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Crispus Attucks Community Center and the Lancaster Recreation Commission

The origins of the Crispus Attucks Community Center are found in the decade after World War I when local veterans returned to a society that was profoundly segregated along racial lines. Lancaster County’s African-American population, due in large part to discrimination and segregation in all aspects of County life, had declined by 30% from a pre-Civil War high of 3,600. A recently arrived pastor at Lancaster City’s Bethel A.M.E. Church, Rev. F.M. Webster, conceived the idea of a “Negro Civic League” to promote the interests of local Blacks in the social, economic, and political arenas. Civic Leagues existed in other states of the Union and Lancaster had a pressing need for what, in today’s terms would be considered a civil rights organization.

The overwhelming majority of Black Lancastrians were trapped in menial employment because of low educational attainment and local resistance to any effort to help them acquire the skills for more demanding and better-paid employment. Noted intellectual and Civil Rights pioneer, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, while conducting a sociological study for his famous Atlanta University Studies, contacted the Central Labor Council in Lancaster in the decade before World War I to ascertain how many Blacks were members of the affiliated unions. The response was “none” but “should any apply they would be accepted.” A rather disingenuous response since none of the unions was open to Black membership. Black hod carriers had to form their own union and that was the extent of their intrusion into the lucrative building trades until well into the 1970s.
The energies released by Rev. Webster’s idea were considerable. At the League’s first meeting in 1917 several suggestions were formulated: the African-American community needed its own physician, a community house for recreation and public programs was very necessary, and, because the recently created Lancaster Day Nursery would not accept Black children, a day-care facility was an absolute necessity for those families fortunate enough to have employment.

An Ella Webster Day Nursery (named after Rev. Webster’s wife who died soon after his arrival in Lancaster in 1916) was opened at 516 North Street and existed there as late as 1919. The Negro Civic League soon passed into history but individual members were active in other organizations, notably the Hallie Q. Brown Women’s Legislative Club. Named after the nationally prominent suffragette, Civil Rights pioneer, and college educator Hallie Q. Brown (1845-1949) the local group announced its creation on April 16, 1923, and on October 4 of that year Hallie Q. Brown came to Lancaster to speak with the new group at Lancaster’s Bethel A.M.E. Church.

Lancaster’s Hallie Q. Brown Club worked in consort with Mrs. Maude Coleman of the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare to prepare what the New Era of April 30, 1925, termed a “Report on Living Conditions Among Colored People.” An important part of the findings of that survey (its results were presented at St. James Episcopal Church’s parish house) was a need for recreation. On July 26, 1926, a “recreation center for colored youth” was opened at 345 North Street in the presence of Mrs. Coleman. The efforts of the Hallie Q. Brown Club were crowned with almost too much success. By 1927 the recreation center was relocated to 449 S. Duke Street and the demand for its services was so high that additional sources of income were necessary.

In Healthier and Happier Lancaster. The Story of the First 100 Years of the Lancaster Recreation Commission, 1909-2009, author Bill Simpson described how today’s Recreation Commission began an over three-decade-long relationship to today’s Crispus Attucks Community Center. In Simpson’s narrative, it was Grant D. Brandon and Walter Gibble, representatives of Lancaster’s Recreational and Playground Association who played the pivotal role in initiating the relationship. Created in 1909 the Association was charged with promoting “clean and wholesome recreation for the children of Lancaster.” For the first two decades of its existence, this did not include Black children. Brandon and Gibble, either out of a feeling of civic responsibility or because they were approached by the Hallie Q. Brown Club to become involved in recreation for Black children and adults, worked on uniting the work of the two very disparate communities.

An Inter-Racial Committee held a Colored Community Party in Independence Hall, 460 South Duke Street, reportedly in 1926 (according to Bill Simpson) and thus began the Crispus Attucks. This account is, however, contradicted by an account in the October 5, 1929 issue of the New Era titled “Colored Recreation Center Organizes.” In the body of the article it was, however, stated that the board of the Center was “reorganized.” This is not an insignificant point as later history with the Recreation Commission would show. The October 1929 meeting resulted in two momentous announcements: the recreation center would henceforth be known as the “Crispus Attucks Community Center”, a name that resonated with African Americans aware of their history [Crispus Attucks was the first martyr of the nation’s struggle to free itself from British rule: he was killed at the Boston Massacre in 1770; his role in the ongoing struggle for emancipation and self-determination conducted by African Americans after the Revolution was institutionalized with the erection of a statue in his honor in Boston after the Civil War]; also it was announced that a “social secretary,” Mrs. Ruby Bohee of Paducah, Kentucky, would be introduced on November 25, 1929.

With her arrival in Lancaster, a new era for Lancaster Blacks began. During her tenure (1929-1959) Mrs. Bohee (later Mrs. Payne and then Mrs. Cook) created programming that brought vestiges of the Harlem Renaissance to Lancaster. She relied on a host of volunteers and support from the majority community rallied in part by Grant D. Brandon and other progressive thinkers in Lancaster’s white community. The title of “social secretary” does not in the least reflect the important role which Mrs. Bohee played during her thirty years at the helm of the Crispus Attucks. She became a spokesperson for Lancaster’s Black community and the steward of many of their hopes and desires. In those brief three decades, the Crispus Attucks became the social hub of the Southeast area and beyond. With the death of Grant D. Brandon and the retirement of Mrs. (by then) Ruby M. Cook, a more difficult era began for Crispus Attucks.

The new director of the then Lancaster Recreation Commission, Albert E. Reese, Jr. announced a new direction. The recreational programs which had been the heart and soul of the Crispus Attucks (the community surrounding the Center had worked through the Welfare Federation to raise monies for the construction of the building on Howard Avenue) were to be removed and run from planned newly constructed Higbee School (today’s Martin Luther King Elementary School). As for the less than two decades old Crispus Attucks building, officials of the Commission deliberated whether it should be sold or used for some other purpose. The role of Black Lancastrians in funding and operating the building was only an afterthought. Finally, the building was turned over by Lancaster City to the Lancaster Redevelopment Authority which used it for a little over a decade as a center for social services. Finally, in the 1970s, a Boxing Club was opened in the Center to be replaced in the 1980s by a resuscitated Crispus Attucks board. Relations with the Recreation Commission have not always been cordial since 1960 because of the controversy over who actually ran the Center.

Today with the overwhelming need for recreational activities and social services in the even more multicultural Southeast Area, our work continues to serve the growing population by providing programs and resources that help children, youth, families, and individuals thrive and prosper.