Madam Walker in 1912, with (from left to right) Anjetta Breedlove, Lucy Flint, and Alice Kelly.

Above: In 1912, Madam Walker posed at the wheel of her Model T in front of her home at 640 North West Street
(photograph courtesy A'Lelia Bundles/Walker Family Collection)

On February 10, 1910, Sarah Walker and her husband CJ arrived in Indianapolis, and within two days she was advertising her services in "the art of growing hair" at the home of her host Joseph Henry Ward.  Billing herself as Madam CJ Walker, the newcomer rapidly demonstrated her marketing skills, persistence, and remarkable capacity to develop products many consumers desired.  Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Walker’s Indianapolis venture was exceptionally successful, and she was soon renting a home on North West Street (now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Street).  By May 1911 she was sufficiently prosperous to purchase the neighboring home at 640 North West Street, and she soon after added the neighboring lot and store front to build a factory and business office.  In the rear of the yard at 640 North West Street Walker constructed buildings to test and produce Walker products, launching an internationally known firm that prospered long after her death in 1919.

Madam Walker’s life story remains powerful today because it underscores the color and gender barriers placed before many early 20th century entrepreneurs even as her successes demonstrate how countless people survived and even flourished despite such barriers.  While Madam Walker’s enormous success as a business person, philanthropist and activist was matched by few if any of her 20th century contemporaries, many of her relatively anonymous neighbors labored at many of the same entrepreneurial ambitions and confronted and resisted many of the same inequalities.  The collective stories of Madam Walker, her neighboring marketers, and the thousands of consumers who frequented such businesses over nearly a century are a microcosm of life along and across the color line in 20th-century America. 

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1887 Sanborn map

2009 Archaeology Field School

In Summer 2009 the IUPUI Archaeology Field School will conduct excavations at a site that includes Madam Walker’s home and the neighboring store and Walker Company office that she first rented when she moved to Indianapolis.  Madam Walker’s company remained in the neighborhood for more than a half-century, and the Theater built in her honor continues to serve as a reminder of her national prominence, but she was one of many people who made their homes in the neighborhood over more than 125 years, and many of her neighbors worked at the very same ambitions that drove Madam Walker.  The archaeological project provides an opportunity to examine the Walker Company’s industrial operation and Madam Walker’s home while it will illuminate nearly a century of residents who lived in this block.

The Archaeology Field School (Anthropology P405) is offered most Summers and is open to any undergraduate student for four to six credits.  The course is offered during Summer semester I, which begins May 13 and ends Wednesday June 24.  You do not need to be an Anthropology student or have any archaeological coursework or experience to take the class.  Students are trained in field excavation methodology, public interpretation, laboratory analysis, and archaeological theory.  Students learn to identify nineteenth- and twentieth-century material culture, excavate historic urban deposits, and work actively with many visitors and our partners in the Ransom Place Neighborhood Association.  For registration details, enrolled IUPUI students can contact the Registrar's Office.  Visiting students can get details on credit transfer on the Registrar's Visiting Students page.  See the field school syllabus for the course requirements.

Volunteers are welcome to work alongside field school students.  We will start accepting volunteers the week of May 25th.  If you would like to volunteer over the summer, please email Paul Mullins or Lewis Jones or call (317-274-9847) for details.  

Those who would like a detailed scholarly background on Madam Walker should consult On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker (A'Lelia Bundles, Scribner 2001).  The Madam C.J. Walker web page includes essential biographical background on Madam Walker.  For those visiting Indianapolis or the archaeology site, the Madame Walker Theatre Center was opened by Madam Walker's daughter A'Lelia Walker in December, 1927, and it today hosts a rich range of musical, scholarly, and cultural programs and is open for tours by appointment.


