Blog Archives

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

The Ruins of Music

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

The Grande Ballroom in Detroit in 2009, which remains in ruins today (image from Albert duce).

Music has a rather ephemeral materiality rendered in tangible things like CDs, cassettes, records, and perhaps even digital playlists, but its more compelling archaeological dimension is probably the historical landscapes of clubs and music districts that dot nearly every community.  Local grassroots music tends to be relatively dynamic, but live music holds a tenacious if ever-transforming grip on the landscape: most communities can point to a distinctive soundscape of clubs, impromptu spaces, and places from churches to schools where music was the heart of local experience.

Music has had a profoundly consequential hold on youth culture for most of the last century, but many places’ local musical heritages are in ruins or razed.  The musical landscape is exceptionally dynamic: a parade of fringe styles continually step forward in nearly every place, articulating a host of local, generational, and social experiences.  Most musical circles seek some modestly satisfying measure of relevance, creative community, and profitability, and some express broad if not universal anxieties and sentiments while others are simply more ephemeral sounds. Read the rest of this entry

Imagining the Black Suburbs: Homogeneity and African American Suburbia

levey family

The Levey family posed in front of a Levittown home in New York in 1949.

The postwar suburb seems painted in our collective imagination as a White nuclear family standing proudly in front of a standardized tract home and a chrome-accented American car.  Fortunately a rich scholarship on postwar suburbia has complicated or utterly unraveled that and many other suburban stereotypes, underscoring the material, social, and historical diversity of suburban landscapes: we know suburbia included a multitude of architectural forms beyond the interchangeable Levittown box; the roots of the suburbs reach well into the 19th century; working-class families predominated; and we are paying increasingly more attention to the suburban experience along the color line.

Henry Greer advertised his Northwest Street liquor store in December 1935.

Henry Greer advertised his Northwest Street liquor store in December 1935.

In 1946 Henry and Della Greer were among Indianapolis, Indiana’s first African-American suburbanites, and in many ways the story of the Greers and their neighbors might be told in many more places.  Henry was a former hotel porter who worked as a salesman and real estate agent before opening the Demi-Jon Liquor Store on North West Street in December, 1935 (and eventually selling life insurance).  His wife Della was an art teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where she taught for 20 years beginning in 1936.  The Greers blazed a trail into rural Washington Township by June, 1946 that would find them neighbored within a decade by a series of African-American subdivisions. That suburban African-American story has been untold in many communities, swept aside in a broader moral narrative that decries suburban conformity and material homogeneity and seems unable to fathom how the suburbs have been so alluring to so many Americans.  There is no shortage of outstanding scholarship on Black suburbanization (for instance, Andrew Wiese’s Places of their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century), but as these communities transform and in many cases deteriorate their histories risk being ignored and lost on the contemporary landscape.  Despite some wonderful preservation projects in communities like Addisleigh (New York), Berkley Square (Las Vegas), and Conant Gardens (Detroit), many communities seem slow to comprehend the consequence of Black suburban life in the postwar American experience. Read the rest of this entry

Imagining Urbanity: Settling the 21st-Century City

An imagined South Africa depicted in Livingston's 1899 Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.

An imagined South Africa depicted in Livingston’s 1899 Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa.

In 1843 English settler George Nicholson arrived in South Africa’s Algoa Bay having only “read some of the glowing descriptions given of this part of the country . . . It is true that I had not believed the El-Dorado stories which are so current of this and other colonies, but my expectations had been raised sufficiently high to make the disappointment at the really desolate appearance of the place, perfect.”  Nicholson painted a picture of South Africa that was a decidedly unappealing place in which “Two-thirds of the colony . . . are unfit for the reception of Europeans,” but his 1848 study The Cape and its Colonists was not a travelogue as much as it was a narrative on the European imagination of the colonial world.  Nicholson’s hyperbolic announcement of the challenges he surmounted was a ham-fisted show of imperial might.  Such traveler’s accounts were complicated ideological ruminations on empire, race, and frontier for readers unlikely to ever venture to imperial outposts.

