Dehumanization, Dignity, and Development: Contemporary Cemetery Preservation

The Women’s Ward (often called the “Seven Steeples” building) at the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane in about 1903 (Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society).

In July 1905, Martha Spinks was buried at the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane, laid to rest among hundreds of patients to die at the hospital since it opened in 1848. Like many of the men and women treated in the hospital, Spinks’ story has been forgotten as she quietly rested on the grounds of what became known as Central State Hospital and eventually closed in 1994. Spinks was among the last patients to be buried on the grounds of the hospital, which indicated in 1908 that 4,704 patients had died since the hospital opened in 1848. If patients’ bodies were not claimed by their families they were buried in the northwest corner of the hospital grounds, and some were used for medical training. In 1889 the Hospital’s yearly report announced that the administration planned to place posts with the name of each deceased patient at the head of their grave, but this plan does not appear to have been systematically followed. In the early 20th century patients began to be buried at the neighboring Mt. Jackson Cemetery, with the last burial on the hospital grounds around 1905 but perhaps as late as August 1909.

The 1889 Marion County Atlas included this image of the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane, with the cemetery marked at the yellow arrow in the northwest corner; the red line is North Tibbs Avenue, and Mt. Jackson Cemetery is on the west (left) side of Tibbs (click for a larger image; Indiana State Library Digital Collections).

A 2007 city planning document for the former Hospital grounds acknowledged that the hospital’s first cemetery lay in the northwest corner of the tract, and it concluded that the space should be left undisturbed and unmarked “green space.” Yet today Martha Spinks rests alongside a newly constructed Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department K-9 kennel, and this month construction utility lines were excavated through the unmarked but well-documented cemetery. A series of burials was excavated by heavy equipment, with monitoring only required once burials were inevitably disturbed (the city apparently is exempt from cemetery development requirements until it excavated several burials; see the Indiana Medical History Museum’s statement on the construction, and compare coverage from the Indianapolis Star and WTHR).

Local television cameras captured this image of the excavation of a utility line to the newly constructed IMPD kennel (image WTHR).

This disturbance of the graves of our most marginalized ancestors is not at all unique; if anything, it is part of a nationwide pattern of ignoring, denying, dismissing, and openly displacing burials that disproportionately represent the impoverished, African Americans, and people like the patients at Central State. Such a dismissal of African-American cemeteries is especially marked, recently including a petrochemical complex in Louisiana slated to efface captives’ graves on a former plantation; captives’ burials in Charlottesville, Virginia; a captive cemetery now under a Tallahassee, Florida golf course; an African-American church cemetery now paved over in Williamsburg, Virginia; and a 19th-century African-American burial ground now under the University of Pennsylvania campus; compare this National Geographic overview of the preservation of African-American cemeteries or Archaeology magazine’s study of New York City’s African Burial Ground). The effacement of Martha Spinks and the men and women buried alongside her illuminates a nationwide preservation crisis that routinely dehumanizes the dead while rationalizing contemporary developments ranging from parking lots to palatial dog houses.

Martha Spinks lived most of her life in Noblesville, a city north of Indianapolis in neighboring Hamilton County. In October 1883 Noblesville’s Republican Ledger launched a crusade against prostitution in the modest city, claiming Noblesville had 26 bordellos, including three managed by African Americans. One of those accused African-American prostitutes was Martha Spinks, and a week after his first article editor W.W. Stephenson wrote that Spinks asked to meet with him. He reported a week later that “she was terribly hurt over the article published; that she had known us for over twenty years, and if what we had published was true she would lose fifteen acres of good land; that she did not care for it for herself but did want it for her boy. She did not want any hard feelings between us.”

Spinks had indeed lived in Noblesville for about two decades, moving from Plainfield with her father Allen Sparks sometime in the 1860s. African Americans had lived in Noblesville as long as Europeans, but it was always a modest community: in the 1870 census Noblesville had just 186 African-American residents; a decade later there were just 276 Black/Mulatto residents; and in 1900 there still were only 341 African-American residents. Martha was born in Indiana in about 1846, shortly after her parents Allen and Dicey moved to Indiana from North Carolina. In 1860 Allen and Dicey were living in Plainfield, and their personal estate and real estate were each valued at $1000, but a decade later Allen was a widower living in Noblesville with real estate worth half as much and a personal estate valued at just $200. Twenty years later he was receiving a pauper’s allowance from the Hamilton County Commissioners.

