Hidden History: Madam Walker's legacy in Indiana evolves on Indiana Avenue

Hidden History
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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -  Over the last year, crews have been putting the finishing touches on a newly-renovated Madam Walker Legacy Center.

Tuesday afternoon, Indianapolis leaders celebrated the historic site as one of the top reasons to visit the Circle City in 2020, as Indy celebrates its bicentennial. Visit Indy and TV Host David Letterman, a Hoosier, kicked off those celebrations at the Center's theater, filled with new upgrades.

Nearly a century ago, the Indiana Avenue building was the epicenter of the black community and business.

Beairshelle Edmé learned why Madam C.J Walker chose to invest in Indianapolis and how she became the first woman to be a self-made millionaire.

No matter where a woman's coils and curls are styled, Madam Walker knew that it was a sacred space is where black women could shine. It's where she built her multi-million dollar, Indianapolis business.

"I knew the story that most people knew. Madam Walker was born Sarah Breedlove, born on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana-- was a washerwoman, discovered a hair care product, became a millionaire," recited A'Lelia Bundles, author of On Her Own Ground.

As Walker's biographer, Bundles found there's much more to the story.

As her great-great-granddaughter, she's proud to tell Edmé that story in the Madam Walker Legacy Center.

"I've been coming to this building for almost 70 years," she described. "And I have really watched its many chapters, from when I was a little girl and Mary, the elevator operator,  would take us up to the fourth floor and I'd follow my mother into her office and play on her typewriter and her adding machine."

97-year-old Thomas Ridley has been coming to the Center a little longer.

"You didn't have to say Indiana avenue. Everyone knew-- but when the Walker (Center) came in '27, this corner came alive," the longtime-Indy resident and historian explained. "Two or three dance halls were down here, and dancing was a thing for us in those days."

Ridley, an Army World War II veteran, says then the Walker building the center of Indianapolis' black culture-- and it was.

"We had so many good restaurants and whatnot here, on the Avenue, that you didn't worry about that (segregation). I went to segregated schools, of course," he recalled. "I went through all of that, but we didn't worry about that. That was somebody else's problem. I mean, the people who were worried about us coming,  but we went where we wanted."

The multi-purpose building was where black Hoosiers were allowed to live without segregated lines.

"People were visiting there consistently-- visiting to the pharmacy that was there, restaurants that were there, and offices," said Judith Thomas, the center's president. "There were doctor's offices in the Madam Walker Legacy Center as well as just business offices."

That's the story A'Lelia's discovered; Madam C.J. Walker was a branding genius who used her wealth for good.

"For her to do what she did when women didn't have the vote and when women couldn't even own property in their own names in many places to have built an empire, to have built a business that employed thousands of women, allow those women to become economically independent, was really quite incredible," her great-great-granddaughter said.

That's something local black hairstylist and businesswoman Christina Lockett admires.

"It just blows my mind that Madam C. J. Walker was just able to reach all these women. And just kind of pave the way for others," said Lockett, owner of Christina Ann Salon Boutique in Carmel.

That path was laid on Indianapolis train tracks, which carried her products around the world.

Bundles says the self-made businesswoman never took that fore-granted.

"She said, 'I just want to live to help my people'. She really had gotten to the point where building the business and selling the hair care products was a means to an end. After a point, she was glad to do that-- she was glad to make that money, but it was what she did with that money (that mattered)."

Walker poured it into Indiana Avenue in a building she never lived to see, but Indianapolis residents can't miss.

The Madam Walker Legacy Center is expected to reopen in June.

As we enter Black History Month, CBS4 will continue honoring the legacy of black leaders in our Hidden History reports and special.

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