Above: In 1887 the three homes on North West Street had been standing about 10 years.  In this view North West Street is at the top (i.e., current-day Martin Luther King Jr. Street), and Madam Walker's future home sat in the middle of the three homes.  The rear yards were at this point relatively open spaces, with the exceptions of outhouses along the alley line at 342 and 354 North West Street and the large two-story stable behind the Abel and Harriet Davis home in between.

Life along the Color Line on North West Street

The first occupants of the home that Madam Walker would eventually purchase in 1911 were Abel and Harriet Davis, who built the house in about 1871-1875. Abel Davis was born in New Hampshire in about 1828, and he married Harriet Grimes in New Hampshire in 1858.  Sometime between 1863 and 1867 Abel and Harriet Davis moved to Indianapolis, where they appeared in the city directory on the east side of West Street in 1867 (i.e., the side of the street opposite the archaeological site).  Abel was then managing the firm Baxter and Davis with Peter D. Baxter, a grocery and produce dealer on West Washington Street.  In 1875 the Davis household first appeared in the city directory at the future Walker residence.  The home directly to the north--which Madam Walker rented in 1910-1911 prior to moving into the former Davis house--was home to Margaret Espy in 1875, and that home was built at about the same time as the Abel's residence.  Born in Pennsylvania in about 1801, Espy first appeared in an Indianapolis primary record in 1850, when she appeared in the federal census.  Between 1871 and 1875 she moved to the North West Street home, apparently at about the same time as the Davises moved into their new home, but Espy was gone by 1880 and was buried at Crown Hill Cemetery in 1887.  A parade of neighbors moved into the homes on each side of the Davises over three decades, but the Davis family lived for more than 30 years in the home that Madam Walker purchased in 1911.  Abel and Harriet Davis last appeared on North West Street in 1906, though they may have remained there as late as 1909; Abel apparently died by 1910, when the census recorded Harriet Davis living on Indiana Avenue.

In 1910, CJ and Sarah Walker and their housekeeper Linnie Allen were renting the home at 644-646 North West Street, which had once been Margaret Espy's house and had been used as a combined store and residential space since the late-19th century.  The Walkers were among the earliest African-American residents on North West Street, a neighborhood whose ethnic makeup changed quite radically in the first decade of the 20th century.  In 1900 six households were listed in the federal census as residents in the archaeological project area, which included two doubles and two single-family residences, and all were White.  In 1906, the first Black resident in the project area was Harry C. Clark, an Illinois-born cook living in the double south of Madam Walker’s future home.  His neighbor in the double was William A. Davidson, a White Canadian born to a Scottish father and English mother, and while most of Davidson’s neighbors could not claim such ethnic diversity they all were classed in the census as White.  Four years later, though, only one resident was White, and most of the surrounding blocks had also become overwhelmingly Black.  In 1910, that last White resident was Oel Buck, who was managing a candy shop on Indiana Avenue, and he and his wife Annie had been living in a home on the alley at the rear of 644-646 North West Street since about 1904. The Buck family stayed in the home until 1912, but when they moved in 1913 the surrounding block was uniformly Black.  

