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Saturday, November 27, 2021

What’s In A Name, Indy? Crispus Attucks High School — Part One

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Crispus Attucks High School was designed to be the segregated high school for Black teenagers in Indianapolis. The school served that purpose for decades until the Indianapolis Public Schools desegregated its high school operations.

“Separate But Equal” was not just a slogan — it was public policy in Indianapolis.

This school was established at a time when the governments of Indianapolis and the State of Indiana were controlled by white supremacists through the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan hated — and continues to hate — a wide variety of people and acted on that hate against those that its members considered to be beneath them — individuals who practiced Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam as well as individuals of African, Irish, Italian, Polish and other ethnic heritages, among others.

Prior to the school’s opening in 1927, students of all races — including Black students — attended several area public high schools in Indianapolis. The leadership of the city decided it was time to place all Black high school students in one high school in 1922. The site chosen was near neighborhoods that were largely segregated. For decades, most Black individuals and families were limited to living in certain sections of Indianapolis.

The idea to establish a segregated high school in Indianapolis was years in the making.

On June 24, 1899, the Indianapolis Recorder noted there were discussions about creating a segregated high school: “The necessity for the establishment of a colored high school in Indianapolis is not yet at hand; let us not urge it.”

In 1908, the registration form filed with the National Park Service stated Black teenagers were able to attend the two public high schools then in operation in Indianapolis — “though proportionately few did … Nevertheless, by 27 October 1908, [Indianapolis] Superintendent of Schools Calvin Kendall identified the integration of the high schools as a problem and noted the [Indianapolis School] board must begin to think in terms of a separate Black high school. ‘This building,’ suggested Kendall, ‘should be west of the canal … Sooner or later it will be necessary to remove the colored children from the present high schools.’”

The leadership in the business community of Indianapolis, according to this registration form, strongly backed a segregated high school for Black students: “In September of 1922, a delegation from the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce petitioned for a separate high school for Negro children, and that it be modern and completely equipped – the much touted notion of ‘separate but equal.’ In the months that followed, the board discussed the question of a ‘colored high school’ thoroughly.”

The Indianapolis News included a headline in its edition dated Oct. 19, 1922, that stated “Colored High School Question Up Again.” The news article indicated that a school official stated that “… such a high school … would seem to be a solution of the problem of congestion in the high schools.”

A memorial portrait of what Crispus Attucks may have looked like in the 1700s. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, circa 1897)

A letter to the editor of The Indianapolis Newsfrom someone with the initials “J.E.M.” on Oct. 25, 1922, highlighted how some local residents were against the idea of a segregated high school.  In the letter, the individual stated that “If Indianapolis wishes to place a stain upon her name she should build a colored high school.  But on the other hand if she wishes to become one of the leading cities of the country she must not let race prejudice take her right hand.”

Among those that supported the idea of segregation — voluntary segregation — was the interracial committee of the Indianapolis Council of Social Agencies. In a news article dated May 29, 1925, The Indianapolis Star reported the agency issued a report stating, “We are of the opinion that practically all of the colored high school students of the city would, within a short time, be found within such a school without resorting to compulsory segregation.” The subcommittee, though, disagreed with the site at 12th Street and West Street (today’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street).

Part Two of What’s In A Name, Indy? – Crispus Attucks High School will detail the initial name suggested for the school, the name originally approved (hint: In the time of Ku Klux Klan control of Indianapolis, the leadership of the city wanted a slave owner’s name to grace the segregated high school), and other aspects of this critical educational institution.

Do you have questions about communities in Indianapolis? A street name? A landmark? Your questions may be used in a future news column. Contact Richard McDonough at whatsinanameindy@usa.com.

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