On the occasion of Black History Month this February it's an opportune moment to profile one of the many great Black musicians who made history on the famed Indianapolis entertainment strip known as Indiana Avenue. Over the last couple years I've examined many such figures in this column, from the obscure Erroll "Groundhog" Grandy to the legendary Leroy Carr.
But it occurred to me I'd never written about the great matriarch of the Avenue, Madame C.J. Walker and her massive contribution to the Avenue, the Madame Walker Theatre.
After opening in December of 1927 the Madame Walker still sits as the crown jewel of the Indiana Avenue. Today, it represents the last standing architectural remnant of the Avenue's once-bustling nightlife culture. In its early years, the building not only functioned as the headquarters of Madame Walker's business operations but also housed a movie theater, concert hall, ball room, doctor's offices, coffee shop and a restaurant among other things. The Walker Theatre was a hub around which much of the neighborhood's commerce and recreation grew.
By the time Madame Walker, born Sara Breedlove, relocated to Indianapolis in 1910, she was well on her way establishing herself as the first female self-made millionaire in the history of the United States. Her story is one of the most incredible "rags to riches" stories you're ever likely to hear. Walker was born into dire poverty to parents who'd spent the majority of their lives in slavery, was orphaned at age six, and widowed by age 20. it was her entry into the world of hair and beauty care products that would provide her breakthrough. She entered the field around 1904 selling hair care products for pioneering Black entrepreneur Annie Malone. But Walker quickly developed her own line of innovative products and selling techniques under the name Madame C.J. Walker and by 1906 had established a successful mail order business.
Walker selected Indianapolis as her company headquarters because of the city's strategic access to several major railroad networks. She was also impressed by the city's vibrant Black community, which quickly became the focus of Walker's philanthropic spirit.
It's unfortunate, but perhaps not surprising to note that the impetus that propelled Walker to begin planning the concept of Walker Theatre stemmed from an incident of racial discrimination in Indianapolis. The incident occurred in 1915 at the Isis Theater formerly located Downtown at 113 N. Illinois St. Walker arrived at the ticket counter to purchase a 10 cent ticket from a young white cashier only to be told the price for "colored" patrons was 25 cents. Infuriated, Walker refused the purchase, returning to her offices and instructing her attorney to file a lawsuit against the Isis. As legend goes, it was at this moment that she also vowed to build her own theater.
Walker spared no expense in designing her theater, employing local architectural firm Rubush and Hunter to lead the project. Rubush and Hunter had been behind some of the most stunning constructions in the city including the Circle Theater, Colombia Club, Indiana Roof Ballroom and The Murat.
Walker passed away in 1919, and sadly never had a chance to see her vision come into fruition. But her daughter A'lelia Walker helped see the project through to completion.
Since opening in 1927 the Walker Theatre has hosted countless musical performances some of which have acquired legendary status in music lore, like Wes Montgomery's 1959 performance in the Theater's Missile Room where the bold guitar virtuoso was discovered by saxophone giant Cannonball Adderley and Little Richard's 1956 performance at the Walker Casino which must rank as one of the very first rock and roll concerts ever in Indy.
The Walker Theatre has played a significant role in local Black pop culture, popping up in the work of Leroy Carr: "I would rather be in Naptown than any place I know, I can get me a ticket and stop by the Walker show" (in "Naptown Blues") and poet Mari Evans: "late Sunday afternoons, the Madame Walker tearoom stylishly packed, crisp gloves, the soft silks gleaming” (in "I Am A Black Woman").
The Walker Theatre was a source of pride for local Black residents, offering a beautiful alternative to White owned businesses that often provided Black patrons with second-rate goods and services, a circumstance hinted at in the Walker Theatre Drugstore's slogan which promised "positively no stale seconds, inferior or refuse merchandise will be used, stocked or sold.”
Eighty-eight years have passed since the Madame Walker Theatre first opened its doors and the facility remains a source of pride for the community. For me, the theater represents the generous and resilient spirit of Madame C.J. Walker who overcame conditions of extreme poverty and racism to create a lasting legacy for all people of Indianapolis to enjoy.