Gardens in the Black City: Landscaping 20th-Century African America

In July, 1937 Louise Terry was married in the garden at her parents’ Indianapolis home, and her mother Mary Ellen and father Curtis were likely proud of their daughter and garden alike.  In the days leading up to the nuptials the Indianapolis Recorder rhapsodized about the Terrys’ garden: “A beautiful rock garden and lily pond bordered with flowers of variegated hues against a background of Sabin Junipers, Oriental Golden Arbor-Vitae, Colorado Blue Spruce, Virginia Glanca, Blue Junipers, Japanese Cedars, and stately Poplars will create a celestial atmosphere … at the Terry residence, 1101 Stadium Drive.”

Dorothea Lange's 1939 image of a North Carolina sharecropper's cabin indicated "Note also flower garden protected by slender fence of lathes" (Farm Security Administration,Library of Congress).

Dorothea Lange’s 1939 image of a North Carolina sharecropper’s cabin indicated “Note also flower garden protected by slender fence of lathes” (Farm Security Administration,Library of Congress).

The Terrys’ garden lay in the heart of the city’s near-Westside, part of an overwhelmingly African American neighborhood that was routinely caricatured as a “blighted” or “slum” landscape.  In the summer of 1937 that Louise Terry was wed, construction was nearing completion on the city’s first major urban renewal project, Lockefield Garden, just blocks from the Terry home (the segregated African American community accepted its first tenants in February 1938).  There was indeed genuine impoverishment and material hardship in much of the near-Westside, yet the African-American city was dotted with ornamental gardens like the Terrys’ home.  The archaeological scholarship on African-American landscapes includes fascinating analyses of plantation spaces and food gardens, but there is far less scholarship on the scores of ornamental African-American gardens in 20th-century cities and suburbs. Compounding the dilemma in cities like Indianapolis is the reality that many of these gardens have been erased.  Nevertheless, ignoring them allows racist stereotypes of longstanding urban ruin to pass unchallenged, and it risks ignoring that many similar gardens and gardeners remain scattered across the contemporary city.

Among the most prominent voices of the African-American garden movement in Indianapolis was the Delphinium Garden Club, which formed in March, 1938.  The club included 14 women as its charter members, and it held flower shows, garden lectures, and social events for 35 years.  A 1963 history of the club indicated it remained committed to its “original inspiration … to develop genuine appreciation for the healing power of nature’s bounty and beauty in a perplexed world.”

Similar African-American gardening groups could be found throughout the country: for instance, the Negro Garden Clubs of Virginia formed in 1932 with seven chapters, and it had 65 chapters a decade later.  Most clubs’ mission was to share practical advice, but in 1942 Hampton Institute’s William M. Cooper and Asa C. Sims optimistically reported that one of the Virginia clubs’ central values “has been that of improving race relations.  Wherever a club has been established among the Negro women, the white women of the community have promptly offered their assistance in all phases of the work, from the sharing of the seeds and plants up to getting city and county officials to improve the streets and roads.”

Most of the postwar pictures of Indianapolis' African-American focused on the aesthetics of "blight." This 1960 image was titled (Flanner House Homes).

Most of the postwar pictures of Indianapolis’ African-American neighborhoods focused on the aesthetics of “blight.” This 1960 image was part of the community development programs directed by the Flanner House social service agency and titled “Less than a fair start” (Flanner House Homes).

African-American ornamental gardens were part of a rich African diasporan environmental and gardening heritage, but most archaeological research has focused on subsistence food gardens.  Ornamental gardens cultivated primarily by women have been part of African-American landscapes since captivity.  Both Dianne Glave’s and Richard Westmacott’s studies of African-American gardens argue that in captivity gardening traditions were transmitted orally, rather than through gardening literature.  Glave argues that after slavery African American gardeners often favored arrangements that mimicked nature, which tended to reduce pests and weed growth.  African Americans routinely exchanged or gifted plant cuttings and seeds, and she suggests that particular plants were associated with the giver.  Sandra Lea Tydd’s ethnography of contemporary African-American gardeners echoes Glave’s argument that many of these ornamental gardens were not geometrically symmetrical; African Americans rarely acquired groups of shrubs and plants at one time.

