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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.

However, nobody in the Tolerance inventory denied their membership in the Invisible Empire, and there were very few other public repercussions of the Klan affiliation among the 69 Indianapolis Klansmen. In April, for instance, Mayor Lew Shank indicated that it was up to the Police Chief to determine if the seven Indianapolis detectives and a patrolman identified as Klansmen could continue their service, and there is no evidence that any of the eight were reprimanded. The only one of the 69 Klansmen to lose his job apparently was Paul P. Sullivan, the Bell Captain at the Claypool Hotel, who (according to The Fiery Cross) refused to sign a statement affirming that he was not and had never been a Klan member. The Fiery Cross complained that Sullivan’s firing was attributable to “pressure of Roman Catholic and Jewish people whom it is understood predominate and represent a large portion of the patronage of the Claypool hotel.”

In 1926 Klansman Charles J. Orbison appeared in Fellow Citizens of Indianapolis identified simply as a lawyer (image IUPUI University Library).

Tolerance singled out the eight Methodist preachers in the list of 69 men, though there is no evidence that Klan xenophobia was unique to Methodists. For instance, Luther Jones’ Westview Baptist, the West Morris Street Christian Church at 1534 West Morris Street, and the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church on Division Street were among the West Indianapolis churches whose “100% American” social events were reported by The Fiery Cross. The only West Indianapolis Pastor in the Tolerance list was Claude L. Griffith, who became Pastor of the Blaine Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church at 1427 Blaine Avenue in 1916. Born in Illinois in 1875, Griffith came to Blaine Avenue from Poseyville, Indiana, where had been a Pastor in a Methodist Episcopal church. Griffith lived in West Indianapolis at 1245 Shepard Street, just blocks from Luther Jones’ Westview Baptist Church. The First M.E. Church was re-named Blaine Avenue M.E. Church in 1905, and Griffith became Pastor of the Church in 1916. Griffith may have left little evidence of his Klan membership, but he clearly was associated with Klansmen and appeared at the hooded order’s social functions through the 1920’s. For instance, at the August 1924 dedication of the Belmont Avenue United Brethren Church, The Fiery Cross reported that Griffith preached at an evening service following an afternoon talk by Judge Charles Orbison. Orbison was among the most prominent figures in Indiana Klandom, serving as legal counsel to the American Saloon League, the federal Prohibition director in Indiana between 1919 and 1921, Chosen Potentate of the Murat Temple, and Grand Master of the Grand Masonic Lodge of Indiana, but he was perhaps best known as the Indiana Klan’s legal counsel and a member of the “Imperial Kloncilium,” the Imperial Wizard’s highest advisory board. Orbison had been identified as a Klansman by Tolerance, but like virtually everybody on the Tolerance list Orbison made no public response and continued his advocacy for Klan causes. Orbison was the lawyer defending the Klan in 1928 when the Attorney General’s office attempted to make the group illegal, with the Indianapolis Star identifying Orbison as the “national vice president of the Klan.” Orbison’s death in July 1933 was greeted by effusive obituaries in the state and national press, but as with everybody in the Tolerance inventory not a word was spoken of his lifelong advocacy for the hooded order.

Claude Griffith became Pastor of the Morris Street M.E. Church at 329 East Morris Street by 1925. Like many Klansmen, Griffith was a zealous advocate for Prohibition and a host of moral causes, and when he retired in 1934 he became an officer of the Indiana Anti-Saloon League. Such activism against minor vices was typical of public Klan moralism. In 1923, for instance, a coalition of Klan members and West Indianapolis neighbors billing themselves as the “West Indianapolis Law Enforcement League” were patrolling pool halls and soda shops that were believed to be illegally selling alcohol. In March 1923 The Indianapolis News reported that like the hooded order’s ranks the League’s membership was secret, indicating that “the organization, the names and officers of which have not been made public, was formed a few weeks ago to watch for and report law violations in the district.” In April The Fiery Cross repeated an article from The Indianapolis Star from four days earlier that the league was “formed among church members” and planned to hire detectives to monitor West Indianapolis bootlegging. The League even petitioned the city to give it genuine police powers, but in May the city rebuffed the request.