When W.W. Stephenson targeted prostitution in 1883 he aimed much of his moral wrath at Martha Spinks and the anxieties posed by prostitution along and across the color line. After meeting with Spinks, Stephenson only redoubled his attacks of the week before, when his paper called Spinks’ Conner Street bordello “the resort of the vilest characters of Noblesville … filled nightly by negroes and whites.” The paper claimed that Spinks “had been here for many years and has always, as far back as we can remember, kept a house of prostitution.” Spinks failed to secure Stephenson’s sympathy for her ambition to provide for her sole child George, who was born in about 1865. Stephenson used the pages of the Republican Ledger to accuse Spinks of having borne her son out of wedlock, implying his father had been an anonymous customer. She may well have been a prostitute for much of her life, but if so it had not been an especially profitable income, and there is only evidence she was arrested once (in 1891). There were few opportunities for African-American women to secure a dependable income, with most resorting to laundry and domestic labors, and Martha Spinks was working as a laundress at the turn of the century and probably had been doing washing throughout her life.

A 2017 aerial view of the northwest corner of the former Central State Hospital shows IMPD horses in the green space atop the cemetery.

In July 1903 the Hamilton County Ledger reported that Spinks had been jailed because “Her queer actions have attracted the attention of the officers for some time. She has been out at all hours of the night and at daylight Monday morning was found lying on the lawn at S.A. Kelser’s residence. She talks incoherently and when arrested resisted the officers, but was subdued.” She was escorted to Indianapolis in August, when the newspaper suggested that “Her mental condition is such that it is believed she will recover.” She was a patient at the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane from August 1903 to September 1904, and after being discharged she moved in with her son George. But in June 1905 George filed to have Martha committed, indicating that “her mental condition has become noticeably worse and at times she is considered dangerous.” Records for her second admission indicated Spinks was suffering from dementia and chronic nephritis, and Martha died a month later in July 1905. She was buried in the “asylum yard” a day after her death by the hospital’s contracted undertakers, Tutewiler and Son.

A November 2020 aerial image of utility trench cutting through the Central State Cemetery (WTHR).

It is unclear how many other people were buried alongside Martha Spinks, and some patient internments were already occurring at neighboring Mt. Jackson Cemetery by 1905. Nevertheless, a handful of patients appear to have been buried in the hospital cemetery around the same period as Spinks’ death. In August 1905, for instance, Andrew Jackman’s death certificate indicated he was buried on the hospital grounds, a week after Thomas J. Stone’s death certificate also indicated he had been buried there. Both Jackman and Stone were African Americans, but in November 1907 the death certificate of Irish immigrant Dennis Mack indicated he had been buried in the asylum yard.

It is perhaps possible that the death certificates were mistaken about the burial place, though hospital staff provided the death and burial information and did explicitly identify some burials as being at Mt. Jackson and others as “asylum grounds.” In November 1905 Robert Alexander apparently met a different fate. Born in about 1858, Alexander was living in Indianapolis with his wife and four children in 1900, but in May 1903 the Indianapolis Journal reported that Alexander “Imagines he owns two white elephants and a monkey and thinks he is going to give performances at the Park Theater.” Alexander was declared insane and was being held in the police station jail when he set fire to a mattress. The seriously burned Alexander was taken to the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane. Released in August, Alexander returned to the hospital in January 1905, when admission records indicated he was “Destructive, and violent. Imagines himself possessed of great wealth and has many influential friends. Has been necessary to keep him in a padded cell at station house.” In November Alexander died after 18 hours of convulsions, and his death certificate indicated his body was used for anatomical research. Alexander’s name today appears in an inventory of those buried at Mt. Jackson, so his bodily remains after medical research may have been buried near the hospital where he had spent his final days. Many more patients had anatomical specimens preserved prior to burial (compare the Indiana Medical History Museum’s online exhibit on the anatomical specimen collection and “rehumanize” the patients represented in the collection).

