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Monday, May 10, 2021

‘The school that opened a city’

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Running their fingers across the historic walls of Crispus Attucks High School, children were given a brief lesson of family history.

“There is grandma and grandpa,” one parent would say as they pointed to the endless rows of class portraits displayed representing past graduates.

Just a few feet away, another parent would say, “There’s my great-grandmother, our family neighbor, and over here is the guy who lived down the street.”

The occasion gathered the community and past graduates in 2001 during a public forum where Attucks’ basketball star and former NBA player, Oscar Robertson and others shared their love and passion for the sport and their alma mater.

Witnessing this lesson inspired filmmaker Ted Green to discover a new, untold, in-depth story many in the Indianapolis community aren’t aware of.

In the summer of 2016, Ted Green Films and WFYI Public Media, Indianapolis’ PBS affiliate, will showcase a new documentary titled, “The School That Opened a City,” a film on Crispus Attucks High School.

“I found out basketball wasn’t the true story,” said Green, the winner of five regional Emmy Awards. “There is more to Attucks than basketball that doesn’t get talked about. I think Attucks is a community school and is a great reflection of Indianapolis in the 20th century. I just told myself then and there, if I ever got a chance to take a stab at this, I would have to do it right.”

The 90-minute documentary will follow the story of Indianapolis’ only school designed for Blacks that was built to separate, isolate and to fail, however with the support of administrators and community leaders, the school thrived in an ever-evolving city.

Starring 101-year-old Elmon Myers, one of the oldest living graduates; Robertson; jazz legend, David Baker; A’Lelia Bundles, the great great-granddaughter of Madame C.J. Walker and more, the project will share the personal experiences and never-before-told stories of the past.

“All of these people get a little glint in their eyes when they talk about (Attucks’) teachers and the extra mile they went (for students),” stated Green. “This is a great privilege and I know WFYI feels the same. We are looking at this not as a ‘Black story’ but as an Indianapolis story, a state story and a national story.”

In the 1920s, Attucks was built to house 1,000 students but welcomed more than 1,300 through its doors after white residents refused to send their children to school with Black children. School supplies, musical instruments and furniture were handoff items previously used at white schools in the area. Despite the lack of resources and all odds against them, students were equipped with a number of influential resources, their teachers. Since African-Americans were allowed to attend college at the time, but not allowed to teach at universities, this left a group of highly-qualified educators to embrace the Attucks spirit.

“I knew going in this would be a story about overcoming obstacles, but what I didn’t know was, and what I’m learning more of each day, is how big those obstacles were when Attucks was formed in the 1920s,” mentioned Green. “How successful grads went on to be despite those obstacles and that is, what’s illuminating and inspiring to me.”

The school went on to produce surgeons, educators, government officials, military leaders, stellar athletes, opera singer, Angela Brown; writer, Janet Langhart-Cohen; jazz guitarist, Wes Montgomery and others.

“I got to sit down with the great great-granddaughter of Madame C.J. Walker (A’Lelia Bundles) and she is so smart and she speaks with such authority. She gave me a great perspective in comparing Attucks with other African-American high schools,” mentioned Green.

Over the past nine months, the filmmaker has split his time between research at the Indiana Historical Society, IUPUI and sitting in a room of Attucks graduates and simply listening. In addition to working with WFYI, Green has secured support from the Heartland Film Festival to potentially host the film’s screening, Indianapolis Public Schools and IUPUI to include the film’s stories in today’s academic curriculum, the Indianapolis Urban League to help spread the word and the Indiana Bicentennial Commission, which will include the film in its official state celebration.

Key community leaders such as business owner John Thompson and Sam Odle, an Attucks graduate, are assisting Green and WFYI in securing funding for the film. Odle believes the time is now to showcase the story.

“Many of those that graduated from Attucks in the 1940s and 50s are passing on, so it’s important to tell that story now because the voices are going to be lost. It’s an urgent project,” he said.

When it comes to securing funding, Green said he knew he would have to put in additional effort because of the nature of the project. He found it was much easier to secure sponsorships for films featuring former basketball player and coach, Bobby “Slick” Leonard and Attucks basketball players.

“When attempting to gain support for a project that covers race relations and education, it can be difficult, but one of the most heartening things is that Black and white communities have gotten behind this,” he noted.

“This film is a little different because most of the others have focused on an individual, like John Wooden and this is a broader story around a cultural institution that is so important to our region,” said Lloyd Wright, WFYI president. “It’s an exciting project and it’s a story that is long over due.”

While the film’s premiere location is to be determined, Green and WFYI are hoping to secure a major venue such as the Madame Walker Theatre, Attuck’s high school and others. The most recent Green-WFYI collaborative film, on “Slick” Leonard premiered at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in July 2014.

Indianapolis community members are asked to support this cause by contributing to WFYI or the Indianapolis Urban League.

“When you screen a program such as this and a community comes together to hear that program, they imagine the importance of that story to them and their families,” said Wright. “It’s a community coming together around the stories that are told and I think what we will witness is going to be very exciting.”

To view the trailer of “The School That Opened a City,” visit YouTube.com and search “Attucks Preview” on the “WFYIOnline” channel.

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