Tour B 1. Indianapolis Station Fire

Historic view of the Georgia Street Neighborhood viewed over today’s landscape. Image Source: Google Earth and 1887 Indianapolis Sandborn Map IUPUI Digital Collections

The Indianapolis Station and the Civil War tour starts with the destruction of the July 7, 1864 fire at the Indianapolis Station AME Church.  By July 1864, months of simmering tensions in the city over the nature of the war and the arming of African American troops reached a boiling point when White “incendiaries” burned the church after a fundraiser for the Freedman’s Aid Society. The Freedman’s Aid Socetiy, with Rev. Willis Revels as one of the organizers  was dedicated to assisting Black war widows and recently immigrated freed slaves, referred to as “refugees.”[1]  The immigration, experienced against the backdrop of the potential expansion of African American civil rights, stressed the uneasy racial relations in

Freedmen Coming to the North. Image Source: Library of Congress,

Indianapolis past their breaking point. The Daily Journal pointed to the cause of the fire as the African American “Contraband,” the term the army used to describe the enslaved people flooding to the Union Army lines and into the North, “flooding” into the city.[2] The rival Democratic Indianapolis Sentinel found the accusations that White soldiers burned the church a “monstrous outrage.”[3] This vicious arson attack literally left the congregation, but the refugees living there, literally homeless. [4]

There was debate at the time in both the White and Black Press over who burned the church, though no one arrested. The church struggled to meet obligations to host Indiana AME Conference in August, with meetings held at the Masonic Hall and Roberts Chapel.[5] Calvin Fletcher helped arrange housing for displaced families.[6] Rev. Willis Revels continued to support the cause of African Americans. was injured in a train crash in 1864 and then was transferred to Tennessee as part of the AME Church’s missionary and church building work in the Southern States.[7]  A new school was formed on the east side of the city, in partnership between the Freedman’s Aid Society, the AME Church and the Quakers, to satisfy the hunger for education among the recently feed slaves.

allen chapel sandborn

Footprint of Allen Chapel, the frame building and adjacent parsonage, listed as “Colored Church” on the 1887 Sandborn Map. Image Source: Indianapolis Sandborn Map Collection, IUPUI Digital Collections.

After the fire, the church struggled financially from the expenses of the war, fire and many widows and refuges needing assistance.  The church lacked strong leadership under Pastor Levi Evans, struggling to define their role, and unrest spread through the congregation. Different plans were discussed including a merger with the AME Zion Church, housed near the former AME School.[8] A number of the members under the leadership of Rev. Lankford , withdrew from the Indianapolis Station for Allen Chapel, though the exact circumstances for the departure are only elusive in the records.[9]  Allen Chapel, growing from the school mission on the East Side of Indianapolis, became an AME chapel in 1866 and grew quickly under the leadership of Rev. Lankford.[10]

The Indianapolis Station congregation struggled to rebuild, as the new Allen Chapel took off in the eastern section of the city. Trustees appealed for funds to AME members across the nation in The Christian Recorder, and visited several churches in person.[11] The congregation sold the Georgia Street property, looking for a “safe place” to build their new church. The church first purchased a lot at Michigan Street and Capitol Avenue in 1866, before settling on the current Vermont Street location.[12] In 1867 the church signed a contract with contractor Adam Busch for the construction of the Vermont Street structure. The building was completed in 1869. The beleaguered congregation faced problems with the construction from beginning, with the contract ending up in court. [13]

The site of the fire and the Indianapolis Station lies underneath the Convention Center. This was a mixed neighborhood of homes and business, near the busy rail yards and canal.

After the congregation rebuilt the Vermont Street AME Church in 1869, the congregation seemed to but this difficult chapter behind them. The first written history of the fire, W. R. Holloway’s Indianapolis: A Historical and Statistical Sketch of the Railroad City, printed in 1870, lists the date for the fire as 1863.[14]  This error crept into the historical record until relatively recently.[15] While at the time there seemed to be a general agreement that church burned for association with the migration of the former slaves and Rev. Revels’ activities with the  Freedman’s Aid Society, and no doubt connection to the arming of Black troops, later historical accounts attached to the fire to activities related to the Underground Railroad.[16]

