Racist Spite and Residential Segregation: Housing and the Color Line in Inter-War Indianapolis

The Meriwethers’ future home at 2257 North Capitol (at red arrow) was about a decade old when it appeared on this 1898 Sanborn Insurance map.

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.

In October 1907 this five-foot high concrete “spite fence” separating Woodruff Place from modest neighboring homes appeared in The Indianapolis Star.

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.

The North Capitol Avenue neighborhood along Fall Creek began to be subdivided and developed in about 1889, and it was a uniformly White residential neighborhood in 1920. The Meriwethers’ arrival triggered a frenzied defense of the neighborhoods’ exclusivity, even though the Meriwethers were African-American bourgeoisie. Lucien Meriwether’s mother Ella Wilcox Meriwether moved her children to Indianapolis from Kentucky in 1908 after the death of her husband. Ella had been a teacher in Guthrie, Kentucky, and she brought her family to Indianapolis seeking a better education for her children. The family would indeed become enormously well-educated, with six of the children earning Master’s degrees. Lucien Meriwether, for instance, trained at the Indiana University School of Dentistry and became a dentist, as did his brother Sirdastion, and the brothers served in World War One; the four Meriwether daughters all became teachers.

After the enormous fences were built around the Meriwether home, Lucien Meriwether took the Slutzkys and Mary Grooms to court, suing his neighbors for $10,000, and he secured an injunction against fences taller than six feet. Grooms, though, was undeterred by the injunction, and she extended the height of her fence several feet the day after an Indianapolis court barred further construction. As the case awaited a hearing the Protective Association’s President, Ira Holmes, told the Indianapolis Star that “another house in the same block has been sold to a colored family…. [and] should the residents be unable to prevent the sale, more fencing methods will be attempted.” Two days later, fences began to be erected around that second African-American home at 2246 North Capitol, where Allen Charles Simms had moved. The Simms’ eight-room home across the street from the Meriwether home had been advertised for sale in early June, and when Simms rebuffed the neighbors’ effort to purchase the property they began to erect fences around the Simms’ home.

In April 1921 The Indianapolis Star reported that the fences around the Meriwethers’ home must be removed.

In April 1921 a judge ruled in favor of Meriwether and awarded him $150 from Grooms and $350 from the Slutzkys. The court ruled that the fences must be reduced to six-feet in height by the following day. Ira Holmes defiantly declared that “the Capitol Avenue Protective Association would stand behind the fight to prevent colored people from moving northward on North Capitol avenue, and the appeal of the decision … was but one of the steps to be taken to uphold the stand of the organization against the colored citizens.” However, Grooms and the Slutzkys’ appeal to have their case reviewed failed in January 1923, and the Meriwether family would remain in the home until the 1960s.

The 1920s have a well-deserved reputation for Ku Klux Klan influence in Indianapolis, but much of the lobbying for residential segregation was conducted by rather typical men and women like the Meriwethers’ neighbors. For instance, the Meriwethers’ fence-building neighbor Gabriel Slutzky did not seem to be a stereotypical Klan foot soldier. Slutzky’s parents migrated from Russia in about 1882, and Gabriel Slutzky was born in 1884, when his family was living on South Meridian Street in Indianapolis. Gabriel’s father Henry was a charter member of Knesses Israel synagogue, which began construction of its synagogue at Eddy and Merrill Streets in April 1892 with Henry Slutzky as a member of the “committee on decoration.” Knesses Israel, sometimes referred to as the “Russian Shul” because of its predominately Russian membership, was among a handful of Orthodox southside synagogues until it closed in 1961, eventually merging with Sharah Tefilla and Ezras Achim to form the United Orthodox Hebrew Congregation in 1966.

After bartending in his father’s saloon, Gabriel opened his own liquor store and saloon in 1912 on the overwhelmingly African-American Indiana Avenue. Gabriel advertised his new liquor store in the African-American newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder and indicated that “I respectfully ask the colored men of the city to come in and inspect my place and the goods and prices offered” (the enterprise went bankrupt in March 1917). In March, 1940 (10 years after Slutzky’s death) an Indianapolis Recorder article pointed out the irony of Slutzky managing a business in the African-American near-Westside and then resisting an African-American neighbor: “Many years ago [in] the case of Mary Grooms, et al. versus Meriwether … one Gabriel Slutsky [sic], a Jew who had allegedly operated a business establishment in Indiana Avenue at one time, catering particularly to colored, objected to Dr. Lucian B. Meriwether as a neighbor and built a high fence about his home.”