Nicholson’s dehumanization of indigenous peoples lamented the end of enslavement, suggesting that “Ever since the philanthropical humanity of Great Britain conferred upon them complete liberty, these child-like people have been rapidly diminishing in numbers. They have expended the boon in a most lavish way; and, having no one to care for them, and not knowing how to care for themselves, the drambottle of the white man has done its work, and they have perished. . . None of the frightful horrors of the much talked of `middle passage’ could surpass those endured by these hastily made freemen, on their transition from the state of well-cared-for slaves, to that of unprepared, neglected, and dissipated free vagabonds.”

The rhetorical mechanisms Nicholson and many more scribes used to examine Others and empires takes quite different forms in the 21st century, but a thread of comparably moralistic imagination persists in discourses across lines of difference.  The downfall of Detroit and its descent into bankruptcy this week has been an especially powerful symbol of the collapsing inner-city.  However, nearly every American city has borrowed from urban narratives that reach into the 19th century and revolve around the imagination of the urban Other.  Many Americans appear to have become fearful of cities, whose meanings are an inseparable web of objective material and demographic realities as well as contested representations whose distortions have themselves become “real” in their effects on how we see cities and residents. Read the rest of this entry

Race and Suburban Homogeneity: The Flanner House Homes and Post-Urban African America

Long Island's Levittown suburb established the models for material and social homogeneity commonly associated with postwar American suburbs (image )

Long Island’s Levittown suburb established the models for material and social homogeneity commonly associated with postwar American suburbs (image MarkGregory007)

In the wake of World War II, suburbs sprang up on the outskirts of American cities, prefabricated and interchangeable homes that reflect postwar social, disciplinary, and material homogeneity.  Boosted by Federal Housing Admininstration and veteran’s loans, banks provided loans for 10 million new homes between 1946 and 1953, and Americans set off for the suburbs to settle scores of standardized structures on urban outskirts.

When we imagine such suburbs, we invariably envision solidly middle-class families in the midst of homogeneous neighborhoods, a picture that rarely includes people of color.  Access to America’s suburban utopia was denied to most African Americans:  realtors, bankers, and urban planners crafted an ideologically distorted, racially restricted American Dream in the suburbs while they championed urban renewal projects that gutted the Black city.  The Black experience of postwar suburbanization is a complicated presence on the contemporary landscape: the heritage of urban renewal is reflected in failed projects and abandoned cityscapes that many city governments now want to raze anew.  However, an especially interesting dimension of that story is reflected in the Flanner House Homes neighborhood in Indianapolis, Indiana, a history that is now in danger of being forgotten if not displaced.

The suburban experience is routinely painted in homogeneous material and social terms for good reason.  Perhaps no suburb better depicts that homogeneity than the original Levittown, the Long Island New York community where the Levitt Brothers built 17,447 homes by 1951.  The FHA encouraged suburban planners to restrict the sale of suburban homes to Whites, calling Black residents “adverse influences,” and the Levitts embraced that advice.  Bill Levitt rationalized the firm’s racial covenants restricting sales to Whites only with the argument that “As a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice.  But the plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities.”  In 1960, Levittown’s 82,000 residents included not one African American, making it the single largest universally White community in America.

Levittown was an extreme example that concealed the one-million African Americans who became suburbanites in the 1940s and 1950s.  For instance, African Americans had settled north of Detroit in the 1920s on vacant farmland in the Eight Mile-Wyoming area and built modest houses; such “self-built suburbs” constructed by their owners accounted for one-third of all pre-war homes, crafted over time from recycled materials or pre-cut Sears houses and without much planning by local governments. Yet as suburban developments sprang up on city outskirts apprehensive White suburbanites formed municipalities and established anti-Black residency covenants that restricted home sales to Whites (a pattern already tested in Indianapolis itself in the 1920s; compare such covenants in Kansas City and in Seattle).

