Updated: Feb 6, 2020
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - In a city filled with street names honoring other states, it was Indiana Avenue that ended up being home to the majority of Indy's black population. Roughly 150 years ago, in the year 1870, one-third of the city's African-American community lived on Indiana Avenue.
Indiana Avenue's growth was due in part to segregation and Jim Crows laws. Black people had to establish their own communities, Indiana Avenue was filled with black owned business from New York to 16th Street. It was 1836 when Indianapolis' oldest black church was organized. Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church sat towards the southern end of Indiana Avenue.
As the community was beginning to grow amongst the city streets of Indianapolis, another community was being established just 30 miles north in nearby Atlanta, Indiana. Last year I did a few videos highlighting the historic black rural community known as Roberts Settlement.
(click on the photo above to watch my Roberts Settlement videos)
These communities, both rural and urban, were essential for the development of black people in the United States. White communities and neighborhoods didn't want anything to do with African-Americans.
IndyStar - Like New York's Harlem, Indiana Avenue was a product of segregation. Blacks were restricted from white neighborhoods and could not shop at many white-owned establishments Downtown. But on The Avenue black customers could find doctors', lawyers' and dentists' offices, cafes, restaurants, cleaners, sundries, shoe repair and shine stands and nightclubs.
At the time both Indiana Avenue and Roberts Settlement were emerging, black people in the south were still in bondage. Indiana's black communities began to establish themselves early, and during the 'Great Migration' of the early 20th century, many African-Americans from the south made their way up north to Indiana Avenue.
During this time period, an estimated 1.6 million people relocated from rural communities in the south to industrial cities in the north and west. This added influx of black people only pushed Indiana Avenue forward.
The Madam C.J. Walker Theatre opened in 1927, right on Indiana's blackest avenue.
Indiana Avenue was our city's Harlem.
IUPUI - Discover Indiana - Indiana Avenue, also known as “The Avenue”, hosted national names like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie, and cultivated local talent like Noble Sissie, Errol Grandy, Wes Montgomery, and Jimmy Coe. As a result, Indiana Avenue grew into one of the premier music scenes, rivaling other larger cities like Chicago and Kansas City. The cultural identity created by segregation led to the Harlem Renaissance atmosphere of the area.
The Avenue's jazz history is reflected by a sculpture located on the historic street. I had never known what this sculpture represented until I started writing this story.
As Indianapolis began to integrate, Indiana Avenue began to deteriorate. African-Americans in the city had the freedom to move and live wherever they wanted to, and many of the Avenue's residents relocated to more suburban communities. Walker Theatre closed in 1965, and within a few decades, commercial development began to sweep through the neighborhood.
Walker Theatre has since reopened, and along Indiana Avenue you can find historical markers commemorating the great community that once thrived there.