The story of Crispus Attucks High School often begins and
ends with tales of the 1955 basketball team’s state championship win — the
first all-black school in the nation to accomplish this feat — and how it captured
not only Indiana’s attention, but the nation’s.
Yet, there is another side to the school’s history that many
of its alumni have been sharing with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren
— one they believe is equally or even more impressive than the championship titles
of 1955, 1956 and 1959.
It’s a story rooted in racism and oppression, but one of
fortitude, perseverance and ultimately triumph.
It’s a story that will finally take center stage when “Attucks:
The School That Opened a City” premieres to a sold-out crowd at 6:45 p.m. Aug.
18 at the Madame Walker Theatre. A second screening will be held at 2 p.m. Aug.
19 at the Walker.
The 90-minute documentary by filmmaker Ted Green and WFYI sheds light on the school’s tumultuous beginning
as city officials decided in the early 1920s to segregate its high schools and create
Crispus Attucks to house Indianapolis’ growing black population. The decision
uprooted many students already attending the city’s three integrated high
schools (Manual, Shortridge and Arsenal Technical).
In 1927, Crispus Attucks High School opened its doors to
more than 1,000 black students who were forced to attend.
Through personal interviews with Attucks graduates and
educators, the film highlights how — despite insurmountable odds — Attucks not
only succeeded but thrived, producing some of the most successful and
influential graduates in the city.
“They produced scholars immediately,” said Green, about the
accomplishments of the school’s all-black educators, many of whom had obtained
master’s degrees and some doctorates, but who could not secure jobs elsewhere
because of the color of their skin.
“I don’t think anybody expected for this school to be
successful, but they (the educators) demanded excellence. It was just an ugly
period of time, but they made something beautiful happen,” said Lauren
Franklin, principal of what is now Crispus Attucks Medical Magnet High School.
Franklin recalls her grandfather being a junior at Arsenal
Technical High School when he was forced to attend Crispus Attucks in 1927.
Walking the school’s halls as its current principal, Franklin often looks up to
see many of her family members in class pictures that adorn the walls. The
pictures date back to the school’s first graduating class of 1928.
It’s the stories of these graduates that Green has been
collecting over the past two years. A task that hasn’t been easy, but one that
has been fulfilling.
“I’ve never learned more working on a project in my career.
I’d say these past two years have been life-changing and eye-opening to say the
least,” said Green. “I knew at the end of the day that this would be a story
about overcoming obstacles, but what I didn’t know was the extremes of that. I
had no idea how deep-rooted those obstacles were … particularly in the ’20s and
’30s, when the school was getting started. Nor did I know how high the
expectations were despite those obstacles.”
In addition to the interviews, Green attended many family
gatherings and celebrations in an effort to capture the real story of Crispus
Attucks and the people — which can only be told through personal stories.
“Maybe I didn’t know in the beginning how personal it was.
But I’ve spent time in the houses of hundreds of Attucks grads over the last
couple of years because this isn’t a story that you can just read about in
books and understand. You have to get to know the people,” said Green. “And so
many grads have been so amazingly welcoming. They brought me into their homes
and shared their stories, their triumphs, their heartbreaks and I just listened
because that’s what I needed to do. I needed to sit there and really listen to
try to get my head wrapped around the immensity of what went on (at Attucks) before
I could even begin to put pen to paper and try to tell it.”
What Green found was that many wanted their stories out
there, “they wanted their story to be preserved.”
And, yes, part of that story is about the state basketball
championships, which Green believes deserves recognition “because I think it
moved the needle in race relations in Indiana. But while basketball was
immensely important, in my opinion, the military, the arts and education are
equally more impressive.”
A deeper look into the Attucks story reveals a longing for
an education, teachers pushing students to their limits because there was too
much at stake and failure was not an option. You see the results of that
tenacity and dedication as Attucks students become the firsts in many
professions — including the first black police chief in Indianapolis, the first
black fire chief in Indianapolis, the first black congresswoman from
Indianapolis, the first black city prosecutor from Indianapolis, and the first
black general from Indianapolis.
“These people took what they learned (at Attucks) and they
went off and became incredible contributors to a society that initially scorned
them,” said Green. “What could be cooler than that?”
Pegged to coincide with Indiana’s bicentennial — and
endorsed by the Bicentennial Committee — Green believes this is the perfect
time to shine a spotlight on this nationally groundbreaking school. But there’s
an even more pressing deadline as many of its earliest graduates are rapidly
“There are so few of Attucks’ earliest graduates left,” said
Green, who has also produced documentaries on John Wooden and Bobby “Slick”
Leonard. “It’s terribly sad, but we’ve had five people that we interviewed pass
away during the course of filming and it’s just imperative to get these stories
on camera and preserved.”
That preservation also includes the Indiana Historical
Society’s plans to archive the 50-plus interviews conducted for the Attucks
documentary, and the creation of an accompanying Crispus Attucks High School
Documentary K-12 Curriculum Guide.
“The guide was created to help teachers use the story of
excellence that embodies (Attucks) as a way for students to learn the
historical context surrounding the school and the unsurmountable challenges
that accompanied that history,” said Pat Payne, director of the Office of
Racial Equity at IPS, who is also featured in the documentary. “It will help
students understand that racism cannot be used as an excuse for failure,
because failure is not an option.”
The standards-based guide, created by a team of education
experts from IUPUI, Butler University and Indianapolis Public Schools, allows
students to use investigative skills and research, and has the flexibility for
teachers to select areas they and their students wish to focus on.
“The curriculum guide will carry the magic of the school to
the next generation,” said Green. “And maybe introduce some new heroes and
inspire schoolchildren and teachers alike. What you saw at Crispus Attucks was
a triumph of the spirit and will, and I think that that could be very useful
Working on the project was an introduction of sorts for
Green as well, an introduction to the struggles, the triumphs and to a part of
the human spirit he said he had no idea about. The story of Attucks has both
inspired and angered him at times … sometimes at the same time. But it’s a
story that needed to be told to a larger audience, and one he’s honored to tell.
“This is a critical story for this state’s history and I
believe, humbly, for the nation’s history,” said Green. “The impact of (Attucks)
absolutely spread way beyond state lines and I think that, if I’ve done my job
right, that will be made clear in the documentary.”
The Aug. 18 premiere of “Attucks: The School Opened a
City,” which is sponsored by Heartland Films, is sold out, but tickets are still
available for the 2 p.m. Aug. 19 screening at the Madame Walker Theatre. Current
Attucks students will receive their own private screening of the film on Aug.
19. WFYI will host the TV premiere of the documentary at 8 p.m. Sept. 22 on
WFYI. Documentary screenings will also be hosted throughout the city by various