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An Indianapolis Pastor, His Church, and the Klan: The Resignation of Earl N. Griggs of Butler-Tarkington

Updated: Mar 13

This blog has often featured the history of the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood in Indianapolis, a side effect of me calling Butler-Tarkington home, serving on the board of the Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association, and because the neighborhood has an interesting and at times, unique, history. The neighborhood's history relating to the former Fairview Park and then Butler University, as well as the history of race relations and integration, are particularly notable.


This post takes place in the early 1920’s. The name Butler-Tarkington wouldn’t be applied to the neighborhood for another 30+ years, but at the time the neighborhood was in the process of being platted into residential developments. Butler University had purchased the Fairview Park grounds in 1922, although its move from Irvington would not be completed until 1928. It was a time period of significant residential expansion and development in the neighborhood.



On December 10, 1921, a short news brief in the Indianapolis News announced plans for the laying of the cornerstone for the brand-new Capitol Avenue Christian Church, located on the southeast corner of 40th Street and Capitol Avenue. The brick building which would house the church, pictured above, would include a gym and auditorium, along with Sunday school rooms. The future church’s pastor, the Reverand Earl N. Griggs, presided over the cornerstone ceremony.


Indianapolis Times, March 18, 1922

Griggs was 32 years old, and hailed from Pleasant Mound, Minneapolis. He earned his degree from Cotner College in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1913, and then received his bachelor’s in divinity from the Yale Dinvity School in 1917. His first church appointment in Indianapolis was at the Columbia Place Christian Church. In June 1922 the church moved into its new location at 40th and Capitol and changed its name to the Capitol Avenue Christian Church.


However, the church, and Griggs, were only in the location for a little over a year when external forces began to influence the congregation and impact its pastor.


These external forces were the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Indianapolis in the early and mid-1920s. The recent book, “A Fever in the Heartland,” by Timothy Egan, explores this history of the KKK’s control over Indianapolis and more generally, Indiana, and in my opinion, is a must read for residents of Indianapolis and Hoosiers across the state. As discussed in Egan’s book, the Klan found willing acolytes amongst clergy across the state, who fell under the Klan’s financial and ideological influence, which in turn led to power over church congregations throughout Indiana.


The newspaper, “Tolerance,” published in Chicago by the American Unity League, an avowed adversary of the Klan, printed a list of known Klan members in Indianapolis, along with churches who were under the influence the KKK. Rev. Griggs and his Capitol Avenue Christian Church were not included on this list.


However, on Sunday, October 7, 1923, Rev. Griggs abruptly announced his resignation from the church during morning services. A vote was held by the congregation on whether to accept the resignation, which resulted in them declining to accept the resignation. Rev. Griggs appealed to those present to take another vote and to accept his resignation. A second vote was done, and the resignation was accepted.


As reported by the Indianapolis News, Griggs declined to go into detail about the reasons behind the resignation but said the cause was “conditions which have developed within recent months.” The Indianapolis Times reported Griggs told their reporter “I do not care to say anything at this time other than conditions within the church make it necessary for our relations to be severed.” When asked whether the “conditions” he referred to was the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and its support amongst the congregation, he provided no reply, but noted that his contract allowed him to resign with 60 days’ notice.


A few weeks later, the congregation reconsidered its actions, and asked Griggs that he remain at the church. C.H. Winders, the executive secretary of the Indianapolis Church Federation, had addressed the congregation and had “pleaded” with them for “unity” and to stick to the plan for the church mapped out a few years prior. While newspaper reports quoting friends of Griggs suggested he would change his mind, he refused to withdraw his resignation.


Local newspapers never provided details on the causes behind Griggs’ resignation, which may have been a purposeful exclusion. Newspapers outside the city provided more information. The Waterloo Evening Courier, in Waterloo, Iowa, apparently had an inside track (Grigg’s wife was from Iowa, but not anywhere near Waterloo) and trumpeted his departure in a headline which read "Klan Fight Causes Minister to Resign Indianapolis Pulpit." The paper also managed to get a statement from Griggs confirming that “disagreement over Ku Klux Klan issues” was the cause of his decision to depart. “I am not a member of the Klan,” Griggs told the newspaper. “Altho[sic] my personal fortunes may suffer, anything I might say now could easily cause the church an irreparable split.”


