INDIANAPOLIS — Sounds of traffic and many cars passing through are not uncommon along Indiana Avenue.
While this popular stretch of road is home to iconic landmarks, like the Madam Walker building, there’s so much more than what meets the eye.
“What you see today is a footprint that has nothing to do, for the most part, with the past,” said Susan Hall Dotson, African American collections curator with the Indiana Historical Society.
Since the early 1800s, Hall Dotson said Indiana Avenue was considered the mecca of the Black community, despite it being one of the least desirable places to be along the canal.
“When African Americans were coming to Indianapolis and settling in this part of Indiana, they lived in a number of places, but that seemed to be the place where Blacks started to migrate to,” she said. “Even though there were other smaller Black communities within Indianapolis, that was the largest and one of the oldest.”
“There were early Irish and German immigrants there first,” she said, “and as they moved to better conditions and higher ground if you will, African Americans came.”
Indiana Avenue would become its own neighborhood for Black people, along with its surrounding streets. Hall Dotson said the area consisted of Black businesses, homes and entertainment, making for a vibrant and thriving community within itself.
“It’s not just relegated to one street, it’s surrounding streets. Vermont, California, West Street,” she said, “and that’s where people lived. They worked. They played. It was full of commerce, entertainment, culture, families, education. All were happening within the neighborhood that surrounds this long street of Indiana Avenue.”
However, with time, things started to eventually change. Around the early 60’s and 70’s, Hall Dotson said people started moving out, whether by choice or force.
“Segregation and Jim Crow starts to shift. So those who can, as segregation starts to kind of ebb and flow a little bit, they move,” she said. “It’s the American dream. We moved to new spaces, better housing. There’s a lot of old housing stock at that time, but we also get pushed out of places, and that is one of the biggest parts of the Indiana Avenue story.”
“The hospital and the university wanted to expand,” she said. “So they started to buy up and buy out and push people out of what had been a very vibrant and productive neighborhood in Indianapolis.”
Hall Dotson said urban renewal with the highways also contributed to the dismantling of the area, cutting through big parts of surrounding neighborhoods.
“A lot of that undermined the productivity of a neighborhood and totally disregarded where people were,” she said, “but there’s still elements that exist today, but not as much as it did, say pre-1970.”
“It’s not as though history has been lost as it is history was not being remembered,” said Claudia Polley, president of Urban Legacy Lands Initiative.
Through ULLI, preserving and sharing that history is their goal. As a new non-profit for the city, Polley said they are committed to helping promote and educate the community on local Black history, especially along Indiana Avenue.
This week, Polley announced ULLI was the recipient of $1.6 million in grants thanks to the Mellon Foundation and Lilly Endowment Inc.
That money, Polley said, will also go toward helping share Indiana Avenue’s story.
“People love this area. They love this street. They wanted to be a part of it. We want to make that the way it is again,” Polley said.
Brainstorming is still in the early stages, but Polley said they are looking to work with businesses and the community, past, present and future, to help highlight the history of what came before.
“There are a lot of families that used to live where we now have IUPUI, and some of those families are still around and they get to tell their stories,” she said. “We hope that any new building that comes along here has components that not only tell the story, but involve some of the families, and people and businesses that were here before.”
“It would be very smart of us to have some sort of visitor center or visitors place,” she added. “There is no visitors center in downtown Indianapolis that talks about what was here, and the Cultural Trail goes right through this area. To tell the story of how Indianapolis came to be is a very important part of what we’d like to do.”
Polley said ULLI will be working to put together a board and advisors to help determine the next steps and put their best foot forward for the projects ahead.
“It’s a great founding that the Mellon Foundation and the Lilly Endowment Inc. have given us, so we get a chance to take a breath and think,” she said.