The District of Columbia contains countless treasures – from a sturdy house in Southeast where the fiery Frederick Douglass once lived to The Howard Theatre in Northwest where rising stars like Ella and Ellington formerly shared their musical gifts.
Then there’s a nondescript, five-story building nestled along the mostly residential 12th Street corridor in Northwest – formerly the home of the nation’s first Black YMCA – now known as the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage.
In years past, the building provided a safe haven for Marshall, then a rising attorney, and his colleagues as they successfully engineered a strategy to end the segregation of America’s public schools (Brown v. Board of Education). It also offered residential quarters for many Blacks as they traveled to the District, most notably the intellectual giant and poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes.
Ironically, while D.C. has been the seat of American politics since its founding in 1790, it also remained unabashedly segregated well into the late 1950s and early 1960s.
This fact alone provides insight as to why homes like Douglass’s, entertainment hubs akin to The Howard Theatre and multi-purposed buildings including the nation’s first Black YMCA, loom large within D.C.’s annals of Black history.
However, as the first part of this series noted (Oct. 23 – Nov. 4, 2020), the Thurgood Marshall Center, while a national historic landmark and currently home of the community-focused Thurgood Marshall Center Trust, Inc. (TMCT), now bears the weight of a hefty mortgage.
That renovation mortgage totaling $2.3 million has TMCT’s president and CEO, Thomasina W. Yearwood, and the board of directors, concerned and anxious as monthly revenues have plummeted due to restrictions imposed throughout the city due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Yearwood remains undaunted in her efforts to manage limited resources and to secure funds from a diverse pool of potential sources, including both the city’s coffers and private benefactors, to keep the historic building Black-owned and fully functioning.
“The Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage has returned to what it once was – a center in service to the D.C. community,” she said. “This is a neighborhood rich with the history of African-American solidarity and pride. But it’s also one fast losing its identity to urban renewal and gentrification. If we are not careful, this history – the history of slave descendants – our history – will be lost forever.”
Recounting a Glorious History
Yearwood says if the walls of the Center could talk, they would reveal stories that illustrate the determination of African Americans relentless in their efforts to gain equal rights in a nation which touted but often failed to live up to its creed of “justice for all.”
“Young tourists come to the Center for tales of the first Black Supreme Court justice in the U.S.,” Yearwood shared. “They learn that Langston Hughes, for a short time, called this building ‘home.’ They learn that Anthony Bowen, a freed slave, respected preacher and educator, organized the first YMCA for Colored Men and Boys in the nation here in 1853.”
“In redefining the 12th Street Y into a multicultural, multi-tenant collective, the TMCT was established as both an organization and the building’s sole owner for the purpose of providing direct service and protecting African-American heritage. It was then and remains now a worthy goal,” she concluded.
For native Washingtonian and real estate broker Norris Dodson, the Center has been a mainstay in his life since his youth.
“I spent a lot of Saturdays in the building, playing basketball when I was a teen,” said Dodson, 72. “Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing and John Thompson once played on the building’s basketball court. Many amazing Blacks came through these doors after the building opened in 1912. Some of the initial leaders integrated other YMCAs in the District like Belford Lawson, Jr., one of the District’s most talented Black attorneys who served as president of the YMCA and national president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.”
“There were others intimately connected to the building including Dr. Charles Drew and Charles Hamilton Houston, former dean of Howard School of Law and Thurgood Marshall’s mentor. Scientists, physicians, athletes and Olympians trace their roots to this building. It’s a place that provided inspiration. We hope by saving this place, we can inspire youth, especially Blacks, to achieve success too,” Dodson said.
Alfreda V. Davis, Esq., now in her third year as TMCT’s board chair and a lifelong resident of the District, said COVID-19 has led to unprecedented challenges. But she, like Yearwood, believes the mission of the organization must not be abandoned.
