A Call for Scholarship! Graduate students seeking an idea for a thesis or dissertation should consider a thorough study of Irvington's African-American population. This post will be insufficient and is merely an introduction. Work is needed!
When Jacob Julian and Sylvester Johnson platted Irvington in 1870 and later chartered the town in 1873 they envisioned a wealthy enclave away from the problems of the nearby city of Indianapolis. In fact, they put in strict covenants banning slaughterhouses, soap factories, and alcohol. They did not add laws regulating who could live in the neighborhood. That would come later. Most of the earliest white residents, who built large homes on expansive lots, were primarily native-born and Protestant. Catholics and immigrants would later move into the neighborhood, but African-Americans have lived in Irvington from day one. So who were these families and what do we know about their lives?
The 1880 Federal Census reveals that of the 567 residents of Irvington, at least 28 African-Americans or "mulattos" resided in the town. Most are listed as "servants" or "laborers." The vast majority of the black population hailed from Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina. Several children were born in Indiana. The census also reveals that Gabriel Boyd, an African-American farmer, was married to a white German woman named Christiana.
|Emma Cook holds Isabelle Layman in 1907. Ms. Cook worked for the Layman family at 5731 East Washington Street. Dozens of other African-Americans moved to Irvington to work for wealthy white families. (photo courtesy of Isabelle Layman Troyer)|
In 1887 the black population in Irvington was large enough to support a church. On July 3, 1887, the Reverend John L. Williams convened the first service at the Irvington Public School. By 1889, the church had a governing board composed of George Armstrong, Gabriel Boyd, and Jeremiah Brooks. The trustees sought funds to erect a structure and achieved that dream on May 17, 1891, when the congregation laid the cornerstone for a building at 5712 University Avenue. Over 1000 people assembled for the big event as African-Americans from other congregations attended the ceremony. Seven street cars full of people stopped at the Irvington Depot where families then walked down to the Irving Circle Park. Several pastors assisted the Reverend Charles Williams that day. Four separate black Masonic lodges sent members to the ceremony to assist with the cornerstone laying led by William T. Boyd and George Knox. Numerous residents donated money for the new church. The culminating moment came when the crowd marched behind a military band one block away to the new site. The Second-Empire style church complete with a mansard roof served until the congregation built a larger structure at 231 Good Avenue in 1910.
The Indianapolis Recorder, a black-owned publication, provided Hoosier communities an opportunity to submit news. Black reporters from Irvington faithfully sent in dispatches on the comings and goings of the neighborhood especially as it began to grow in the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century The updates reveal a vibrant community centered around church, clubs, and family. In 1899, the Recorder printed that Nellie Harris of the local chapter of the Booker T. Washington Literary Society read a paper titled, "A Message to the Negro Race." After her presentation, the club had the following debate: "Resolved, that the United States is justified in warring against the Natives in the Philippines." Burton Highbaugh stood for the affirmative while M. Garrison was opposed. The club then took a vote and decided that Mr. Garrison made the strongest case that the United States should not be at war with the Philippines. The club was open to both men and women.
Marshall "Major" Taylor, an Indianapolis athlete and an early black pioneer in the world of cycling, influenced thousands of young African-Americans to join the sport. Taylor won several races in North America and Europe despite the racism that he faced both on and off the track. The Indianapolis Recorder noted that several young black athletes in Irvington, inspired by Taylor, built a track near the neighborhood. In the summer of 1899, they held their first race. Participants included Woody Hedgepath, Jack Robinson, James Vincent, Phillip Tyree, and Carter Temple. Unfortunately, the race ended early after Carter Temple crashed and hurt himself. Woody Hedgepath was declared the winner.
|Marshall "Major" Taylor, the world-champion cyclist, did not live in Irvington but he inspired several young black athletes to build a cycling track near the neighborhood in 1899. (public domain)|
The black women of Irvington were active in church, clubs, and in the suffrage movement. Most of the reports to the Indianapolis Recorder came from local women like Catherine Evans, Bertha Carpenter, Hattie Webster, Euvilous Jenkins, Anna Billips, Louise Bass and others. They wrote of church picnics, recent passings, and who was on the sick list and who had recovered. In April of 1899, an unidentified Irvington reporter noted that the "Widow Tucker recently purchased a beautiful lot north of Washington Street." The author then went on to announce that the Reverends Harrison and D. Taylor's sermon topic at the Baptist church would be, " Pick the mote out of your own eye."
