INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Black history sits on 43 acres of land on East 25th Street in Indianapolis, where Frederick Douglass Park first opened in 1921.
The Martindale-Brightwood community is preparing to celebrate the park’s centennial, but before that, FOX59’s Beairshelle Edmé sat down with black Hoosiers and community leaders who played in and went to Douglass Park when it was the only place they were allowed.
“We weren’t allowed to go to the other parks, to Garfield (Park), or the other parks here in the city,” detailed Frankie Casel-Baker, a 78-year-old, longtime resident of the community.
Carmen Helms, 66, also remembers when being black meant being blacklisted from dozens of Indianapolis public parks.
“Riverside (Park), we were chased out of there with people with pellet guns, and at Brookside (Park) too,” Helms described. “We were walking home from school, we would actually walk from here to (Arsenal) Tech (High School). We would walk home, and they would chase you with pellet guns and tell you ‘so and so’ get out of here, you don’t belong over here.”
One IUPUI anthopology professor found Indianapolis politicians designed it that way. In 1919, about 20 Indianapolis public parks were commissioned.
“The mayor and most of the city administration in the wake of World War I were very committed to the expansion of the park system, but they were always committed to the segregation of it along the color line,” Paul Mullins explained.
By 1921, Indianapolis politicians opened Frederick Douglass Park, the city’s black park.
“The time I was coming up, a lot of schools were still whites on one side, blacks on the other, and here (Douglass Park), you could come and just be yourself,” said Helms, a co-chair of the Friends of Douglass organization. “It was very good. It’s a peace. It’s just a peace that you really can’t explain. Just a calm.”
For black Hoosiers, Douglass Park meant freedom, fittingly so since it’s named after one of the nation’s first abolitionists.
“This is where our kids could come and get educated” said Casel-Baker, president of the Friends of Douglass organization. “They could come and play.”
Helms added, “Oh, it was wonderful. The pool, the pool, the pool! That was it, the pool. And then running track over here and playing softball.”
And while white Hoosiers could come swim at Douglass, even after integration, Helms couldn’t swim at other city public pools.
“Water is always symbolically one of those things that was most contested during integration,” the professor detailed. “You (as a black Hoosier) decided to go swimming in this city, you could go to the Senate Avenue YMCA. You could go to Douglass Park, or you could go in the White River in Fall Creek.”
Today, black Hoosiers can go to any of the city’s 212 parks.
“We’ve come a long way in this area. It took a whole lot of fighting and carrying on,” the 78-year-old community activist said.
Casel-Baker and Helms say they are still fighting.
The Friends of Douglass board members want to grow the facilities, but as we get closer to the park’s 100th birthday, they take pride in this rich history.
“Oh, I’m so happy about it darling,” exclaimed Casel-Baker, who also serves as the Oak Hill Civic Association president. “It’s amazing to see where you come from to where you are.”
“We are literally walking in his steps,” Helms reflected. “To keep walking in his steps in the right direction, to make it a bigger and better place, it’s worth everything.”
The Friends of Douglass hope to reinvest in the park and community center ahead of the 100th anniversary.
If you’re interested in connecting with the Friends of Douglass, please email Beairshelle at Edme@FOX59.com for more information.
To learn about activities and resources at on Douglass Park, visit Indy Parks.