Hotel at former Bethel AME Church displays Indy's Black history

Madam C.J. Walker worshipped at historic church
Hampton Inn Homewood Suites by Hilton - Historic AME Bethel Church.png
Posted at 9:44 AM, Feb 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-03 13:28:44-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Inside a newly renovated hotel along the Indianapolis Canal, Olivia McGee-Lockhart recognizes the building as the former Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“You would head down this hallway and work your way so that you could be seated in the congregation,” said McGee-Lockhart at the Hilton Indianapolis Canal IUPUI.

She said she knows this building like the back of her hand.

McGee-Lockhart is the keeper of history for Bethel AME Church. She attended services here, in the same building the legendary Madam C.J. Walker.

Madam Walker was the first female self-made millionaire and her legacy lives on in this church, even though it moved.

Hilton Indianapolis Canal IUPUI
Olivia McGee-Lockhart looks at displays at the Hilton Indianapolis Canal IUPUI in what was previously the Bethel AME Church.

“It was bittersweet at the point in time when we had to leave,” McGee-Lockhart said.

Bethel AME now has an extension on Zionsville Road on the city's northwest side, but McGee-Lockhart said everyone should know the history kept in this new hotel.

“There’s no reason for members of the Indianapolis community not to know about Bethel AME Church,” she said.

This Bethel AME Church joined the National Register of historic sites in 1991. Since 1869, it stood smack dab in the middle of a vibrant community.

“You can just walk through, skate through, drive through,” McGee-Lockhart said.

School, church and home made up the triangle of their living.

“There were many of our teachers who were members of our congregation. So not only did you see them on Monday through Friday, you saw them on Sunday morning,” McGee-Lockhart said.

A stained glass window at the former Bethel AME Church in Indianapolis.

Now she’s used photos from Sundays and beyond to help Hilton and Sun Development and Management Corporation reconstruct the facade to match what Madam C.J. Walker saw when she attended worship here.

“I love the fact that we’re an absolutely unique property. You don’t see anything like this in Indianapolis,” said Andrew Pawlowski, the hotel’s director of sales.

With McGee-Lockhart’s input, developers kept the stained-glass, historic columns, stairs and famous bell tower.

McGee-Lockhart took photos to document it all and while the old church now serves as a hotel, she and others said they still feels the spirit of Bethel AME and power of Madam C.J. Walker.

“That was a source of pride. It was a source of pride because this Black woman established a business that 96 years later, we’re still celebrating that history,” said Dr. Carlos Perkins, the Senior Pastor of Bethel Cathedral AME Church.

“(Madam Walker) didn’t wait for someone to give it too her. She actually took the steps and not only made a way for her, but she also made a way for others,” said Kristina Stricklen, President of the Madam Walker Legacy Center.

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Displays at a hotel in Indianapolis show the history of Black history in the city.

When you walk the halls, you’ll see a timeline honoring the legacy Madam Walker and the church. McGee-Lockhart said she also sees her past.

“As it is I’m standing right there in the background, but nobody knows that but a few people,” McGee-Lockhart said.

However, she looks forward to teaching others Black history in Indiana for years to come when they visit this new hotel by the Canal.

“Black history is 365 days and so any day you choose to do this, it’ll be fine,” McGee-Lockhart said.

There are more artifacts and documents about Madam Walker and Bethel AME Church.

The Indiana State Museum, Purdue University, Indiana University and IUPUI’s library all have history. IUPUI even has a program called “Virtual Bethel,” which virtually places you inside the church, with pop-ups explaining the location.