Friday, July 23, 2010


Back in the Day
Indiana's African-American History

Madam C.J. Walker (left) shown in 1913 along with (left to right) Freeman B. Ransom, Booker T. Washington, Alexander Manning, Dr. Joseph Ward and R. W. Bullock. (Madam Walker Collection, Ind. Historical Society Library)
In celebration of Black History Month, The Indianapolis StarLibrary assembled this set of pages drawn from our coverage over the years.
Early black settlers
Indiana firsts
Underground Railroad
Roberts Settlement
Black newspapers
Civil War vets
Madam Walker
Indiana Avenue
"Major" Taylor 
Negro baseball
Crispus Attucks H.S.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Notable names

A survey of Indiana's African-American history
(Originally published in The Star, February, 1990)
Early black settlers faced discrimination, even death
Indiana's early black settlers could not vote, serve on juries or testify in court against whites. Barred from public schools, they learned in private institutions run by black churches. And under an 1831 law, blacks had to post a $500 bond "as security for their good behavior." Blacks without such a bond could be sold to the highest bidder for six months.
By the 1850s, Indiana had more than 2,500 black residents, 23 percent of whom worked in skilled trades. But discrimination remained: A judge in Indianapolis dismissed the case of a black youth beaten by a white man because the witnesses were black and, "therefore, incompetent."
Before the Civil War, when blacks made up only 5 percent of the Indianapolis population, white mobs angered by the abolitionist movement often attacked blacks indiscriminately, leaving death and destruction. Monuments to black achievement in Indianapolis - ranging from businesses to the historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal and Second Baptist churches - fell to "mysterious" fires.
On Independence Day 1848, a black man, John Tucker, described in The Indianapolis Sentinel as "a steady, inoffensive man who had purchased his freedom many years ago in Kentucky," reportedly was beaten to death Downtown by "a group of drunken whites." Only one arrest was made.

Who was the first black resident of Indianapolis? It's debatable
Who was the first black Indianapolis resident? It's a subject of debate among local historians. Some believe that resident was Aaron Wallace; others vote for Cheney Lively.
The debate hinges on whether a brief stay should be considered as actual residency. Wallace is regarded in many books on Indianapolis history as the city's first black resident. He arrived in the early 1820s as the young servant of Gen. John Tipton, the white military hero who had selected the site to replace Corydon as state capital. Wallace left Indianapolis with Tipton shortly after the site was chosen, giving historians enough ammunition to tout Cheney Lively as the city's first black resident.
Black Hoosier Firsts
See our List of Indiana Firsts in Black History.
Lively was a housekeeper brought here by Alexander Ralston, a city founder who based the layout for Downtown's Mile Square on his work with Pierre Charles L'Enfant in laying out Washington, D.C. She remained in Indianapolis after Ralston's death, living in the Maryland Street home she owned. Lively was the only black female head of household listed in the 1830 U.S. census. In 1836, she married John G. Britton, a former slave from Ohio, who sought to improve conditions for blacks as a local leader of the nationwide Negro Convention Movement.
David Mallory, the city's first barber, and former slave Ephraim Ensaw were among other early black Indianapolis residents. Blacks made up only 5 percent of the city's population during the pre-Civil War era. Blacks lived in 21 local households, 76 percent of which were headed by whites, according to the 1830 census. By 1836, however, many blacks had formed a settlement along the banks of the waterway now known as the Indianapolis Water Co. Canal. It was called "Colored Town." 

Hoosier farmer gave costly help to fleeing slave and her children
It was a crisp autumn night when a woman finally began the journey she had often dreamed about: She set out to flee the bondage of slavery. Caroline, the 30-year-old slave of Trimble County, Ky., resident George Ray, had long worried about the potential consequences of an escape. Her own fate wasn't the only consideration - she had two daughters and two sons.
The Underground Railroad
The town of Westfield, Ind., was founded by three Quaker families who had moved to Indiana from Virginia and North Carolina to escape the Southern economy that was built on slave labor. Their fledgling little town grew and soon became a regular station on the Underground Railroad.
Other stations have been identified in Merrillville and Fountain City.
Participants in Conner Prairie's Follow the North Star progam re-enact the flight of slaves through safe havens along the Underground Railroad.(Conner Prairie Photo)

