Author Archives: Paul Mullins

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

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

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

Boone County 1904, with Sugar Creek Township and Thorntown in the upper left (northwest) and Lebanon at center (image Indiana Historical Society)

The nightmarish scene in Lebanon was repeated in many places in 19th and 20th century America where anonymous White crowds routinely intimidated, attacked, and murdered African Americans. Like many other places, Boone County was a landscape of contradictions in which progressive causes and a history of abolitionist sentiments existed alongside anti-Black racism, segregation, and violence. On the northwestern outskirts of Indianapolis, Boone County was colonized by Europeans in the 1820’s (see the 1887 Early Life and Times in Boone County, Indiana). Indigenous peoples had lived in Boone County for millennia, and Eel River Miami Indians settled in Thorntown in 1818 as one of six reservations that the Miami subsequently relinquished in an 1828 treaty. Boone County lay along a well-documented Underground Railroad landscape. An 1880 history of neighboring Hamilton County outlined the railroad connections north of Indianapolis and indicated that “another branch of the route was via Thorntown in Boone county, also a ‘friendly place.’ Scores of colored people have traveled over this line. In answer to our inquiry the old ‘pilots’ and ‘engineers’ still living say there were hundreds of them.” Perhaps some 21st-century observers would dismiss Frank Hall’s near-lynching as an aberration in an otherwise settled history of color line relations. However, the episode reflects the ways the threat of violence and terror lynchings punctuated life across the color line in even the most commonplace and seemingly settled places.

A scatter of very modestly populated African-American communities dotted antebellum rural Indiana. In 1850 the census recorded 15 Mulattos and five Black residents in Boone County, an infinitesimal fraction of the nearly 12,000 residents of the county. The possibility that the community might grow on the eve of the Civil War was dampened by an article in the 1851 Indiana Constitution specifying that “No negro or mulatto shall come into, or settle in the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.” The Constitution required Black residents to register with the state, but counties unevenly enforced the constitutional segregation. Nevertheless, between 1850 and 1860 Indiana’s Black population grew predictably little. Less than a hundred African Americans lived in rural Boone County in 1860 (the 1851 state Constitution article was declared null and void in 1866).

In the wake of the Civil War a host of newly freed African Americans migrated north. Many of the new arrivals had been captives in agrarian communities, and some of them settled in farming communities like Boone County. Most of the African Americans who settled in Boone County lived in the northwestern reaches of the county in Sugar Creek Township around the little community of Thorntown. A sufficient number of African Americans settled there that an African Methodist Episcopal Church was built in Thorntown in 1866 (page 17-19), and an African-American cemetery was established just north of Thorntown in 1869.

The 1870 census recorded 242 Black/Mulatto residents in Boone County. They included Emeline Derickson, who married Levi Hall in Boone County in September 1871. Emeline’s father Charles Derickson and her mother Matilda Stout Derickson had been among the earliest African Americans in Boone County. Charles was born into captivity around 1818 (though some primary sources suggested he was born as early as 1806), and he was living free with his father Job Derickson and mother Phebe Huston Derickson in Nicholas County, Kentucky in 1830. Charles indicated later in life that he purchased his own freedom and then Matilda’s, and he and Matilda were living in Nicholas County next door to his parents in 1850.

Charles and Matilda appear to have had a daughter born in Indiana in 1852, perhaps moving to Indiana just as the 1851 Constitution took effect; if they were not living in Indiana in 1852, they certainly were in 1860 when the census recorded them living in Boone County. They lived in Boone County alongside Charles’ brother Elijah. Born around 1827, Elijah joined the United States Colored Troops, serving in the 55th Regiment Massachusetts Colored Infantry and subsequently living out his life in Boone County. Frank Hall’s maternal grandfather Charles Derickson was a fixture in Boone County for over a half-century (cf popular accounts of Derickson in American Thresherman [1907] and Bascom Clarke: The Story of a Southern Refugee [1913]). The preacher was distinctive for his long-term support for the Democratic Party (cf Crawfordsville Review September 1891), which was openly hostile to any measure of African-American civil rights.

Frank Hall was born in Kentucky in about 1871 to Levi Hall. Frank and his older brother Alfred may already have been born when Levi married Emeline Derickson in September 1871. Alfred, Frank, Herbert, and an unnamed four-month-old son were living with Levi and Emeline in Boone County in 1880. In 1900 the census indicated Emeline had borne nine children in her life, but only two were still alive: those two children were Herbert (1878-1983) and Clinton (1882-1913), and in 1900 the two brothers and their grandparents Charles and Matilda were living with Levi and Emeline at their Boone County farm.