Most of the pastors identified as Klansmen did not acknowledge their sympathies to the Invisible Empire in the press, but William Henry Brightmire was unapologetically proud of his Klan membership. In December 1922 The Fiery Cross reported that Brightmire, Pastor of Indianapolis’ Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church, had been publicly identified as a Klansman and “received numerous letters from men who desired to join the society.” A month later Brightmire appeared as a featured speaker at a Klan rally in Decauter, Illinois, and in April The Fiery Cross reported that “Rev. Wm. H. Brightmire will address a 100% American meeting held at Hillside Christian church.”

Pastor William Henry Brightmire advertised the Wesley ME Church’s “cross demonstration and lawn social” in the 13 July 1923 edition of The Fiery Cross.

Brightmire was born in 1862 in Huntington County, Indiana, and between 1884 and 1917 he served congregations in Elkhart, Sheridan, and Evansville as well as Ohio congregations in Dayton, Cleveland, and Akron. In late 1917 Brightmire came to Indianapolis where he became Pastor of the Maple Road Methodist Episcopal Church, and then a year later he was named Pastor of Fletcher Place ME Church. By the time Brightmire was identified as a Klansmen in Tolerance in March 1923, he was Pastor of Wesley ME Church at the corner of West New York and North Elder Streets in Haughville. Brightmire continued to lecture for Klan causes or at Klan events through summer 1923, events that sometimes bore the apparent support of his church: in July, for instance, The Fiery Cross advertised a “fiery cross demonstration and lawn social” to be held under the “auspices [of] Wesley ME Church—Pastor Brightmire.” In August Brightmire presided over a Klansman’s funeral, but in September Indiana’s Methodist Episcopal conference met and the Indianapolis News reported that “Leave of absence has been granted W. H. Brightmire. pastor of Wesley Chapel, and he was left without an assignment.”

Brightmire’s ministerial career was over, but he continued to advocate for the Klan. In October 1924 The Fiery Cross referred to Brightmire as the “Imperial Lecturer,”and when Brightmire was called as a witness at a 1926 trial The Indianapolis Star called him a “former national Ku Klux Klan lecturer.” In September 1928 Brightmire appeared at an Indianapolis meeting organized by the Klan, with the “former Methodist minister” accusing Democratic Presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith of being “wet” and reviving support for the Klan. Brightmire accepted membership applications after his lecture, but the Klan had collapsed as a political force in the wake of Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson’s 1925 murder conviction and Stephenson’s subsequent revelations of the Klan’s bribery and control of Indiana politics. Nevertheless, Brightmire told his Indianapolis audience that the Klan “was here to stay.” By his 1928 appearance Brightmire had become critical of Stephenson’s foray into politics, and the former Pastor concluded that and that “’The Ku Klux Klan is not going into politics again. … We only stand for the things that are clean.’” In January 1929 Brightmire registered as a lobbyist for the “Indianapolis Protestant Club,” but there is no evidence Brightmire or the Klan maintained their legislative influence, and in 1931 he and his wife moved to Evanston Illinois to live with a son. Brightmire preached at his former Indianapolis churches when visiting the Circle City in the 1930s, and he died in November 1939.

Delbert Thomas was Pastor of the newly built Merritt Place ME Church when it was dedicated in 1911.

The Methodist pastors included in Tolerance’s Klan members list mostly left a much less clear record of their allegiance to the Klan. Delbert L. Thomas was Pastor of the Barth Place ME Church when he was revealed to be a member of the Invisible Empire. Thomas was born in Michigan in about 1860 and became Pastor of the Merritt Place ME Church in 1909. Merritt Place united two former congregations on Indianapolis’ near-Westside, the Blackford Street M.E. church and the California Street M.E. church. The new congregation constructed a church in the same neighborhood at the corner of California and New York Streets that was dedicated in September 1911, and after that dedication Thomas was re-assigned to First Methodist Church in Seymour. Thomas was a Pastor in Aurora, Indiana in 1920 and came to Indianapolis’ Barth Place ME Church in 1923, where he was when Tolerance included him amongst the Klan Pastors in the city. In September 1924 Thomas was replaced at Barth Place ME Church, and he moved to Warsaw Indiana where he died in 1933.

