Story by Amy Lynch
Indiana’s proud African-American heritage stretches back to the early 1800s, well before migrations of freedom seekers from the South traveled north before and during the Civil War era, settling in and populating major Hoosier cities like Indianapolis, Evansville and Fort Wayne. Today, the state proudly commemorates National Black History Month in February with a diverse lineup of attractions, events and celebrations taking place all throughout the state.
These are just a few of the locations where visitors can learn more about Indiana’s strong African-American culture and history:
Indiana Avenue, one of four diagonal spurs that radiate out from the core city center, has been a stronghold of black culture in Indianapolis since the early 1800s. Through the decades, African Americans have gathered here to socialize and to frequent a string of jazz clubs that attracted some of the most notable performers in the genre. After completing a major renovation project, the Madam Walker Legacy Center — the true centerpiece of this urban cultural district — is finally scheduled to reopen in early 2020 with an improved theater space, new innovative programming and multimedia tours. In addition, the Indiana Historical Society pays its own tribute to the country’s first self-made female millionaire with the immersive “You Are There 1915: Madam C.J. Walker, Empowering Women” exhibit, on display now until January 2021.
The Landmark for Peace Memorial at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on the near northside presents year-round opportunity for quiet reflection at the site where Robert F. Kennedy announced the civil rights leader’s assassination on April 4, 1968.
The Indianapolis Public Library’s Center for Black Literature & Culture (CBLC) is dedicated to celebrating the vibrant and resilient heritage and triumphs of those born of African roots. This space is for all who are interested in exploring the rich heritage that has influenced nations across the globe. When the center opened in 2017, approximately 6,000 visitors came through in the first nine months to see about 10,000 unique items, books and more. One of the highlights is a full wall mural featuring famous people, from Madam C.J. Walker to Maya Angelou and James Baldwin.
A registered National Historic Landmark and Indiana State Museum site, the Levi and Catharine Coffin State Historic Site in Fountain City has been called the Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad, having sheltered and assisted more than 1,000 escaping slaves on their northward journeys to freedom prior to the Civil War. On Feb. 17, the location will host a President’s Day event at 10 a.m. featuring a special performance by a costumed Abraham Lincoln interpreter and tours of the property. Admission is $3 for members, $8 for non-members and includes a short film as part of the program.
The Evansville African American Museum makes its home in the last remaining Lincoln Gardens building, a Federal housing project initiated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration in 1938. In addition to displays of modern works by locally renowned artists, the museum honors its origins with a selection of period artifacts to admire and Black History Month events to attend.
In addition to hosting several Black History Month-related activities including Black Joy: An Unconference, the Black Sorority and Fraternity Showcase, and a gala celebration during the month of February, Bloomington highlights three performances at the IU Auditorium this month that feature people of color. Emmy-nominated actress of “Orange is the New Black” fame, Laverne Cox is scheduled to appear on Feb. 13; Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane Company dances into town on Feb. 22, and a musical production of The Color Purple runs Feb. 24 and 25. Also, guests can admire the Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Indigenous Art of America among the recently reopened Eskenazi Museum of Art’s vast and varied collections on the Indiana University campus.
Indiana’s second largest city marks Black History Month with several events and offerings in 2020. The Fort Wayne Youtheatre presents “Building the Dream: MLK Jr.” Feb. 7 through 9 at the Auer Center for Arts and Culture; tickets are $18 per adult and $12 per child age 18 and under. For visitors who want to explore their family trees, the nationally acclaimed Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library maintains extensive African American Digital Collections of records and archives to aid in research efforts with trained staff on hand to offer free assistance. If you can pre-arrange a group tour, make a trip to the African/African-American Historical Society and Museum of Allen County housed in a former residential building to learn more about the history of Fort Wayne’s African-American settlers and admire the city’s largest public collection of African art.
In Gibson County, the Lyles Station Historical School and Museum keeps the integrity of this pioneering African-American farming community (incorporated in 1886) alive through artifacts on display within the restored Indiana Landmark Lyles Consolidated School building, along with special events, school field trips, oral and written histories.
The Malcolm X Institute of Black Studies founded at Wabash College in 1970-1971 serves as a repository for research and study materials with vibrant cultural, educational and social programs grounded in the African-American experience. The institute’s outreach efforts stretch well beyond the Wabash student population to include the greater Crawfordsville community through a year-round schedule of service projects, library access, musical performances, public speakers and presentations.