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.

Walker moved to Indianapolis in 1910 and was already enormously successful when she rose at the 1912 National Negro Business League convention to proclaim that “I have built my own factory on my own ground, 38 by 208 feet. I employ in that factory seven people, including a bookkeeper, a stenographer, a cook and a house girl. I own my own automobile and runabout.” Yet Walker’s monologue was not simply about her success, instead stressing that “my object in life is not simply to make money for myself or to spend it on myself in dressing or running around in an automobile. But I love to use a part of what I make in trying to help others.”

The tendency to frame Walker’s story as an American Dream narrative has been read its death rites as Walker becomes a nuanced symbol of Black activism, feminism, and philanthropy that touched many more women. The source material for Self Made is A’Lelia Bundles’ biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker. Bundles paints a rich picture of Walker that undoes the self-made entrepreneur story and instead focuses on Walker’s skill building a community of women in the Company. Walker’s philanthropy is the heart of Tyrone McKinley Freeman’s research, which will appear this Fall as Madam C. J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving: Black Women’s Philanthropy during Jim Crow. Rather than fixate on Walker’s affluence, Freeman’s research underscores Walker’s philanthropy, activism, and generosity and shifts the Walker narrative to the ways her “race business” supported and fed the ambitions of many African-American women (in fairness to Self Made, it ends with an acknowledgement of that philanthropy and activism).

In about 1912 Madam Walker is pictured at the wheel of her car on North West Street with her niece Anjetta Breedlove, Lucy Flint, and Alice Kelly (Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society)

The Walker Company employed a vast number of women in its Indianapolis factory, and those women shared many of the structural challenges and experiences Walker had lived herself. For instance, Lucy Monroe Flint came to Indianapolis from Louisville in 1912 to work as a stenographer and secretary for the Walker company. Flint probably was the stenographer Walker referred to in her National Negro Business League speech. Like Walker, Flint was born during Reconstruction; Flint was born in Kentucky in about 1869, two years after Walker was born in Louisiana. Flint had been a Louisville teacher before coming to Indianapolis; in 1900 she was living with her two sisters Lula and Pollie in Louisville, where both Lucy and Lula were public school teachers. A 1913 story on Walker indicated that Flint “was for a number of years connected with the foreign mission board of the national Baptist convention,” and she and Walker may have met in Louisville through Walker’s connections in Louisville.

In July 1915 many of the Walker Company’s earliest employees appeared in this paylist, including Lucy Flint and Alice Kelly (Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society).

Flint lived at 640 North West Street, Madam Walker’s home in the city’s historically African-American near-Westside until 1916, when Flint moved to a home on Highland Place. Flint clearly shared Walker’s activist interests. For instance, in June 1912 Lucy Flint was among the first members of Indianapolis’ “Colored” Womans Suffrage League, serving as its Secretary. Flint was also active in the “colored branch” of Indianapolis’ YWCA, serving on committees doing regular fundraising for the YWCA. Flint was identified by one source as “the private secretary of Madam C.J. Walker,” and she traveled extensively with Walker between 1912 and 1915. In May 1913, for example, Flint had traveled to Louisville in one of Walker’s cars, with the Indianapolis Recorder reporting that “Madame C J. Walker, accompanied by Misses Lucy Flint, Alice Kelley, Anjetta Breedlove and Miss Wallace of St. Louis made a trip Saturday to Louisville in her new seven passenger touring car, returning on Monday afternoon.”

In February 1915 the Recorder reported that Flint had recovered from an extended illness but was visiting family in Louisville for a month. Flint appeared to have recovered in February 1916, when the Recorder reported that Madam Walker was leaving the city and moving to New York. The newspaper observed that the Indianapolis factory remained in the “capable hands of Miss Kelly, forelady; Miss Lucy Flint, bookkeeper; Misses Violet Davis and Marguerite Overton, stenographers and F. B. Ransom, attorney.” Yet in August Flint was ill for just a few days before her death from peritonitis on August 16, 1916. In September her family indicated that Flint’s pledge to donate $25 a year to the “colored branch” of the YWCA would be honored despite her death.

In about 1950 Violet Davis Reynolds was still active in the Walker Company, here filming an advertisement (Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society).