William Everett Cissna was Pastor of the West Washington Street M.E. Church at Warman and West Washington when he was identified as a member of the hooded order. Born in 1877, Cissna had been a school teacher in southern Indiana at the turn of the century and became a Methodist Pastor in 1908, coming to the West Washington Street church as its Pastor in about 1918. Cissna moved from the West Washington Street church to a Kentucky congregation in 1925, where he eventually returned to teaching and wrote two religious tracts before his death in 1968.

In September 1925 Ray Ragsdale became Pastor of the Fletcher Place ME Church.

Nearly all of these Pastors escaped any apparent repercussions from their unmasking as Klansmen. Ray A. Ragsdale was Pastor of the Brightwood ME Church when he was revealed to be a Klan member in 1923. Ragsdale became a Pastor in Vincennes early in the 20th century, and like many fellow Methodists and later Klansmen he was active in the prohibition movement; at a September 1908 Methodist conference on prohibition and local option laws, for instance, Ragsdale was part of a Vincennes quartet to perform the tune “The Saloon Must Go.” During World War I Ragsdale was Pastor of Broad Ripple ME Church and assumed the same position at Brightwood in 1919. On the eve of his unmasking as a Klansman in late March 1923, Ragsdale’s Brightwood ME Church had as its featured speaker William H. Brightmire speaking on “Christian citizenship.” Brightmire’s affiliations with the Klan were certainly public knowledge, and the event was advertised in The Fiery Cross. In July the Brightwood ME Church had a “100% ice cream social” at the church that likewise was reported in the Klan’s newspaper, but Ragsdale would remain a prominent figure in Indiana Methodism. In December 1923 Ragsdale was elected President of the Methodist Minsters’ Association of Indianapolis. Ragsdale became Pastor at the Fletcher Place ME Church in September 1925, and at his death in 1941 Ragsdale was a Pastor in a Methodist church in New Albany.

After hosting a Klan lecture at his Westview Baptist Church in January 1923, in July Pastor Luther Jones proposed to have a ceremony at his church at which a cross would be burnt on the church’s lawn. The day before the event, Jones secured a fireworks permit from the city and acknowledged that “he understood there was a plan to burn a fiery cross, emblematic of the Ku Klux Klan, at the lawn fete.” By the next day, an 18-foot cross wrapped in oil-soaked burlap had been set into a posthole in the church’s lawn in preparation for the evening’s conflagration, but the cross-burning would violate the fireworks permit. When police arrived to stop the cross-burning a crowd of 7000 to 10,000 people had already gathered, greeting the police “with hisses and catcalls and cries of `Set a match to it,’ and `Don’t let the cops stop us.’” Jones was compelled to encourage the crowd to hold the cross-burning at a rural location, and he led a parade out West Morris Street where the cross was set afire. Upon returning to Belmont Street three smaller crosses were set aflame within view of the church in nearby Rhodius Park.

John Luther Jones may have been relatively typical in his sympathies to the Klan, even though there is no evidence he was a dues-paying member. Jones was born in Tennessee in 1887 and was a minister living in Mishawaka Indiana when he first married in 1907. He had moved to Lenawee County Michigan by 1910, where he identified himself in the census as a “Free Baptist” minister, probably a Freewill Baptist congregation. After his wife died in 1915 Jones re-married and was serving as a minister in Indiana, and after moving to 545 North Tibbs Street in Haughville in about 1919 Jones became Pastor of Westview Baptist Church in 1921. By 1926 Jones was no longer Pastor at Westview Baptist, and the family had moved to Peoria Illinois by 1930, where Jones worked for the Caterpillar Company as a tool designer and retired in 1943. Luther Jones moved to California in about 1952, where he was struck by a car and killed in November 1968.