North Capitol Protective Association President Ira M. Holmes had a more problematic history. Holmes was a criminal defense lawyer who began to practice in 1898, and a 1950 obituary described him as “Among the last of the old school of legal stalwarts, who often resorted to fisticuffs to back up their contention.” Holmes was living at 2164 North Capitol Street in 1921, and he was just a few doors away from Lucien Meriwether’s family in 1922 at 2149 North Capitol (he eventually moved to 510 North Meridian in 1924). Holmes defended “hundreds of bootleggers” during Prohibition, but his most infamous client was D.C. Stephenson. Indiana Klan Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson had spearheaded the Indiana Klan’s rapid growth and wide-reaching influence in the early 1920s, but his downfall came after a March, 1925 rape, kidnapping, and assault that ended in the death of Madge Oberholtzer in April 1925. Holmes served as Stephenson’s criminal defense lawyer in his 1925 trial, which ended with a 2nd-degree murder conviction against Stephenson in November 1925 (Holmes also defended Stephenson’s bodyguards Earl Klinck and Earl Gentry in the same Oberholtzer trial, both of whom were found innocent).

Like nearly all of the inter-war neighborhood associations, the Capitol Avenue Protective Association was a very short-lived group; they joined with the Mapleton Civic Organization and North Central Civic Association in December, 1920 advocating racial segregation of the school system, but after their unsuccessful defense of residential segregation the Capitol Avenue Protective Association disappeared; nearly all of its members had moved to other exclusively White neighborhoods.

In December 1922 Daisydean Deeds’ White Supremacy League advertised a membership meeting in the Ku Klux Klan newspaper The Fiery Cross.

Yet another group, the White Supremacy League, first appeared in the local press in June, 1922, when they and the Mapleton Civic Association jointly appeared before the Indianapolis school board urging public school segregation. The founder of the White Supremacy League was Mrs. Otto Deeds, who wrote poetry under her own name, Daisydean Deeds. She held membership meetings in her home with her son Paul serving as Secretary, and in December, 1922 a meeting of the group at the Deeds’ home was covered by the Klan’s newspaper, The Fiery Cross. The Klan newspaper reported that the League was “in need of some big, red-blooded all white gentlemen to serve on its board … We already have lawyers, merchants, court Judges, governors, United States and state senators, and several splendid, fearless white men who are members and have welcomed such an opportunity–that of membership in the White Supremacy League–to express themselves.” In a long January 1923 defense of White supremacy and segregation, Deeds wrote in The Fiery Cross that an appropriate resolution to “the race problem …  will fittingly confine both races separately into their own distinctive realms of literacy, morality, sociology and politics. It can be accomplished no other way.” Members of the White Supremacy League pledged not to employ Blacks or shop at stores that employed Blacks, a pledge that the Mapleton Civic Association also agreed to in March, 1924. However, Deeds’ organization appeared to fall inactive in 1923.

In January 1926 The Indianapolis Recorder published the names of the officers of the White People’s Protective League.

In January 1926 another neighborhood collective was formed to defend the segregation of a neighborhood just north of the Meriwethers’ home. Circulars were sent to realtors by a group of residents along West 29th and 30th Streets calling themselves the White Peoples’ Protective League and indicating that “the purpose of the league was for segregation of races.” A White resident along West 29th Street had reached an agreement to sell their home to an African American, and the White Peoples’ Protective League was formed to advocate for segregation. The group’s Vice-President, Omer S. Whiteman, acknowledged to The Indianapolis News that it sent “out a statement to real estate dealers, lawyers and others, designed to reflect conditions as we find them. There are about 30,000 white people in the territory immediately affected. Believing that it is good for neither the whites nor the blacks for the two races to commingle, we are interested in creating sentiment against the introduction of black citizens into white territory. …. All the people, more than 1,000 in number, who have already signed the league’s declaration are peace-lovers, headed by the ministers in their communities.”

Many of the White Peoples’ League members were certainly affiliated with or at least sympathetic to the Klan, but in January 1926 the Klan was in a moment of transition in Indiana. On the one hand, they were fresh off a clean sweep of the 1925 Indianapolis elections, led by Klan-backed Mayor John Duvall (Duvall quickly began installing Klan members in appointments; e.g., he named the Exalted Cyclops of Marion County Klan No. 3 George Elliott the new Superintendent of Parks). On the other hand, two weeks after the election former Indiana Klan Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson was convicted of murder for the March, 1925 Madge Oberholtzer sexual assault and murder. The unrepentant Stephenson eroded much of the Klan’s support, and he fully expected Klan-backed Governor Edward L. Jackson to intercede and release him from jail. When he was not released, Stephenson publicly revealed the extent of graft he had engineered in city and state government. A series of 1927 newspaper stories resulted in Duvall being convicted of accepting illegal campaign contributions and resigning from office, and it was revealed that the Mayor had agreed that Stephenson would have the right to review and approve all his appointees. Duvall’s attorney was Ira Holmes, the North Capitol Protective Association President who also defended Stephenson, and Holmes made an unsuccessful attempt to fill the vacated Mayoral position after Duvall’s resignation. Governor Edward Jackson was accused of bribery, but he escaped conviction and completed his term.