In a society that placed little value on the lives of the mentally ill or African Americans, even modest burial rituals acknowledged the social meaningfulness and humanity of these people. The cemetery at Central State was never forgotten (a ground-penetrating radar survey was conducted in September), and in 2004 planning for the hospital grounds acknowledged that “Unmarked Gravesites present a potential `no build’ issue.” Nevertheless, the 2004 Reuse plan included a proposal to cede the northwest corner of the grounds to “City Services such as the mounted patrol.” Respect for the humanity of the men and women buried there was conveniently dismissed when the IMPD horse stables and pastures were placed in the northwest corner of the former hospital beginning in April 2004; now the police dogs’ kennel rises in the same corner, a more palatial space than many of the structures that held Central State patients. After local media questioned the placement of the kennel alongside the cemetery, the IMPD simply offered a clumsy defense that their construction had adhered to all local and state reviews. Perhaps now the space can simply be fenced off and the people buried there can secure some measure of dignity and not be reduced to a police dog park.

This blog does not express the sentiments of the Indiana Medical History Museum or any scholars, agencies, or firms monitoring the preservation of the Central State Cemetery.



1889 Wayne Township Map from Marion County Atlas in Indiana State Library Digital Collections

1908 Baist Map Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane image from Indianapolis Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection

Buildings on the Grounds of Central State 2006 from Central State Reuse Commission

Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane undated early 20th century image from Indiana Historical Society General Picture Collection

Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane circa 1903 image from Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society

Central State Excavation and Drone images from WTHR

Central State Hospital aerial view 1931 image from Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

The “Blank Slate” of Pastness and African-American Place

Contemporary planners, developers, and proponents of 21st-century city life routinely celebrate cities’ historicity. Urban boosters extol the appeals of historical architecture, and where that historic built environment has been destroyed those urban champions applaud new designs inspired by local architectural heritage. Few neighborhoods would seem to lay a stronger claim on such history than Indianapolis’ Indiana Avenue. Home to residences as early as the 1820s, the Avenue became a predominately African-American business and leisure district at the outset of the 20th century only to witness postwar urban renewal projects that razed nearly all of the stores, clubs, and homes along the Avenue.

Buckingham Companies Concept Art Proposal for the 700 block of Indiana Avenue.

Last week a Development Project Manager for Buckingham Companies enthused about the developer’s proposal to build a 345-unit five-story apartment complex in the 700 block of Indiana Avenue, calling the site a “blank slate.” The parking lot and an undistinguished 1989 office building on the site indeed reflect none of the Avenue’s rich heritage. The asphalt parking lots and a functional but forgettable office building are yet more evidence of the city’s historical uneasiness with appearing to deter development after they had been vocal advocates for extensive urban displacement projects, Indiana University’s establishment and growth, and highway construction that collectively depopulated the predominately African-American near-Westside. American urban planners launched numerous similar projects after World War II that targeted African-American communities under the guide of slum clearance or community renewal, uprooting residents and then razing much of the Black urban landscape. These postwar planners hoped to build new cities, launching a host of ideologues’ fantasies for a reimagined city that would serve segregated White suburbanites who would work, play, and shop in the urban core. Read the rest of this entry

Disenfranchised Design: Development and African-American Placemaking on Indiana Avenue

A 1950’s view of the 700 block of Indiana Avenue (image O. James Fox Collection, Indiana Historical Society, click for expanded view).

In January 1968 a group of African-American entrepreneurs and community activists gathered in the Walker Theater with the Director of the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission to determine the future of Indiana Avenue. Alarmed by the decline of the businesses along the historically African-American Avenue and frustrated by their inability to defy urban renewal projects, the group hoped to encourage investment in Avenue enterprises. Advocating strategies that have since become common in placemaking discourses, entrepreneurs had ambitious plans championing “a renewed civic and business vitality in the area of Indiana Avenue.” Their proposals included promoting cultural tourism focusing on the Avenue’s jazz history, proposing to create “a `Bourbon Street’ type entertainment and shop section … in the fashion of New Orleans’ famed `Bourbon Street’ long a mecca of Dixieland jazz.”