The most surprising dimension of the Klan’s 1920s popularity was not necessarily clergymen’s membership in the hooded order; instead, the more unsettling reality is that the Klan was never an aberration to an overall history of democracy and Hoosier civility or limited to a particular range of residents. Instead, it was cut from a rather familiar provincialism, nationalist fervor, and uneasiness with the erosion of White privilege that found followers in a host of neighborhoods representing a wide range of backgrounds. Those Klansmen and their families practiced their faith in many different churches, so the record of Methodists is not especially unique. Many of these churches have disappeared, but others became part of contemporary congregations in a city where many of the earliest Klan-sympathetic churches still stand. These 69 people are not deviants from Hoosier values as much as they are part of a national pattern of xenophobia that remains part of contemporary life, and their history becomes more compelling if we can see this Klan landscape and heritage within broader patterns of provincialism, xenophobia, and racism.

 

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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

Gates, Place, and Urban Heritage

The most prominent “gateway” to campus will be a 52′-tall column at the corner of West and Michigan Streets that is expected to be in place in Fall 2018 (click for a larger view).

This week Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) celebrated the impending construction of five “gateways” to campus, architectural features designed to identify the campus boundaries as students, staff, and visitors enter the near-Westside university. The most prominent gateway will be at West and Michigan Streets, a 52′-tall limestone and steel monolith that will be lit at night and be neighbored two blocks south by a more modest marker at New York and West Streets. Alongside these gateways a “series of landscape mounds along West Street between the two gateway markers also will visually distinguish the campus from the surrounding city.” This exercise in placemaking takes its aesthetic inspiration from the campus itself, invoking the architectural forms of the University Library (designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes, completed in 1994), Campus Center (SmithGroup JJR, 2008), and Eskenazi Hall (Browning Day Mullins Dierdorf, 2005). The gateways aspire to fashion a material landscape stylistically consistent with these existing buildings, though the media coverage of the gateways has featured the sheer scale of the monoliths, which are “large enough to be seen from an airplane.” Chancellor Nasser Paydar exalted that “anyone on a plane approaching Indianapolis, we want them to see this is how proud they are with this campus.” Read the rest of this entry

Color and Conformity: Race and Integration in the Suburbs

This post also appears on Invisible Indianapolis

In February 1961 Indianapolis, Indiana’s Jewish Community Center held a public discussion panel on “The Negro as Suburban Neighbor.” The surrounding northside community was home to several of the city’s earliest African-American suburbs, but many of those neighborhoods were resistant to integration. Despite its open membership policy, the JCC also did not count a single African American among its members.

Reginald Bruce appeared in the August 19, 1944 Indianapolis Recorder (click for expanded view).

Dr. Reginald Bruce was among the guests asked to speak on behalf of the northwestern suburbs’ African-American residents. In November, 1960 Reginald and Mary Bruce reached an agreement to purchase a home at 5752 Grandiose Drive. The Bruces were the first to integrate the newly built homes along Grandiose Drive. Bruce told the group at the JCC that since moving to Grandiose Drive “his family has been harassed by threatening phone calls and gunshots through the window since moving into the predominately white area.” Some White audience members vigorously opposed integration of the neighborhood, and one complained that the meeting had been rigged by the NAACP.

The Bruces’ experience integrating the northwestern Indianapolis suburbs would be repeated all over the country. That story of suburban integration—long acknowledged in African-American experience but unrecognized by most White suburbanites–is beginning to be told in popular cultural narratives. The suburbs have long been a staple of mainstream cinema, variously painted as disabling assimilation (The Stepford Wives), emotional repression (American Beauty), creative boredom (Grosse Point Blank), profound sadness (The Virgin Suicides), or the prosaic magnet for inexplicable phenomena (Poltergeist, Coneheads, Edward Scissorhands, etc). However, the story of suburban segregation has rarely been told in films.