One of the most interesting events under the direction of African-America women in the neighborhood occurred in 1915 as a fundraiser for the First Baptist Church. Jennie Brock, who had been born into slavery and who had worked for several white families over the years in Irvington including the Johnsons, Ritters, Wades, and the Butlers came up with a startling idea. She proposed that they put on a "white" minstrel show. Minstrels were popular productions in the early twentieth century that lampooned black people. White actors frequently dressed in black face and mimicked or mocked African-Americans. The women of the church loved the idea and performed the show in early April of 1915. They whitened up their faces and imitated some of the most famous white women in America including Mrs. Potter Palmer, Mrs. Ava Willing Astor, Mrs. Wm. H. Vanderbilt, Mrs. Payne Whitney, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, and others. The church was packed and a local reporter for the Indianapolis News noted that the women discussed the "servant problem." Years later the white suffragette, Grace Julian Clarke, wrote of the event in one of her columns in the Indianapolis Star, however, she incorrectly reported that the women portrayed various white women in Irvington. There is no evidence of this and they would have likely lost their jobs had they done so.
|The congregation of the First Baptist Church moved to a larger structure at 231 Good Avenue in 1910. (photo taken in 2012)|
Several local black women participated in the suffrage movement in the early twentieth century. A blurb in the Indianapolis Recorder in 1916 noted that Mrs. Carrie Whallan, Lizzie Compton, and Minnie Highbaugh of Irvington attended the state convention at the Masonic Temple in downtown Indianapolis. They listened as the famous suffragette, Carrie Chapman Catt, delivered a speech titled, "Equal Suffrage: Foreign States." Steve Barnett, the director of the Irvington Historical Society, has been documenting other prominent black women from the neighborhood as well including Gertrude Mahorney, who was the first black woman to graduate from an Indiana college when she accepted her diploma in 1887.
Some black residents of Irvington attended nearby Butler University, but those numbers were small. Several young men from the neighborhood served their country during World War I but came home to an ungrateful nation. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana sent chills through the community. For Irvington's black population, they faced an ominous future after David Curtis Stephenson, the Grand Dragon of the KKK and the most powerful man in the state, moved into the community in the early 1920s. To add insult, most of the newer subdivisions north and west of original plat added racist covenants into their plans. Ethel Shearer's subdivision north of the Pleasant Run Golf Course in 1924 warned that:
(2) The ownership and occupancy of lots and buildings in this addition are forever restricted to the members of the pure white race. No negro, mulatto, Chinese, Japanese or person of any race or mixture of race, except the members of the pure white race, shall acquire title to any lot or building or part of lot or building in this Addition, or acquire the right to occupy any such lot or building or part of lot or building as owners, tenant, roomers or otherwise, except that the white occupant of any lot or lots and residence building thereon, may permit his domestic servant or servants not of the pure white race to occupy a room or rooms in his said residence building or in the second story of his garage apartment to his residence building, during the time of such domestic service
Arthur V. Brown's Ellenberger Park Addition north of Pleasant Run Parkway platted about the same time added the following racist covenant:
Fourth: That no negro or any person with negro blood shall own the premises or shall live other than as a servant on the same.
|While the original charter of Irvington did not contain racist covenants, later additions to the neighborhood like those located north of Pleasant Run Parkway forbade African-Americans from either building or living in those sections of Irvington.|
Years later when Shirley Rogers, an Indianapolis Star reporter interviewed local black residents, some recorded that they were fearful of the Klan during the 1920s and they felt the need to arm themselves. Despite the hatred leveled towards the community, Mary Leaks, who resided at 132 South Catherwood Avenue, noted that "Irvington used to be known as heaven on Earth until you died and went to heaven."
|In the summer of 1938, members of the First Baptist Church under the leadership of the Reverend Robert H. Noel gathered for a photograph. (photo courtesy of the Wagner family via Ancestry.com)|
I would like to thank James Robinson, the historian for the First Baptist Church for his assistance and guidance for this article. Mr. Robinson grew up in Irvington and knew many of the families mentioned in this post. I would also like to thank local historians Steve Barnett, Paul Diebold, and archivist, Paula Schmidt. To peruse digitized copies of the Indianapolis Recorder, click on the link below.
Sources: First Baptist Church: Brandon A. Perry, "Historic Black Church in Irvington Celebrates Legacy," Indianapolis Recorder, July 1, 2005, 11; Trustees in 1889--"Church Officers Elected," Indianapolis News, May 13, 1889, 1; Cornerstone Laying--"A Cornerstone Laid," Indianapolis News, May 18, 1891, 1; Literary Society debates--"Irvington Notes," Indianapolis Recorder, March 18, 1899, 1) Cycling--"From a Wheel," Indianapolis Recorder, June 17, 1899, 2; Irvington news in 1899--"Irvington Notes," Indianapolis Recorder, April 1, 1899, 1. White Minstrel--"Colored Church Women Stage White-Faced Minstrel Show," Indianapolis News, April 3, 1915 and Grace Julian Clarke, "More Early History of Irvington is Related," Indianapolis Star, October 25, 1925, 62. Suffrage--"Irvington Notes," Indianapolis Recorder, June 24, 1916, 2. Racist covenants: Abstract for 943 North Arlington Avenue, courtesy of Anne Hardwick. Abstract for 816 North Audubon Road, courtesy of Emily Jarzen. Later years--Shirley Rogers, "Church Holds History's Echoes," Indianapolis Star, May 17, 1971, 3.