“How did you get here? Why did you come?”
Answering those questions was the aim of the first annual BlacKokomo History Fest by bringing together the black community to share stories of how families came to Kokomo. The fest was on Friday and Saturday at Bind Cafe, 108 N. Main Street. The cafe is a shared space with Beyond Barcodes Bookstore and Beyond Borders Language Learning Center, all owned by Deandra Beard.
Knowing a family’s history is something that many white people either know or can access, but many black families may not be so lucky, she said. Beard’s family came to the City of Firsts by way of building churches around the 1940s. She told the story of how her great-grandfather, Lewis Hall, was an itinerant preacher, and her great-great aunt, Nancy Gamble, was a church overseer. She came to Kokomo and called for Hall to come to Kokomo to start a church. From that, Hall’s family brought the grand-grandfather, another itinerant preacher, on her dad’s side of family from Arkansas to join the church.
“I want more people to be able to tell story that fluently,” Beard said. “That’s my point. How did you get here? Why did you come? Some black people don’t know, or don’t know the richness of our story. We don’t know how some of our families stayed with each other as we moved north. ‘Why do I feel so connected to you? Our great-grandmothers were best friends.’ It’s important. We’ve got to practice telling our story and knowing our story. It’s who we are.”
On Friday evening, a group of people came to play music, tell stories and have a walk down memory lane. Beard shared information on the African American rural settlements in Howard County documented by the Indiana Historical Society.
Howard County, established in 1844, had 105 black people in 1850, 165 black people in 1860 and 304 in 1870, based in the Rush and Bassett Settlements, according to the Historical Society. The Basset and Artis families were free African American families who came to Indiana from North Carolina.
Beard, who was born and raised in Kokomo, questioned why this history wasn’t taught in school.
“Why is it that we didn’t know?” she said. “We aren’t even using this information in classes now. All I, and I mean the collective ‘I’, is to see our history being built upon and that to be utilized. So for kids that live here have a clue of the history we have as a people.”
On Friday night, the entire evening was dedicated to storytelling, music, a walk down memory lane and games. Saturday’s theme was “A Celebration of Black Art: Black Wall Street.”
Kei’Anna Anderson was another vendor at the fest, selling her botanical illustration artwork. Beard described Anderson as a resident artist for Bind Cafe.
Anderson, who goes by the name of Urban Plant Lady in business, said her inspiration is all found in nature.
“I am a collector of plants,” she said. “They are my inspiration, my subject, they are very therapeutic for me. They say what you surround yourself in is your inspiration.”
Christina Vaughn, owner of EQuilibrium, was selling her handmade jewelry at the fest. Her earrings, bracelets and necklaces spanned all kinds of colors and styles. Her work is inspired by fashion, music, and whatever she feels.
“Each piece has its own name and identity,” she said. “They all have their own vibe and energy.”
Vaughn started making jewelry as a hobby in 2007 but said she kicked into high gear in the past two years. She said one of the important aspects of BlacKokomo was to encourage black creators, innovators and entrepreneurs.
“This is a huge ordeal to have this fest,” she said. “And it’s a really needed thing, to see blackness celebrated, to acknowledge our innovations and entrepreneurs.”
Vaughn, a Kokomo native, said spreading information on the black culture in Kokomo would be beneficial for all, especially black youth.
“We don’t hear about our history, except that quick piece, and it’s usually not 100% true,” she said. “They say the winners write history, so it wouldn’t reflect our culture or our history.”
One difficult aspect of looking into black history is acknowledging the painful truth of slavery, Beard said. She illustrated this point by talking about her great-grandmother.
“I slept in the bed with my great-grandmother. I combed her hair, I ate her food, I sat in church with her, she gave me instruction,” she said. “I cried in her lap, my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother’s mother was a slave. I touched slavery. Because guess what, her mother combed her hair, cried in her lap. I’m that close to slavery. Can we stop saying that we need to move past it? The values that my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother had, came from a slave.”
“When people say, ‘Let’s move on from slavery, let’s forget slavery,’ that’s like saying forget my great-great-grandmother, and all of the things she experienced. You’d be erasing all the instruction and love and horrible experiences they endured,” she said.
Slave papers are one concrete way to track family history, but it’s complicated and painful.
“It is complicated because the emotions of the only way you getting your story is through such a horrid experience that is tied to so many emotions,” she said. “But that’s the documentation we have.”
Ultimately, Beard said she hopes this tradition continues to grow as a celebration of black Kokomo.
“This first year (of BlacKokomo) is stressing the importance of our history, not necessarily for other people to acknowledge it, but for us to acknowledge us,” she said. “....We have to acknowledge what has happened. It’s okay to not be colorblind, it’s okay to be celebrated. It’s important to tell our stories.”