A 1901 history of famous men of Jay County, Indiana included this picture of future White Peoples’ Protective League President Omer S. Whiteman.

The most vocal member of the White Peoples’ Protective League may have been Vice-President Omer Whiteman, an Indiana University-trained lawyer from a prominent Jay County, Indiana family. He was a public school advocate, a member of the Presbyterian Church in his hometown of Portland Indiana as well as Tabernacle Presbyterian in Indianapolis, and a lifelong temperance champion (he ran for Governor on a “Dry” ticket in 1940). In January 1926 he was living at 354 West 29th Street, not far from the League President Royal B. Spellman at 506 West 29th Street; Vice-President Ada Colvin Booth lived a street away at 145 West 30th Street.

The White Peoples’ Protective League attempted to legalize segregation by championing an ordinance decreeing that in a majority White or Black neighborhood a prospective buyer from the minority racial group was required to secure the consent of their neighbors (more or less the same approach was first tried in Baltimore in 1910 in a code often known as the West Ordinance, which was among a series of similar codes declared unconstitutional in 1917).

The White Peoples’ Protective League proposed an approach that was not substantively different than Baltimore’s, arguing that a new resident must win the approval of their neighbors before they could actually live in a home they had otherwise purchased legally. The Protective League began to draft legislation in early 1926, eager to prevent an African American from moving into a home purchased on West 29th Street (directly across the street from Royal Spellman’s home). On February 9, 1926 Omer Whiteman wrote to The Indianapolis News and reported that “A suit in damages has been filed against a white seller and the colored buyer by a near-by property owner. It is contended that while a white person may have the right to sell his property in a white neighborhood to a colored person, and the colored person may have the right to buy, each is liable to all the property owners in the neighborhood if depreciation in values of properties follows.” Royal Spellman was quoted in the Indianapolis Recorder arguing that “`Passage of the ordinance will stabilize real estate values, and give honest citizens confidence in city officials.’”

In March, 1926 the Indianapolis City Council passed an ordinance that in neighborhoods occupied principally by White or Black residents a property could not be sold without the consent of the other property owners. The law began to work its way through judicial reviews, and in February 1927 Whiteman orchestrated a meeting at Tomlinson Hall in favor of the enacted segregation ordinance, where speakers championing the ordinance included Rev. Harvey H. Sheldon, pastor of the Fountain Street Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Joseph Granville Moore, pastor of the Capitol Avenue M. E. Church. The Indianapolis ordinance was modeled on a New Orleans law, and in March 1927 that New Orleans law was struck down by the Supreme Court. Indianapolis ordinance proponents recognized their law likewise became illegal.

On July 9, 1927 the real estate sales listings included this notice for the sale of 501 West 29th Street.

With the segregation ordinance rejected, on July 10, 1927 Horace O. Wright purchased a home at 501 West 29th Street. Wright was a White realtor who apparently purchased the West 29th Street home for $5000 from owner Louis Escol on behalf of an African-American couple, William and Dona Hill Goodwin. When Escol’s neighbors learned that he was planning to sell the home, Escol received a series of letters “from the White People’s Protective League concerning the sale of the property to Negro buyers. … And these letters ranged from threats of intimidation, to entreaties to Mr. Escol, not to sell the property to Negroes. Mr. Escol also stated in substance that members of the White People’s Protective League had pledged themselves not to permit Negroes to live on, or North of Twenty-ninth St.” Nevertheless, on July 10th Escol sold the property to Wright.

William Goodwin was born in Alabama in about 1885 and came to Indianapolis around the turn of the century. Goodwin married another Alabama migrant Tempie Marks in Indianapolis in 1903, but the couple had divorced by 1910. Ohio-born Dona Hill came to Indianapolis around 1910, where she married William in August 1911. William became a fireman in 1922, when the couple was living in an apartment house at the corner of Boulevard Place and 21st Street (where the Ruth Lilly Health Education Center is located today).