1898 Sanborn map Much of the near-Westside became predominately Black around the same moment, fueled by the vast number of African Americans fleeing the South in a mass displacement commonly referred to as the Great Migration.  Between 1910 and 1920 Indianapolis' Black population increased from 21,816 to 34,690, and a vast number of these newcomers came from the upper South, especially Kentucky.  While the largest numbers of African-American migrants came in the 20th century, a steady stream had been arriving in Indianapolis since the Civil War, and by 1900 many of those residents had settled along and adjoining Indiana Avenue, so the 20th-century arrivals often settled in the same neighborhoods as Madam Walker.  In some other corners of the near-Westside, though, ethnic White majorities including Irish Americans and Greeks hung on well into the 1930s and after World War II.  Nevertheless, the neighborhoods north and south of Indiana Avenue tended to become predominately Black from the late 1890s, and by World War I most of the neighborhoods north of Michigan Street were overwhelmingly African American.  The labor opportunities these newcomers found were exceptionally limited.  As in many communities, many African Americans entered domestic service, much as Madam Walker had herself done.  In 1910, for instance, Madam Walker's neighbor Annie Parker and her boarder Clara Williams were identified as doing day work and cooking for private families.  Madam Walker herself had a live-in housekeeper Linnie Allen in 1910; while many of these service laborers eventually secured other work, many also spent their lives in such work.  A 1923 study of African-American domestic service suggested that Indianapolis' African-American service laborers were especially well-educated in comparison to other cities: of 387 African Americans doing domestic labor in Indianapolis, 43% had attended school through at least the fifth grade, a figure that was much higher than contemporary cities, which were dominated by  laborers with significantly less education.  This likely was a reflection of the very limited laboring opportunities for women of color in early 20th century Indianapolis.  Those women who did domestic service faced physically challenging and often dehumanizing working conditions:  More than half of the Indianapolis households employing African American laundresses in 1922 did not have washing machines, so these African-American laundresses labored at a task Madam Walker herself had once conducted using much the same technology she had once used (from Elizabeth Ross Haynes, Negroes in Domestic Service in the United States, Journal of Negro History October 1923).
Above:  In 1898, the Sanborn Insurance map showed the three homes along North West Street including the home at 640 North West that eventually became Madam Walker's residence in 1911.  Since the 1887 map of the same property, a double had been added along the alley at 636 North West Street and another at 644-646 North West Street.
The Indianapolis Star noted on May 6, 1911 that Harriet G. Davis sold a 40-by-155 foot lot “to Sarah Walker ... [on the] west side of West Street, north of Indiana avenue" for $3500 (right).  Madam Walker apparently began to quickly renovate the home, adding two rooms and a bath but not changing the structure's existing footprint.  Indeed, the two-story home looked much the same on a 1914 Sanborn insurance map as it had in 1898, but Madam Walker clearly significantly renovated the interior upon purchasing the home.  On July 2, 1911 the Indianapolis Star’s “News of the Colored Folks” column indicated that “The beautiful and recently remodeled home of Mr. and Mrs. C J Walker on North West Street was thrown open to their friends Tuesday evening for a housewarming.  One hundred and fifty persons attended.   The house was decorated with palms and cut flowers.  Music was furnished by a harpist.  Among the out of town guests were Mrs. Walker B. Bond and Mrs. [Agnes] Prosser [CJ Walker’s sister] of Louisville Ky.  Mr. and Mrs. Walker received many valuable presents.”  Walker did add an outbuilding at the rear of the lot in about 1912 that was identified in a 1914 map as “salve mixing,” replacing an earlier stable that had at one point included an upstairs living space.  After acquiring the neighboring home she had once rented at 644-646 North West Street, she converted it into a salon.  The alley home Oel and Annie Buck had lived in at the back of that lot was dismantled in about 1913 and replaced by 1914 with a garage, certainly for Madam Walker’s car.  Even after Madam Walker's death her home and Indianapolis factory continued to attract attention; in 1923, for instance, a Journal of Negro History article on African-American business surveyed Madam Walker's firm and noted that "A very fine home office building recently constructed in Indianapolis gives further evidence of the impression which this enterprise has made in the business world."  The salve mixing building continued to be used into the 1950s, and the garage was eventually turned over to a manufacturing space for the firm as well.

1911 Indianapolis Star real estate sale notice

Above: On May 6, 1911 the Indianapolis Star's real estate column included this notice of Harriet Grimes Davis' sale of 640 North West Street to Madam Walker. 