Men clearing yard spaces around their Flanner House homes (image IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives).

Men clearing yard spaces around their Flanner House homes (image IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives).

Flanner House builders complete the shell of a series of  homes.  No family could move in until all homes in a section were completed (image IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives).

Flanner House builders complete the shell of  one of a series of homes. No family could move in until all homes in a section were completed (image IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives).

The Flanner House Homes project was one distinctive response to the racist boundaries on post-war suburbs.  Flanner House was founded in 1898 as a “settlement house” agency to assist Black residents arriving in 19th-century migrations and subsequently in the Great Migration.  The city’s African-American population increased by almost 500% between 1860 and 1870, and in 1900 nearly 10% of the city’s population was African American.  Boosted by Southern migration, that population more than doubled in the first two decades of the 20th century, increasing from 15,931 in 1900 to 34,678 in 1920.

In 1936 Tuskegee-trained Cleo Blackburn was hired as the Flanner House director, advocating a strong “self-help” mantra that would remain the Flanner House philosophy through the Depression, post-war decline, and the Civil Rights movement.  In 1944 Blackburn directed the construction of a community cannery, health center, nursery, and gardens at its 16th Street headquarters.  In 1945 Survey Graphic reported on the new center, indicating that Flanner House “has built a new settlement on the edge of what former U. S. Housing Administrator Nathan Straus called the worst Negro slum in America. It has been instrumental in constructing a new health center nearby. It is operating perhaps the largest community gardening and canning project by and for Negroes in the United States.”

A 1946 study of the neighborhood directed by Blackburn examined 454 Black households on the city’s near-Westside and agreed that the neighborhood was “one of the most unsightly, unsanitary, and deteriorated sectors in the entire city of Indianapolis,” and the homes “needed major repairs and few of them had adequate plumbing facilities.”  Blackburn indicated that “the majority had given up hope for any possible improvement,” and he advised that it “is urgently recommended, that the clearance, planning, and redevelopment of this area under the Redevelopment Act of 1945 affords the only hope of correcting the conditions existing in the area. … Immediate steps should be taken by the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission to declare the area blighted and to acquire, clear, and redevelop it.”

Future Flanner House residents roofing their homes (image IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives)

Future Flanner House residents shingling their homes (image IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives)

Created in 1944, the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission was willing to raze the whole of the Black near-Westside, though it had relatively little plan for what to do with the uprooted residents.  While most American cities accepted federal funding and built public housing for the scores of families displaced by urban renewal, Indianapolis persistently rebuffed federal funding for such construction under the guise of supporting local contractors.  While the African-American near-Westside languished, 9000 new homes were built between 1940 and 1942 to support wartime workforces in Speedway and Warren Township, and 52,000 new homes were built in the city in the 1950’s, but nearly all were in neighborhoods inaccessible to African Americans.

Blackburn proposed tearing down a swath of homes and building “sweat equity” housing in which male head of households constructed their homes and the homes of their neighbors (women could not participate in home construction).  The Redevelopment Commission purchased a 178-acre tract north of Crispus Attucks High School in November 1946, referred to as Project A, and after displacing the residents (none of whom were guaranteed acceptance into Flanner House Homes) they turned it over to Blackburn and Flanner House.  Construction began in 1950 by a series of men whose families had been exhaustively reviewed by Flanner House, leaving Flanner House solidly peopled by middle-class African Americans.

Flanner House Homes was distinctive for its focus on African Americans in a moment when White urbanites were migrating to the outskirts of the city, but it was simultaneously novel spatially in its simulation of suburban space and its placement within the city.  While similar homes were being built on Indianapolis’ rural outskirts, the Flanner House Homes sat just north of the city’s central “Mile Square.”  Like many of the suburban homes they borrowed from stylistically, the houses are roughly 975-square foot spaces with standardized footprints and one of four basic street facings.  There was nothing that especially distinguished the Flanner House Homes from any house in the White suburbs, and that may well have been Blackburn’s intention.  These African-American homes were utterly typical suburban forms that reproduced the very middle-class values that were simultaneously staking a claim to the city’s suburbs.  The city’s lone predominately Black suburb was the Grandview community, which was established on the city’s northwest side in the late-1950s.  The stylish suburban ranchers and relatively standardized homes were derisively referred to in the local press as the “Golden Ghetto.”