Yet business people were justifiably reluctant to invest their own capital because of the unpredictable effects of “slum clearance” displacements, highway construction, and the growth of the joint Indiana University and Purdue University campus that became IUPUI. The Indianapolis Recorder soberly reported on the absence of funding for such development, noting that “insurance and loans are virtually impossible for business-men on Indiana Avenue to secure since this section is considered a `high risk’ area.” The certainty of more renewal projects led one Avenue businessman to complain that “`We’ve seen from past experience that when these people come and take your property they pay as little as possible. I just can’t see how we could recover the money we might spend to fix up the area.’” Read the rest of this entry

Escaping the Noose: A Near-Lynching in Late-19th Century Boone County

An 1878 illustration of the Boone County Courthouse where Frank Hall was tried in 1894 (image Historic Indiana Atlas Collection, IUPUI)

On the morning of February 5, 1894 a crowd “of seven hundred or more Boone county farmers struggled and battled fiercely in the courthouse yard” in Lebanon Indiana eager to exact justice against Frank Hall. The 22-year-old African American was being held in the Boone County jail accused of an assault on a White woman on the evening of February 3rd. Hall protested that he had been at a watch raffle with scores of witnesses at the time of the assault, but the Sheriff arrested Hall the next morning and brought him to the jail. A crowd instantly gathered intent on hanging him, and as Hall was taken from the jail to the adjoining Courthouse the crowd got him in the noose three times. Hall and the Sheriff fought them off each time, and when Hall reached the Courthouse he was half-conscious, bloodied by the mob’s assault, and “several chokings had given his skin the purple hue of a grape.” Hall hastily agreed with the Prosecutor “to enter a plea of guilty and take the maximum penalty of the law for such offenses, twenty-one years in prison. He was afraid that he would be taken from jail and summarily executed.” Read the rest of this entry

Memory-Making and Civility: Removing the Garfield Park Confederate Monument

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett announced his plan to remove the Garfield Park monument on twitter on June 4th, and it had been dismantled by the end of the day on June 8th (click for a larger image).

Last week in the midst of protests against racially motivated police violence, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett somewhat surprisingly announced that the city would remove a 1909 Confederate monument in Garfield Park. In a series of tweets Hogsett indicated that “The grave monument was commissioned in 1912 for Greenlawn Cemetery to commemorate Confederate prisoners of war who died while imprisoned at Camp Morton in Indianapolis.” The memorial was actually installed in 1909, but it was indeed erected to memorialize roughly 1616 Confederate prisoners of war who died in Indianapolis, as well as perhaps 20 sympathizers and at least one enslaved man identified only as “Little Toe” who was captured at Fort Donelson in February 1862 with most of these prisoners. Mayor Hogsett’s tweets indicated that “The grave monument was then relocated to Garfield Park in 1928 following efforts by public officials, active in the KKK, who sought to `make the monument more visible to the public.’” The Mayor concluded that “Whatever original purpose this grave marker might once have had, for far too long it has served as nothing more than a painful reminder of our state’s horrific embrace of the Ku Klux Klan a century ago.” Read the rest of this entry

Consuming Indiana Avenue: Memory, Marketing, and Jazz Heritage in Indianapolis

In 1953 guests gathered on Indiana Avenue at the Sunset Terrace (Indiana Historical Society, click for expanded view).

In 2004 a typical Indianapolis Star celebration of jazz history fantasized performers and audiences united by music, suggesting that Indiana Avenue “was known for an atmosphere of camaraderie. … What’s most notable is that this was the only place in which blacks and whites could mingle socially prior to integration.” Jazz history is routinely invoked in Indianapolis to suggest that music has long been an expression of White and Black peoples’ common humanity. African-American expressive culture has an undeniably rich heritage in the theaters, clubs, churches, schools, and homes dotting the near-Westside. From the end of the 19th century, ragtime, vaudeville, blues, gospel, minstrelsy, dance, theater, burlesque, and drag were all part of an African-American performance tradition that flourished along Indiana Avenue until urban displacement razed the last clubs in the 1970s. Yet history-makers uneasy with the heritage of racism and segregation routinely gravitate toward romantic accounts of music as a democratic space in the midst of a segregated world.