Mapping the trail of freedom
The Indiana Freedom Trails project will map as many known "stations" along the routes as possible and enter them into a database
But late on the night of Oct. 31, 1847, she decided a chance for freedom was worth the risk. So Caroline, identified in historical records only by her first name, rounded up her children and rushed off on an Underground Railroad trek that would end in Indiana.
Black and white escorts accompanied them on the Oct. 31 1847, journey that took Caroline and her children - Frances, 12; John, 7; Amanda, 4; and Henry, 2 - to a southern Decatur County farm. They were later taken by a white anti-slavery activists to the Peyton-Speed farm in Greenbriar Settlement near the Decatur-Franklin county line.
Ray issued a "fugitive slave notice" and posted a $500 reward for the family's return.Caroline and her children were having breakfast the next morning when they were captured by Woodson Clark, the white former Virginian who founded Clarksburg. He locked the family in a fodder house on his adjacent property for more than 12 hours.
When farmer Buford Peyton learned the family was missing, he got fellow anti-slavery advocate Luther Donnell to obtain a warrant to search Clark's home.Caroline and her children were rescued from the fodder house the night of Nov. 1, and Donnell helped the family over a fence while carrying young Henry in his arms.
It was an act that resulted in the state charging Donnell with "aiding Negroes to escape." A Decatur County Circuit Court convicted Donnell in 1848, a verdict the Indiana Supreme Court later overturned. Caroline's former owner subsequently sued Donnell for damages, winning a $1,500 judgement and court costs.Despite what he had been through, Donnell was cheered years later by a letter he received."Caroline wrote to me expressing her great thankfulness for my assistance," he recalled. "She and her family reached Canada safely."

Blacks formed their own settlements in the state
Former slaves, encountering pre-Civil War oppression in Indiana, sought to declare their independence by forming their own communities. They left urban areas for rural settings, living out their dreams of buying land and finding refuge from economic, social and political bias.
The Roberts Settlement
In their day-to-day life and farming experience, the people of Roberts Settlement were unexceptional. What was exceptional was that they had economic opportunities unavailable to other African-Americans. They were free citizens, and the time was the 1800s.
By 1860, there were more than 60 black settlements in Indiana, including many whose nicknames defined their purpose: "Colored Freedom" was the moniker for Dubois County's Pinkston community. Other black settlements included Lyles Station, Roundtree and Sand Hill in Gibson County; Roberts Settlement in Hamilton County; Cabin Creek, Greenville and Snow Hill in Randolph County; Burnett, Lost Creek and Underwood in Vigo County.
The settlements - the earliest of which are believed to have been formed along the Wabash River in Gibson and Knox counties - were made up of mostly black families who re-established communities they had formed in other states. Many of the settlers had white or Indian ancestors.
Quakers, who had emancipated and brought many blacks to Indiana from North Carolina, were instrumental in forming those communities. Mission societies raised money to begin the settlements in areas without black residency restrictions, and Quakers helped educate the former slaves.
Residents of the settlements established social, economic and even familial ties. It was not uncommon for a resident of one black settlement to marry someone who lived in another such community. Indiana's black settlements have mostly faded from the map but still serve as symbols of black Hoosiers' quest for independence and empowerment.

Early black newspapers provided a minority voice
The Indianapolis Recorder
Founded by George P. Stewart, a Vincennes High School graduate who studied printing in his brother Clarence's tiny shop, it grew from a small advertising publication known as the Directory to a full-sized newspaper.
The Recorder was a champion of equality, addressing issues such as public accommodations. It also spoke out against retailers who benefited from black patronage but wouldn't advertise in black newspapers.
Its alumni include William Raspberry, who began his career at The Recorder in the 1950s and later became a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post.
Excluded from white society and suffering under the restraints of second-class citizenship, black Americans once lacked the voice whites enjoyed in the form of newspapers and magazines.
Black newspapers sought to fill that void beginning in the 1820s, reporting the events and opinions largely ignored by their general-market counterparts.
The black press in Indiana dates toThe Indianapolis Leader, founded in 1879. In 1880, the Leader - which adopted the Republican philosophy embraced by many black Americans at the time - was one of 30 such newspapers in the United States.
The Leader was Indiana's only black newspaper until 1882, whenThe Colored World (later known asIndianapolis World) appeared. Other black newspapers in Indiana included The Freeman, founded in 1884 and designed for a national audience, and The Indianapolis Recorder, which would outlast its predecessors. The Recorder, America's third-oldest black newspaper of continuous publication, observed its 100th anniversary on June 1, 1995.
The Indiana Herald, founded by former Recorder managing editor Opal L. Tandy, first appeared on local newsstands in 1959, and in 1990 Bea Moten-Foster launched the Muncie Times.

