Selling the Suburbs: Marketing Suburban Indianapolis with Sid Woods

Tarena Lofton

Woods hosted a concert at the Walker Casino in December, 1961 not long after arriving in Indianapolis.

Woods hosted a concert at the Walker Casino in December, 1961 not long after arriving in Indianapolis.

Having the ability to relate to people will open many doors in life, and Sid Woods possessed such qualities and used them to help sell some of Indianapolis’ earliest African-American suburbs. Living in an era of American history where opportunity was limited to those of color, Sid Woods managed to become a prominent figure in the African-American community.

In June, 1963 Woods appeared in an ad for Grandview Estates showing the progress of sales in the northwestern Indianapolis suburb.

In June, 1963 Woods appeared in an ad for Grandview Estates showing the progress of sales in the northwestern Indianapolis suburb.

Woods joined the African-American radio station WGEE in June, 1961. Prior to his move to the Indianapolis station Woods had 11 years of background in the radio industry. He started off working as a disc jockey in Norfolk, Virginia for three years. After Virginia he moved to Tennessee to work as a disc jockey at the leading African American radio station in the state. Prior to moving to Indianapolis, Woods had already made a name for himself; he was known as “The Gospel King of Tennessee” during his time in Tennessee. Continue reading

Grandview Drive Residential Histories

An Augusta Way advertisement from 1956.

An Augusta Way advertisement from 1956.

Perhaps the best-known African-American suburbs in Indianapolis were centered along Grandview Drive in the city’s northwest side.  In 1946 Henry Greer (1894-1996) and wife Della Wilson Greer (1890-1979) moved into a newly built home at 6309 Grandview Drive, an area that was then mostly in the midst of farm fields and undeveloped property.  A few farmhouses were scattered throughout the area as well as a couple houses along Grandview Drive (for, instance, the home at 6404 Grandview Drive appeared on the 1937 aerial view of the neighborhood, and the stables at 1005 West 64th had been built).  The surrounding properties would eventually be the heart of a series of predominately African-American suburbs that went under a wide range of names, including Augusta Way, Grandview Estates, Grandview Terrace, Northshire Estates, and Greer-Dell Estate.  This page links to a PDF inventory of some of the earliest residents in the Grandview neighborhood as a preliminary step examining who built and settled these homes and how long households lived in the neighborhood (compare a similar inventory for the earliest residents of Flanner House Homes).

The Greers built their home on Grandview in 1946.  Henry Greer opened a liquor Store on North West Street in December, 1935, and his wife Della Wilson Greer was an art teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where she taught for 20 years beginning in 1936.  Dr. Edward Paul Thomas (1920-2001) and Ruby Leah Thomas (1921-2006) became their neighbors around 1952, settling in the home immediately south of the Greers at 6235 Grandview Drive.  At around the same time the fields between Michigan Road and Coburn Avenue were densely built up with suburban homes, but to the east of Coburn the area remained open fields until about 1955. Those fields east of Coburn became the Augusta Way subdivision, which was among the city’s earliest African-American suburbs.  The homes west of Coburn Avenue remained nearly exclusively White through the 1950’s, but lots west of Coburn began to appear in the Indianapolis Recorder by 1960, which suggests the neighborhoods to the west of Augusta Way began to integrate in the 1960s.

The earliest ad for Augusta Way appeared in December, 1955 from the Hughes Realty Company.

The earliest ad for Augusta Way appeared in December, 1955 from the Hughes Realty Company.

The earliest subdivision name in the neighborhood was Augusta Way, perhaps invoking the little town of Augusta that lay north along Michigan Road.  Augusta Way was first advertised in December, 1955 by Hughes Realty, who offered up 88 lots for the construction of ranch homes.  The developer of the subdivision, George W. Malter, named W.T. Ray as a sales agent in February 1956.  Ray almost instantly became the primary agent handling Augusta Way’s sales, offering up lots for $500 down.  A 1956 aerial photograph appears to reveal construction in only one lot in the subdivision, which became 1605 Kenruth Drive and was the home of W.T. Ray.  A block away and built at nearly the same time was Earl and Vanessie Seymour’s home at West 64th Street, which was advertised with a picture in November, 1957.

W.T. Ray had a profound influence on the African-American suburbs as one of Indianapolis’ most active real estate professionals, but he was also was among the most influential figures in Indianapolis’ postwar African-American housing and civil rights movement.  The Connecticut native spent much of his childhood in Caldwell, New Jersey, where his father William was the superintendent of an apartment house; the Rays were the sole African-American residents among 14 households including neighbors from Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Germany.  Ray studied business administration at Oberlin College and then Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and he was working in retail sales when he enlisted in the Army in 1941.  Ray served in the South Pacific in World War II, where he was in the segregated 93rd Division’s Chemical Warfare unit.

