02 January 2013
KOKOMO, Ind. — For nearly 40 years, a small community flourished on the south side of Indianapolis, made up of both Sephardic Jewish and African American residents. They lived side-by-side in a time when skin color determined what they could become and where they could go, an enclave of racial and religious harmony.
That community no longer exists, due to migration to suburbs and the construction of Interstate 70, but an Indiana University Kokomo faculty member is part of an effort to be sure it is not forgotten.
Heidi Sebastian, clinical assistant professor in radiographic science, wrote a chapter in the book The Neighborhood of Saturdays: Memories of a Multi-Ethnic Neighborhood on Indianapolis' Southside, as part of a graduate class in ethnography.
Her chapter focused on the religious institutions of the Sephardic Jews, who emigrated from the former Ottoman Empire, and the African Americans, who migrated from the south.
Sebastian called the experience "humbling," as she listened to the former residents recount their personal stories.
"These are people whose parents and grandparents helped Indianapolis become what it is today," she said. "They were founders of the city, and the religious organizations within the city. They were before their time, because they didn't judge people for being a different color. They had friendships that knew no barriers."
Students spent three years using archival research and conducting oral history interviews with community elders, under the direction of Susan B. Hyatt, Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis associate professor of anthropology. They collected and assembled a wealth of material that tells the story of the neighborhood, which existed from the 1920s until the 1960s, when many of the Jewish residents began to move north. The remaining residents, mostly African Americans, were displaced 10 years later by construction of I-70.
"I am not a native of Indiana, and did not realize how important their history is to us until I was involved in the project," Sebastian said. "Learning about how the slaves came to Indiana to find a new life, how they became part of the military, was amazing to me."
The project also had personal meaning to her, because she interviewed the parents of one of her Carmel St. Vincent colleagues, Dr. Louis Profeta, as part of the project.
"We interviewed his parents about their family history with Etz Chaim Sephardic Congregation," she said. "This meant a lot to me, interviewing people I actually knew."
The book is a collaborative research project between the IUPUI Department of Anthropology and several community organizations. It is being published by Indianapolis-based Dog Ear Publishing, and will be available to order by the end of January.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.