Black Hoosiers withstood racist laws of the 1850s
Equality seemed hopelessly out of reach in Indiana by the 1850s, and black Hoosiers weary of racism and segregation wanted out.
Blacks Hoosiers
in the Civil War
More than 1,500 black Hoosiers fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. About 250 of them are buried at Crown Hill Cemetery, where they are remembered in an annual ceremony.
Isom Ampey fought with the legendary 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the heroic fighting unit depicted in the movieGlory
Barred from public schools, denied employment opportunities and the right to vote, blacks were confronted with yet another obstacle to equality. Voters overwhelmingly approved a law prohibiting blacks from entering the state, a mandate written during the 1850-51 Indiana Constitutional Convention. Article 13, which also called for fines against anyone who hired blacks who entered Indiana, went on the books in 1851 despite appeals from abolitionists, religious leaders and some state legislators.
Many blacks left Indiana, including some who emigrated to Canada. Even before Article 13 became law, there had been calls for an exodus. During an 1849 program marking the emancipation of West Indian slaves, one speaker urged blacks to leave Indianapolis, where they were "compelled to be the servants of white men." John G. Britton, an Indianapolis barber who led a series of conventions around Indiana addressing the plight of black Hoosiers, urged blacks to consider emigrating to Jamaica.
Blacks also were encouraged to leave the United States for Africa, and a few did move to Liberia. But most black Hoosiers strongly opposed the idea of African colonization. During a black-leadership convention in Fort Wayne, delegates had adopted a position saying, "no colonizationist is a devoted friend to the moral elevation of people of color." Although blacks were being denied "the full enjoyment of liberty and pursuit of happiness," delegates vowed "to use all lawful means until (blacks) are allowed the full privileges of American citizens." Indeed, most black Hoosiers stood their ground, refusing to be run out of Indiana - or the United States - by oppressive laws and practices.

War's manpower shortage drew blacks to Gary mills
Blacks were prohibited from entering Indiana under a law that went on the books in 1851. But by 1919, blacks were in demand as the World War I-era labor crunch hit Gary's steel industry.
The Great Migration
Between 1910 and 1970, an estimated 6.5 million African-Americans left the South in search of freedom and opportunity in the North.
In a three-part series published in October, 2000, staff writer Abe Aamidor and staff photographer Mike Fender told the stories of a few of the thousands of migrants who came to Indianapolis during that time.
Strikes and a shrinking pool of unskilled, non-union laborers had the industry on the ropes. At Gary's U.S. Steel plant, about 85 percent of the 18,000 workers joined a nationwide walkout organized by the American Federation of Labor. Wartime hostilities had halted the flow of unskilled European immigrants, who had earned low wages in the mills' "hardest, dirtiest, most dangerous" jobs. The mills turned to Southern blacks as a labor source.
Historians say Gary's percentage increase of blacks from 1910 to 1930 was higher than any other American city's. Blacks got the mills' lowest positions and received virtually no guarantees of promotion to skilled or supervisory jobs. Segregation also reigned outside the mills. Classrooms often were divided into "colored" and "white" sections. Gary's Gleason Park was segregated in similar fashion, while Marquette Park was closed to blacks. Blacks - who made up an estimated 18 percent of the Gary population in 1930 - lived in an area known as "the patch."

Integrated city church had stormy history
Heads are bowed in a tiny storefront when a brick suddenly crashes through a window, showering the congregation with glass. Fear-stricken worshipers seek cover.
Black churches
The church has always played a major role in the African-American community, where it served social, political and cultural needs as well as religious ones. Ministers often also served as local civil rights leaders.

