It wasn’t until the 19th century that African Americans began a northern migration to escape the challenges that had plagued an entire race of people. Settling along Indiana Avenue and the surrounding area in the mid-1830s, they lived among other Hoosiers who chose that area because of its proximity to jobs, railroads and the Central Canal.
The African-American population was small in comparison to the number of German and Irish residents, who were the dominant cultures and owned the majority of businesses along Indiana Avenue. But by 1870, the African-American population had risen to 974, more than one-third of the city’s total African-American population. As the population grew throughout the city, Indiana Avenue became the African-American hub of worship, work and living.
African Americans came to Indianapolis with great skills and soon put them to work as they sought opportunities to improve their quality of life. The first group of African-American entrepreneurs opened for business in the 500 block of Indiana Avenue as early as 1865. Samuel G. Smother was a grocer, William Franklin sold dry goods, and the city’s first African-American owned and operated newspaper, The IndianapolisLeader, went to press in 1879. Founded in 1897, The Indianapolis Recorder continues to highlight local, state and national African-American achievements, events and issues.
In time, other African-American professionals joined the Indiana Avenue business community, completing the range of services available. Dentists, doctors, attorneys, restaurants — you name it, the Avenue had it. Furthering the region’s growth as an African-American hub, the Great Migration of the early 1900s brought thousands of African Americans to Indiana, specifically to the area around Indiana Avenue.
At the height of the jazz era, more than 33 jazz clubs and bistros lit up the Avenue. Local artists such as Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Coe, Noble Sissle, Erroll “Groundhog” Grandy and Wes Montgomery cut their teeth on Indiana Avenue and went on to make enormous contributions to the jazz world. Jazz greats J.J. Johnson, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Count Basie also performed in Indiana Avenue clubs.
Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker’s rise from harsh poverty to become America’s first self-made female millionaire brought much fame to the Avenue. Her business savvy and successful line of hair care products led her to move the company headquarters to Downtown Indianapolis in 1910. Indiana Avenue grew into a training ground for young professionals interested in various trades, from selling Walker products to assimilating the newest art form — jazz — into the neighborhood.
Madam Walker began developing the Walker Building prior to her death in 1919. The four-story flatiron building originally was planned as the corporate headquarters and factory for the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, but when the doors opened in 1927, it had become much more. It housed a drug store, beauty salon, beauty school, restaurant, professional offices, ballroom and a 1,500-seat theater.