Rockford, Ill – As community members, supporters and leaders recognize the 100th anniversary of the Booker Washington Community Center, on the city’s Westside, the grounds upon which it stands, at the corner of Morgan and Winnebago, remain a vibrant location where neighbors, young people and elders still use the grounds and services of the community’s last standing Black run cultural institution.
“The Booker Washington Center was started in 1916 as the Colored Soldier’s Club, and it was started because there were soldiers, during World War I, stationed at Camp Grant (in Rockford) and they could not attend the USO or receive any kind of social services (reserved) for white people. So what they did was set up the social club and they brought in nurses and people from Chicago and they had activities for the Black soldiers because they couldn’t attend the USO services anywhere else. In 1932, they decided that not only soldiers needed social services, but also the people of Rockford, so the Colored Soldiers Club became The Booker Washington Association,” said Jessie Bates, the Executive Director of the African-American Resource Center at Booker.
“During that time period, there was not that much mixing of African-Americans and white people on a social basis, so the Colored Soldiers Club was started by Dr. Richard S. Grant,” she said. “When they were going to change the name and incorporate, they wanted it to be named Booker Washington, after Booker T. Washington, and they had a letter from the family stating that they could use the name,” Ms. Bates said.
Having deep and historical roots in the Black community, Ms. Bates said both Blacks and whites fought all the way to Springfield over allowing The Booker Washington Center to purchase the land and the buildings after it moved from 218 S. Main St., in December of 1936, to its current location.
Born and raised in Rockford in the late 1930s, Nolden Gentry, an established attorney in Des Moines, IA since the 1960s, credited the Booker Washington Center for aiding in his development as a young man from the 1940s until the mid-1950s when he left for college. “The center provided many outlets for people that were growing up at the time I was growing up, he said.”
“I went to a daycare at the center when I was 3 or 4-years-old. When I got to late elementary school, I had an opportunity to go to summer camp there when school was out, I got involved in athletics that were sponsored by the center,” Mr. Gentry said. “The athletic directors, who were employees of the center, were really role models for me and my contemporaries when we played baseball, basketball, and things like that,” Attorney Gentry said. “The center also sponsored Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, they had social dances there; the center was really the focal point of activities for young people when I was growing up in Rockford. There were not many African-American role models in the City of Rockford when I was growing up; however, the center, (and) the persons who ran the center, the ones I came into contact with most often, they were persons who had a college degree and who attempted to steer everyone in a direction that was positive,” he said.
Agreeing that the absence of strong institutions, and strong educated leaders, with which young people can identify, is a destabilizing factor in communities such as Rockford, Mr. Gentry said that programs sponsored by the Booker Washington Center allowed young people to engage in many activities otherwise denied to them, which gave aim and purpose in their lives.
“I certainly think that the employees of the center, when I was growing up, certainly attempted to guide young people, including myself, in a direction that was positive,” he said. “When you lose a positive influence, kids are going to do something, and when they lose their positive influence, I think the community suffers.”
Eddie Manning, affectionately known in the Rockford community for more than 40 years as ‘Coach,’ said that the Booker Washington Center has been a force for good and for success, and that it is important for young Black men to grow up seeing institutions that are owned, operated and controlled by those who look like them.
“I think they need to know that Black men can be successful in their endeavors, and I think they need role models to show them how to get there. I think Booker Washington as an organization is a place for that,” he said.
Regarding the development of character, morals and ethics, Coach Manning believes that athletics teach more than just physical ability on a football field or a basketball court: “It teaches them how to be team players, it teaches them about life, it teaches them how to be a family man, it teaches them how to contribute back to the community, it teaches them self-discipline, and it teaches responsibility,” he said.
Concerning organized sports, coach Manning said the structured nature of struggling together to accomplish goals not only builds pride and self-confidence, but also a sense of accomplishment and purpose in a society where social messages and public discourse often teach young Black men and woman the exact opposite.
“We’ve got young men who have come out of the program that have gone on to run for state legislature and who have become police officers. Booker Washington is a very important organization,” Coach Manning said.
Student Minister Yahcolyah Muhammad, a mathematician, and leader of the Nation of Islam’s Rockford Study Group under the guidance and direction of the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, said the importance of the Booker Washington Center is not so much because of the city’s significant Black demographic, but because of the value of self-improvement being the basis of community development.
“The population doesn’t always have to correlate to the need for running (The Booker Washington Center),” Yahcolyah Muhammad said. “The need for running it is based off the principle of self-first then others. (For instance), there is not a large Arab population in Rockford, but you can see a visible dedication to self-interests, to self-economics and so it is with the Koreans, and so it is with many other nationalities. In Rockford, we as a people do not practice economic liberalism in one way, and in the second way, we have not gained the principle of maintaining and protecting our institutions,” he said.
“We’re just not going to go into other communities and see their vital institutions or stores run by others than themselves. It’s only in our community where that is accepted as normal. Until we take ownership of our institutions, we’re going to remain in serious trouble,” Student Minister Yahcolyah Muhammad said.
“It’s an honor for any institution be around for one hundred years, but it’s a call for us to not just romanticize about the past, but to maintain a vibrant present so that legacy can be passed down to our future. It should be widely publicized and celebrated,” he said.