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Saturday, June 15, 2024

‘Agent for Change’

Sondra Matthews chronicles six decades of activism

Throughout her life, Sondra Matthews has felt compelled to speak up for underserved needs. In doing so, she also has created avenues to preserve Evansville’s Black history and support its business community.

Born in Evansville in 1943, Matthews grew up in the Baptisttown neighborhood’s Lincoln Gardens housing development and graduated from the city’s all-Black Lincoln High School in 1961. Matthews was living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the 1970s when police harassed and injured young NAACP members participating in a march. She wrote letters to the editors of Milwaukee’s mainstream newspapers to point out their lack of coverage, prompting the city’s only Black-owned newspaper, The Milwaukee Star, to offer her a reporting job.

Returning to Evansville in 1975, Matthews worked for Keller Crescent Co. and later was appointed to the Evansville Housing Authority Commission and Inner City Neighborhood Planning Council. She became editor of the Evansville Black Coalition’s Inner City Reporter and the first Evansville Chapter of Indiana Black Expo Newsletter.

Matthews’ greatest vehicle for change came in 1983, when she and her nephew DeMarco Hampton started Evansville’s only Black-owned newspaper, the bi-weekly Our Times.

“Our purpose was to lift up stories and issues that are relevant to our Black community because we weren’t seeing any coverage in the city newspapers,” she says.

Matthews sold Our Times to the Adrian M. Brooks Sr. Foundation in March 2022. She still publishes the annual Tri-City Buyer’s Guide to Black-Owned Businesses, Churches, and Organizations and stays active in local causes. 

In the 1990s, when the city announced it would demolish the declining Lincoln Gardens complex, Matthews began pushing toward her dream to create a museum depicting Baptisttown’s life and culture.

Matthews and others led efforts to save one of the 16 buildings. After six years of fundraising, the Evansville African American Museum received nonprofit status in 1999 and opened in 2007.

“I was afraid our children and grandchildren would never know the real community we had in Lincoln Gardens. There were hundreds of families. We had grocery stores, churches, restaurants, doctors, lawyers, a drugstore – all right there in the Lincoln Avenue neighborhood,” Matthews remembers. “I’m just thankful there were so many people – working together from all sides – to make it happen.”

“I think of myself as an agent for change,” she says. “Everything that’s gotten done is because there was a reason to protest – to call it out when something needed to be corrected.”

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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