May 15, 2023 - Development

Development could unearth remains at Indy's first Black cemetery

A blue x on an old map

The blue x marks the site where historians believe a section for Black residents existed at Greenlawn Cemetery. Map courtesy Indiana Historical Society; Graphic: Brendan Lynch/Axios

It's been nearly a century since most of the souls buried at Greenlawn Cemetery — Indianapolis' first public burial ground — were moved to other cemeteries around the city.

Driving the news: Historians and city officials agree there are likely remains still buried at the shuttered cemetery along the White River south of Washington Street that could be unearthed as the city constructs the new Henry Street Bridge and Indy Eleven builds its new stadium.

  • The bridge would connect the future Elanco global headquarters to downtown.

Why it matters: Historians are especially concerned that the bridge will be built on top of a portion of the cemetery that was set aside for Black residents and never excavated, leading to further erasure of the history of Black people in the city.

  • Historically, development often has come at the expense of Black communities and neighborhoods.
  • Leon Bates, a local historian who wants to see the cemetery preserved, said that history fuels a lot of distrust between city officials and the Black community.

Flash (way) back: When Indianapolis was founded in 1821, four of the city's earliest citizens selected a public burial ground site just off Kentucky Avenue along the White River.

  • Several additions were made until the cemetery shuttered in the late 1800s.

Of note: Historians say historic maps do not show the "colored" section, but records from the time make it clear that the city's cemetery was segregated.

  • Black residents were buried west of the original grounds — essentially along the river bank — and erosion and flooding sometimes unearthed remains.

Details: In its earliest days, Greenlawn served as the final resting place for some of the city's most prominent residents — founding pioneers and several former governors.

  • Over several decades, the cemetery became full. Development of rail lines encroached on the area and slaughterhouses were constructed nearby.
  • Families with the means to do so began relocating their loved ones to places like Crown Hill.
  • By the turn of the century, Greenlawn had been condemned by the city and turned into a park — albeit, an undesirable one.
  • In the 1910s and 1920s, thousands of bodies were exhumed from Greenlawn and moved to other cemeteries.

State of play: Diamond Chain bought a portion of the site in 1913 for its manufacturing facility, and remains have been discovered there over the years.

  • That portion of the property is now being turned into Eleven Park, the massive mixed-use development that will include Indy Eleven's new 20,000-seat soccer stadium, and historians expect more remains will be uncovered during the construction.

The intrigue: While there are records for many of those buried at Greenlawn, the section along the bank of the White River, where historians believe Black residents were buried, isn't as well-documented.

  • Eunice Trotter, director of Indiana Landmarks' Black Heritage Preservation Program, said they've found city death records for a decade of the late 1800s showing hundreds of Black residents were buried in Greenlawn.
  • Corresponding records for their relocation have not been found, though the research is ongoing.
  • In 1925, that area was excavated for dirt to be used as backfill for the Kentucky Avenue bridge, and bones were discovered.

What they're saying: Trotter and other historians are calling on the city to conduct a full archeological dig on the site before starting bridge construction.

  • "We understand that a dig is time-consuming and much more expensive," she said. "But we believe that the city has a responsibility to do that.
  • "These are people we are talking about."

The other side: City officials say their plan is to disturb as little of the site as possible. They've hired an archeologist to examine the ground as construction progresses and look for signs of burials.

  • If remains are found, work in the area will stop and everything will be documented and processed, according to the city.
  • The city is putting together a commission to make recommendations for how best to memorialize the history of Greenlawn once the bridge project is complete.

What's next: Work is set to begin on the bridge this summer and on Eleven Park later this month.

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