The Forgotten Story of the Ferguson Brothers and the Incredible Legacy of Indiana Avenue
Photo: Sunset Terrace Club on Indiana Avenue in Indianapolis, IN circa 1938. Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper.
Note: This essay originally appeared in Psychphonics Didactic: Collection of Adjacent Mythologies, a print zine published by Janneane and Benjamin Blevins of PRINTtEXT to accompany a pop-up museum in Indianapolis by the same name curated by Kipp Normand and launched in March 2016. My research included the Indianapolis Recorder Newspaper archive, The Chitlin’ Circuit by Preston Lauterbach, and Indiana Historical Society resources.
Let the average Indiana resident tell it, Jim Crow was a distant cousin with a successful enterprise, hands clean, in the Deep South. Revisionist and romanticized history allows for the motherland of the Ku Klux Klan to become the cradle of Hoosier Hospitality in less than a century. One hundred years births generations and then some, but in retrospect isn’t very long at all. Time tells the tallest of tales, stories masquerading as folklore so deliciously grandiose and outlandish, the truth contained within is incredible. Thankfully, dead men don’t lie. In Crown Hill Cemetery is a grave carved out in early spring of 1974, beneath the etched tombstone and fertile ground is a casket, and inside the box is a man adorned in a tailored, bright red zoot suit. But stories like his rarely end six feet under.
Picture Indianapolis right now, five years shy of celebrating a Bicentennial, affectionately known as a big city with a comforting, familiar feel, or a frustratingly small town desperate to be metropolitan — depends on who is inquiring. It’s not difficult to imagine an eerily similar Indianapolis in 1920, a deeply segregated, steadily developing city, an urban core bursting at the seams as the Great Migration attracted nearly 13,000 Negros from southern states, many settling along Indiana Avenue or on cross streets a skip away.
Enter Denver and Sea Ferguson, brothers born and raised in Brownsville, a tiny, rural, white town in Kentucky, 200 miles south of Indianapolis. Throughout their childhood, father Sam, a son of slaves, and mother Mattie, quietly bought small parcels of the town until they held the majority of the land. They taught their boys the power of owning property through practice, sent Denver to the front lines of World War I and Sea to earn a degree at Lincoln University. A newly minted veteran, Denver followed the Black masses to the Circle City, purchased a home, and invested in his own printing press company within walking distance of the Avenue.
The influx of Black Americans relocating to Indiana, living in downtown Indianapolis sparked an exponential growth of KKK membership. Historians estimate a quarter of all white, male Hoosiers joined ranks between 1910 and 1920. Racial tension between blacks and whites boiled over in the streets and bled into the highest levels of municipal office, severely depressing local opportunity and upward mobility for Black families. The Ferguson Brothers, rock ‘n’ roll pioneers, and a touch of extrajudicial ingenuity changed the musical, political, and economic landscape of the city and beyond.
Denver dug his heels into building an empire, designing a lottery ticket disguised as a baseball score card. Folks bought as many tickets as they had money to stretch and scribbled their runs, hits, and errors in three columns, placed their bets with runners hiding in plain sight, and awaited the weekly bank reports to declare a winner, or usually, lack thereof. Two types convened at the back door of the print shop, runners and winners for payouts and cops and politicians for payoffs. The gambling business amassed 200 employees and return on investment so high, Denver summoned his brother to Indianapolis to help him keep supply and demand in check. The Fergusons conducted business as a team and separately, operating as complements amid fierce competition to turn a quick and constant profit. Denver, quiet and unassuming, and younger Sea, personable and visible, the brothers equally formidable, especially together.
They acquired Odd Fellows Hall, a three-story, white social club on the corner of Vermont and Senate, an offshoot of Indiana Avenue. Sea opened a real estate brokerage in a suite on the first floor and converted the remainder of the first floor and the second into the Cotton Club. The third floor transformed into Denver’s Trianon Ballroom. Both black nightlife attractions served as popular destination for traveling big bands and musical acts, from Walter Barnes to Duke Ellington. The connection to Barnes earned Denver access to the Chicago’s Bronzeville rock ‘n’ roll beat, expanding to Detroit, Milwaukee, and Indianapolis, a primer for the Chitlin’ Circuit with anchor venues for touring black musicians and performers throughout the rural and urban South — Jackson, Houston, New Orleans, Memphis, Jacksonville.
On a tipped hunch, Denver built and debuted Sunset Terrace in 1938 on the far end of Indiana Avenue across the street from and just ahead of the city erecting Lockefield Gardens, a government housing project. The Sunset became a renowned black dance hall, arguably one of the best in the country during its heyday. The Fergusons developed their joint business venture into an unorthodox community foundation, incubating budding businesses, providing credit for struggling families, and donating resources to youth groups.
The aftermath of a grisly murder linked to the Fergusons’ white rivals on the Avenue proved egregious for black businessmen in the area. In 1940, a political crackdown from the mayor’s office rippled through the police department and municipal agencies. Denver, Sea, and fellow black business owner Goosie Lee lost their liquor licenses to trumped up causes. Not long after, Denver’s lottery business folded under pressure of increased police presence along the Avenue. In direct response to the city’s literal blacklist, the brothers created a booking agency to bring major black entertainers to Indianapolis, and financially back tours of the Chitlin’ Circuit, contributing to the monumental careers of B.B. King, James Brown, Little Richard, and more.
By the late 1940s, both transitioned their businesses to legal entities. Denver found himself tangled in a transnational marriage and ugly divorce with a German-born woman whose photo appeared in Jet magazine. Complications from several strokes caused his death in May of 1957. Sea prevailed against pesky tax evasion charges, and lived as a celebrated and successful businessman and active member of the NAACP in the city until he passed away of natural causes in March of 1974. He’s the brother buried, suited and booted to the heavens in Crown Hill, alongside his parents and older brother.
Whether Denver and Sea should be denounced menaces or hailed heroes isn’t the question. Despite authority figures relentlessly questioning their ethics, the Ferguson brothers redefined urban development, creating a self-sustaining, bustling district for thousands of marginalized black people in a way that still can’t be replicated to date. The city designated Indiana Avenue as a cultural district in 2004, christening the area a prime tourist destination, without acknowledging the contributions of people like the Ferguson brothers and so many others towards establishing a once vibrant epicenter for black culture in the Midwest.