City dismisses application of 1923 law on development of historical burial grounds

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Map Collection, Indiana Division, Indiana State Library

An attorney for the city of Indianapolis is dismissing the hopes of a historical preservation group that a 1923 state law would require a full excavation of the city’s first public cemetery site before work could begin on a bridge over the White River and a proposed Indy Eleven soccer stadium.

The law, as written, would seem to require the city to excavate and remove all human remains before the site could be used for any other purpose.

But Matt Giffin, corporation counsel for the city of Indianapolis, told IBJ Tuesday the law no longer holds any weight. It was not codified into the Indiana Code in the 1970s, Giffin said, and any statutes not incorporated into the code were repealed at that time.

Members of the Indiana Remembrance Coalition were hopeful the historical law would require the city to do a full-fledged excavation of the the former Greenlawn Cemetery site, which was the city’s first burial grounds and its only burial ground for Black residents in the 1800s.

The group has called for a full archaeological dig to search for remains on the 25-acre burial ground north of Kentucky Avenue so they can be identified and properly handled before any construction begins.

The group’s members first raised concerns in May about disturbing the site and restated them during a meeting this week in which a City-County Council committee unanimously advanced a tax district proposal that would fund the Indy Eleven soccer stadium. The city also plans to build a bridge in the area by extending Henry Street over the White River.

Consultant Linda Weintraut of Zionsville-based Weintraut & Associates Inc. is a consultant for archaeology on both the Henry Street Bridge and the Eleven Park projects. She has laid out a plan where construction will begin but stall if remains are discovered, as required by state law. These remains would be examined by researchers at IUPUI.

Aside from a ceremonious groundbreaking at Eleven Park, ground has not yet truly been broken at either site. Weintraut said it’s difficult to know if any remains will be found.

“We don’t know if we’re going to encounter none, you know, five, 50,” Weintraut said at Monday’s meeting. “We just don’t know.”

For the Henry Street bridge project, Deputy Mayor of Neighborhood Engagement Judith Thomas has assembled a group of historians to act as a citizen advisory board. Members of the remembrance coalition,  historian Leon Bates and Eunice Trotter, director of Indiana Landmark’s Black heritage program, are part of that board. Thomas told the committee Monday that the group has met two to three times and discussed mitigation measures like using smaller construction equipment to avoid damaging any remains, should they be found.

Construction on the Henry Street Bridge, which requires infrastructure on the east bank over the burial plot, should be completed by the spring of 2026, city spokeswoman Aliya Wishner said.

“… the Community Advisory Group will continue to hold the City and its contractors accountable to our commitments as well as determine the best way to memorialize and acknowledge the history we learn from the site,” Wishner wrote in an email.

Keystone Group, the developer of Eleven Park, also has expressed the need for sensitivity regarding the former cemetery site.

In prepared comments for the committee, Kelly Mulder, vice president of development for Keystone Group, said the company “recognizes the history of the site” and is committed to working with the city, advocates and archeological experts from Weintraut & Associates Inc. to clear the site properly.

“We’ve been in touch with interested individuals and will continue to keep those lines of communication open,” Mulder said. “We’re diligently working with an archaeological expert to follow up on proper procedures state and local guidelines. We’re committed to following the legal process and requirements of excavation with archaeological sites or the permit issued by the [Indiana Department of Natural Resources] … and showing respect and sensitivity should any discoveries be made on site.”

He said Keystone is also committed to commemorating those who may still be buried at the site, through a memorial or other mechanism incorporated into the Eleven Park development.

Trotter, who is generally supportive of the development but has concerns over treatment of remains, made two requests of the council committee: that some of the proceeds from the taxing district would be allocated for exploration, genealogical work and commemoration of remains found on the property, and that two members of the Indiana Remembrance Coalition be included on communications between the city and Keystone.

Neither was directly addressed during the meeting.

Trotter told IBJ after Monday’s meeting she believes both the city and the developer should play significant roles—including financially—in ensuring no remains are overlooked.

“It’s going to be the developer who’s going to benefit from these revenue resources that will come through the city and the state,” she said. “So absolutely, the developer has also a responsibility to pay for those costs.”

The site north of Kentucky Avenue once was home to a portion of Greenlawn Cemetery (also known as the City Cemetery and Union Cemetery) from 1821 until burials were stopped there in the late 1800s. The remains of at least 1,300 Union soldiers and 1,600 Confederate soldiers were eventually moved to Crown Hill Cemetery and other burial grounds. 

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7 thoughts on “City dismisses application of 1923 law on development of historical burial grounds

  1. “You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you? You son of a b*tch, you left the bodies and you only moved the head stones. You only moved the head stones!”

  2. Previous land development)s) on this property might make the subject moot. In 1913 the property was used to construct the 19,963 seat Federal Park for the new Federal League Hoosiers in the short lived 3rd major baseball league. The Indianapolis Indians bid to buy the empty stadium in 1916 was outdone by the Terre Haute Interurban Traction Company. It lasted until through the 20’s. That’s when Diamond Chain built their factories on the property. FYI: City leaders were well aware that there might be existing burials on the property. Even then, there wasn’t much of concern. Like it or not, that’s what happened. If there were remains burials, they likely were destroyed over a hundred years ago.

  3. Although the first metal casket appeared in the US in 1848, it would be another 100 years later when casket makers changed and the market shifted from wood to metal. Thus it is most likely the deceased who were interred on that site were buried in wood coffins, leaving the remains unprotected from Mother Nature’s elements.

  4. To be honest, at this point the only thing that can be done is what’s already been mentioned. If any remains are found then you deal with it with respect and care. Other than that the city and Keystone group said they would even give some sort of memorial and commemorating the site. That’s about all you can ask for realistically. I get it that some people want more to be done and for Keystone group to set aside money from the profits made from the stadium but that’s subjective and there’s no law holding the company to that request. It will be almost impossible to truly do a proper job at finding any remains. The best thing is to let the construction work happen and if any remains turn up then deal with it accordingly.

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