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Folks in Lancaster County needed some good news back in 1963, and just after 3 p.m. Dec. 1, they got it.
Just like much of the nation, citizens here were mourning the loss of a president.
Nine days earlier, John F. Kennedy had been killed in Dallas by an assassin's bullet.
But for a short time that afternoon, there was plenty of promise in the air on the oft-neglected side of town when Leonard George handed a key to teenager John Reed.
Reed was president of the Barr Street High School student body. George, a local business owner, was president of the Lancaster Community Center steering committee.
That key was for the door at 508 E. Barr St. and the just-completed community center Reed could probably see from some of the windows of his high school classrooms.
That day, with dignitaries such as Mayor Ledell Steele, S.C. Sen. Frank L. Roddey, Carl Hubbard of the Springs Co., school Superintendent G.T. Myers and William Medford of the Springs Foundation among the estimated 400 in attendance, Reed’s words spoke volumes. He delivered them in the un-amplified room with almost perfect acoustics.
According to the Dec. 2, 1963, edition of The Lancaster News, Reed promised George that the 5,000 square-foot building would be used wisely and responsibly.
And now, almost 50 years later, it’s still being used that way.
That’s all George and other black leaders had in mind when they launched the idea to build a “Negro Community Center” just before Christmas in 1960.
But how it came about is a testament to what makes Lancaster a special place.
This was a project that almost wasn’t, so to call it a community center isn’t a stretch. It took a community effort and heart for doing the right thing to break down racial walls and build brick ones at the corner of Ferguson and Barr streets.
And it’s a story that needs to be told.
For me, telling it starts with a photo in the book “Lancaster County Black History” by Theodora Smith and Mary Mackey.
The photo, taken in 1964, shows 14 members of the Men’s Community Club, which spearheaded the fundraising campaign and effort to build a community center.
I knew about the organization, but never knew the late David Cauthen was among its members. In the summer of 1977, I worked with Cauthen at the city of Lancaster’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. He died April 20, 2012, at the age of 94.
Seeing Cauthen in the photo spurred me to start digging into the story of how the community center came about.
County Magistrate Fred Thomas said the photo is full of special stories of black men in the community who made a difference. He should know. His grandfather, the late Fred Thomas Sr., and his uncle, the late Joe Asgil are two of them.
“My dad and I looked at that picture together and talked about those men more than once,” said Thomas, a former Lancaster County councilman. “I personally knew just about every one of them.”
For me, the photo resulted in more questions than answers about the start of the community center, especially one question. No one could give me a firm answer as to when it was built.
Lancaster is blessed with those who know the county’s history, but everybody was stumped, so I kept digging.
How it started
In late 1960, three local organizations – the Men’s Community Center, the Best Yet (B.Y.) Social Club and the Southside Socialite Club joined forces for a common goal – to build a multipurpose clubhouse/community center near Barr Street High School.
The effort was led by local restaurant owner George, of George’s Nick-Nack on the Hill (Gay Street), Preston Blackmon (a young Lancaster Police Department reserve officer and brick mason), educator Lafayette Belk, the Rev. B.T. Blocker and local service station owner Fred Thomas Sr., with countless others working behind the scenes.
Mary Tucker, who grew up just doors down from the Nick-Nack, a popular home-cooking eatery, said George was a community leader in every sense.
“He was just a wonderful man,” Tucker said. “I think more than anything else, it was his personality. The whole Hill – from the soda shop to Shropshire’s Barber Shop and the Nick-Nack – everybody worked together. All of them were in support of anything our community needed to progress. But Mr. George was always the leader out in front.”
Setting a goal
According to the Jan. 9, 1961, edition of The Lancaster News, a campaign goal of $35,000 was set and the three groups went to work.
Through word of mouth, they rallied Eastern Star groups, Masonic Lodges, social clubs and local churches for their cause.
They hosted variety shows featuring local talents such as Gene Truesdale’s Tear Drops, Sam Riddle, Berta Mackey and Thomas Jr.
“My dad was a trained singer with a great voice,” Fred Thomas said. “He sang at a lot of weddings, funerals and things like that.”
Supporters also held fish frys, chicken dinners, bake sales and dances to come up with the needed funds.
However, some 14 months later, their best efforts had run out of steam. Despite all of that hard work and personal contributions, supporters were only able to raise $6,307.04.
“That group worked,” said Annabell Thomas, widow of Fred Thomas Jr. “Leonard (George) and Rebecca Frasier of the B.Y.’s really worked hard to get it going.”
In April 1962, George, who, by all accounts, was frustrated, called for a public meeting at the Lancaster County Health Center to issue a countywide appeal for help.
At that meeting, an impassioned George said supporters were advised by Sen. Bruce Williams, Mayor Steele and the Springs Foundation to do the same thing.
“They said, ‘Go to work and see what you can do for yourselves, before you ask for help,” he said in an article published in the April 26, 1962, edition of The Lancaster News.
The problem, George said, was simply a lack of money in the black community. He said they had tried everything from selling soda pop to raffling off a car. There was plenty of support; there just wasn’t enough money coming in from it. The car raffle, George said, was a mistake that would not be repeated. All the hard work from it cleared the whopping sum of $74.33.
“Where do you go when there is no place to go?” George asked that night.
Community rallies to help raise money
George’s pleas for help were answered. The entire community got behind the effort.
The next day, the mayor issued a proclamation declaring May 6-12, 1962, as Lancaster County Community Center Week. Steele also said he thought Lancaster City Council could come up with about $1,500 and urged others to chip in.
“They are at the end of their rope and need the help a generous community can give them,” Steele said in a newspaper interview.
