Indiana Black Expo's Summer Celebration - the longest-running African-American cultural event in the nation - has helped the black community grow and flourish, say local community leaders who have been present to see the changes it has made.
Indiana Black Expo kicks off its 45th Summer Celebration in downtown Indianapolis on July 9. The event will run until July 19, and will feature many events, including an education forum, gospel and rhythm and blues performances and history exhibits.
Former State Representative Bill Crawford has been attending the Summer Celebration since its inception, when he was the manager of Indiana Black Expo. He said he’s seen firsthand the impact IBE has had.
“It’s immeasurable in terms of the contribution that Expo has made to the growth and development of the African-Americans in the Indianapolis community,” Crawford said. “It’s difficult to quantify but if you look at when Expo started in the early 70’s… if you look at the advances we’ve made economically, politically, socially and educationally I think it’s clear that Expo had a tremendous impact on African-Americans in this city, and the city overall.”
Crawford said one of the biggest differences IBE has made was seen in elections. The presence of IBE helped people realize that as part of society, African-Americans should also be a part of the government.
“Since Expo there has been an emerging of African-American elected officials based on a lifting of the consciousness and the understanding that we had a right to be a part of government,” Crawford said. “[IBE has] that message of the importance of registering and voting, recognizing that the only people in this nation who make public policy are elected officials.”
IBE has never endorsed any political candidates, but Crawford said that because of the importance the organization has placed on voting and the acceptance of African-American candidates, they have made a difference in major elections. He said IBE impacted the 1984 and 1988 elections for Reverend Jesse Jackson as a presidential candidate, and again in 2008 and 2012 when President Barack Obama ran for office.
On a local level, in 2014 Sheryl Lynch became the first African American - and woman - to be elected circuit court judge in Marion County.
Summer Celebration carries a large financial impact for Indianapolis as well. Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing and communications for Visit Indy, Indianapolis’ tourism promotion center, said the event generates an estimated $20 million for the city. He said it also helps bring attention to the area.
“Hosting the largest and longest running African-American cultural event in the nation is an incredible honor and helps turn the attention of visitors and prospective events and conventions towards Indianapolis,” Gahl said in an email. “In addition, numerous national media attend the event, putting Indy into the spotlight as a vibrant destination.”
Patricia Payne, former director of multicultural education for Indianapolis Public Schools, said as long as she was in town, she was at the Summer Celebration.
“I was 30 years old when Black Expo first came to Indianapolis and here it is, they’re celebrating now their 45th year,” Payne said. “I can’t remember one time I’ve missed… Everybody really, really looked forward to Indiana Black Expo; it’s almost like a national holiday.”
Payne said IBE is important to African-American culture because many in the community weren’t taught their own history. She said people in other cultures would benefit from attending Summer Celebration because it’s an environment of learning.
“It helps us reignite our fire for the amazing history and culture of Africans and African-Americans that is so often ignored in curriculum and textbooks, even to this day,” Payne said. “We weren’t taught our history either, so we’re all in this together… Black Expo is another opportunity for us to understand that we are not just humans, we’re African-Americans who are human.”
Payne said she remembered the backlash from when Indiana Black Expo was first started, with people writing editorials against it and calling for a "white expo." She said many people were confused because they thought they were supposed to ignore race, but the Summer Celebration is a way to show how important race is to a person’s identity.
“I want you to know me, to understand me, to value me because of who I am and that’s a beautiful black woman, so you can’t really separate my color and I don’t want to be oblivious to my color,” Payne said. “Expo makes us visible every year… and I think more and more people are understanding that this is not just the celebration of black history, it’s the celebration of American history because our history is American history.”