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.
My father would wake my sister and I every Christmas morning when we were young. At the crack of dawn, we’d wipe the sleep from our eyes, will our little limbs to climb out of bed, and make our way to the living room to find a plentiful bounty left beneath our neatly decorated plastic tree by Santa Claus. We’d spend a couple hours ripping gift wrap from dozens of presents, playing with the assortment of bells and whistles while my parents snapped an obscene amount of pictures and video footage, my sister and I total hams. My dad would whip up breakfast and we’d eat until the itis set in, dozing through the remainder of the morning before commencing another round of reindeer games.
Santa’s doting generosity was a manifestation of my dad’s love, the parent rousing us before the sun ushered in Christmas day, overcome with our impending joy. Save for church services, this was the extent of our holiday tradition up to the year my sister asked why Santa’s handwriting and my dad’s signature chicken scratch were so similar. “Daddy is Santa’s helper” was an unsatisfactory response.
Until last year, I didn’t know much about Kwanzaa beyond “A Huey Freeman Christmas,” an episode of the popular tv show The Boondocks. The plot masterfully juxtaposed Riley seeking revenge against an unbeknown mall Santa, Jasmine grappling with the fact that Santa isn’t Jesus Christ, and a frustrated Huey embarrassed by his white teacher’s obsession with Kwanzaa. For many Black people, Huey’s teacher adorned in Kente cloth, pumping his fist with wild abandon, leading a classroom of clueless students in the Harambee chant perfectly illustrates the general sentiment surrounding the holiday. Kwanzaa is corny as hell.
Friday marked the final day of this year’s Kwanzaa celebration and my first time commemorating all seven days. A year ago, I sang a set at a pre-Kwanzaa dinner with my former band. Dozens of Black elders from every corner of the city filled a small banquet hall to honor the ancestors, wax KiSwahili, break bread, and buy a tub of whipped shea butter before bidding ase. The ritual, the dress, the familiarity was so far removed from my years spent on letter-writing campaigns bargaining with Santa.
Despite feeling terribly out of place, the dinner piqued my curiosity. I spent the next months reading about founder Maulana Karenga, the architect of US, a Black organization best known for its bad blood with the Black Panther Party, disbanded when Karenga was convicted and imprisoned for torturing two Black women. In 1966, before his descent into infamy, he created Kwanzaa in hopes of establishing the first Pan-African holiday. Observance is between Christmas and New Year’s Day, beginning December 26th and concluding on January 1st. The week-long ritual, loosely based on African first fruit traditions, encourages the practice of seven principles: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. Proper celebration requires songs, gestures, and spoken offerings in KiSwahili, and a visual spread of symbols representing the principles, the kinara and candles the most recognizable.
Black institutions in cities across the nation host Umoja events on the first day of Kwanzaa, typically free and open to the public, to provide cultural programming in urban cores, broaden appeal among Black people, and often make space for Black Nationalists and conscious heads to gather annually. A week ago, I dedicated a rendition of Cassandra Wilson’s “Sankofa” to the oldest elders at this year’s celebration after the ritual leader honored the ancestors and recently passed Black community leaders.
Gymnasiums, auditoriums, and halls court hundreds of Black people perusing vendor tables bearing bold colored Kente print, handmade jewelry and supersize ankhs, Black literature and historical texts, baked goods, fine art, and self-published pamphlets galore. The ceremonies are unique to each celebration but likely include prayers, introduction to the principles, symbols, and protocol, libations, African folk songs, traditional dances, and performances.
Writers and theorists tend to publish work just before each Kwanzaa panning and praising the holiday. Though no one knows how many celebrants there are, polls and stats estimate between two and five percent of Black people in the U.S. and abroad. According to a few publications, more young, Black people celebrated or participated in Kwanzaa this year than years past. Michael W. Twitty suggests Kwanzaa is particularly poignant amid current Black political unrest. A flare in popularity makes sense considering Kwanzaa was birthed in a similar political climate. Acts of police brutality, from violent sexual assault to extrajudicial murder, are caught on camera and set to a viral video loop on social media and primetime tv cycles. Police departments, prosecutors, and city leaders seldom face political or criminal consequence, leaving families and communities without substantial answers or recompense. Protests and civil disobedience drawing thousands led primarily by young, Black, queer women quell and rise every 28 hours, as yet another name emerges to seek justice for.
Proponents of Kwanzaa contend the principles promote togetherness and healing within the Black community. I’m inclined to agree, but the evidence doesn’t consistently match the claim. Black people outside of conscious communities — close-knit localized groups with deep roots in nation-building ideology and practices — are frequently missing from Umoja festivals. The queer, the young, the academic, the hood, the suburban largely abstain from celebrating or even acknowledging Kwanzaa. Many feel erased, ostracized, unwelcome, uncomfortable, ingenuine, and disconnected from Afrocentricity and those who have celebrated Kwanzaa since its inception.
