(5/30/1909 – 8/5/1988)
Mattie Coney was an Indianapolis schoolteacher and Black civic leader who cofounded a group known as Citizens Forum, a Black neighborhood improvement organization created in 1964. Born in Gallatin, Tennessee in 1909, Coney moved to Indianapolis with her family as an infant. After graduating from Shortridge High School in 1927, she worked her way through a two-year teacher’s training course at Butler University by carrying newspapers and working at the Ayres Tea Room. Coney also did postgraduate work at Indiana State University, Western Reserve University, and Columbia University and taught at Indianapolis Public Schools for over 30 years.
In 1964, after the Civil Rights Act and a citywide Open Housing Ordinance to prevent discrimination were passed, Coney worried these would trigger resistance to integration. Historian Olivia Hagedorn, who studied Coney, stated that Coney “especially feared that whites would use poor neighborhood conditions in Black communities as a wedge.” This served as Coney’s impetus to organize Citizens Forum with her husband.
Citizens Forum sought to improve the health, safety, and beauty of Indianapolis’ inner-city communities by promoting the values of individual responsibility, good conduct, and citizenship. Under Coney’s leadership, the Forum expanded into a nationally recognized organization. It won national praise from President Dwight Eisenhower, Lady Bird Johnson, President Gerald Ford, and many others who used it as a model for similar neighborhood improvement groups in Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., and across the nation.
Coney became known for both her stylish hats and forthright opinions. The latter were expressed in pithy sayings which came to be called “Mattieisms,” which often put her at odds with civil rights leaders. “I never believed in the need for marching, cussing, fussing, and breaking up stuff.” She believed that people taking advantage of their opportunities could make real improvements in their lives, neighborhoods, and country. “I’m talking about all people, and if they happen to live in filth, then they ought to clean it up. I just tell the truth.”
The recipient of numerous awards and board memberships, Coney believed her greatest accomplishment, one that summed up both her life as a teacher and her life as a community activist, was “getting people to realize you have to do something for yourself. The Declaration of Independence promises the pursuit of happiness. You got to work for it.”
Coney and her husband retired in 1981 for health reasons, and Citizens Forum disbanded in 1984. Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut’s Clean City Committee inherited many of its efforts, then it evolved into Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, which runs an environmentally minded Adopt-A-Block program today.
Location: Section 46B, Lot 27; GPS (39.8204941,-86.1723744)