A completed Flanner House homes street looked much like most suburban communities (image IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives).

A completed Flanner House homes street looked much like most suburban communities (image IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives).

There is nothing especially diasporan about the Flanner House home forms, a direct reflection of the African-American commitment to American middle-class values in particular and the American home ownership dream in particular.  The homes might be cast as a reflection of Blackburn’s Tuskegee training, which was profoundly shaped by Booker T. Washington’s accomodationist philosophy, and Blackburn did indeed chart a circumspect and non-confrontational course in local race relations.  However, this risks reducing all African-American heritage merely to essentialized diasporan forms and ignores the allure of suburban home ownership and agency in African-American experience.

Flanner House Homes was in some ways a tragic testament to the persistence of racism in Indianapolis.  By 1964 the project had built just over 300 homes, and while the city persistently pointed to Flanner House Homes as a success story, it did not remotely address housing problems in Indianapolis and its racial segregation did nothing to address the racism that prevented people of color from moving into other Indianapolis neighborhoods.  Realtors refused to show homes to Black households; banks were unwilling to extend loans to African Americans able to pay; and the near-absence of restricted income public housing provided African American few choices for housing.  To make matters worse, the imminent arrival of Interstate-65 construction in 1965 would remove 4700 homes, of which roughly half were African American (and in view of Flanner House Homes).  Richard Pierce’s compelling study Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970 concludes that when Indianapolis began to enforce laws against housing segregation in the late 1960’s, “Whites no longer needed racial covenants and neighborhood associations to block African American movement into white neighborhoods. The economic gap between whites and African Americans had grown sufficiently that economic realities provided the most effective barrier.”

This woman and two children posed in a finished Flanner House home (image IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives).

This woman and two children posed in a finished Flanner House home (image IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives).

Flanner Homes was named a National Register Historic District in 2003, but in 2013 Indiana Landmarks named Flanner House Homes and the neighboring Philip’s Temple one of Indiana’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Places.  In 2012 the neighborhood first found itself under fire from the Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns Philip’s Temple but hopes to tear down the 1924 church to build a parking lot for Crispus Attucks High School.

The Flanner House homes were recently under fire from the retailer Meijer, who hoped to acquire and demolish 35 of the 181 Flanner House Homes just north of the neighborhood.  Meijer removed their bid this week, and the neighborhoods’ resistance and Indiana Landmarks’ advocacy was critical.  Nevertheless, the targeting of the neighborhood reflects that the homes’ apparently prosaic form masks their significance as a reflection of color line privileges.

For more details:

Listen to Amos Brown’s interview with residents and local preservations on Afternoons with Amos

Videos of original Flanner House residents and Flanner House can be found at the Flanner House youtube channel

Cleo W. Blackburn

1946 A Study of 454 Negro Households in the Redevelopment Area, Indianapolis, Indiana.  Unpublished manuscript.

Carolyn M. Brady

1996 Indianapolis at the Time of the Great Migration, 1900-1920Black History News and Notes 65.
Flanner House Study Committee

1939 The Indianapolis Study.  Unpublished manuscript.

David M. P. Freund
2007 Colored Property : State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Kevin Fox Gotham

2000 Urban Space, Restrictive Covenants, and the Origins of Racial Residential Segregation in a US City, 1900-1950International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 24(3):616-633.
Bernadette Hanlon
2009 Once the American Dream: Inner-Ring Suburbs of the Metropolitan United States.  Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Dianne Harris

2006 Seeing the Invisible: Reexamining Race and Vernacular ArchitecturePerspectives in Vernacular Architecture 13(2):96-105. (subscription access)

Dolores Hayden
2003 Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000.  Knopf, New York.

Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission

1954 Annual Report of the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission for 1954.  Unpublished manuscript.

Kenneth T. Jackson

1985 Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Oxford University Press, New York.

Michael Jones-Correa

2000 The Origins and Diffusion of Racial Restrictive CovenantsPolitical Science Quarterly 115(4):541-568.

M. Ruth Little

1997 The Other Side of the Tracks: The Middle-Class Neighborhoods that Jim Crow Built in Early-Twentieth-Century North Carolina.  In Exploring Everyday Landscapes: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture VII, eds. Annmarie Adams and Sally McMurry, pp, 268-280.  University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Timothy Maher and Ain Haas

1987 Suburbanizing the CitySociological Focus 20(4):281-294. (subscription access)

Richard Pierce

2005 Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970.  Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Charles S. Preston

1946 Local Slum Clearance Plans Advanced by “New Resolution.” Indianapolis Recorder 9 November:1, 3.

Roger William Riis and Webb Waldron

1945 Fortunate CitySurvey Graphic XXXTV(8)


Flanner house Construction, yard construction, street scene, and women and children in living room images courtesy Flanner House (Indianapolis, Ind.) Records, 1936-1992, IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives

Levittown aerial view image image courtesy MarkGregory007

Race and Materiality: The E Pluribus Unum Project

During the 2012 Super Bowl, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the background lorded over the proceedings.

In 2007 artist Fred Wilson was commissioned to contribute a work to Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail, a downtown bike and pedestrian path linking five urban historic districts punctuated with public artworks.   Wilson noted the figure of an emancipated captive paradoxically hidden in Indianapolis’ most public space, the towering 284-foot tall Soldiers and Sailors’ Monument on Indianapolis, Indiana’s central circle,  and he conceived a statue that would draw attention to that image and color line heritage.  Wilson proposed to recast the freed captive in a more upright position and situate him grasping a flag of Wilson’s design that represents the African Diaspora.  Wilson dubbed the work E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One), and Trail planners optimistically celebrated that such a work “speaks to diverse audiences and … is long overdue.”

In 1897 German sculptor Rudolfo Schwarz was commissioned to complete “War” and “Peace” statuary groupings for placement on the eastern and western sides of the monument respectively (Modupe Labode’s Monument Circle Project has lots of historic images of the monument).  Nestled at the base of the Peace side is the emancipated African American, kneeling and holding up broken chains toward the female figure of Liberty.  The Emancipated captive passed largely unseen for more than a century, and its hollow narrative of White altruism likewise passed unexamined (the exception was Freeman HM Murray’s prescient 1916 study Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation [pages 120-128]).

Yet the statue’s 19th-century racial aesthetics conflict with most contemporary perceptions of Black subjectivity, and some audiences resisted immortalizing those conventions and the racist privileges the monument has effectively condoned for a century.  On the surface the debate over Wilson’s proposal revolved around acrimony over stale ideological motifs and whether such representations of African America can frame productive conversation about African-American heritage.  Perhaps the most critical dimension of this discussion, though, is how materially illuminating race reveals deep-seated sentiments about racial subjectivity.  From the most quotidian commodities to the most monumental materiality, racial privilege is silently reproduced, masked, and accented by materiality that appears to have no tangible connection to the color line.  The reception to the freedman’s re-casting underscores the complicated ways such representations are contested in the contemporary world.

The Peace sculptural grouping with the kneeling captive at lower right.

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument was typical of later 19th century statuary that aspired to celebrate the mostly anonymous soldiers preserving the Union.  At the monument’s dedication in 1902, the Indianapolis News underscored that selfless service to the state was the central lesson of the monument, which demonstrated that “Private and general are entitled to the same measure of our love and gratitude if they do what they are bidden to do without thought of self.  There is now no man so humble but he can greatly serve the country.”  The 1902 speeches and newspaper articles on the Monument apparently said nothing about the relationship between the war and Black freedom.

