Tour B 6. Madame C. J. Walker & Fredrick Douglass

Indiana Avenue, c. 1952.  Image Source: Photo Courtesy of Indianapolis News

Indiana Avenue, c. 1952.
Image Source: Photo Courtesy of Indianapolis News

By the 1890s, in the shadow of the bell tower of the Vermont Street AME Church, there was a thriving mixed race neighborhood along Indiana Avenue, with recent German immigrants rubbing shoulders with black laborers and members of the thriving middle class. The black working and middle class embraced the concept of social protest. Along the lines of antebellum efforts, they developed community commercial, philanthropic, social and educational resources to combat Jim Crown segregation and the informal politics of race, while simultaneously working to tear down these color lines.[1] For this next generation of race rebels, the Underground Railroad and Civil War era served as a source of inspiration for their own struggles with racism and oppression.[2] Indianapolis entrepreneur and Vermont Street AME congregant Madame C. J. Walker was no exception, not only did she support social protest and AME causes but she donated funds to save the Fredrick Douglass home, to the Harriet Tubman’s Home for the Aged and other project related to the preservation of the legacy of the Underground Railroad and black contributions to the Civil War.[3]


Madam C. J. Walker.
Image Source: Courtesy of A’Lelia Bundles/
Walker Family Collection

While the entire scope of late nineteenth century  life on Indiana Avenue and C. J. Walker’s life is outside of the scope of this tour, it is important to pause a moment to understand the importance of the preservation and remembrance of the slavery period was for this generation.  Around the dinner table, from the pulpit and in the black press, the current difficulties were projected against the struggles from this formative period. Historians and cultural critics argue that the cultural trauma of slavery profoundly shaped the relationship of African Americans with their history, well into the modern period.[4] In the late twentieth century, African Americans began working to document their history, focusing on presenting the heroes of the past in educational programs and books.[5]

Madame C. J. Walker, whose home was on West Street adjacent to the factory, donated to national and local causes related to social justice and remembering slavery. Like leaders during the Civil War, during World War I she was asked by the federal government to encourage African Americans to serve and support the war effort. As a black businesswoman and role model, she traveled the country giving lectures on political, economic and social issues, such as federal anti-lynching laws.  She worked with national leaders to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), with Indiana branch organized at Bethel AME.  She continued to donate money throughout her career to Indiana and national black schools, organizations, individuals.[6]

Eastern view of the home of Frederick Douglass, Cedar Hill, Anacostia, Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Eastern view of the home of Frederick Douglass, Cedar Hill, Anacostia, Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

National Association Of Colored Woman (NACW) Conference celebrated Walker for making the largest contribution to save the house of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Anacostia in Washington. Congress chartered the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association (FDMHA), who partnered with the NACW to restore the building and open it as a museum, completed in 1922.  The FDMHA later petitioned the federal government. In 1962, the Frederick Douglass estate became a unit of the National Park Service, reopening to the public after restoration 1972. Recently, the house and visitor center have undergone a new round of restoration, reopening to the public on February 14, 2007.[7]

6. Madame C. J. Walker & Fredrick Douglass

Forge History

Forge History

Find out more about the Fredrick Douglass National Historic Site.Attend a program at the Walker Theatre.Learn more about the Ransom Place Historic District.Learn about the archeological finding from IUPUI investigations in the Ransom Place Historic District

[1] There is a rich literature on segregation, the church and social protest, see Julius Bailey, Race Patriotism: Protest and Print Culture in the AME Church (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012); Robin Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, And The Black Working Class (Simon and Schuster, 1996); Richard B. Pierce, Polite Protest: The Political Economy of Race in Indianapolis, 1920-1970 (Indiana University Press, 2005); Gilbert Anthony Williams, The Christian Recorder, Newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church: History of a Forum for Ideas, 1854-1902 (Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, 1996); Julius Bailey, Around the Family Altar: Domesticity in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1865-1900 (University Press of Florida, 2005); Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana Before 1900: a Study of a Minority (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); Emma Lou Thornbrough, Since Emancipation: A Short History of Indiana Negroes, 1863-1963 (Indiana Division, American Negro Emancipation Centennial Authority, 1964); Benjamin Tucker Tanner, An Apology for African Methodism, 1867.

[2] Bailey, Race Patriotism. For an example of a history written in this genre, see George A. Singleton, The Romance of African Methodism: a Study of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Exposition Press, 1952).

[3] David Blight, Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory (HarperCollins, 2006); “Madam C. J. Walker – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia,” accessed March 7, 2013, ; Cookie Lommel, Madame C J Walker (Holloway House Publishing, 1993); Stille, Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur and Millionaire (Capstone, 2007).

[4] Kelley, Race Rebels; Ron Eyerman, Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity (Cambridge University Press, 2001); Genevieve Fabre, History and Memory in African-American Culture (Oxford University Press, 1994); James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, Slavery And Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (The New Press, 2011).

[5] There is a large literature on this complex subject, see. Lonnie  Bunch, “Embracing Ambiguity: The Challenge of Interpreting African American History in Museums,” Museums & Social Issues, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 2007) 44-56. Jeffrey C. Stewart, and Faith Davis Ruffins.  “A Faithful Witness: Afro-American Public History in Historical Perspective, 1828-1984,” in Presenting the Past: Essays on History and the Public, edited by Susan Porter Benson, Stephen Brier, and Roy Rosenzweig (1986).

[6] Mullins, Paul, Labode, Modupe, and Jones, Lewis, “Consuming Lines of Difference: The Politics of Wealth and Poverty Along the Color Line,” Historical Archaeology 45, no. 3 (2011): 140–150; “Madam C. J. Walker – Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia”; David J. Bodenhamer and Robert G. Barrows, The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis (Indiana University Press, 1994).