New Commons exhibit highlights local African American history

No need for longtime Columbus resident Brenda Pitts to reach very far back into the past to find elements of local Black history shrouded in shame.

In her childhood, Blacks were forced to sit in the balcony of local structures such as The Crump Theater. She was banned from eating in many restaurants.

And a number of Black residents still say African Americans have a tougher time being approved in south central Indiana for business and related loans.

Pitts understands that highlighting some of those struggles for equality amid heavy segregation can be unsettling.

“It’s still important to remind people that Black people have been in Columbus nearly since its very founding,” Pitts said. “And we have deserved to be here just as much as anyone else.”


That straightforward perspective is all part of the first event of the local celebration of Black History Month, the free exhibit: “And Still We Rise: A History of Resilience, Perseverance, Faith and Love” on display through Feb. 28 at The Commons, 300 Washington St. in downtown Columbus.

An informal, opening reception with Mayor Jim Lienhoop reading a special proclamation is scheduled at 4 p.m. today.

The 15-panel display, dating from 1809, includes a mention of what originally brought Black residents here: better farmland, better timber and better waterways from their previous settlements, according to Pitts and Paulette Roberts. Pitts is a retired Cummins executive who has devoted recent years to the area’s Black history alongside Roberts, a retired teacher long dedicated to the local and national Black heritage.

Both have been speakers on panels about the Black experience in Indiana and related topics.

“The exhibition takes us on a journey to reshape life’s happenings through the decades,” Roberts said. “This is a powerful tool in the quest for greater, mindful history.”

Pitts mentioned that the exhibit references Black-owned businesses and more.

“I want people in this community to understand that all of our histories are connected,” Pitts said, “and that, all in all, we want the same things. And in the declaration of independence of the U.S. constitution, the same rights were guaranteed to Black people as to white people.

“So all we’ve been asking (through the years) is to be able to enjoy our full rights like everyone else.”

That history includes some links with the national racial scene, including the Underground Railroad and abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ lecture in Columbus in 1873.

Bringing racial matters into Bartholomew County’s modern age, Pitts acknowledged substantial progress.

“The situation for Black people in Columbus has considerably improved,” Pitts said. “But there’s always room for improvement. And that’s not only true for Blacks, but all local ethnic groups.”

And the exhibit will evolve in the future.

“The exhibit is a beginning, not an end,” Pitts said. “Paulette and I will continue to expand the exhibit to include more of our communities’ Black history. There are many rich stories yet to be told.”

About the display

What: The Black History Month exhibit “And Still We Rise: A History of Perseverance, Resilience, Faith and Love,” highlighting local African American history dating from 1809.

When: Through Feb.28

Where: The Commons, 300 Washington St. in downtown Columbus