In the wake of Flint’s death one of the women who would become the heart of the firm was Violet Davis. Davis was born in about 1897 in Birmingham, Alabama to Major Wylie Davis and Cornelia Davis. Violet appeared in the Eckstein Norton Institute’s Memorial Day program in April 1911 as an instrumental soloist, and Davis remembered in 1979 that Walker visited the university “a few weeks before commencement.” Eckstein Norton Professor Alice Kelly knew Davis’ mother and would be joining Madam Walker in Indianapolis in Fall 1911, and Kelly recommended Davis to Walker. Davis attended an Alabama business college in preparation for joining the Walker company, and she same to Indianapolis in April 1914 and attended a ball at the Pythian Temple.  Davis met the mail carrier for 640 North West Street that night, David Reynolds, and Violet Davis would marry Reynolds in June 1919. In October 1914 Davis appeared at an Indianapolis meeting of the “Ethical Culture Society” and provided an “instrumental selection.” In 1915 Davis was living at Madam Walker’s North West Street home and working as a stenographer for the company. Violet Davis Reynolds would remain with the company for 68 years until her retirement in 1982 as the company’s Executive Director. Violet Davis Reynolds died in May 1991.

Alice Kelly taught until 1911 at Eckstein Norton, where this photograph was likely taken

At Violet Davis’ 1911 commencement, “Prof. A.P. Kelley” appeared on the Eckstein Norton faculty. Born in Mobile, Alabama in about 1871, Kelly graduated from Kentucky’s State Colored University in June 1889, delivering the salutatorian lecture “Surmounting Difficulties.” Kelly received her Master’s degree in May 1892 and began teaching Latin at Eckstein-Norton in about 1900. Eckstein Norton was a segregated Black university in Cane Spring, Kentucky that opened in 1890, and in 1907 Alice Kelly was one of seven faculty at the small industrial arts, literature, and Biblical school that eventually merged with Lincoln University in 1912. Alice P. Kelly would be among Walker’s closest confidants, who she was working for by December 1911, when she organized a reception at Madam Walker’s home with Lucy Flint. Kelly accompanied Walker on constant business trips at which Walker delivered lectures on the company and products, with a 1913 newspaper account referring to Kelly as Walker’s “indefatigable traveling companion.” Kelly would become the forewoman of the Walker factory after Madam Walker’s death in May 1919, presiding over the company during the construction and opening of the Walker Theater in 1928. Kelly was still working for the Walker Company when she died in April 1931.

One of the most fascinating stories of a Walker Company employee was of Madam Walker’s cook Parthenia Rollins. Rollins was born in Kentucky around 1850, where she was the captive of Edward B. DuVall. In December 1937 Rollins was one of 21 Indianapolis residents interviewed for the Federal Writers Project Slave Narratives. The two-page summary of the interview described several horrific experiences from Rollins’ childhood enslaved in Kentucky, ending with Rollins acknowledging that she witnessed cruelty that “would make your hair stand on ends.” The interview summary indicated the inexpressible suffering at the heart of Rollins’ experiences nearly 80 years before, noting that Rollins “said she could hardly talk of the happenings of the early days, because of the awful things her folks had to go through.”

Rollins lived in Kentucky 40 years after Emancipation, and she came to Indianapolis around 1908 with a daughter, son, and grandson. She likely met Madam Walker soon after Walker moved to Indianapolis around April 1910, and when the census keeper recorded Rollins’ household on April 21, 1910 it recorded Rollins as a cook for a private family. When Madam Walker rose at the 1912 National Negro Business League convention, the cook she referred to as her employee was certainly Rollins.