Hidden in the recesses of the monument, the freed captive was Whites’ self-congratulatory mechanism that celebrated the gift of freedom won by White citizen-soldiers and forgave themselves for the racism that followed Emancipation.  In 1916, Freeman Henry Morris Murray (1916:124) noted how the statue’s design buried its single captive amongst a cacophony of wartime symbols, observing that the monument aspired “to represent so much of the tumult and carnage as well as the glory of war, on a large scale; and brings into action so many arms of the service in so many stages of the fray; and, moreover, introduces such an over-load of the symbolical and the figurative—and finally, in the lower part, a glimpse of the aftermath of the struggle—that one is at first bewildered, and after a time wearied in the effort to disentangle, to correlate, and to interpret.”

Fred Wilson’s work “re-purposes” symbols and things to compel audiences to rethink or simply acknowledge their meanings, so the unshackled monument captive provided a potentially productive motif to trigger a discussion about freedom, privilege, and the color line (see Wilson’s own framing of the project on the Indianapolis Cultural Trail page).  In 2009 and 2010 the Cultural Trail planners shared their vision of this and other works in a series of public meetings.  Tyler Green’s thorough and thoughtful coverage of the project in Modern Art Notes acknowledged that the planners “held a series of meetings to try to introduce Wilson and E Pluribus Unum to the community. Art students showed up and maybe a few other folks did too. The groups that Wilson and the ICT most wanted to engage — the quarter of Indianapolis residents who are African-American—were mostly disinterested.”  Green certainly mis-characterizes those absences as “disinterest,” but his depiction of conventional “community meetings” that gathered together the “arts community” is clearly spot-on (compare Studio 360).  Deep-seated mistrust of the state and a sober realism about the limits of Black community voices likely kept all but the most committed stakeholders from initial public meetings that have not often included voices of color.

Close-up of the Peace grouping, with the emancipated captive looking up at Freedom.

Nevertheless, some people stormed into the discussion in Fall 2010.  One of the first volleys came in a September, 2010 letter to the Indianapolis Recorder from an African-American high school teacher who complained that when he “saw the picture of the sculpture that was created (or recreated) by artist Fred Wilson, I was appalled, embarrassed, disappointed, and outright mad.  My initial thought was that the features around the shoulders, neck, head and face looked `ape-ish’ to say the least.”  That uneasiness focused on the material aesthetics of Black representation, arguing that “this is not the 19th century and the African-American community in Indianapolis does not need another `image’ in downtown Indianapolis to remind us of how downtrodden, beat down, hapless, and submissive we once may have been.  We don’t need any more images of lawn jockeys, caricatures … no more buffoonery, no more shuckin’ and jiven’, and no more ape-ish looking monuments.”

That somewhat narrow critique of racist aesthetics did not address the thorny community politics of representing racialized symbols in a public, permanent, and monumental piece of material culture.   Much of the debate over the project revolved around how the motif was selected and how the statue’s meaning and interpretation could be subsequently managed.  Wilson himself recognized the folly of aspiring to control such meanings, arguing that “`Public art is … in public and people can interpret it in the way they will and often without any mediation, which is really great.’”  Critics of the project formed the group Citizens Against Slave Image, rejecting the suggestion that 19th-century aesthetics could frame a productive discourse on race.  The dispute was fundamentally over control of public, permanent material representations of African America, not simply one statue.  Wilson appeared on a local African-American radio show soon after, and a caller against the statue again intoned “`Who decides what is appropriate and what is not appropriate?’” (The full audio interview with Amos Brown is on the AM 1310 page.)

A rendering of Wilson’s proposed E Pluribus Unum sculpture.

