I cannot count how many times I’ve been out of state and people have been flabbergasted that I’m from Indianapolis, Indiana. Initially, this is because the idea of an actual city existing here hardly crosses the mind. Cornfields, sports, racecars and beer are the more popular associations with the Hoosier city. Once the initial cognition of civilization existing in Indianapolis has passed, quite frankly, out of towners are then usually surprised that I’m black. Mind Blown.
“Black people live there?”, I was asked on a school field trip to Kentucky a while back. This is a question oh too familiar. “Yes, we do”, is my normal reply.
The black population is often a distant thought for those not familiar with Indianapolis’s surroundings. However, in Marion County, Indianapolis, Indiana—the real Naptown—the African American community has always thrived with hidden success.
Here, I discuss Black History in Indianapolis, the history of silent oppression in the city and the Black voices that are now making themselves heard.
Indianapolis, Indiana the 13th most populous city in the United States, also known as Naptown. The term was coined to signify the cozy, laid back and sometimes boring atmosphere that the city’s nightlife has to offer. Once 5pm hits the clock, everyone heads home from work or school and a quietness overtakes the city’s streets.
Though quiet, the city is no stranger to inequality. In fact, Indiana is one of the founding states for the Ku Klux Klan organization. In the 1920’s their presence around the city became notorious, even near campuses such as Butler University, a prestigious Christian founded school.
By day many members of the Klu Klux Klan catered to Black residents as doctors, lawyers and even educational leaders. Meaning the same man a child trusted to teach her or him math could also be the one plotting to end their life at night, based on solely on skin pigment.
During slavery in the 1800s, the Black population in Indianapolis increased as slaves used the “underground railroad” to cross over the Ohio River. Indiana’s first A.M.E. Church, Bethel A.M.E. Church, was included as one of these stops for slaves continuing on to Canada. Once established it did not take long for an African American presence to fill the town.
The Northwest of downtown Indianapolis became a central area in which African Americans flourished. In 1897, the segregated Historic Neighborhood of Ransom Place began its development, providing homes for Black families with privileged backgrounds. Freeman B Ransom was an attorney and civil rights activist from Mississippi when he made his way to Indianapolis and made a mark.
Also pioneering a route to success was Madame CJ Walker. Born on a plantation in Louisiana, she made history in Indianapolis and nationwide by becoming the first self-made female millionaire. Her innovative beautification products set the bar for African Americans and their chance to reach economic security along with a new style.
Today, adjacent to the Walker Theatre is Crispus Attucks High School. Established in 1927, Attucks served as the home school for African Americans within the inner city limits. Without such a foundation, Black students would likely be left uneducated, as they were rejected from all other surrounding schools at the time.
This is all common knowledge for most Indianapolis African Americans today. Though I often wonder how relevant it is to other racial groups in the city.
While Black history was being made in the tiny Northwest district of downtown, the city also began to experience the “White Flight” and gentrification. Large numbers of African Americans remained in the inner city while Whites migrated to suburbs such as Carmel, Fishers and Avon, just to name a few. Even today, these places lack diversity giving them an uncomfortable, eerie aura for any minority trying to “enter” their territory. Along with this strange atmosphere, it is no secret that in Indiana Black people are far more likely to be arrested than nonblacks, even in these mostly white neighborhoods.
Alongside “White Flight”, gentrification emerged in developments to make room for the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) campus. Slowly, but surely the academic institution bought out nearly 1,000 homes in Haughville and the historic Ransom Place leaving little trace of the original occupiers.
Can you imagine the hidden racial tensions in Indianapolis during this time?
With the Klu Klux Klan, “White Flight”, gentrification and a booming Black district, racial tensions were bound to transpire. There are stories of Black men being beaten on the Monument Circle, but is there any concrete evidence or written material? No.
This is not surprising, for Indianapolis’s residents have always been tight lipped when discussing the silent oppression and lack of diversity within the city limits. Recently, the Indianapolis Repertory Theatre produced April 4, 1968: Before We Forget How to Dream showing the audience the effect Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death had on the city. While nearly 100 cities across the country rioted, Naptown remained silent. Is remaining silent better than creating chaos?