Many African American gardening traditions extended beyond captivity and in some cases on the same landscapes as they transformed to sharecropping.  In 1938, for instance, a Federal Writers Project interview in North Carolina described a former captive’s “little weather-stained cottage.  Encircling her house are lilacs, althea, and flowering trees that soften the bleak outlines of unpainted out-buildings.  A varied collection of old-fashioned plants and flowers crowd the neatly swept dooryard.”

In October 1937 the Indianapolis Recorder included this ad for Dora Atkins' newly remodeled flower shop.

In October 1937 the Indianapolis Recorder included this ad for Dora Atkins’ newly remodeled flower shop.

The Delphinium Garden Club inherited a Progressive tradition aspiring to direct social, material, and aesthetic reform in their communities.  They saw their mission to be fundamentally educational, aspiring to “beautify yards and gardens in many parts of the city, especially among school children by donating seeds and plants.”  The club’s educational focus was not surprising, because many of the club’s members were Crispus Attucks High School faculty or teachers in the Indianapolis Public Schools.  The club’s first meetings were held at the Attucks library, the segregated Black high school where the Delphinium Club’s first President, Lillian Hall, was librarian.  Charter members Vivian Terry, Lillian Courtney, Beulah Hayes, Della Greer, Alethia Boyd, Bertha Brown, and Mary Dangerfield were also teachers at Attucks or city schools, and subsequent members such as Ruby Rankin were lifelong Indianapolis teachers as well.  Other charter members included Violet Reynolds, Secretary for the Madam C.J. Walker company, and Dora Atkins, who took over the family’s Atkins flower shop in 1923 and managed it until her retirement in 1977.

Many of the gardens that hosted club events and tours were quite spectacular.  In 1952, for instance, the club’s annual flower show was held at the 528 Udell Street home of Ruby and Lenyer Rankin.  The Indianapolis Recorder reported that “the spacious yard itself was enough to make a complete show—everything was in bloom—beautiful roses were climbing over the backyard stone fence, which was centered with a running fountain topped by a statuette of a maiden at a well; and the garden pool was a real picture displaying the wide variety of fish, many of them given to Mrs. Rankin by friends.”  In 1960 the newspaper reported on another event at the Rankin home and observed that “the Rankin flower garden, where an apple tree reflects in the pool, and the fountain in the high stone wall pours over a ledge into a bird bath, is one of the most beautiful in the city.”

Many of the most striking gardens included water features, especially fish ponds like that in Ruby Rankin’s garden.  In 1942, for instance, the Indianapolis Recorder reported on an event at the Fall Creek Parkway home of Lula J. Dunn at which “the artistic lighting about the Sunken Garden, Fish Pond, and old fashion Well in varigated [sic] colors was designed by L. Miller & Sons.  The flood lights about the front of the home added beauty and dignity to the occasion.”  Other distinctive gardens incorporated features like the rock garden in the Paris Avenue home of Elizabeth Douglas.  During a 1937 event “throughout the evening occasional passers-by stopped their automobiles in order to view the rock garden which covers the entire corner.  It was referred to by one of the speakers as `the show place of the community.’”

