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Backtrack: Indy’s First Black Expo

From that first weekend to the 11-day extravaganza it is today, Black Expo has blossomed.

Afro hairstyles, hot pants, and knee-high boots—no wonder the three women in the foreground caught the photographer’s eye at Indianapolis’s first Black Expo. Fashion trends were clearly on point in this time capsule of a photo. The Indianapolis News reported on June 19, 1971, that “Black Expo opened today amid brightly colored booths, soul sounds and above all, black identity.”

The event was a sign of the times. Many cities were hosting Black Expos that year, aimed at recognizing, albeit belatedly, the contributions of African Americans to society. The Indianapolis Sesquicentennial Commission co-sponsored Expo as part of the city’s 150-year anniversary celebration, and an American flag was hoisted high in the Exposition Hall at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, where some 50,000 people visited over the course of the weekend-long festivities.

If this was a moment for racial pride, it was also one for racial harmony—organizers were eager to emphasize that this was an event for the entire city. “Whites who have fears and false information need to see for themselves that Black Expo ’71 is not a sideshow in the midst of a festive year, but serves as an opportunity for all men to become informed by the historical, cultural, educational, political, and economic exhibits,” said its general chairman, James C. Cummings Jr., in an Indianapolis Star story the day before the event. The article quoted another, unnamed Expo spokesman as saying, “We hope everybody—black, white, brown, red, or yellow—will meet us …”

If this was a moment for racial pride, it was also one for racial harmony—organizers were eager to emphasize that this was an event for the entire city.

Anyone who showed up to the fairgrounds over those two days found products to browse, like a black sports magazine and Soul Brand, a Scotch from a black-owned liquor company; educational and business opportunities; and a pictorial history of the role of black people in Indianapolis since the Civil War. There was a basketball game featuring 25 star players from the NBA and now-defunct American Basketball Association. A Saturday-night variety show included a performance from soul legend Donny Hathaway, who had not yet tasted success in the mainstream music community; a year later, his “Where is the Love” duet with Roberta Flack would catapult him to widespread fame.

Indiana Black Expo has come a long way since that weekend. Today a group that holds events and programs all year long, Expo stages its signature affair, Summer Celebration, from July 11 to 21 this year, with job fairs, health screenings, concerts, and more, drawing six-figure crowds. Now that’s cause for pride.

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