Entertaining the Doughboys
The Douglass Community Association was a byproduct of the First World War. Camp Custer was home to large numbers of mobilized troops, both during the war and in the immediate years that followed. These men needed something to do in their downtime, and thousands of them flocked to neighboring cities, including Kalamazoo. Their presence in the business district was likened to an invasion. Although this was a welcome boost to the local economy, many felt that a supervised facility specifically reserved for the recreation of soldiers was necessary. The War Camp Community Service, was created in order to solve the problem. The WCCS established a social club for soldiers at 121 West Main Street, today’s Michigan Avenue. However, due to the racial attitudes at the time, Camp Custer’s African American population was not welcome and was effectively overlooked.
Fortunately, the shortcomings of the situation were recognized by local, camp, and WCCS authorities. R.O. Brundage was assigned by the WCCS as chairman of a committee to resolve the matter. The result of Brundage’s efforts was the creation of a recreation center named for Frederick Douglass, the famed abolitionist and civil rights leader. In its infancy the institution had many variations of its name, including the Douglass Community House, the Douglass Community Club, and more commonly, the Douglass Community Center. It opened on 1 July 1919 in five rented rooms on the third floor of 230 North Burdick Street. This address was later renumbered 262 North Burdick.
The intended purpose of the center was short-lived since the First World War had ended on 11 November 1918, before the center had even opened. Throughout 1919 and 1920 the troops at Camp Custer were gradually mustered out of the Army and thus the crowds seeking recreation in Kalamazoo dwindled. With its military mission coming to an end, the center faced the cessation of funding from the WCCS, and thus an end of its brief existence.
Despite having outlived its original purpose, the Douglass Community Center had proven its value in a short time. For many in the Kalamazoo community it was clear that the city could benefit from having such an institution on a permanent basis for the use of the local African American population. In 1921 a new non-profit, the Douglass Community Association, was created to take over operations of the WCCS and to keep the center operational. Independent from its military origins, the Douglass Community Association maintained an emphasis on recreation. However, Kalamazoo’s African American youth became the target audience instead of soldiers.
The local need for a African American recreation center was not unlike the military need. Kalamazoo's African American population often found themselves unwelcome at many of the city's stores, restaurants, and recreational venues. The Douglass Community Association provided them with a place of their own, where they would not face the discrimination common in the broader community. Sewing and craft clubs, dances, live music, theater, basketball games, a soda fountain, and a pool room were among the options one could find at the Douglass.
In 1925 the Douglass Community Association became one of the first local organizations to enjoy the support of the Community Fund of Kalamazoo, later known as the Community Chest. The Community Chest, part of a nationwide network of like groups, was an umbrella fundraising organization that acted as the fiscal agent for local health and social welfare agencies that were dependent upon public support. The Chest held annual fundraising campaigns and disbursed funds as needed. This enabled agencies to devote their resources to programming rather than to fundraising. Community Chest funded agencies, such as the Douglass, remained independent, with their own governing structures in place. Other participants included the YMCA and YWCA, the Merrill Home, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, and the Salvation Army. The Community Chest has since evolved into today's United Way.
A Home of Their Own
As the Douglass Community Association expanded its programing, the space limitations and other inadequacies of the center’s first home became increasingly apparent. Among other things, the third floor quarters were difficult to access for many patrons. The building lacked an elevator. Additionally, the rooms were heated by coal stoves, the fuel for which had to be carried up the three flights of stairs. Discussions to build a new stand-alone building began as early as the mid-twenties. In 1928 land was purchased for this purpose, on the northwest corner of Ransom and Pitcher Streets. However, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 delayed the project for years.
Depression aside, the dream refused to die. By the summer of 1935, fundraising efforts were again underway. Revised plans called for the use of Works Progress Administration money to cover a considerable portion of the cost of the $70,000 structure. The WPA was the largest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, intended to combat the Depression by providing work to the unemployed. The core of WPA activities was providing the funding for construction of civic improvement projects, including post offices, public buildings, and roads. In order to qualify for the funds, the Douglass Community Association deeded the land at Ransom and Pitcher to the city of Kalamazoo. The city would own the structure and lease it to the association for a nominal fee.
The needed Federal and local funds were secured by 1939, allowing work to commence. Local architect Ernest Batterson, who had previously designed the First Methodist Church, drafted an Art Moderne styled structure featuring a multicolored brick exterior, large gymnasium, snack bar, library, and several social rooms spread out over three levels. The building was completed in 1941 and formally dedicated with great fanfare on February 16th. The new Douglass Community Center was hailed as one of the finest facilities of its type and remained the association’s home for over forty years.
