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John Lands came to Indianapolis for football but stayed for much more

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John Lands, who moved to Indianapolis toward the end of the Civil Rights Movement and became an advocate for African Americans, died Jan. 23. He was 84 years old.

While Lands was involved all over the city, he did his most prominent work on the near west side, where he opened Our Place, a service center that offered recreation, counseling and employment opportunities, in 1968 on Indiana Avenue.

Lands joined friends Reggie Jones and Fuller Jones, whom he met at his first job at Flanner House, to open a supermarket, Our Market, on Indiana Avenue in 1985.

“John was a very concerned, committed person,” Reggie Jones said.

The market lasted for about five years but couldn’t survive as its customer base was displaced from Lockefield Gardens and other communities around The Avenue.

Hubert Canady knew Lands from Our Place, but he formally met the community leader at the now-defunct Indianapolis Skills Center, where people could go for skills training and get help with job placement. Jones was the executive director, and Lands helped run it.

“Cleanest brothers in the city,” Canady said of the duo, who always seemed to be wearing a suit and tie.

Canady credits Lands and the skills center for helping him through life. He learned welding and became a heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician and a certified plumber. He retired in 2005.

“He’s a beautiful brother,” Canady said of Lands.

Lands was a passionate leader who didn’t mince words when he talked about improving life for African Americans in Indianapolis.

After he opened Our Place, he praised boys and girls for helping renovate the vacant building, but he was upset with adults for not offering more assistance.

“This is something more important than giving money,” he told the Recorder at the time. “This is a moral thing. It’s part of their community and it’s difficult to do anything without the support of the community.”

Lands was also executive director of the Fall Creek YMCA from 1971 to 1979.
Lands was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the fourth of 10 children. His family called him “Mickey,” according to his obituary.

The son of a preacher, Lands was known for his ability to quote the Bible. His daughter, Nephthys Lands, said he loved reading in general and had a collection of books that would rival a library. He also enjoyed country blues music and was inspired as a high schooler to memorize Shakespeare.

“If you had a conversation with my dad, you better know what you’re talking about,” Nephthys said.

Lands studied anthropology and archeology at Montana State University and considered himself a student of history. He stressed the importance of teaching Black history that extended beyond slavery. Starting Black history with slavery “serves to sever the umbilical cord between African Americans and our Mother Land,” he told the Recorder in 1985.

Lands came to Indianapolis in the early 1960s — without any family in the area — to play semi-professional football for the Indianapolis Warriors in the United Football League. According to Pro Football Archives, he played three seasons with the Warriors as a tight end and wide receiver. He also spent three seasons in other leagues with the British Columbia Lions, Fort Wayne Warriors and Charleston Rockets.

The Los Angeles Rams picked Lands in the fifth round of the 1959 NFL draft, but he elected to finish his college career. He also played basketball and did the broad jump and javelin throw on the track team. The 1959 football media guide called him “Big John.”

Lands had 11 children, all named after African royalty such as Ethiopian kings and Egyptian goddesses.

“He was very big into knowing you were here,” Nephthys said, “being proud of where you come from.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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