It's 1908 in Indianapolis, and such incidents have happened before at integrated Christ Temple Apostolic Church.
Segregationists were bent on shutting down the new church at Michigan and Minerva streets, which had just relocated from its original location - a "little old tin shop" nearby on West Michigan Street. But Christ Temple's founder wouldn't budge. "We were obliged to nail up the sashes with boards," said Bishop Garfield T. Haywood, whose predominantly black congregation at one time was 40 percent white. It was growth rather than fear that prompted the church's 1909 move from the 80-seat Michigan and Minerva facility to a larger storefront at 12th and Lafayette streets.
Christ Temple would seat 150 people when it moved in 1910 to a building at 12th and Missouri streets equipped with "homemade" benches. The church continued to be integrated, with members ranging from the economically disadvantaged to doctors and lawyers. By November 1924, Christ Temple members were worshiping in a 1,500-seat structure built largely with contributions form members. Historians call the building, which still stands at Fall Creek Boulevard and Paris Avenue, "The finest edifice of worship among blacks in Indianapolis" at the time. Christ Temple members still worship in that building, and the church has an estimated membership of 500. Through the years, Haywood was renowned as an orator whose style influenced a number of ministers, many of whom became his students. His status in religious circles was such that Haywood once was elected as his denomination's residing bishop. A portion of Fall Creek Boulevard is designated as Bishop Garfield T. Haywood Memorial Way in honor of the minister, who died in 1931.

Soldier noted for bravery in World War I
His name is hardly a household word in American military history, but Aaron Richard Fisher is regarded by Indiana historians as "the most outstanding black soldier from the state in World War I.
Fisher, a lieutenant in the Army's all-black 366th Infantry Regiment's 92nd Infantry Division, earned his distinction during a midnight raid by German forces in France on Sept. 3, 1918.
More than 50 Germans struck the outpost of which Fisher was commander, injuring several Americans. Though wounded, Fisher rallied his forces and directed a counterattack with reinforcements from a separate American company. The Germans fled, leaving almost half their number wounded on the field. Fisher, born in the all-black Gibson County farming community of Lyles Station in 1892, was awarded the nation's second-highest medal - the Distinguished Service Cross - while hospitalized. He would later receive the croix de guerre with gold star from the French government, honoring his heroism.
The son of a farmer who had served in the United States Colored Army during the Civil War, Fisher served in the Army at a time when it had only four authorized black regiments. He was discharged as a commissioned officer March 17, 1919, then re-enlisted as a first sergeant. Fisher served 26 years in the rank of warrant officer and retired as a chief warrant officer in 1947. He battled health problems until his death shortly after his retirement.

White Hoosier mob beat, hanged 2 blacks
More than 10,000 whites stormed the Grant County Jail in Marion on Aug. 7, 1930, looking for three black teen-agers charged with robbing and fatally shooting a Fairmount man before raping his girlfriend.
The incident ended with the lynchings of two Marion men - lynchings said to have been among the last to occur north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith, both 19, and 16-year-old James Cameron were being held on charges stemming from the slaying of Claude Deeter, 23, and the assault on Mary Ball, 19, of Marion.
Authorities said Deeter and Ball were in a car parked along a Marion road the night of Aug. 6 when three blacks drove up "in a dilapidated touring car," Deeter was shot four times and died the next day.
Shipp, Smith and Cameron were arrested at their homes the next morning.
When news of Deeter's death spread, a mob organized in Fairmount stormed the jail, beating down doors with sledgehammers and forcing their way into the suspects' cell.
Riot squads from nearby cities poured into Marion along with National Guardsmen from Kentucky, armed with machine guns and tear gas.
Shipp, Smith and Cameron were severely beaten and then dragged to the jail's courtyard. Smith "probably was dead before he was hanged," according to a Page One story inThe Indianapolis Star.
Ball's father "attempted to divert the mob by pleading with them not to carry out their plan," The Star reported.
Shipp and Smith had been hanged from the same tree when the woman's uncle shouted Cameron probably was innocent and should not meet the same fate.
As Cameron was taken back to his cell, mob members said Shipp's and Smith's bodies would hang until noon the next day "as a warning to other Negroes."
Cameron later served four years in prison after a jury convicted him of being an accessory to manslaughter. Reference materials used for this column do not state whether anyone was charged in the beatings and hangings.

McArthur Conservatory nurtured talent
A modest-looking, three-story brick building on Indiana Avenue served as a training ground for budding musicians during the 1940s, drawing on the Westside Indianapolis neighborhood's rich jazz music heritage.

Life on "The Avenue"
During its heyday in the 1930s and '40s, Indiana Avenue was the Broadway of black Indianapolis.