The club was especially active in the 1950’s, when some of its members moved to newly constructed suburbs.  In 1947, for example, the club had its annual “Lilac Breakfast” event at “the country estate of Mr. and Mrs. HENRY L. GREER,” the first of many African-American families to settle in homes on Grandview Drive (capitalization in original).  The Indianapolis Recorder’s “Social Scene” columnist Richard C. Henderson made one of the few acknowledgements of the club’s class exclusivity when he noted that “I might hope here that the club would sponsor a garden tour for the general public. . . . Its members have very beautiful gardens which the general public would probably pay a reasonable fee to view.”  In 1953 the club met at the suburban home of their new President Violet Reynolds, who with her husband David moved into a home a few doors away from the Greers in 1952.  Stephen and Mary Auter moved into the neighborhood in about 1953, and in 1966 the club’s 38th anniversary was marked in the “`yard park’ of two members, Mrs. Stephen Auter and Mrs. David Reynolds on West 64th Street.”

African-American garden clubs were the province of women, but certainly many men were gardeners.  In May, 1958 the Delphinium Club held its “Strawberry Breakfast” at the “country home of Mr. and Mrs. Henry L. Greer. . . . Trust Mr. Greer to be sufficiently proud of his vegetable garden—with justification!—to entice the men out to cast envious glances about.”  A year later when Elsey Sarver retired the newspaper reported that “his hobby is his attractively kept yard, and many of his spare hours will be spent in his rose garden or his rock garden or his fish pond.”  When Curtis Terry died in 1971, his obituary indicated that he “was widely known among the reputable nurseries where he purchased many variegated trees and flowers and transplanted them in his yard.”  A 2003 memorial article on Curtis and Mary Ellen Terry suggested there was a gendered division of labor in the Terry garden, noting that while he “worked with the trees, shrubbery, and lawn to make the garden beautiful, Mrs. Terry worked on planting and cultivating the flowers!  The flowers were many, variegated, and beautiful!” (underlines in original).

Frank and Lula White's 29th Street garden once had a "velvety lawn spilling into the alley," but today only traces of the Whites' garden remain (2014 Google map image)

Frank and Lula White’s 29th Street garden once had a “velvety lawn spilling into the alley,” but today only traces of the Whites’ garden remain (2014 Google map image)

At the 1950’s height of Indianapolis’ African-American garden club movement, the Delphinium Club was simply one of the city’s gardening clubs.  The Green Thumb Club, Golden Gate Garden club, and Happy Gardener’s Club had missions comparable to the Delphinium Garden Club.  The Green Thumb Club was founded in 1947 and continued to have events into the 1990’s.  However, most of the garden clubs appear to have disbanded in the 1960’s.  In 1971 the Delphinium Club had one of its last garden tours when it visited two “small, jewel-like gardens.”  The 29th Street home of Frank and Lula White had a “beautifully designed annual and perennial garden that is in bloom from early spring until late Fall.  The garden is bordered by rocks that encircle a velvety lawn spilling into the alley . . . . They say they received their inspiration years ago when invited on a garden tour by the Delphinium House and Garden Club.”  The club then visited Lida Smith’s Highland Street “private garden enclosed by lovely shade trees, flowering shrubbery, edged with blooming plants, a green carpet of grass, a small pool, garden statuary and a bird bath that is constantly visited by birds.”  The Delphinium Garden Club’s last event in the Indianapolis Recorder came in September, 1972 when they held a garden party on the “green, velvety, manicured lawn” of Mary and Stephen Auter.

The city's first major urban renewal removal known as "Project A" razed Curtis and Mary Ellen terry's home and garden at 1101 Stadium Drive.

The city’s first major urban renewal removal known as “Project A” razed Curtis and Mary Ellen terry’s home and garden at 1101 Stadium Drive.

The primary reason we know little of this urban garden story is that the city allowed these urban neighborhoods to decline and then spearheaded urban renewal projects including mass demolitions and the construction of the interstate.  For instance, Curtis and Mary Ellen Terry’s palatial home and garden sat on Fall Creek, and by 1941 Curtis Terry filed suit against the city because “refuse dumped into the creek will cause the stream to overflow its channel and flood his property. . . . Noxious odors in the neighborhood are often caused by a sanitary sewer … located near City Hospital.”   The Terry’s home became part of a tract targeted for demolition by the city’s Redevelopment Commission, even though it could not have fit the description of “blighted,” and the Terrys moved in about 1952 when their home became part of 178 acres razed during “Project A.”

