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Trotter: Indiana Black Expo through the years

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When Recorder President and CEO Robert Shegog called last week asking that I write a story about Indiana Black Expo, a thousand approaches to telling the Expo story went through my mind.

I struggled with deciding where I would start and how I would tell the history in 600 words. There is so much to tell.

I attended the first Indiana Black Expo in 1971 and several after that one. In the 1980s, I was Expo’s media relations contact with a team of volunteers helping me. I also led Expo coverage while working for the IndyStar and was there during the Mike Tyson event to guard Expo’s public reputation in the media. So, I had a range of Expo experiences. I settled on the focus being how Expo began and how the foundation was laid.

This was the period: It was the late 1960s and into the ‘70s when Black people were on the move in Indianapolis. There was race pride. Afros and greetings of brotherhood were common. We had a radio station owned by a Black man, Dr. Frank Lloyd. We had two Black-owned newspapers, the Recorder and the Herald. Indiana Avenue was still alive with major entertainers. Black businesses were plentiful and visible. Pressure was being applied in every area to include African Americans in the C suites and on boards. “Black flight” was occurring along with white flight, as those with means moved north.

The year of the first Indiana Black Expo, federal judge S. Hugh Dillin had ordered desegregation of some Indianapolis Public Schools and staff after a lawsuit filed by the local NAACP. UniGov, the consolidation of city and county government, was being implemented, and city fathers were focused on reviving downtown, which was a ghost town in the 1970s.

Allowing and even supporting Indiana Black Expo may have been a way to distract our attention away from what was happening as a result of UniGov.  But I digress. Expo was the time to have a good time.

Phyllis Carr, Helen Perkins and Barbara Wilson, three friends affiliated with Rev. Andrew J. Brown and the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, went to Chicago to the Chicago SCLC Black Expo and returned with ideas for a Black Expo here.

Rev. Brown, a Republican, embraced the idea and brought in James C. Cummings, also a Republican and former Indianapolis Recorder reporter. Others wanted to support the effort. Republicans and Democrats worked together.

They included Willard B. Ransom, a lawyer and general manager for the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Co., community activists William Crawford, as local coordinator and Glenn Howard, who worked statewide to start chapters. Bobby Bernard stepped in to book and promote the concerts; Doris Woods organized the first Miss Black Expo Contest. Billie Sanders chaired the first art exhibit. Mary Mumford came on to coordinate the art exhibit. Nobody was paid — at least not above board.

Just to drop a few other names, founding volunteers also included people like Hoyt Diamond, Emma O. Johnson, George VanSickle, Fred McCoy, Darlene Ricketts, Ed O’Rea, Sam Jones, Leo Madden, Vernice Williams, Johnny Florence and George P. Stewart, son of Recorder publisher Marcus C. Stewart, also a Republican.

Dianna Durham McLoud, a member of Expo’s first board of directors representing Northwest Indiana, recalls the challenges of organizing. Everyone had their ideas of what IBE should be. Writing a mission statement was grueling, she said.

There was even debate over whether the event would be called “Black Expo,” since “colored” and “Negro” were terms typically used then.

“It was very difficult getting people to build consensus,” McLoud said. “Everyone had strong opinions about what Expo should be.”

Finally, consensus was reached but money was needed. With St. John Baptist Church as headquarters, Cummings worked with Ransom, who was finance chairman of Expo and a member of the board of Merchants Bank, to land a $20,000 loan from Merchants Bank.

Expo was held in June a few weeks after I graduated from Arsenal Technical High School in 1971. Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher gave the opening message. There were exhibits showing the history of African Americans in Indiana. Large corporations and Black-owned businesses were vendors. About 50,000 attended, and the event grossed about $70,000.

I remember leaving the Indianapolis Fairground Exposition Hall with bags of samples of all kinds of things, including cigarettes. Liquor and cigarette businesses were Expo’s biggest early sponsors.

Profit from the first Expo, about $20,000, went to Indianapolis Operation Breadbasket, headed by Rev. Brown, and the Martin Luther King Foundation in Atlanta. The foundation received money because it owned the MLK Basketball Tournament held during Expo, which made more than half of the profit for the event. Basketball great Jerry Harkness chaired the tournament.

