Racist Spite and Residential Segregation: Housing and the Color Line in Inter-War Indianapolis
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.
The newly organized North Capitol Avenue neighbors initially tried to discourage the Meriwethers from moving in by making Lucien Meriwether “an offer exceeding [the] price he paid for it.” However, Meriwether and his family rebuffed the Protective Association’s offer, and the Association admitted to the Indianapolis Star that they financed the “spite fences” around the Meriwethers’ home. The fences surrounding the Meriwethers’ home were a novel mechanism to discourage African-American residential integration. Most examples of “spite fences” were the product of feuding neighbors rather than racist division (for instance, compare this 1902 case on Dugdale Street, a 1904 case on Indianapolis’ south side, and this very early Boston example dated to 1852). At least one early 20th-century Indianapolis wall was intended to separate bourgeois homes from surrounding working-class housing: in 1907 a five-foot concrete wall topped with an iron fence was built separating the wealthy residents of Woodruff Place from newly built cottages on Tecumseh Street.
The North Capitol Avenue neighborhood along Fall Creek began to be subdivided and developed in about 1889, and it was a uniformly White residential neighborhood in 1920. The Meriwethers’ arrival triggered a frenzied defense of the neighborhoods’ exclusivity, even though the Meriwethers were African-American bourgeoisie. Lucien Meriwether’s mother Ella Wilcox Meriwether moved her children to Indianapolis from Kentucky in 1908 after the death of her husband. Ella had been a teacher in Guthrie, Kentucky, and she brought her family to Indianapolis seeking a better education for her children. The family would indeed become enormously well-educated, with six of the children earning Master’s degrees. Lucien Meriwether, for instance, trained at the Indiana University School of Dentistry and became a dentist, as did his brother Sirdastion, and the brothers served in World War One; the four Meriwether daughters all became teachers.
After the enormous fences were built around the Meriwether home, Lucien Meriwether took the Slutzkys and Mary Grooms to court, suing his neighbors for $10,000, and he secured an injunction against fences taller than six feet. Grooms, though, was undeterred by the injunction, and she extended the height of her fence several feet the day after an Indianapolis court barred further construction. As the case awaited a hearing the Protective Association’s President, Ira Holmes, told the Indianapolis Star that “another house in the same block has been sold to a colored family…. [and] should the residents be unable to prevent the sale, more fencing methods will be attempted.” Two days later, fences began to be erected around that second African-American home at 2246 North Capitol, where Allen Charles Simms had moved. The Simms’ eight-room home across the street from the Meriwether home had been advertised for sale in early June, and when Simms rebuffed the neighbors’ effort to purchase the property they began to erect fences around the Simms’ home.
In April 1921 a judge ruled in favor of Meriwether and awarded him $150 from Grooms and $350 from the Slutzkys. The court ruled that the fences must be reduced to six-feet in height by the following day. Ira Holmes defiantly declared that “the Capitol Avenue Protective Association would stand behind the fight to prevent colored people from moving northward on North Capitol avenue, and the appeal of the decision … was but one of the steps to be taken to uphold the stand of the organization against the colored citizens.” However, Grooms and the Slutzkys’ appeal to have their case reviewed failed in January 1923, and the Meriwether family would remain in the home until the 1960s.
The 1920s have a well-deserved reputation for Ku Klux Klan influence in Indianapolis, but much of the lobbying for residential segregation was conducted by rather typical men and women like the Meriwethers’ neighbors. For instance, the Meriwethers’ fence-building neighbor Gabriel Slutzky did not seem to be a stereotypical Klan foot soldier. Slutzky’s parents migrated from Russia in about 1882, and Gabriel Slutzky was born in 1884, when his family was living on South Meridian Street in Indianapolis. Gabriel’s father Henry was a charter member of Knesses Israel synagogue, which began construction of its synagogue at Eddy and Merrill Streets in April 1892 with Henry Slutzky as a member of the “committee on decoration.” Knesses Israel, sometimes referred to as the “Russian Shul” because of its predominately Russian membership, was among a handful of Orthodox southside synagogues until it closed in 1961, eventually merging with Sharah Tefilla and Ezras Achim to form the United Orthodox Hebrew Congregation in 1966.
