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Saturday, February 27, 2021

History restored: New construction revives property of 1st Black presidential candidate

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Since a fire burned down the home of late community leaders Frank and Bobby Beckwith, the lot near the 3100 block of Washington Boulevard has sat vacant. The residents living nearby remember the rich yet tragic history of this locale. 

Bobby Beckwith, an IPS teacher for more than 20 years and one of the founders of Martin University, was admired in Indianapolis’ Black community for her commitment to improving quality of life for people of color. Her husband, Frank Beckwith, was a renowned lawyer and civil rights activist. Frank gained national attention as the first African-American to run as a candidate for President of the United States in a major-party primary, earning an impressive 20,000 votes opposite Nixon in 1960. Frank and Bobby both lived in the home until Frank passed away at the age of 60 due to an abdominal disease. After the death of her husband and her own retirement, Bobby stayed active in the community and spent her free time mentoring teens and ministering to local inmates, until tragedy struck.

In 2004, 84-year-old Bobby Beckwith’s home became engulfed in flames. Her son, Larry Rogers, tried to rescue his mother, but he was unable to breathe amid the thick smoke. Rogers fell out of a window and escaped the flames, and Bobby died in the fire.

“My mother was in the upper part of the house, and my room was back on the right. I could smell smoke in my sleep, and I woke up and ran to the door. I was blessed that God allowed me to wake up, because you don’t always wake up. I opened the door, and the flames shot in my face. I ran to the window, blacked out and somehow I fell to the ground (outside). I was trying to get back in to my mother, because she woke up and got to the bottom of the steps, but they wouldn’t let me go in. They thought the house would fall in on me. When they finally got it together and got her out, she was dead already,” said Rogers.

Years later, Rogers developed a friendship with architect and realtor Keith Payne, who acquired the land from Rogers and is building a house, which he plans to sell. Payne said he feels this location has historical significance, and he plans to install a plaque on the exterior of the home to honor Frank and Bobby’s legacy.

Left to right: Larry Rogers and Keith Payne pose in front of the house being built on the property where Rogers’ family’s home once stood.

“I grew up in a nearby area, we called it the ‘Golden Ghetto,’ and it was one of the first areas where Blacks could purchase property in the suburbs. It was a bunch of Blacks that were thriving, and because of that the emphasis on excellence in that area has always been pushed,” said Payne. “Going to a Black college made me recognize the significance of our heritage, and I am so appreciative of people fighting for and opening opportunities for the things I can do now. Here you have the first Black man who ran for president’s home being rebuilt by a Black man right after our first Black president completed his term. There is no way I could do what I am doing without people like Frank Beckwith fighting for equality on the Republican ticket. It’s an honor to be able to do it.”

Payne is incorporating smart home technology in the house. A “smart home” is a residence in which appliances, lighting, heating and air, entertainment systems and security camera systems can be controlled remotely from any room in the house. Typically, appliances are capable of communicating with each other and can operate on a schedule. In the future, Payne hopes to build smart homes that are “off the grid,” using solar power to make the homes both smart and energy efficient.

“I have been studying smart homes for years. Fifteen years ago, when they started to talk about smart home technology, it was a concept but it wasn’t at the point where the materials were available. Now with home-based battery systems, smart house tech is more affordable to put into modern homes,” said Payne.

Rogers is excited about new life being given to the home and his family’s legacy being honored.

“My stepfather was the first Black person to run for president. He was endorsed by the Black people in the community, but also a lot of white people. So when he ran he got around 20,000 votes. That’s quite a bit for a Black man at that time in history to get, because things were rough back then. But my mother, she was very active on her own in the city, and Black people don’t get much recognition. So I’m glad this is happening, and I want people to remember them.” 

Payne says construction of the home will be complete in early July.   

Right: Beckwith was the first African-American to run for president of the United States of America 

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