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NUVO at 25: Growing up Black in Indy

A personal testimony on the Circle City's racial diversity

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NUVO News Editor Amber Stearns at age 16.
  • NUVO News Editor Amber Stearns at age 16.

I was 16 years old in March 1990 when NUVO published its first issue. That's the same age my oldest son is now. As an African-American woman who grew up in Indianapolis I've been thinking about the city my son lives in compared to the city my teenage self experienced 25 years ago. One cliché keeps popping into my head: "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

I was raised on the north side of Indianapolis, a proud graduate of the MSD of Washington Township (GO Panthers!). North Central High School, in my mind, was a microcosm of the city as a whole. There were students of varying races, ethnicities and nationalities. Socio-economic backgrounds were just as diverse. The student parking lot ranged from BMWs to the students who took the bus everyday and could only dream of their own engines. Spiritual backgrounds were represented by everything from Christianity to Judaism to Islam to Wiccan to the faithless. We were all there under one roof, co-existing in the name of education. Some of us were more than willing to embrace that education of academia and life while others ... not so much.

What I didn't realize until well into my adult years, was how sheltered I was even in such a diverse environment. My circle of friends was tight, based on my interests and academic pursuits. I had heard the rumors of Black vs. white confrontations; student-to-student tensions as well as student-to-teacher battles. I remember when a large Black male student was suspended and arrested for pushing a white teacher through a plate glass floor-to-ceiling window in the computer room for calling him a racial slur. And I remember when Dr. Eugene White was brought to North Central from the Fort Wayne Community School District to become principal of our school. His mission was to bring an end to the racial tensions within the school, police the halls and to be a role model to the young Black males who were getting lost in the cracks.

I also remember the stories and lessons from my parents and grandparents. There were places around the city and state I was told I shouldn't go as a Black girl. South of downtown was off limits and trips downtown were limited to special occasions in large groups. Manners and best behavior were considered a survival skill. All of my Black friends were told the same thing by their parents. And if an African-American family moved into the neighborhood or school district, they were told the same things.

That's how Indiana's dark history lives on, traveling by word-of-mouth like all of the great stories in history. If you know anything about Indiana's history, then you can probably imagine my family's shock and concern when my first job out of college was in Marion, Indiana. Despite the 65-year time span between the lynchings of Thomas Ship and Abram Smith and my employment at a local radio station, my grandmother called me every day after work for a month to make sure I was OK. It didn't get any better when I went from Marion to Kokomo in March 1996. My family was relatively quiet until July 1996 when the Ku Klux Klan decided they would rally on the courthouse square. From what I understand, it wasn't near the size of the gathering 73 years prior — one of the largest Klan gatherings in history. I did not witness the event personally because the Kokomo police chief at that time made it clear he would not let me cover the event for the newsroom. It makes me smile to this day to remember the extreme look of concern on his face when I realized he earnestly had my safety at heart.

I should probably mention that a company headquartered in Martinsville owned both the Kokomo and Marion radio stations I had worked for. I will admit that as a young woman I always held my breath, watched my speed, and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible whenever I drove through Martinsville on my way to Bloomington. It was made clear at an early age that the ghost of Carol Jenkins still lingered and I had no desire to meet her fate.

The ghosts of the past march to the beat of the storytellers that pass those tales on to generation after generation. They are told in the stories of police brutality and racial profiling that pop up in cases like Danny Sales in 1995 and Brandon Johnson in 2010. When the Lawrence North Lady Wildcats were met with racial taunting and gorilla suits when facing the Bedford North Lawrence Lady Stars during last year's semistate game, the collective memory took everyone back to 1998 when the Martinsville home team greeted the Bloomington North visiting team with racial slurs and dirty play on the court (that included biting). Community elders recited the story of how the 1955 state championship team from Crispus Attucks High School received those same taunts in the face of their victory from a state in the hands of a racially-biased government.

The life of my 16-year-old self is much different than that of my 16-year-old son. Texting and Twitter weren't my primary forms of communication. It took forever to write a perfect paper on a word processing typewriter (the ones where you could only view one line at a time) compared to emailing the paper to a teacher's dropbox from your school-issued Chromebook. But I still share the stories passed on to me. I find myself having the conversations about manners and good behavior if I'm ever approached by law enforcement. As my son acquires the driving hours needed to get his license this spring, the list of where to go and not to go is still included in my lesson as if they were a part of basic map navigation.

Why?

Because the concerns of my parents are now my concerns.

Despite the success of African-Americans in this city in business, government, entertainment and sports, there remains a level of systemic racism that lies just below the surface.

And so the ghosts march out of the past and continue on, chanting the mantra, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

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