Within a week of moving into their new home, on July 18th the Goodwins’ home was fire-bombed by an explosive thrown from the window of a passing car. By July 30th the Indianapolis Recorder complained that the Indianapolis Police had made no efforts to identify the bombers and “started a Citizens’ Investigation Fund. And if the people are interested enough in a matter that concerns all citizens, soon or late, it is expected a sufficient fund will be raised shortly to make a private investigation that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the guilty parties.” However, the bombers were never identified. In October, 1927 Royal and Mary Spellman sued the Goodwins as well as Horace O. Wright, Louis Escol, and the Lorenz Schmidt and Sons realty firm, but by month’s end the Spellmans’ case was dismissed. William Goodwin was living in the home at his death in 1933, and his wife Dona would manage a catering business from the home and lived there until shortly before her death in 1973.

In July 1929 the founder of the White Supremacy League was managing a beauty shop from her home on East Michigan Street.

Many of the people who directed and fueled neighborhood segregation returned to rather normal everyday lives in which their histories were apparently never examined. For instance, when the White Supremacy League dissolved Daisydean Deeds began to manage a beauty shop in 1929 from her home at 2507 East Michigan Street. She ran for office unsuccessfully three times: in 1930 as State Representative on a fiercely Republican dry platform; again in 1942; and once more in 1944. She contributed recipes to newspapers as early as 1930, had a recipe appear in a nationally syndicated column in 1931, was featured in a 1954 Indianapolis News cooking column, and had a recipe reprinted in The Indianapolis News in 1992, 32 years after her death. Deeds wrote an enormous number of Letters to the Editor of Indianapolis newspapers throughout her life, sounding in on relaxed divorce codes in 1935; decrying “anti-American” speech by communists, National Socialists, and fascists in 1938; advocating deportation of all suspected communists and other “un-American” groups including labor union leaders in 1939; championing Native American fishing rights in 1939; complaining about sugar rationing in 1946; and celebrating in 1952 that prayer had fueled Republican election victories and ended the “long 20 years’ stretch of arbitrary, un-American and unconstitutional Democratic dictatorship that won this election” (leading one reader to respond that “If eating well and having money in the bank is un-American, then perhaps she is right”). At her death in 1960, the Indianapolis Star called Deeds a “civic leader” and did not include the White Supremacy League in her lifework.

The diligent if not violent defense of homogeneous White neighborhoods was repeated throughout Indianapolis throughout the 20th century. A host of rather prosaic men and women in otherwise un-spectacular neighborhoods were the vanguard of residential segregation, conducting cycles of violence, failed suits and legislation, devious real estate practices, and federal policy. Ultimately they failed to absolutely stop African-American neighborhoods’ expansion, but they shaped 20th-century residential patterns in ways that continue to shape the 21st-century landscape.

 

References

Kenneth T. Jackson

1967 The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930. Oxford University Press, New York.

 

Leonard J. Moore

1991 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

 

Garrett Power

1983 Apartheid Baltimore Style: the Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910-1913. Maryland Law Review 42(2):289-329.

 

Emma Lou Thornbrough

1961 Segregation in Indiana During the Klan Era of the 1920’s. Mississippi Valley Historical Review 47(4): 594-618.

 

 

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Visual Memory and Urban Displacement

Ralph Louis Temple’s 1940’s painting of Minerva Street;click for a larger image (image courtesy Cecilia Boler and Reginald Temple).

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.

The house at 550 Minerva Street in the late-1970’s (Indiana Landmarks Central Canal & IUPUI Image Collection).

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

A Digital Heritage of Confederate Memorialization: Julian Carr and Silent Sam

An undated postcard image of the UNC Confederate Monument.

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

Gates, Place, and Urban Heritage

The most prominent “gateway” to campus will be a 52″-tall column at the corner of West and Michigan Streets that is expected to be in place in Fall 2018 (click for a larger view).

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

Visualizing Racism: The Trauma of Lynching Photography

On April 29, 1915 The Tampa Morning Tribune was one of scores of national papers to report on the lynching of Tom Brooks.

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).

The names of lynching victims are engraved in steel columns at the Memorial for Peace and Justice.

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

The Ruins of Rebellion: Absence on the Confederate Memorial Landscape

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)

The plinth for Baltimore’s Confederate Women’s Memorial, which was removed in August, 2017 (image BalPhoto).

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

Preserving Traveller

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.

Lee aboard Traveller after the Civil War

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

Color and Conformity: Race and Integration in the Suburbs

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.

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. Read the rest of this entry

Race, Reconciliation, and Southern Memorialization in Garfield Park

The Confederate Monument in Garfield Park today.

In May, 1919 Indianapolis, Indiana’s “Southern Society”—a group of Indianapolis residents composed primarily of former Southerners—proposed to the Indianapolis Parks Superintendent that a Confederate memorial be moved to one of the city’s parks. The memorial had been erected at Greenlawn Cemetery in 1909 to commemorate Confederate prisoners of war who died in Indianapolis’ Camp Morton. Just over 1600 prisoners had been buried in Greenlawn, but by 1919 the former cemetery had become a modest, poorly maintained city park crowded by factories and railroad lines.