On December 5th 1921 the Indianapolis Star reported on police raids seeking to eliminate White guests from Archie Young’s cabaret.

Jazz is now celebrated as Hoosiers’ cultural patrimony, but jazz and life on the Avenue inspired decades of anxiety among city officials. Rather than nurture an “atmosphere of camaraderie,” ideologues were eager to patrol inter-racial leisure and morality along the Avenue and leery of music’s potential to subvert segregation. For instance, during a December 1921 raid on the Golden West Cabaret, police arrested White customers who “were found in the place listening to the jazz orchestra that plays the syncopated music, as it is only found on `de Avenoo.’” Prohibition had forced African-American entrepreneur Archie Young to transform his saloon at 532 ½ Indiana Avenue into a soda parlor known as the Golden West Cabaret, and jazz performers often played the club. In 1921 the Indianapolis Star complained that Young’s club was known to be “frequented by both colored and white persons who are seeking night life in Indianapolis.” The Indiana Daily Times reported that “orders were issued to put the lid on the `avenue’” because “of “fear that trouble may be the result of white persons visiting negro cafes and dance halls in the `black belt.’” Archie Young argued “there is no law under which the police can stop white persons from visiting the cabaret.” The Police agreed that “they are aware there is no law to prevent white persons from visiting the cabarets, but they contend they can take names and search those who are found there … until the white persons are eliminated.” Read the rest of this entry

Romanticizing Racist Landscapes: Segregation and White Memory in Riverside Amusement Park

The Indianapolis Recorder advertised 3-Cent Milk Day picnic at Riverside Amusement Park in August 1939 (click for larger image).

In July 1971 Indianapolis News columnist Mayer Maloney mourned the closing of Riverside Amusement Park. Opened in 1903, the park had been the summer leisure venue for generations of Indianapolis residents, and proms, wedding receptions, and workplace picnics had met at the urban amusement park for nearly 70 years. Maloney lamented that the “excited screams of the kids, the calliope music of the merry-go-round and the china-faced kewpie dolls are gone. Indianapolis has said farewell to an old friend. Riverside Amusement Park is closed and all that remains are memories.” Maloney toured the empty park with John Lewis Coleman, whose family had managed the park for a half-century, and Maloney wrote that the “area that once had laughter echoing from all corners, where many kisses were stolen in the tunnel of love and cotton candy clung to the cheeks of little kids, now stands as the skeleton of a once proud amusement park. As he walked around the 20 acres covered with high grass and weeds Coleman looked up and said, `You know, this reminds me of going to see my best friend at the funeral home.’”

Indianapolis Recorder columnist Andrew Ramsey was more than willing to read the last rites to the amusement park. Ramsey dismissed Maloney’s “very touching human interest story on the closing of Riverside Amusement Park. As is so usual among white observers, he failed to mention the role which black Indianapolians played or were denied playing in the almost seventy year history of the famed institution.” Ramsey recounted his own childhood experience in the segregated park in the 1920s, when the Coleman family managed the park and “signs everywhere about the park read `White patronage only solicited.’” While Maloney was mourning, Ramsey celebrated that “the closing of Riverside Amusement Park will bring no tears from local Negroes who grew up in the Hoosier Capitol during the four decades when it was one of the bastions of white supremacy. The passing of such racist landmarks and the holding of many important funerals are necessary landmarks on the road to interracial democracy in Indianapolis and else where in this state and nation.” Read the rest of this entry

Self Made: Community, the Color Line, and Women Working for Madam Walker

This weekend Netflix debuts its series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, and while the series inevitably takes some liberties with Walker’s historical story it is not at all surprising that generations of people have been fascinated with Walker’s story. Born in the wake of Emancipation in staggering poverty, Walker’s history certainly can be told as an American Dream rags-to-riches story lived by a Black woman who is often referred to as America’s “first Black woman millionaire” (the company echoed that narrative after her death, and that is one thread of the Netflix trailer for Self Made). However, that somewhat one-dimensional focus on wealth risks ignoring Walker’s history of generosity and activism on behalf of and with many African-American women. Read the rest of this entry

Seeing the White River: Visual Heritage in Riverside Park

An east shore view of the Emrichsville Dam in February 2020.

