Indianapolis’ oldest African-American church has been sold. With it goes the last of what was left of Indiana Avenue, historically the mecca of black culture in the city.
By August, the 150 congregants of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 414 W. Vermont St. will move out of their historic Downtown building. The buyer, Indianapolis-based SUN Development and Management Corp., plans to redevelop the church and its adjoining parking lot into two hotels. A clause in the sales contract stipulates that as much of the structure be preserved as possible.
A church fundraising effort to pay for $2 million in necessary building repairs came up far short.
“It wasn’t even a drop in the bucket of what we needed,” the Rev. Lewis Parham said.
The pastor, who has been at the church a little over a year, said he will miss the sanctuary, with its brightly colored stained-glass windows and the high archways of the decorative wooden ceiling, the most.
Bharat Patel, chairman of SUN, said the company has not decided which hotel company will occupy the space. SUN plans to build a replica of the church on what is now the church's parking lot for the second hotel. Patel said the company expects to include a small bar and cafe in the hotel that will face the Downtown Canal.
"I think it will be good commercial development down there," he said. "It’s long needed."
Patel said the company is doing a structural study to determine how much of the building can be saved. He said the church's tower and front facade will remain. He said the company is working with historic preservation groups to determine the best methods of saving them.
"That church has a wonderful history, and we would at least like to have a monumental preservation of it," he said. "We would like to build a building that would mimic the church."
Patel would not disclose how much SUN paid for the property.
The Indianapolis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in the building. In an area of the city once considered Indianapolis' black residential neighborhood, before Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis was built, the building was home to many cultural events.
That history began to be stripped away as developers centered Downtown, building the college campus, high-end apartments and space for leisure activities. Parham said the new infrastructure, development and urban renewal projects forced out the black community.
"It completely changed the makeup of this area of the city," he said.
Although he has been at the church for only a short time, Parham said he does not want to see new development erase the history of people of color in Indianapolis.
"I respect and honor the history that has gone on here," he said, "the sacrifices that have been made."
The pastor said the congregation will move to a new and undetermined location, where "the evangelistic efforts we make would be more successful," and where there are residents with young families.
Last fall, Bethel was approached by multiple potential buyers, including SUN, Parham said. However, the church refused at that time.
In August, Bethel had hosted a community discussion and asked the 20 people in attendance whether to sell the building or make the repairs. Bethel has a mortgage on the building, built in 1869. The $2 million in repairs would have included putting on a new roof, fixing the foundation, adjusting the floor joists and replacing the electrical system. Church members felt confident they could raise the money.
The church made direct appeals to friends and family and created a page on the GoFundMe fundraising website. Parham said it was told by a Texas organization to expect $300,000 within five months once the GoFundMe page was active. Instead, the fundraising result was a $100 gift card from an Indianapolis resident and $11,000, separate from the GoFundMe campaign, in donations from church members, most of whom are on fixed incomes, he said.
“We were totally just disappointed,” Parham said. “People want the building to stay, but people don’t want to do what it takes to keep it here.”
The pastor said SUN approached the Bethel AME church again in February with a higher bid, though the amount was not the highest the church was offered.
“Considering the dollars that were involved, plus some of the other aspects of the contract, we thought his offer was the best,” Parham said. “His offer was one that would not call for demolition of this building.”
hurch historian Olivia McGee-Lockhart said the building has been a landmark for many visitors to the city. She said congregants have always been concerned about social justice in the community and have worked alongside many groups, though she said it's hard to find in the written history of Indianapolis.
McGee-Lockhart said her hope is that their history of social justice and dedication to improving the quality of people's lives won't be lost when members move to their next location. She said erasing black culture and people of color from Downtown will contribute to an impression that Indianapolis is not welcoming to them.
"You look around, and you don't see any evidence of the African-American culture," she said. "Without any concrete evidence, I think it would have an effect."
McGee-Lockhart said congregants meet people because of their closeness to the canal, and many are surprised to see the church. She said other than Madame Walker Theatre Center, the church is the last piece of black history Downtown. However, the historian said it's an accomplishment that the church lasted this long.
"You cannot talk about this city," she said, "without talking about the African-American community."All that was left of the "mecca of black culture" in the city of Indianapolis could only muster a $100 gift card (odds are only $1.14 was left on it) and $11,000 of the $2 million needed in funding for the necessary repairs to keep it open.
Without a black population in Indianapolis, you literally wouldn't be able to comprehend the value of the real estate in the city; with a city that is 28 percent black, only a $100 gift card and $11,000 were raised in five months.
Don't worry though, as the true cultural contributions of blacks to the city of Indianapolis are still quite clear: just ask Amanda Blackburn's family.