Fort Wayne Developer Paved the Way for Black Builders

Roosevelt Barnes Sr. fought racial barriers to offer quality housing to Black homeowners in the 1950s-70s.

Fort Wayne homebuilder Roosevelt Barnes Sr. developed houses in what became known as the city’s Southern Heights neighborhood, including the home (above) of plumbing contractor Harold Stith and his wife, Hana, a local schoolteacher. PHOTOs © ARCH, Inc.

Building Hope

The road to construction wasn’t always smooth for minority builders in Indiana, who encountered discrimination and roadblocks from banks, local government, and neighbors. Despite these challenges, Black homebuilder Roosevelt Barnes Sr. persevered to develop a neighborhood of Ranch houses and more on Fort Wayne’s southeast side in the 1950s-70s.

Roosevelt Barnes, Sr.

Barnes moved to the city from Alabama as a teenager, working at the Studebaker and International Harvester factories while moonlighting at secondary jobs that eventually gave him the skills to establish his own plastering and construction companies. His reputation as a builder prompted Black families to hire him to construct custom-built homes in what became known as the city’s Southern Heights neighborhood, an area where redlining practices had restricted African American families from owning and developing property.

In 2023, a coalition of organizations partnered to bring greater recognition to Barnes’ local legacy, including the Fort Wayne committee of Indiana Landmarks Black Heritage Preservation Program (ILBHPP), local preservation affiliate ARCH, Inc., the African American Genealogical Society of Fort Wayne, and the African/African-American Historical Society & Museum.

Supported by a ILBHPP grant, the group undertook a survey of Barnes-built homes, starting with a list of homes credited to him in the Southern Heights neighborhood. Committee members researched the properties to confirm their provenance, taking photos of still-standing homes and conducting interviews with homeowners, many of whom are original owners or their descendants.

They shared stories of how their families were denied home loans by banks, and how Barnes would use his own money to finance materials and subcontractors until he could receive payment, often at a project’s end. When the City would not grant him licensing to proceed, Barnes took his case to court at the state level to get permission to build. He continued to face other challenges, as vandals sabotaged equipment, broke windows, and threw paint on homes under construction. Barnes fought the discrimination, paving the way locally for fair housing and building practices.

“Hearing what these people were up against in trying to build a house, Barnes was their saving grace,” says local genealogist and committee member Roberta Ridley. “He did more than just give them a home, he helped to provide them pride of ownership and hope.”

Last fall, the committee shared its research at a public talk. Members are considering ways to further recognize Barnes’ work in Southern Heights and elsewhere in the city, where he also constructed churches and a grand estate called “The Hill,” completed in 1972 for Dr. James and Marjorie Graham. In the ’70s, he also opened a grocery store to improve access to food in the middle of town. Beyond Fort Wayne, Barnes worked as general contractor remodeling all Indiana’s Merry Miller Manor nursing homes.

“He was a remodeler. Then he decided, ‘I think I can build some houses, so others have a better way of living,’” says daughter Ann Barnes-Smith, who moved with her family to Southern Heights to live in one of her father’s designs when she was in elementary school. “He was always a visionary and he worked with clients to figure out what they wanted. I’m so glad everything he worked so long for is being remembered.”

This article first appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Indiana Preservation, Indiana Landmarks’ member magazine. Learn more and subscribe.

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