The story of African American’s journey to freedom does not end with the beginning of the Civil War. There is a growing body of literature on the impact of emancipation on northern communities, stressing the formal and informal politics of race in the North.[18]The study of the fire of the Indianapolis Station AME Church holds the potential to add to the new scholarship on northern Blacks in the Civil War era. While the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and Union troops “liberated” many plantations, the journey to freedom for over four million African Americans was only beginning. For northern anti-war Democrats, nicknamed “Copperheads,” the Emancipation Proclamation, mounting war casualties, and the suppression of free speech created a volatile climate in 1864, igniting violence across the Midwest. The agency and mobility of freedmen required negotiating a new place for African Americans in North.[20]While the struggles of southern Blacks in reconstruction have been well studied, fewer studies have examined the implications of African American mobility for northern communities, in areas as diverse as voting booth, church pews and labor markets.[17] Evidence from Indianapolis suggests that African American mobility placed a strain on community resources in the already tense northern racial climate after the War. For the Indianapolis Station community of faith, the perceived difference between the new migrants and older residents of led to spiritual, physical and social divisions within the Black community. These divisions narrowed over time through educational efforts and shared work in benevolence societies and churches.[19]



Forge History
Forge History
Ever wonder about the history of the Indianapolis Fire Department, check out the history of fire fighting and prevention in the city.

[1] The Christian Recorder, July 30, 1864.

[2] Indianapolis Daily Journal, July 11, 1864.

[3] Indianapolis Sentinel, July 11, 1864.

[4]Gayle Thornbrough, editor, The Diary of Calvin Fletcher,  (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1972), vol. VII, 430.

[5] Ibid.,VII:433; Stanley Warren, “The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” Traces (Summer 2007): 33. The Christian Recorder, November 12, 1864.

[6] Thornbrough,The Diary of Calvin Fletcher, ,VI I: 454.

[7] Clarence Earl Walker, A Rock in a Weary Land: The African Methodist Episcopal Church During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), 133; Julius E. Thompson, “Hiram Rhodes Revels, 1827-1901: A Reappraisal,” The Journal of Negro History 79, no. 3 (July 1, 1994): 299; The Christian Recorder, November 12, 1864; The Christian Recorder,January 6, 1866.

[8] Warren, “The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” 33; The Christian Recorder, September 14, 1867.

[9] Ibid.; Judge Kelly, First History of Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church, Indianapolis, Ind (Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church, 1916), 3–5; W. R. Holloway, Indianapolis: A Historical and Statistical Sketch of the Railroad City (1870) (Kessinger Publishing, 2009), 238–239.

[10] Kelly, First History of Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church, passim.

[11] See for example, The Christian Recorder, November 12, 1864; December 17, 1864; June 3, 1865; June 24, 1865.

[12]Warren, “The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” 33. The Christian Recorder, November 16, 1867.

[13] Ibid., 34.

[14] Holloway, Indianapolis, 238–239.

[15] See for example, David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis (Indiana University Press, 1994), “Bethel AME Church” and “Willis Revels”.

[16] Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana Before 1900: a Study of a Minority (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 191; National Park Service, “Aboard the Underground Railroad– Bethel AME Church, Indiana,” accessed January 16, 2013 ; Dona Stokes-Lucas et al., Interpretive Stories Associated with the Underground Railroad in the Indianapolis Area: Submitted to Underground Railroad Research Assistantship Program, Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology, Department of Natural Resources (Dept. of Natural Resources, 2001), 8.

[17] Walker, A Rock in a Weary Land, 34;  Leslie A. Schwalm, Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[18] Schwalm,Emancipation’s Diaspora, xi.

[19] There is a large body of work of these themes, see for example Nikki Marie Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802-1868 (Ohio University Press, 2005); Stephen A. Vincent, Southern Seed, Northern Soil: African-American Farm Communities in the Midwest, 1765-1900 (Indiana University Press, 1999); Adam Arenson, The Great Heart of the Republic: St. Louis and the Cultural Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2011).

[20]  David W. Blight and Brooks D. Simpson, Union and Emancipation (Kent State University Press, 1997); David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Harvard University Press, 2009); Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (Random House Digital, Inc., 2010).

[21] For context on these issues, see Earline Rae Ferguson, A Community Affair: African-American Women’s Club Work in Indianapolis, 1879-1917 (Indiana University, 1997); Schwalm, Emancipation’s Diaspora; Emma Lou Thornbrough, Since Emancipation: A Short History of Indiana Negroes, 1863-1963 (Indiana Division, American Negro Emancipation Centennial Authority, 1964); Walker, A Rock in a Weary Land.