This piece is part of our INDYtoday Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them here.
Profile: Talk about pride in place, Sampson Levingston is a young history buff who loves his city. After graduating from Indiana State University, he took his passion for history and turned it into a business — guiding the community through our city’s Black history on Wednesdays + Saturdays.
We asked Sampson 10 questions about Indy + his walk and talk tours. Keep reading to find out more about this lover of Indiana history.
Describe your perfect day in Indy in the length of a Tweet (280 characters).
It’s sunny, late April, the Pacers are in the Playoffs, and there’s a Walk + Talk that day.
Name 3-5 other local leaders, influencers, or movers + shakers you’re watching.
One person that’s really been inspiring me recently is Andrea Hunley. She’s running for a state Senate seat here, District 46, and she was a principal at IPS School 2 and then she’s taken on this new role and running for this new position. You see so many people talk about things and complain about things and there’s only a few people who take action, like “I’m going to look around and see what’s going on in my community and impact it.” She’s definitely been an inspiration during her campaign.
The Urban League where I start my tours — they’ve been doing COVID drives every Tuesday since prime COVID. So they’re recognition of the need in the community and always being there, letting me hosts guests there… They’ve been such a great partner with me + I want to give them a little love.
The last organization I’ll shout out here is the Cultural Trail because they’ve got plans to go down Indiana Avenue now, which will be great leading tours. A big, nice wide sidewalk is great, so whenever I get to use it, I’m on it. [...] So I’m happy that they’re going to be expanding + reaching more neighborhoods and different parts of downtown.
You can only choose one local restaurant menu to bring with you to a deserted island — which one is it and why?
Easy, His Place Eatery over on the east side. My favorite place. Talk about spoiling yourself with something. It’s so good. Everything you want is on that menu. Their chicken and waffles — that’s what you’re starting with.
What were the last 3 things you did locally?
I led a Walk + Talk, went to a Pacers game, and then I’m in November Project — it’s a workout group Wednesday and Friday mornings, and so I just did that this morning.
Tell me about the tours. How did you get started?
So, I’ve always liked Indiana history and I have this blog where I was talking about Indiana history, traveling and it didn’t really make money. And I had people who were interested in it and it was so great. I just couldn’t connect with them on a more personal level, like I wanted to.
Then the pandemic happened and we’re stuck in the house, I see all these people protesting and they’re mad. They’re so right about everything they’re mad about and I want to be a part of that — but I also want to explain to people why this anger is justified. So let me lead a tour to do it. We did one [tour] and it was so great. It was like the greatest feeling in the world and I just couldn’t believe it. Like I really got to do that in my hometown, just lead people about history and they liked it.
How many tours have you given + when was your very first one?
I’ve done 205 + oh yeah, it was June 13, 2020. Saturday, 2 p.m. It was a great day.
How did you learn all of the things that you talk about?
It was more like a child’s curiosity. When you’re a kid, you just ask stuff because you want to know. I always found myself doing that, even in high school. And then in history, I think history is cool because it explains stuff. You can ride down the street and you can know why it’s called that, that’s stuff I wanna know. So I’d ask my dad, “Why is it called East Street?” and if he couldn’t tell me, I can go find it out. So it was just this pattern of wanting to know stuff. I took a bunch of history electives in college and I took a bunch of history classes in high school.
I didn’t really know what that meant, like is this just a hobby or something? I went to Italy with my family and we had a great tour guide and I thought, this dude has the greatest job ever. And I never thought I’d ever DO that. And as things unraveled two years ago, I was like I’ll do tours with all of this history that I’ve collected just ‘cause I wanted to know it. I’m from Indiana, I want to know where I’m from, who was here before me and I want to be able to tell people.
Can you describe your tours? How many stops do you make?
It kind of depends. It kind of flows. The routes are always fun to make. We don’t really go by the same place twice. We’ll snake you through a neighborhood or make a figure 8 pattern and stop by important sites like the Walker Theatre, Bethel Ame Church, the USS Indianapolis memorial on the canal… The stops, it kind of depends based on the group. I know there’s places where I’m going to stop, but it’s really based on the groups. Like maybe the kids are really interested in the ducks in the canal and if I’ve got that energy and you want to hear about the ducks, we’ll make that happen. Or like if you’ve got adults really interested in the Attucks basketball team, we may just stop in the shade and go deeper into that and keep rolling. So it’s kind of really based on the general curiosity of the group. Like what do you want to know about? Hopefully, I can tell you about it.
You mention Indiana Avenue, so what are some of your favorite pieces to talk about?
I love the music. The music is great. Madam Walker is great. To me, I feel like I’ve known Madam Walker since I was six years old. You may feel the same way, you may not. But some stuff is just so new to people and to see them learn and whatever it is that shocks them in a way, that’s kind of my favorite. Whether it’s the jazz mural that we show on the avenue [...] I like playing the music, but it’s all about what gets the best reaction out of people. I just like sharing new information with people. That’s my favorite part.
If someone asked you your favorite Indiana fact, which one would you throw out?
I like reminding people that Michael Jackson is from here. If I ever have a group of people who aren’t from Indiana, which happens sometimes, there’s always the emphasis that Michael Jackson is from here. Then a reminder that John Mellencamp is from here, from Seymour, Indiana. A little pop-country, 80s-90s music, I play that music when I got a tour of people from outside Indiana. More than anything, I like showcasing Indiana Avenue because for most people outside Indiana, they don’t think Indianapolis would’ve ever had this thriving Black jazz scene. People are like “Really?” and I’m like “Yeah, go look in your town. See what was there.” Because I surprise people who live here every day. People on the tour have lived here for 60-70 years and they don’t know about this.
If you read through the end, here’s a little bonus for you. Sampson will be at Conner Prairie from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to answer questions + share some information about his upcoming tour partnership with Conner Prairie. Entry is free today.
During the cold winter months, you may not find yourself wanting to walk around outside. So, Sampson has created “Hawk + Talk,” which combines his love of history + Indiana’s birds in a classroom setting, perfect for kids. If you’re a teacher or school representative who is interested in having Sampson, reach out on his website.