African-American Heritage in the Post-Renewal City

Bethel AME Church

Bethel AME Church

In the wake of World War II planners, developers, and elected officials spearheaded urban renewal projects that transformed Indianapolis, Indiana’s material landscape and depopulated its central core.  Yet over the last 20 years the descendants of those ideologues have been gradually repopulating the Indiana capital city’s core and constructing a historicized landscape on the ruins of the post-renewal city.  A relatively similar story could be told in nearly all of postwar America, where urban renewal, the “war on poverty,” and a host of local schemes displaced legions of poor and working-class people.  Some creatively re-purposed structures have survived urban renewal in Indianapolis, but much of the near-Westside’s historical landscape has been erased, remains under fire, or only survives in radically new forms.  It may be pragmatic (or unavoidable) to accept such a transformation of the historical landscape, but urban renewal’s material effacement of the African-American near-Westside—and the way it is now reconstructed or evoked on the contemporary landscape–inevitably will transform how that heritage is experienced.

The Bethel AME interior features a massive pipe organ.

The Bethel AME interior features a massive pipe organ.

The most recent target in Indianapolis is Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which has sat on West Vermont Street since the congregation purchased the lot in 1869.  The congregation’s origins in Indianapolis reach to 1836, and the church members were vocal abolition supporters and orchestrated movement through Indianapolis on the Underground Railroad.  Bethel was among the African-American city’s most prominent institutions, hosting myriad people for worship, leisure, education, and activism alike: in 1870, residents gathered in the church to celebrate the passing of the 15th Amendment (securing African-American voting rights); in 1904 the first meeting of Indiana’s Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs was held at Bethel; in 1926 African Americans gathered at Bethel to protest a wave of segregation laws reaching from racist neighborhood covenants to high school segregation; and neighborhood residents gathered at Bethel throughout the civil rights movement.

Yet after World War II the near-Westside was subject to waves of Indiana University Medical Center and state government expansion followed by the establishment of IUPUI and construction of the interstate.  In 1983 the city widened West Street and then embarked in 1985 on a project to transform the central canal immediately alongside Bethel.  The city championed a new style for the canal neighborhood that planners dubbed “Contemporary Italianate” (PDF).  The Italianate theme was a clumsy allusion to Venice’s canals and a scatter of late-19th-century Italianate buildings in Indianapolis.  The “contemporary” dimension of the canal’s new style optimistically focused on the present and dodged the neighborhood’s African-American heritage, arguing that “the past cannot be successfully recreated except in a `museum’ environment like Williamsburg, and few people choose to live within those constraints.”  A “Venetian style pedestrian bridge” (PDF) replaced the Vermont Street auto bridge that once ran in front of the church, which left Bethel at a dead end.  Across Vermont Street from Bethel construction began on the Canal Square apartment complex in 1989 (PDF), one of a series of apartment and condominium complexes to be built along the freshly cleared canal (Canal Overlook was the first canal complex to break ground in 1987 [PDF]).

Like many urban churches, Bethel’s congregation shrank as the surrounding neighborhoods emptied.  As the aging Bethel building declined, the congregation launched fundraising campaigns to address foundation problems and the need for a new roof.  Yet this month Pastor Lewis Parham soberly acknowledged that “We were totally just disappointed. … People want the building to stay, but people don’t want to do what it takes to keep it here.”  Last week plans were announced to turn Bethel AME into two hotels, one redeveloping the existing church and the other a hotel and 10,000 square feet of retail space in the parking lot alongside Bethel.  Sun Development and Management Corporation announced the sale agreement with the congregation and heralded it as “a dynamite development along the canal.”  The developer has pledged to preserve as much of the original structure as feasible, but no concrete design has been unveiled or reviewed by preservationists.

St. Bridget's Church during its demolition in 2000.

St. Bridget’s Church during its demolition in 2000.

