Fourteenth Street Community Center: "The Heart of the North End"

Today’s Fourteenth Street Community Center has its origins in a vibrant black civic movement of the 1920s during the Era of Jim Crow, when Portsmouth, Ohio, like much of the United States was segregated along racial lines. A national civic movement in scope, its local manifestation included groups associated with civic betterment (public health and wellness, recreation, and education), along with black-owned business promotion and networking, but also advocacy organizations that championed social justice and equal rights, including a branch of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 

The black civic movement led to the formation of the Portsmouth Welfare League in May 1928, organized in the auditorium of the Washington School, with Dr. W. H. Lowry as President. The League organized committees that would go onto establish various community organizations, including the Portsmouth Inter-Racial Commission, the Citizens' North End Forum, and the North End (Peerless) Luncheon Club.

The Inter-Racial Commission first met in 1929 and was launched in collaboration with the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce, with the aim of improving race relations in the city and ensuring that the interests of the black community were better supported by the Chamber and city government. John Evans, a longtime North End community leader, served as the first chairman of the Commission. In August 1931, the Inter-Racial Commission was re-organized with Dr. W. H. Lowry as president. Under Dr. Lowry’s leadership, the Commission would support the creation of a “community center” in the city’s North End neighborhood.

The League also spurred the founding of the Citizen's North End Forum, which was meant to provide a non-partisan platform for civic debate and educational programing. The Forum, as reported by the Daily Times, would "endeavor to extend the knowledge of the Negro people on moral, political and economic conditions of the day and to promote a friendly relation among the members of the Negro race that they may be qualified for duty as useful American citizens. The policy of the group will be to work out inter-racial problems and to set forth information for constructive programs which will be to the best interest of all concerned."

Meanwhile, the North End (Peerless) Luncheon Club, organized in September 1931, took the lead in the movement to establish a "community house," what the Daily Times would call a "Negro Center." In their reporting, the Times explained that "it is the purpose of the club to establish the house for the young people, giving them a place for recreation under stimulating and inspirational surroundings." The first President of the Peerless Luncheon Club was William E. Haley, who also served on the Inter-Racial Commission. The Peerless Luncheon Club had been established as a Black businessmen’s group that met monthly over a lunchtime meal, mirroring the practice of white-only civic organizations, such as Kiwanis and Rotary.

“Community Center” Opens at 1011 Eleventh Street

The Inter-Racial Commission officially endorsed the Club’s plans in October 1931 and by the first of the New Year, 1932, the Peerless Luncheon Club opened their “Community Center” at 1011 Eleventh Street. Located in a rented building on the same block as the Booker T. Washington School, the Center was conveniently located to serve the neighborhood’s youth. The organizers announced that a dedication program "will be presented at 3 o’clock, and the rooms will be open for inspection until 10 p. m. A community orchestra will furnish music for the occasion and the Glory Bound quartet will sing. Mrs. Roberta Pemberton and Mrs. C. M. Linthieum will give readings. Everyone is invited to inspect the rooms and enjoy the program of games and music. The hostesses will be the wives of the members of the Negro luncheon club. Lunch will be served by Mrs. B. Bassett. There will be no admission and guests may come and go at any time during the hours named.”

The Portsmouth Times would report that "more than 150 persons attended the opening of the hall," which will "be run on the order of the YMCA and is for both young people and adults." For its first public program, the Center held what they termed a "book shower," wherein "the public has been asked to come and bring a book or a magazine such as will interest young persons or their elders.” The original 11th Street Center would serve the community for over a decade, until 1943, when a new, larger center building would be opened on 14th Street.

The New Deal & the Construction of the Original 14th Street Community Center

What is now remembered as the original 14th Street Community Center Building was constructed in large part as a result of the Great Depression and the New Deal jobs programs that were created by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Additionally, racial segregation in Portsmouth and related discriminatory policies in Federal jobs programs also contributed to the funding and construction of the original center building.