After bartending in his father’s saloon, Gabriel opened his own liquor store and saloon in 1912 on the overwhelmingly African-American Indiana Avenue. Gabriel advertised his new liquor store in the African-American newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder and indicated that “I respectfully ask the colored men of the city to come in and inspect my place and the goods and prices offered” (the enterprise went bankrupt in March 1917). In March, 1940 (10 years after Slutzky’s death) an Indianapolis Recorder article pointed out the irony of Slutzky managing a business in the African-American near-Westside and then resisting an African-American neighbor: “Many years ago [in] the case of Mary Grooms, et al. versus Meriwether … one Gabriel Slutsky [sic], a Jew who had allegedly operated a business establishment in Indiana Avenue at one time, catering particularly to colored, objected to Dr. Lucian B. Meriwether as a neighbor and built a high fence about his home.”
North Capitol Protective Association President Ira M. Holmes had a more problematic history. Holmes was a criminal defense lawyer who began to practice in 1898, and a 1950 obituary described him as “Among the last of the old school of legal stalwarts, who often resorted to fisticuffs to back up their contention.” Holmes was living at 2164 North Capitol Street in 1921, and he was just a few doors away from Lucien Meriwether’s family in 1922 at 2149 North Capitol (he eventually moved to 510 North Meridian in 1924). Holmes defended “hundreds of bootleggers” during Prohibition, but his most infamous client was D.C. Stephenson. Indiana Klan Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson had spearheaded the Indiana Klan’s rapid growth and wide-reaching influence in the early 1920s, but his downfall came after a March, 1925 rape, kidnapping, and assault that ended in the death of Madge Oberholtzer in April 1925. Holmes served as Stephenson’s criminal defense lawyer in his 1925 trial, which ended with a 2nd-degree murder conviction against Stephenson in November 1925 (Holmes also defended Stephenson’s bodyguards Earl Klinck and Earl Gentry in the same Oberholtzer trial, both of whom were found innocent).
Like nearly all of the inter-war neighborhood associations, the Capitol Avenue Protective Association was a very short-lived group; they joined with the Mapleton Civic Organization and North Central Civic Association in December, 1920 advocating racial segregation of the school system, but after their unsuccessful defense of residential segregation the Capitol Avenue Protective Association disappeared; nearly all of its members had moved to other exclusively White neighborhoods.
Yet another group, the White Supremacy League, first appeared in the local press in June, 1922, when they and the Mapleton Civic Association jointly appeared before the Indianapolis school board urging public school segregation. The founder of the White Supremacy League was Mrs. Otto Deeds, who wrote poetry under her own name, Daisydean Deeds. She held membership meetings in her home with her son Paul serving as Secretary, and in December, 1922 a meeting of the group at the Deeds’ home was covered by the Klan’s newspaper, The Fiery Cross. The Klan newspaper reported that the League was “in need of some big, red-blooded all white gentlemen to serve on its board … We already have lawyers, merchants, court Judges, governors, United States and state senators, and several splendid, fearless white men who are members and have welcomed such an opportunity–that of membership in the White Supremacy League–to express themselves.” In a long January 1923 defense of White supremacy and segregation, Deeds wrote in The Fiery Cross that an appropriate resolution to “the race problem … will fittingly confine both races separately into their own distinctive realms of literacy, morality, sociology and politics. It can be accomplished no other way.” Members of the White Supremacy League pledged not to employ Blacks or shop at stores that employed Blacks, a pledge that the Mapleton Civic Association also agreed to in March, 1924. However, Deeds’ organization appeared to fall inactive in 1923.
In January 1926 another neighborhood collective was formed to defend the segregation of a neighborhood just north of the Meriwethers’ home. Circulars were sent to realtors by a group of residents along West 29th and 30th Streets calling themselves the White Peoples’ Protective League and indicating that “the purpose of the league was for segregation of races.” A White resident along West 29th Street had reached an agreement to sell their home to an African American, and the White Peoples’ Protective League was formed to advocate for segregation. The group’s Vice-President, Omer S. Whiteman, acknowledged to The Indianapolis News that it sent “out a statement to real estate dealers, lawyers and others, designed to reflect conditions as we find them. There are about 30,000 white people in the territory immediately affected. Believing that it is good for neither the whites nor the blacks for the two races to commingle, we are interested in creating sentiment against the introduction of black citizens into white territory. …. All the people, more than 1,000 in number, who have already signed the league’s declaration are peace-lovers, headed by the ministers in their communities.”
