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Susan Hyatt: An Anthropologist Back to School

Today’s guest blog post is written by Dr. Susan B. Hyatt.  Dr. Hyatt is currently an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). During the 1980s, she spent 8 years working as a community organizer in South Chicago, which is where she first developed her interest in  community collaborative projects. Dr. Hyatt has volunteered to lead a program in the Anthropologists Back to School initiative. Her program will take place at The Field Museum. This new initiative seeks volunteers to lead and assist programs at various host sites throughout Chicago on Wednesday, November 20 from 9am to12pm. Share your passion of anthropology while giving back to this year’s host city – Chicago. Learn more about how you can participate in Anthropologists Back to School and register today!

Photo courtesy IUPUI

Photo courtesy IUPUI

I am looking forward to participating in the Anthropologists Back to School initiative at the Field Museum in Chicago on November 19th.  My workshop will be based on a collaborative ethnographic project I carried out in Indianapolis, which brought together university students, a synagogue, a community center and a Black Baptist Church in an endeavor we called, “The Neighborhood of Saturdays.”

In 2010, Anthropology students from my institution, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) began conducting oral history interviews with former residents of what had once been one of the most multi-ethnic neighborhoods in Indianapolis—the near Southside.  We focused on two groups who had occupied that space between 1920-1960— the children of Jewish immigrants whose families hailed from cities formerly located in the Ottoman Empire in the early years of the 20th century, and African Americans whose families arrived from the south during the Great Migration.  During the 1950s, many of the Jewish families began moving to the more affluent northside neighborhoods where many of the Jewish communal institutions had already relocated.  Ten years later, the remaining African American community was displaced by the construction of an interstate highway that bisected the old neighborhood, destroying both residential properties and a once-vibrant commercial strip.

Photos courtesy of Angela Herrmann

Photos courtesy of Angela Herrmann

Former African-American and Jewish neighbors largely lost contact with one another after the highway came through.  Once a year, however, the African-American former southsiders continued to gather in a small park in the old neighborhood for a reunion picnic, held on the first Saturday in August.  I learned about the reunion picnics and began attending them in 2008 with the idea that students enrolled in my Ethnographic Methods class would collect life histories about the old Southside and about the reunions, which were then in their 35th year. I had assumed that the neighborhood had long been primarily African-American, however in my interviews at that first picnic, several folks shared with me their recollections of how special they felt it had been to grow up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, especially in that earlier historical era, and they reminisced in particular about their former Jewish neighbors and about the many Jewish-owned businesses that had once thronged the main thoroughfare, Meridian St.

Through a chance encounter, I met later met a member of one of those Southside Jewish families and she put me in touch with others.  Both communities were excited and enthusiastic about coming back together to work with the students toward the goal of writing a book about their community.  We changed the name of the project from “First Saturday in August” to “The Neighborhood of Saturdays,” which incorporated references to both the picnic and to the Jewish observance of the Sabbath on Saturdays.

Photo courtesy of Angela Herrmann

Photo courtesy of Angela Herrmann

Over a two-year period, Jewish and African-American Southsiders gathered regularly with the students to record their life stories and to talk about the on-going research and plan the book.  In addition to carrying out the oral history interviews, students also engaged in archival research about the neighborhood and they organized several events we called “scan-a-thons.”  The scan-a-thons were held at a community center, at the synagogue and at the Black church, where we invited people to bring old photographs, church bulletins, newspaper articles and other memorabilia about the neighborhood which we scanned using laptops and portable scanners.  All of that material was organized and catalogued by our university library’s Digital Scholarship team and it is now available on a library web site, along with some of the publicity that the project garnered, including an article from the New York Times and a recent story on our local NPR affiliate.

Last February, we self-published the book, The Neighborhood of Saturdays: Memories of a Multi-Ethnic Neighborhood on Indianapolis’ Southside.  Elders who were involved in the project have continued to organize events around the city to share their memories of growing up together and to reflect on their experiences reuniting after more than 50 years to work on the book.

Photo courtesy of Angela Herrmann

Photo courtesy of Angela Herrmann

The students and I were surprised to learn that during an era when Jim Crow was a de facto aspect of life in Indianapolis, in the “neighborhood of Saturdays,” people had once come together across racial and religious boundaries to forge friendships that were revived by our research project. For my Back to School workshop, I plan to share some stories about this project and to perhaps show the students some short videos of our elders talking about the old neighborhood.  I hope to help them think about how urban neighborhoods change through time, and to understand how we can use strategies like mapping, interviewing and scanning old photographs to discover stories that might surprise us today. Like Sabiyha Prince, I also hope that some of them will think about working on their own neighborhood history projects, and about perhaps organizing their own story-telling sessions and even scan-a-thons with their family elders and neighbors.   If nothing else, hopefully they will learn that the communities where they live now and that they take for granted in their current incarnations may once have looked very different, and that they can use some of the strategies we used to uncover their own neighborhood’s “hidden history.”

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