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Ethnic Indy

House of Califo

Ransom Place Historic District
House of California St.
Indiana Division of Historic Preservation
and Archaeology

Twenty-first century Indianapolis has a vibrant, diverse population. Anywhere in town, it’s not uncommon to find yourself listening to Spanish, English, Japanese, Hindi, German, or French. You can also still hear a distant echo of the Hoosier accent in many voices. This is the same one James Whitcomb Riley recorded in his rural-inspired poetry. Pharmaceutical interests, racing or auto companies, and better economic opportunities have brought people here from many places. Hoosiers celebrate their ethnic roots.

Indianapolis also had a measure of diversity at its founding in 1821. Following the Delaware and other native peoples, the first settlers were mostly Scots-Irish descendants from the Upland South, as well as people from Pennsylvania and Ohio. Alexander Ralston’s survey team included Cheney Lively Britton, an African American. The team platted the original Mile Square of downtown Indianapolis. Anglo Americans from the Upland South dominated the population into the 1860s, though it was a curious blend of Yankee New Englanders, Pennsylvania Dutch, and farmers and tradesmen from the South.

Indianapolis developed a sizable community of African Americans before the Civil War. Several existing churches have origins in the 1840s. Prejudice, legitimized by restrictive state laws, long remained a great impediment to African Americans. At first the near south side of downtown was home to many black residents. By the 1880s, most had moved to the Indiana Avenue area. Indiana Avenue was also the center of the black commercial district, mainly because segregation was an unwritten rule throughout the city. In the 1920s, this part of town became well known for its jazz scene.

Das Deusche Haus
Das Deutsche Haus
Private Collection

The advent of the railroads brought thousands of people to Indianapolis and further broadened its once isolated outlook. Most notably, families from the German States were flocking to Middle America. By 1850, they constituted just over 12 percent of the population of Indianapolis. They remained in the 20 percent range of the population throughout the 19th century. The Germans shook the political and cultural life of the town with their song, dance, and arts. They sided with the abolitionists. Many Germans were also Catholic or Jewish, bringing a new outlook on things for the Protestant upland southerners. The Germans did not surrender their language; instead, they taught it in schools, printed it in papers, and carved it on their buildings.

Ireland was another significant source of settlers in the mid-1800s. The promise of steady jobs digging the Central Canal and building the National Road attracted Irish families to stay. They founded their own Catholic parishes. Later, Irish leaders began to shape politics in the town. Seven Indianapolis mayors have had Irish ancestry.

The late 19th century brought industrialization and a demand for labor. Social unrest in many southern or eastern European nations also brought a new wave of immigration. Italians, Slovenes, Greeks, and other groups sought jobs and better lives in neighborhoods like Haughville and Fountain Square. Indianapolis was still primarily Anglo American in the 1890s, however, the influx of Eastern and Southern Europeans, Germans, and African Americans had changed the town.

Holy-Rosary-Danish Church

Holy Rosary Church
Holy Rosary—Danish Church Historic District
Indiana Division of Historic Preservation
and Archaeology

As the economic means of these groups increased, the need to stay in the neighborhoods where they had originally settled became obsolete. By the interwar years, Indy’s ethnic enclaves were already weakening. German was banned from public schools, and inscriptions in the language were erased or covered. Successful Irish, Italian, German Jewish, and German families moved away from traditional areas to the suburbs as their labors brought wealth and assimilation. While black congregations stayed put, the families often found newer homes outside of the Indiana Avenue vicinity.

Oppression increased in the 1920s. David Curtis Stephenson had revitalized the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana and moved to Indianapolis. Now rich with membership funds and bribes, he and his cohorts held sway in the Statehouse and City Hall. Under a cloak of Americanism, Stephenson and his Klan supported segregated schools and harassed Catholics and other “foreign” peoples. Stephenson was arrested and convicted of second degree murder in 1925 after an incident with a Statehouse clerk. His implication of other Klan leaders ended their reign, but not the discrimination.

Civil rights advocates pressed for change in Indianapolis in the 1950s and ‘60s. Following Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy was in town campaigning for the presidency. He made a significant speech at a park at 17th and Broadway, urging a peaceful response. Indianapolis avoided the riots and violence that troubled many other Midwestern cities thanks to its African American leaders and Kennedy’s calming speech.

Indiana is now experiencing its largest cultural change since the late 19th century, as thousands of people from Mexico or Central and South America seek the opportunity and stability afforded by living in the Midwest. A Mexican consulate opened in downtown Indianapolis in 2002. More than 34,000 persons of Hispanic descent lived in the city by 2002. This latest chapter in the ethnic heritage of Indianapolis is still in the making.