Many of the White Peoples’ League members were certainly affiliated with or at least sympathetic to the Klan, but in January 1926 the Klan was in a moment of transition in Indiana. On the one hand, they were fresh off a clean sweep of the 1925 Indianapolis elections, led by Klan-backed Mayor John Duvall (Duvall quickly began installing Klan members in appointments; e.g., he named the Exalted Cyclops of Marion County Klan No. 3 George Elliott the new Superintendent of Parks). On the other hand, two weeks after the election former Indiana Klan Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson was convicted of murder for the March, 1925 Madge Oberholtzer sexual assault and murder. The unrepentant Stephenson eroded much of the Klan’s support, and he fully expected Klan-backed Governor Edward L. Jackson to intercede and release him from jail. When he was not released, Stephenson publicly revealed the extent of graft he had engineered in city and state government. A series of 1927 newspaper stories resulted in Duvall being convicted of accepting illegal campaign contributions and resigning from office, and it was revealed that the Mayor had agreed that Stephenson would have the right to review and approve all his appointees. Duvall’s attorney was Ira Holmes, the North Capitol Protective Association President who also defended Stephenson, and Holmes made an unsuccessful attempt to fill the vacated Mayoral position after Duvall’s resignation. Governor Edward Jackson was accused of bribery, but he escaped conviction and completed his term.
The most vocal member of the White Peoples’ Protective League may have been Vice-President Omer Whiteman, an Indiana University-trained lawyer from a prominent Jay County, Indiana family. He was a public school advocate, a member of the Presbyterian Church in his hometown of Portland Indiana as well as Tabernacle Presbyterian in Indianapolis, and a lifelong temperance champion (he ran for Governor on a “Dry” ticket in 1940). In January 1926 he was living at 354 West 29th Street, not far from the League President Royal B. Spellman at 506 West 29th Street; Vice-President Ada Colvin Booth lived a street away at 145 West 30th Street.
The White Peoples’ Protective League attempted to legalize segregation by championing an ordinance decreeing that in a majority White or Black neighborhood a prospective buyer from the minority racial group was required to secure the consent of their neighbors (more or less the same approach was first tried in Baltimore in 1910 in a code often known as the West Ordinance, which was among a series of similar codes declared unconstitutional in 1917).
The White Peoples’ Protective League proposed an approach that was not substantively different than Baltimore’s, arguing that a new resident must win the approval of their neighbors before they could actually live in a home they had otherwise purchased legally. The Protective League began to draft legislation in early 1926, eager to prevent an African American from moving into a home purchased on West 29th Street (directly across the street from Royal Spellman’s home). On February 9, 1926 Omer Whiteman wrote to The Indianapolis News and reported that “A suit in damages has been filed against a white seller and the colored buyer by a near-by property owner. It is contended that while a white person may have the right to sell his property in a white neighborhood to a colored person, and the colored person may have the right to buy, each is liable to all the property owners in the neighborhood if depreciation in values of properties follows.” Royal Spellman was quoted in the Indianapolis Recorder arguing that “`Passage of the ordinance will stabilize real estate values, and give honest citizens confidence in city officials.’”
In March, 1926 the Indianapolis City Council passed an ordinance that in neighborhoods occupied principally by White or Black residents a property could not be sold without the consent of the other property owners. The law began to work its way through judicial reviews, and in February 1927 Whiteman orchestrated a meeting at Tomlinson Hall in favor of the enacted segregation ordinance, where speakers championing the ordinance included Rev. Harvey H. Sheldon, pastor of the Fountain Street Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Rev. Joseph Granville Moore, pastor of the Capitol Avenue M. E. Church. The Indianapolis ordinance was modeled on a New Orleans law, and in March 1927 that New Orleans law was struck down by the Supreme Court. Indianapolis ordinance proponents recognized their law likewise became illegal.