Today, this hushed nature has lifted thanks to social media platforms. On September 26, 2015 social media ignited after a video showing a mother questioning the death of her 18-year old son who died in police custody was released by NowThis. Grasping the idea of death by officer is challenging until you realize it is taking place in your own backyard. The mother’s grief is one seen time and time again, very familiar until the viewer recognizes that the incident took place on Indianapolis’s eastside (a mecca for black Americans in Indianapolis).
The teenager, Terrell Day, was a shoplifting suspect who repeatedly announced his inability to breathe while being arrested by the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. Such a nonviolent crime makes one wonder about how much force and stress those facing arrest endure. Currently, the IMPD is investigating the homicide detectives and crime lab personnel who reported to the scene.
Social media has been louder with concern more than most government officials. How can we make our concerns heard and acted on?
In places of creativity, people can express political ideas openly. Here is where you learn the deepest concerns within the Black community. Whether it is issues with “their women” or the lack of government funding, on the stage is where it is heard. However, the most common topic is the effects of oppression at the hands of our white counterparts. The inability to control all of our music, the inability to reach straight to the top, the inability to be ourselves without the inevitable “I am Black” feeling is the pain felt and conveyed.
Black artistry is the voice for #BlackLivesMatter in Indianapolis. Without it, our anxieties would fall by the wayside. The poets, the rappers, the painters and singers keep the topic of #BlackLivesMatter an everyday speech act that we cannot ignore. This can simply be a poet visualizing a normal day growing up on Indy’s eastside on 42nd and Post, or 10th and Rural for the audience, just to name a few notable areas that many of these talents come from. However, the issue with Black artistry in Indianapolis is the fact that it is not mainstream. Our voices and ideas remain amongst one other, leaving out the broader public who could benefit greatly from what we say.
Recently, this has developed further. Mathew Davis, a 10th and Rural area native, is spreading contemporary Black artistry to wider audiences as the host of “Localmotion”. “Localmotion” is an open mic event that celebrates all artistry in Indianapolis, every second Saturday at Fletcher Place Arts & Books. On September 12, 2015 the store hosted an open mic event for people from all walks of life to witness on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument Circle located in central downtown Indianapolis. Soldiers and Sailors Monument Circle epitomizes the hushed racism of the town. The Monument hit local headlines in 2011 when artist Fred Wilson proposed to alter the image of a slave with loose shackles to one of a freed man with a flag held high to show pride for our heritage.
While observing the crowd I couldn’t help but notice how diverse it was. Such an eclectic group did not see race but sought knowledge for the soul. Often times it seems as though African American held events attract greater diversity than those organized by other groups. Though open and vocal, a young African American male decided against reciting his piece about police brutality to the crowd because of the conflict it could have stirred up. In Indianapolis events with African Americans as the main audience are usually accompanied by an unnecessary amount of police officers, and this event was no different.
If one is closer to the northeast side of Indianapolis, near Castleton Mall, “Vibe On Wednesday” (V.O.W), every other Wednesday, is also a venue in which to hear soul-filling thoughts and theories. Host Amber Harper and Tony Styxx have offered a platform for those 21 and up. At the EPIC Lounge you can literally vibe out, eat and socialize all while supporting Black performers.
The list of artists who have kept #BlackLivesMatter topics relevant can stretch from here to Ohio and back. The next challenge is to find answers for the community woes they express. How do we make ourselves mainstream without the message becoming oversaturated or contaminated by the White media? This is an obstacle that will take great strength to overcome, but if Indianapolis speaks up, we can do it!
In conclusion, the Black community in Indianapolis, Indiana has always had the drive that it takes to thrive. We just need a little push, a little edge. Luckily, the power of connection has increased through avenues such as social media, making it easier for newer voices to make themselves heard just by using their twitter fingers. With that, the Black community can only await the results of heightened exposure to and awareness of the hardships of the Black community. Let’s hope for a positive future.
Paris Walton is an anthropologist recently graduated from Indiana U-Purdue U Indianapolis with a minor in philosophy. Her final senior project entitled, You’re White, You Don’t Fight discussed racial complexities in marketing and brand using the Apple iPhone and Nike Air Jordan as case studies (see also, Anthromistic.Wordpress.com). Follow Paris on Twitter and Instagram at @KissParisFrance and CoCo_Pari.