INDIANAPOLIS — 200 years ago, when Indianapolis was little more than plotted land contained within what we today call the Mile Square, the state of Indiana deeded property near Kentucky Avenue and West and Henry streets, right up to the east bank of the White River, to the city for utilization of a “burying ground.”
”Indianapolis has 150 known pioneer cemeteries. Of those 150, Greenlawn is the largest and Greenlawn has the only known African American section, or, in those days, they called it the ‘Colored Section,’” said historian Leon Bates. ”The state of Indiana passed a law in 1823 to create it as a city cemetery, but to clarify that, in 1923 they wrote a law specifically saying that this cemetery was the property of the city of Indianapolis. If the city wanted to use it as anything else except a cemetery, the city had to remove or cause removal of all interments in that four-acre section.”
Centuries went by, the land passed into private hands and hundreds or thousands of bodies were exhumed and reinterred in other city cemeteries, but the remains in the mostly “Colored Section” remained mostly undisturbed, paved over with concrete to support warehouses above ground.
Now that demolition of the Diamond Chain factory is well underway to make way for the planned one billion dollar Indy Eleven Soccer Stadium complex, the future of those unmarked graves, which could contain the remains of approximately 1500 people, give or take, is in doubt, and Bates and other guardians of Indianapolis’ cultural heritage want to make sure the memories and last mortal trace of the city’s 19th-century African American pioneers are respected and treated with dignity.
They’re hanging their hopes on a state law that was passed a hundred years ago.
”If you read that law it clearly says the city of Indianapolis has to do this. The question becomes, is that law still on the books?” Bates asked. “We’re not sure if it is or is not. If that law is still on the books, the city may still have to ensure that these people are moved. If the law is not on the books, the city still does have to meet a moral obligation to move these people. In order to get the property and the seller, the city agreed to the state of Indiana to move everybody.”
The property has been purchased by Keystone Development which is building the soccer stadium complex, but the city is negotiating to acquire a corner of the site to provide a landing for a $20 million bridge that will someday span the White River from the anticipated $150 million Elanco corporate headquarters on the west bank to a reconstituted Henry Street on the east bank.
”The bridge should be accessible so you can travel from the west side to the east side of the river by 2026,” said Department of Public Works Director Brandon Herget. ”Once we would potentially begin excavation, that’s when the procedures and different policies come into play and it would be incumbent upon whoever is developing that land to follow those proper procedures.”
That would be the city of Indianapolis, said Herget, though no longer abiding by the century-old state law.
”That 1923 law that is referenced by various stakeholders is no longer in effect,” he said. “It’s our understanding from legal counsel that that has not been in effect for a significant number of years now.”
While the city is no longer legally obligated to adhere to the 1923 statute, Herget said there is a moral obligation to honor the law’s spirit.
”We’ve taken a number of proactive steps as it relates to just the due diligence of the site and the historical precedence that we know about and the history of the site itself. Beyond that, we have worked with the community to go above and beyond not just what’s required of us by state law and federal statute, but also working in good faith with the community to inform the construction practices and excavation practices that will be on the site.
”For example, we are using different types of equipment, requiring different training of the personnel that will be operating and looking at and watching over the excavation, if and when it happens early next year.”
Bates and other supporters were due to testify before the Metropolitan Development Committee of the City-County Council that was considering the establishment of a special taxing district to encompass the Indy Eleven stadium site.
”We know it’s going to happen, so, if it’s going to happen, take the time to move the people,” he said. ”There are people here. The biggest question is, how many?”