McArthur Conservatory grew from its founder's career as an Indianapolis Public Schools music teacher. Ruth McArthur realized many of her elementary pupils were serious about vocal and instrumental music but had no instructional outlet beyond the school. She offered private lessons in her home before opening the conservatory in 1946 in a 20-room structure in the 800 block of Indiana Avenue, across from the Lockefield Gardens housing complex.
In a neighborhood where jazz musicians performing in nightclubs and the nearby Walker Theatre provided an upbeat sound track for local blacks, the conservatory became Indiana's first such institution to offer formal jazz instruction. Many of McArthur's former pupils may not have gone on to become household names, but the conservatory once boasted a roster of notable instructors. Among them was Jerry Daniels, a member of the original Ink Spots vocal group. The faculty also included members of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and IPS music instructors, who taught such courses as voice, orchestra, piano, guitar, music theory and composition.
Conservatory pupils performed in several in-house acts, including a dance group and the McArthur Marching Band. The McArthur Orchestra often accompanied the conservatory's Choraliers vocal group at banquets, conventions and garden parties. Several McArthur acts performed in such Indiana Avenue-area nightspots as the Sunset and the Cotton Club, and the entire troupe put on a 1953 Indiana State Fairgrounds show featuring African, Haitian and black American dance. But as "branch schools" began offering recreational music courses in local community centers, schools and churches, the conservatory struggled to survive its dwindling enrollment. After opening a record shop in an attempt to generate revenue, McArthur Conservatory closed in 1963 - four years before the property was sold to Indiana University.
Crispus Attucks High School 1927-1986
It was founded because of racism - a segregated high school to keep black students separate. But despite that intention, Crispus Attucks High School became a source of pride.
Named for a black man who was killed when he led an attack on British soldiers during a tax protest in the streets of Boston in March 1770, the school is remembered by some mainly for its championship basketball teams of the 1950s.
But those who attended Attucks in its heyday recall a demanding and talented faculty - many with advanced college degrees - that pushed students to be their best.

Rev. King brought message to city twice
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. brought his nonviolent campaign for equality to Indianapolis at least twice - in 1958 and 1961.

1967 file photo
"We must be sure we don't substitute black supremacy for white supremacy," the civil rights leader told 3,800 people in a speech on Dec. 12, 1958. "We must learn to live together as brothers or we will die as fools."
Despite his calls for harmony, Rev. King was the object of death threats when he returned to Indianapolis on Nov. 24, 1961. Police had received letters warning that an attempt could be made on the Baptist minster's life here.
About 10 uniformed and plainclothes policemen were stationed inside the Murat Temple, where Rev. King spoke to more than 900 people during a Southern Christian Leadership Conference fund-raiser. No incidents or protests were reported.
In a 1961 interview with The Indianapolis Star, Rev. King spoke out against what one speaker at the fund-raiser called "The Iron Curtain at 38th Street." It was a reference to the problems blacks faced in buying homes in certain Northside neighborhoods. "The federal government controls almost all housing, especially new housing, through FHA and VA loans," Rev. King said, calling for Kennedy to impose an "integration policy" on those agencies.

Bobby Kennedy knew of their grief first hand
Robert F. Kennedy had lost a brother to violence in 1963. Nearly five years later, he was thrust into telling black Hoosiers that they, too, had lost a brother - the civil rights leader who embodied their dreams of equality.

When word was received that Martin Luther King had been assassinated, violence broke out in many cities - but not in Indianapolis. Many believe the calming influence of Robert Kennedy, who was campaigning in Indiana, was the difference.
Kennedy, a U.S. senator from New York seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, was campaigning in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968. Before his speech from a truck bed at an outdoor basketball court at 17th Street and Broadway, the brother of slain President Kennedy received tragic news. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
A chilly drizzle fell on the predominantly black crowd, including some people who sensed that a tragedy had occurred, when a pale and shaken Kennedy began speaking from hastily scribbled notes: "I have very sad news for all of you. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed tonight."
Onlookers sobbed, cursed in anger or sighed in disbelief. But the violence that authorities and community leaders had feared did not materialize. "For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling," Kennedy said, seeking to console his listeners. "I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man." Adding that "the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together," Kennedy urged his audience to "say a prayer for our country and our people." 

