Remembering the 12th Street and Canal Crossing Through the Photography of O. James Fox

Recently I’ve been exploring the photography and background of O. James Fox, a freelance writer and journalist who worked in post-World War II Indianapolis. His work caught my attention while I was researching photos of the Central Canal, which was the scene in several of his photos while he was on assignment in Indianapolis documenting the African American neighborhoods along the canal.

The Indiana Historical Society has a gallery of some of his photos, which can be accessed here. Additionally, a book featuring his photos, as well as poems about this area of Indianapolis, titled Gone But Not Forgotten, was compiled by Wilma L. Moore (last name was identified as Gibbs at the time the book was published), and is available at the Indianapolis Public Library's Center for Black Literature & Culture, and at the Indiana Historical Society’s library. Fox’s photos cover a variety of subjects from the Indiana Avenue. area, a major focal point of African American culture in Indianapolis. The collection includes many street scenes showing Indiana Avenue as it appeared in the post-World War II era, much of which has long since been razed (with a few exceptions) as the homes and businesses in areas which were later redeveloped and IUPUI constructed in their place. Other photos are portraits of residents and of everyday life.


Fox, originally from Ohio, came to Indianapolis in 1945 as part of an assignment for the American Friends Service Club, an outreach effort of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, which focused on social justice efforts and racial tolerance within the United States, and in other areas of the world. He had originally volunteered for overseas work with the organization, but the position in Indianapolis was the only one available at the time of his application. Fox's work was based out of the Flanner House where his assignment was to photograph and document the surrounding neighborhoods. This effort would span 15 years, from 1945 to 1960. In addition to his documentary photography, he also held photography classes at the Herman G. Morgan Health Center, next-door to Flanner House, and was active in the operations with that institution.


Fox's photos covered many aspects of the area on and adjacent to Indiana Avenue, including scenes from the neighborhoods, color images on the Avenue (which are often used today in a then-and-now capacity), and portraits of residents. Several of Fox’s photos are centered on the Central Canal, specifically the area of the bridge which carried 12th Street over the Canal. Frequent readers know my research interest in the Central Canal, and I found Fox’s photos of life along the canal an interesting contrast to the more industrialized portions of the canal to the south, closer to downtown, and the more natural sections to the north in the area of Butler University. Fox's photos depict everyday scenes of life, including residents fishing on the banks, or walking the 12th Street bridge. Additionally, Fox’s poetry also makes frequent mention of the 12th Street crossing, and the community in that area.


As described by Wilma Moore in a 2007 article in the Indiana Historical Society's Traces magazine, Fox's work was done in a wedge-shaped area bounded by Indiana Avenue to the west, 16th Street to the north, and Senate Avenue to the east. On the 1941 Baist map, below, the 12th Street crossing is in the middle of the map. The area around the 12th Street bridge was mostly residential, with Crispus Attucks High School to the west, and 16th Street to the north. Fox's base of operations, Flanner House, was located to the north of the 12th street crossing on 16th Street, where the IU Health Neuroscience building is today. The 11th Street bridge is just out of view at the bottom of the Baist map, just north of the northern end of the present-day downtown portion of the Central Canal. The Mt. Zion Baptist Church was located just northwest of the crossing (large purple building).

Baist map Indianapolis Central Canal African American History
IUPUI Sanborn & Baist Collection, 1941 Baist Atlas

A more detailed view of the neighborhood can be seen in the 1948 Sanborn map below (a compilation of two images, map numbers 353 and 354). The residential nature of the neighborhood is obvious, as is the mostly wood construction, save a few brick churches. Again, the 12th Street crossing is at the center of the image. Also note the Mt. Zion Baptist Church at the intersection of Fayette and 12th Streets.

Sanborn Map Indianapolis history Indiana avenue
Credit: IUPUI Sanborn & Baist Collection

This area was just northeast of Indiana Avenue, and like most African American neighborhoods in Indianapolis, was subjected to redlining. The term redlining was derived from the maps developed by the Home Owners' Loan Corporation in the late 1930's which used colors to mark parts of cities for hazardous and least hazardous investment (red being the most risky, green being the least). In practice, redlining used race and/or socioeconomic status to limit the chance of investment and improvement, particularly in the area of mortgages and other loans (and insurance), in certain geographic areas within Indianapolis, and other cities around the United States. African American neighborhoods were particularly hard hit by this practice, which limited options and chances for advancement within those communities.


