Saturday, March 2, 2024

Walk down memory lane: a commentary on reclaiming the Black narrative of Indiana Avenue

Despite Black Americans comprising around 10% of Indiana’s population, only 3% of businesses in the state are Black-owned.

The disparity in Black businesses in Indiana, as well as the country as a whole, is a result of systemic racism and discrimination that has historically prevented Black entrepreneurs from accessing the same resources and opportunities as their white counterparts.

Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis, Indiana, was also once known as “Black Wall Street.” It was a thriving center of Black business and culture in the early 20th century. The first Black-owned businesses on Indiana Avenue opened in the 1860s, and by the 1920s, the avenue was home to a wide range of Black-owned businesses.

“The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis,” a book authored by David J. Bodenhamer and others, thoroughly discusses the history of Indiana Avenue and its predominantly Black community at the beginning of the 20th century.

“The ‘Great Migration’ from the south to northern cities after World War I brought thousands of new African-Americans to the neighborhood around Indiana Avenue,” Bodenhamer said. “The Black population of Indianapolis more than doubled between 1910 and 1930, increasing from nearly 22,000 to nearly 44,000. Most of these new arrivals squeezed into the thriving westside area centered on Indiana Avenue.”

Related: What really happened on Indiana Avenue? a Story Untold

In the 1950s, Indiana University began to expand its medical campus, acquiring land and displacing residents near and on Indiana Avenue through eminent domain.

“After World War II, construction of interstate highways once again placed Indianapolis at the confluence of a national transportation system,” Phillip Scarpino said in his publication “Indianapolis Past and Present.” “Interstates 65, 69, 70, and 74 met in the middle, simultaneously making Indianapolis “The Crossroads of America” and tearing through lower-income, often African American, neighborhoods.”

The city also declared a large portion of the neighborhood to be blighted and substandard, which allowed the government to seize the land and demolish the buildings. The construction of Interstate 65 displaced many Black residents and businesses. As a result of these factors, the once-thriving Black business district on Indiana Avenue was decimated.

“Educational facilities expanded to serve the waves of postwar baby boomers who sought college and professional degrees,” Bodenhamer said. “IUPUI began to consolidate its facilities near the medical and dental schools along Michigan Street west of the downtown. To provide land for the new campus, another 16 blocks of slum housing was cleared.”

A photo of Indiana Avenue ('Indiana Ave') prior to the expansion of Indiana University and Interstate development. (Photo/Indiana Historical Society)
A photo of Indiana Avenue (‘Indiana Ave’) prior to the expansion of Indiana University and Interstate development. (Photo/Indiana Historical Society)

And the rest, as they say, was history. Black-owned businesses never truly recovered from attacks on their economy, like the Black Wall Street massacre. As a result, Black-owned businesses today are often underfunded and understaffed and struggle to compete with larger companies.

However, there are some positive developments for Black businesses in Indiana. Recently, initiatives jumpstarted by Black Business Matters, the Indianapolis Minority Business Magazine and the Indiana Black Expo (IBE) have proven fruitful in providing resources, education and visibility for Black entrepreneurs and businesses in Indiana.

Currently, there are approximately 915 Black businesses in the Indianapolis metropolitan area (including Carmel and Anderson). According to the Brookings Institute, Black businesses in the Indianapolis metropolitan area pay their employees an average salary of $30,795. The research also suggests that if the number of Black businesses in the Indianapolis metro area matched the population size and the employees per company matched the average business, it would generate more than 170,000 new jobs.

Many consumers are actively seeking out and supporting Black-owned businesses in Indianapolis, recognizing the importance of encouraging diversity and equity in the economy. By supporting Black-owned businesses, we can help to level the playing field and create a more just and equitable society for all.

It is important to recognize that supporting Black-owned businesses is not just a matter of charity but also a matter of economic justice. By empowering Black entrepreneurs, we can create a more vibrant and inclusive economy that benefits everyone.

“For many years, Indiana Avenue was almost exclusively a Black phenomenon,” Bodenhamer said.

Contact multi-media staff writer Noral Parham III at 317-762-7846. Follow him on Twitter @3Noral. For more stories from Noral, click here.

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