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What’s In A Name, Indy? JTV Hill – The Man, The Park – Part One

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The JTV Hill Park is located along Dr. Andrew J, Brown Avenue, between 17th and 19th streets. The formal address for this park is 1806 Columbia Ave. The park includes the JTV Hill Center, a structure opened in 1961. Today, this community center is the site of the Indy Police Athletic and Activities League (PAL), a program of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and the Indy Public Safety Foundation. Basketball courts, picnic tables and playground equipment are situated within the park.

While many in the immediate neighborhood may know of this park, few may know of the man for whom the park is named.

When James Thomas Vastine Hill died in 1928, he was called “…The Dean of Negro Lawyers.” For years, few noticed his final resting place at Crown Hill Cemetery.

The Indianapolis Bar Association led efforts to have a memorial placed at the gravesite of Hill to honor his service to the people of Indiana. On May 29, 1998, the memorial was dedicated at Crown Hill Cemetery. This memorial details some of his accomplishments: first African American admitted to the Circuit Court of Indianapolis Bar in 1879; first African American to enroll and graduate from Central Law School of Indianapolis in 1882; first practicing African American attorney in Marion County from 1882 to 1928; first African American to serve on the Marion County grand jury in 1890; and Marion County deputy prosecutor from 1911 to 1915.

(Please note that while Hill did serve on the grand jury for Marion County, he may not have been the first Black person to do so.  The Freeman of Indianapolis reported on Jan.11, 1890, that “Mr. JTV Hill has been appointed to the county grand jury for the next six months and began duty last Monday. Mr. Hill is the second colored man to receive such an appointment. Hon. JS Hinton received such an appointment ten or twelve years ago.”)

Hill was born in Chillicothe, Ohio, and came to Indianapolis as a young man in 1874. Reports indicated he worked as a postal clerk and as a barber prior to becoming an attorney. He was active in civic, legal and political matters from the time he came to Indianapolis. He was among those who spoke at the Second Baptist Church on Sept. 24, 1879, as part of the church’s program to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation that had been issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. This, according to a news article dated September 18, 1879, in The Indianapolis News.

While Hill later became active in the Democratic Party, it was reported in The Indianapolis Leader in a news article dated Oct. 23, 1880, that “James TV Hill loved the Republican Party because it was cosmopolitan and said to the young man, ‘aspire,’ and to the young woman, ‘educate,’ instead of telling all colored people that they are blockheads.”

At some point, he shifted his political affiliation. Of course, not everyone agreed with his views at the time.

The Indianapolis Journal printed a piece on Aug. 16, 1892, referencing a letter that Hill wrote to President Grover Cleveland and the response President Cleveland sent to Hill. President Cleveland, according to The Indianapolis Journal wrote, “… that it gives him great satisfaction ‘to see our colored citizens giving more attention the principles and policy of political parties and breaking away from the old-time prejudices which were ingeniously played upon to secure their political support.’”

The newspaper continued by stating that if President Cleveland “… had any political sense, not to say knowledge of the facts, he would know that [Mr.] Hill has no following here to speak of, and for Mr. Cleveland to say that his services to the Democracy ‘have been invaluable’ is simply to write himself down an ass.”

The gravestone for James T. V. Hill is a modest tablet at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. (Photo provided courtesy of Crown Hill Heritage Foundation.)

In a news article dated Feb. 28, 1913, The Indianapolis Star reported that Hill publicly stated that he would be willing to “… accept the position of recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia under President [Woodrow] Wilson. The position of recorder of deeds has been occupied by a colored man for about thirty years.”

Hill was not appointed to that position by President Wilson. Instead, Hill continued his legal practice in Indianapolis. He provided legal services to many here and engaged in a number of civic efforts to enhance lives.

“We proudly stand on the shoulders of James T.V. Hill, the first black student at Central Law School, graduating in 1882 and the first African American attorney in Marion County, Indiana,” stated Jimmie McMillian, president of the Indianapolis Bar Association and chief diversity officer and senior corporate counsel at IMS,  INDYCAR, and IMSP. “He certainly laid the foundation for the brilliant and accomplished African American lawyers, judges, and business leaders that practice in the City of Indianapolis today. While many may not be familiar with his story, every lawyer should be aware of his important role in the history of our city and state.”

According to news articles dated May 25, 1928, in both The Indianapolis News and The Indianapolis Star, just about three months after the death of Hill, the Board of Park Commissioners of the Park District of the City of Indianapolis named a former settlement house (Christamore Settlement House) located at 1806 Columbia Ave, in memory of James TV Hill. One of the news articles reported a petition for this naming noted Hill was active in civic affairs in Indianapolis. The JTV Hill Community Center opened to the public in March of 1929. More information about the Christamore Settlement House and the previous aspects of the immediate neighborhood of the JTV Hill Park will be in detailed future edition of What’s In A Name, Indy?

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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