President Benjamin Harrison’s signature on the Stan & Sandy Hurt Presidential Promenade which is part of the $6 million enhancements made to the Hoosier president’s home in Indianapolis (photos by Xain Ballenger/The Statehouse File)

By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

May 23, 2023

As dignitaries, donors and friends gathered May 18 to celebrate the completion of the Old Glory, New Vision capital campaign at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in Indianapolis, 16-year-old Jayna Ndiaye reminded the crowd the legacy of the Hoosier president extends beyond the stately home and welcoming grounds.

Ndiaye is an alumna of the Future Presidents of America, a program which teaches civic literacy, good citizenship and leadership skills to young teenagers. She was encouraged to enroll in the week-long summer camp by her world history teacher at Pike High School but upon arriving, she felt she was not as smart as the other participants and she did not belong in the program.

However, she said walking through the doors of the Harrison home was a transformative experience.

“I had a voice,” Ndiaye said. “Finally after the world spent centuries taking the voice away from young Black girls like me, I found it here.”

Jayna Ndiaye

Ndiaye was among the roster of speakers who delivered their comments from the front porch of the Harrison home on the sundrenched afternoon. Before a crowd seated in the shade of the towering trees, the speakers talked about Harrison’s lasting impact and touted the enhancements funded by the capital campaign.

The campaign was started two years ago in April 2021 with the goal of raising $6 million to rejuvenate the museum grounds and make renovations to the home of the 23rd president. At the conclusion, the funding drive had reached $6.87 million. Top donors contributing $500,000 or more were the Arthur Jordan Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, Inc., and James and Gracia Johnson Floyd.

Outside on the 2-plus acres surrounding the Harrison home, the enhancements include:

  • The Johnson-Floyd Family Presidential Commons which greets visitors with a wood and glass portico that leads to the Sarah Evans Barker Citizenship Plaza. The plaza features limestone cases which hold engravings of America’s founding documents and “The Book of History” which honors the more than 1,500 citizens who have been naturalized at the presidential site since 2003.

  • The Stan & Sandy Hurt Presidential Promenade that guides visitors down a granite and brick pathway which features a reproduction of each president’s signature along with a stainless steel medallion with stars designating the total number of states in each administration.

  • A new Neighborway that now connects Pennsylvania and Delaware streets, enhancing walkability and bikeability in the old Northside neighborhood.

Inside the brick National Historic Landmark residence, historically-accurate enhancements were made to the first, second and third floors of the home.

Founding documents displayed at the Sarah Evans Barker Citizenship Plaza

Coupled with the unveiling of the new features, the Harrison Presidential Site outlined plans to use the energy created by the capital campaign to launch a “new beginning” to teach and inspire new generations like Ndiaye. Charlie Hyde, president and CEO of the Harrison site, said the residence will mark its 150th anniversary in 2024 and will focus on amplifying its message to create more civic participation and greater appreciation for American democracy.

The commitment to civics is needed, Hyde said, noting the federal government invests the equivalent of 5 cents per student each year on civics compared to $50 per student annually for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

“While STEM education is needed, we are doing ourselves a disservice as a nation if we do not invest our time and talent in helping the rising generations understand and appreciate what is best about our country and how each of them can take an active part in shaping its future,” Hyde told the crowd. “Surely we must give as much forethought to the architecture of perpetuating civil society as a civil engineer does to the infrastructure of bridges and buildings.”

Indiana First Lady Janet Holcomb and City-County Council President Vop Osili gave examples of Harrison’s legacy that still resonate today. The Hoosier president advocated for civil rights and voting rights for African Americans and women. He supported living wages and urged Americans to reject consumerism that put profit over people. Harrison designated 13 million acres of public land for national forest reserves and he established the practice of displaying the American flag over public buildings and schools.

Ndiaye acknowledged she did know much about Harrison when she started the Future Presidents program. But as she learned about him, she became more interested in civics and eventually decided to change her career path from medicine to politics. She plans to major in politic science and international relations in college then go into public service.

“…I’ve experienced what happens when people in higher places forget that there are people like me,” Ndiaye told The Indiana Citizen. “That’s why I don’t think politics can necessarily be dirty because when you come from humble beginnings and you’ve seen the world, you know what you want to do to change that.”

Listening to Ndiaye speak, Brian Hewitt, chair of the Harrison Presidential Site board of directors, heard a future president.

“I literally got chills,” Hewitt said after the event. ‘Nobody gave her that script. She wrote every word of it.”

Brian Hewitt

The capital campaign, Hewitt said, started with a long-range plan that included much more outreach to bring more engagement in “our system of self-government” and promote civil civic discourse. Conversations about the Old Glory, New Vision project began by explaining the mission of the Harrison home. Hewitt credits the mission with spurring individuals in every county in Indiana and almost 30 states to make a donation.

Echoing Hyde, Hewitt called upon the crowd to help the Harrison site promote civic literacy.

“You are here because you share the faith in the future of our system of self-government. You are here because you believe in good citizenship. You are here because we believe in civil civic discourse,” Hewitt said. “I know that we are one in that belief but there are others who need to be invited into our family that believes in those things. I urge you to share that belief.”

After the speeches, the speakers cut a ceremonial red, white and blue ribbon. The crowd then enjoyed an evening of music, refreshments and complimentary tours of the house.

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