Honoring Black History: introducing Indy’s new deputy mayor

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INDIANAPOLIS — The new deputy mayor for the city of Indianapolis brings many years of experience in the city from a variety of backgrounds that she hopes will help her in the new role. 

Judith Thomas has worked in the city for decades and says her new role is all about connecting people to resources. 

 “All of a sudden, my neurons start connecting this person, this organization, this group, this minister, this program, this park, this arts organization, this young person that’s starting a business — how can they all come together,” Thomas said. 

Thomas says she got her first taste of community work at Butler University where she served as the president of the Black Student Union. 

She spent more than 15 years in the convention and tourism industry, starting with working for the Indiana Convention Center and Hoosier Dome back in the 1990s. 

Then after a break, she got back to the industry and worked with Visit Indy, helping with events like the Circle City Classic and Indiana Black Expo Summer Celebration. 

“I’m taking my Visit Indy experience of helping meeting planners and convention folks have successful conventions and I’m going to flip that and it’s going to be all about the citizens here,” Thomas said. 

Current Visit Indy Senior Vice President Chris Gahl worked with Thomas for 15 years. 

“When you look at Judy’s career and the breath of work that she’s put into place, it’s really positioned her for this new role nearly perfectly,” Gahl said. 

“Through those 15 years, I learned a lot about culture and race. I learned a lot about equity. And she guided us as an organization to make sure we were thinking, even 15 years ago, about how to be as inclusive as possible.” 

Thomas also served as the president of the Madam Walker Legacy Center and hopes to use that experience to continue to enrich Black culture in the city.

That includes the Ransom Place neighborhood, which is the oldest intact African American community in Indianapolis. 

 “So when I was at the Walker, seeing the history of Ransom Place, and the beauty of those homes, and the people that lived in those homes, over 50 homes where multiple people lived. People who were the first principal, or an attorney, or the janitor who helped students for years. Those stories need to be told and we need to find a way to celebrate it,” said Thomas. 

Ophelia Wellington has known Judith Thomas for years and agrees about the importance of history, including the Ransom Place community. 

 “That was where people would come. Indiana Avenue is where people came. But those are some great stories,” said Wellington. “So if you don’t have anybody telling the story, there’s an assumption it doesn’t exist.” 

Wellington is the executive director of Freetown Village, a living history museum that educates about African American history through the performing arts. 

She’s excited to work with Thomas as deputy mayor. 

“She’s somebody that I can call and say, ‘Now Judy, we’re trying to do XYZ.’ And she’ll say, ‘Do you know there’s so and so, so and so.’ She’s a connector,” said Wellington. 

Thomas says all her experience has helped her make connections in communities and will help her to address issues in the city, like the increase in violence. 

“I think that once people understand resources, once we connect people to the right resources, the frustration of maybe not having a job, not having the opportunity, not having access to education, how we can connect the folks,” Thomas said. 

“That’s the frustration, how you see violent crimes, it’s people that are frustrated.” 

She also worked for the National Federation of State High School Associations during her break from tourism and conventions. Something she says gave her useful experience building relationships in communities through sports. 

“You talk about community and neighborhood, there’s nothing more exciting than a football game on a Friday night in the state of Indiana, or a basketball game any night.” 

She says she’s excited about all the possibilities to showcase the unique neighborhoods and the people who live in them. 

“How we can really just bring that richness to everyone in the city, but also celebrate and provide resources to those folks in those neighborhoods.” 

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