Urban churches have been particularly vulnerable to the wrecking ball and re-development.  For instance, construction of St Bridget’s Catholic Church began in June, 1879 at the corner of St. Clair and North West Streets (now known as Martin Luther King, Jr. Street).  The church was dedicated January 1, 1880 and the bell blessed at month’s end.  The church originally was home to a predominately Irish-American flock led by Father Daniel Curran, who was born in Ireland in 1841.  Daniel Curran became the first Pastor at St. Bridget’s, and he apparently evangelized to African Americans from the outset.  In 1892 Curran created St. Ann’s Colored School, enrolling 76 students in a segregated school alongside St. Bridget’s.  In 1903 the Indianapolis Recorder observed that “St. Bridget’s church has thirty negro families and sixty negro children in its parish school.”  In 1914 the editor of The Catholic Truth indicated that “there is in Indianapolis a progressive colored Catholic movement in charge of our good friend, the Rev.  D. Curran of St. Bridget’s church.”  Curran served 38 years before he retired in 1916, and his successor Father John McShane served St. Bridget’s 32 years.  McShane wrote in 1931 that “ordinarily the colored folk are good, peaceful neighbors; we have never had any trouble with them.”  He observed that “I have had under my spiritual jurisdiction former slaves whose Catholic masters treated them as human beings, allowing them a liberal education, and many of the privileges of their own families.  Naturally, these favored few are today our best and most representative colored Catholics.”

St. Bridgets, circa 1980s

St. Bridgets, circa 1980s

The transformation of the St. Bridget’s neighborhood hastened the church’s decline, and in July, 1994 the Archdiocese closed St. Bridget’s.   In July, 2000 Sexton Companies announced their plans to purchase the property from the Archdiocese and build apartments where St. Bridget’s stood.  The Archdiocese accepted the offer and noted that they did “not believe it was good stewardship to continue to invest money in empty buildings.”  A meeting was scheduled for December 6, 2000 to develop a preservation plan to accommodate Sexton, but the Archdiocese did not intend to change their plans.  A crane and bulldozers appeared at the site December 1st, and neighbors filed a request for a restraining order, but over the weekend the church was partially demolished.

Phillips Temple in 2015.

Phillips Temple in 2015.

Yet other spaces in the near-Westside have been modified for new uses.  For instance, Phillip’s Temple Church at 1226 Martin Luther King Jr. Street sits immediately north of Crispus Attucks High School and alongside Flanner House Homes.  Built in 1924, the church was home for almost 70 years to Phillips Temple CME (Christian Methodist Episcopal, formerly Colored Methodist Episcopal).  The congregation was established in December, 1906, when the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Bishop Charles Henry Phillips had appointed Rev. John F. Taylor to “open a Mission of the C.M.E. churches at 1204 Northwestern Ave.”  The congregation laid the cornerstone for a new church on Drake Street on June 14, 1908 with Bishop Phillips in attendance, and the newly constructed chapel and the congregation took Phillip’s name.  The church grew quite rapidly during World War I migration, and in 1919 Governor I. Jackson was appointed as its Pastor.  Known as the “Master Builder” in the church’s history, Jackson spearheaded a construction project for a new church around the corner from its Drake Street chapel.  Phillip’s Chapel was renamed Phillip’s Temple when the new church on North West Street opened in 1924.  The church could seat 1500 worshippers and was reputed to be the largest African-American owned auditorium in Indiana.

In November 1992 Phillip’s Temple relocated to East 34th Street.  In January 1993 the church became home to Grace Memorial CME and then Revival Temple Apostolic Church occupied it within a year.  In 2011 the building was finally abandoned and it was purchased by Indianapolis Public Schools, who intended to raze the building for a parking lot (compare MW LaFary’s images of the church from 2012).  IPS delayed the demolition, and in August 2015 the church was purchased by Van Rooy Properties to be rehabbed as apartments.

The erasure of African-American materiality from the near-Westside was simply one dimension of the city’s changing postwar landscape.  In 1960 Indianapolis Recorder columnist Andrew Ramsey concluded that White suburbanites “have sold their old houses of worship either to Negro congregations or operators of parking lots, filling stations or other commercial venture and have built country club types of houses of worship in their racially exclusive suburbs.”  Ramsey lamented that while suburban churches supported evangelization in Africa they ironically ignored the “central city from which they fled,” where African-American congregations claimed abandoned White churches and remaining White residents refused to worship with their African-American neighbors.

