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Nation’s leading Black Expo making comeback in Indianapolis

Since its inception in 1970, the Indiana Black Expo has stood as one of the best organized, most enduring and resilient organizations of its kind in the nation. The purpose of IBE in the beginning was to showcase the wide range of culture and talent among people of the African diaspora, and to create a platform on which to promote and showcase Black economics and entrepreneurship.

During the early years, the huge event was celebrated at the Indiana fairgrounds. Throngs of enthusiastic African Americans flooded the exposition halls and concerts with great anticipation. They were not disappointed. The inspiration for this event was the Black Expo, popularized in Chicago by Reverend Jesse Jackson and his Operation Breadbasket/PUSH (People United to Save Humanity).

While Chicago offered a much larger setting and more national appeal as a drawing card for celebrity participation, the inconspicuous capital of relatively obscure Indiana emerged as the most successful. That is the open acknowledgment of Reverend Jackson, who credits Indy’s success to a stalwart local collaboration of IBE with state and city government, along with corporate support anchored by Eli Lilly.

Indiana Black Expo gained notoriety across the nation and around the world during the 20-year presidency of the iconic Reverend Charles Williams. In addition to taking the summer celebration to new heights, Williams was instrumental in the organization forming the Circle City Classic, one of the nation’s most successful Fall football events involving Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

When Williams died, so did some of the enthusiasm for the organization that he molded. Crowds dwindled for the summer celebration. The biggest drop off occurred during the last 15 years under controversial IBE President Attorney Tanya Bell. Whether real or perceived, her leadership style was the antithesis of the immensely popular, gregarious Williams. Bell was never considered as much of a “people person” as her predecessor.

Being completely transparent, I should note that under Williams, I served as a member of the Black Expo national board of directors for 13 years. For two years, I was contracted by Bell to provide marketing and advertising services for the summer celebration. Then under her leadership, I was hired as vice president of communications for IBE.

So, I had the opportunity to witness the work of both Williams and Bell. They were two distinct personalities. It was virtually impossible for anyone to duplicate the kind of atmosphere created over 20 years by Williams. Bell tried to establish her own way of doing things and while some of her ideas were innovative, her overall persona tended to be a divisive factor to many, as community support for the summer celebration waned drastically.

When 2023 began as the first year under new IBE president Alice Watson, who had been a first lieutenant for Bell for a decade and a half, there was the perception in the immediate community that positive change was in the air. Critics of Bell openly celebrated. Others simply took the approach that it was indeed a good time for a change at the top.

In either case, the atmosphere for this year’s summer celebration was one of more obvious exuberance. Many people who had not been to downtown Indianapolis for the event in more than a decade returned, and left with the feeling that the organization and its most important event of the year were on the rebound. Numbers and events were up and so was the overall spirit of those who attended. Undoubtedly, word of mouth bodes well for the future.

At one end of the spectrum, observers will say that Tanya Bell was a good steward over the organization, sustaining its functionality during difficult economic times that saw similar initiatives across the country fail and disappear. Her more harsh critics will insist she contributed to the downfall of both the summer celebration and Indiana Black Expo, Inc., in ways that pushed away support and patronage.

Whatever the case, this year’s summer celebration was clear evidence that hope abounds. Indianapolis, the state of Indiana, the Midwest, and the nation need IBE to flourish. This is not about a social event or entertainment.

This is about the nation’s largest health fair for Black and brown people; this is about a statewide education conference that focuses on the need to raise academic performance of those too often neglected. Further, this is about the need to hold government responsible for the way in which it interacts with populations too often marginalized, and last but not least, this is about assuring that political and economic empowerment will not elude Black Americans.

Indiana Black Expo, Inc., is an institution pivotal to the viability of quality of life for people of color and must not only be sustained but built upon to meet the growing challenges we face in a hostile national climate. IBE must not only survive but thrive!

Congratulations to those who work within, support and volunteer for the organization. Appreciation should go to all of those dedicated to the mission and goal of IBE.

Our prayers and support must be channeled to the new administration and to the daunting challenge the future poses for IBE. President Alice Watson insists that IBE belongs to the people, and when individuals voice their sentiments, hopes or ideas, they will be heard. Let’s speak faith to power in the potential growth of IBE.

Vernon A. Williams
Vernon A. Williams

CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: [email protected].

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