A History of the Douglass Center

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community of Champaign-Urbana, is the Douglass Center.
It was named in honor of the great African American abolitionist
Frederick Douglass who reportedly made a stop in
Champaign while on a speaking tour. When the Center
was first conceived, it served as a recreational center for
black enlisted men who were stationed at the Chanute Air
Force base in Rantoul but denied access to white facilities.
Among the ranks of these soldiers were the Tuskegee Airmen,
the famous black pilots who served in World War II.
Today, the Douglass Center is a landmark of local black
history and life in the Champaign-Urbana area.
The origins of what is now the Douglass Center date
back to the 1930s, when two centers were opened for the
purpose of serving the African American population. The
first, which opened in May 1931, was “an adult education
center sponsored by the office of the county superintendent
of schools.” The program was run from a refurbished
eight-room house just south of Douglass Park. While
financial sponsorship of the space was attributed to the
local government, organization of the center’s programs
was credited to the efforts of an advisory board consisting
of local community members, all of whom were women.
The classes offered included “cooking, sewing, dressmaking,
French, reading, writing, arithmetic, English, Negro
History and Hygiene.”
In December 1931, another center opened. Pre-school
and athletic programs that were previously run out of local
area elementary schools were moved to a new site close to
Douglass Park. Sponsored by the
Champaign-Urbana Junior Woman’s
Club and the Recreation Commission,
programs included crafts,
social activities, music, dramatics,
and other activities for all ages.
As the United States prepared to
enter World War II, 250 black soldiers
trained at Tuskegee Institute
were sent to the Chanute Air Force
Base in nearby Rantoul for training
as mechanics before going on to
become pilots. All the spaces for
military training were provided,
albeit separately and unequally, for
black troops on the base. However,
black soldiers were not allowed into
the all-white USO recreational facilities.
As a result, the North End of
Champaign became a destination
for African American enlisted men
during “rec time.”
A group of community members, along with the Champaign
Playground and Recreational Board, sponsored a
center to provide organized activities for these black soldiers.
The Servicemen’s Center opened on March 26,
1943, and consisted of two rooms in the basement of the
old Lawhead School at 5th and Grove Streets. The Center
showed movies, held dances, and hosted holiday events.
The snack bar was especially popular, as there were few
places for African Americans to eat out. Seeing 2,500 servicemen
pass through its doors each month, the space was
soon outgrown.
The Servicemen’s Organization was founded and funds
were raised within the black community for a new center.
Local black residents contributed a total of $3,000 towards
a proposed building. They also acquired two plots of land
adjacent to the Douglass Park. Financial contributions
from the War Chest and the Twin City Community
Committee allowed them to complete
the fundraising.
On February 18, 1945, the first spade of
dirt was turned in a dedication ceremony
and seven months later the Douglass Center
was officially opened. Its first directors were
Pauline Johnson and Erma Bridgewater.
In April 1970, a group of students from the
Graduate School of Library Sciences at UIUC,
with input from the local black community,
submitted a proposal to Champaign and
Urbana Public Libraries and the Lincoln Trails
Library System to install a library at the Douglass
Center. While it had long been a hub of activity in the
black community, library services at the Douglass Center
consisted largely of donated books. The North End never
had a library of its own. A year later, the Douglass Center
housed a full-fledged library and Miriam Butler was
appointed as its first director.
At the top of the library’s letterhead was the image of an
open book with a raised black fist, a symbol of the Black
Power era. On the pages of the book read the library’s slogan,
“A Black Library for the Black Community.” The Douglass
Library soon became a favorite hang-out for local youth.
Library staff hosted a story hour, special programs, and
offered day-care for children. Among
the most popular events was a program
called “A Soul Experience” which
attracted some 350 people. In April
1971, the first month that materials
were lent from the library, only 37
books were checked out. However, by
August there was a circulation of more
than books. In 1972, the Douglass
Library officially became a branch of
the Champaign Public Library.
So on after, local black activists,
including John Lee Johnson, began to
pressure the Champaign Park District
to take greater responsibility in solving
the community’s problems. He
was critical of the city’s overemphasis
on sports. “We cannot turn our backs
upon drug addiction,” he wrote, “by
handing a kid a basketball.” Discussions
began about the construction of
a new Douglass Center that would include space for a larger
library and a senior center.
In 1975, despite the community’s need for a more diverse
facility, the park board claimed it could only provide a
building for a gymnasium, “because of lack of funds,” and
announced that the old Douglass Center would be demolished.
Some 200 local residents showed up at city council
to protest the decision. Former director Erma Bridgewater
and her mother Sarah Scott, along with others, attended a
large rally in the park. John Lee Johnson organized a committee
to protest the demolition.
Over the following weeks and months, the North
End staged several forms of protest and advocacy for a
“complete center.” A picket line was set up at the offices
of the construction company the city had hired. A steering
committee was formed to represent
the demands of the local community, and
citizens attended meetings at the Park District
to make their demands clear to local
government officials.
After several months of struggle, the community
and local agencies arrived at a compromise.
In December 1975, the old center
was razed and construction began on the
new Douglass Center. The project was completed
a year later. While the finished structure
was the building as it now stands, Douglass
Park is now also home for both the
senior citizens’ annex and the Douglass
Branch of the Champaign Public Library.
Taken together, these spaces serve to connect
the history of struggle in the North End
to a future where there is always room for progress.

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1 Response to A History of the Douglass Center

  1. Pingback: Mapping Cultural Migrations between Champaign and Chicago – AREA Chicago Archive

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