Violence erupted in 1969 along avenue of progress
Indiana Avenue once symbolized pride, perseverance and progress - the centerpiece of black Indianapolis business, culture and society.
But the street on which Madame C.J. Walker's hair care and cosmetics firm had blossomed into a million-dollar enterprise would become a battle zone.
Tensions erupted in violence over two summer nights in 1969. Fires, bottle-throwing, shooting and looting resulted from outrage over authorities' attempts to break up a fight. On June 5, bottles were hurled at two Indianapolis police officers trying to stop an altercation outside Lockefield Gardens apartments. The patrolmen were slightly injured. Later that night, a Big 10 Market along Indiana Avenue was firebombed. The windows of at least 10 moving cars were smashed by rioters throwing things. Looters smashed windows and took merchandise from several Indiana Avenue businesses.
An unidentified black youth group and Black Panther Party members sought to calm the throngs that sometimes included more than 100 people, but the violence raged on for another night. Searchlights illuminated the night sky on June 6 as police riot squads, armed with M-16 rifles and accompanied by K-9 squads, tramped through streets, yards and alleys. A sniper fired several shots from a Lockefield Gardens roof, grazing a police detective's forehead. A motorcycle patrolman was attacked at Blake and Walnut streets. In all, there were 20 arrests and numerous injuries, including a black man reportedly shot in the leg by police

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As his 80th birthday approaches, a look at the life and legacy of the late Ray Charles.

"I just do what I do." That's what Ray Charles told Billboard in June 2002 when asked to assess his role in music history. Of course, Charles' self-effacing response belies a groundbreaking career and a legacy that endures today, as fans look toward celebrating what would have been the legendary artist's 80th birthday Sept. 23. Looking back at Charles' storied career, what comes to mind is the phrase "musical genius." In Charles' case, that's no hype.

Rare & Unseen Ray Charles Photos | Charles on the Charts

80th Birthday Year Events | Charles Charity

In 1954, the artist's melding of gospel and blues yielded the pioneering hit "I've Got a Woman"-and forged an indelible imprint on R&B, rock and pop. His earthy, soulful voice graced a steady stream of classics after "Woman," including "Drown in My Own Tears," "What'd I Say," "Hit the Road Jack," "Unchain My Heart," "I Can't Stop Loving You" and "Georgia on My Mind."

Video below: Ray Charles performs "Hit The Road Jack" in São Paulo, Brazil on September 22, 1963.

Video below: Ray Charles performs "Then I'll Be Home" in Montreux, Switzerland on July 19, 1997.

Just as at home on the Hammond B-3 organ as he was on the piano, he also landed at the top of Billboard's R&B, pop, country and jazz charts-and even the dance chart, collaborating with childhood friend Quincy Jones and Chaka Khan on "I'll Be Good to You."

His final recording, 2004's "Genius Loves Company," made history when it won eight Grammy Awards, including album and record of the year for his pairing with Norah Jones on "Here We Go Again."

But what many may not know is that the inimitable Charles was also a genius when it came to the business side of music. In the early '60s he negotiated a rare feat after leaving Atlantic Records to sign with ABC-Paramount: ownership of his own master recordings. He also established his own labels. Tangerine (his favorite fruit) came first, which later evolved into CrossOver Records.

A songwriter who penned nearly 200 songs, Charles also operated his own publishing companies, Tangerine Music and Racer Music. For these entities, Charles and longtime manager Joe Adams designed and built the RPM International office and studios on Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles. The Ray Charles Memorial Library will open in the building this fall.

Charles also found time to manage the careers of other acts, including Billy Preston and '70s R&B group the Friends of Distinction. And way before it was de rigueur for artists to do, Charles set up what became a foundation to help needy children with hearing disabilities and later on support education.

He was an amazing human being," says Jones, 77, who became friends with Charles when both were scrappy teenagers in Seattle. "A true innovator who revolutionized music and the business of music," he adds. "Growing up, we only had the radio; no Michael Jackson, Diddy or Oprah. So it was hard to imagine today's entrepreneurial world. But that didn't stop us. We spent a lot of time talking and dreaming about things that brothers had never done before."

"He really was a genius," says singer Solomon Burke, a former Atlantic labelmate. "He did things the way he wanted."

