Celebrating Black History

The rhythm of Indiana Avenue: A rich past and future possibilities

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Every era has a pulse to it; musician Rob Dixon and visual artist and curator Wild Style Paschall describe Indiana Avenue and vibrantly Black and colorful life.

“The icons of the music and, you know, how much of an influence Indianapolis has had on the world,” Dixon said. “I think we have as much bragging rights as New Orleans as far as shaping jazz. You know, I think, Wes Montgomery is the definition of what jazz guitar is. JJ Johnson is the definition of jazz trombone. You know, I say like Freddie Hubbard redefined what jazz trumpet is.”

The notes that spilled into the streets consisted of dozens of clubs, shops, restaurants and doctors offices.

“I believe, opening night in this (Madam Walker Legacy Center) theater, I would have wanted to be in there; and seeing that and go across the canal and just see the other businesses and clubs people’s doing their thing,” Paschall said.

“Just being going to Avenue like on a Friday night, you know, maybe going out to eat at a restaurant, going to watch the Hampton family or The Hampton Sisters (band) before, you know, just being able to go up and down the avenue,” Dixon said. “Indianapolis, in a certain time, was known as probably one of the most cosmopolitan transit cities, probably next to New York City, so, and that had a lot to do with Indiana Avenue, and what happened here on Indiana Avenue.”

The avenue wasn’t just about jazz; it was the ripple of opportunities that created an atmosphere of excellence.

“And I know that at one time Crispus Attucks (High School) probably had the most PhD teachers teaching at that school. I just think that when you have that … you have afforded opportunities educationally and otherwise; it just is a recipe for success,” Dixon said.

Just down the street at the Madam Walker theatre, Kristian Stricklen, marketing chair of the board of directors for the Madam Walker Legacy Center, says creating a space for people of color to feel appreciated was important.

“The reason why the theatre was built in the first place was because Madam had went to another theater and was charged an additional 15-cent Black tax and refused to pay it,” Stricklen said.

“She comes here and becomes a millionaire within 10 years. Then her and her daughter go on to fund the Harlem Renaissance (art movement); why it’s just it’s an incredible amount of pride and I think people had and what they were doing,” Paschall said. “They weren’t given much space but they were given enough space to write, you know the creative life and culture. Everybody had a space down here whether they agree with you or not, there was a space down here on (Indiana) Avenue.”

Aside from the music scene and the businesses, Paschall said, cultural debate over inclusiveness is something many don’t talk about.

“There was great debate about having drag shows us drag shows that that attracted hundreds and hundreds of people, and they were you know there was people there was like Mind your own business and other people like this is terrible we, you know, this is unconscionable we can’t have this going on so there was a lot of it was inclusive of everybody,” Paschall said. “I mean I think people get this opinion or like this visual that it looked like the best black and white photos of the Harlem Renaissance all the time and when you look at some of the few pictures you read the newspaper articles. It was not much different than black neighborhoods today it’s just that we recognize the beauty in it. 170 years later.”.

The fall of Indiana Avenue still breaks the heart of many who frequented the street.

“I mean, it hurts I think because everybody talks about the entertainment and the nightclubs and all this but what people, you know, on outside don’t remember is that it was 1000s of homes around and it wasn’t just about the entertainment that entertainment,” Paschall said. “That culture is driven by these people, these were people’s houses, this is where he’s parking lot, so it was a kitchen. There was bedrooms you know there was place and people had their whole lives.”

“You know, of course, you know, there was other things like economic development, but racism played a part into like actually dismantling and disenfranchising, a lot of African Americans here in Indianapolis, particularly on Indiana Avenue,” Dixon said. “Young white people were coming to the avenue. That was a problem for a lot of people in in and just Indianapolis. And you know, so racism had a big part to do with why the Avenue is not anymore.”

Paschall said the highway construction and redevelopment indefinitely changed the city and especially Indiana Avenue.

“They came and got it from over here and really displaced, you know, 1000s and 1000s of people during this really starting in the late 50s and kind of ended in the 80s and so that’s what stopped Avenue,” Paschall said.

The Avenue’s legacy is kept alive through sharing time and stories. For Paschall that means teaching. He prides himself in making sure students see themselves in the legacy.

“It’s, it’s overwhelming I think the type of interest that they have and the type of question is like very nuanced questions that they are really searching for. For more legacy about black history and black culture,” Paschall said.

While the Indiana Avenue that once was is no more, Dixon and Paschall believe the city has the ingredients to create something great again if those with influence open their eyes.

” I know that there are plans for some economic development here on Indian Avenue. And if we can incorporate some of that and bring in some of these artists and, you know, culture, to the avenue and invite it,” Dixon said. “I think we can have kind of a rebirth. You know, not exactly what it was but something completely different,

“There were a lot of great things that went on here and now looking back on in retrospect, we were like this is amazing, but we also have that going on in neighborhoods today and it needs to be supported and nurtured in a way that it was somewhat allowed on Indiana Avenue,” Paschall said.

Dixon said he believes there should be a mandatory class in Indiana schools to teach the rich legacy of The Avenue because of its sizeable impact to Indiana History.