Walker purchased the home at 640 North West Street in May 1911, and a housewarming with 100 guests was held at the end of June 1911. Rollins almost certainly was cooking for Walker and her guests at many of these events, and in 1979 Violet Davis Reynolds remembered that “Parthenia Rollins of Hopkinsville, Ky., was housekeeper for Madam, and she made special pastries and wonderful Dixie (yeast) biscuits for guests. I can still taste those biscuits with homemade butter.” When Walker left Indianapolis in 1916 Rollins’ family moved into a newly built home on a property Walker had purchased at 810 Camp Street several years before. However, in June 1917 Rollins apparently complained about raises in the company, and Walker wrote company lawyer Freeman Ransom and indicated that Rollins “has the vilest tongue of any woman … I have ever come in contact with. If she does not stop talking I am going to fire her myself without giving her anything.” Rollins and her family would nonetheless live on Camp Street the remainder of Rollins’ life, and she would remain on Walker Company payrolls. The fourth item in Walker’s 1919 will stipulated that “Parthenia Rawlins [sic] be paid five dollars a week for the rest of her natural life, and that sufficient money be set aside for her burial and funeral expenses.” Parthenia Rollins died in October, 1952, when the Indianapolis Recorder placed her age at 107 and indicated she “lived in her native Kentucky during the Civil War and remembered many stirring events of the war. She had heard Abraham Lincoln speak on several occasions.”

Alice Burnett worked for the Walker Company for almost 30 years (Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society).

The network of Walker employees and agents reached well beyond Indianapolis. In 1917 Alice C. Burnett of Jackson Mississippi signed a contract as a Walker agent, and Burnett was a tireless salesperson and instructor who traveled over much of the nation teaching the “Walker way.” In March 1917 Walker wrote Ransom that Burnett had an $1,100 debt on her home she could not pay if she was traveling, and Walker asked Ransom if “I could spare the money” (it is not clear if Ransom supported the expense). In June 1930 Burnett presented the company’s movie “From Cabin to Castle” in Salem M.E. Church in New York, part of a series of presentations she did of the Walker biographical film, which established some of the company’s romanticized history of its founder: “How one may be born in a tiny log cabin in the backwoods and yet, through perseverance, hard work and a determination to succeed, amass wealth and realize the comforts of a luxurious mansion … has been so graphically told that this film goes down as one of the big object lessons of the day.” Burnett moved to New York City by 1940, where she was Vice-President of the company and died in 1946. Pedro de la Cruz immigrated to the United States in 1919 from Puerto Rico, and he was working for the Walker Company the next year as an interpreter. The company did conduct business in the Spanish-speaking world, and de la Cruz may have been among the employees managing that trade. Harry D. Evans signed a contract with the Walker Company in October 1919, a year after he had written Ransom complaining about racism in the military and asking the lawyer if he could intervene on the behalf of the African-American soldiers. Evans became the company’s advertising manager and traveled to Cuba in 1927, probably representing the company. In the early 1930’s he gave presentations on behalf of the company and presented its “From Cabin to Castle” movie.

An undated 1914-1916 payroll listing included Madam Walker herself (Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society).

Self Made inevitably tells the Madam Walker story in an approachable narrative, and while it takes a few liberties with Walker’s biography they are rich entry points for those who want to know Walker’s broader history. Walker’s history is perhaps more about the community of people she encouraged than it is about her entrepreneurial success, and it is a narrative about a legion of ambitious, disciplined, and thoughtful women who are mostly anonymous to mainstream histories. The story of all these women and men who worked for the Walker Company and the scores of people touched by her business is ideally what Self Made will illuminate.



July 17, 1915 Walker Company Payroll image Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society

Alice Burnett undated image Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society

Alice Kelly undated image Madam C.J. Walker Supplemental Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

Undated Walker Payroll image Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society

Violet Davis Reynolds, circa 1950 Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society

Walker in Car, circa 1912 Madam C.J. Walker Collection, Indiana Historical Society

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

Digging Dillinger

John H. Dillinger’s grave often has coins, flowers, and a host of offerings left at the grave, and the marker has had its edges chipped off by the most zealous visitors.

On July 25, 1934 a crowd of perhaps 5000 people gathered at Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery to glimpse the final rites of John Dillinger. Sergeant Otis Baker was in charge of a detachment of police officers instructed to stand guard over the grave when the services ended, and the Indianapolis Star reported that “down the road from the Dillinger lot a group of Negroes was seated quietly on the grass, watching the proceedings with solemn and eager eyes. Sergt Baker said one of them had approached him, carrying a tin cup; he wished, the Negro explained, to `get him a cupful of earth off’n Dillinger’s grave,’ but Sergt. Baker declined to let him or any one else inside the roped-off enclosure.”

