A Young History Buff Leads Walking Tours Of Black Indianapolis Amid the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, Sampson Levingston decided to bring people together by offering tours of African American neighborhoods. He's turned it into a thriving business.

'I Fit In Right Here': A History Buff Leads Walking Tours Of Black Indianapolis

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During the height of protests over Black Lives Matter last summer, a history buff in Indianapolis decided to bring people together by leading outdoor walking tours of African American neighborhoods. NPR's Neda Ulaby got her own tour and has this report.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Sampson Levingston is out all the time digging up stories of Indianapolis buildings and byways. His friends, he says, give him grief for never shutting up about local history.

SAMPSON LEVINGSTON: You love history so much, almost like you think about it all day. I'm like, I do.

ULABY: In college, Levingston did not major in history. He was an athlete, captain of his Division I football team.

LEVINGSTON: I took all the history electives that I could. I'd even miss practice sometimes to sneak in an extra history elective.

ULABY: It was his major in marketing that helped Levingston build his business leading tours.

LEVINGSTON: Now, that's our Capitol building, made out of Indiana limestone - Bedford, Ind., limestone capital of the world.

ULABY: This tour is really about other monuments, like the site of a historic African American community center active in the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan essentially ran the government.

LEVINGSTON: Senate Avenue YMCA was right here. It was once the largest Black YMCA in the country.

Finding these cool stories - Black history, women's history, Native American history, things that I wasn't told about when I was a kid. And it's school to discover them later on.

ULABY: On his tours, Levingston points out what used to be the world headquarters of the first female self-made millionaire. Madam C.J. Walker sold Black hair care products. And he plays music by great Indiana jazz men, like Freddie Hubbard, Wes Montgomery and Larry Ridley, who wrote a song called "Indiana Avenue."

LEVINGSTON: Indianapolis - they used to call it, like, India-no-place (ph). They used to call it Nap Town because it was that boring because they said there's nothing to do in Indianapolis after 6 p.m. People would actually come downtown and shoot pigeons off of light poles. Isn't that crazy?

ULABY: Before this neighborhood around Indiana Avenue was gutted by an interstate and many of its buildings destroyed, Levingston says it was a hub of Black entertainment and commerce.


LEVINGSTON: You look through your history book, and you don't see too many Black people. So you're like, where do I fit in? And then you learn about the Avenue, and you're like, I fit in right here.

Now, this is our Black Lives Matter mural right here on Indiana Avenue. Have you guys seen this before yet?

ULABY: The words Black Lives Matter painted on the asphalt contain the names of victims of police violence.

LEVINGSTON: Michael Taylor's name actually appears on this mural four different times.

ULABY: Michael Taylor - he was 16 years old when he was shot in the head and killed while in the back of a squad car. Back in 1987, Indianapolis police, who'd picked up Taylor on suspicion of car theft, said the teenager committed suicide. He was handcuffed at the time. Part of Sampson Levingston's tour today is visiting Taylor's mom.

NANCY TAYLOR: I was born in 1954.

ULABY: Nancy Taylor, in a cheerful yellow shirt, greets visitors in her garden. She does not talk about losing her son. She shares memories from her childhood, when Indiana Avenue was filled with Black-owned businesses.

TAYLOR: All up and down the avenue, we would walk, and there were shops and little places where you would go get cheeseburgers and hamburger - Woody Burgers (ph).

ULABY: When Nancy Taylor's son was killed, Sampson Levingston was not even born. His walking tours came out of a year of police violence, protests and the pandemic. And he says there's a reason why they've been so popular.

LEVINGSTON: We need each other, like, bad, like, more than we ever could have realized, you know? And I think that we just missed that. We missed people. We miss being who we are, and who we are matters.

ULABY: Levingston is careful on his tours about masking and keeping apart. But in other ways, his tours are the opposite of social distancing. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.


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