Saving Places That Tell the Story of Indiana’s Black History

In Indianapolis, and near Angola and Union City, groups are working to preserve African American landmarks.

Indianapolis's Indiana Avenue thrived as a center of Black-owned business and culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries before highway construction and urban renewal projects destroyed many of its historic buildings. Today, the 1927 Madam Walker Building remains its most prominent landmark. (Photo: Evan Hale)

Saving What Remains

As the preservation movement gained momentum in the mid-twentieth century, too often it overlooked places associated with African American history. At the same time, many of those same places were under active attack, decimated by urban renewal, highway construction, discriminatory lending, and other destructive policies.

How do you tell the story of a place when so much of its physical fabric has been lost? As society comes to grips with the far-reaching legacy of racial injustice, preservationists in communities around Indiana are working to save what remains of several Black landmarks and ensure new development honors what came before.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Indianapolis’s Indiana Avenue was a prosperous hub of Black-owned business and culture—a thriving district of restaurants, churches, newspapers, offices, and a national epicenter for Black music boasting more than 30 jazz clubs. The area was famous enough to attract Madam C.J. Walker, who located her international haircare manufacturing business there, commissioning construction of a grand world headquarters building. Completed in 1927 after her death, the building remains the most prominent landmark on the Avenue.

By the 1960s and ‘70s, construction of Interstate 65 and expansion of Indiana University’s Indianapolis campus had wiped out many of the Avenue’s buildings and displaced residents from surrounding neighborhoods. “The preservation community has counted among the city’s greatest losses the destruction of the English Opera House and Marion County Courthouse,” says Indiana Landmarks President Marsh Davis. “To that list, I would add the willful dismantling and destruction of Indiana Avenue and adjacent neighborhoods.”

Today, only remnants of the original Avenue survive, surrounded by parking lots. “Where many see a blank slate, and what may look like an asphalt desert to people who are driving by on their way to downtown Indianapolis, represents for many of us a community where our great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents lived, worshipped, socialized, shopped, went to school and raised families and did so when they weren’t welcome in other parts of the city,” adds A’Lelia Bundles, journalist and great-great granddaughter of Madame C.J. Walker.

Rendering by Jeffery Tompkins showcases how an alternate design for new development along Indiana Avenue might draw on the area’s heritage.

In 2020, a proposal to tear down a three-story building for construction of a five-story apartment complex sparked dismay from neighborhood residents, Indiana Landmarks, and other community leaders, concerned that the development’s generic design neglected to take into consideration community input or consideration for the neighborhood’s heritage.

Spurred by the proposed development, Indiana Landmarks joined a team of heritage preservation and development experts to discuss how design along Indiana Avenue could serve as a catalyst for revitalizing the area while honoring its history. The developer later withdrew its proposal, and now the group—calling itself OG Ink—is bringing together local shareholders with national preservation and urban development leaders to deliberate Indiana Avenue’s rebirth and future development.

Elsewhere in the state, other groups are focusing on preserving sites associated with Black history.

In Randolph County, Union Literary Institute Preservation Society is exploring options for preserving a decaying brick building in the middle of a farm field, a former classroom for Union Literary Institute. Established by anti-slavery Quakers and free Blacks in 1846, the Institute was one of the first schools in the state to offer higher-level education to all students regardless of race, class, or gender. Students traveled from nearby Black settlements and from as far as Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Tennessee to study geography, math, Latin, and agriculture, working on the institute’s sprawling farm as payment. Its students included Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African American elected to federal office, and James Sidney Hinton, the first African American to become an Indiana state legislator.

Once a sprawling site with multiple buildings, today, the partially collapsed building is the only physical reminder of a once-sprawling campus. The building’s ruinous condition earned it a spot on Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list in 2020.

Growing up in the area, Brenda Jett was fascinated by the out-of-place building in the middle of a field, but no one could tell her its story. Her curiosity inspired her to join the board of the all-volunteer Union Literary Institute Preservation Society. While researching the school’s student rosters, Jett discovered a number of family names on the lists, though no one in her family had shared their connection with the institute. “I grew up out here and I didn’t know the history of the building,” says Jett. “A lot of ordinary individuals that attended here went on to do extraordinary things, and that heritage needs to be brought to the forefront.”

The society’s board members are considering options for preserving the structure, including partially reconstructing the school with salvaged brick or building a pavilion to surround and protect the ruins, while providing a space to interpret its history.

In northern Indiana, Fox Lake developed just outside of Angola in the early twentieth century as a resort community for African Americans, who were not allowed to vacation at white resort communities. Marion businessmen purchased land along the south side of the lake and formed the Fox Lake Land Company in 1924, marketing the property and selling lots to Black families. Drawing vacationers from Indianapolis, Detroit, Toledo, and Chicago, the community grew over the ensuing decades and today includes a collection of early twentieth-century cabins and cottages, along with Mid-Century Modern houses, the Mar-Fran Motel, and a beach pavilion. Today, it’s a rare survivor, believed to be one of only two still-standing African American lake resorts in the nation, along with Idlewild in Michigan.

Indianapolis resident Judy Ransom-Lewis’s childhood memories revolve around the lake, where she spent summer after summer with her grandparents at the lakeside cottage built by her grandfather. She remembers days spent swimming, fishing, hiking, going to dances and parties, and visiting with neighbors. “Fox Lake was just a safe place. We knew everybody,” says Ransom-Lewis. “It’s very dear to my heart.”

Fox Lake is still a thriving retreat, but property owners are concerned the overdevelopment that has changed the nature of similar lakefront communities in the area could encroach on Fox Lake. A new group, Fox Lake Preservation Foundation, wants to protect the historic resort community’s natural character and built heritage. An affiliate of Indiana Landmarks, the foundation is focusing on educating new residents at the lake and the surrounding community about the area’s heritage. The group is also considering expanding the boundaries of its National Register district to include its mid-century buildings and renovating a beach pavilion built in 1968.

The foundation’s board president, Kathryn Hawkins, an Indianapolis attorney, considers Fox Lake an integral part of her childhood and family history. Her paternal grandparents honeymooned at the lake, eventually buying the historic cottage that she now owns. “We have to take a proactive approach to protecting what makes Fox Lake so special and unique,” says Hawkins. “So many similar places around the country have been lost, but at Fox Lake you can still recognize it for what it once was. It represents such a unique and special piece of history for not only the residents there but for the outside world too.”

A condensed version of this article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Indiana Landmarks’ bi-monthly member magazine, Indiana Preservation.

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