Indiana Avenue: free family entertainment

Indiana Avenue, a historic area in downtown Indianapolis, was home to much of the African American population in the early 1800’s. One of six cultural districts in the city, it encompasses an area between the Central Canal and White River and includes the Indiana University Purdue University campus. After the Civil War, craftspeople, entertainers, and professionals were free to open businesses here, such as Smother’s grocery store, William Franklin’s peddler shop, and the first African American newspaper in 1879. Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME), the oldest African American congregation in Indianapolis, was organized in 1836, and the church was completed in 1869. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it served as a meeting place for the NAACP and the Underground Railroad movement. Indiana Avenue rapidly became a thriving commercial and cultural district with 33 restaurants, 33 saloons, and 17 beauty and barbershops. The growth of the district in the early 1900’s may be compared with New York’s Harlem Renaissance, where musicians, lyricists, and bandleaders such as Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Count Basie, and Noble Sissle performed along the Avenue in a city that was home to jazz.

Gradually, other avenues in different areas of Indianapolis opened up to the black population. As residents moved and once prosperous businesses closed, the area suffered culturally and economically. Many of the original buildings were either abandoned or demolished, making way for office space. However, much of the art and architecture along Indiana Avenue still reflects the African American heritage of jazz. John Spaulding’s Untitled (Jazz Musicians), located at North and Martin Luther King Jr. Streets, consists of five bronze sculptures of jazz musicians: the guitarist represents his father James Spaulding, his brother James Jr. on sax, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Ray Appleton on drums, and Larry Ridley on bass. Another sculpture by Spaulding, a collage of brass musical instruments, is located at the Lockefield Gardens Apartment Complex. Other architecture along the Avenue include Glory by Barry Gibbs, representing the old Miller Center, the AME church, a contrast between the old and the new, and the Walker Theater, an impressive example of African American art deco.

One of the most notable persons from Indiana Avenue was Madam C.J. Walker, the philanthropist and entrepreneur who developed the first line of hair care and beauty products for black women. Born Sarah Breedlove to a former slave family, this remarkable woman went from picking cotton, washing clothes, and cooking for others to residing in her own grand villa in Irvington on Hudson in New York state. Through determination and hard work, Madam Walker founded the Walker Manufacturing Company in 1906, which became the largest African American business in the U.S. by 1917. This self-made millionaire left 2/3 of her estate to Tuskegee Institute, the NAACP, and Bethune College, and served as an inspiration for many other African Americans. The Madame Walker Theater Center, constructed in 1927, was opened by her daughter A’Lelia as a Center for the manufacturing business, a place to socialize, and a performance arena for jazz musicians. Although the Walker Building fell into disrepair, it was restored in 1988 and is now considered the Indianapolis center for cultural and performing arts from the African American perspective.

The 2007 program schedule for the Walker Theater includes Jazz on the Avenue on the 4th Friday of each month, Downtown Live on the 1st Friday of each month (admission $10), and Laughin on the Avenue, the last Tuesday of the month. In addition to concerts, plays, lectures, banquets, book signings and writers’ symposiums, the event calendar is filled with commemorations and celebrations in story and song about the African American people and their history. A majority of these programs are free and provide entertainment for the entire family.

Many of the graduates from the area’s first high school Crispus Attucks, which opened in 1927, became leaders in our nation’s history of sports, science, business, and music. There is a museum behind the high school, now known as Crispus Attucks Medical Magnet School, at 1140 Martin Luther King Jr. Street. Four galleries and 70 exhibits of school year books, sports memorabilia, and photographs from 1927 to 1986 focus on African Americans and their achievements. Open Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., for self-guided tours. Admission is free and guided tours are available by calling 317-226-2432 in the Indianapolis area.

A small .28-acre park with a few picnic tables in a three-block area of single story frame houses is about all that remains of Ransom Place, a once prestigious neighborhood. Listed on the National Register, it was named after Freeman Ransom, a business and civic leader who made his home here in 1910. Redevelopment of other areas in this historical district, however, is ongoing and visitors can enjoy a variety of art, culture, and entertainment along Indiana Avenue today.

Madam Walker Theater Tours: Monday through Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Groups of 10 or more, adults – $5.00, children $3.00. Student discounts. Tickets at Box Office and online. Ph: 317-236-2099. Theater parking lot.

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