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Marion County

African American rural settlements documented: 1

Reviewing the data, the one Marion County settlement that appears to fall within the scope of the Early African American Settlement Heritage Initiative (EAASHI) was located in Bridgeport, Wayne Township. Over time it was known as Sunnyside and West Parkview.

Marion County has been a challenging county to research. One difficulty in the process has been trying to frame and define the standard of rural and urban settlement. Another issue has been the challenge of analyzing the most populous county in the state. A final concern is the relatively paltry level of detail available in the written record on the townships of Marion County, especially the record of the African Americans who lived outside of the city limits.

Emma Lou Thornbrough observes that by 1860, Indianapolis had “one of the largest Negro communities in the state” as well as noting “… there were also Negroes in the rural parts of Marion County.” (p52) The 1840 census enumerated 122 African Americans living in Indianapolis and an additional 72 African Americans living in Center Township outside city limits. In 1850 the African American population of the city increased substantially to 405 persons while those living in Center Township exclusive of Indianapolis increased slightly to 144 persons. In 1860 the city population continued to rise (498 persons) as does the population in Center Township (210 persons). The astonishing increase comes in 1870 when the city population reaches 2,931 and Center Township's population doubles to 433. Total Marion County population leaps from the 1860 count of 825 to 3, 938 (Thornbrough 211).

James Divita summarizes the long view of settlement patterns in Indianapolis.  He notes that Marion County’s African American population was present in the city from the beginnings of the county and finds that in 1830 the largest populations of rural African Americans were in Wayne and Washington Townships.  Perry and Warren had small populations. The lowest numbers were in Lawrence and Franklin Townships.  Divita states that in 1840 “Both Irish and blacks appear to be residents of Ward 5 and in the district west of West Street” (p11).  Divita also notes the construction of Second Baptist Church (colored) in Ward 6 on Missouri Street between Ohio and New York Streets in 1849. 

In the 1850s two per cent of Marion County’s population was black. Most of the 835 African Americans (708) lived in Center Township. The remainder of the population was distributed in every township except Lawrence and Pike. African Americans living in the city limits were distributed in every ward, but the highest concentration was in ward 4 (north of Washington Street and west of Mississippi Street (present day Senate Avenue) and in Ward 5 (south of Washington Street and West of Illinois Street). Part of this area was dubbed “Bucktown.” 

Audrey Werle’s 1870 Index to heads of households lists 60 households in Center Township outside city limits headed by African Americans.  Farm laborer is a common occupation as is unspecified laborer. The list also includes occupations such as gardener, hod carrier, whitewasher, teamster, carpenter, and ice peddler. Places of birth are varied: Kentucky, North Carolina and Indiana predominate with representation from Maryland, Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Missouri and New York. A large number of households headed by white persons also include African Americans.  Family names represented include Winslow, Moore, Roberts, Harvey, Williams, Washington, Walden, Wilson, Tolbert and Young. (See 1870 index for complete listing Werle, M0792.)

Marion County offered economic opportunity over the decades and African American arrived seeking employment and community.  For the project’s time period (pre statehood through 1870), Indianapolis lead the state in African American population and a rich cultural life continued to evolve. There are many possibilities for further research. 

Unnamed settlement in Bridgeport, Wayne Township:

The Wayne Township village of Bridgeport is situated on the National Road at the west edge of Marion County. It was platted in 1831. Wayne Township reported 34 African Americans in the 1840 Marion County census, second only to Center Township’s count of 72. In 1850, the count was 27 and in 1860, there were 23 African Americans. 1870 saw a significant increase when the population rose sharply to 174. 

Further analysis of the 1870 census reveals 34 households in Wayne Township with one or more black persons in the household. Of those households, 24 were headed by an African American. The count included 3 black or mulatto farmers: Joseph T. Fossett/Fawcett, Martin Davis and Isaac Wilson. Twenty-six African American men reported working as farm laborers. Most of the 1870 population had their origins in Kentucky. Other states of origin included North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana and Tennessee.

According to records of the First Baptist Church, Bridgeport (also know as White Lick Creek Colored Baptist Church), the first members of the congregation came to the Bridgeport area in August of 1864. They held their first services in the Friends Church. (It might be assumed that this is the Bridgeport Friends Meeting located ½ mile northwest of Bridgeport (Cline, p 541)). In 1865 the congregation “joined with the second church of Indianapolis” (Second Baptist Church in Indianapolis was pastored by Reverend Moses Broyles). When that association proved “inconvenient”, they held services in a Hendricks County schoolhouse (# 6) where they developed an association with the small African Methodist Episcopal church in Plainfield. The church had a number of locations over the course of its existence before 1891 when the church dedicated the edifice they still occupied in 1925 at 8730 W. Washington Street.  Some members of the White Lick Colored Baptist Church joined with a group from Lick Creek Baptist Church, whih was near Beech Grove, to form a new congregation named Mount Zion Baptist Church in 1869.

In 1884, Wayne Township had two “colored schools” (Sulgrove, p 665). Perry Township was the only other outlying townships to note separate schools.  Two black teachers taught thirty-one black male students and forty-two female students. 

A white dentist by the name of Dr. Welsh made his summer home on a twenty acre parcel along Girls School Road, south of the old New York Central Railroad. In the late 1890s he divided his property into four-acre tracts to be sold only to “colored people.” Moses Williams, another white man, owned twenty acres adjoining Sunnyside and decided to follow suit in 1900 naming his area West Parkview. 

The first family to build was the Williams family completing their home around 1910. Other families followed and by 1914, the neighborhood was becoming well established. “Old settlers” included the names Coleman, Smith, Walker, Brown, Pettiford, Johnson, Garret, Abernathy, Flemings, Kimble, Cables and Wathen. There were no roads, only paths. Families raised animals for meat and kept gardens. Through the efforts of residents, Sunnyside/West Parkview got electricity in 1941. Another collective effort resulted in the organization of a civic club house. In response to a tragic fire in the 1950s, the community converted the civic club building to a fire station. Pennies were saved to purchase a fire truck.


Bibliography

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Bryant, Ida Webb. Glimpses of the Negro in Indianapolis, 1863-1963. Indianapolis:  n.p., 1963.

Cline and McHaffie. The People’s Guide: a Business, Political and Religious Directory of Marion Co., Indiana. Indianapolis: Indianapolis Printing and Publishing House, 1874.

Compton, Etta. “Reminiscences of Yesteryears of Bridgeport, Indiana,” 29 December 1966 (Wayne Township Historical Society, Indianapolis, Ind.).

Cottman, George S. “Old-Time Slums of Indianapolis.” Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History. Vol. 7 (December 1, 1911), 170-173. 

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“Sunnyside/ West Parkview Neighborhood.” (Wayne Township Historical Society.)

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By Georgia Cravey, July 27, 2014