The transplanted Southerners’ interest in preserving the Confederate memorial found a receptive audience in the 20th-century North. While Confederate monuments were being erected throughout the South in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, Civil War monuments were also part of a Northern landscape that aspired to unify the once-divided nation. When the Greenlawn memorial was erected by the federal government in 1909, it was part of a national reconciliation over the legacy of the rebellion that commemorated the foot soldiers of the former Confederacy. The Confederate cause would be largely forgiven by the generation that had grown up after the war, and monuments dotting the South and North alike publicly confirmed a national reconciliation. Yet that forgiveness emerged from a nation committed to Jim Crow segregation, and monuments like the Greenlawn memorial aspired to reconcile and unify the White nation that had waged a civil war a half-century before. A century later the Greenlawn memorial illuminates the ways the Confederate monumental landscape has long distorted Southern heritage and leveraged Confederate mortality in the service of White nationalism. Read the rest of this entry

Memory, Monuments, and Confederate Things: Contesting the 21st-Century Confederacy

Phoenix’s 1961 Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops (click for larger image, from Visitor7/wikimedia).

In 1961 the United Daughters of the Confederacy presented Phoenix, Arizona with a memorial dedicated to Arizona’s Confederate soldiers. The “Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops” is a copper ore stonework shaped in the state’s outline that rests atop a pedestal graced by petrified wood. The monument sits on a plaza alongside 29 other memorials at the Arizona State Capitol that range from war memorials to a Ten Commandments monument. The Phoenix Confederate memorial is far removed from the heart of Civil War battlefields and Southern centers, but it is now part of a nationwide debate over the contemporary social and political consequence of Confederate things.

The earliest Confederate monuments were located in cemeteries and included this 1869 90-foot high memorial to the 18,000 Confederates buried in Richmond, Virginia’s Hollywood Cemetery (author’s image).

In the pantheon of Confederate things, statuary is perhaps somewhat distinct from the flags, license plates, and assorted collectibles emblazoned with Confederate symbols. Statues and memorials aspire to make timeless sociohistorical statements and define or create memory, capturing idealized or distorted visions of the war that say as much about their makers and viewers as their subject. Yet as time passes monuments routinely begin to appear aesthetically dated or even reactionary. Viewed from the vantage point of the early 21st century, many Confederate monuments are simply documents of 150 years of shallow fantasies of the South and the Confederacy. Some of those public monuments can possibly foster counter-intuitively reflective and sober discussions about the Civil War, which is a century-and-a-half heritage rather than an objective historical event. However, such discussions risk being circumvented by contemporary Confederate defenders who distort the Confederacy’s history and studiously ignore why an imagined Confederate heritage has become so appealing—if not unsettling–well outside the South.

While it rarely appears in standard Civil War narratives, Arizona can claim a genuine Civil War history. Swaths of southern Arizona and New Mexico territories were claimed by the Confederacy a century before the monument was erected in Phoenix. A secession convention agreed to leave the Union and become the Arizona Republic in 1861, and in February 1862 it became recognized by the Confederacy as the Confederate Territory of Arizona. Confederates fought under the Arizona banner through the war, but the Governor of the Confederate territory retreated to Texas in July, 1862, and for most of the war the military presence in the region was by Union forces.

Dedicated in September, 1867, this Romney, West Virginia monument was one of the nation’s first Confederate memorials (Justin A. Wilcox/wikimedia).

The vanquished Confederacy began to memorialize its cause almost instantly. The town of Cheraw, South Carolina claims to have erected the first Confederate memorial, a cemetery marker erected in June, 1867 (while the town was still occupied by Union forces); a Confederate memorial was dedicated in September, 1867 in Romney, West Virginia. These earliest monuments to the Lost Cause were nearly all cemetery memorials, but the South began busily erecting public monuments to the Confederacy in the late-19th and early 20th-centuries. Scores of statues were placed in former Confederate towns, mostly by a host of ladies’ memorial associations who assumed the care for the Civil War dead and would become the leading proponents of Lost Cause ideology. From its first issues in 1893, Confederate Veteran zealously tracked such monument construction efforts (for example, compare their 1893 monument inventory), and by 1914 they gushed that roughly a thousand public monuments dotted the South: “Year by year with increasing rather than decreasing devotion all over the Southland monuments are rapidly being erected to the heroes who died in the effort of the Confederate States to win a national life.” Read the rest of this entry