In even the most lightly populated rural places African Americans were the targets of racist surveillance. In January 1880, for instance, the Indiana State Sentinel was among the Democratic newspapers complaining that African Americans from North Carolina were being imported in a “Negro exodus” to sway elections to Republicans’ advantage. Jill Weiss Simins found that such rhetoric fanned anxieties in small communities like Whitestown southeast of Lebanon, where in 1880 an African-American migrant’s home was attacked. After a child was injured by the mob the family apparently moved away. After African-American migrants arrived in Hancock County east of Indianapolis in 1880, White residents reportedly “proceeded to notify the colored people to leave, burned some of the property they occupied, and cut the throat of a horse belonging to a gentleman who rented the property to a colored family.”

A 1909 postcard of the fountains in Thorntown Indiana (image Indiana Historical Society)

In December 1886 Frank Hall’s brother Alfred and their half-brother Charley Cason were accused of getting drunk in Thorntown and then firing guns and attempting to steal a horse-and-sleigh. The Indianapolis Journal reported that “Hall, alias `Bull,’ was shot twice, once through the arm and once through the body, the last shot passing entirely through his body. Cason received one ball in the calf of his leg. … `Bull’ is a well known desperado who has given the authorities of this and adjoining States considerable trouble. He has had a number of narrow escapes from death, and has served two or three terms in the penitentiary. He is suffering terribly from his wounds, and swears dire vengeance on the shooters.” Alfred was admitted to the Indiana State Prison along with Cason in February 1887; Cason was released in February 1888, and Alfred would remain there until July 1891.

Frank Hall had no brushes with the law before he was accused of assault in February 1894. Hall indicated he did not know victim Mary Akers, who by most accounts lived about a mile away from the Hall farm. Akers indicated that Hall had attacked her at 10:30 on the evening of February 3rd, and her brother and a neighborhood posse surrounded the Hall home on the morning of February 4th, where the Sheriff arrested Hall and brought him to the County jail in Lebanon.

Merchants Day in Lebanon at the Boone County Courthouse in 1895 (image Indiana Historical Society)

A lynch mob almost instantly gathered at the jail, and Hall was moved to Indianapolis for safekeeping on the evening of February 4th. He was returned to Lebanon for a Court hearing the following day, where an increasingly frenzied crowd had gathered. Mary Akers handed over a rope to a crowd that marched on the jail, and out of the mob Aker’s friend Harriet Taylor stepped forward and “threw herself toward the officers, clutching savagely at the prisoner. The marshal tried to push her back. `Are ye all cowards?’ she shrieked. `Get him for me! I’ll fix the rope!’” The Indianapolis Journal reported that Taylor “put the rope around Hall’s neck three times, screaming like a maniac and clawing past men to lay her hands on the negro and help strangle him with the rope.”

After surviving the beating outside the Courthouse, Hall was dragged into a courtroom with an audience of mob members including one holding the noose. Hall “was ordered to stand up and plead. In a trembling voice he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to twenty-one years in Northern State’s prison [i.e., the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City].” The Indianapolis Journal admitted that “the prisoner knew that if he did not plead guilty he would be strung up by the mob. It was a case of self-preservation with him to plead guilty …. He was very glad to escape with his life.” By the afternoon Hall was being prepared for transport to Indianapolis, but 1000 people continued to mill about angered with what they considered a lenient sentence. It was rumored an attempt would be made to stop the train “at Whitestown, the negro taken from it and strung up to the nearest tree.” A handful of people did intercept the train south of Lebanon at the Whitestown stop, but they were unable to spirit Hall from the Sheriff, and Hall was successfully transported to Indianapolis.

On February 8th the Indianapolis Journal cryptically suggested that “Mrs. Akers had been a party to the crime.” There was suspicion that Akers had misrepresented or even orchestrated the crime, and she was friends with Hattie Taylor, who had led the lynch mob. Two weeks after the near-lynching, it was reported that “Mrs. Hattie Taylor, the woman leader of the recent mob which came so near lynching the negro Hall, has come to grief over the part she took in the affair. Soon after the occurrence a great deal of indignation was aroused by the better class of citizens that such a disgraceful attempt at outlawry had been made in this city. Mrs. Taylor came in for a good share of the criticism. Her character was assailed, and some sensational stories reached her husband’s ears, and the result was he left her and refuses to again live with her.” The Journal implied that Taylor’s wrath was a result of her own experience of assault, indicating that “Barely three months ago Mrs. Taylor’s daughter was assaulted in a somewhat similar manner by `Doctor’ Cotten [sic], a traveling quack, who is now a fugitive from justice.” In November 1893 it had indeed been reported that Taylor’s nine-year-old daughter had been “criminally assaulted by a traveling doctor, named Cotton.”

