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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.”

Ramsey had first complained about Riverside’s segregation in the pages of the Recorder in August 1947, when he argued that “It has been the custom of this park to admit Negroes only on one or two days at the close of the season each year.” In 1971 Ramsey was still indignant “that for many years the Polk Milk Company had a day set aside for white children and another for black children at the end of the amusement park’s season.” Few if any experiences of segregated life in 20th-century Indianapolis elicits more bitterness than the segregated Milk Day picnics held in Riverside Amusement Park. The park admitted only White guests throughout the year, but in the 1938 the first Milk Day picnic was held at Riverside Amusement Park, allowing Black guests admission for a single day. Guests could bring a milk cap and three cents to board one of the park’s rides or receive food or ice cream offerings, leading to the event often being referred to as “milk cap day.”

In August 1936 this Indianapolis News ad announced the segregated Milk Day Picnics to be held at Broad Ripple Amusement Park.

In 1936 a circle of central Indiana dairies originally known as the Milk Council (later the Milk Foundation) sponsored their first Milk Day picnic at Broad Ripple Amusement Park. A park had first opened along the White River in Broad Ripple in June 1884, and in May 1906 the White City Amusement Park opened, but a June 1908 fire destroyed all its rides and facilities. New rides and a pool were built within a few years, and in May 1922 the Broad Ripple Amusement Park Association purchased the park. Like Riverside, the Broad Ripple Amusement Park was segregated. The Park Association’s first Board of Directors was headed by James H. Makin, who later served as the first President of the segregated Riviera Club. The unabashedly White Protestant swimming club opened in 1933 and solicited White gentile members with the advertisement that “the right to refuse applicants is reserved.”

On August 14, 1936 the Indianapolis Star reminded its readers that the “Colored Milk Day” was being held at Broad Ripple Amusement Park that day.

On August 11 1936 the first milk day picnic was held at the Broad Ripple Amusement Park for White guests, and on August 14 the Milk Council held the same promotion for “colored people.” The Indianapolis Recorder reported that 18,000 African Americans attended the “colored Milk Day” picnic. The Milk Council repeated the promotion a year later once again at Broad Ripple Amusement Park.

This July 1938 Indianapolis Star ad indicated the “Colored” Milk Day Picnic would be in a lot at 21st and Northwestern (now Dr. MLK Jr. St.) Streets, but it eventually was held at Riverside Amusement Park on September 14th.

In March 1938 the Broad Ripple Amusement Park was purchased, and the new owners declined to host the 1938 Milk Day picnic (eventually the park was offered for sale in 1945 and purchased by the Indianapolis Parks Board, opening as Broad Ripple Park in 1946). With Broad Ripple Amusement Park unavailable for the 1938 picnic, the dairies initially planned to hold a picnic for African Americans in an empty space at 21st and Northwestern Streets (where the Marion County Workhouse was once located). However, African-American community groups threatened to picket the segregated picnic, and the Recorder complained that “due to the absolute refusal of the operators of amusements parks to admit them, Negro children were about to be forced to entertain themselves on a vacant lot void of any kind of mechanical amusements whatsoever.” The Recorder celebrated the protest against the segregated picnic, indicating “We sanction the protest, because it seems to be a new awakening of the group, to contest every encroachment upon our civil, social, and economic life.” Indianapolis Recorder columnist St. Clair Gibson approved of the protest but aspired to see it take aim on more ambitious goals when he indicated that “Several days ago, members of the group were up in arms because a milk picnic had been advertised for Negroes. They resented this, and rightfully so. They forced a change in the program. Why not raise as much FUSS for more JOBS for Negroes as we did about a segregated picnic. After all a Milk Day picnic was held last year for Negroes only in an ofay [White] park that catered to us just for one day.”

A September 1903 photograph of the Double 8 Toboggan Railway at Riverside Amusement Park (Walter N. Carpenter Family Photographs Collection, Indiana Historical Society).

As Gibson indicated, at the end of July the dairies reported that they could not hold the picnic at the Northwestern Street location, and they apparently approached the Coleman family to hold their thrid Milk Day picnic at Riverside Amusement Park. By 1938 Riverside Amusement Park had been open 35 years, and the Coleman family had been managing the park since 1920. The Riverside Amusement Company was incorporated in January 1903, and the Park opened in May and rapidly expanded through World War I. Lewis Austin Coleman served as Riverside’s attorney. Born in 1873, Coleman was admitted to the bar and began to practice law in Indianapolis in 1896. Coleman invested in an enormous range of business and real estate opportunities, and he served as an attorney for the park and took his salary in stock rather than cash. Coleman bought out his partners and created the Riverside Exhibition Company in 1920 and assumed management of the park. The park’s survival was not guaranteed in the early 1920s: the amusement park sat on leased property, and in July 1920 the city threatened to condemn the park and make the property part of the publicly held Riverside Park; in October 1920 the Riverside Civic Association lodged a complaint against the expansion of the park, referring to it as a “public nuisance”; and in April 1922 the Civic Association accused Riverside of promoting gambling in the park. Yet the park grew under the direction of Coleman, and his son John Lewis Coleman became the acting manager of the park in 1933, assuming the title of President in 1939. Lewis Coleman died in April 1940, and his son John Coleman would preside over the park until it closed.