Charles was born Ray Charles Robinson Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga. As many learned through actor Jamie Foxx's Academy Award-winning portrayal in the 2004 film "Ray," Charles became blind by age 7 and orphaned at 15 while growing up in northwest Florida.

In eight years at a state school for the blind, the young Charles learned how to read and write music. Leaving Florida in 1947, he headed for Seattle ("Choosing the farthest place he could find from Florida," Jones says), where he notched his first hit two years later as a member of the Maxin Trio, "Confession Blues."

Even then, Charles was an enterprising individual. "He had his own apartment, record player, two pairs of pimp shoes, and here I am still living at home," Jones recalls with a laugh. "His mother trained him not to be blind: no cane, no dogs, no cup. His scuffed-up shoes... that was his guide and driving force. He was the most independent dude I ever saw in my life. Ray would get blind only when pretty girls came around."

Signing with Atlantic Records in 1952, Charles as a West Coast jazz and blues man recorded such songs as "It Should've Been Me" and label co-founder Ahmet Ertegun's composition, "Mess Around."

Then he connected in 1954 with "I've Got a Woman," which set off a chain reaction of more hits capitalizing on his bold gospel/blues fusion. But Charles was just getting started. In 1958, he performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, accompanied by a band that featured such jazz cats as saxophonists David "Fathead" Newman and Hank Crawford. Further bucking convention, he recorded "The Genius of Ray Charles," a 1959 release offering standards on one side (including "Come Rain or Come Shine") and big band numbers on the other, featuring members of Count Basie's orchestra and several arrangements by Jones.

Video below: Charles' 1966 Coke commercial, "So Tired."

Leaving Atlantic for ABC-Paramount, a fearless Charles recorded the seminal "Genius + Soul = Jazz" album in 1961. A year later, his earlier dabbling in country music grew serious with the release of the million-selling "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music."

Complemented by lush strings and a harmony-rich choir, he scored with covers of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" and Ted Daffan's "Born to Lose"-and spent 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

For a black man to do this in 1962 was unheard of," says Tony Gumina, president of the Ray Charles Marketing Group, which handles the late artist's licensing affairs. "He was trying to sell records to people who didn't want to drink from the same water fountain as him. But this was one of his greatest creative and business moves: to not be categorized musically and cross over. Though he never worried about it, he was resigned to the fact that he might lose some core fans. But he thought he'd gain far more in the process."

Gumina was operating his own promotion company working with state lotteries when he met Charles in 1999. The two teamed up on a series of commercials for various state lotteries and also introduced a line of Ray Charles slot machines also accessible to the blind.

"Everything he did had a business acumen to it," says Gumina, who cites Charles' liaison with manager Adams as a pivotal turning point. Originally hired to be Charles' stage announcer, former radio DJ Adams segued into overseeing production of the singer's shows, lighting and wardrobe.

Together the pair designed and built Charles' L.A. business base, RPM International (Recording, Publishing and Management) studio. When he began recording there in 1965, the label rented the studio from him, so he made money on his recordings before they were even released.

To save money on travel expenses, Charles purchased an airplane to ferry his band around to gigs. A smaller plane was also acquired so that Charles could wing in to, say, New York to record a couple of songs before flying back out in time for a show.

"He understood the entertainment business enough to know that you may not be popular forever," Gumina says, "and you need to maximize your product. At the same time, he had as much fun as any rock star but without the sad money stories. There was a time to work and a time to play, and he knew the difference. He didn't have a bunch of homes or a large entourage. That's why he was able to save $50 million before he died."

Calling Charles an "incredibly smart man," Concord president John Burk says he learned a lot from the ailing singer while he was recording his final studio album, "Genius Loves Company."

Video below: Ray Charles performs "It Ain't Easy Being Green" in Trentnton, NJ on Nov. 7, 2002.

Going through "some sticky deal points, he was amazing," Burk recalls. "He had the whole agreement in his head. Without referencing any material, he knew all the terms we proposed and had the deal done for the album in two discussions."

Creatively, Burk says Charles was an artist dedicated to delivering "a true performance from the heart. Part of his creative legacy was his approach to singing. He opened the door to vocal improvisations, changing how people perceived you could sing a song. Many singers today are influenced by him and they don't even know it."

Rare & Unseen Ray Charles Photos | Charles on the Charts

80th Birthday Year Events | Charles Charity


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