In March 1894 a grand jury convened in Lebanon to consider charges against the mob. Judge Stephen Neal instructed the Grand Jury that “he wanted a thorough investigation of the actions of the mob which came so near lynching the negro Hall, Feb. 5, and that if the evidence introduced during the investigation was of such a nature as to warrant it, he wanted indictments returned against every person who was a member of or in any way aided the mob.” While some residents may have opposed mob justice, the Indianapolis Journal acknowledged that “There is much feeling against the Judge for this action, as it is claimed that lack of confidence in the court alone inspired the mob to such action.”

Five days later the Prosecutors and Grand Jury were anonymously threatened: “the Lebanon grand jury investigating the mob that tried to lynch the negro, Frank Hall, Feb. 5, received a notice that if indictments were returned against any member of the mob each juror would be severely dealt with.” The two Prosecutors received an anonymous message indicating “`You two had better let that mob alone, or we will fix you. Take warning. COMMITTEE.’ The notices were all written in blood and had a large skull and cross-bones at the top.” The Indianapolis Journal implied that the instigators of the near-lynching were known in the community and perhaps even among the “better class of citizens,” reporting that “no one thought it possible to secure an indictment against the participants, owing to the prominence of the would-be lynchers.” Nevertheless, Judge Neal “instructed the grand jury to return an indictment against each and every one who was found in any way to have agitated or encouraged the mob. Within the last two days, there having been about three hundred witnesses subpoenaed and the indications pointing toward indictments has aroused the farmers who were in town that day. It is believed it will cause a bad state of things if the farmers should be indicted.”

The Indianapolis News attributed the anonymous letters to “White Cap” vigilantes but dismissed them and complained that they “were not written in blood, but in ordinary black ink, and in a decidedly school-boy `hand.’ The matter has caused much excitement, but it is con.” “White Caps” referred to a broad range of loosely associated vigilantes who anonymously inflicted violent attacks and threatened a wide range of people who violated community morals, which ranged from “loose women” to criminals to “shiftless” men. The White Caps had much in common with the subsequent 1920s Ku Klux Klan, but in many communities their moral vigilantism was much more pronounced than their racism. Nevertheless, an 1892 analysis of White Cap vigilantism by the Indiana Governor’s office concluded that they modeled their anonymous violence “somewhat after the manner of the Ku-klux of the South.”

The News wrote on its editorial pages that Hall’s lynching was prevented “by the bravery of the self-respecting people of the town,” concluding that the “good people of Lebanon attracted to themselves all praise when they prevented mob law.” Buoyed by the notion that the mob was driven by a few aberrant people, on March 4th following four weeks of investigation the Grand Jury did not return any indictments in the Hall case.

While Frank Hall waited in Indianapolis for his train to the Indiana State Prison he told the Indianapolis Journal that “`I was so terrified that I thought that if I pleaded not guilty the trial would be prolonged and then possibly the mob would by that time have overpowered the sheriff and his men and then I would be at their mercy. In this way I hoped to live and in due time get a pardon.’” Hall was admitted to the Indiana State Prison on February 7th, and while he did not receive a pardon he was paroled in February 1900. After serving six of 21 years, it was reported that “His prison record is said to be perfect.” His family was still living in the same Boone County home, but Frank did not live in Thorntown again.

Frank Hall’s Thorntown family would stay in Boone County, but they would be part of a gradually dwindling African-American community in Sugar Creek Township. Hall’s grandmother Matilda Derickson died in 1906, and his grandfather Charles Derickson died two years later; Frank’s parents Levi and Emeline died in 1913 and 1922 respectively, all laid to rest in the Thorntown Colored Cemetery. In 1940 Boone County had 75 Negro (and two “Colored”) residents living along 24,854 residents identified as White, reflecting the decreasing Black community in the county. In 1975 Boone County historian Ralph W. Stark wrote that the “once large colony of Negroes living in Thorntown and the surrounding communities is now completely disappeared; today the town and its Sugar Creek Township is without a single black resident.”

