Nov 20, 2023 - News

Questions swirl over development on historic cemetery

An old map

The new Henry Street Bridge project will cut through the "burying ground" and across the White River to the Elanco development just west of downtown. Map: Courtesy of Indiana Historical Society

Indianapolis officials are investigating whether a century-old law may require it to fully excavate land once used as the city's first public cemetery and now slated for a massive redevelopment project.

Driving the news: A spokesperson for the Department of Public Works said its legal team is looking into questions surrounding a 1923 law that granted control of the land used for Greenlawn Cemetery to the city.

  • The law seemingly includes a caveat that the city must remove all remains before allowing its use for anything other than a cemetery.
  • The Indiana Remembrance Coalition surfaced the law and is calling on the city to fund and conduct a full archeological exploration and excavation of the property.

Catch up fast: 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 soccer stadium.

  • The bridge would connect the future Elanco global headquarters to downtown.
  • The city has also proposed creating a special district to help fund the mixed-use development that the stadium would anchor.

What they're saying: "The city remains committed to the archeological process developed with input from community stakeholders for the Henry Street Bridge portion of the former burial ground, and has expectations for the same level of due diligence as it relates to the development of a proposed soccer stadium," DPW told Axios in a statement.

Between the lines: That process involves archaeologists monitoring the excavation that is required for the roadway construction and stopping all work within 100 feet if remains are discovered.

  • DPW said it's too soon to talk about including funding for excavation in the budget for the sports development area deal, as it hasn't been finalized.

Flash (way) back: When Indianapolis was founded in 1821, a public burial ground was situated just off Kentucky Avenue along the White River.

  • Several additions were made until the cemetery shuttered in the late 1800s.
  • 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 and Black residents were buried west of the original grounds — essentially along the river bank.

The intrigue: Human remains have been unearthed on the property multiple times over the preceding decades, which the IRC says makes it clear that the city did not previously abide by the 1923 law.

Yes, but: It's unclear if the law is still applicable today.

What's next: The City-County Council's metropolitan development commission will consider the establishment of the special district at its meeting tonight. IRC members are expected to attend.


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