A 2011 Google Map image of 528 Udell Street, the former home of Ruby and Lenyer Rankin.  The stone wall they built still stands, but most of their garden is now gone.

A 2011 Google Map image of 528 Udell Street, the former home of Ruby and Lenyer Rankin. The stone wall they built still stands, and a pond has been filled in the yard, but most of the Rankin’s garden is now gone.

Many of these postwar gardens are now gone.  For instance, Elizabeth Douglas’ Paris Street home and its spectacular rock garden was razed during the construction of Interstate 65 in 1967.  The interstate sliced through predominately African-American neighborhoods that included many of the former homes of postwar gardeners, including the Udell Street home of Ruby Rankin.  The Rankin home where the Delphinium Club met in the 1950s and early 1960s still stands, and the stone wall of their garden still sits near the traces of a filled yard pond, but most of the garden’s features have been erased.  Frank and Lula White’s 29th Street house likewise stands today, but the yard is today absent all the features the club celebrated in 1971.

Many more Indianapolis yards contain the remnants of such garden features, but in many neighborhoods small backyards have become the spot for garages erasing many of the yards’ historic features.  Preservationists defend these historic structures, but the consequence of many of these postwar ornamental gardens often passes without comment; likewise, most archaeologists examining 20th century African America have devoted little or no attention to ornamental gardens or their centrality on the 20th century African-American landscape.  Yet throughout Indianapolis and many similar cities, hardy flower beds and greenery cling to their foothold and many people quietly continue gardening traditions that reach well into the 19th century if not earlier.



Federal Writer’s Project

1941 Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, 1936-1938 Volume XI North Carolina Narratives.  Work Projects Administration, Washington DC.


Dianne D. Glave

2003 “A Garden So Brilliant with Colors, So Original in Its Design”: Rural African American Women, Gardening, Progressive Reform, and the Foundation of an African American Environmental Perspective.  Environmental History 8(3):395-411. (subscription access)

2006 Rural African American Women, Gardening, and Progressive Reform in the South.  In To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History, edited by Dianne D. Glave and Mark Stoll, pp. 37-50.  University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh.

2010  Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage.  Lawrence Hill Books, Chicago.


Grey Gundaker, editor

1998 Keep Your Head to the Sky: Interpreting African American Home Ground.  University of Virginia, Charlottesville.


Barbara J. Heath and Amber Bennett

2000 “The little Spots allow’d them”: The Archaeological Study of African-American YardsHistorical Archaeology 34(2):38-55.


Brian James McCammack

2012 Recovering Green in Bronzeville: An Environmental and Cultural History of the African American Great Migration to Chicago, 1915—1940.  PhD Dissertation, Harvard University.


W.B. Mercier

1920 Extension Work among Negroes, 1920.  United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.


The New York Age

1943 Negro Garden Club Book Hot Off the Press. The New York Age 18 September:12.


Sandra Lea Tydd

2003 Seeking an Understanding of Urban African-American Relationships with Nature.  Master’s Thesis, Morgan State University.


Lillian Camilla Weems

1956 A Study of the Negro Home Demonstration Program in Georgia, 1923-1955.  Master of Arts Thesis, Atlanta University.


Richard Westmacott

1992 African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South.  University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

1993 The Gardens of African-Americans in the Rural South.  In The Vernacular Garden, edited by John Dixon Hunt and Joachim Wolschke- Buhlman, pp.77-106.  Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.


H. Hamilton Williams

1943 Handbook of the Negro Garden Club of Virginia.  Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia.



“Less than a Fair Start” image from Flanner House Collection, IUPUI University Archives

Sharecroppers cabin, Dorothea Lange July 1939 image from Library of Congress.

Heritage Exposed: Nudity at Historical Sites

Tourists at Angkor (image from Poso a poco).