An 1878 map of Thorntown showed the Thorntown Colored Cemetery at the small cross at the red arrow (image IUPUI)

Nevertheless, there is thoughtful grassroots scholarship going on in Boone County that is preserving and documenting the rural experience of life along and across the color line. By the time Emeline Hall was buried in the Thorntown Colored Cemetery in August 1922 there were very few African Americans choosing Thorntown for their eternal resting place. In February 1928 George Cosby Tapp was buried in the Thorntown Cemetery; in August 1935 Jane White’s death certificate indicated she was buried “Boone Co (Sugar Creek),” which was certainly the Thorntown Colored Cemetery where her husband William H. White was buried in January 1906. There is no evidence of subsequent burials in the cemetery, and when historian Frank W. Stark visited the site in 1975 he noted that “only four small weathered-granite stones still stand in the cemetery” (PDF here, page 17-19).

After he was paroled Frank Hall spent several years living in Indianapolis and was living on Indiana Avenue in 1904. In August 1916 the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Frank Hall had died in Columbus, Ohio, and the Recorder indicated that Hall “would be brought to Thorntown for burial.” Frank Hall almost certainly was buried in the Thorntown Colored Cemetery alongside his parents.

In 1975 the Society for the Preservation of Indian Heritage placed a marker at the cemetery. Stark described the local group as being “primarily concerned with the era when the Thorntown area, and all of Boone County for that matter, was the home of the Red Men.” Stark’s research identified 22 African Americans who died near Thorntown between 1882 and 1915, providing a starting point to identify the people who are likely buried there. Local genealogist David Lee Guinn extended Stark’s research with an inventory of 27 people buried in the cemetery between 1882 and 1914, and Shannon Mitchell subsequently conducted research on many of those individuals. In 2013 IUPUI student Adam Oswalt conducted a magnetic gradiometer study of the cemetery to assess its boundaries and the number of likely burials. Four years later in 2017 a Ground Penetrating Radar survey identified between 46 and 49 likely burials. The GPR survey was conducted alongside a restoration project directed by Reece Thompson, who conducted research and physical restoration for his Eagle Scout project. A fence was built around the cemetery and the Indiana Historical Bureau sign erected at the cemetery in 2019.

Like many other episodes of racist violence, Hall’s story is difficult to reconcile with celebratory histories or a contemporary community that sees such xenophobia as a historic artifact rather than a structural reality. Some communities seem to fantasize that descendants and neighbors will somehow forget these episodes or see them simply as momentary aberrations in contrast to otherwise settled color line relations, but histories of racist violence fester in public memory when their heritage is unaddressed. Frank Hall’s experience may indeed be mostly submerged in the memories of his descendants or the lynch mobs’ families, but there are almost certainly many more experiences of life along the color line that are part of descendants’ heritage. Today Boone County remains 92% White, with just 1.61% of the county’s roughly 63,000 residents identified as Black. Those contemporary patterns reflect histories that many residents even today may not recognize, but avoiding their discussion risks heightening longstanding anxieties and decreases chances for sober and reflective discussion.

 

References

Michael Newton

2016 White Robes and Burning Crosses: A History of the Ku Klux Klan from 1866. McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina.

 

Paul Musgrave

2006 “A Primitive Method of Enforcing the Law”: Vigilantism as a Response to Bank Crimes in Indiana, 1925–1933. Indiana Magazine of History 102 (3): 187-219. (subscription access)

 

Madeleine M. Noble

1973 The White Caps of Harrison and Crawford County Indiana: A Study in the Violent Enforcement of Morality. Phd Dissertation, University of Michigan.

 

John Howard Ratlliff

2007 “In hot blood”: White-on-white lynching and the privileges of race in the American South, 1889–1910. Phd Dissertation, the University of Alabama.

 

Maps

Boone County Courthouse 1878, Historic Indiana Atlas Collection, IUPUI

Boone County Map, George Ogle 1904, Indiana Historical Society

Combination Atlas Map of Boone County Indiana, Sugar Creek Township, originally published 1878 reprint 1901 from Indiana State Library

Map of Boone and Clinton Counties 1865 from Library of Congress

Merchants Day Lebanon Indiana, 1895 image from Indiana Historical Society

Thorntown Fountain Postcard 1909 image from Indiana Historical Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the White River: Visual Heritage in Riverside Park

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

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

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

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

Community Heritage and Eviction in Blue Lake Trailer Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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