John Coleman was managing Riverside Amusement Park in 1938 when it hosted its first Milk Day picnics. A Milk Day picnic for White guests was held in the park in August 1938, but the Recorder reported that Riverside was initially unwilling to open its gates to a similar event for African Americans.  However, by August 20th the dairy foundation apparently convinced Riverside Amusement Park to admit African Americans to a picnic at the park, and the first “Colored Milk Day” picnic was organized at Riverside on September 14th, at the end of Riverside’s season. Milk Day picnics were again held at Riverside Amusement Park in 1939, 1940, and 1941.

The Milk Foundation abandoned the promotion in 1942, and the 1943 picnic was held over two evenings in September, raising $250 for the Senate Avenue YMCA’s United Service Organization (USO) serving African-American soldiers. Riverside began to refer to the promotion as “Negro Day,” and the Indianapolis Star referred to the 1943 event as the “sixth annual Negro Day at Riverside.” In September 1944 the Park re-named the African-American picnic, calling it the “Annual Colored Frolic.” Riverside abandoned the “Colored Frolic” label in 1945 and returned to calling the promotion “Negro Day.”

In September 1944 the Indianapolis News advertised Riverside Amusement Park’s “Annual Colored Frolic.”

In June 1945 the NAACP was preparing to initiate legal action against Riverside for violating Indiana Civil Rights law, but as the yearly event approached the Recorder lamented that “too many thoughtless Negroes have trekked to this park to eat peanuts, enjoy the rides, and the amusements after white folks have held forth all summer.” In September the park was picketed on “Negro Day” by an NAACP delegation and the Federation of Associated Clubs, who had been protesting the segregated Riverside events since 1938. The Recorder believed the protest had been successful, reporting that “Riverside Park’s `jim crow season’ was dealt what may be a mortal blow by an aroused citizenry who stayed away from the amusement park in droves. … Observers reported that only about 50 persons patronized the concessions on Wednesday, all of them children with the exception of a handful of out-of-town soldiers who were unfamiliar with the situation.”

This 1938 aerial image faces east across the White River at Riverside Amusement Park (W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection–Pamela Tranfield Memorial Collection Indiana Historical Society).

The segregated Black event was abandoned after the 1945 protests, but the park’s resistance to integration had secured it a place in African-American activist consciousness. In May 1948 the Recorder reported on continuing efforts to make the park comply with Indiana Civil Rights Law, and the newspaper was hopeful that “Mayor Al Feeney has made an admirable start in `cleaning up the city’ during the brief time he has been in office. The Negro-exclusion policy of Riverside Amusement Park constitutes a filthy blot that must be washed away from our civic life. If Mayor Feeney will take the lead on this issue, he will demonstrate that he is truly the `mayor of all the people.’” Yet there was no evidence the Park was reconsidering its exclusionary policy. In August 1948 the Recorder reported that a group of African Americans entered the Park and were told that “`You’re not welcome here, not wanted. We won’t keep you out, but your lives aren’t worth a dime here without police protection.’… Following the incident Robert D. Coleman, secretary-treasurer of the amusement firm, declared that `colored people are not wanted and not welcome at Riverside Park, and we are going to keep them out.’” Mayor Feeney concluded in July 1950 that the city had no power to prevent segregation in Riverside Park because it was a private property, and he was unwilling to form a civil rights committee to investigate public facilities’ segregation.

A June, 1941 image of Riverside Amusement Park guests riding the “Flash” Roller Coaster (Larry Foster Collection Indiana Historical Society).

Riverside management remained resolutely resistant to integration through the 1950s. In November 1953, for example, city officials met with Robert D. Coleman (John’s brother). In October the PTA at School 44 had held an event at the Riverside skating rink that included an African American in the group. The Park was accused of discriminating against African Americans in the PTA Council party, but the unrepentant Coleman informed the Mayor’s Commission on Civil Rights that “the big amusement center will no longer violate any laws but that Negroes will continue to be `not welcome.’” Coleman complained that an integrated group like the PTA Council “`is provocative of trouble. … Fortunately the PTA session closed before a fight developed.’” The President of the Human Rights Commission was reluctant to disrupt Riverside’s deeply established practice, though, concluding that “`We don’t want to be involved in a boycott. But we’re going to let the PTA know how we feel.’”

During a steady summer of protests at Riverside in 1962, Jack Marsh, Jim Bingham, Bob Stewart, and Stella Dumas posed with one of the Park’s “Patronage Whites Only Solicited” signs (Indianapolis Recorder Collection Indiana Historical Society).

