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Preserving Martindale-Brightwood’s culture and historic landmarks

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Martindale-Brightwood, a historically African-American neighborhood on the east side of Indianapolis, has undergone significant changes in recent years.

The neighborhood’s history dates to the early 1900s when many Black people left the Jim Crow South for better opportunities and, along with a mixture of white immigrants, settled there. It was a blue-collar neighborhood, with mainly industrial workers, and was one of the few neighborhoods in Indianapolis where Black people could own homes.

Clete Ladd is a long-time resident and college professor. After serving in the military, he returned to the area and began creating his historical archive and collecting records of the beloved neighborhood.

“Frederick Douglass Park is so historic. The park has not only been a center of community but education. There were things we learned at Douglass Park that we didn’t learn in school,” Ladd said.

The area became a vibrant black neighborhood by the 1930s and through the 1960s. It played a significant role in the civil rights movement with leaders like Andrew J. Brown, the pastor of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, who served alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Ladd recalled one of the many church gatherings he attended in his youth.

“We were invited to hear Dr. King when he came into town. I didn’t realize it then be we were a part of history,” Ladd said.

Today, the neighborhood is still predominantly Black, but things are different now. The area declined and struggled with poverty, unemployment, and crime. However, it has seen some reinvestment in recent years.

A few historical buildings and markers still exist in the area, including St. Rita Catholic Church, which has been a cornerstone of the Black Catholic community for generations.

“It was an old Irish Catholic Church in a poor Irish neighborhood, a black neighborhood, and an extension of St . Bridget Catholic Church,” historian Sampson Levingston explained.

According to Denise Gavia-Currin, the administrative assistant at St. Rita, the church was established during segregation.

“It was built for the Black African community because it couldn’t sit in the front (in other churches). We had to always sit at the back,” Gavia-Currin said.

Levingston takes people on tours and listens to oral histories from the remaining descendants of those from the neighborhood who can share their firsthand accounts and experiences about what it was like years ago. He says the remaining historical landmarks in Martindale-Brightwood are a reminder of the events and people that shaped the area.

“Black people were kind of forced — not kind of, they were forced — into these neighborhoods where they had to live and create their churches, schools, and our community,” Levingston said.

To help preserve the culture and heritage of the neighborhood, Sampson organizes group tours through Martindale-Brightwood that serve as a connection between the past and present.

“I see change is coming. I see parts of the history maybe being lost or erased, but also an extremely prideful community,” Levingston said.