewed as untroubled icons of honor and manhood. As monuments to neo-Confederate heroes are now rapidly being removed from public space, one of the most interesting Confederate icons is Robert E. Lee’s famed horse Traveller. Traveller is himself a symbol used to narrate the Confederate cause, and he has had the status of relic since the 19th century. The most sacred relics are the physical remain of a venerated figure’s body or the things with which their body was intimately contacted (e.g., clothing). A relic is some object or material place that is experienced as an active presence representing values that followers aspire to reproduce (see Gary Vikan’s description of relics). Traveller may seem a distinctive figure to cast as a relic, his status largely beholden to his connection to Lee. Nevertheless, Traveller’s materiality provides an illuminating story of Confederate history-making.
Perhaps the most famous of all Southern horses, Traveller was born in Greenbrier County, Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1857. The horse that became known as Traveller was an 1100-pound 64-inch high American Saddlebred sired by a race horse known as Grey Eagle. Traveller’s owner J.W. Johnston originally named the horse after the Mississippi Senator “Jeff Davis,” who of course would become famous as the President of the Confederate States of America. Despite Johnson’s 1908 claim to have sold the horse to Lee, he sold Jeff Davis in 1861 to Captain Joseph M. Broun, who re-named him Greenbrier. In 1861 Broun was serving alongside Robert E. Lee, and in Traveller lore Lee reportedly took a fancy to Broun’s horse. Broun’s brother Thomas wrote in 1886 that “in the fall of 1861, he [Lee] first saw this horse and took a great fancy to it. He called it his colt, and said he would need it before the war was over. When the general saw my brother on this horse he had something pleasant to say to him about `my colt,’ as he designated this horse.” Lee resigned from the US Army on April 20, 1861 when Virginia seceded, and he would assume command of Virginia’s secessionist forces three days later. Thomas Broun indicated that his brother sold Greenbrier to Lee in February 1862. Lee renamed the horse Traveller. Read the rest of this entry
This post also appears on Invisible Indianapolis
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.
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.
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. Read the rest of this entry