Tourists at Angkor (image from Poco a poco).

In February American tourists Lindsey Kate Adams and Leslie Jan Adams were among the crowds at Cambodia’s Angkor, the 9th-15th century Khmer city and temple complex that UNESCO hails as the most famous archaeological site in southeast Asia.  The World Heritage Site sprawls over about 400 square kilometers, making it among the world’s largest archaeological sites and one of the most visited historical sites in the world.  The Adams sisters were among the thousands of visitors trooping through Angkor in February, with scores of them providing pictures of their journey and the astounding complex.  When the Arizona sisters reached the Preah Khan temple, they likewise documented their visit, yet like a modest but growing wave of contemporary tourists they departed from the conventional monument pose:  the women dropped their pants for a shot of their butts in the ancient temple, only to be nabbed by the authorities.  These increasingly common nude or partially disrobed pictures at historic sites tell us something about the aesthetic power of heritage even as they reveal its irrelevance to many of the Western tourists who are actually visiting historic places.

The Arizona travelers are not alone in their ambition to commemorate their historic site tourism with nude pictures.  In January three French tourists were deported after being caught in Angkor’s Banteay Kdei temple stripping for pictures of their Cambodian trek.  Five days before pictures appeared on Facebook depicting topless women at Angkor as well as Beijing’s Forbidden Palace.  In May a group of ten tourists posed naked in Malaysia on Mount Kinabalu, a World Heritage site distinguished by its botanical diversity (5000-6000 plant species can be found on the mountain).  Israeli traveler Amichay Rab’s My Naked Trip blog documents his tour of South America, where he stripped at a series of sites including Machu Picchu, Cuzco, and Monte Verde.  The facebook page and blog Naked at Monuments document sun-starved butts at sites including the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, and Athens. Read the rest of this entry

Imagining the Racist Landscape

The Avenue of Oaks at Boone Hall Plantation (image Jonathan Lamb).

The Avenue of Oaks at Boone Hall Plantation (image Jonathan Lamb).

Boone Hall Plantation bills itself as “America’s most photographed plantation,” and the Mount Pleasant, South Carolina plantation’s moss-draped oak approach and grounds are indeed magnificent.  The most dramatic aesthetic feature of the plantation may be the nearly mile-long “Avenue of Oaks” approach, which is draped in southern oaks planted in 1743.  Photographed by a legion of tourists whose images crowd the likes of Pinterest, Instagram, and Trip Advisor, the space has also appeared in films including North and South and The Notebook.

Captives quareters at Boone Hall Plantation (image Rennett Stowe).

Captives quarters at Boone Hall Plantation (image Rennett Stowe).

In April the visitors photographing the Boone Hall landscape included Dylann Roof, who later murdered nine African Americans in a Charleston church on June 17th.  In March and April Roof visited a series of South Carolina historic sites such as Boone Hall and included the images on a website accompanying a racist manifesto.  We may find it impossible to fathom the mind of a racist killer and determine how he went from the mimicry of xenophobic talking points to mass murder, but his historic site visits illuminate the somewhat “placeless” historic landscape of the racist imagination.  Dylann Roof’s imagination of these historic spaces is impossible to conclusively interpret, and his online manifesto and pictures did not deny the historical narratives of African-American heritage sites as much as he simply evaded them.  It appears that Roof ignored the complex heritage of all these places even as he felt strangely compelled to visit them. Read the rest of this entry

The Trinkets of Evil: Eva Braun’s Underwear and Dark Heritage

The underwear that may have once belonged to Eva Braun are $7500 (image from Daily Mail).

The underwear that may have once belonged to Eva Braun are $7500 (image from Daily Mail).