Facilities and programming received an additional boost when, on April 1960, the Douglass Community Association was the recipient of a generous gift. A local farmer, Kenneth Melching, donated his forty acre farm at 9th Street and Hart Drive to the association. Melching moved to a remote part of Canada and requested that the land be used to “provide happiness for the greatest number of children possible.” The association utilized the farm as a community garden and campground.
The purpose and structure of the Douglass Community Association has changed several times throughout its history. In 1946 the organization changed its constitution and governing structure. Prior to this, the assocation had been under a mostly white board of directors with a predominantly African American advisory board. With the change, one biracial board was put in place.
In 1962 the Association shifted its chief focus from recreational activities to confronting the social problems facing Northside residents. Gradually the barriers keeping the African American community from using other recreational facilities were breaking down. However, Kalamazoo's African American population was growing rapidly, with large numbers of migrants from the south. Many of these new residents required education and job training.
One of the more large-scale programs to emerge from this era was INTREFOL, launched in 1966. INTREFOL was a three-pronged program based on intake, referral, and follow-up. The intake phase involved identifying those in need of help and the problems they faced. Referral phase sought to connect those individuals with existing outside agencies that were best suited to offering help. Lastly, follow-up involved providing assistance to the individuals with using the services offered by the outside agencies.
Additionally, the Association's mission placed a greater emphasis on social change. As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Douglass Community Association was at the center of local efforts. National and statewide civil rights leaders made the center their headquarters while in town. It served as a base of operations for planning local activism on school segregation, as well as employment and housing issues.
However, throughout the 1970s and 1980s a number of new non-profits were launched to cater to specific issues or to community needs that had previously been served by the Douglass Community Association. The resulting overlap allowed the Douglass to concentrate more resources on a smaller number of core programs.
A New Center
As early as 1951, only ten years after the Douglass Community Center building had opened, a report was published which, among other things, argued that the structure offered insufficient space to satisfy the association’s growing needs. By the end of that decade, groups of Northside residents pushed for a new facility, claiming that the Ransom Street building was too small and difficult to access for many of the association’s clients. The association's increasing focus on social services pushed demand for a new building. The 1941 structure had been designed as a recreation center and lacked adequate office space that was now required. Proposals for a new building became a regular feature of neighborhood discussions for the next quarter century.
In 1981 the Douglass Community Association took steps towards a new facility. After debating the merits of renovating a former dairy for their use, it was decided to build an entirely new structure on Paterson Street. The new Douglass Community Center was designed by Detroit architect Roger Margum and erected at a cost of 2.3 million dollars. Funds came from the City of Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo Foundation, and local residents. The building was designed around the association’s social services with a renewed emphasis on recreational programs and educational opportunities for youth. It contains a gymnasium, day care center, and the Alma Powell Branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library. The building opened in 1984.
The Merry Makers
In 1998 an organization of retirees, motivated by fond memories, purchased the Douglass Community Association’s old building on Ransom Street from the Mount Zion Baptist Church. The building had been vacant since the new building opened in 1984 and had since fallen into disrepair. Roof leaks resulted in considerable water damage to the interior and boarded up windows gave the exterior a blighted appearance.
The group, known as the Merry Makers, desired to restore the building for service to the neighborhood with a $400,000 renovation. Over the next two years, they invested a considerable amount of money and effort to repairing it. By 1999 the group had spent $15,000 on an interior clean-up and a further $104,000 on a new roof.
Unfortunately the Merry Maker’s hopes of reopening the facility failed to materialize. The group sold the building in 2006, and it remains vacant as of 2013. However, the Merry Maker’s efforts did have a long-lasting positive impact. The new roof they installed remains in place and has slowed the further decay of the north side landmark, greatly increasing its chances of being reopened.
The Association Today
Meanwhile the Douglass Community Association has continued to provide Kalamazoo with a variety of social and recreational services from its home on Paterson. Its past traditions have been maintained and expanded. In February 2010 the institution celebrated its 90th anniversary with a banquet featuring a keynote address by Elson Floyd. The former president of Western Michgian University was selected for the example of success he provides to the center's young audience. The attention that this celebration received in the local media is partial recognition to the Douglass's continued importance to the Kalamazoo community. But the association's greatest tribute isn't in the form of celebrations or architecture, but rather in the thousands of lives who have been positively impacted in the course of the Douglass's history.