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Black History Month is an important time to celebrate the achievements of Black Americans and recognize the central role so many have played in U.S. history. Beyond the month of February, we keep this celebration and recognition woven into the daily fabric of our programs through providing opportunities and resources for every student to learn about, grow from, and reflect on Black Americans’ contributions.

Because education is at the core of what we do, we’re thrilled to celebrate these historical individuals who have played a critical role in shaping or changing education throughout history below.

Mary Ellen Cable, Educator & Civic Leader

Mary Ellen Cable was born and raised in Leavenworth, Kansas and graduated from Teachers’ Normal School in the 1890s. She taught elementary school in Topeka, Kansas where she met her husband, George Cable, who was also a teacher. They moved to Indianapolis in 1893 and shortly after, Mary accepted a position with Indianapolis Public Schools. From 1903-1905 she oversaw the African American community’s elementary school garden project, which encouraged neighborhood residents to plant gardens and maintain their property. She also created the first “fresh air” classroom to support black children with tuberculous at IPS School No. 4 in 1916-1917.

In 1912, Cable established the state’s first chapter of the NAACP and served as the first president. Throughout her 45-year career with IPS, she was not only a teacher, but also a school principal and supervisor. She taught at five IPS schools, including School No. 4, which was the city’s first elementary school that served Black students during the segregation era. The school was eventually dedicated and named after Cable in 1952. The building was purchased by IUPUI and later demolished in 2006. As a tribute to Cable, IUPUI later named the student residence hall “Cable House” in her memory.

Sources: here and here.

John Morton-Finney, Educator, Lawyer & Humanitarian

John Morton-Finney was born in Kentucky to a formerly enslaved father and free mother. In 1911 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a member of the 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment, an African American regiment known as the Buffalo Soldiers. He served in the Philippines and France during World War 1 and returned to the states in 1914. Upon his return, he taught foreign language at Fisk University and Lincoln University before moving to Indianapolis to work at Crispus Attucks High School in 1927. He later taught and became an administrator at Shortridge High School and other IPS schools during his 47-year career.

Morton-Finney earned 11 academic degrees in law, French, math, and history during his lifetime. In addition to teaching, he also had a long career as a lawyer. In 1935 he became a member of the Bar of the U.S. District Court. In 1972, at the age of 83, Morton-Finney practiced before the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1991 he was inducted into the National Bar Association Hall of Fame. Morton-Finney retired from practicing law at the age of 107, at which time it was believed that he was the oldest practicing attorney in the United States.

Sources: here, here, and here.

Mari Evans, Educator, Poet, and Activist

Mari Evans was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. After the loss of her mother, her father encouraged her to express herself through writing. After attempting to become a jazz musician on the east coast, Evans moved to Indianapolis in 1947. In the 1950s and 60s, she gained notoriety as a poet and became well known as part of the Black Arts Movement. During that time, she also became an activist focused on social justice and racism. From 1968-1973, Evans produced a weekly television show, The Black Experience, on WTTV to display the African American community.

In 1969, Evans became a writer-in-residence at IUPUI, where she taught courses in African American literature. From 1971-1978, she was an assistant professor and writer-in-residence at Indiana University. Her writings focused primarily on race and identity. Over her lifetime, Evans wrote more than ten books, including collections of her poetry, children’s books, short fiction, dramas, non-fiction articles, and essays.

Sources: here, here, here, and here.

Cleo W. Blackburn, Educator, Minister, & Civic Leader

Cleo W. Blackburn was born on a farm in Port Gibson, Mississippi. In 1928 he moved to Indianapolis to attend Butler University and studied religion. He later attended Fisk University to obtain his Master’s degree and become a Rosenwald Fellow at Indiana University. He then served as the head of the Department of Sociology and Economics at Knoxville College and the head of the Department of Records and Research at Tuskegee University. In 1935 Blackburn was offered the position of Superintendent at Flanner House, which was a social services agency. He became the Director of Flanner House in 1936 and remained there until his retirement in 1975. Under his direction, Flanner House constructed a new headquarters, trained more than 1,500 African Americans for defense plant jobs and other industries during World War II, assisted 12,000 people with obtaining jobs after the war, and added a shop building and cannery to the Flanner House building.

Blackburn also worked with Marion County Health and Hospital Corporation to offer free health exams and opened the Martindale Health Center to provide care for low-income families. During his time at Flanner House, he also served as the President of Jarvis Christian College for 11 years. Blackburn was also the founder and CEO of The Fundamental Board of Education, a member of the NAACP and The Urban League.

Sources: here and here.

Looking for more Black History Month resources or want to learn more about the history of education in Indiana? Check out the links below: