by Kyle Huskins
In July, 1926 the Indianapolis Recorder complained that they could only reserve space or visit the city’s “Jim Crow” park, Douglass Park. This would remain true into the 1960’s.
Douglass Park is one of the most historic parks in Indianapolis. It is named after the African-American intellectual Frederick Douglass, who played a pivotal role in the abolitionist movement and is one of the most recognizable African-American scholars of his time. The name of the park honors his memory and there is a mural of him on the wall of the Family Center. Douglass Park is located on the east side of Indianapolis. The address is 1611 East 25th Street in the midst of the Martindale-Brightwood community. Now the park is easily accessible from the Monon Trail and features a playground, tennis courts, picnic facilities, baseball diamonds, basketball courts, football fields and a paved fitness trail. During the summer months the pool opens and many eastsiders enjoy the pool facilities. Douglass Park also has a family center that provides surrounding youth with after-school programs and events for the community. The history of the prestigious park is a topic that has not gotten a lot of scholarly attention. Learning about the history of the park will enhance the level of prominence that this park has secured and acknowledge its service to the African-American community.
The Park opened in 1921, and after a 1941 expansion it today spans 43 acres. Much of the park’s heritage is linked to the city’s racial and discriminatory history. When Douglass Park was opened it was designated solely for African Americans, and African Americans were not allowed to attend other parks. In July, 1926 the Indianapolis Recorder reported that its representatives tried to obtain a permit to have a picnic at Brookside Park, but after being questioned excessively by the clerk they were denied times to hold the picnic. The paper’s representatives had attended prior events at Brookside Park and found their experience very enjoyable. After asking questions that the clerk could not answer, the clerk ushered them to the Superintendent of Parks’ office. Superintendent R. Walter Jarvis informed them that Douglass Park was the “Jim Crow Park” and he steadily insisted that Douglass Park was a nice area for its “colored citizens” (he had made the same argument in print in The Playground in 1923). The representatives from the Recorder did not obtain a permit for a picnic and were told by the superintendent that African Americans should go to Douglass Park to limit animosity. Continue reading
by Jared Meunier
Visit Indy recently proposed to build beaches along the White River, an idea taken from the Parisian river Seine. The White River has been used in the past for recreational swimming. However, since the White River contains so much e. coli bacteria (often 100 more times than is safe for swimming), this would clearly be a cause of concern for most citizens looking for safe and clean places to swim such as public pools.
A 1937 aerial view of Douglass Park includes the swimming pool (left center, above the two baseball diamonds) as well as the segregated golf links.
For much of the 20th century Indianapolis’ only public African-American swimming pool was Douglass Park. Built in 1921, Douglass Park was a center for many of the state’s segregated swim meets and swimming carnivals. The Douglass Park “swimming carnivals” (apparently first held in 1931) had various swimming and poolside social activities at events that were held during the middle of August. In 1938, for instance, events like diving and freestyle and backstroke swim races would draw a great crowd of people. The Indianapolis Recorder reported that the 1931 swimming carnival was highlighted by two “greasy watermelon contests” that ended the carnival’s main events (carnivals featuring pie-eating, sack races, and greased watermelon contests continued at local pools until at least the late 1970s).
Perhaps Douglass Park’s first Swimming Carnival was in August, 1931.
In 1937 Douglass Park Pool’s lifeguard Otis Watts became the first of the park’s lifeguards to receive the most outstanding lifeguard award in the city of Indianapolis. The lifeguarding selection was from over 50 lifeguards throughout the entire city and the Recorder perceived it as quite an honor. The hope from this award was for the city to patronize the Douglass Park Pool. However, in 1964 the Recorder called the Douglass Park Pool a “community eyesore,” providing graphic images of the deterioration of the pool’s showers and toilets and demanding it be renovated. Three years later the Douglass Park Pool was renovated and was said to be “one of the city’s finest.” Continue reading
by Andy Townsend
Urban renewal in Indianapolis had been ongoing for decades when, in 1966, a Congressman from Indiana submitted legislation before the U.S. Congress intended to provide relief for those displaced by the construction of the interstate system. The bill not only called for a fair price for their property, but compensation that would allow them to relocate into a situation similar to what they were forced to abandon in the name of “progress.” Andrew Jacobs Jr. entitled his bill “Homes Before Highways.” Jacobs was a rising star in the U.S. Congress and a strong Civil Rights advocate. The bill he championed was intended to alleviate some of the hardships faced by those obliged to relocate due to urban development projects such as the construction of the interstate highway system and the expansion of IUPUI. Among other things it “would prohibit the acquisition of land or construction of public works until adequate and comparable replacement homes and churches are available to the displaced.” The city largely chose minority neighborhoods to develop because they were the most “blighted” and their property the cheapest to acquire. However, decades of segregation restricted where the “displaced” could relocate.
Community activist Mozel Sanders proposed a “selective buying campaign” to repsond to highway displacement inequalities. He is shown here in an April 1967 picket of stores that did not hire African Americans, part of a long tradition of “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns.
Those supporting Jacob’s bill, including Marion County Democratic chairman James Beatty, Rev. Andrew Brown, and Rev. Mozel Sanders, established a community organization in its name. Their goals are expressed in a 1966 article in the Indianapolis Recorder: “to protect the rights of elderly and undereducated Negroes who are, it has been charged, being exploited by shady real estate dealers and fly-by-night landlords and coerced by university and highway officials.” Homes Before Highways was a grassroots movement whose members believed that marginalized people were paying a disproportionate share on behalf of the majority.
The Homes Before Highways Commission protested in several ways. In 1966, for instance, the group’s resistance to an elevated highway wall was reflected in a “selective buying campaign” against downtown businesses that would continue until “the establishment in the downtown area recognizes that when they wall themselves in, they also wall their customers out.” The assertive style of the HBHC was somewhat uncommon for African Americans in Indianapolis, who generally believed they could better achieve their goals from working within the system (an argument outlined in Richard Pierce’s Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970). Continue reading