History & Education
The historic Madam C.J. Walker Building, has long symbolized the spirit of creativity and community pride in the city of Indianapolis. Named after America’s first “self-made” female millionaire—Madam C.J. Walker—the site represents the achievements, art forms, culture and history of African-American people.
Madam Walker began the development of the Walker Building and Theatre prior to her death in 1919. The project was subsequently completed by her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, and [Walker Company attorney and manager, Freeman B. Ransom and] opened to the public December 26, 1927.
The Walker Building, located on the Indiana Avenue corridor, was the center of entertainment, business and pride for the city’s African-American community from the 1920s to the 1950s. During the mid-50s, the building and its surrounding neighborhood began a gradual decline.
By the late 1970s, the Walker Building stood nearly abandoned (Walker Manufacturing Company remained housed in the building) and faced certain demolition. However, a group of committed Indianapolis citizens recognized the structure’s rich history and dedicated themselves to preserving the building. After becoming incorporated as the Madame Walker Building Urban Life Center in 1979, the group purchased the ailing building from the Walker Manufacturing Company and began planning for its restoration.
After extensive renovation—supported by the Lilly Endowment, U. S. Commerce Department funding and other generous donors—the Walker Theatre reopened in October 1988 with a gala featuring the Jimmy Coe Orchestra, actors Roscoe Lee Brown and Rosalind Cash, entertainers Isaac Hayes and Gregory Hines, and Roots author Alex Haley. In 1998 the name was changed to the Madame Walker Theatre Center to highlight the pivotal role of the theater in African American performing arts history.
Today, as the Madame Walker Theatre Center enters its ninth decade, the staff and board members are moving forward with plans to establish a permanent endowment for the preservation of this cherished landmark and to escalate a capital campaign designed to facilitate the transformation of the theater from its original vaudeville/movie house configuration into a state-of-the art, 21st century performance venue.
Across the Avenue from IUPUI and its 30,000 students, located near burgeoning medical and life science centers, and less than a mile from the Indiana State Capitol and the city’s convention center and football arena, the Madame Walker Theatre Center is dedicated to presenting the best in African American culture and to sharing those gifts with a multi-cultural audience of nearby residents and visiting tourists.
The words that Walker Company general manager, F. B. Ransom, shared with the audience at the 1927 grand opening still apply:
“To those who toil, to those who think. . .to those who love good music, good pictures, high class entertainment amidst magnificent surroundings; to those who believe that our boys and girls are entitled to the best there is. . . to all classes; to all races, this house is dedicated.”