Steele wasn’t the only one who helped. Local attorney D. Glenn Yarborough stepped up by helping the group incorporate and handling all legal issues pro bono.
Sonny Hagins of Porter Belk Lumber Co. drew up the building plans and designed the center free of charge.
“I never heard that from my father, but I’m not surprised he would help,” said Hagins’ son, Jeff. “Mr. (Preston) Blackmon told me about it several years ago.
“My mom always said even though the schools here had not been desegregated, there was good leadership on both sides,” Jeff Hagins said. “That’s what it takes to make a difference.”
Annabell Thomas agreed. She said those involved were humbled by waves of unexpected support. It was quite a morale boost.
“It was a community effort in every sense,” she said. “That in itself is something we can all be proud of. The community did all the work.”
Local media outlets also pledged their support. An April 1962 editorial in The Lancaster News lauded the effort.
“They are trying to help themselves by building a wholesome recreation center for their young people and their community,” the editorial read. “This was not done by an outside organization, but an effort by citizens for the local community.”
One of the most novel efforts was launched by Royal Broadcasting and its owner, the late C.K. Connelly. WLCM-AM started a radio show hosted by Barr Street High School coach and educator Sandy Gilliam. Broadcast after the New York Yankees baseball games, “Mr. G’s” was a rhythm-and-blues radio show cohosted by Gilliam, fellow educator T.T. Barnes and J.W. Lindsay.
Alvida Barnes, wife of T.T. Barnes, said the project and the reason for it were uniting factors in the community.
“Everybody was for it. We all gave whatever help we could give. Everybody wanted to provide a place for our young people to come,” Barnes said.
“We wanted to give our young people a safe place where they could socialize and just be young people,” said Gilliam’s wife, Betty. “That was our sole purpose.”
According to the May 7, 1962, edition of The Lancaster News, the radio fundraiser went as far as to send drivers to pick up the donations made on the air, which were also published in the local newspaper.
One of those donations was $1 from Thelathia Barnes Bailey, who now serves as the TRiO Programs director at the University of South Carolina Lancaster. At the time, Bailey was 8 years old.
“Oh my goodness, I can’t believe that,” Bailey said laughing. “That was a lot of money back then. I wonder if I got it from my piggy bank.”
The Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Civitans also stepped up by enlisting local merchants such as Bailey and Rowell, Hinson’s Lunch and Ray’s Flower Shop, among others.
The black community wasn’t done either and hosted other events, such as the “Battle of Gospel Songs” in the Barr Street High School auditorium.
Four gospel bands from the area – The Southerneers, The Pilgrim Five of Van Wyck, the Stars of Zion from Rock Hill and the Crownettes from Edgemoor – performed free of charge.
By May 21, 1962, the $35,000 goal was reached when the Springs Foundation made a $7,500 donation. The remaining $17,500 came through a commitment from Lancaster County’s legislative delegation – Sen. Bruce Williams and Reps. Odell Player and Tom Mangum.
The three, who set and oversaw the county budget at the time, came up with a way to use a percentage of the parks and playground funds for five years to raise the rest of the money without raising taxes.
“Everything just caught fire. We felt like we were all pulling together,” George said in a newspaper interview after the goal was reached.
“You know, we do this all the time,” Bailey said. “When something is needed, everybody here comes together.”
Supporters planned to start construction in late 1962 on three lots near Barr Street High School, but the groundbreaking was delayed.
Wetter-than-normal weather complicated things. More than 3 inches of rainfall drenched the county in a three-day period in September 1962, followed by almost back-to-back winter storms in early 1963.
There was also another issue that sunshine couldn’t fix. The low bid for the community center was $42,300, which meant changes in the site plans. Yarborough urged George at the project steering committee not to include air conditioning so that it could be built on budget.
“That (air conditioning) can be added later,” Yarborough said.
Almost one year later, on May 20, 1963, the steering committee accepted Olin Small’s bid of $42,300. A groundbreaking was held a week later.
In August that year, the A-frames were in place and the brickwork had begun.
By the time of the opening ceremony, the building was complete, with air conditioning. Betty Gilliam credits that to having business leaders such as C.D. “Bubber” Gregory of Builder’s Supply and James Kirk and Charlie Blakenship of Lancaster Feed and Farm stepping up behind the scenes.
“I’m fairly sure Builder’s Supply donated some of the materials,” she said.
Gregory calls his decision to step up an investment in Lancaster’s future.
“Gosh, our history sure gets away from us, doesn’t it?” Gregory said. “At the time, we had some excellent black leadership. They were conscious about helping make the community a better place. It’s sad that so many of them are gone.”
Lancaster County Councilwoman Charlene McGriff, who was 9 years old when the center opened in 1963, still fondly recalls attending functions there with her older sisters. During the middle of the week, McGriff said the community center wasn’t just a place to go. She said it was a happenin’.
“Goodness,” McGriff said. “I couldn’t hardly wait until I turned 13 so I could go to dances in the summertime. It was really something for us to look forward to.”
The men in that photo may be gone, but the legacy they left behind is not.
Almost 50 years later, the community center is still seeing its share of use. Most days, there are cars in the parking lot and the doors are open. Activities there include AARP tax preparations and Girl Scouts. Also several groups, including the Barr Street Seniors, many of whom were students when the center was built, meet there twice a month. The Originators – a Barr Street High School alumni group – and a hunting club use the center for meetings.
“The Gilliams have been stalwart in their efforts to make sure a great idea wouldn’t die,” Thomas said.
Thomas said today, the men in that 1964 photo would be astonished.
“I’d wager at the time, they had no idea it would’ve worked out like it did,” he said. “It’s just amazing what a group of people working together can do. How much more can we accomplish by following their example?”
– Greg Summers is copy editor of The Lancaster News