by S. L. Berry, Staff Writer. (orig. publ. in 1996)
Imagine this: A place in central Indiana without urban sprawl. A place where farm fields spread out like a vast ocean of green, divided by gravel roads and dirt lanes. A place no one locks their doors and everyone knows their neighbors.
It might be hard to believe, in the face of all the office parks, housing developments, and apartment complexes that now crowd the landscape but Pike Township was such a place earlier in this century. It was a nice place to raise a family whether you were white or black.
At a time when Indianapolis was rife with racial prejudice, Pike Township was a refuge of sorts for black families. Black children attended integrated schools and participated in integrated sports programs while their parents did business with white merchants and worked side by side with white residents.
Pike Township’s black heritage involves the sharing of a strong sense of community based on shared beliefs in hardwork, mutual aid and God.
More than a century
For many black residents of central Indiana, Pike Township was like the supportive black community Clifton Taulbert describes in Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored. The memoir, the basis for the acclaimed film directed by Tim Reid, describes life in Glen Allan, Miss. in the 1850s.
“I don’t know how long black people have lived in Pike Township,” says Clarence Wood, “but I know it has been more than 100 years.” Wood, 71, a retired vice president of AFNB (now Bank One) and a former president of the Pike Township School Board, can trace his roots in the township to his maternal grandparents, who settled there in the late 19th century. Wood was born in a house at 62nd Street and Guion Road. “When I was 4 years old, my dad bought a 16 acre farm that’s now Eagle Creek Park,” says Wood. “We lived in a 3-room house without electricity or inside toilet facilities.”
It wasn’t a black community in terms of geography. Wood says. “There were African-American families scattered all over the township,” he says. There were some who lived in Bitter Root in the far northwest corner of the township. There were others who lived along Shanghai Road and DeLong Road and Reed Road.
Faith and Fun. The one place where there were no blacks, says Wood, was the township’s only real town, Augusta. While black families shopped in New Augusta stores, they lived elsewhere.”
The center of black community life was Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church. Founded in 1893, the church was more than a place of worship–it was also a gathering place for social events. “Basically everything revolved around the church.” says Wood.
His cousin Evelyn Potter agrees, citing Mount Pleasant’s annual homecoming as an example of how the church brought area blacks together. “People would come out from town and just enjoy being in the country. They would spread out on the lawn under the trees.”
On the move. In 1930, when the church was forced to move from its original location on a lot donated by a local farmer, black residents chipped in to raise the $300.00 to buy a new lot; they also helped construct a new building. That site now is marked by a plaque in Eagle Creek Park. Mount Pleasant moved to its present location at 5111 W. 62nd Street in 1972 due to the park’s development.
Potter, 62, says she truly enjoyed growing up in the township, despite the rigors of country life. “I used to have to help haul wood and coal into the house and put them by the pot-bellied sotve. And I had to fill the oil lamps. At night I would study upstairs in our new house, wrapped in a blanket and reading by lamplight. And on Saturdays I walked 3 miles across fields to go to 4-H.”
Teachers were supportive. Potter credits her Pike Township teachers with helping her succeed. “They always encouraged me. My phys ed teacher especially — she encouraged me to work hard. She told me I could do whatever I wanted, and I did. I graduated from high school, went to Indiana University and became a teacher. I taught for IPS for 34 years.”
But life wasn’t perfect, says Potter. She did encounter prejudice. “Being black, I wasn’t able to be a cheerleader, and I wasn’t able to go with my class to Washington, D.C. But I managed.”
So did Vernon Parker, a cousin of Wood and Potter. Now 79, Parker recalls playing on New Augusta High School’s basketball team and coming into Indianapolis for games. “It was bad when you got away from home,” says Parker. “We never had any trouble in Pike, but in Indianapolis I wasn’t always treated too good.”
Though blacks and whites in the township got along well, says Parker, there wasn’t a lot of socializing outside of school events. “Folks would have parties, but weren’t interracial.”
But the lack of interracial socializing made for stronger bonds among Pike’s black residents. “Our activities were among ourselves out here”, says Potter.
Many have stayed. Once real estate development took off in Pike Township in the 1960s, says Wood, the rural way of life began to fade. Black families sold their farms to developers, says Wood, and “The farms grew houses.”
But as the farms grew houses, black families bought some of those homes. Both Wood and Potter live in Pike Township still. “I’m just pleased to be part of this community,” says Potter. “My roots are here.”