1916 Baist map

A September 6, 1912 line in the Indianapolis Star's "News of the Courts" column noted that Sarah Walker was requesting a divorce from CJ Walker, who she had married in 1906, but she would continue to use the moniker Madam CJ Walker for the remainder of her career. Madam Walker's ambitions to continually expand her company led her to New York City, and the commonplace injustices of everyday racism in Indianapolis likely fueled her decision to eventually leave Indianapolis.  Madam Walker lived in the North West Street home until January, 1916, when she moved to New York City.  She appeared as the resident of the home in the 1916 city directory, but by then she had begun to live in her new Harlem home even though her firm continued to operate from the North West Street address.  Walker eventually constructed an even more fabulous home at Irvington-on-Hudson 20 miles north of Manhattan known as Villa Lewaro, a name coined by Enrico Caruso that took the first two letters from the name of the Madam's daughter Lelia Walker Robinson.  Yet by that point Madam Walker's health had begun to deteriorate, and in May 1919 she died at Villa Lewaro, attended by Dr. Joseph Ward who had hosted her on her arrival in Indianapolis nine years earlier.

Madam Walker was certainly the most famous resident of this stretch of North West Street and lived in its most stately home, but she was surrounded by many neighbors who lived in much more modest homes.  When the project area appeared in the 1887 Sanborn Insurance map, it identified a double to the south of Madam Walker's future home and the Espy home to the north.  In the 1890s another double was built on the rear of the lot at 636-638 North West Street.  Much of the near-Westside had become densely occupied by the turn of the century, and many home owners and landlords subdivided large residences into multiple units, expanded existing homes, converted stables into homes, and built onto alleys, just as the residents did at 636-638 North West Street.  While the homes along North West Street were quite substantial residences, the alley homes were much smaller buildings that were vastly less well-appointed than Madam Walker's home; at 636-638 North West, for instance, the large out building in the yard in 1898 was likely an outhouse, and the structure remained there until World War II.  Outhouses had once sat along the rear lot line of the homes at 636-638 and 644-646 when those homes were first built, but the model genteel homes along North West Street quickly secured sewer connections.  Many neighbors in the blocks around Madam Walker--even within 50 yards of her own home--would continue to have uneven utility services and live in quite modest homes throughout the neighborhood's history.

Above: The archaeological project area is outlined in red in this 1916 map of the neighborhood.  The light red structures were businesses, which included the building at 644-646 North West Street as well as a string of enterprises along Indiana Avenue near the base of this map.

The Walker Company remained a profitable firm long after Madam Walker's passing, and her palatial North West Street home continued as the firm's offices and then as a private residence and insurance office even as the firm's factory and store continued in business in its back yard and in the neighboring lot.  By the late 1920s the Walker residence was home to the household of Judge and Ella Duncan.  Born in Kentucky in June, 1884, Judge Duncan married Ella Walker on August 3, 1922.  In 1920 Ella Walker appeared in the census as a divorced head of household living on West Michigan Street with Judge Duncan as one of her two boarders.  She had been married to a man named George Walker, but he does not appear to have had a relationship to Madam Walker. The Duncans lived in the home into the 1930s but had moved by 1940.

Madam Walker's former home storefront at 644-646 North West Street was a beauty salon being managed by Mary F. Oden in 1940, with the other side being home to a feed store.  The firm continued to have factory buildings in the back yards of the two homes, and Madam Walker's home was an insurance office as well as a residence to Lowrey McClain.  Yet between 1950 and 1956 the Walker factory buildings were dismantled, and the back yard become an open lot.  The Walker home itself was last listed as a residence in 1965, appearing vacant in both 1964 and 1965, and it was apparently razed soon after.

The archaeology field school will be in the field at Madam Walker's home site from mid-May through late June.  Visitors are welcome to come see the excavations in progress, and reports on the field findings will be posted on this page as the summer progresses.


1950 Sanborn map

Above: In 1950, the rear yard of the structures at 640 and 646-648 North West Street continued to have buildings associated with the Walker Company, identified here as "salve mixing" and "storage."  The Gibraltar Industrial Life Insurance Company had offices in the former Madam Walker home at 640 North West, and Maxine Beard lived in the home.

Photograph of Madam Walker courtesy A'Lelia Bundles/Walker Family Collection 
Page last updated May 1, 2009