The map below is an excerpt from the 1937 Redline map for Indianapolis, and encompasses the 12th and Canal neighborhood, as well as other areas on the west and northwest sides of Indianapolis. The yellow highlight on this map shows the 12th street bridge. The Indiana Avenue corridor is the diagonal line to the lower left of the D25.

redline map Indianapolis history
Credit: Mapping Inequality

The Mapping Inequality webpage provides access to the Indianapolis redline maps, as well as maps from across the country. The website is hosted through the University of Richmond and is a collaborative effort of several other institutions and scholars. The maps were accompanied by an Area Description document describing the area depicted in the map. The 12th and Canal area was described as a "hazardous" investment and "blighted."


Fox's photos covered this entire redlined area. In looking specifically at the photos of the Canal and the 12th Street crossing, those shown below depict residents going about day-to-day activities, as well as the nature of the homes along the canal. Wilma Moore, who grew up in the area near the 12th Street crossing, notes in Gone But Not Forgotten, that physical barriers, like the Canal, helped make the neighborhood like a "cocoon," and most residents crossing at the 12th Street bridge, or at 15th Street, farther to the north to go to school or work.


All of these photos have the same credit, O. James Fox Collection, Indiana Historical Society, and the link to this collection is available at the beginning of the blog post. Looking at the photos left to right, top to bottom, the first photo, entitled "Two boys fishing on the canal," is dated 1948, and was taken on the east bank of the canal, slightly upstream from the 12th Street bridge, looking northwest. The next photo, "Men fishing along the canal," is dated 1945 and depicts two men fishing on the east bank of the canal, north of the 12th Street bridge. Note the row houses on the right side of the image, and the cottage at the center. These structures appear in other Fox photos. The last image in this group shows the 12th Street crossing on a winter's day. The rowhouses in the previous photo can be seen in the background of this photo. Also, if you look closely, you can see that one of the men crossing the bridge is looking back at Fox as the photo was taken.


The next series of photos is also centered around the 12th Street bridge. The first photo is titled "Young man next to the canal" and was taken a little north of the 12th Street crossing on the west side of the canal. The second photo, titled "Two girls at the edge of the canal" from circa 1950, shows two girls apparently fishing in the canal, just downstream from the cottage which is featured in center of the previous photo, and those above. The rowhouses shown in the images above are just out of frame to the right of where the girls are fishing. The next photo (titled "Banks of the canal") shows a view looking north on the canal, while the last the last photo (titled "Row houses") is a tighter view of the row houses depicted in some of the other photos.

The scene looking down the canal ("Banks of the canal") is dated circa 1950, and was taken by Fox, although I cannot figure out the exact location. The Citizens Gas and Coke facility is in the distance on the photo (the tower can be seen at the end of the canal), but the bridge in the image is not the 12th Street bridge. Aerial images from this time period show a stretch of trees along the canal farther south, near 11th street, but the location cannot be confirmed.


Another photo was located related to the 12th Street and Canal crossing, although it was not taken by Fox, and is actually contained in the Indiana Historical Society's Indianapolis Recorder Archive. As seen below, the image, titled "12th Street bridge," appears to have suffered some damage. However, the 12th Street bridge is clearly visible, as is the house with the low angled side seen in the background of the "Two boys fishing on the canal" image, above. Also visible is a large brick structure in the background. This appears to be the Mt. Zion Baptist Church noted on the Baist and Sanborn map excerpts earlier in this post.

Indianapolis Recorder canal bridge Indianapolis History
Credit: Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis Recorder

The images of the area around the 12th Street Crossing, and Fox's images in general, depict an active and vibrant neighborhood around and adjacent to Indiana Avenue, which goes beyond the general "blighted" description assigned in the redline map report discussed above. Further, Fox’s poetry reveals more about some of the subjects of his photos and the area along the canal and provides additional background of the lives of those who lived in the area. As noted above, the book of his photos and poems, Gone but Not Forgotten, is available at local libraries, and I recommend readers try to check it out. I cannot do justice in this post to all of his poems, but a few excerpts which I think are particularly relevant to the 12th and Canal area are re-produced below.