In November 1898 the Indianapolis News reported on the construction of the new Riverside Park, which included bicycle paths, landscaping, suspension bridges, and plans for a new dam that would create a “lake” as the White River backed up north of the dam in the midst of the Park. The dam just south of the present-day 16th Street Bridge was expressly designed “to make White river through the park, like a lake.” Park planners announced they would construct “an eight foot dam located about 1500 feet southeast of the Crawfordsville road bridge near the river. The dam will be made of concrete and will furnish a backwater sufficient to give the river an average depth of five feet for two miles and a half.”

A circa 1910 postcard of the Riverside dam (Indiana Album, Joan Hostetler collection)

The Riverside Dam (now usually referred to as the Emrichsville Dam) was designed for the aesthetic appeal of a still “lake” north of the dam in the heart of Riverside Park. The water feature created by the dam has been the visual heart of the Park and a recreational space for boating, swimming, fishing, and skating for 120 years. In 2018, though, a hole developed in the dam, one of many times the dam has given way in the face of flooding or normal erosion. In the wake of the most recent collapse, a host of planners and community stakeholders have debated whether to restore the dam, transform its design, or simply build a new dam in some other location. While this deliberation has been going on the water that pooled in the midst of Riverside Park has drained through the fractured dam. Left to its own designs and the vagaries of environmental conditions, the river has become a narrow feature exposing scattered places along its banks, and at the moment the river looks quite different than the formerly placid pond in Riverside Park. Read the rest of this entry

Community Heritage and Eviction in Blue Lake Trailer Park

In August 1956 the Indianapolis Star included this picture of the Blue Lake Trailer Park yard landscaped by its residents Forrest and Avis Marie Martin.

This piece was co-authored with Jonathan Howe, President of the West Indianapolis Neighborhood Congress

In August 1956 the winners of an Indianapolis yard beautification contest included Forrest and Avis Marie Martin of Blue Lake Park, a community at 3023 West Morris Street. Like many residents in the city’s southwestern suburbs, William Forrest Martin was a World War II veteran who moved to newly constructed neighborhoods that were expanding out from Indianapolis’ core. Forrest was a bulldozer operator for American Aggregates Corporation, a sand and gravel firm that managed a quarry on South Harding Street not far from the Martins’ home.

While much of the postwar generation moved into suburban tract homes, the Martins were among the many families who moved into mobile homes. Blue Lake Park had opened in 1954 as a “De Luxe Trailer Court” in a rather quiet area just west of Eagle Creek. The community was advertised as a “sportsman’s club” surrounding the modest Blue Lake, an old gravel pit like those Forrest Martin worked in on nearby Harding Street. Despite the proximity to West Indianapolis industries, the dump along South Harding Street, and Indianapolis Municipal Airport to the southwest, the 50-acre Blue Lake community promised an idyllic escape from the city: the tiny quarry lake offered boat docking and fishing privileges to its residents, city buses ran along Morris Street through West Indianapolis and into downtown, and adults hoping to escape children may have been glad to find the community did not allow any residents under 16 (or dogs).

Last August the current residents of the former Blue Lake Trailer Park received this eviction letter indicating they would be required to move in 60 days.

Blue Lake Park would remain home to more than 60 years of families until this week, after its landlords were permitted to evict all of the residents after an initial eviction notice in August 2019. Faced with a requirement to install 21st-century sewer connections, the owners balked at the expense and notified residents they had 60 days to move out. After contesting the eviction notice through the Fall, the Attorney General’s office resolved to award just over $50,000 in total payments for the residents’ homes, but the modest payments (one resident received $1200) cannot hope to fund moving and securing new housing. February 21st was the deadline for residents to move themselves if not their trailers or risk being physically removed by authorities. Mobile home communities are the nation’s most common unsubsidized form of affordable housing, with about 18 million people living in trailer communities, and the Blue Lake Trailer Park eviction is part of a national pattern of housing insecurity that comes down especially hard on impoverished trailer communities. Read the rest of this entry