Indiana Avenue tells an important part of the story of African American life in Indianapolis, much of which was centered here on the near northwest side of the downtown area. In 1860, the African American population of Indianapolis numbered only 498, but just forty years later it reached more than 15,000, with the center of the African American community already firmly entrenched in and around Indiana Avenue.
The Beginnings of Indiana Avenue
Originally swampy land, believed to be unhealthy because of its location near the Central Canal and the White River, the Indiana Avenue area went largely undeveloped until the nineteenth century when it began to evolve into an industrial center populated by mostly by white residents. Then, beginning in the 1860s following the Civil War, African Americans migrating north into Indianapolis and facing segregation settled on this stretch of land. Before long, a thriving African American community developed, due in part to the area's geographic isolation. Because segregation and prevailing negative attitudes towards African Americans still defined this era, the residents of Indiana Avenue had to become self sufficient and provide for their basic needs.
Perhaps the most influential and dominant aspect of life on Indiana Avenue for the first half of the twentieth century was its lively nightlife and music scene. When jazz began to emerge in 1915 as a popular musical form, rooted in African American culture, Indiana Avenue stood poised to play a major role. Helped along by brothers Denver and Sea Ferguson, who owned several clubs and a booking agency, “The Avenue” hosted national names like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie, and cultivated local talent like Noble Sissie, Errol Grandy, Wes Montgomery, and Jimmy Coe. As a result, Indiana Avenue grew into one of the premier music scenes, rivaling other larger cities like Chicago and Kansas City.
Crown Garden Theatre (1880s-1950s)
The 400 block’s jewel, Crown Garden Theatre, catered to the neighborhood’s black residents. With the stage abutting the canal, entertainment seekers entered through a foyer off the avenue and entered a world where boxing events occurred during weekdays and vaudeville shows on weekends. Often African American actors, such as Susie Sutton, performed routines in which they impersonated Italian opera singers and Spanish dancers. These weekend shows drew the largest crowds, as they hosted such acts as Jelly Roll Morton before he became famous. Ex-vaudevillian Timothy Owsley operated the theatre until he departed for the Southwest in the 1940s. By then, Crown Garden had been transformed into a movie house—the Washington Theatre.
George’s Bar (1940s-1960s)
Located at 511-513, George’s regularly supplied late-night jazz enthusiasts with jam sessions. Hosting such acts as Les (Count) Fisher—nicknamed by mentor Count Basie—and soon-to-be jazz greats like Freddie Hubbard, George’s consistently brought in both Midwestern black and white audiences. Local bands like guitarist Wes Montgomery and his brothers often kept patrons of all ethnicities enthralled at George’s.
The Civil Rights Era through Today
As the Civil Rights Movement progressed, expanding job opportunities and housing availability pulled and pushed residents from the Avenue and its jazz scene disappeared. While the Walker Theatre continues to anchor the district’s entertainment scene, it primarily performs formal large-scale productions. Indianapolis residents must travel across town to the Jazz Kitchen or the Chatterbox for more intimate jazz escapes. As you gaze up and down the Avenue today, envision a thriving entertainment tableau where jazz melodies streamed from brick edifices and across the Central Canal.