The only early 20th century edifice that remains in the 600 block of Indiana Avenue, the Walker Building stands as a testament to Madam CJ Walker’s pioneering efforts as an entrepreneur. Born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana in 1867, Walker had become the first self-made American woman millionaire through hair care products sales and real estate investments by the time of her death in 1919. One of only fifteen women inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame, Walker recently was listed among Business Week’s top thirty American entrepreneurs of all time.
Drawn by Indianapolis’s thriving black business community and its well-connected transportation network, Madame Walker moved her company headquarters to the city in 1910. Quickly involving herself in the city’s civic, business and religious life, she joined Bethel AME Church, donated $1,000 to the new Senate Avenue YMCA and became a member of the local National Negro Business League chapter.
In 1914, just as she had done on many occasions, Walker visited the Isis Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. To her surprise, the young white ticket booth operator informed her that admission for “colored people” had increased to 25 cents, though it remained 15 cents for white customers. Refusing to pay the escalated price, Walker returned to her office and instructed her attorney to sue the theater. Legend has it that, on that day, she also vowed to build her own movie house.
Although the Walker Building was completed eight years after her death, Walker had purchased the triangular-shaped lot not long after the Isis Theatre incident. The four-story, block-long flatiron building, located at 617 Indiana Avenue, originally was planned to house the corporate headquarters and factory of the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. But by the time the doors opened in December 1927, it had become much more: a forerunner of today’s shopping malls with a drugstore, a beauty salon, a beauty school, a restaurant, professional offices, a ballroom and a 1500 seat theater.
“In the hearts of every colored citizen of Indianapolis, there should begin to stir a great and increasing sense of pride in this magnificent structure going up in our midst,” the Indianapolis Recorder reported in October 1927. Responding to rumors that whites owned the property, Walker Company attorney and general manager, Freeman B. Ransom, told a reporter, “We own every foot of land, every brick in the building and from the seats in the theatre to the last bit of drapery. And when our critics are dead, we will still own it.”
As the doors opened the day after Christmas, 1927, blue and gold-uniformed Walker Theatre ushers escorted guests to their seats for the 2 p.m. matinee. After a screening of “The Magic Flame”—an Oscar-nominated movie starring silent film stars Ronald Colman and Vilma Bánky—vaudeville dance team, Lovey and Shorty, thrilled theater-goers with their high-energy, fast-stepping performance.
As the lights came up, the audience was entranced by what it saw: elaborate, terra cotta sculptures of Egyptian sphinxes, brightly painted friezes, decorative 20-foot bamboo spears and life-sized chimpanzee statues posted as sentinels above the stage. No dance hall, no movie theater, no meeting place for African Americans in the city could even come close. Designed by Rubush and Hunter, the local architectural firm that had created some of the city’s most distinctive downtown buildings—including the Circle Theatre, the Columbia Club, the Murat Temple, the Indiana Theatre and the Indiana Roof Ballroom—the Walker Building today remains one of the most notable surviving examples of African-inspired Art Deco.
Ironically, the late 1920s construction boom that added Crispus Attucks High School, the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA and the Walker Building to the cluster of black community buildings like the Senate Avenue YMCA and the Knights of Pythias Hall, was in part a by-product of racist policies that intensified from 1921 to 1928 when the Ku Klux Klan controlled Indianapolis city politics. The black community—hovering at ten per cent of the population and out-maneuvered by an at-large system for selecting political representatives—could not counter the powers that wanted to segregate public facilities. But at least there was some consolation with the Walker, a place where they could see first-run movies without the insult of rear entrances and dirty balconies; where they could enjoy Sunday dinner in the Coffee Pot restaurant; and where they could shop at the Walker Drug Store with its promise that “positively no stale seconds, inferior or refuse merchandise will be used, stocked or sold.”
During that first year, the Walker Theatre featured an array of black entertainers from blues queen Mamie Smith and her Original Jazz Hounds to the famed Whitman Sisters. The Blackbirds, an orchestra led by Reginald DuValle—the local pianist who had taught composer Hoagy Carmichael to play ragtime and jazz—remained a perennial favorite.
On Labor Day 1928, an S.R.O. crowd eager to see husband and wife vaudeville team, Butterbeans and Susie, spilled onto Indiana Avenue. “Early before the doors opened, street car after street car unloaded hundreds of patrons at the intersection of the Avenue and North Street,” reported the Indianapolis Recorder.
By 1950, Indiana Avenue—like the main drags of inner city black communities across the nation—had begun a gradual decline. As integration opened previously off-limits housing and schools to African Americans, long time residents and businesses migrated to other parts of town. As the city of Indianapolis targeted the district for interstate construction and rezoned the neighborhood for commercial enterprises and IUPUI’s expansion, others were pushed out.