Black History Moment: The Walker Theatre
The Walker Theatre at 617 Indiana Avenue, Indianapolis Indiana
I grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. When most people think of African-Americans and Indiana, they immediately think of Gary, Indiana, the birthplace of the Jackson Five. Those who aren’t familiar with the mid-west don’t realize that Indianapolis has a significant African-American population.
New York had 125th Street as its center of African-American culture while Atlanta had Auburn Avenue. In Indianapolis, we had Indiana Avenue and the building pictured above was the cornerstone of African American culture in the city. That building is the Walker Theatre and was constructed by the African-American beauty products entrepreneur, Madam C J Walker.
Indianapolis is referred to as the crossroads of America as by the early 1900’s there were roads leading out of the city in all directions making it a major hub for transport. This is what Madam CJ Walker saw during a visit to the city in 1910 and she decided to move the headquarters of her company there and establish a large scale manufacturing facility.
The early 1900’s is an absolutely fascinating period as far as black history is concerned. Virulent racism was rampant, but somehow African-American people persevered in spite of it. At the time Ms. Walker moved to the city, the Klu Klux Klan was running the political situation in Indianapolis and segregation and disparate treatment of African-Americans was the order of the day.
As it turns out, it was an incident of disparate treatment that led Ms. Walker to construct the theatre. Here’s the story behind why she built it:
In 1914, Walker—who enjoyed music and movies in her leisure time—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 offices and factory of the Madam 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.
The 1927 Walker Theatre Grand Opening
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991, the MWTC makes Indianapolis one of the few American cities able to claim such grand evidence of its African American cultural history. Chicago’s original Regal Theatre, built in 1928, was razed in 1973. Like the Walker, Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Theatre, which opened in 1922, has been restored. Harlem’s Apollo, which maintained a whites only policy until 1934, has been a storied venue for black artists for more than seven decades. But the Walker stands alone among those renowned theaters because it was black-owned from the start.
“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.”
For the grand opening on December 26, 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 featuring 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 pushed to segregate public facilities. But at least there was some consolation in having the Walker, a place where they could see first-run Hollywood 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.
(The Indianapolis Recorder referred to above is the city’s black owned newspaper.)
Basically, Ms. Walker’s response to racism was the same as Robert Sengstacke Abbott’s and Marcus Garvey’s. Rather than expend time, effort and frustration breaking into the other guy’s thing, each of them created their own economic base, which in turn, afforded them a degree of freedom and insulation from racism. When you have your own things, the effect that others have on you is mitigated and sometimes eliminated altogether.
In this historical example, there’s a lesson. To be sure, the nation and race relations are nothing like the early 1900’s and although we’re not quite at the point where we’re post racial, we’ve come a very long way from where we were. The lesson is that if you don’t like how you’re being treated, then you need to have an independent economic base so you can position yourself get your own stuff and remove yourself from unpleasant situations. Building a viable business is certainly one route to economic freedom, but not the only. Freedom can also be achieved by not engaging in a consumptive lifestyle if you’re not in position or not inclined to take up an entrepreneurial venture. Putting up with someone’s nonsense is stressful enough, but knowing that you have to because you’ve managed to eliminate alternatives by making poor choices is the route to an early grave. Madam Walker and many others chose wisely and that’s why they were able to lessen the impact of racism on themselves and those around them.