On August 2, 1913 Cassius MC Willis and his sone Herbert advertised their new mortuary location at 632-634 North West Street.

On August 2, 1913 Cassius MC Willis and his son Herbert advertised their new mortuary location at 632-634 North West Street.

The reclamation of African-American space and heritage extends beyond churches alone.  For instance, the former Willis Mortuary is today being surrounded by a new apartment complex.  Cassius M. Clay Willis established his undertaking firm in 1890 and graduated from the Massachusetts School of Embalming five years later, managing his firm at several locations on Indiana Avenue.  In April, 1913 the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Willis and his son Herbert had purchased a double at 632-634 North West Street, and in August they announced they were open for business at the new location on North West Street.  Willis’ most famous neighbor was probably Madam C.J. Walker, who purchased the home at 640 North West Street in May, 1911 and built a factory in the backyard.  Walker moved to New York City in 1916, but production and offices for the firm remained on North West Street until they moved to the Walker Theatre next door in 1927.  The Walker home itself was last listed as a residence in 1965, appearing vacant in both 1964 and 1965, and it was apparently razed soon after.

Willis Mortuary, circa 1990.

Willis Mortuary, circa 1990.

Cassius Willis died in 1920, his son ran the firm until his death in 1952, and the final funerals were conducted in the building in 2009.  The building subsequently sat vacant until it was purchased in 2015 by Olaf Lava LLC, who planned to bulldoze the building and build apartments covering both Walker’s home and the space where the Willis Mortuary now sits.  But Indiana Landmarks prevailed on the developer to integrate the former mortuary into their design, and the building will survive with the new apartments ringing it.

After the city spent the postwar period razing most of the near-Westside, it has now paradoxically embraced bourgeois development without imagining any contradictions with African-American heritage.  Inevitably the wake of urban renewal has effaced the near-Westside’s historical landscape, leaving ambiguous distinctions between Italian-themed architecture, 19th-century churches, and historical facades on new buildings.  Phillip’s Temple, the Willis Mortuary, and Bethel AME will perhaps emerge as preservation victories that provide traces of the African-American near-Westside, and all of these renovated spaces invoke some sense of historicity and sound reminders of the city’s African-American past.  In the absence of much surviving material culture, Indianapolis and many more cities likely will be dependent on the developers of bourgeois apartments and hotels to creatively narrate that history.



C.H. Phillips

1925 The History of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America: Comprising Its Organization, Subsequent Development and Present Status.  3rd edition.  C.M.E. Church, Jackson, Tennessee.


City of Indianapolis

1985 Lower Canal Improvement Project.  Browning, Day, Mullins, Dierdorf, Indianapolis, Indiana.


Mary and James Kenny

2004 The Church that Refused to Die: St. Bridget’s.  Brigittine Press, Indianapolis, Indiana.



Bethel AME image 2006 and Bethel AME Chancel and Pipe Facade from Pipe Organ Database by William T. Van Pelt

Phillips Temple image Indianapolis Star

St. Bridget’s Catholic Church and School, image circa 1990s; St. Bridget’s Catholic Church Demolition and following demolition, December 2000; and Willis Mortuary image undated Indiana Historic Architecture Slide Collection, IUPUI University Library


Posted on April 15, 2016, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Thank you for writing that.

    Something similar is happening in London, though without the property developers bothering to mediate a historical ‘memory’ of a place nowadays and with class, not race deciding whose buildings get bought up or destroyed

  2. La revue de Claire

    Very interesting

  3. Thank you. I found this interesting since I lived in Indianapolis and went to school there (P. S. 70 and Shortridge High School). My tenure in Naptown was from 1961 to 1980. Take care.

  1. Pingback: Gates, Place, and Urban Heritage | Archaeology and Material Culture

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