One poem is titled "everyone has a story" and highlights the area around the 12th Street Crossing (punctuation in the title and text is original):


The 12th Street bridge made a crossover

From North West and Mill Streets

To Missouri Street


On Mill Street were neat one-story houses

With picket fences around the yards

On 12th Street were low one-story shacks

On Missouri Street were odd two-story dwellings,

Weathered green or gray, flaking intricacies

Of old paint


Behind these strange, peaked facades

Lay mystery

Who were these people?


Another poem, titled "now that time has had its say," reminiscences about the canal itself, and is reproduced below.


Time the runner has swiftly passed us by.

We wonder if the water still flows

Through the city.


We've heard it doesn't,

That now on superhighways

Automobiles dash in and out,

Taking up the water course.


Some historical archaeologists

Can probably discern why the canal was built,

From where it took its water

And where it flowed,

Of what use it was.


We knew it started out north.

We walked a path alongside

That horses toil to draw the boats.


We thought that the quiet stream

Could have used for canoes and parasols

Like a painting by Degas


Of course such dreams came to naught

The city planners had to accommodate

The gas burners


Since I stayed near the canal for many years,

I thought it took on a spiritual meaning.

Now that Time has had its say,

I wonder if anyone else remembers.


The title of this poem was also used as the title of a book detailing the history of the Central Canal written by J. Darrell Bakken in 2003.


In exploring Fox’s photos and poems, the location of many of the canal-adjacent and 12th Street photos can be identified, but the existence of the locations, whether the canal, or the homes along its banks, cannot. In the late 1960’s the interstate system around Indianapolis was being constructed, and the the on/exit ramp system for I-65 and West Street, part of the inner loop, was constructed right in the middle of the 12th and Canal neighborhood Fox photographed. In a neighborhood already limited by redlining, the interstate was the final blow. The images below show the neighborhood in 1966 (left) and 1972 (right). In the 1972 photo, the 12th Street bridge was roughly right in the middle of the on/off ramp complex (red dot). Crispus Attucks High School is the large structure in the bottom left corner of both images.

The canal can be seen at the bottom of the 1972 image, as well as a small bit on the top near 16th Street, although in 1972, and in the present, little remains of the original neighborhood, save a few structures along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. Wilma Moore summed up the end result for this small piece of Indianapolis, stating in the introduction to Gone But Not Forgotten that "[a]lthough urban renewal and an interstate belt have altered and demolished the physical structures, Fox's work bears witness to an era and a community."

Indianapolis history central canal interstate construction
View looking north towards the location of the 12th St. crossing from the 11th St. bridge over the remains of the canal following the construction of I-65/West St. Interchange. Credit: Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana


Sources


Fox, O. James, & Gibbs, W. L. (2000). Gone but not forgotten : photo poems. Indianapolis, Ind.: Indiana Historical Society.


Ryan, Jordan; Mullins, Paul, "Imagining the Black Crossroads: Music and Memory on Indiana Avenue," (2021), Indianapolis Anthology, Belt Publishing

“The History and Culture of Indiana Avenue,” February 24, 2021, https://www.wfyi.org/programs/all-in/radio/The-History-And-Culture-Of-Indiana-Avenue


Moore, Wilma M. (2007). The Indianapolis Photography of O. James Fox. Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, 19(3), 26-29.


O. James Fox Collection Guide, Indiana Historical Society, http://indianahistory.org/wp-content/uploads/o-james-fox-collection.pdf


Indianapolis Recorder: December 22, 1945, February 21, 1947


Two Boys Fishing in the Canal (1948), O. James Fox Collection, Indiana Historical Society, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p0266/id/127/rec/119


Row houses (ca. 1950), O. James Fox Collection, Indiana Historical Society,

https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p0266/id/138/rec/101


Two girls at the edge of the canal, https://images.indianahistory.org/digital/collection/p0266/id/42/rec/122


12th Street Bridge - Indianapolis Recorder - Indiana Historical Society Digital Images (indianahistory.org)

Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano, Nathan Connolly, et al., “Mapping Inequality,” American Panorama, ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, accessed August 22, 2021, https://dsl.richmond.edu/panorama/redlining/#loc=11/39.787/-86.347&city=indianapolis-in


History of the AFSC, https://www.afsc.org/content/history-afsc


Termination of canal at Interstate I-65, Indianapolis, 1975, Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, https://indianamemory.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/ILCCII/id/521






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