Fred Wilson’s Indianapolis sculpture raises the issue of exactly how we see race in materiality, and historically Americans have chosen not to see it at all.  Wilson’s design intentionally appropriated an ideologically charged racialized symbol, but, as Wilson recognized, the precise discussion it hoped to foster when installed is not mediated by the state, socially powerful collectives in the city, an arts community, or any other social group.  A reflective public discussion of race and privilege has historically failed Americans for half a millennium, but discussions about racial representation occur constantly in African America in secluded discursive spaces that rarely so forcefully find their way into public space.  Tyler Green’s prescient Modern Art News analysis of the Wilson sculpture’s reception concludes that the reception “is the kind of artist-public discourse wherein art can play an important role as a community protagonist.”   These discussions about African-American heritage have always been at the heart of African-American discourse, so the “arts community” has awkwardly found its way into that discussion and risks appearing self-congratulatory about initiating it.

In a city that has often sought contrived racial consensus, some people saw the disputed statue as an unacceptably inflammatory illumination of the color line and African-American heritage.  Tyler Green lamented that eliminating the statue from the Cultural Trail would yield “a false unanimity,” but in July, 2011 the Central Indiana Community Foundation announced that it no longer supported placing the statue in front of the City-County Building.  Their inelegant retreat focused on the sculpture’s position at the City-County Building, which is home to the city jail as well as the Mayor’s Office, a space Wilson chose in part because it was within sight of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.  In December, 2011, the project was entirely scrapped.

Fred Wilson’s intentions were in many ways much the same as Freeman Henry Morris Murray’s had been in 1916, when he asked “when we look at a work of art, especially when `we’ look at one in which Black Folk appear—or do not appear when they should,—we should ask:  What does it mean? What does it suggest?  What impression is it likely to make on those who view it?  What will be the effect on present-day problems, of its obvious and also of its insidious teachings?  In short, we should endeavor to `interpret’ it; and should try to interpret it from our own peculiar viewpoint.” Murray saw the well-concealed Indianapolis captive as a misrepresentation of the war, finding that in “the Peace group—wherein a black man appears, seemingly as an afterthought or a sort of supernumerary—there is, artistically viewed, as much confusion and incoherence as in the other [i.e., War group], and there is more over-loading; and in it the symbolical and the figurative are heedlessly and hopelessly mixed with the realistic and commonplace. … I feel an impulse to seize this `super’ by his dangling foot and slide him gently off into oblivion—or else say to him, as sternly as I can: `Awake, awake, put on thy strength . . . shake thyself from the dust; arise.’  You deserve a place at Liberty’s side, not at her feet.  Assist her soberly to uphold the Flag, while others rejoice; for, but for your strong right arm the Flag would even now perhaps be trailing in the dust!”

Wilson aspired to do much as Murray hoped by illuminating an otherwise invisible racial symbol hidden in plain view.  Wilson’s re-imagination of that symbol will not become a concrete material reality, but the contestation of the freedman’s representation of race and African diasporan heritage demonstrates the genuine power of materialities of the color line.  Admitting racialized symbolism challenges communities along and across color lines, and material culture—even the mere specter of material representations of African America like Fred Wilson’s sculpture—can foster productive conversations about the sway of race and racism.

The Material Politics of Bike Lanes

Bike lanes along New York Street (image from NUVO)

One of the most politicized pieces of material culture in America is bike lanes, those ephemeral strips in the street that for some reason summon forth class tensions, nationalist ideology, and consumer and environmental politics (albeit concealed within rants on the inconveniences and economic injustices imposed by bike lanes and cyclists). INDYCOG, a non-profit Indianapolis bicycle advocacy group that promotes bike commuting and recreational riding, today came out with a thorough and measured analysis of a series of new bikes lanes that has been greeted locally with emotional letters-to-the-editor and complaints that apparently were made directly to INDYCOG as well. Some drivers are justifiably a little confused by the bike lanes and a little uncomfortable with the idea of bikes alongside their cars, and some of the lanes could use better signage and spacing. Some cyclists are not big fans of bike lanes either (e.g., see this blog from an Indy rider or the BikeNoob blog). But much of this discussion is really an emotional dispute over the public space that cars have long ruled over without question in cities like Indianapolis, and it involves politics that would seem to have nothing to do with otherwise innocuous painted lines, bikes, or how we get to work.