The following year, Expo moved to the Indiana Convention and Exposition Center. By 1973, with Cummings still president, Expo attracted more than 115,000. The help of dozens of volunteers, including Carol Calvin and Jocelyn Tandy, helped Expo stay in the black.

Luther Hicks became president after Cummings. A golf tournament was added and it became the biggest golf tournament ever sponsored by Blacks anywhere in the United States with a $25,000 purse. Marilyn Brown became the first woman chair of Black Expo. William Crawford followed Hicks as president. By then, Crawford was a state representative.

In the following years, Expo continued to grow, adding a business forum focused on building Black businesses and helping them land government contracts, a soul picnic which was held at Frederick Douglass Park, an ecumenical service, a health fair and more. In the early days of Expo, Black venues were used for Expo events. For example, Foster Hotel and Motor Lodge, which was located near Illinois Street and owned by businessman and civic leader Andrew Foster, hosted the Miss Black Expo contest. Events were also held at the Madame Walker Theatre.

The African Symposium was a strong event during Expo. It grew out of student activism at Indiana University-Purdue University Black Student Union (IUPUI) in the mid-1970s, supporting the struggles in South Africa against apartheid. Kwame T. Mumina was president of the student union.

Mumina became a legislative aid to both Crawford (who was elected in 1972) and then-Sen. Julia M. Carson. From that relationship, discussions soon turned to what Indiana Black Expo should be doing in connection with the Southern African struggle.

“The outcome of those discussion was the first Black Expo African Symposium in 1976, then called the Southern African Symposium,” said Mumina, who is now an attorney in Oklahoma.

“It was a hard-hitting two-day opportunity as a part of the Indiana Black Expo confab to digest the significant problems facing Africa and African American, which often included well-recognized, yet controversial panelists, journalists, speakers and writers with national and international stature,” Mumina said.

Delegations of Africans in their native clothing would often be seen walking around the exhibit area along with other local and national celebrities.

In 1980, Mmoja Ajabu took over leadership of the symposium and continued with the same objectives and commitment of keeping African and African American issues on the minds of Indiana Black Expo participants, Mumina said.

By 1980, a nationwide recession caused a decrease in the number of booths sold for Expo. Small Black businesses were among the hardest hit by inflation, making it difficult for them to spend $500 for a booth. Expo debt began to mount.

By 1983, when Charles Williams became president, Expo was $160,000 in the red. Charles was initially “loaned” to Expo with the blessings of Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut, but funding allowed him to later be hired as the first paid Expo president. Charles, who was also a Republican, was an assistant to Mayor Hudnut before joining Expo.

It was during this period that young Black corporate professionals came to help Expo. Professionals from IBM, Indiana Bell and Lilly Endowment came onboard. Lilly Endowment staffers Jacqueline Burton and Charles Blair helped Expo land Lilly Endowment funding. Yolande McGhee Savoy took a leave of absence from her job at Xerox Corp. and was brought on as program director. She brought with her tremendous sales and marketing skills. Others joined, as well, including Al Hobbs, George Pillow, Colleen Heeter, Marcia Bennett, Charlotte Campbell, Gary Holland and too many others to list here.

“It was an exciting time,” said McGhee. “It was all about change and transformation.”

Circle City Classic was added to IBE’s lineup of events in 1984 and I also handled publicity for the first Classic.

After Williams’ death in 2004, Joyce Rogers became president, followed by Tanya McKinzie and soon Alice Watson.

Under Rogers’ leadership, Expo saw revenue and economic impact on Indianapolis increase by millions of dollars.

Under McKinzie’s leadership, the organization saw 14 years of clean financial audits while remaining debt free with sufficient funds in reserve.

Over the years, Expo transformed from a grassroots movement to a statewide organization operating year-round and attracting attendance from throughout the nation. It has 12 chapters and more than 3,000 members. The staff has grown to 25 with a volunteer board. Scholarships given to minority youth top $4.6 million over the last 35 years.

Today, Expo is making all efforts to increase attendance and participation after years of decline. This year, participation is expected to increase with the easing of the pandemic. As one of Expo’s themes said, Expo has shown that “Working Together Works.”

Eunice Trotter is a former owner, editor and publisher of the Recorder.

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