Now a year old, the Douglass Activity Center celebrated its first anniversary on Thursday with a round of snacks and friendly conversation.
The Douglass Activity Center is the newest addition to the Frederick Douglass Recreation Complex on Downtown Yuma Street in Manhattan, opening March 2021. The project was approved in 2019 by the Manhattan City Commission, an addition to a community space that historically served as a focal point for Manhattan’s black community.
“I’m thrilled,” says Douglass Center Advisory Board Vice-Chair Constance Birdsong, one of many who stopped by the Douglass Activity Center to celebrate. “We worked on it for a long time, we didn’t know if it was going to happen. [or]if we were going to see this and see what we really wanted.
The new building continues the heritage of the neighboring town Douglass Community Recreation Center, built in 1941 to serve as a USO in Manhattan for soldiers from Black Fort Riley during World War II before the elimination of racial segregation laws in the United States. The center was donated to the city of Manhattan after the war, providing educational and gathering opportunities for the black community for decades and containing one of the city’s few indoor recreational spaces before the three new facilities were built. Manhattan recreation.
“I knew what it would do for this community, so we fought and fought hard – the advisory board and the citizens of this community,” says Dave Baker, director of the Douglass Centre. “And so here we are a year later after opening this facility and it’s doing exactly what I thought it would do.”
Since returning to the community in 2011, Baker and his wife Sonya have been neighborhood champions and advocates for the creation of a space like the Douglass Activity Center. Baker grew up in nearby Manhattan, attending school in the building now called Douglass Center Annex, which once served as Manhattan’s school for black children before it closed in 1962.
Baker expressed great pride in the project becoming a reality, noting that the building originated on the spot where Manhattan’s only swimming pool open to black residents once stood. Built in 1939, the city permanently closed the facility as the city park pool was renovated and the nearby Splash Park was built.
“I don’t know what made me do it, but I just knew we had to do something to try to help preserve the history of the neighborhood and the things that we have here and that’s really what happened,” he said. “There’s an old adage that once history goes away, it doesn’t come back. And so we were able to preserve that history.
Birdsong says following the construction process was like watching the building rise from the ground up, calling the culmination of all their work exciting and further expressing his happiness that the installation was appreciated.
“There are so many different people using the building here, it’s not just the community, it’s people from all over Manhattan,” she says. “And my grandkids love it. I’m glad they can be a part of that because they didn’t have something like that growing up.
Many regular attendees and public figures were at the Center for the celebration, including Mayor Linda Morse. Morse says she and the city administration are pleased to see attendance seemingly up month over month. She also noted that the facility was something the community needed for a long time.
“We were looking forward to this part of town, a central part of town, having so many […] leisure options like the north – which are the newer parts of town.
In the two months from January to February 2022, around 3,000 people are said to have used the centre.
Many members of the Riley County Police Department also took time out, including Acting Director Kurt Moldrup. Moldrup expressed the importance of continuing a relationship that developed during the tenure of his predecessor Dennis Butler. A resident of the South Side himself, Moldrup says on a personal note that he appreciates having a recreation spot nearby.
“My kids use it on weekends and it’s great,” says Moldrup. “As well as the phenomenal exercise equipment upstairs and the upstairs track provide residents of this area with a great and safe place to exercise [or]to go for a walk.”