Archaeology Field School excavates Madam C.J. Walker's home in downtown Indianapolis
(To see more pictures of the excavation site, visit http://homepages.indiana.edu/web/page/normal/11271.html.)
For six weeks, from 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., a group of IUPUI students and other volunteers dutifully braved sweltering temperatures to dig in a cement parking lot facing campus.
This wasn't just any parking lot; the group excavated the grounds of the Indianapolis home and factory of one of America's earliest affluent female entrepreneurs, Madam C.J. Walker, for whom the adjacent Madame Walker Theatre Center is named.
Participating students were part of IUPUI's recently completed 2009 Archaeology Field School, which ran from May 13-June 24, led by anthropology professor Paul Mullins.
At the site a day before the final dig, Mullins said he has been interested in doing an excavation in this area since 1999, when he joined the IUPUI faculty. Throughout the course of the dig, the group sought to uncover both domestic refuse and items associated with the Walker Company's industrial operation.
"Where we're standing now was originally settled by a mix of European immigrants and white Hoosiers who had come in from the countryside and moved to the city," said Mullins, gesturing to the torn-up lot cordoned off by cones and orange-and-white tape in the 600 block of Martin Luther King Drive in downtown Indianapolis (formerly North West Street).
The excavation site included Madam C.J. Walker's home and neighboring store, as well as the Walker Company office that Walker first rented when she moved to Indianapolis in the early 1900s.
Mullins is most interested in the transition from a mixed-race neighborhood to a racially segregated African-American neighborhood that was later displaced through racist urban renewal codes. "I'm also interested in how we as a university were complicit in that and our role in the displacement," he said.
Walker, the daughter of formerly enslaved African Americans, had a personal and business worth of more than $2 million at her death in 1919, having made her fortune through the manufacture and sales of hair care and beauty products. She is considered by some as America's first self-made woman millionaire.
Turned up at the site during the six-week dig: food-related artifacts, broken dishes, cutlery, medicine containers and beer bottles. "The thing archaeology does really well is show what everyday life looks like," said Mullins. "In this case, we have the richest person in the neighborhood here living alongside folks of typical needs in this alley house right beside one another." These juxtapositions along the color line would not have been duplicated in the upper-class white neighborhood along North Meridian Street, he said.
The Archaeology Field School is offered by IUPUI's School of Liberal Arts and is open to any undergraduate student for four to six credits.
"The best way to learn archaeology is, you just go out and dig," said Mullins. "I can teach people stratigraphy in classroom -- the old dirt got there before the more recent dirt -- but it's a lot easier to see it in the field. Often, I have a graduate student or two, but this year, they're all undergrads, and typically undergrads are learning basic techniques."
Working closely with Mullins and the student excavators is Lewis Jones, a graduate anthropology student at IU Bloomington who plans to do his dissertation research on African-American history as discovered through archaeology. Jones will conduct a lab analysis of the artifacts with several students who are doing independent studies following the project.
Undergraduate student Brandon Muncy, who will enter his senior year at IUPUI this fall, is assisting Jones with his research. He blogged about the project on the IUPUI Summer Impact web site (http://www.ipui.edu/summerimpact/brandon/).
Muncy's particular interest is the way cultural anthropology relates to issues of social justice and poverty. "The area we're digging in was cleared out because it was considered a 'blighted area,'" Muncy said. "However, we interviewed African-American elders who didn't feel like it was a blighted area. It's interesting to see the evidence -- or lack of evidence -- in the ground."
Muncy said some of the items turned up during the project included medicine bottles, beer bottles and bones from cuts of meat that people in abject poverty wouldn't have been able to afford. "I'm writing about how you can see poverty in the ground and how alley houses relate to poverty and the color line," he said.
Mullins said that he was surprised at how much the excavation uncovered from the 1870s and 1880s. Those artifacts, from people who lived in the area prior to Madam Walker, offered another layer of information about the transformation of the neighborhood from white to black from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.
"When you walk around, it'll be hard to see black/white/rich/poor -- and that's when archaeology really works -- when you can take apart those stereotypes," Mullins said. "Ideally, the project forces you to look at all the stereotypes we have: What does it look like to be a rich woman of color? What does it look like to live on an alley house? What does it look like to be a white Hoosier in the late 19th century? In some ways, they're very similar and in other ways, very distinctive."