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Bicentennial Legends: Etheridge Knight


The Chatterbox jazz club on Mass Ave will be the site of a new mural of Black Arts Movement poet Etheridge Knight, Jr. (1931-1991). Knight, who wrote his first book of poetry while incarcerated in the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City in the 1960s, was a regular at the Chatterbox in the late 1980s and taught some of his legendary Free People’s Poetry Workshops there.

The two-story outdoor mural, created by artist Elio Mercado, with assistance from Kaila Austin, was unveiled in June 2023. 

Indy Arts Council partnered with Butler University’s Etheridge Knight Archive, the EK Free Peoples Be Project, and the Knight family to create the mural. 

Key funding is provided by the City of Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Bicentennial Commission, Indiana Destination Development Corporation, Glick Philanthropies, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the MIBOR Economic and Community Development Council.


Knight was born in Corinth, Miss., but grew up in Paducah, Ky. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1947, serving in the Korean War, but was discharged in 1950 after suffering shrapnel wounds. He moved to Indianapolis, where his family had relocated.

In 1960, Knight was convicted of drug-related armed robbery and spent eight years in prison. The back cover of his first poetry collection, Poems from Prison (1968), read: “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound, and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.”

During his career, which took him to cities including Pittsburgh and Memphis, Knight earned Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations and fellowships and prizes from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. But he remained a community poet at heart.

Knight died in Indianapolis of lung cancer on March 10, 1991. Two months earlier, more than 700 people gathered at the American Cabaret Theatre to pay tribute to him. He is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery.

Meet the artist

Elio Mercado's mural of Etheridge Knight combines visual elements inspired by lines from Knight’s poetry; the color scheme takes a cue from the cover of Knight’s Belly Song and Other Poems (1973), a Pulitzer Prize-nominated work.

“Etheridge Knight creatively worded his experience with raw imagery and truth,” Mercado said. “I instantly connected with his willingness to share his most candid thoughts and feelings.”

Mercado, a self-taught painter, muralist and sculptor based in Sunrise, Fla., has worked on public art projects in Florida, California, and Pennsylvania, as well as France, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates. Indianapolis-based painter Kaila Austin assisted Mercado, as part of a Bicentennial Legends apprentice program.

Meet the poet

Ashley Mack-Jackson was commissioned to create a poem, The Architecture of Eternity, to celebrate Etheridge Knight. Ashley, who lives in Indianapolis, is theco-founder of Word As Bond, which provides free creative writing education to central Indiana youth, and a lecturer at Butler University's College of Education.

Her writing has appeared in Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora, The Indianapolis Anthology, Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters and Drumvoices Revue. She holds an M.A. in English from Ball State University and an M.S. in nonprofit management from University of Maryland University College.

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