In September 1942 Ray married Alice Brokenburr in Arizona, where Ray was stationed at Fort Huachuca as a Chemical Warfare instructor.  Alice was the daughter of lawyer Robert Lee Brokenburr, who represented Madam CJ Walker and became Indiana’s first African-American state Senator in 1940, serving four more terms before he retired in 1964.  Alice Brokenburr attended Alabama State Teacher’s College, where she trained as a music teacher, and taught at Florida A&M in the early 1940s.  Ray became a real estate agent upon his return to Indiana after the war.  In 1947 Ray became President of the Indianapolis NAACP chapter.  Ray would become the first licensed African-American realtor in Indianapolis, and he served as an Executive Assistant to Governor Otis Bowen between 1973 and 1981.

Augusta Way homes began to be settled in 1959, but by that time homes on 64th Street, Grandview, and Greer-Dell had been completed.  Henry Greer apparently divided acreage adjoining his home and created Greer-Dell Drive, which was advertised at least once as Greer-Dell Estates.  In 1956, three homes were being completed on the south side of Greer-Dell Drive and two on Wood Knoll Drive.  On West 64th Street, about 11 homes had been completed in 1956.  For instance, long-time Madam Walker company Secretary Violet Reynolds and her husband David appeared in the city directory in 1957 at 1559 West 64th Street.

Eventually as Augusta Way lots were purchased with homes still being built until about 1967, subdivisions were opened north along Grandview Drive and north of the newly constructed Grandview Elementary School.  Some lots were advertised in October, 1962 as Grandview Estates; additional lots were sold as Grandview Terrace in July, 1965; and others were sold as Northshire Estates in April, 1966.

Most city directory entries in these neighborhoods do not begin until 1957, though a few appeared earlier. This table (PDF) lists the earliest heads of households who appeared in the city directory for most of the streets in Augusta Way, including 64th Street, Kenruth Drive, 63rd Street, and Sanwela Drive as well as some portion of Grandview Drive; it also includes Greer-Dell Drive and 65th Street.  Many of the earliest city directory entries in Augusta Way date to 1959, but by then some residents may have been in their home a year or two and some households had already appeared in the directory.

 

 Original research in this post was conducted by Derek Blice (Kenruth Drive), Johanneson Cannon (Grandview Drive), Tarena Lofton (Greer-Dell Drive), Jared Meunier (65th Street), Kyle Huskins (Sanwela Drive), Andrew Townsend (63rd Street).

Flanner House Homes Residential Histories 

These men were placing siding on their Flanner House Homes, probably in the 1950s (image University Library).

These men were placing siding on their Flanner House Homes, probably in the 1950s (image University Library).

While most analysis of postwar suburbanization is directed toward the fringes of cities, some similar housing movements were being undertaken in urban spaces emptied by urban renewal.  Perhaps the most interesting of these in Indianapolis is Flanner House Homes, a “self-help” sweat equity project that built homes in the near Westside as well as the eastside adjoining Douglass Park.  This page links to a PDF inventory of some of the earliest residents in Flanner House Homes as a preliminary step examining who built and settled these homes and how long households lived in the neighborhood.

Flanner House was founded in 1898 as a “settlement house” agency to assist Black residents arriving in the earliest waves of the Great Migration.  In 1936 Cleo Blackburn was hired as the Flanner House director, which he would head until his retirement in 1975.  In 1946 Blackburn conducted a study of 454 households on the African-American near-Westside and concluded that the neighborhood was “one of the most unsightly, unsanitary, and deteriorated sectors in the entire city of Indianapolis.”  Blackburn advised that it “is urgently recommended, that the clearance, planning, and redevelopment of this area under the Redevelopment Act of 1945 affords the only hope of correcting the conditions existing in the area. … Immediate steps should be taken by the Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission to declare the area blighted and to acquire, clear, and redevelop it.”

A 1954 Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission map of urban renewal tracts in the near-Westside Project A.

A 1954 Indianapolis Redevelopment Commission map of urban renewal tracts in the near-Westside included Project A, which would include the space occupied by Flanner House Homes.

The Redevelopment Commission purchased a 178-acre tract north of Crispus Attucks High School in November 1946, referred to as Project A, and after displacing the residents (none of whom were guaranteed acceptance into Flanner House Homes) they turned it over to Blackburn and Flanner House.  Flanner House Homes built “sweat equity” housing in which male head of households constructed their homes and the homes of their neighbors (women could not participate in home construction). Construction began in 1950 by a series of men whose families had been exhaustively reviewed by Flanner House, leaving Flanner House solidly peopled by middle-class African Americans.

This table (PDF) lists the earliest heads of households who appeared in the city directory for Flanner House Homes on Lynn Drive and Fall Creek Parkway East, which sat on the northern and western edges of the Flanner House Homes community.  Homes on these streets did not appear in the city directory until 1957, but it it is possible that some of these homes were settled before then.  Each table in this report includes the addresses and names as they are provided in the city directories, so there may be some mis-spelled names or mis-numbered houses.

Original research in this post was conducted by Hadya Sow and Lynette Taylor.