MLK Jr. Day event features African American stories of Elkhart’s Benham West neighborhood

By Annette Brill Bergstresser

(A recording of this event and the trailer for the documentary can be viewed here.)

ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — A history project that has collected elders’ stories of Elkhart’s predominantly Black Benham West neighborhood and documented the process of the city’s eventual clearing of the neighborhood was the focus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s 2022 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day program.

Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson (with microphone), who attended Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day program on Jan. 17, 2022, addresses the presenters and panelists during a question-and-answer time at the event.
Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson (with microphone), who attended Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day program on Jan. 17, 2022, addresses the presenters and panelists during a question-and-answer time at the event. The program focused on a forthcoming book and documentary project, What Happened at Benham West: African American Stories of Community, Displacement and Hopes in the City of Elkhart (Wolfson Press, 2022), for which Roberson was interviewed. Presenters and panelists (from left): Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, Jamie Pitts, Charles Walker, Larry App and Oliver Pettis. (Credit: Rachel A. Fonseca)

Viewers on 159 devices watched the livestreamed program on Jan. 17; a limited number of guests from the history project attended in person at the seminary’s Chapel of the Sermon on the Mount. Participants learned about the forthcoming documentary and book — What Happened at Benham West: African American Stories of Community, Displacement and Hopes in the City of Elkhart — from project leaders and AMBS faculty members Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, MA, and Jamie Pitts, PhD. 

Three panelists from the Elkhart Black History Project Advisory Committee also reflected on their involvement with the project: Larry App, Stories Retold, project consultant; Oliver Pettis, Black Lion Cinematography, project photographer and videographer; and Charles Walker, project interviewer and interviewee. A brief question-and-answer time followed the panel discussion, with participants sharing their own memories of the vibrant neighborhood that was known to many as “the village.” 

The importance of preserving the elders’ stories of community, resilience and resourcefulness and creating ways to share them with current and future generations was expressed numerous times throughout the event. Presenters and participants also emphasized the need to name and acknowledge the harm caused by decades of residential segregation and systemic racism in Elkhart and to work at disrupting patterns of oppression and injustice. Several named hopes that the storytelling project would help bring about opportunities for healing and renewal.

The Community Foundation of Elkhart County and Indiana Humanities contributed funding for the documentary and book project, which will be released in spring 2022 by Wolfson Press. 

A recording of AMBS’s event can be viewed at ambs.edu/mlkday; it has had 545 views as of Jan. 26. A trailer for the documentary is also accessible on that page.

Located in Elkhart, Indiana, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary is a learning community with an Anabaptist vision, offering theological education for learners both on campus and at a distance as well as a wide array of lifelong learning programs — all with the goal of educating followers of Jesus Christ to be leaders for God’s reconciling mission in the world.


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