Few artifacts associated with dark historical moments are more perversely fascinating than a pair of panties for sale in an Ohio antiques shop.  The lace underwear embossed with the monogram “EB” were reputedly recovered in 1945 from Berchtesgaden, where they were said to grace Eva BraunThe provenience for the $7500 knickers is not clearly established, but the interest in the skivvies of Hitler’s mistress is a telling reflection of our deep-seated curiosity in the human dimensions of evil.  The fascination with such a prosaic thing illuminates our desire to comprehend (if not explain) the most evil people by focusing on their banal humanity.

Few collectibles provoke more anxiety than Nazi artifacts, whose exchange is strictly regulated throughout most of the world.  Many of the codes regulating Nazi memorabilia attempt to keep them from falling into the hands of contemporary neo-Nazis, but many observers simply see the profiteering on Nazi symbols as ghoulish if not immoral.  Harry Grenville, whose parents died at Auschwitz, called a 2015 auction of wartime memorabilia “hugely offensive,” lamenting that “this auction house is set to make a tidy sum of money from the sale of items that are hugely offensive to a lot of people.  It raises again the question about freedom of speech – you can’t force people to stop selling Holocaust memorabilia and making money from it but you can deplore it.”  Grenville is not alone in his uneasiness that Nazi material things have become “collectibles” traded like any other other good.  Nevertheless, this aversion to the trade in Nazi collectibles stands somewhat at odds with the pervasive presence of Nazis in popular culture, where Nazism and Hitler are nearly universally recognized stand-ins for evil. Read the rest of this entry

Burying Fans: Material Culture and Ritual at Fandom Funerals

Star Wars fan Gordon Deacon's funeral carriage was escorted to the church by stormtroopers (image from Wales Online).

Star Wars fan Gordon Deacon’s funeral carriage was escorted to the church by stormtroopers (image from Wales Online).

In February lifelong Star Wars and Liverpool Football Club fan Gordon Deacon died of cancer, and the 58-year-old’s funeral commemorated his passions.  The Cardiff father of four was escorted to St. Margaret’s Church by a phalanx of stormtroopers who then oversaw his pallbearers, who were themselves clad in Liverpool jerseys.  Deacon’s funeral was distinctive, but he is by no means alone embracing his fandom for his final earthly ritual.  For instance, the widow of Pittsburgh Steelers fan James Henry Smith requested that he be placed in his favorite reclining chair as if “he just fell asleep watching the game,” covered by his beloved Steelers blanket and facing a television showing a Steelers game (with the television remote in his hand).  When Doctor Who fan Seb Neale died his family and friends arranged a service at which Neale’s coffin was a TARDIS with a blue flashing light; the service program was a picture of Neale cosplaying as 10th Doctor David Tennant; music from the show was played; and instead of scriptural verses “the funeral consisted of quotes from classic Who scripts, including William Hartnell’s famous speech from `The Dalek Invasion Of Earth’: ‘One day, I will come back.  Yes, I shall come back.  Until then there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties.  Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.’” Read the rest of this entry

Faith at the Brickyard: Ritual, Fandom, and the Indianapolis 500

Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp after winning the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911

Ray Harroun in his Marmon Wasp after winning the first running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1911 (image from Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection)

Memorial Day weekend is among the most cherished holidays in racing fandom, with the Indianapolis 500 culminating a month of racing and community events.  For legions of followers the Indianapolis 500 is an annual rite, and for many fans the journey to the speedway is a pilgrimage to one of racing’s most hallowed spaces.  In 1973 the New York Times celebrated the event and place when it intoned that “the 500 is more than a race.  It is a folk festival, a happening.  Its pageantry, spectacle and corn make it Middle America’s counterpart to France’s pilgrimage to Le Mans.”

