(Nick McNamara/ KMAN)

Now a year in existence, the Douglass Activity Center celebrated its first birthday Thursday with a spread of snacks and friendly conversation.

The Douglass Activity Center is the newest addition to the Frederick Douglass Recreation Complex on Manhattan’s Downtown Yuma Street, opening in March of 2021. The project was approved in 2019 by the Manhattan City Commission, an addition to a community space that historically served as the focal point of Manhattan’s Black community.

“I’m happy about it,” says Douglass Center Advisory Board Vice Chair Constance Birdsong, one of numerous people who stopped by the Douglass Activity Center to celebrate. “We worked on it for a long time, wasn’t sure if it was going to come to fruition [or]if we were going to actually see this and see what we actually wanted.”

Birdsong [right]. (Nick McNamara/ KMAN)

The new building continues the legacy of the nearby Douglass Community Recreation Center, built in 1941 to serve as Manhattan’s USO for Black Fort Riley soldiers during World War II prior to the elimination of racial segregation in the United States. The center was donated to the City of Manhattan following the war, providing educational and gathering opportunities to the Black community for decades and containing one of the few indoor spaces for recreation in the city before the construction of Manhattan’s three new recreation facilities.

“I knew what this would do for this community, so we fought and we fought hard — the advisory board and the citizens of this community,” says Douglass Center Director Dave Baker.  “And so here we are a year later after this facility has opened and it’s doing exactly what I thought it would do.”

Since his return to the community 2011, Baker and his wife Sonya have been champions for the neighborhood and advocates for creation of a space like the Douglass Activity Center. Baker grew up nearby in Manhattan, attending school in the building now called the Douglass Center Annex which formerly served as Manhattan’s school for Black children prior to its closure in 1962.

Mr. Baker looks out the window of the 1-year-old Douglass Activity Center, reflected in artwork from Juneteenth 2021. (Nick McNamara/ KMAN)

Baker expressed great pride in the project becoming a reality, noting that the building arose in the place where once Manhattan’s only pool open to Black residents was located. Built in 1939, the City permanently closed the amenity as City Park Pool was renovated and the nearby Splash Park constructed.

“I don’t know what made me do it, but I just knew that 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’s happened,” he says. “There’s an old saying, once history goes away it does not come back. And so we’ve been 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 her happiness that the facility is being enjoyed.

“There’s so many different people that are here using the building, it’s not just the community it’s people from all over Manhattan,” she says. “And my grandkids love it. I’m glad that they’re able to be a part of this because they didn’t have something like this growing up.”

Numerous 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 growing seemingly by the month. She also noted the facility was something the community needed for a long time.

Mayor Linda Morse (center) speaking with RCPD Cpt. Josh Kyle (right) and City of Manhattan Public Information Officer Andrew Lawson. (Nick McNamara/ KMAN)

“We were anxious for this part of town, a central part of town, to have as many […] recreation options as the Northern — which are the newer parts of town.”

In the two months from January to February 2022, about 3,000 people were reported to have utilized the center.

Numerous members of the Riley County Police Department also took time to stop by, including Interim Director Kurt Moldrup. Moldrup expressed the importance of continuing a relationship that has grown amid the tenure of his predecessor Dennis Butler. A South-side resident himself, Moldrup says on a personal note that he appreciates having a nearby place for recreation.

“My kids use this on the weekends and it’s great,” says Moldrup. “As well as the phenomenal exercise equipment upstairs and the track upstairs gives people in this local area a great, safe place to go exercise [or]walk around.”