(Sept. 27, 1909-June 6, 1978). Born in Port Gibson, Mississippi, Blackburn came to Indianapolis in 1932 to attend Butler University. After graduating from Butler’s school of religion, he became an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ). Blackburn then earned an M.A. in sociology at Fisk University, and he worked as director of research and records at Tuskegee Institute.

Cleo Blackburn, ca. 1950s
Credit: Indiana Historical Society.

Blackburn returned to Indianapolis in 1936 as executive director of Flanner House, a social service center for the local Black community. During his 40-year tenure, he worked to expand budgets, facilities, and programming to provide jobs, housing, and health services to the urban poor. He developed several unique self-help programs including Flanner House Homes, which became a national model for providing local and federal funding to help veterans build their own homes.

In 1948, Blackburn gathered a group of local community and business leaders and formed the Board for Fundamental Education (BFE), for which they received a congressional charter in 1954. As executive director and later CEO of the BFE for 30 years, Blackburn used Flanner House and eventually 29 other test sites to develop programs to train and educate low-income workers.

Blackburn (right) and fellow ministers tour the construction site of a Flanner House Home, 1955
Credit: O. James Fox Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

While directing Flanner House, Blackburn was also president of Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas (1953-1964). He was a Rosenwald fellow at Indiana University in 1941 and received honorary doctorates from several universities. He also held leadership positions in numerous local organizations, including Christian Theological Seminary and the Urban League.

Cleo Blackburn meets with Governor Henry Schricker in the governor'office, ca. 1951
Credit: Indiana Historical Society.
Revised February 2021
 

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