The speedway experience involves systematic ritual, intense desire, and visitation to an important place, all of which have some parallels to pilgrims’ religious travel in particular and broader religious experience in general (compare Jean Williams’ 2012 study of pilgrimage to the IMS).  Religious characterizations of sport fandom perhaps risk hyperbolizing the consequence of sport, and some observers have ridiculed the hackneyed definition of sports’ “hallowed ground.” In 2008, for instance, sportswriter Andrea Adelson complained that “There is nothing sacred about Augusta National, Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field.  So why are these places referred to in the same way we talk about the Sistine Chapel, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Wailing Wall?”  Adelson argued that sporting places should be characterized as being “steeped in tradition.”  Adelson’s distinction between sacred and secular places reveals a wariness of projecting sacred authenticity onto the prosaic reality of sporting venues, if not sport itself. Read the rest of this entry

Racing Along the Color Line

A July 31, 1926 advertisement in the Indianapolis Recorder for the third running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.

A July 31, 1926 advertisement in the Indianapolis Recorder for the third running of the Gold and Glory Sweepstakes.

This month the massive crowds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway appear to confirm its confident claim to being the “motor racing capital of the world.”  Racing began on the oval in 1909 and the 500-mile race first ran two years later, with the 99th running of the 500-mile race approaching on Memorial Day weekend.  The speedway is a National Historic Landmark, and its fascinating social history reaches well beyond the obsessive statistics and biographical minutia that motorheads have compulsively detailed for a century.  The IMS dominates American racing mythology and is as much a pilgrimage destination as a race track.  Like so many shrines it invokes a host of American traditions that are perhaps more firmly rooted in our imagination and hagiography than especially concrete history.

The imagination of the speedway’s history has recently begun to contemplate historical racial inequalities in sports.  This year the 500 Festival parade before the race will be marshalled by the 1955 state high school basketball champions from Indianapolis’ segregated Crispus Attucks High School.  The Attucks champions’ place in the pre-race parade celebrates Indiana’s two most adored sports, basketball and racing, but of course the implications of sport and the color line extend beyond the hardwood and the speedway.  No 20th-century Indiana institution escaped anti-Black racism, and the speedway and the Indianapolis 500 was long a segregated space and has included very few people of color on the track or in the pits.  The prominence of the Attucks players makes a modest but potentially important concession of racism in sports, though the concrete social effects of such discussions remain to be evaluated. Read the rest of this entry

Commemoration and African-American Place: Remembering Basketball and the Dust Bowl

The page from Oscar Robertson's scrapbook detailing the 1955 State Title (click for larger image; image from IUPUI University Library).

The page from Oscar Robertson’s scrapbook detailing the 1955 State Title (click for larger image; image from IUPUI University Library).

In 1955 Crispus Attucks High School won the Indiana high school basketball crown in one of the state’s most fabled sporting moments.  In basketball-mad Indiana there are many reasons to celebrate the 1955 Tigers’ victory: fronted by hardwood legend Oscar Robertson, the Tigers are venerated for their march through the ranks of Indiana high school basketball teams in 1955 and their domination of the state’s best teams throughout the 1950’s (Attucks also took crowns in 1956 and 1959 and had a near-miss in 1951).

Garage-mounted basketball hoops, stanchions rolled out onto suburban dead-ends, and scattered courts remain one of the most commonplace features of the Indianapolis landscape, where the game is a staple of everyday life.  An astounding range of people have embraced the Attucks basketball championship, which is often spun as racism’s conquest at the hands of civility and fairness—qualities that are often somewhat idealistically projected onto basketball.  Sport looms in this narrative as one of the rare activities White and Black Hoosiers shared in the 1950’s, forging some measure of understanding if not equality beyond the hardwood.  This picture of Cold War segregated basketball risks over-stating the transformations worked by basketball or mistaking good intentions for structural changes.  Nevertheless, basketball and sport did indeed provide promising glimpses into the possibilities of a life outside anti-Black racism (Richard Pierce’s 2000 study of the 1951 Attucks championship provides a compelling analysis of the intersection of the post-war color line and basketball). Read the rest of this entry

Mapping the Black Road: Segregated Driving and the Indianapolis Roadside

The 1956 Negro Motorist Green Book (image South Carolina University Library).