A 1955 image illustrated the ideological vision of a typical suburban family (Getty images).

Last weekend Suburbicon debuted at the Venice Film Festival, and George Clooney’s movie (which opens in the US in October) is distinguished by its ambition to tell the story of racism and integration in suburbia. The film takes its inspiration from the integration of Levittown, Pennsylvania, one of William Levitt’s seven suburban communities. The Levittowns were the model for interchangeable, assembly-line produced housing on the urban periphery, so they are often rhetorical foils for suburban narratives in popular culture and historiography alike. The most unsettling implications of Clooney’s film are that it is an utterly commonplace historical tale: the story of the integration of the Levittown outside Philadelphia in 1957 could be told in any American community. Read the rest of this entry

The Security of Light: Streetlights and Criminal Darkness

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett presides over a news conference at the installation of the city's first new streetlight in 35 years (image Joe Hogsett twitter)

Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett presides over a June 9th news conference at the installation of the city’s first new streetlight in 35 years (image @IndyMayorJoe twitter)

This month a new streetlight was installed in Indianapolis, Indiana to surprising fanfare.  Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett presided over a ceremony on Nowland Avenue, celebrating the city’s first new streetlight since 1981 and proclaiming that it and another 100 new lights would bring “light to neighborhoods that have been dark for far too long.”  Thirty-five years ago Mayor William Hudnut announced a moratorium on new streetlights that was continued by the three subsequent Mayors.  Hudnut’s policy was fundamentally a cost-cutting move to decrease the city’s electricity expenses and direct the city’s public works spending toward roads, sidewalks, and concrete infrastructure.

Streetlights were once prosaic objects we never contemplated, but now they have secured the status of things; that is, they have entered our consciousness because they are part of an urban fabric perceived to be malfunctioning.  Most of the civic material landscape is utterly outside our consciousness until it fails in literal terms:  for instance, a street is not part of our reflection until a pothole mars our motion, or only the absence of a maintained sidewalk compels us to articulate our pedestrian experience.  Yet street lights and luminosity itself address a host of breakdowns in cities like Indianapolis that reach well beyond the functional purpose of lighting streets for foot and auto traffic.  Light and visibility are viewed and experienced in distinctive social ways across the city: street lights are cast by various observers as symbols of government’s public service obligations, ideological mechanisms of urban surveillance, instruments of persistent racism and class prejudice, nocturnal pollution, and confirmation of apparently rampant criminality. Read the rest of this entry

African-American Heritage in the Post-Renewal City

Bethel AME Church

Bethel AME Church

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

The Bethel AME interior features a massive pipe organ.

The Bethel AME interior features a massive pipe organ.

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

Race and the River: Swimming, Sewers, and Segregation

Belmont Beach Aug 8 1936

In August 1936 the Indianapolis Recorder included these images of the newly opened Belmont Park beach.

Last week Indianapolis’ tourism agency Visit Indy proposed building a beach along the White River, the waterway that meanders through the heart of Indiana’s capital city.  The idea modeled on temporary beaches in Paris (where swimming is not allowed in the Seine) was greeted with some skepticism: today, much of the river has a well-deserved reputation for pollution reaching back over the last century.  The river and its urban tributaries have long been fouled by combined sewer overflows, industrial discharges, and upriver farm wastes, and many stretches of the river are inaccessible and unappealing.  The Indianapolis press seem unable to imagine the White River as a tourist spot with something akin to a beach, but the river has a rich history of waterfront leisure that has included beaches from Ravenswood and Broad Ripple south to the edges of present-day downtown.  Some of the most polluted stretches of the White River also wind through predominately African-American neighborhoods and attest to how segregation shaped African Americans’ experience of the river.