Waterloo Evening Courier, October 8, 1923

Griggs's experience was similar to, and his actions perhaps inspired by, another incident in Indianapolis which occurred earlier in 1923. In June, Frank E. Davison, the minister of the Englewood Christian Church, resigned in protest of potential congregational support for the Klan, and the possible hosting of a Klan meeting in the church's community hall. Davison was far more vocal than Griggs in his opposition to the Klan and his reasons for leaving, and the Indianapolis Star observed that "one can not help admiring the spirit and fearlessness of the pastor, the Rev. Frank E. Davison, who insists that he is responsible for the church and, therefore, against introducing any 'divisive' organization into it...".


On June 7, 1923, board of the Englewood Christian Church voted 19 to 10 to request Davison's resignation, although the request needed approval from the congregation at a meeting scheduled for the 21st of June. Davison resigned a week before the meeting. "The political methods that are being used by the Klan sympathizers in order to insure[sic] victory at the congregational meeting are on such a low level that I will not permit my friends to stoop to that that level to combat them," Davison said in a statement to church elders printed in the Indianapolis Star. (it was also printed as far away as the Gary Indiana Evening Times) He continued, noting that "also, the sowers of hate are getting about in this community sowing seeds of hate against me in the ears of children whom I have baptized and have loved as only a pastor's heart could love." Davison would later move out Indiana and accept a position at a church in Oak Park, Illinois.


As for Griggs, he and his family moved from Indianapolis to Detroit where he took over as pastor for a church in that city. Despite the 60-day notice requirement, he had asked for immediate release from Capitol Avenue Christian Church in mid-November to allow him to take the Detroit position at the Woodward Avenue Christian Church. This early departure was apparently granted, as Griggs gave his final sermon on Sunday, November 18, 1923. As quoted by the Indianapolis Times, Griggs stated that “[w]e can not see in life what Jesus saw when He gave us the Beatitudes, but we should be willing to see life through His vision.”


Grigg’s stay in Detroit only lasted a few years, and in November 1926, he visited Berkley, California, and was a guest preacher at local churches. The next month he was offered a position at University Christian Church in Berkley. He would stay in that town for the rest of his career, although he returned to Indiana for a brief period after his retirement when he became interim pastor at a church in Kokomo.


Griggs passed away on October 21, 1956, at the age of 67. His obituary, published in the Pomona Progress Bulletin in California detailed that his interests had laid in church unity, a “better social order,” and “improved interracial relations.” Of note, the obituary identified that his first two pastorates were in Detroit, Michigan, and Berkley, California. His time spent in Indianapolis is conspicuously left out of his list of past church assignments.


The history of the Capitol Avenue Christian Church, later called the University Place Christian Church, did not improve in the years after the departure of Griggs. In the late 1920s and into the 1930s, the church was a base of pro-segregation forces and organizations within the neighborhood which sought to prevent black people from first moving north of 30th Street, and then 38th Street. As shown in the image earlier in this post, the church building still stands, but today is a private residence. A future blog post will address the church's post Griggs history.

 


Sources


Indianapolis News: December 10, 1921, October 8, 1923


Indianapolis Star: May 29, 1923, June 14, 1923, October 22, 1923, January 21, 1924


Indianapolis Times: September 19, 1921, October 8, 1923, November 13, 1923


Waterloo Evening Courier: October 8, 1923


Berkeley Daily Gazette: December 8, 1926


The Gary Evening Times: June 15, 1923


Tolerance, "Exposure of 12,208 Ku Klux in Marion County, Indiana" newspaper, Rare Books and Manuscripts, Indiana State Library,


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