The 1956 Negro Travelers’ Green Book (image University of South Carolina Digital Collections Library).

In a 1936 study of life in segregated rural Georgia, Arthur Franklin Raper captured the anxiety posed by the African-American car and the political implications of African-American travel.  Raper saw the roads as spaces in which White privilege was being undermined if not contested, noting that “only on automobiles on public roads do landlords and tenants and white people and Negroes of the Black Belt meet on the basis of equality. … [T]he tenant can go where he pleases on the public road, and after he gets twenty or thirty minutes from home he travels incognito and is subject to his own wishes.”

The story of segregation is often told in spaces that hosted civil rights confrontations: lunch counters, bus stations, and school steps are concrete spots where the denial of privilege was contested.  Nevertheless, all public space was regulated, and Black movement inspired particularly neurotic fears.  One White farmer interviewed by Arthur Raper “advocated that the cars be taken from the Negroes or that the county maintain two systems of roads, one for the whites and one for the Negroes!”  Movement evoked freedom, independence, and agency outside White surveillance, so it inspired anxiety over more than a century:  an uneasiness that African Americans were operating outside White control was shared by antebellum ideologues viewing the Underground Railroad, Northern cities witnessing the Great Migration, and Georgia farmers watching African-American cars on the public roadway. Read the rest of this entry

Vacationing and the African-American Dream

Recorder June 19 1926 Fox Lake ad

Fox Lake's "Big Opening" was heralded in the Indianapolis Recorder on June 19th, 1926.

Fox Lake’s “Big Opening” was heralded in the Indianapolis Recorder on June 19th, 1926 (click for larger image).

In June, 1926 the Indianapolis Recorder heralded the opening of Fox Lake, “the long looked for Indiana lake resort for colored people.”  Two weeks later the paper ran a spectacular advertisement for a Fourth of July event at Idlewild of Indiana, a segregated vacation getaway south of Indianapolis “promoted by the `race’ for the `race.’”  In many ways nothing especially dramatic distinguishes such African-American vacation spots from the legion of forest cabins, beaches, and leisure destinations that dotted America.  The 20th-century rural Midwest was carpeted by African-American vacation spots that mirrored segregated leisure spaces that began to emerge throughout the country around the turn of the century.  Yet in the midst of segregation places like Fox Lake incubated an African American Dream that was perhaps distinguished by a simultaneous embrace of “middle class” values and a rejection of their presumed White exclusivity.  Places like Fox Lake certainly provided refuge from racism, but they also incubated class respectability, fed economic and social ambitions, and fanned genuine politicization.

A text-heavy pitch for Idlewild of Michigan that appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder March 18, 1916.

A text-heavy pitch for Idlewild of Michigan that appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder March 18, 1916.

Widespread middle-class ambitions did not grant mass access to inter-war African-American resorts.  Idlewild of Michigan (which had no relationship to the Idlewild of Indiana resort) was the most prominent African-American resort in the Midwest, and when the Indianapolis Recorder first referred to it in March, 1916 the African-American newspaper celebrated that “beautiful Idlewild is to be an exclusive, high-class colored summer resort.”  Idlewild ads emphasized that the resort “has been thoroughly investigated by a number of prominent business people and professional people of the race.”  A 1919 promotional pamphlet for Idlewild expressly targeted “the thinking, progressive, active class of people, who are leading spirits of their communities.”

The Black elite enlisted to boost their cause included Madam C.J. Walker, who owned property at Idlewild.  Once control of Idlewild was turned over to African Americans in 1921, W.E.B. Du Bois waxed poetic about the retreat in The Crisis: “For sheer physical beauty … it is the beautifulest stretch I have seen for twenty years; and to that add fellowship—sweet, strong women and keen-witted men from Canada and Texas, California and New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois—all sons and great-grandchildren of Ethiopia, all with the wide leisure of rest and play—can you imagine a more marvelous thing than Idlewild?” Read the rest of this entry


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