This fabric fragment is among the relics gathered at the scene of Dillinger’s death reputedly soaked with the gangster’s blood.

The African-American man hoping to secure earth from Dillinger’s grave was simply one of many people seeking the souvenirs of America’s most celebrated criminal. Just three days before, Dillinger had been killed outside the Biograph theatre in Chicago by federal agents, and his corpse and bodily trappings instantly became relics. As Dillinger was being removed from the Chicago sidewalk, “Chicago thrill seekers dipped their handkerchiefs and rubbed their shoes in Dillinger’s blood on the street.” Offers of $1,000 were made for the outlaw’s shirt and $100 for the bricks stained by Dillinger’s blood, and pieces of paper with Dillinger’s blood sold for a quarter. Dillinger’s “blood-stained” hat was being exhibited in the Justice Department within weeks of Dillinger’s death, where “Dillinger relics were first placed in a glass case in the anteroom of the office of J Edgar Hoover chief of the investigation bureau. So many employes [sic] took time off to inspect the new display that Hoover moved it to his inner office.” Read the rest of this entry

In the Shadow of the Interstate: Living with Highways

Mary Brame's home, 1972 aerial image

In 1972 Interstate-65 had just been completed when this aerial photograph was taken of Mary Brame’s home on West 15th Street (at the arrow). The neighboring building was a church (click on image for larger view).

In June 1973 attorney Charles Walton wrote Indiana Governor Otis Bowen on behalf of his client Mary Brame. Brame’s home sat on West 15th Street in the shadow of the recently constructed Interstate-65, which had razed virtually all of the surrounding structures and cut off West 15th Street, leaving the widow alone on a newly closed dead-end street. Walton implored the Governor to purchase Brame’s home, which he argued was “falling apart” because of the interstate’s “noise and vibrations.” The State had built a “fence up against Mrs. Brane’s [sic] home and closed down all the street leading to Mrs. Brane’s [sic] home accept [sic] one narrow extremely short street.” Walton complained that Brame “cannot sleep at night because of the noises from the highway, and as a result of this, her health is failing.”

1958 Central Business District Map

The 1958 Central Business District plan included this map with the proposed route for Interstate-65. At 10th Street it was proposed that I-65 would continue south along West Street, but that leg was eventually rejected; I-70’s basic location was identified on the south side (click for a larger image).

Thousands of Indianapolis residents were uprooted when the state purchased their homes for interstate construction. Mary Brame was simply one of scores of people who were left to live in the shadow of newly built highways. I-65 and I-70 have legacies of displacing vast swaths of residents in the heart of Indianapolis, but they also left in their wake gutted communities compelled to negotiate a radically transformed streetscape, pollution, and noise from the newly constructed highways. A half-century after most of these interstates were constructed, planners are now once again fantasizing over new highway designs that threaten to once more destabilize many of the same neighborhoods destabilized by 1960s and 1970s highway projects.

As Mary Brame’s lawyers attempted to convince the state to purchase her home, residents of the near-Southside were likewise negotiating a radically transformed streetscape. An April 1972 story in the Indianapolis News characterized the near-Southside neighborhood around the Concord Center as once being “a city-within-a-city, with neighborhood stores and entertainment and a great deal of kinship among the residents.” But the arrival of the interstate bisected the community that been settled on the city’s southern edges for well over a century, and much of the existing streetscape was turned into dead ends at the foot of the massive earth pile holding the elevated interstate. The News admitted that “Now that the interstate is being constructed, a physical wall is being built. … There is no overpass on 1-70, and between 400 and 500 persons who live north of the interstate are isolated” (for background on the community, see the 1974 study The Near Southside Community: As it Was and As It Is and the 2012 The Neighborhood of Saturdays: Memories of a Multi-Ethnic Community on Indianapolis’ South Side). Read the rest of this entry

Imagining the Urban Wilderness: The Rhetoric of Resettling the 21st-Century City

Milhaus’ Mosaic at Artistry complex on Market Street is typical of the wave of recently constructed apartments in Indianapolis’ core with modest clusters of historic homes scattered around them.

