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Douglass Community Center Offered A Refuge From War

A war and the efforts of a group of Kalamazoo residents were instrumental in developing the Douglass Community Center. In November 1917, the Reverend William J. Northcross, pastor of the Second Baptist Church, together with Charles Stafford and Jesse Graine, organized the Soldiers’ Friend Club. Recruiting other like-minded men such as Forrest Hill, Joe Pettiford, and Joe Small, they recognized that there were few social and recreational options for African American soldiers who came to Kalamazoo on furlough from Camp Custer.

Their efforts led to the organization of the Douglass Center in the old Turn Verein Hall on North Burdick Street. The Center was not formally dedicated until July 3, 1919, but it provided reading rooms and recreational opportunities as well as a welcoming rest for those soldiers stationed at Camp Custer during and immediately after World War I.

In April 1921, a formal Douglass Community House organization purchased the furnishings and equipment from the War Camp Community Service, Inc. The former soldiers’ club then became a center for Kalamazoo’s African American community. For the next 20 years, the Douglass was the focus of community life. The demand for space was so great that a new facility was needed.

A new building, located at Pitcher and Ransom Streets, was dedicated on Sunday, February 16, 1941. Less than a year later, the United States entered World War II. The new Douglass Center once again found itself providing support for African American soldiers and their families.

As early as April 18, 1942, the Les Chic Cheres club hosted a party for soldiers at the Douglass Community Center. The Center also participated in a Kalamazoo Day program at the USO Club on Hamblin Avenue in Battle Creek on May 8, 1942.

Soldiers on furlough from Fort Custer near Battle Creek, as well as local soldiers on leave from military service elsewhere, turned to the Douglass Community Center for rest and relaxation. The Center and the clubs that met there sponsored parties, banquets, and dances for the soldiers. Many young men away from home, possibly facing the risks of combat, found a welcoming space for reading, for recreation, and for meeting new and old friends.

One of the most active groups that organized specifically to support soldiers and their families was the War Wives Club, which organized in the summer of 1944. It was open to all women whose husbands were in military service. The War Wives were an active group that met every Monday evening at the Douglass Center.

In early 1945, the War Wives organized a large party in the Douglass Center for four hundred guests from Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and surrounding communities. In May, the club organized a tea and fashion show. While they advertised it as their first annual show, there can be little doubt that none of the women were disappointed that the war would end before a second show could be organized.

At war’s end, the Center would once again resume its peacetime role as a focal point in the lives of Kalamazoo’s African American community. However, as it had during World War I, the Douglass Community Center had met the needs of African American soldiers during the long years of the Second World War.