With the segregation ordinance rejected, on July 10, 1927 Horace O. Wright purchased a home at 501 West 29th Street. Wright was a White realtor who apparently purchased the West 29th Street home for $5000 from owner Louis Escol on behalf of an African-American couple, William and Dona Hill Goodwin. When Escol’s neighbors learned that he was planning to sell the home, Escol received a series of letters “from the White People’s Protective League concerning the sale of the property to Negro buyers. … And these letters ranged from threats of intimidation, to entreaties to Mr. Escol, not to sell the property to Negroes. Mr. Escol also stated in substance that members of the White People’s Protective League had pledged themselves not to permit Negroes to live on, or North of Twenty-ninth St.” Nevertheless, on July 10th Escol sold the property to Wright.
William Goodwin was born in Alabama in about 1885 and came to Indianapolis around the turn of the century. Goodwin married another Alabama migrant Tempie Marks in Indianapolis in 1903, but the couple had divorced by 1910. Ohio-born Dona Hill came to Indianapolis around 1910, where she married William in August 1911. William became a fireman in 1922, when the couple was living in an apartment house at the corner of Boulevard Place and 21st Street (where the Ruth Lilly Health Education Center is located today).
Within a week of moving into their new home, on July 18th the Goodwins’ home was fire-bombed by an explosive thrown from the window of a passing car. By July 30th the Indianapolis Recorder complained that the Indianapolis Police had made no efforts to identify the bombers and “started a Citizens’ Investigation Fund. And if the people are interested enough in a matter that concerns all citizens, soon or late, it is expected a sufficient fund will be raised shortly to make a private investigation that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the guilty parties.” However, the bombers were never identified. In October, 1927 Royal and Mary Spellman sued the Goodwins as well as Horace O. Wright, Louis Escol, and the Lorenz Schmidt and Sons realty firm, but by month’s end the Spellmans’ case was dismissed. William Goodwin was living in the home at his death in 1933, and his wife Dona would manage a catering business from the home and lived there until shortly before her death in 1973.
Many of the people who directed and fueled neighborhood segregation returned to rather normal everyday lives in which their histories were apparently never examined. For instance, when the White Supremacy League dissolved Daisydean Deeds began to manage a beauty shop in 1929 from her home at 2507 East Michigan Street. She ran for office unsuccessfully three times: in 1930 as State Representative on a fiercely Republican dry platform; again in 1942; and once more in 1944. She contributed recipes to newspapers as early as 1930, had a recipe appear in a nationally syndicated column in 1931, was featured in a 1954 Indianapolis News cooking column, and had a recipe reprinted in The Indianapolis News in 1992, 32 years after her death. Deeds wrote an enormous number of Letters to the Editor of Indianapolis newspapers throughout her life, sounding in on relaxed divorce codes in 1935; decrying “anti-American” speech by communists, National Socialists, and fascists in 1938; advocating deportation of all suspected communists and other “un-American” groups including labor union leaders in 1939; championing Native American fishing rights in 1939; complaining about sugar rationing in 1946; and celebrating in 1952 that prayer had fueled Republican election victories and ended the “long 20 years’ stretch of arbitrary, un-American and unconstitutional Democratic dictatorship that won this election” (leading one reader to respond that “If eating well and having money in the bank is un-American, then perhaps she is right”). At her death in 1960, the Indianapolis Star called Deeds a “civic leader” and did not include the White Supremacy League in her lifework.
The diligent if not violent defense of homogeneous White neighborhoods was repeated throughout Indianapolis throughout the 20th century. A host of rather prosaic men and women in otherwise un-spectacular neighborhoods were the vanguard of residential segregation, conducting cycles of violence, failed suits and legislation, devious real estate practices, and federal policy. Ultimately they failed to absolutely stop African-American neighborhoods’ expansion, but they shaped 20th-century residential patterns in ways that continue to shape the 21st-century landscape.
Kenneth T. Jackson
1967 The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930. Oxford University Press, New York.
Leonard J. Moore
1991 Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921-1928. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.
1983 Apartheid Baltimore Style: the Residential Segregation Ordinances of 1910-1913. Maryland Law Review 42(2):289-329.
Emma Lou Thornbrough
1961 Segregation in Indiana During the Klan Era of the 1920’s. Mississippi Valley Historical Review 47(4): 594-618.