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The Jazz Age Origins Of “Naptown”

Updated: Jul 11, 2022

Indianapolis’ often-misunderstood nickname has a long, rich history.

By Ben Price | Indianapolis Monthly | August 2, 2021

The Walker Theatre, Indianapolis’ premiere Jazz Age venue.Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Indianapolis’ nickname, “Naptown,” has gained dubious connotations over the years — not as a snappy little sobriquet for a city with more than its share of syllables, but an ironic reminder of its allegedly sleepy nature.

But while the nickname’s exact origins are somewhat foggy, one thing is certain. Far from representing some imagined dullness, the term “Naptown” is actually inseparable from one of the city’s most vital contributions to American history: its vibrant jazz culture of the 1920s.

The earliest reference to “Naptown” in the Hoosier State Chronicles, a free database of Indiana newspapers hosted by the Indiana State Library, is from a 1927 Indianapolis Recorder article about jazz musicians. The Indianapolis Recorder was then, like today, the city’s highest-circulating African American newspaper, says Jill Weiss Simins, a historian at the Indiana Historical Bureau.

The Recorder frequently deployed the nickname, using it in another 1927 article about a Black Indianapolis women’s volleyball team playing in St. Louis. Throughout the 1930s, “Naptown” was used regularly to refer to Indy in articles about music, baseball, social happenings, and various events around town.

“When African American Indianapolis residents began using the term ‘Naptown’ regularly in the 1920s, it was a hip, fun way of referring to Indianapolis — not a derogatory term for a sleepy city, as is often claimed today,” says Simins.

Simins described how the Evansville Argus, also a Black newspaper, also began using “Naptown” interchangeably with “Indianapolis.” The first use in the Argus was in reference to the esteemed Indianapolis attorney and political leader Henry Richarson.

By 1939, the Indianapolis Jewish Post was also regularly using the nickname “Naptown” in articles about local sports. The Indianapolis Times did not start using the term until the 1940s, and even then, it was rare and often kept in quotes to ensure it was seen as a nickname.

“Writers for the city’s popular Black newspaper, the Indianapolis Recorder, used ‘Naptown’ in a positive context, referring to cultural events in the city that they were proud of and excited about,” Simins says. “Like many cultural contributions to Indiana history, the African American roots of this term have been forgotten, but newspaper research shows us that it was the Black residents of Indianapolis that named the city ‘Naptown.’”

Steve Barnett, a Marion County Historian from the Indiana Historical Society, wrote an article for The Weekly View this past May about the nickname’s history. In the 1920s, African American performers and musicians began referring to Indy as “Naptown,” according to the article, it was seen as an informality of conversation stressing the fourth, most prominent syllable in the name Indianapolis.

Barnett recounts how during World War II, the nickname “Naptown” was adopted by soldiers who were stationed in the city. Since they were away from home, they sought out the comfort and hospitality of Service Men’s Centers. The “warmth, friendliness and shelter” they found at the centers made the soldiers start affectionately referring to Indy as “Naptown.”

Today the nickname graces everything from roller derby leagues to local blogs to a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu academy. But its roots in Indianapolis’ rich history of Black culture reveal just how misunderstood “Naptown” is, both in nickname and character.

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