Celebrating Black History

Celebrating Black History: The legacies of Black businesses in Indianapolis

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — In the late 1800s there was a cultural shift in racial demographics in Indianapolis.

Black neighbors made up one third of the population. Black entrepreneurs opened businesses on every corner. There was another migration in the 1900s creating family legacies.

Milton Thompson is an attorney and community leader. His father O.C. Thompson and uncle LaSalle Thompson Sr. opened the Unit Step Company in the late 1950s.

“He worked for the form company in Illinois. And when he learned that they had a franchise available to their form company. They said what’s the territory that’s available. So there’s one in Indianapolis my dad [said] so let’s go,” Thompson said. “Southeastern Avenue was not too far from Greenfield Indiana…It was really known as the home of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Barbara Thompson King is the oldest daughter of LaSalle Thompson Sr. She remembers her father taking her and her siblings for rides around the city to show them what the company was working on and how the business worked.

“Daddy talked to mayors, people downtown, people that at that time weren’t looked upon to just network with anybody….Daddy’s contacts came from people that knew him by the business that he and my uncle had.” Thompson King said. “My mom worked out there. Her and my Aunt Mary went to Tech High School to work the accounting. They took care of books. They did the taxes. They learned how to roll the checks out…They did all of that until it became good enough that they could hire own tax person.”

Black entrepreneurs like the Thompson brothers, owning what would equate now to a million-dollar business, wasn’t common. It provided a chance to get closer to the American dream.

“When folks would come there he was quite wary of those folks and they would say, well, where the boss at? And my dad would humbly reply, ‘the boss is in Florida.’ Basically saying ‘So let’s get on with business What do you want from me?’,” he said. “The business acumen he had and the self sacrifice that he had to even deny himself, of the ownership of his own business, so that he could take that next step… I learned a lot from that.”

The Thompson’s continued to become more and more well known. Ebony magazine came to cover the growing company.

“He [LaSalle] just worked really, really hard to make that company what it was. From coming here [Indianapolis] until the article was written. It was a big deal,” Thompson King said.

Thompson said his father and uncle starting the family business during a difficult time in the country taught him that legacy requires an imprint.

“My dad’s resistance was, ‘how do we get more education and how do we create more opportunities?’ And ‘how do we chase the capitalistic side of what our opportunities are and think about tearing them down and burning them down?’,” Thompson said.

The Thompson family’s legacy came in making custom steps for the place Indianapolis Colts called home for 24 seasons.

“The Hoosier Dome was a first-time deal but to actually have contractors that go in there and actually put their products in there,” Thompson said.

“Daddy’s contacts came from people that knew him by his by the business that he and my uncle had. People would say, ‘well you know what –  I know somebody that’s very good at what they do and they can handle this’,” Thompson King said.

Project after project came. A community was created and in decades to come other businesses arose.

“Grand Slam companies or sports ventures businesses; we were the general counsel for the Pan American Games which led to a lot of international businesses including international distribution licenses that were for the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, the…we can go on and on with those commodities and how we would sell them and make them work,” Thompson said.

Thompson and Thompson King said the lesson that they hope to be passed throughout the years is that every person has the ability to impact the future.

“You could cower in fear or you can take the opportunities and make the best of it, and then pay it forward, pass it on,” Thompson said. “Look at those who’ve gone before you.. say we can do this.”

“I am proud of my daddy. I will be proud of him forever because I know what he did and I know how hard he worked to make it so that other people could see that an African American person can do this and we can leave our legacy here for other people to see,” Thompson King said. “He was always proud of what his children and grandchildren were doing. He just thought it was so wonderful that they could be in a business and that they could be in business too. “

There were other notable household names that really broke barriers for Black businesses and the community in Indianapolis.

Companies like Mays chemicals, businessmen like Henry Bundles, the long time president of the Center of Leadership and Development and Dr. Frank Lloyd are the trailblazers of a rich history that has manifested to so many Black-owned businesses in 2021.

Resources like the Urban League and the Indy Black Chamber of Commerce continue to be constant resources for these businesses to keep these  legacies alive.

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