Even more peculiar, most Africans living in the U.S. and worldwide don’t observe Kwanzaa. Ghanaian Canadian writer Nikki Yeboah asserts, “I am tired of seeing the same old African tropes of kente cloth, “umoja,” drums, dance, etc. standing in for authentic connections with the continent and its people.” She continues, “Our culture is just as dynamic as any other, but whenever it is represented in African-American culture, we are always taken up in the same old static ways.” Kwanzaa is an aggregation of East and West African elements so oversimplified it comes off as deeply inauthentic, antiquated, historically disjointed, and sometimes offensive. Though Kwanzaa’s origins explicitly cater to the Black American experience, the holiday is Pan-African and meant to tie the Diaspora, people of African descent globally. Simply put, Kwanzaa falls short of principled unity with the very people from the continent it espouses.
Even still, I believe Kwanzaa is relevant as ever. As a young, Black woman, I’m not tripping over myself to celebrate a holiday created by a man guilty of abusing women. But I see the value of practicing, challenging, and pushing the Kwanzaa principles beyond original intent or vision. I don’t wear Kente dress or anything resembling an ankh. I don’t own a kinara, light candles, or speak KiSwahili. There’s nothing wrong with Black people who have or make or do any of these things. There’s nothing wrong with honoring our ancestors through song, dance, and drum. There’s nothing wrong with carving out and keeping tradition, something for us by us. But we can and should redefine Afrocentric ideals to center authentic connection to Africa and with people of African descent everywhere. Our Blackness, fully realized internally and collectively, is not grounded in ceremony but global community.
I live alone in a tiny apartment in a quiet neighborhood on a side of the city I haven’t been rooted in long. Moving here was an exercise in breaking clean. I sang in a band. I dated an artist. I lived in a full house. None of these things are true anymore. My packed possessions required only three pairs of helping hands and two hours on a hot and stuffy afternoon last June. Everything I owned fit neatly in the back of a pick-up truck. The weight I carried sat differently on my body and spirit. I let go of more than I once thought was possible. Trading in one house key for another was an end and a beginning, space I haven’t explored and embraced yet.
I don several hats and hold down two part-time gigs. One gives me energy the other requires. Though rewarding work, neither grant much disposable income, but the money sacrificed I gain in solitude and a semblance of clarity.However, I can’t keep some of the comforts of better wages or communal living. I don’t have internet at home anymore. The rising cost of the cheapest option is a bill I had to forgo to stretch meager but steady paychecks each month. I pop in and duck out online between short periods of public wifi access.
Instead, I walk the scenic route to my job and back home with one headphone tuned to Emily King and the other ear cataloging the sounds of my block. I listen to podcasts downloaded at the local coffee shop, nursing my usual beverage for all its dollar and a half’s worth. And dance barefoot on the worn carpet in my bedroom to music unearthed on public radio and bookmarked for a party of one. And read the stories and scholarship of Black women aloud as if in chatty conversation with the vintage wallpaper, pacing my kitchen while a second pot of tea steeps. And scribble random musings and wordy journal entries and the bones of essays to flesh out before deadline in notebook after notebook. I sleep when my eyes begin to burn, heavy from a day and night’s work and play, and loosen my muscles and chakras saluting the sun in the mornings. My solitude grows sweeter every day.
I’ve never been accustomed to spending time with myself. Binge watching Jessica Jones on Netflix, eating buttered toast when I’m not hungry and can’t afford to snack, and scrolling aimlessly on social media are activities I enjoy when I’m alone or wish to be. But haphazard consumption when no one else is around is a world apart from intentional respite and self-reflection. Six months ago, cocooned in the middle of my bed, I let slip an utterance half laughing and weeping upon realizing I didn’t know the person I was, and never did until I landed in this apartment, set apart from longtime friends, another failed relationship, and my home of two years.
It’s in the quiet moments, completely disconnected from welcome distractions, seated at my desk for hours on end with nothing more than my favorite ballpoint, naked paper, and fresh-brewed tea at my fingertips, that I finally let myself think through and fully feel the reverberations of my mountaintops and molehills. I’m a few short years from thirty, naming and facing decades of festered harm and hurt begetting emotional disconnect into adulthood. I’m not the first or the last to develop severely delayed self-awareness. Philosophers, thinkers, and creatives of past and present maintain relatively few people strive for authentic self-actualization in the midst of compounded social ills taking their toll up front and over and over and over again. This is especially true for people of marginalized identities. It’s far easier to reinvent reality than confront and reimagine the deepest, darkest parts of our beings. We’re all in various stages of pretending or trying not to. I know this ease terribly well. I’m a sincere and deeply flawed performer writing for my own salvation, writing liberation into existence.
Recovering myself is a painful, continual process demanding seclusion. I feel lonely sometimes, but I love my company. I owe no one an explanation for my hurried exit from a life I wanted at one time. I wouldn’t have found my voice singing in a band. I wouldn’t be my own woman in a broken relationship. I wouldn’t know silence living in a full house.
In my apartment, I am home. In solitude, I have joy. In quiet, I am becoming.