Lead Kindly Light
When you take a hard look at the makeup of a neighborhood, you begin to realize that stories are everywhere. How this or that restaurant came to be, the difficulties that a young entrepreneur had in opening his clothing store, or even the heritage of past residents in the historic house down the street. Peel back a layer of day to day activity and you have a record of life kicking around, just waiting to be remembered. And it’s not just the big stories of development and enterprise that are interesting. It can be something as simple as a flower bed or a stone wall. Even a set of lamp posts, in the case of the May Wright Sewall memorial torches in front of Herron High School. The torches, which wing the 16th Street concrete pathway to the school, were originally installed in their current location on May 27, 1923 to commemorate the life and work of May Wright Sewall. Sewall served her community in Indianapolis as an activist for educational reform, women’s suffrage, and peace advocacy here and abroad.
In addition to her political and domestic work, her efforts and interest in the arts helped establish the Art Association of Indianapolis, which would eventually become the John Herron Art Institute and then the Indianapolis Museum of Art. This association was established by Sewell, her husband and a small network of community leaders and it quickly became a valuable part of Indianapolis’ community, eventually making its home the John Herron Institute, currently Herron High School. After Sewell’s death in 1920, two bronze electrical torches were ordered by the Art Institute to memorialize her life and accomplishment in laying so much of Indianapolis’ current artistic foundation. Three years later, they were placed on the property during a memorial service scheduled for her birthday near the same location that Sewall led a ground-breaking ceremony for the Herron Museum building in 1905. When the art museum and art school separated in the 1960’s, the torches were removed from the property and taken to the new Indianapolis Museum of Art campus at 38th Street.
After over 50 years away from their original home on 16th Street, the torches returned under a 99 year loan to the steps of what is now Herron High School in 2010. This was done in part to honor the inaugural class and faculty of 2010 and was made possible through the commemorative donations of community members. Back in their rightful place, these sentinels now stand to remind us of the work of Sewell’s activism and invite not just the students of Herron High School, but the community as a whole, to replicate and expand her efforts. To that end, an inscription is included on the left-hand torch facing Herron that reads “Lead Kindly Light,” after Sewell’s date of birth and death. By following her example of civic responsibility, the Herron Morton neighborhood and Indianapolis at large may continue to grow larger and stronger, lighting the way for generations to come.