While buildings, as the creations and inspirations of architects and engineers, represent projects made of bricks, concrete and steel — some edifices have infrequently been afforded such honor and respect within local folklore that they’ve become almost human.
Perhaps that explains why one adage, used to imagine how history took shape in buildings through human ingenuity as trailblazers of the past paved the way for brighter tomorrows, continues to be uttered: “If these walls could talk.”
Many of these once-proud landmarks have since disappeared — victimized by human abuse and greed, eroded by wind, rain and scorching sun or razed and removed to make way for growth in the name of gentrification. However, within the 68 square miles which collectively form the city of Washington D.C., a few oft-forgotten treasures still stand — even fewer owned and operated by Blacks.
Consider the five-storied Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage, over a century old, nestled within a community mainly comprised of residential dwellings along 12th Street in Northwest. Decades ago, the community served as a major artery for the comings and goings of Blacks visiting, living or working in the District.
Formerly heralded as the nation’s first Black YMCA, the building has since become known as the Thurgood Marshall Center, a national historic landmark. It serves as the home of the Thurgood Marshall Center Trust, Inc.
[TMCT] — an organization founded in 2000 whose mission remains to educate, encourage and empower children, youth and families to pursue equality and social and economic justice.
In more prosperous times, more than 41,000 people frequented the Center each year to utilize the multi-purpose facility and to engage in a diverse array of programs — conceived, created and coordinated by Thomasina W. Yearwood, president/CEO, TMCT — a position she’s held since TMCT’s founding 20 years ago.
But like many organizations severely impacted by COVID-19, Yearwood and the TMCT have suffered financial setbacks including a monthly decline in revenue which began in March with the District’s shutdown, ordered by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to reduce surging coronavirus infections and deaths.
For Yearwood, it’s been a year fraught with obstacles unlike any she’s ever experienced in her 30 years as a senior administrator and consultant in human and financial resource development. As the halls of the Center have long grown ominously quiet with doors that remain closed far more than they swing open, she must still contend with a $2.3 million renovation mortgage that cannot be ignored.
“Storied civil rights advocate Thurgood Marshall once said that success doesn’t happen in isolation, reminding his colleagues that ‘none of us got where we are solely by pulling up our bootstraps. We got here because somebody… bent down and helped us pick up our boots,’” Yearwood said.
“As our organization, named in honor of the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice, enters another fiscal year as a community pillar, we’re appealing to individuals across the nation to assist the Board of Directors in shouldering $3 million in remaining renovation costs needed to keep our physical location, the historic YMCA building based in D.C.’s historic Shaw neighborhood, debt-free.”
“We are a landlord to over a dozen nonprofit organizations including the National Newspaper Publishers Association [NNPA] and a public service law firm. Our meeting rooms, gymnasium and other parts of the building have provided additional revenue through short-term rentals. But with so much still unknown about the health pandemic and when we’ll be able to safely open our doors again to the public, we cannot predict how long our tenants will be able to remain and pay rent,” Yearwood said highlighting a monthly decrease of $12,000 in rental income and recently-imposed, greatly-reduced maximum occupancy limits for the building.
“We don’t want to see the building lost to developers — I won’t go down without a fight,” she said. “And our board remains equally committed to raising funds and awareness so we can pay off the mortgage and hold on until the nation has weathered this pandemic. By financially contributing to the cause, you’re acting in the spirit of Justice Thurgood Marshall. In addition, those who use our facilities day in and day out will be more than appreciative of your efforts, especially when they step into positions of leadership,” she said.
Dr. Benjamin Chavis, NNPA president/CEO since 2014, said the Center must be preserved if for no other reason than the legacy it bears as a former “cultural, academic and leadership development assembly place housed in an African-American neighborhood in D.C. long known for its contributions to the growth of Black America in every conceivable aspect.”
“This was one of the few places where Black scholars could come and stay while doing their research,” he said. “It was where Thurgood Marshall and his team of attorneys conducted their studies, analyses and research. It was where many of the leaders from the Harlem Renaissance came in a time that racial segregation prohibited Blacks from using almost all of the District’s hotels and restaurants.”
“The NNPA has expanded its presence and with our national headquarters here, we take up over half of the second floor, so we’re tenants. D.C. is increasingly becoming a multiracial, cultural, lingual and residential population. As such, I believe there’s an even greater need for the Center, even amidst the pandemic. The Center is a treasure and it should be treasured both for its historic legacy and its contemporary utilization.”
“I’m hoping that the Bowser administration will step in and help the TMCT find a way to sustain the Center. And we cannot forget that another pandemic continues its assault in the District in addition to COVID-19 — gentrification. It would be heartbreaking to lose one of the remaining few buildings in the Shaw community that can still claim ownership by African Americans.”
“I sit on the Center’s board of directors and we’ve engaged to develop a sustainability plan for the building and the surrounding community. We have our own parking lot — a rarity in the District — and the future of this building has great potential. However, it’s going to take community support.”
“The greater D.C. community has a long and proud history of its willingness to support nonprofit organizations like the TMCT and landmarks like the Center. Even in this unprecedented time in both our City and our nation’s history, I’m optimistic. D.C.’s strength is its diversity. And it’s going to take the ideas and contributions of our diverse community to survive the challenges ahead,” Chavis said.
See part two of this series in The Washington Informer’s Nov. 5 edition — a feature that will include more from Yearwood with additional reflections from three current or past board members of the TMCT, Alfreda V. Davis, Esq., Saundra L. Lamb, Esq. and Curtis Symonds and three longtime supporters of the Center and its programs, Norris Dodson, CeLillianne Green and Thelma D. Jones.