This week Indianapolis Monthly sounded a familiar celebration of downtown living when it nostalgically remembered the city’s first “urban pioneers” who settled historic homes in the wake of postwar urban renewal. The enthusiasm for new urbanites, rehabilitating historic properties, and fresh development are typical threads of 21st-century city boosterism. Such rhetoric fancies that young well-educated bourgeois will reclaim the city from ruins, optimistically envisioning a future urban landscape of “apartment dog parks and rooftop pools.” Indianapolis Monthly’s enthusiasm for a radically transformed urban core is not at all unique and not necessarily completely misplaced. Nevertheless, its celebration of “urban pioneers” and development ignores the heritage of postwar urban displacement and evades the structural inequality that makes gentrification possible.

Indianapolis Monthly’s unvarnished celebration of development extends postwar urban renewal rhetoric and has its roots in late-19th century nationalist ideologies. The metaphor of new urbanites as “pioneers” evokes an imagination of America most clearly articulated at the end of the 19th century by historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner argued that American history and our very national personality are rooted in our experience of the American frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” Pioneers stood at the boundary of the frontier, where they appropriated “free land” based on a distinctively American individualism, self-reliance, ambition, and egalitarianism rooted in our presumed right to secure land and entertain the potential for prosperity.

When contemporary urban champions invoke the metaphors of frontier, pioneer, and wilderness they are participating in a longstanding discourse that assumes that transformations in the city and the nation’s broader spatial and social fabric are wrought in the interests of America. Observers have long described and rationalized urban renewal and transformation using that same language. In 1957, for instance, Baltimore’s The Sun indicated that “urban renewal has been described as the new American frontier.” The Sun invoked concepts that would have been familiar to Turner when it referred to the residents of one Baltimore block as “urban pioneers” who are “an example of the pioneering spirit, in the old sense of men and women working for themselves to create a better, brighter life though in a new-style wilderness of blight, an asphalt jungle. Without that spirit of self-help and individual initiative, the whole expensive machinery of urban renewal may grind away for years without changing more than the external appearances of slum housing.” The Sun’s analysis circumspectly approved urban renewal projects while it celebrated the residents who it presumed had sufficient initiative, ambition, and commitment to revive the dying city. Read the rest of this entry

The Hooded Order in the Pulpit: Klan Membership in 1920’s Indianapolis Churches

In January 1923 the Westview Baptist Church at Belmont and Jones Street heralded an evening “KKK sermon” dubbed “The Truth About the Ku Klux Klan: Is It An American Institution?” The lecture by its Pastor J. Luther Jones was advertised in The Fiery Cross, the Klan’s Indianapolis-based newspaper, and there is no evidence that the church or its Pastor were particularly unusual in their public color line politics. The Klan’s story is well-known in Indiana history, but relatively little attention has been focused on the individuals who were members of the hooded order, and J. Luther Jones was probably typical of the many people who were at least publicly sympathetic to the Klan’s nationalist provincialism. The Klan’s secrecy makes it predictably challenging to identify individual Klansmen (or the women and children in its auxiliary chapters), but in the 1920s many Indianapolis residents were unapologetic about their allegiance to the Invisible Empire, and some residents were identified as Klansmen in period documents. In 1925 there were probably about 166,000 Hoosiers paying Klan dues, and research indicates that the 1920’s Klan represented every socioeconomic class and was strongest in central and northern Indiana (compare Lawrence Moore’s 1991 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928). The Klan was not an aberration as much as it was simply an enormously popular civic organization expressing the sentiments of many Hoosiers.

Many of the earliest Klan members were identified in 1923 by the American Unity League’s weekly newspaper Tolerance, which was perhaps the most vocal critic of the Indiana Klan. In early 1923 the newspaper stole a list of the first 12,000 Klan members and identified many of these Klan members, who included city officials, public servants, and prominent community figures. On March 31, 1923 the Indianapolis Star reprinted the names of 69 Indianapolis residents identified as Klansmen by Tolerance (starting here and ending here). Indiana Republican Party chair Lawrence Lyons was the most prominent person identified by Tolerance, and he immediately sent a letter to the American Unity League that was published in the Indianapolis Star renouncing his membership in the Klan. Read the rest of this entry

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. Read the rest of this entry

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