by Annette Brill Bergstresser, originally published by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — The premiere of a new documentary, What Happened at Benham West: African American Stories of Community, Displacement and Hope, received a standing ovation at the Crystal Ballroom at the Lerner Theatre in downtown Elkhart, Indiana, on May 19.
Around 250 people attended the launch of the 80-minute film, which features stories of life in Elkhart’s predominantly African American Benham West neighborhood known as “the village,” shares elders’ experiences of segregation in Elkhart, documents the process of the city’s eventual clearing of the neighborhood, and names the elders’ hopes for their city. Oliver Pettis of Black Lion Cinematography in Elkhart was the filmmaker.
The film and a forthcoming book by the same title are part of a history project sponsored by Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart through the collaborative work of two faculty members: Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, MA, Intercultural Competence and Undoing Racism coordinator; and Jamie Pitts, PhD, Associate Professor of Anabaptist Studies and Director of the Institute of Mennonite Studies. AMBS also hosted the May 19 event.
“I was overwhelmed with great joy and gratitude to see something that we worked so hard on doing right and doing well receive such applause and affirmation from the community, whose stories it was meant to address,” said Alexis. “I had a profound sense of satisfaction and confirmation that we’re doing the right thing — that we’ve chosen something important and necessary to do.”
“It was also significant to me to have launched the film at the Lerner Theatre and to see African American presence in that place, and proudly so — as part of the overall diversity in the room,” she added.
Community leaders respond
Cyneatha Millsaps (MDiv 2008), a longtime pastor who grew up in the Benham West area and serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of the Tolson Center for Community Excellence in Elkhart, said she was grateful to see how many people came to support the documentary.
“The documentary reminds me why I work so hard for South Central Elkhart,” said Millsaps, who is also Executive Director of the Center for Community Engagement at Goshen (Indiana) College. “I grew up in an amazing community. I am thankful others were able to see why South Central Elkhart is so important to the African American community.”
Rev. Lawrence Giden (MA 2017), an ordained minister from South Bend, Indiana, who serves as Specialized Community Engagement Coordinator at Goshen College, said he was impressed by both the documentary and the launch event and appreciated learning more about Elkhart’s history from the elders who were featured. He hoped future generations would be able to learn from the stories in the documentary as well.
“There is still work to be done, and we cannot let what these elders said be in vain,” he reflected. “Too many times, I attend community events where there is discussion, and then we walk away without action. Where do we go from here?”
“Also, I think that this documentary is a lesson for those living in other cities around the country to learn from the elders in their city about race relations, and to take their stories and make change,” he continued. “I am glad that the Tolson Center [in Elkhart] was mentioned several times and that many see that place as a beacon of hope in the community.”
Sarah Nahar (MDiv 2011), who maintains close ties to her home community of Elkhart while pursuing doctoral studies in New York State (in unceded territory of the Onondaga Nation), expressed affirmation that the Benham West history project grew out of AMBS’s January 2020 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day program on “Repairing the Harm: A Community Conversation on the Systemic Exclusion of African Americans in Elkhart.” Nahar has led anti-racism and community engagement initiatives in Elkhart and served as an organizational consultant for the Tolson Center.
“It was awesome to see how an MLK Day event grew into an initiative that supported the community at large,” she said. “That is the true spirit of MLK Day — to honor the struggle for civil rights historically and its continuance today. Looking at the difficult history lets us know what we must change to make the future different. This documentary is an important step toward a more equitable future for all, in Elkhart.”
What Happened at Benham West: African American Stories of Community, Displacement and Hope will be shown during the Juneteenth Celebration at the Ruthmere Museum in Elkhart on Monday, June 19, 2023, at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., with ADA-accessible screenings available. Due to space limitations, advance registration is required at ruthmere.org/event-5287040.
Those who are interested in being notified about future documentary screenings and events related to the history project can supply their contact information at benhamwestproject.com. The book will be published later this year by Wolfson Press of Indiana University South Bend.
Participants and supporting organizations
The Elkhart Black History Project Advisory Committee oversaw the project; members include Rev. Jon Brown, Rev. Dr. Plez Lovelady, Rev. Willie Jean Mayes, Daniella Panetta and Jason Shenk,. Other elders who are featured in the documentary and book include Bonnie Clark, Phyllis Davis, Christine Edgerton, Arthur Fisher, Travis Jackson, Nadine Johnson, Glenda Love, Steven Millsaps, Sondra Mose-Ursery, James Otterbridge, Esther Pettis, Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson, Jean Robinson, Leroy Robinson, Jr., and Charles Walker. Former AMBS student Patrick Obonde (MA 2020) served as Project Assistant.
A grant from the Community Foundation of Elkhart County provided funding for the history project, and a grant from Indiana Humanities in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities provided funding for the launch event. Additional funding came from a Vibrant Communities Grant from the Elkhart County Visitors Bureau.
Located in Elkhart, Indiana, on ancestral land of the Potawatomi and Miami peoples, 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. ambs.edu