Much of the bitterness toward Riverside management revolved around its discriminatory signs reading “Patronage Whites Only Solicited.” In 1979 Robert Coleman remembered that the signs were first installed “back in 1920 [when] blacks had started coming out and were running the white people away. So we put up signs `Patronage of whites only solicited.’ These were meaningless and undramatical but they did the work.” In August 1960 a group of African Americans visited the Park to find the signs still posted despite a promise to the Mayor’s Human Rights Commission that they would be removed. Andrew Ramsey complained about the signs in August 1961 when he lamented “one would not dream that such a place of public accommodation as Riverside Amusement Park still draws the color line and even calls attention to it by having signs, erected in the early 1920’s, to the effect that `white patronage only is solicited.’” In 1962 the Indianapolis News broke its nearly complete silence on segregation, acknowledging that Riverside still had the signs posted. John Coleman argued to the News that he did not discriminate against guests and argued that “legal action against the signs would violate the rights of free speech.” In June 1962 protestors picketed at the gates of Riverside Park; in July the Indiana Civil Rights Commission agreed to try to convince the Park to remove the discriminatory signs; the Jewish Community Relations Council wrote John Coleman seeking removal of the signs; and about 125 people attended a protest meeting at the Riverside Park Methodist Church in August.

Picketers patrolled the gates of Riverside Amusement Park throughout summer 1962 (Indianapolis Recorder Collection Indiana Historical Society).

On August 18, 1962 the Recorder reported that John Coleman allowed Indiana Civil Rights Commission director Harold Hatcher to remove the signs. The atmosphere in the Park afterward perhaps changed, since African-American groups were holding events at Riverside by the mid-1960s. But as its Memorial Day opening approached in 1971 John Coleman announced the Park would not open for the season. His brother Robert pointed to integration as a central factor in the park’s demise, recalling in 1979 that “from 1920 until sometime in the 1960’s we had solely white patronage, excepting that once or twice a season we would have a day for the blacks, and we prepared for them and they came out in large numbers and had a wonderful time, but that didn’t satisfy the integrationists and they picketed us, and finally our signs `whites only’ had to come down and we were integrated.” Yet Coleman indicated that “it was impossible to work on an integrated basis. … Our cleanup force could not keep up with the trash that the blacks would strew around. Whites would put their trash in the containers provided for that purpose but the blacks would never.”

Subsequent development of the property dragged on into the late 1970s, punctuated in 1979 by a plan to re-open Riverside Amusement Park that was undone in part by charges that histoplasmosis spread through the neighborhood during demolition of the Park’s aging structures (compare this 1978 video tour of the park’s ruins). A series of proposals was made to re-develop the property: in 1986 a developer proposed building a 912-unit high-rise apartment complex on the tract, and in the 1990s developers and city planners aspired to build apartments, condominiums, and in 1995 71 private homes; eventually an 82-home development was built in 2001.

Riverside Amusement Park in May 1906 (World War I Era Photographs Collection 1906-1923 Collection Indiana Historical Society).

It is of course true that segregation was long an unquestioned reality of American life, and perhaps many Whites visiting Riverside Park did not realize the park was segregated. It is not unreasonable that many of the people who enjoyed their visits to Riverside were oblivious to its racist segregation and now seek some genuine measure of reconciliation that this heritage might provide. The heritage of Riverside is about neither blaming a host of ideologues who engineered structural inequality nor absolving the passengers of blame. Instead, it is about acknowledging that Riverside’s banal milk caps and prosaic signs dehumanized generations of African Americans by embedding White privilege in the most commonplace everyday practices and materiality. Riverside’s segregation still stirs the resentment of subsequent generations because ignoring it makes racist privilege invisible in White memory.

References

Paul R. Mullins

2006 Racializing the Commonplace Landscape: An Archaeology of Urban Renewal along the Color Line (World Archaeology 38[1]: 60-71).

Images

Double 8 Toboggan Railway Riverside Amusement Park September 20, 1903 image from Walter N. Carpenter Family Photographs Collection Indiana Historical Society

“Flash” Roller Coaster at Riverside Amusement Park June 15, 1941 image from Larry Foster Collection Indiana Historical Society

Picketing Riverside Amusement Park 1962 image from Indianapolis Recorder Collection Indiana Historical Society

Riverside Amusement Park Aerial View 1938 image from W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection–Pamela Tranfield Memorial Collection Indiana Historical Society

Riverside Amusement Park Protest 1962 with Jack Marsh, Jim Bingham, Bob Stewart, and Stella Dumas image from Indianapolis Recorder Collection Indiana Historical Society

Riverside Amusement Park Rides May 1906 image from World War I Era Photographs Collection 1906-1923 Collection Indiana Historical Society

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

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