Our Story

Bethel AME Church

Bethel is the oldest African American church in the city of Indianapolis, and was once a vital part of a thriving African American community in the heart of the Indiana Avenue Jazz District. The Church was founded in Indianapolis in 1836, and its archive documents a shared heritage and a living community. Over its 180 years of existence, the Bethel AME Church has played a vital role in the Underground Railroad, the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Indiana, the founding of the first formal School for Black Children in Indianapolis, and the development of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. In the 1960s and the 1970s, the development of the Federal interstate highway system and of Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) displaced many members of the community over the course of just a few decades. Where the church was once surrounded by the homes and businesses of its members, high-end condominiums now encroach on the tiny parcel upon which the crumbling brick building stands and IUPUI’s five-story School of Informatics and Computing looms across the street.

For the past several years, we’ve worked closely with Olivia McGee-Lockhart, the Bethel AME Church of Indianapolis’ Keeper of History, church archivist and historian. Our common goal is to preserve and make accessible the church’s archive dating back to the 1850s. The oldest items in the archive include hand written journals, letters, and other evidence that the church was a station on the Underground Railroad.

Over the years, Bethel’s membership has dwindled, and the majority of its parishioners are now elderly. These church members, in particular Ms. McGee-Lockhart, contribute to the contextual narrative that supports the documentary evidence. Like many others, this community archive has survived because of the dedication of one or two individuals who understand the value of the past. Ms. McGee-Lockhart has spent her life caring for and researching the church archive. As a life-long member, she learned a great deal from the first Keeper of History, Ms. Frances Connecticut Stout, who started caring for the archive in the early 1940s.

In an ideal world, the Bethel AME Church archive would remain in the church and yet somehow be preserved and made globally accessible. This would keep the archive in the community and the community in the archive. Given the current circumstances in which the church building has been sold for redevelopment, it is not possible to keep the archive in the church, preserve it and create access to it. Thankfully, local heritage professionals have worked together to make the collection accessible. Kisha Tandy from the Indiana State Museum, Jenny Johnson from the IUPUI University Library, and Wilma Moore and Kathy Mulder from the Indiana Historical Society.

While our team was working on the preservation of the print archive, the congregation was facing a larger problem. The church building that had served the community well for over a 150 years was now in desperate need of repair and the church was faced with having to sell the building in order to survive. This was devastating news. Bethel is one of the few remaining buildings left representing African-American heritage in this historic part of downtown Indianapolis, and the oldest building on the city’s canal.

The combined efforts of economic development and city planning have, intentionally or unintentionally, erased the African-American footprint from downtown Indianapolis. Indiana Avenue and the Central Canal are desirable locations for businesses and the city has invested considerable resources in the area to make it vital. Years ago, African Americans invested considerable resources in exactly the same way. Unlike other cities with significant arts districts and histories, Indianapolis chose not to preserve its heritage if favor of “progress.” Cities such as New Orleans and Memphis respected their African American cultural heritage and clearly show the benefits of having done so. As a result, the Indianapolis downtown near the IUPUI campus feels like a space rather than a place, and Indiana’s African Americans are being denied part of their cultural heritage.

Thanks to the powers of 3D technology and virtual reality a piece of this history can be saved. In order to preserve the Bethel Church Sanctuary for future generations, Zeb Wood and Albert William in the Media Arts and Sciences Program joined with Andrea Copeland and Ayoung Yoon in the Department of Library and Information Science (all faculty in the School of Informatics and Computing) to create a 3D scan of the sanctuary which would then be used to create a virtual representation of the sanctuary. Last spring, the team received funding from Indiana University’s New Frontiers in the Humanities Grant Program to combine the digitized print archive in the virtual space in encourage engagement with the history of our city. The ultimate goal of this project is to keep alive the history of African-Americans in Indianapolis in spite of the city’s landscape evolving story.