On December 5th, The Indianapolis Star had a relatively measured analysis of how bikes lines have been received, but it was greeted with a burst of online responses, and emboldened by their anonymity those commentators prophesied the imminent likelihood that cars would soon be outlawed and replaced by ill-behaved yuppies on carbon frames. The day before Salon did a thoughtful piece on the presumption that cyclists are all elitist snobs, musing over the arguments made in a New Yorker piece that lamented the ever-expanding swath of bike lanes carving up New York roadways. The New Yorker essay was greeted by a rush of cranky blog responses (there are an enormous number of cycling blogs) that took offense at the economic implications of bike lanes, the environmental dimensions of riding, the presumed traffic snarls created by the cycling hordes, and similar sorts of issues (for instance, see The Economist response). The New Yorker piece by John Cassidy repeated a commonplace caricature that cyclists apparently all see drivers as “Suburban, reactionary, moron[s]” and opposed to cyclists, who are “Urbane, enlightened, sophisticate.” Cassidy also sounded the tired suggestion that cyclists are all intent on replacing cars with bikes. Comments on the Indianapolis Star piece spent much of their time lamenting the behavioral shortcomings of cyclists, who have sometimes viewed the rules of the road as suggestions; in Philadelphia, a crackdown on cycling scofflaws netted 600 tickets over two months this summer. But in the end the tenor of much of this public discourse on bike lanes devolves to overwrought and ambiguous caricatures by drivers who feel threatened by bike lanes and cyclists who are unable to see how to co-exist on the road in a car culture.

One of the comments responding to Cassidy suggested “Honestly, if you love driving so much, please move to the midwest. You can get all the driving in you want out there, killing the environment all the while. Plus, there are lots of parking spots for any sort of heap you want to drive.“ This somewhat stereotypical picture of the Midwest is perhaps rhetorical, but it is certainly true that Indianapolis is firmly married to car culture, and bike lanes seem to be perceived as a frontal assault on the primacy of cars in the most public shared spaces in the city. Bike lanes in Broad Ripple, for instance, have become flashpoints among observers who accept the money youth bourgeois pump into the neighborhood’s bars and shops, but they seem less excited about the politics and behavior of the bikers who pass through or live in Broad Ripple. Bike lanes are routinely reduced to the favored vehicles of a young intelligentsia resisting car culture if not all American values, and in Indianapolis that stereotype has been greeted with a bitter reception. Bike lane critics constantly harp on cyclists’ boorish on-road behavior (often in overwrought and truly idiotic terms), and some riders certainly do get defensive and over-react; if you ride enough you’ll deal with aggressive or distracted motorists whose effort to clip a few minutes from their commute puts a cyclist in real danger, and sometimes cyclists do get a little touchy. Some cyclists have responded creatively if in modestly rude terms, such as the Toronto page Look at the Asshole in the Bike Lane or a New York cyclist who was ticketed for leaving the bike lane and made a film on his subsequent rides in the bike lane. But the broad-brushed rejection of all cyclists (or for that matter all drivers) is shortsighted.

Cycling in Indianapolis is actually in pretty good shape: a NUVO article on cycling in 2011 inventories the new bike lanes, the growing racing scene, and support for commuters like the downtown bike hub. The concrete number of people who actually cycle commute in Indianapolis or anywhere else remains pretty modest, with an The Atlantic Cities report placing Indianapolis’ number of bike commuters in 2009 at 0.5% of the population, although that was a 150% increase over a decade earlier. So it is interesting that such a small number of people and nothing more substantial than painted lines sharing the roadway with a slow-moving bike can strike such apprehension in so many drivers.