How many of us are old enough to remember the TV program “ I Remember Mama”? It started with a photo album opening and pages turning as the voice of a woman speaks about remembering days gone by. I am going to use the “I Remember” theme without the album because so much of what I remembered as a child has been systematically erased.
Close your eyes and imagine streets with tree lawns, children riding bicycles and tricycles on red brick streets, oblivious to the racism their parents were experiencing. Your community borders were Freight Street to the north, just past the stock corral, Main Street to the East where Smith’s Drug Store sat on the corner, down Hickory Street to Benham Street continuing South to Wagner, ending at Indiana Avenue and traveling west to 10th Street, then north crossing the tracks and on the other side of the tracks to Mason Street where the ended. These were the boundaries of the black community.
Now imagine within those boundaries hundreds of black families and business. It was a thriving community, with grocery stores, barber, beauty shops, restaurants, taverns, meat markets, furniture stores, drycleaners, churches and most of all the hub of the community: the Booker T. Washington Center.
It was called the Colored Center and was established in 1921, and later name the Booker T. Washington settlement house in 1924. It was a facility that fostered community, a place where babies received their first shots, a place where working parents could find day care, a place where children learned to read and write before entering school.
It was a place where mothers and fathers formed clubs and organization like the Young Duke, and the Y-teens, The Young Debutants, teaching their sons and daughters how to live in a society that was uneven as far as opportunities, teaching them to be respectable men and husbands and fathers, where mothers taught their daughters to be proud young ladies, good mothers, and to be strong respectable women. It was a place that taught us that education was not a luxury, it was a life line. The Booker T. Washington was the nucleus of that community. How do I know? I lived it. Now open your mind’s eye and tell me what do you see? A systematically dismantled black community, a community destroyed and a heritage erased.
In 1991, Mayor James Perron and the elected officials of the city of Elkhart made a concerted effort to correct the events of the past and restore at least the community center in the black community. It was determined that the old abandoned A&P store building would be a suitable site. It had enough space for a community center, however, it was determined that since they had built a government housing project across the street on Benham they needed the larger facility to the govern it. The A&P site was revamped for the Housing Authority.
It was decided that the vacant building next door would be suitable for the Tolson Center, determining there was enough land behind it to meet future needs the center. That building was the abandoned Abshire car wash, the Abshire building was transformed to replace the Booker T. Washington Center. When the facility opened it dedicated as the Tolson Center in honor of Herbert Tolson; once again there was a community center in South Central Elkhart.
The center was built during the Perron Administration. The elected officials wanted to be sure there was a place for everyone. It was a demonstration of a city with a heart, for neighborhoods and community. Today this community seems to be missing its heart.
Under this administration our city council has decided that the center is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and yet I have not met one taxpayer who has agrees with this statement.
I believe this community belongs to all of us, the rich, the poor, the taxpayer and the nontaxpayer, and most of all the young and the old. So I am asking you to ask yourself, how large is our community, or how large is your community? Let us come together as a community and hold our city council accountable to do what is right – to leave Tolson whole and fully funded, and to allow it to do what it has always done, be a place for everyone.
The Rev. Jean Mayes is the local elder in the fourth Episcopal District of Indiana Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; she serves as the local elder for St. James A.M.E. Church in Elkhart.