In 1916 the Indianapolis News delivered an alarming report that the White River from Washington Street south “is devoid of natural fish life and birds.”  Below the West Washington Street bridge the State Board of Health’s John C. Diggs pronounced the river “a malodorous, septic stream, bearing on its surface floating matter of sewage origin,” concluding that the river “was of the same character as ordinary household sewage.”  Two years before he told the American Chemical Society conference that “White River is a comparatively small stream, yet it is used as a source of public water supply and sewage disposal for over 300,000 people.”  The 1916 study had already recognized that certain stretches of the river were more polluted than others.  At Broad Ripple “the river is free from floating matter or objectionable odor”; at Crow’s Nest just south of Broad Ripple “water is clear, free from floating matter”; and at Emrichsville Bridge (just south of the present-day 16th Street Bridge) the “water is clean but has a slightly weedy odor.” However, the African-American near Westside lay directly north of the industrial pollution wreaked by companies like the Kingan and Company meat packing plant, near which “the surface is a black scum” and “bubbles of gas rise to the surface.”  Their neighbors Van Camps were responsible for “pieces of tomatoes…on the surface of the water.” Read the rest of this entry

“Our Succulent Middle Class”: African-American Country Clubs and the Black Bourgeoisie

Sportsmans Golf July 18 1970

In July, 1970 Sportsman’s Club supporter and pro football player Leroy Kelly joined a group of golfers at the club’s nine-hole course.

In April, 1969 James Saint Clair Gibson reported on the opening of the Sportsman’s Club, a country club being built by African-American investors in the city’s northwestern suburbs.  Gibson contributed columns to the Indianapolis Recorder from 1936 until his death in 1978, often writing under his pen name of “The Saint” and dispensing acerbic commentary about life in African-American Indianapolis.  Gibson’s report on the Sportsman’s Club  inventoried its promised offerings of swimming pools, tennis courts, and golf links, but Gibson could not pass up a comment on the club’s apparent exclusivity, observing that memberships cost “$$$$ (hundreds) per year, and according to what we hear—they are being gobbled up right and left by our succulent (?) middle-class.”

The Sportsman’s Club aspired to provide a cross-class, multiethnic social club.  However, Gibson perhaps captured his readership’s wariness of exclusive country clubs, which were segregated along class lines and had historically been places where African Americans performed service labor.  The caricature of White hyper-wealthy clubs may have made the notion of a predominately Black club seem especially archaic at a moment when many once-segregated citizen rights were being transformed.  Perhaps the most unsettling implication was that the club illuminated the reaches of American life that remained utterly segregated.  Country clubs would indeed be one of the last bastions of segregation long after other spaces and citizen rights were effectively integrated. Read the rest of this entry

Mapping the Black Road: Segregated Driving and the Indianapolis Roadside

The 1956 Negro Motorist Green Book (image South Carolina University Library).

The 1956 Negro Travelers’ Green Book (image University of South Carolina Digital Collections Library).

In a 1936 study of life in segregated rural Georgia, Arthur Franklin Raper captured the anxiety posed by the African-American car and the political implications of African-American travel.  Raper saw the roads as spaces in which White privilege was being undermined if not contested, noting that “only on automobiles on public roads do landlords and tenants and white people and Negroes of the Black Belt meet on the basis of equality. … [T]he tenant can go where he pleases on the public road, and after he gets twenty or thirty minutes from home he travels incognito and is subject to his own wishes.”

The story of segregation is often told in spaces that hosted civil rights confrontations: lunch counters, bus stations, and school steps are concrete spots where the denial of privilege was contested.  Nevertheless, all public space was regulated, and Black movement inspired particularly neurotic fears.  One White farmer interviewed by Arthur Raper “advocated that the cars be taken from the Negroes or that the county maintain two systems of roads, one for the whites and one for the Negroes!”  Movement evoked freedom, independence, and agency outside White surveillance, so it inspired anxiety over more than a century:  an uneasiness that African Americans were operating outside White control was shared by antebellum ideologues viewing the Underground Railroad, Northern cities witnessing the Great Migration, and Georgia farmers watching African-American cars on the public roadway. Read the rest of this entry