“Like most nonprofits, we’ve taken a major hit in our monthly revenue,” she said. “We pride ourselves on being accessible to the community – from providing a space for weddings and nonpolitical meetings to activities for local organizations and sports tournaments. So it’s a real downer that, for now, we cannot operate at full capacity. Even our biggest remaining tenants who lease space – the NNPA and the National Bar Association – have only limited accessibility.”
“Still, other grassroots organizations, like the National Council of Negro Women, once faced a huge mortgage but were able to retire it with just one event because of the immense financial support they received from philanthropists like Oprah Winfrey and Don King.”
“What we need to do is establish the kind of profile that will attract similar donors. That’s what we’re going to. Retooling our board and bringing greater diversity is one of our first goals and we’re working to that end now. After all, we’re the best-kept secret in the U.S.,” Davis said.
Four-year board member Saundra L. Lamb, Esq., says following the example set by Marshall ranks high among her goals for the board and the Center.
“We know he became the first Black Supreme Court justice but what made him such a towering figure was his commitment to securing civil rights for all Americans,” Lamb said. “If America would only do the right thing for Blacks, that change in stance would benefit every American.”
“Marshall was guided by a sense of urgency. We need to keep that sentiment alive in our community. Those born decades after his death take things for granted – things like children having books for school, lights in schools that worked, buildings that were safe and had working bathrooms. Things weren’t ‘separate but equal’ by a longshot. Thurgood Marshall refused to allow that to continue. And he faced unimaginable forms of danger because of his commitment to securing equal justice for Blacks,” she said.
More Testimonials from the Community
Former TMCT advisory board member Curtis Symonds said that as a colleague of Yearwood’s for more than 30 years, he has gained great respect for her work and abilities. He stands behind the Center’s mission and Yearwood.
“The Center has never had the kind of resources needed to really grow but somehow she’s found different ways to bring in funds that have kept the place alive,” he said. “Sure, I’m concerned about the building because of its historical relevance to Black culture. But it’s the programs that the Center provides to our community that are the real reason that we cannot allow it to fail.”
“There’s an ancestral vibration that lives in this space,” said CeLillianne Green, a poet and lawyer who lives in northeast D.C. who has shared her works on several occasions at the Center.
“I had my first book launch in the Center in 2010 so it’s always been a special place for me,” she said. I’ve attended gala dinners in the gym. I’ve engaged with seniors and youth there too. Today we function in a space created for us by our ancestors. It’s so much more than just a building – it has a life and energy of its own that we can ill-afford to let die.”
Thelma D. Jones, now living in Southwest, remembers moving from North Carolina, the daughter of sharecroppers, to the District in the summer of 1972. She served as the curator for a photo exhibit that was featured during the Center’s grand opening in February 2000. The exhibit was developed with the blessing of Thurgood Marshall’s wife.
“If we really want to preserve, promote and perpetuate the legacies of those on whose shoulders we stand, like Thurgood Marshall, we need places like the Center,” she said. “When we allow these kinds of places to be claimed by others, they often fail to accurately portray our history. Other times, when we don’t own our institutions, our history becomes twisted and portions of the story are removed. We can’t allow that to happen.”
Local cultural historian Anthony Browder has established a career during which he has focused on telling an accurate, fact-based history of African people in the world.
Once COVID-19 has been brought under control, he’ll resume leading a project to be housed on the Center’s second floor which he says will fill in essential pieces to the puzzle of “our story.”
“If the story of African-American people were 1,000 pages, our enslavement begins on page 996 and it’s only two pages long,” said Browder, 71, who noted that since moving from Chicago to D.C. in 1971, he hasn’t wanted to live anywhere else.
“We hope to serve as an essential extension of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. There are tons of lesser-known stories of successful African Americans who once lived in D.C. We want the Center to supplement the history shared at the Smithsonian that allows those untold stories to be put on display and finally be shared with the nation and the world.”
“It’s important to set the record straight: African people achieved success thousands of years before we became slaves. And we have achieved success beyond slavery as well,” he said.