In the segregated world of the 20th century, a street called Indiana Avenue came to symbolize the identity and aspirations of Indianapolis’s black citizens.
“It was the heart and soul of the African-American community,” says David Leander Williams, author of “Indianapolis Jazz.”
From the late 1800s, “the Avenue” offered a vibrant residential, commercial and cultural environment for a growing black population. The middle class built homes there, entrepreneurs built businesses and entertainers built a jazz reputation that rivaled Kansas City’s and New York’s.
Although its history is a source of pride, Indiana Avenue was a cultural nucleus by default rather than choice.
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Early settlers had avoided the area because it was close to White River and believed to be a breeding ground for insects and disease. German and Irish immigrants and blacks moved there because it was all they could afford.
The first black-owned business opened on the Avenue in 1865, the year the Civil War ended. By 1870, close to 1,000 African Americans — a third of the city’s black residents — lived there. By 1916, there were 142 homes, 33 restaurants, 26 grocery stores, 16 clothing shops and a medical practice started by a black physician, Dr. Joseph H. Ward.
Success breeds success, and Indiana Avenue was no exception. Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana in 1867, became one of the country’s wealthiest women after developing a line of hair-care products including scalp ointment and hair soap. In 1910, she moved her business to Indianapolis because of the city’s access to railroads and highways and the avenue’s reputation as a good place for folks with enterprise.
The Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Co. incorporated in Indiana in 1911. Walker lived in a house adjacent to her factory on West Street right off Indiana Avenue.
After Walker’s death in 1919, her daughter took over the firm and oversaw an expansion that included construction of a new headquarters at 617 Indiana Avenue in 1927. The African-inspired building with terra cotta trim was the crown jewel of the neighborhood, housing not only the Walker offices and factory but a community center with a 944-seat theater, ballroom, beauty shop and drug store.
During its first year, the theater hosted such black entertainers as blues queen Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds and the Whitman Sisters. The Blackbirds, an orchestra led by Indianapolis pianist Reginald DuValle, was a local favorite.
Over the next two decades, Indiana Avenue enjoyed a Golden Age of jazz. More than 20 clubs did a lively business, attracting black and white audiences and frequent visits from big-name performers the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton and Miles Davis.
Indiana Avenue created big names, too, among them trombone player J.J. Johnson, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, guitarist Wes Montgomery and saxophonist Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson, all Indianapolis natives.
The Avenue “was very much like a section of Harlem, with two or three major ballrooms and clubs dotted all the way from Ohio Street and Indiana Avenue to Lockefield Gardens (a public housing project),” said David Baker, the late and renowned Indiana University professor, jazz composer and virtuoso trombonist who started his career there. “It was the center of black culture, a place where music played six nights a week, all night long.”
Today, few buildings from Indiana Avenue’s past remain, most torn down to make way for newer developments such as the IUPUI college campus. The Madame Walker Theater Centre is the only remaining landmark, still serving as a cultural center, depository of black history and performance venue.
The Madame Walker Theatre Center is at 617 Indiana Avenue, Indianapolis.
This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.