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

Sampson Levingston, of <a href="">Through2Eyes,</a> runs walking tours focusing on Indianapolis' Black neighborhoods and history.
Neda Ulaby
Sampson Levingston, of Through2Eyes, runs walking tours focusing on Indianapolis' Black neighborhoods and history.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Through2Eyes INDIANA (@through2eyesindiana)

"This is like my favorite mural in the city!" exclaimed Sampson Levingston, admiring the black-and-white portraits of great Indianapolis jazzmen adorning the side of a downtown music store.

A hardcore history buff, Levingston decided to bring people together — during the height of protests over Black Lives Matter last summer — by leading outdoor walking tours of traditionally African American neighborhoods. His company, Through 2 Eyes,takes schoolkids, church groups, tourists and curious locals around Irvington, Martindale-Brightwood and other areas rich in local Black history.

Levingston loves his hometown, but he's aware of nicknames like "Indiana No Place" and "Naptown."

"People thought it was that boring," Levingston allowed during a recent tour of the Indiana Avenue district. "People would actually come downtown and shoot pigeons off light poles."

But Indiana Avenue was once a thriving hub of Black commerce and entertainment. The area was gutted by an interstate in the 1960s and '70s. Hundreds of historic buildings were destroyed, according to local news. But you can still see the former world headquarters of Madam C.J. Walker, said to be the first female self-made millionaire, who made and sold Black hair care products. And Indiana Avenue was rich in nightclubs frequented by the likes of J.J. Johnson, Wes Montgomery and Freddie Hubbard. (Levingston's Spotify list is right here. And Indiana Avenue itself was immortalized by musician Larry Ridley in this song.)

"You look through history books and you don't see too many Black people, so you're like, 'Where do I fit in?'" Levingston mused. "Then you learn about the Avenue and you're like – I fit in right here."

Levingston, a 26-year-old former NCAA Division I athlete, has always been a nerd when it comes to digging up stories of Indianapolis buildings and byways. He hangs out in archives for fun. But Levingston did not major in history. He was a wide receiver at Indiana State, and captain of his football team. "I took all the history electives I could," he says. "I'd even miss practice sometimes to sneak in another history elective."

Majoring in marketing helped Levingston learn how to spread the world about his walking tours. (He has an active Facebook page.) His Indiana Avenue tour included stops at the historic site of the Senate Avenue Y, once the country's largest Black YMCA. It was home to vital progressive community organizing in the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan were a dominant force in local politics. Then there's the grand, red brick Bethel AME Church near downtown's canal. It's a former stop on the Underground Railroad. And then, the city's brightly painted Black Lives Matter Mural, where the names of police violence victims are inscribed within each letter.

"Michael Taylor's name actually appears on this mural four different times," Levingston says. That name is heavy with more recent history. Back in 1987, the 16-year-old Taylor was picked up on suspicion of car theft. He was shot in the head and killed while in the back of a police squad car. He was handcuffed at the time. Police claimed the teenager died by suicide.

In 1996, the city paid Taylor's mother millions of dollars in restitution. Part of this Indiana Avenue tour includes visiting Nancy Taylor. She does not talk about losing her son. Instead, from her flower-filled front yard, Taylor shares memories from her childhood.

"All up and down the Avenue we would walk and there were shops and little places where you would go and get cheeseburgers — Woody Burgers — and ice cream," she recalls. "It was just a real old-fashioned neighborhood."

When Taylor's son was killed, Sampson Levingston was not even born. His walking tours rose from a year of police violence, protests and the pandemic. There's a reason why they've been so popular, he says. "We need each other, like bad. More than we ever could've realized. We just miss that. We miss people. We miss being who we are. And who we are matters."

Levingston led his tours all through the cold Midwestern winter. Now he's leading them nearly every spring day. He's careful about keeping people apart and safe, outside in the fresh air — but in every other way, his tours are the opposite of social distancing.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.