Interest in the construction of a new and larger Community Center building emerged after the Civilian Conservation Corps established seven camps on the outskirts of the city in the Shawnee State Forest, beginning in 1933. Four of the camps were home to segregated, Black companies of enrollees, each with 200 men. With limited recreational opportunities in the city, white and black civic organizations came together to promote the construction of a new Center in the North End. Under the header, "Need Center in North End," the Portsmouth Daily Times reported that "Attorney Arthur Lynn, D. E. Garner, and Gordon Meixner were placed on a committee to locate a site for a Negro recreational center." The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the National Youth Administration (NYA), and the City Council of Portsmouth would contribute (in their own ways) to the construction of the original Center building on 14th Street.

Councilmen Frank Rowe and George Koerner led the effort on Portsmouth City Council and based upon their recommendation, City Manager Frank Sheehan drafted the "necessary legislation for the purchase of property to establish an NYA recreational center for colored youth of the North End." Rowe and Koerner recommended that the city purchase for $800 a city lot, "owned by Mrs. Tillie Boyer on the south side of 14th street east of Waller street."

The Portsmouth Daily Times reported: "Councilmen Frank Rowe and George Koerner, members of the council committee on public property have been cooperating for the last several months with Rev. B. L. Brantley of Pleasant Green Baptist church and other colored leaders of the North End in surveying and developing a social and recreational program for colored youth."

City officials explained that the total cost of the project would be between $17,000 and $20,000 and that the "city will bear about $5,000 of the cost." Ultimately, Portsmouth voters approved $6,000 in bonds to cover the cost of purchasing the land and providing construction materials. Additionally, the City agreed to "furnish heavy equipment for clearing the site." The labor, supervision, and additional materials would be provided by the National Youth Administration (NYA), which was originally operated as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). William Russell, the NYA Senior Foreman, would supervise “30 Negro youth” for a total labor cost of $11,000.

The Times explained that the 14th Street project "is designed to carry out the NYA slogan of 'youth building for youth.'" The NYA focused on providing work and education for Americans between the ages of 16 and 25. Boys and girls from families who qualified for relief were paid $10 to $25 a month for part-time work that included job training. Overall, the NYA helped over 4.5 million American youths find jobs and receive vocational training during the Great Depression. The NYA had a special Division of Negro Affairs, which was headed by Mary McLeod Bethune, a prominent female African American educator and civil rights leader. Thanks to Bethune’s championing of projects for African American youth, the NYA would help fund projects such as the construction of Portsmouth’s original 14th Street Community Center.

“The center will provide a place of organization for recreation, cultural and educational activities of Negro youth of the city, who number some 600. It will be of brick construction, 52 feet x 71 feet, and will have separate reading, craft and recreation rooms for boys and girls, and a central lounge. There will be a kitchen, an office, a storeroom and rest rooms included in the one-floor plan. The supervision of the center will be accomplished through an organized committee. It will be equipped to accommodate all community activities, providing recreation for the 200 enrollees at CCC Camp Shawnee as well.”

In an interview with the Portsmouth Daily Times, Councilman Rowe noted that the question of “what to do with the youth of our colored community has been an acute problem for some years. They have no adequate and desirable meeting place, no park or space for supervised recreation, no youth program designed for our local conditions. That a community the size of a small village is confined within itself without proper facilities for the social development of its youth is certain to cause city-wide complications.” The Times concluded their coverage, noting the historical significance of the project: "The center will be the first built by NYA in the state for colored youth. It will be one of the few existing in the country.”

The ground-breaking ceremonies for the new Center were held on November 2nd, 1939.  The Booker T. Washington School Band led a march of students to the location and a “chorus of choirs from churches in the North End” added to the musical program. After nearly four years of construction, which was delayed by US entrance into World War II, the new 14th Street Community Center was opened on January 1st,  1943. Gene White Haley (the wife of William E. Haley) served as its first Director and Executive Secretary. William E. Haley served as the first President of the Center’s Board.